LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — City leaders in Leander may take a step this week to cut ties with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which currently runs bus and train service there.
On Thursday night the Leander City Council could vote to hire an attorney to look at possibly withdrawing from the service area. This proposal came after council members discussed “several options and possible actions related to the city’s funding of services provided by Capital Metro in Leander” during a retreat in June, according to the agenda item posted online.
“It’s kind of premature to be talking about getting out,” Mayor Troy Hill said Tuesday. “This is really only what our options are.”
Leander became a member city with Capital Metro in 1985 and agreed to annually contribute revenue from a one percent sales tax to the transportation authority. During the last fiscal year that ended in Sept. 2018, Leander contributed $5,133,277 in sales tax revenue to Capital Metro, according to an agency spokesperson.
Mayor Hill pointed out Tuesday that half of the city’s annual sales tax revenue goes to CapMetro, and he told KXAN that he does not think the service the city is receiving is worth it.
Instead of being a member city committed to the one percent sales tax, he suggested that Leander may want to leave and look into contracting with Capital Metro, like Round Rock does with its bus service, because the financial obligation would not be as large.
“Actually, when you think about the CapMetro system, it’s really about bringing people into Austin,” Hill said. “Bringing people into Austin to work, bringing people into Austin to shop, to dine out, to have fun, to spend your money there. It’s not about bringing people back out to Leander, for instance, and so really it gives Austin a leg up on us, and we’re paying for it.”
Leaving CapMetro as a member city, however, would not be a simple process. It would first require the approval of voters in Leander.
If they agreed to withdraw from CapMetro, rail and bus service to the city would end immediately. However, Eric Stratton, who represents Williamson County on the CapMetro board of directors, pointed out that state law would still require Leander to pay a large exit fee.
“It would take approximately $9.1 million and roughly about two years, give or take, for the City of Leander to finish paying off that obligation,” Stratton explained. “During which time CapMetro would not be providing any service whatsoever to or from Leander. You’d essentially have the empty train and bus station at that point.”
Stratton said he met with the mayor, a city council member and other staff members on May 29 to talk about their concerns as well as discuss the possibility of offering a new ride-share bus service in Leander. He explained that the service would let people request rides from their homes to different locations within a specified area, like the Leander bus and train station.
He said city leaders seemed excited about that expansion of service, but then communication stopped in June.
“It seemed like we were moving in a positive direction, then we didn’t hear anything back from them,” Stratton said. “Then, all of a sudden, we kept being put on as an item on the [City Council] agenda, then we didn’t hear anything back and now these actions. So, yeah, I was a little bit shocked to hear that things were moving in this direction this quickly.”
Mayor Hill said it’s unclear right now if the City Council would ultimately put a referendum on the ballot.
If voters decided to keep service, though, CapMetro told KXAN that the city would have to wait five years before attempting to end services again. However, if people voted to leave, the city would have no restrictions and could request to contract with CapMetro, but the agency’s board of directors would ultimately have the final say on that decision.
City leaders in Leander may receive some pushback from developers working on projects in the area.
Alex Tynberg serves as president of the Northline Leander Development Company. He’s working on a 115-acre mixed-use project called Northline, which is being billed as a transit-oriented development center located north of the Capital Metro station in Leander. The City of Leander announced in June that it would like to create Leander Town Square at the Northline development, which may house a new city hall.
While access to mass transit would be important for that development to succeed, Tynberg told KXAN that he can understand the city’s desire to negotiate the best deal for service with CapMetro.
“Having that rail stop continue in the future is extraordinarily important for the viability and acceleration of development,” Tynberg said.
KXAN also reached out Tuesday to Austin Community College because its San Gabriel Campus is located directly east of the CapMetro station in Leander. The college released the following statement:
“Transportation can be a major hurdle for ACC students. The college is focused on working with all of our partners to continuously explore the best opportunities that eliminate these barriers and make college accessible for everyone.”
April Cameron works at the Hand & Stone Massage & Facial Spa, which is located in a shopping center directly west of the Leander station. She said the rail and bus service have had “no impact” on either bringing in new customers or getting employees to work.
“I just wonder if it’s had a positive or negative impact on the city at all,” Cameron said. “Because, even in our location, I can see who’s getting on and off the train, and I see nobody.”
She suggested that CapMetro should instead make changes so that the buses and trains would run more frequently in Leander.
“If it’s done right and if they’re communicating with the community and finding out the community’s needs for the train and they’re willing to change their schedule based on that, it could become something,” Cameron said.
Critics point out that the rail service does not run to Leander on the weekends right now because of ongoing construction. However, a CapMetro spokesperson says that a train will run again on Saturdays starting in January.