AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a “sobering” update to CapMetro board members Monday, a federal transit expert outlined next steps for Austin’s Project Connect mass transit program, as well as critical steps needed to ensure its success in delivering light rail and expanded bus transit in the future.
More than two years ago, Austin voters approved Project Connect, a multi-billion-dollar plan set to expand bus services while integrating a light rail system into the city’s transportation footprint. The entire program cost was initially estimated at $7.1 billion.
In April 2022, officials revealed the cost of the light rail had nearly doubled, up from a budgeted light rail cost of $5.8 billion to an estimated price tag of $10.3 billion. Later that summer, Project Connect leaders pressed pause on light rail designs, as cost estimates anticipated an even higher cost increase due to scope changes, inflation and increased real estate expenses.
This spring, Project Connect experts are set to unveil a new light rail system design scope, one that is expected to be a modified version of what voters approved more than two years ago. Before that alternative version is released, federal strategy advisor Peter Rogoff stressed to the board creating a reliable, safe and high-quality transit system will be essential for its success.
“These are generational decisions you’ll be making for the city for as much as a century,” Rogoff said.
As of now, Rogoff said no federal dollars have been committed to the Blue and Orange light rail lines, with no future funding guaranteed. However, that doesn’t mean Project Connect won’t secure federal money down the road.
Rogoff cited construction costs are rising nationwide, and prices have spiked across the industry for non-residential construction projects. With that, Rogoff said the likelihood is transit leaders will need to deliver an initial project phase that covers fewer communities over a longer construction timeframe, but said reliability will be integral in getting residents on board with future phase opportunities.
The biggest federal hurdle comes with Project Connect’s environmental impact statement, an upcoming document that outlines the proposed scope of the project, its footprint, any displacement impacts and environmental impacts.
The Federal Transit Administration will evaluate that EIS draft on factors like ridership, program costs, congestion relief and mobility benefits, among others. The FTA will also evaluate whether Project Connect looks like it can not only be built out, but can be operated at its optimal level during both financial high and low periods.
From there, the FTA will approve the EIS draft, and it’s off to the races from there, Rogoff said.
Before that EIS draft is completed, Rogoff said improvements are necessary to the tri-party partnership overseeing Project Connect. That tri-party collaboration includes CapMetro, the City of Austin and the Austin Transit Partnership.
Rogoff added there needs to be improvements in that relationship in defining who is responsible for which roles and portions of the project. Right now, ATP is responsible for delivering the project, while CapMetro will maintain the program once constructed.
If those roles aren’t more specifically defined, that could impact Project Connect’s eligibility for federal funding, he said.
CapMetro Board Chair Jeffrey Travillion thanked Rogoff for the “sobering” report and said the next stages will be critical in building out a successful program. He credited Rogoff’s experience — including prior roles as the CEO of Sound Transit in Seattle and as an FTA administrator — in guiding board members.
“It’s going to be important that we do a sound job in the planning and community education in this process,” Travillion said. “The question’s going to be: What is our critical path? And how do we negotiate with [the City of Austin and ATP] to make sure that we’re not doing what’s best for me, but we’re doing what’s best for us.”