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CAMPO told funding needed for Project Connect still a mystery

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

The question of just how much the proposed Project Connect would cost was asked – but not answered – at Monday night’s CAMPO board meeting.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, chair of CAMPO’s Transit Working Group, laid out the regional transit vision at the meeting, one that merged the existing Capital Metro Red Line and rapid bus lanes with an urban rail proposal and the long-anticipated funding of the regional Lone Star commuter rail line.


Leffingwell made a number of key points about Project Connect: It will be built in phases. Current available funding mechanisms could provide up to 40 percent of the cost of the system from a variety of sources. And plans for both funding and governance will be finalized about the time CAMPO 2040 kicks off.


Consultant Joe Lessard outlined funding assumptions for the plan at a meeting of the Transit Working Group on March 8. Even then, the emphasis was on assumptions and not totals for what Leffingwell calls a “pay-as-you-go” program.


“I don’t want to imply that everyone agrees at this point,” Leffingwell said. “We need to finalize the organization and the governance. We also need to go in depth at a point in the near future to more precisely designate Phase 1 of the plan which will be parts of the urban rail, improvements to the Red Line and getting the Lone Star Rail plan started.”


Commissioner Gerald Daugherty promptly asked staff what the final price tag on the project would be and then, without waiting for an answer, launched into a soliloquy about the cost versus benefits of transit, noting that even after bleeding Capital Metro dry to pay for the Red Line, and population increasing exponentially in the last five decades, transit numbers don’t come close to what they were when the federal highway system was built out in the 1960s.


Daugherty noted the tally on urban rail alone had been projected at $1.2 billion. Throw in the Capital Metro and Lone Star rail lines and that the tally is astronomically higher. Leffingwell countered that Project Connect was a 30-year plan that intended to address a region of 4 million residents, double the current population in the immediate three-county area.


Daugherty countered that he respected Leffingwell’s work on transit, but that bus service was probably the only option that offered a bang for the buck, especially when it came to people’s attachment to their cars.


“I’m happy to work with you on things like this,” Daugherty said. “What we really want is to define good adequate cost-effective ways to keep transportation going that is something better than what we have right now.”


No specific number was offered for the Project Connect totals, something that probably won’t come to light until early summer. Leffingwell did confirm that transportation alternatives would be considered for each component of the plan.


During the work session with the Transit Working Group on March 8, Lessard outlined some of the assumptions that would be necessary to fund the project, such as the size of possible tax-increment finance districts, either a quarter mile or a half mile, around stations along the commuter rail route.


Lessard said the question he wants to answer in his work is, “Can the region afford rail service?” Meeting with cities along the Lone Star route, in particular, Lessard has suggested the type of money the jurisdictions along the route must provide, whether that comes in the form of higher sales tax, the creation of a TIF or management district or the funding of a traffic impact fee.


In other presentations at last night’s CAMPO meeting, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein outlined the broad scope of the MoPac express lane project, which will kick off in six months and take three years to complete. The project will add one additional lane in each direction on MoPac from Cesar Chavez up to Parmer Lane.


Much of the project’s construction will take place at night and on weekends, Heiligenstein said. Noise will be an issue, and a coordinator is being hired on the project to provide 24-hour access to local neighborhoods and the media. The project also is focused on additional access into downtown within the limited right of way, possibly reconfiguring the Fifth Street exit ramp into downtown.

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