Capitol Metro’s Rail Plan: Project Connect or Disconnected?
By Gonzalo Barrientos
On November 3, Austin taxpayers will be asked to approve $7.1-billion in taxes for Project Connect, a massive expansion of Capitol Metro’s rail system. As Senate sponsor of the legislation that created Capitol Metro, I have a particularly strong interest in this expansion.
It all sounds very reasonable — at first. Austin has nearly a million residents. We’re the eleventh largest city in the United States. However, today, many of our citizens are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage, and cover basic necessities. Is this the time to charge ahead with a very expensive major railroad system? Does that very expensive commuter rail system offer the most efficient means for our residents to move around the city? We don’t really know. Capitol Metro has not yet conducted a comprehensive study on Project Connect that addresses whether it will reduce traffic congestion.
Austin has developed with suburban-style residential areas. Instead of block after block of high-density apartments and condos, go just a few blocks in any direction from the heart of the business district and you’re in neighborhoods filled with homes, yards and green areas. Apartments and condominiums line many of the major boulevards bordering these family neighborhoods. And the boulevards handle their denser populations and heavier traffic with more traffic lanes, and with buses, not train tracks. This development pattern has made Austin a very livable community.
Many other cities with metro area populations of more than a million have decided there are much better alternatives than commuter rail systems. San Antonio, Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, FL, Indianapolis, IN, Columbus, OH, Raleigh-Durham, NC, Oklahoma City, Memphis, TN, Richmond, VA, Louisville, KY and Rochester, NY have all opted for more efficient, more flexible and much less expensive alternatives to metro or light rail systems.
Despite that, and without a careful and wide-ranging study to determine what sort of public transportation system would be best for Austin in the future, our City Council signed on to Capitol Metro’s ‘Project Connect.’
There has never been a comprehensive transportation analysis. Is a very expensive train system the most efficient way to transport Austin commuters? What about a fleet of various sized buses, from huge double-coach vehicles for major routes, to smaller vehicles— like motorized trollies— for neighborhood routes? These have worked very well in San Antonio for decades.
Instead, homeowners and renters alike are being asked to pay $7.1-billion to construct additional rail lines. According to the legally-required Notice of Public Hearing on Tax Increases, Project Connect would require an increase of 24.6% on the average homestead. The property tax rate hike on rental properties would average 26.2%, which means rent goes up for their residents.
Capitol Metro says they’ll wait until after the tax passes to conduct detailed environmental impact studies, even though their plans include an extensive rail tunnel, an underground station in the downtown area, and a rail line under Lady Bird Lake that will eventually head east to the airport. One problem is the underground streams that run beneath Austin’s business district. No-one knows precisely where they flow, or how they would impact excavation and heavy construction.
There is also no mention of engineering studies for Project Connect until the tax is passed and construction actually begins. No one knows exactly what they’d find when they start digging. When the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority excavated to build MoPac’s toll lanes west of downtown, construction collided with unknown underground geological formations. Costs and construction time went way up.
Capitol Metro promised federal funds would cover large parts of the costs for their Red Line, which runs down the eastern edge of downtown. Yet, according to the July 2011 Texas Sunset Commission Final Report, Project Redline went 233% over budget and received not one federal dollar. Capitol Metro later admitted that it had actually never sought federal funds. Austin residents paid for the entire system. Are we looking at that same sequence again? Only this time, for a lot more money?
The November election would authorize the City of Austin to raise taxes for Project Connect, even though the city’s bond (credit) rating was recently lowered. This would take a lot of money from Austin homeowners, with an average 24.6% hike in city property taxes, and 26.2% increase for renters, to pay for the trains.
When asked why the City of Austin and Capital Metro did not perform comprehensive studies to determine what kind of public transportation system we’ll need and what it would cost, an attorney for Capital Metro stated that there would be “no traffic, environmental or property studies” unless the project was approved. Why in the world wouldn’t a comprehensive study be conducted before we start building it.
Could any of the answers be in the interests that have contributed heavily to the Campaign PAC to pass Project Connect? Here are the larger contributors to Project Connect based on the October 3 filing:
- HNTB Transportation Engineering firm $155,000
- Austin FC (Soccer club off north MOPAC with a rail stop planned at its stadium) $100,000
- Brandywine Operating Partnership $100,000
- Endeavour Real Estate Group $100,000
- HDR Engineering Transportation Engineering $60,000
- Tyson Tuttle High Tech Promoter $10,526.63
- Presidium Group (Real estate firm) $30,000
These seven, all with a financial interest in Project Connect or CODE Next, except one, account for $555,526.63, or 64%, of Project Connect’s corporate donations, and 57% of all contributions.
Most reasonable people are not opposed to a well-planned, well-engineered mass transit system in Austin. Project Connect just isn’t it.
Gonzalo Barrientos is Chairman of Voices of Austin. He served as Austin’s State Senator from 1985 to 2007, and State Representative from 1975 to 1985. Voices of Austin is community-based nonprofit organization focusing on public issues. It is not a political action committee, nor affiliated with any political party or campaign.
 Public Notice: https://austintexas.gov/news/notice-2020-tax-year-proposed-tax-rate-and-public-hearing-city-austin and ~25% rate recognized by Statesman in June https://www.statesman.com/news/20200610/city-capmetro-ok-10-billion-project-connect-transit-plan
 Public information request letter response dated June 19, 2020 from Capital Metro, page 2, item 1 states: Engineering, geological and hydrological studies for Project Connect tunnel system. The initial tunnel concepts are based on available data. If the tunnel is included in the program, detailed studies will be performed during engineering.
 Senator Watson’s website “Report Slaps Cap Metro” http://www.kirkwatson.com/uncategorized/report-slaps-capital-metro/
 Campaign finance reports: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=348131