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Capital Metro offers alternative investment timeline for Project Connect vision

Thursday, July 23, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Since June 10, when City Council endorsed the $10 billion Project Connect system, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been considering which of the transit components is most essential for an initial investment to place before voters in November.

“Every city, every state starts out with a portion; it’s not built all at once,” said Dave Couch, Project Connect’s program manager. “The beauty of what we’ve done is that we have an approval for the overall system map; that gives us that road map, if you will, to the future, regardless of how much of it is built at which time.”

In light of the lasting economic hardships of Covid-19, Capital Metro is proposing an option for the November ballot that would allow voters to commit to some core elements of Project Connect at 70 percent of the cost of the $10 billion adopted vision.

The $7 billion plan would bring the local capital investment down to $3.85 billion compared to the $5.5 billion local share of the full system. That lower cost would pull the November tax rate election ask from 11 cents down to 8.5 cents, a difference of $82 on the property tax bill of a median value home.

As proposed, the 70 percent investment option contains $2.5 billion for light rail on the Orange Line between the North Lamar Transit Center and the South Congress Transit Center (with MetroRapid extensions at each end); $1.3 billion for the light rail Blue Line; $120 million for three MetroRapid routes; $370 million for the Green Line commuter rail to Colony Park; $25 million for Red Line rail improvements; $50 million for a MetroRapid Gold Line; $2 billion for the downtown tunnel; $60 million for three MetroExpress routes and nine park-and-rides; and $1.5 million for 15 new neighborhood circulator zones.

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Left out of the 70 percent option are the Orange Line light rail extensions to Tech Ridge and Slaughter Lane; light rail conversion and a $500 million portion of the downtown tunnel system for the MetroRapid Gold Line; four MetroRapid corridors; $40 million for five more park-and-rides; and 15 additional neighborhood circulator zones. Funding for these elements could be approved in a future vote.

Capital Metro considers the 70 percent the first part of the complete vision and would seek environmental clearance for the full system all at once even if that option were chosen for November. Couch explained, however, that the community will ultimately decide whether the $7 billion investment concept will be discarded, pave the way for the full plan or become the new Project Connect vision.

The agency opened that conversation Wednesday evening with a virtual community meeting. City Council will be meeting with Capital Metro’s board of directors on July 27 to continue that discussion and create a recommendation.

“I believe that whether we move forward with the full plan at this point or whether we move forward with, basically, an initial investment, then it is an absolute super investment for the city,” Couch said. “I believe that the city is very much in need of this type of transit plan.”

Couch said the 70 percent proposal would also allow Capital Metro more time to study the Gold Line corridor for a potential light rail conversion, a concept that was included in the adopted vision based on population assumptions from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Designating the Gold Line as MetroRapid would also mean the improved route would be up and running many years before a light rail line would be complete.

“If we start out with the Gold Line in the initial investment that is MetroRapid, it would provide the same type of service that is currently on the 801 or the 803,” Couch said.

If City Council and the Capital Metro Board of Directors decide to go with the full $10 billion plan for November, Couch said the Gold Line would still be the “third priority” in the system build-out timeline.

Another benefit of the 70 percent plan is the opportunity to receive additional state or federal dollars that may be available to help complete the system in years to come, CEO Randy Clarke explained at Wednesday’s community meeting.

“We want to position ourselves to do a big investment and finally move this 20-year question forward, but also do it fiscally responsible so we can leverage as many possible investment opportunities for the future that are not Austin taxpayer-specific sources,” Clarke said. “So we are trying to do this in a fiscally prudent way while also trying to get as much done.”

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