Lower-cost options unveiled for Austin light rail project

Austin transit officials offered scaled-down options for a partly bond-financed light rail system Tuesday as escalating costs pressure the project financially and politically. 

The Austin Transit Partnership, which was created by the city and its Capital Metro Transportation Authority to build Project Connect, unveiled five, lower-cost options for the system.

“This is an exciting day for Austin because our city is close to building a core Austin light rail that is equitable and helps our growing mobility needs,” Greg Canally, the partnership’s executive director, said in a statement.

He urged the public to weigh in on the options, which include street level, partial elevated, and partial underground alternatives, ahead of a final selection by the partnership’s board  in June. 

Local media reported each option carries a price tag of about $5 billion and would take as much as 10 years to complete. That could not be immediately confirmed by Austin Transit Partnership spokespersons.

Austin voters in November 2020 approved the use of property taxes to help fund what was billed as a $7.1 billion project. By April 2022, it was projected to cost $10.3 billion. 

The project’s rising costs caught the attention of Texas legislators who introduced House Bill 3899 and Senate Bill 1791, which would require voter approval of bonds issued by local government-created corporations allowed to tap property tax revenue for specified projects.

Republican State Rep. Ellen Troxclair, sponsor of the House bill, has said the measure would stop the partnership from exploiting a possible loophole in state law by using an indefinite property tax increase to pay off non-voter approved debt.

ATP is authorized to issue bonds, notes, and other obligations for the project, which is also counting on federal funding.

A bond issue was not part of the 2020 ballot measure, Proposition A, which dedicated a share of property tax revenue toward implementation of the rail transit project.

Light rail funding measures failed in Austin in 2000 and 2014.

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