Leander looking to get uncoupled from Cap Metro

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Texas light rail

Leander, the end of the line for Austin’s single light rail line and the system’s second-largest sales tax contributor, is considering hiring an attorney to help the town north of Austin discontinue all transit service from Capital Metro.

The move, which Capital Metro is powerless to stop, could leave Leander taxpayers with a more than $10 million net financial obligation to the transit company. Leander’s withdrawal would deprive Capital Metro of an annual contribution from sales taxes estimated to be $5.3 million in this fiscal year. 

Capital Metro is a public transit group, providing bus and rail service to Austin and six suburbs in Travis and Williamson counties.

Leander Mayor Troy Hill says his city is paying too much for the services it receives. His complaints come at a time when Austin Mayor Steve Adler and a like-minded city council have begun discussing a major light rail expansion of Capital Metro, which they believe the Austin metro area has long needed. 

Much of the disagreement centers on Hill’s request that Cap Metro begin offering weekend service, unavailable largely because of delays in completing the double-tracking and safety upgrades on 10 miles of track leading into and out of Leander.

While it isn’t clear that extending weekend service to the northwest end of the 32-mile light rail line makes financial sense, Sam Sargent, deputy chief of staff for Cap Metro, told The Texas Monitor, “We’ve always wanted to extend the service.”

Hill did not respond to email and phone messages requesting comment from The Texas Monitor.

The Leander City Council is expected to consider hiring Austin attorney Leonard Smith at its meeting Thursday night. The decision came out of a two-day council retreat in June to discuss the status of funding for and rail and bus services received from Cap Metro, according to the agenda item.

The seeds of the controversy, however, were sown in February 2018 when Hill announced he was running for mayor and made weekend light rail service a major campaign issue.

In May, with the election of three new council members, Hill issued a list of goals for the coming year. The first was a meeting with Cap Metro to discuss “future possibilities, solutions and opportunities.”

Beginning with a presentation to the city council on April 18 by Todd Hemingson, Cap Metro’s executive vice president of planning and development, Sargent said the transit company has kept an open dialogue with Leander.

At the same, Cap Metro has worked to finish double-tracking — adding track to allow trains to pass one another in opposite directions — that will make it possible from an engineering standpoint to expand rail service into the weekend.

But Hill has remained dissatisfied with Cap Metro’s efforts, telling the local Community Impact newspaper that the transit company’s services to Leander are “substandard,” and not worth its sales tax contribution to Capital Metro.

“The fact that we’ve been in it for this long, and they don’t have weekend service, which is the time the majority of residents would want to ride, that’s unacceptable,” Hill told the paper. “I don’t see any reason to be paying a lot for something that isn’t very efficient.”

Should Leander leave the transit group created in 1985 by voters in Austin and six other communities, city officials there would be obliged to put the decision to a vote. The Leander council has enough time within the guidelines of state law to add the transit question to the ballot for the next general election Nov. 5.

If voters approve the split, Leander would, through a complicated formula, be required to contribute to whatever financial obligations the transit company has outstanding. The rough estimate is $9.8 million, but Sargent said that number could pass $10 million.

It is likely the Cap Metro board will make its decision about expanding Leander service by September, Sargent said. If approved, the expansion would take effect in January of 2020.

In the last fiscal year, Leander contributed $5,133,277 in sales taxes to Capital Metro’s roughly $250 million annual operating budget. Austin’s sales tax contribution pays for about $240 million or 96 percent of the total budget, according to Cap Metro data. Manor, the third-largest contributor paid $1.1 million in the last fiscal year.

Cap Metro ridership for buses and rail has been on the upswing for the past several months. Daily combined ridership throughout the network surpassed 70,000, with rail boardings making up more than 2,500 passengers a day.

By comparison, Leander’s ridership has been flat for years. This past spring, Cap Metro said 472 people boarded MetroRail or MetroExpress buses on an average day at Leander Station, just off U.S. Highway 183. 

Hill told the local paper that Leander would be better off channeling that annual sales tax contribution into economic development projects.

Sargent said he is confident Cap Metro’s improvements along the northernmost third of the rail system and the increase in the express bus service will be enough to convince voters in Leander to stay. 

Two years ago officials in Lago Vista, just west of Austin, wanted out of Capital Metro. While not on the rail line, Lago Vista felt it wasn’t getting the bus service it deserved. Voters felt otherwise and Lago Vista remains one of the seven charter members of the transit group.

“Considering Leander’s growth, which has been spectacular, I think that would justify our taking a look at our rail service there. I’m not able to speak for the board, but I think with everything we’ve done we keep reinforcing the building of a transit network that we want Leander to be part of,” Sargent said.  

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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