Local rail officials have recommended an urban rail line, rather than a rapid bus option, for a 9.5-mile line that would run from near Highland Mall, through downtown, and on East Riverside to Grove Boulevard.
Cost: $1.38 billion.
That tab would include building a new bridge over Lady Bird Lake east of Congress Avenue (rather than a tunnel), and a tunnel near Hancock Center going under the existing MetroRail line. The two facilities constitute a significant chunk of the cost: $175 million for the bridge, including on-land portions near East Riverside and north to East 15th Street; and $220 million for the tunnel from near Hancock Center to near East 47th and Airport Boulevard.
Officials with Project Connect, a joint effort of the city of Austin and Capital Metro, estimate that the electric-powered urban rail line (essentially light rail by another name) would generate 16,000 to 20,000 boardings a day by 2030, about nine years after opening.
Project Connect in two weeks will reveal another key element: phasing. In other words, should Austin choose to build the whole 9.5 miles in one bite, bearing the entire $1.38 billion cost? Or would it make more sense to build only a portion of it initially and come back later to do the rest?
Officials on May 16 will also unveil their estimate of operating costs, and how the enterprise would be governed. That is unlikely to be the city of Austin, even though the city has been the driving force in planning the line and will be the primary payer of its construction cost. Capital Metro, which already runs MetroRail and is the area’s primary transit agency, is a likely choice. Or the city and Capital Metro could try to form a new government for this purpose, something which might require legislative action.
None of this will happen at all unless Austin voters in November decide to provide several hundred million dollars in bonding authority. Rail officials hope and expect to get federal grants for about half the cost, or almost $700 million, leaving the rest to come from bonds or other sources.