Oct 17, 2022 - News

Amid high costs, officials re-examining Austin transit plans

A red line light rail train stopped in Austin.

Austin MetroRail train stopped at a light rail station in Austin. Photo: Peter Tsai/Getty

With project costs soaring, transit officials are looking at ways to revise the city's marquee transit expansion effort — including possibly paring down planned subways in downtown Austin. .

The big picture: Project Connect is still slated to tie Austin together, though planners are looking at adjusting light-rail lines to run at street-grade through downtown as part of a wider project review.

Catch up quick: Cost estimates for two light rail lines, including a downtown tunnel, have increased from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, per a Project Connect briefing memo in April.

  • The Orange Line would link North and South Austin and the Blue Line would run from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to downtown. A commuter rail line and additional bus service are also included in the plan.
  • Voters in 2020 approved a city tax hike to pay for the project.

The reasons for the spiraling costs come down to soaring real estate expenses, with budget estimates for right-of-way for the two light rail lines jumping from $250 million to $1.19 billion.

  • Plus: Spiking inflation, driving up the cost of construction materials.
  • And changes in the project's scope, with the estimates for a downtown subway tunnel jumping from $2 billion to $4.1 billion, as the length has more than doubled due to engineering and other factors, such as the incline of the hill heading into South Austin.

Yes, but: Transit planners have a "working expectation" of no new tax increases, a Project Connect program officer wrote in the memo addressed to the Austin City Council and the board of transportation agency Cap Metro.

What they're saying: "If costs are going up and revenues are staying the same, we have to have an adult, open conversation about what that means," Bill McCamley, executive director of Transit Forward, a nonprofit that promotes Project Connect, tells Axios.

  • "Money doesn't come out of the rear end of a unicorn," he says.

Of note: Greg Canally, interim executive director of the Austin Transit Partnership, set up by the City of Austin and Cap Metro to design, finance and build Project Connect, confirmed to Axios that engineers are re-examining the subway portions of the project — as part of a much wider technical review.

  • "This is the right time to deal with this stuff, not later, not when construction contracts are in place," Canally says. "We want to put in place the light-rail vision Austin voted on while living within our budget."
  • "We've made no decisions yet," Canally says, about what changes might be made.

Between the lines: "Subways are really expensive," McCamley says. "If we scale [the subway] back we can use more money to lay out [the most] track."

  • Transit engineers "are looking at what's possible, what are the levers we can control to get the biggest bang for the buck," McCamley says, "while avoiding disruption" for drivers and others.

Details: Besides potentially scratching or shortening underground tunnels, planners could pare down the Lady Bird Lake crossings from two to one, per Canally and McCamley.

What's next: Austin Transit Partnership officials will continue to ask for public input in coming months.

The bottom line: "Everything's on the table right now," McCamley says.

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