LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — In a 5-2 vote Tuesday night, Leander City Council opted in favor of including an item on the May ballot centered around the future of Capital Metro services within the city. On May 7, voters will decide whether to remain a member of CapMetro or withdraw from its contract with the transit provider.
Tuesday’s vote wasn’t the first time the proposed ballot item has been floated by city council. In 2019, the city floated the idea of withdrawing from the transit authority, but ultimately did not vote to include the item on a city ballot.
Currently, Leander receives MetroPickup, MetroExpress and MetroRail services through its CapMetro membership, paying 1% of its sales tax revenue to the transit provider for operations.
- MetroPickup: on-demand service launched in fiscal year 2019-20
- MetroExpress: commuter-style coaches that travel south to downtown and the University of Texas at Austin, with five southbound trips each day
- MetroRail: services began in 2011 and cover 32 miles and nine stations with the following trips offered:
- 12 daily southbound weekday trips
- 5 Friday southbound evening trips
- 22 Saturday southbound evening trips
- Special services for Austin FC MLS games
In 2021, that 1% sales tax fee translated to the city paying CapMetro $9.4 million for services.
That figure is only expected to grow, according to a December 2021 transit demand analysis conducted by the Goodman Corporation. By 2032, that annual sales tax revenue figure is projected to nearly double, to the tune of approximately $18.5 million.
If voters respond “yes” on the ballot item, Leander will remain as a CapMetro member and the city wouldn’t be able to hold another election on the issue for five years.
If voters respond “no” to the ballot item, then the city will withdraw from CapMetro and services will discontinue immediately, once the votes have been canvassed. If that happens, city voters will select how they want the freed up 1% sales tax revenue to be used.
However, if the city withdraws from CapMetro, they will still owe the transit authority a fee for essentially breaking its contract. Prior city council discussions estimate that figure around $42 million, and the city will continue to pay its 1% sales tax fee to CapMetro while paying off that buy-out fee.
City Council Member Kathryn Pantalion-Parker said she felt if the item wasn’t put on the ballot for voters to decide on, council would be doing a disservice to its citizens. As the city’s population continues to soar and infrastructure demands heighten, she said it’s vital for the city to begin assessing where its priorities lie.
“To what altar are we worshipping?” she said, adding that 1% sales tax revenue allocated to CapMetro could be used for development services or other city resources.
Council Member Esme Mattke Longoria said that for her, the “sticking point” is the estimated $42 million buy-out fee that could come with leaving CapMetro. She added that as the city continually grows, transit will remain just as much of a priority for residents as development or related services.
Mayor Christine DeLisle credited CapMetro board members for recognizing the service pinch points the city has been enduring. She said if voters opt to pull out from Leander’s CapMetro deal, the city and transit authority can continue working as contracted partners in a “fair and transparent way.”
Amid years of discussions surrounding this issue, DeLisle said one thing has stood out most in her eyes: The way mass transit is funded in Texas is indicative of a broken system.
“I think ultimately this is opening a lot of eyes to the way that mass transit is funded in Texas, and the system is broken,” she said, adding: “The way funding currently happens, it creates transit like what we have now, where it’s a patchwork of services. You can’t go on mass transit to Cedar Park or to Georgetown because they’re not in the system, and they can’t afford it to get in as a partner city the way that Leander has been.”