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Cap Metro tries to keep Leander in transit system by offering infrastructure funding

Tuesday, January 25, 2022 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

In an attempt to keep Leander from holding an election on whether to cut ties with Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the regional transit agency’s board of directors voted unanimously Monday to sweeten its deal with the suburban community.

Under the new proposal, Leander would get access to almost $2 million in infrastructure funding this year and receive the lion’s share of a new $10 million infrastructure fund created by the Capital Metro board two weeks ago.

The city of Leander would also be able to tap into Capital Metro’s expertise in applying for lucrative federal grants. The transit agency expects to reap more than $43 million for itself this year in federal assistance.

The Capital Metro board is trying to raise the stakes for Leander as City Council members consider whether to call a general election on membership in the transit system.

Leander’s mayor and City Council were scheduled to vote on an election last week but decided to delay the decision until after Monday’s meeting of the Capital Metro board.

The city’s elected leaders are openly questioning whether soaring sales tax revenues that pay for transit would be better spent on other needs, like a water-processing system that’s pushed to the limits by a booming population.

Leander pays for Capital Metro services by charging a 1 percent sales tax. Last year, the tax generated $9.8 million. That was 25 percent more than the year before.

Meanwhile, ridership on the three Capital Metro services in Leander – MetroRail, a MetroExpress commuter bus into Austin and the on-demand service Pickup – fell from around 635 average daily boardings in 2019 to about 130 in the fall of 2021, according to a consultant’s report commissioned by the Leander City Council.

“Part of the optics from Leander’s perspective is we inconvenience more people with the arms going down over the six railway stops than we actually have people riding the train,” said Becki Ross, a Leander City Council member who sits on the Capital Metro board.

The offer by Capital Metro’s board, supported by Ross, appears intended to assuage some of Leander’s concerns by returning millions of dollars to the city each year for streets, sidewalks, traffic signals and other infrastructure – as long as the spending prioritizes public transit.

The amount would largely be calculated by subtracting the cost of providing Capital Metro services to Leander from the amount the city pays the transit agency in sales tax. In Fiscal Year 2022, the amount available to Leander for transit-related infrastructure would be over $1.9 million.

Manor, Lago Vista, Jonestown, Point Venture and San Leanna already have similar arrangements with Capital Metro through an agency program called Build Central Texas. The board’s proposal would add Leander to the program.

Leander would also qualify for $7.4 million of a new $10 million transit infrastructure fund created by the Capital Metro board earlier this month. The fund would pay for similar transit-supportive projects as the Build Central Texas program does.

Whether that’s enough to prevent Leander’s City Council from calling a May election on Capital Metro membership should soon become clear. The Leander City Council is scheduled to meet and discuss the deal tonight at 6 p.m.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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