"Our lesson today will be on what we’ll call Leffingwell’s Theorem, best illustrated by this equation: $1.4 billion — $200 million = $1.4 billion."
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Wear: Making Austin’s light rail numbers add upPosted: 12:24 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014
By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff
Class, have a seat, take out your math books and turn to the chapter on Austin light rail financing.
Our lesson today will be on what we’ll call Leffingwell’s Theorem, best illustrated by this equation: $1.4 billion — $200 million = $1.4 billion.
OK, I can see I’ve lost some of you already …
Let me break it down.
Officials with Project Connect, the joint city of Austin and Capital Metro light rail planning effort, this spring unveiled a proposed 9.5-mile-long light rail project running from Highland Mall through downtown and out East Riverside Drive to Grove Drive. They put the estimated cost at $1.4 billion and said if voters in November approve bonds for half the cost, the city would apply to the federal government to cover the other half.
So the bond election, which the Austin City Council on Aug. 7 voted to call, obviously involves asking voters for $700 million for rail, right? Uh, no. $600 million.
If the Federal Transit Administration matches that, then the total would be only $1.2 billion. So, surely the project must have gotten shorter or something.
Well, not exactly, or not yet anyway, Project Connect rail lead Kyle Keahey told me last week.
Yes, just one more confusing point in what was already becoming an unusually complex ballot issue, thanks mostly to business interests demanding that significant road spending be paired with the rail bonds. And then the state attorney general’s office said the rail and road spending could not legally be conglomerated into a single bond proposition, further complicating the situation.
When it comes to asking voters, or anyone, for a large sum of money, simple is usually better.
But on the theory that if the city’s light rail proposal fails, it should do so on its transportation and financial merits rather than its befuddlement factor, let me attempt to explain how officials make the math work.
The goal, Keahey told me, remains to have a 9.5-mile project. But the $1.4 billion includes two dominant elements, both of which present opportunities for savings, he said.
First, the current estimate includes a $270 million tunnel from Hancock Center to near Airport Boulevard and East 53rd Street, allowing the light rail path to cross under the existing MetroRail Red Line track. And then there is $100 million for a proposed “signature” bridge over Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street.
Keahey’s staff is looking at substituting a bridge for the Hancock Center tunnel, and Keahey says it would cost $80 million to $120 million less than a long tunnel. A bridge over the MetroRail line (and Airport Boulevard), however, would have to be long and quite tall. There’s not enough room in that area to place it, as things stand now.
As it passes over the Red Line, the bridge would have to be 23 feet above the tracks to give it proper clearance for the freight trains that share the line with MetroRail, Keahey said. Because trains don’t do well with steep inclines, the bridge would have to start well back to the south of that crossing point. That would put it smack in the eastern section of the Hancock Center parking lot, where a Wendy’s and Sears automotive center sit.
The city, Keahey said, probably will have to acquire some right of way there. The burgers and tires might have to move.
As for the lake bridge, Keahey said some unspecified amount of money could be saved by making it, well, nonsignature. Functional and plain, in other words. But even if the Hancock bridge shaves the full $120 million from the project cost, that still leaves an $80 million gap, and de-beautifying the lake bridge is unlikely to save anywhere near that much.
So Keahey and his engineers will look for other cost savings, such as deferring construction of a couple of the planned 16 stations on the line. All this will crystallize in two or three years, Keahey said, when the engineering plans have gone from being 5 percent done to 30 percent or more completed.
Keahey shot down one possibility making the rounds among opponents of the rail proposal. Utility lines, underground pipes and storm sewers usually have to be moved to make way for a project of this breadth, and the costs can be considerable. The story out there is that Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility would eat the cost of this, helping to close the $200 million gap.
No, Keahey said, all utility work will be charged against the project, not fobbed off on other parts of city government.
The other possibility for closing the gap, of course, is coming up with more money.
Keahey said officials are still looking at the idea of claiming the value of existing street lanes or other public land given over to rail as part of the local contribution. A 9.5-mile-long corridor about 25 feet wide would be about 30 acres. Doing this wouldn’t put any more local cash into the pot, but it could convince the feds to up their share beyond a pure match of the bond election’s $600 million.
The Texas Transportation Commission in June decided to put $270 million into mass transit projects in five Texas cities, including $50 million to buy MetroRail cars and revamp the downtown station. What about Travis County, which has been conspicuously silent during all this discussion of light rail funding?
Keahey, who, after all, is just a consultant doing a job and not a policymaker, took a pass on that question.
Finally, he noted that the $1.4 billion estimate includes $330 million in contingency money, which at 23.5 percent is a pretty hefty set-aside for the unexpected. That could offer some buffer and allow the city and Capital Metro to avoid the most distasteful option of all: simply cutting off the project at Hancock Center.
So, to review, on Nov. 4, we’ll be voting to borrow $600 million to supply half of a $1.4 billion project. Any questions?