AUSTIN (KXAN) — With a green light from city leaders, Austin could get one step closer to building new light rail lines and even a tunnel downtown.

In a joint session Wednesday, Austin City Council and the CapMetro Board of Directors voted unanimously to approve the Project Connect transit plan.

“This is truly an historic day, I have been in Austin for over 40 years and it seems that the discussion about having public transportation system in the community is something that we have been discussing going back almost that entire time,” said Mayor Adler about the vote for the Project Connect Transit Plan.

“We never had a plan or a proposal that has really had broad community support and I think that we need that and that’s real exciting.This is the first time that I’ve understood us to have a truly regional plan that provides that kind of public transportation opportunity to everyone in our community, to all parts of our community.”

“Public work projects like this could really deal with some of those massive issues that we know exist out there,” said Randy Clarke, President and CEO of Capital Metro. “Creating a more equitable, fair city for everyone that lives here, and especially those essential workers that had been the focus and heroes throughout this pandemic.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cap Metro saw its ridership decline, thus losing revenue.

When asked about any possible money issues, Clarke said, “We feel very confident that funding from Congress in the CARES Act will fill that revenue loss that we had both from sales tax and fare revenue.”

Clarke said about Project Connect, “It’s just really a transformational public transportation plan that’s finally going to set us up to help manage the future for the fastest growing region in the country.”

Based on projections that said there would be more than two million people living in Travis County by 2045, Cap Metro came up with plans to add and expands rapid bus routes and build three new light rail lines.

  • The Orange Line runs north-south from Tech Ridge to Slaughter Lane
  • The Blue Line goes out to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
  • The Gold Line connects Austin Community College’s Highland Campus to south Austin

Clarke told KXAN, “Rail line is probably about eight years away from a total build and having new rail cars operating. Some of our bus improvements would be, you know, within the first year, two years.”

The entire system improvement and expansion is expected to cost close to $10 billion. Cap Metro said about 40% to 45% could come from the federal funding.

The rest, Clarke explained, “Cap Metro has some capital expansion funds, ongoing operation and maintenance funds. The city will be thinking through some type of probably a tax rate, election or some mechanism of a transit referendum to put in future money.”

Susan Somers, a member of AURA, a local urbanist organization, said, “Almost everything that’s a wonderful public good, we have to pay for to get something good out of. So yes, it is expensive. That’s for sure. I think if you look at the costs, ultimate costs per family, per person, per homeowner, it’s really a small price to pay for the benefit that we’re going to receive.”

She said she’s looking forward to being able to get to more places using public transit if Cap Metro’s grand plan becomes reality.

“I think people underestimate the amount of transformative change that it will put on some of our current bus routes,” Somers told KXAN. “I think it will increase options for our families, affordability, I think it will allow more people to possibly be one-car families, it will reduce our climate impact so, and in so so many ways, I think it’s going to transform our city for the better.”

A new coalition, Our Mobility Our Future, however, has some concerns.

Tori Moreland said, “Are we sure this is how we want to spend nearly $10 billion, especially without guaranteed federal funding?”

She added, “What this does is keeps us stuck with the system. And these light rail systems are expensive not only to build, but to maintain and operate. So once we go down this path, there’s no turning back.”

The coalition said rather than light rails, innovative technology outlined here could be a better solution.

“I mean, the community needs to also understand what you’re paying for today, you won’t see a benefit from for nearly a decade,” Moreland said. “And in the meantime, there’s likely to be a lot of disruption along those corridors and major disruption to businesses, to residents to commuters.”

Wednesday’s vote is on the plan by itself.

When Cap Metro and the City of Austin work on their budgets this summer, we’ll know more about how they’ll pay for the project.

Clarke said, “If you want to drive every day, you want someone else in a bus or train because at the end of the day, traffic can only get worse. If we’re going to double in population and you dislike traffic today, you’re really going to dislike traffic in the future if we don’t do something different.”