Austin leaders want a “big” transit plan. Opponents see big problems.

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When Austin’s elected officials started working toward asking voters to approve a $10.3 billion transit plan, they picked a theme early: Go big.

It may be May before Mayor Steve Alder and the city council decide what to put on the Nov. 3 ballot, but it seems clear that the majority favors asking for the most expensive alternative offered by planners.

There are two problems with that approach, however: First, Austin voters have never passed a major bond election to support urban rail. And second, even if voters agreed to the go-big sentiment, how would the city pay for it?

In a local television interview before jetting off to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C., last week, Adler said he imagines a future with a regional transit system capable of carrying a quarter of a billion people a day. Yes, a billion.

“A once-in-a-generation kind of solution,” he said. “Truly transformational, truly generational, truly big, just like our challenges.”

And, the mayor stressed, voters he has been talking to will not support any half-hearted measures. They’re ready to go big, too. 

At a Jan. 14 work session, the council and the city’s transit board heard about a framework for two proposals. Staffers for Project Connect, the project planning arm for Capital Metro, laid out plans for an aggressive expansion of rapid bus service (by means of expanding lanes dedicated solely to buses) and construction of two new rail lines.

The most expensive plan, calling for a 1.6-mile downtown tunnel to connect an elevated north-south downtown line to a line out to Austin Bergstrom International Airport, drew the most enthusiastic response. Adler and the council members who spoke about it dismissed the rapid-bus plan out of hand. 

We can go small and fail or we can make the right investment for the future of our city,” council member Jimmy Flannigan said. “We’re talking about rail in a tunnel. That’s a subway. I mean, wow. That’s what real cities do.”

“It’s past time to transform the system; we have to do something big,” council member Ann Kitchen said after the work session. “We have to do something that works for the whole community.”

Rail opponents, who have been active since pulling off an unexpected defeat of the city’s first major rail plan 20 years ago, say they intend to go big, too. Drug company executive Jim Skaggs and his allies were instrumental in convincingly defeating the last rail proposal, a $600 million bond package in 2014.

“It’s dead until somebody revives it,” former Mayor Lee Leffingwell said when the results were final on election night. “And that will be a long period of time.”

Since 2010, Cap Metro, as the transit agency is known, has been carrying passengers on a single 32-mile section of pre-existing tracks between downtown Austin and its northern exurb of Leander. The original $90 million estimate for getting the line up and running ballooned to more than $300 million spent. 

Skaggs, CEO of a cancer drug development company, is once again in the process of forming a political action committee to tell voters all of the ways in which rail and its cost are wrong for Austin.

“What they’re asking everyone to pay for [is] lines that will primarily serve the wealthy people who live and work downtown, and tourists,” Skaggs said. “Even if you were to quadruple transit ridership — and that’s never been done in history — you aren’t going to solve any of your traffic problems. And at what cost?”

Project Connect estimates it would cost about $3.2 billion to expand the rapid-bus system to move about two and a half times the current number of daily transit riders in Austin. 

The estimated cost of the two new rail lines and the connecting underground tunnel, with a similar passenger capability, is $10.3 billion. The total is more than five times the $1.9 billion proposal that voters turned down 20 years ago. The rail plan failed then by about 2,000 votes out of nearly 230,000 votes cast.

The key difference between the bus and rail plans, according to supporters like Adler and Flannigan, is that if Project Connect projections are accurate, the rapid bus transit system would reach its capacity by 2040. By adding more cars, the rail system could continue to scale up to 2050 and maybe beyond, Dave Couch, Project Connect program officer, said.

Couch joined Capital Metro in September 2018 after decades working on rail systems in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Houston. He said the chief goal of new rail lines is not to pull people out of their cars but to provide alternatives to residents in an increasingly congested city.

Consistent with Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan, approved by the city council last April, Project Connect’s objective is to create an alternative with its own dedicated lanes or rail right of way that would not add to the city’s already stifling traffic, nor leave transit riders sitting in that traffic. 

The planning, Couch said, has not been influenced by the preferences of elected officials. It isn’t Project Connect’s role to nudge those officials in the direction of any of the proposals, he said.

However, the proposed rail lines ought to be considered components in what Project Connect is planning, for a “very, very desperately needed” regional transit system, Couch said. 

As he has for more than 20 years, Skaggs questions the true demand for this kind of regional transit system. And he thinks Austin voters will reject the cost when they realize such a system won’t come close to solving the city’s current traffic problems.

To take just one example from the Project Connect proposal, the Cap Metro system currently moves 110,000 people during rush hour on an average workday. The $3.2 billion rapid-bus transit plan could move 247,000 people during peak times. The $10.3 billion rail system is designed to scale up to 277,000 during the peak.

The projections assume ridership would more than double by 2040 — a prediction that defies Austin’s transit history. Overall transit ridership peaked in Austin in 1990, a year after the city council tried to goose ridership by doing away with fares. 

With the explosive rise of ride-sharing in the last decade, demand for all forms of transit, particularly rail, is down in every major American city except Seattle, according to the latest data gathered by the Federal Transit Administration.

Overall ridership in the four largest Texas cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — is less than it was 20 years ago. In November, voters in Houston approved a $3.5 billion transportation bond proposal, all of it directed at buses, not its rail system. San Antonio’s leaders like Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a former light rail advocate, have directed that city’s planners to think about rapid-bus transit expansion.

“Light rail is a technology of the past,” Nirenberg said last February.  “It costs so much for so little impact.”

In May 2018 voters in Nashville, Tenn., a city growing in much the same way as Austin, were asked to approve creating the framework for a light rail system at a cost of nearly $9 billion. 

Voters, chafing at a plan they thought was designed primarily to benefit the well-off residents of downtown, crushed the proposal by a 64 to 36 percent margin.

In addition to choosing which transit plan to support, Austin’s leaders must also decide how to ask voters for the money. Whatever the option, infrastructure costs will probably be presented as a bond proposal or borrowing question on the November ballot. 

Because Capital Metro has no funding cushion for daily operating costs — the proposed rail system will easily require $100 million — the city council must decide on a tax package to cover that. And if covering those costs would require a property tax increase of 3.5 percent or more, a state law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June would require the city to put the increase to a separate citywide vote.

Austin can expect little or no help from the state. Federal funding for rail projects, about 80 percent a generation ago, has dropped to about 40 percent, Couch said. And even that share could be at risk with a Trump administration that has shown little interest in funding urban rail.

Council members have been circumspect about the funding. The Texas Monitor contacted all of them to comment for this story. None responded. Adler’s assistant Barbara Shack said the mayor would prefer to answer questions sometime in the future.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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