TX: Is Austin Finally Ready for Light Rail? The Answer May Come in 2020.

TX: Is Austin Finally Ready for Light Rail? The Answer May Come in 2020.

April 06–The gloom settled in quickly at Threadgill’s near downtown after the early votes came in on Austin’s 2014 light rail bond proposition.

The three dozen or so people on hand, including then-Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, drinks in hand, soon broke into clutches of quiet conversation. What was billed as a victory party took on the aspect of a wake.

"It’s dead until somebody revives it," Leffingwell told the American-Statesman that November night, when 57 percent of the voters said "no" to the rail bonds. "And that will be a long period of time."

Capital Metro, with its release of a draft "Project Connect System Plan," has revived it.

Agency officials, at least for now, are remaining coy about which, if any, of the 11 "high-capacity transit" corridors shown on the colorful map are targeted for rail rather than rapid bus service. But a safe assumption — based on a planning process that quietly began shortly after the 2014 election defeat and on a more illuminating version of that same map made public in February — is that at least three of those lines will be recommended as rail projects.

And if things go as planned — far from certain given Austin’s history of preparing for rail elections — Austin voters could be asked as soon as 2020 to authorize the construction of light rail. For a third time.

With the right plan, Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield said, the result this time likely will be different.

"Austin voters, as you saw with the 2016 transportation bond, are OK with spending money on bond elections again," said Littlefield, referring to the $720 million bond package that centered on major overhauls of up to nine key Austin streets, approved by 59.1 percent of voters. "As long as it is something well thought out and conceived, they won’t choke on big numbers."

Longtime rail supporters, many of whom openly opposed the 2014 plan for a single line running from Highland Mall through downtown and along East Riverside Drive, are excited about the $6 billion-to-$8 billion long-term program Capital Metro has put on the table. The third time will be the charm, they insist, because Austin traffic is intolerable, the electorate has become younger and more transit-friendly, and, most of all, the new plan is different.

"The election defeat in 2014 was about a bad plan, and was not an indictment of rail," said Scott Morris, director of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation. "It was just nonsense, and there was no data to support it."

Transit planners this time, said Morris, used a "serving filter rather than a shaping filter." Meaning, the 2014 rail line proposal cut through lightly inhabited areas with low transit ridership with the goal of sparking development, rather than going where bus transit was already performing well.

The proposed lines this time that were shown as electric light rail in the February map — the draft in late March didn’t indicate which lines were envisioned for rail — run on Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard from downtown to near Howard Lane and Interstate 35, on East Riverside from near Lady Bird Lake to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and on South Congress Avenue from near Lady Bird Lake to Slaughter Lane.

Capital Metro’s estimated cost to build rail in those three corridors: $2.4 billion for Guadalupe/North Lamar, $1.5 billion for East Riverside and $1 billion for South Congress.

The Capital Metro board by June is expected to vote on a final version of the map, attaching modes — rail or bus — to each of the 11 corridors, and to recommend by December or early next year which line or lines to put before the public for a first phase. The board last month voted to ask the city of Austin to include $15 million in an expected bond election this November that would be used to do an environmental study and preliminary engineering on the first phase.

All of that would tee up rail for a critical public vote in 2020.

"All of those (routes) on a gut level feel very reasonable," said Susan Somers, chairwoman of AURA, a group formed in 2013 to advocate for rail that since has taken on a broader portfolio of urban policy advocacy. "I’m definitely really optimistic. Since 2014, we’ve built organizations that are primed to lead the charge for this vote."

Still standing by to lead the charge in opposition, however, is Jim Skaggs. The former high tech executive, now running a company formulating a cancer drug, is 80 years old. But Skaggs, who has been the main voice and funder of rail opposition in Austin since before the failed light rail election in 2000, said he is primed for another round.

"I’m probably the youngest 80 year old you’ll ever meet in your life," Skaggs said. "Rail is an ineffective transit component for Austin, Texas, and almost any other city. They should really be putting those dollars into the bus system.

"Look at our sister in Dallas. They have developed the longest light rail system in the United States, almost a hundred miles, and the system continues to lose ridership."

So, in fact, have 31 of the 35 largest transit systems in the country over the past year, including Capital Metro, a drop off variously attributed to low gas prices, favorable interest rates for buying cars, the explosion of ride-hailing since 2014 and the gentrification of city centers that has forced transit’s lower-income, core clientele to the fringes of urban areas. The agency’s boardings, which have been on a several year slide, fell 1.3 percent last year to 27.8 million trips, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Transit Database.

Ridership on MetroRail, a 32-mile commuter rail line approved by voters in 2004, has been stable over the past few years — service began in 2010 — and the rush hour trains have generally been packed. Capital Metro in January added more train runs during peak commuting times, and agency officials are hoping that yields more boardings.

Randy Clarke, who took over March 7 as Capital Metro’s president and CEO, said that recent transit history is not necessarily destiny. He pointed to Seattle, which has been building rail and expanding bus service hours, and last year saw ridership go up by 3 percent.

"To me, history is about learning from the past and trying not to make the same mistakes. I’m just focused on the future," Clarke said. "If you do investments and you do them correctly, they do work."

Road map to rail

The challenge for light rail in Austin, as always, will be finding the money.

Capital Metro, when it proposed in 2000 building the first phase of a $1.9 billion, 52-mile plan (and voters, by less than 2,000 votes, said no), had a couple of hundred million dollars banked. It was able to run its bus system each year and still set aside $25 million or so. And at that point, the Federal Transit Administration was funding as much as 80 percent of local rail projects that made it through the agency’s competitive process for such grants.

None of that is the case now.

Capital Metro, while it had almost $160 million in reserves at the beginning of this fiscal year, budgeted nearly that much on capital projects this year alone, including large chunks upgrading the MetroRail downtown station, adding siding tracks in several places on the MetroRail line and revamping its train control system to comply with federal safety requirements. The agency’s long-range financial plan, depending on assumptions about sales tax growth, shows the agency either breaking even or, in a more conservative scenario, losing money eight of the next 10 years.

And this assumes no spending on light rail.

The federal transit agency, meanwhile, this year allotted just over $1 billion nationwide to spend on light rail and bus rapid transit projects through a program called "New Starts." All of that money, according to the agency’s report of funding recommendations for fiscal year 2019, would go to 10 projects already in progress. In other words, of the couple of dozen projects around the country looking to get the golden ticket — what is called a "full funding grant agreement" — none made the cut.

That is the queue that Capital Metro would have to join were the public to say yes to rail. It is a time-consuming, costly and uncertain pursuit that takes two long steps through project development and preliminary engineering to qualify for a final grant deal and then begin construction. The federal agency now chips in up to 60 percent of project costs, that annual report says. But not really.

"Ordinarily, the federal program share is less than the maximums, and often by a considerable amount," the report says.

So Capital Metro, or partners to be named, would have to come up a much larger percentage of the capital costs than would have been the case in 2000, for instance, and all of the operating costs. Operating MetroRail this year, according to Capital Metro’s budget, will cost more than $18 million.

Beyond that, the Trump administration has shown a distaste for rail funding — Congress essentially overruled the president on transit in its recent spending bill.

A city of Austin role

All of which means that the city of Austin will be critical to light rail becoming a reality.

Capital Metro is already maxed out on its 1 percent sales tax, seeing revenue growth only to the extent that the levy generates more money because of economic expansion. And state government, with most of its transportation money constitutionally dedicated to road building and maintenance, has shown no appetite over the years for helping fund urban transit projects.

The city, however, can generate "new" money by asking voters to authorize bonded debt and pay it back with increased property taxes. That’s what was on the ballot in 2014 when voters said no.

Mayor Steve Adler was also on the ballot that year, along with about 75 other candidates looking to serve on a new-look, 11-member council. About 80 percent of those candidates were against the rail plan that fall. Adler bucked that trend, and won anyway. He will stand for reelection this fall.

"Ultimately, we have to be serious about doing something substantial on mobility for the city," Adler said. "The specific mode is something the city and Capital Metro are going to have to engage in and decide. But that we would need some dedicated right of way for mass transit to truly work in Austin and the region seems to be something that’s true."

And Adler, looking northeast to Nashville, said Austin needs options beyond the property tax to raise the billions of dollars that would be necessary over the next 20 to 30 years. Nashville residents will decide May 1 whether to raise or enact four taxes to fund a $5.4 billion, 26-mile light rail system.

That is not possible in Texas, where the Legislature in 2009 defeated a serious push by then-state Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican, to give local governments the option of asking voters to levy various taxes or fees for transportation. Nothing like it has surfaced at the Capitol since that effort.

"In a perfect world," Adler said, "I would hope that the Texas Legislature and the governor give our region what the Republican governor of Tennessee and the Republican Legislature there gave Nashville."

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