Wheel Deal

Scott Morris, Austin Coalition for Transit


Thank you for the opportunity to comment on The Wheel Deal.

We facilitated a meeting of the Austin Coalition for Transit last Sunday where the proposal was discussed.

With regard to capital cost, we find that the total figure of $4.4B is well within the bonding capacity of the City of Austin. On August 28, 2019 Moody’s affirmed a AAA rating for Austin and its general obligation debt because it had, “Ample headroom available under its current taxing capacity providing more than 10 times debt service.” The City of Austin reported its legal debt limit after obligations, or its legal debt margin, at $18.7 billion in its September 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

Debt service for Wheel Deal infrastructure will not be subject to the recently passed tax revenue cap. As it faces severe constraints to fund its budgets in future years, The City of Austin would benefit with an aggressive strategy of bond-funded projects that shifts the burden from operational to capital budgets. The investments described in The Wheel Deal do that effectively, providing a significant mode shift to durable infrastructure that requires little to no maintenance role by the city, while lessening costs related to public safety, transportation, the environment and healthcare that would otherwise be incurred serving the needs of a car-dependent population.

How would you phase the implementation? Consider a timeline of projects, especially with regard to the light rail components. While there is a new process in which a group of related projects can be submitted at once, historically the FTA has entertained one discrete project at a time. Given the size of the match is in the billions, realistically, project prioritization is needed in order to have a competitive proposal. The process would benefit from public input on phasing and segmentation, yet there is minimal time for this to happen between LPA recommendation in March and adoption in May. The Wheel Deal could consider this.

Andrew Clements and others are currently working on a response to Project Connect capital cost estimates. We believe Project Connect’s $181 million a mile is excessive. Houston (Red Line) and Dallas (Green Line) have managed to build light rail lines for one-third less. In 2018, Project Connect staff used cost estimates based on invoiced components for Los Angeles’ Expo Line extension, then added a contingency of 10% for services and 30% for construction and vehicles. We do not feel Los Angeles is a comparable project to Austin. We caution that the cost estimates The Wheel Deal used may have been based on this project.

Consider including an O&M funding component. Last week we contacted various council members and their aides on the power of value capture to fund transit operations. We drafted amendments to a TIF resolution for the two MetroRail infill stations, as well as commented on a directive coming out of the Audit and Finance Committee to study PIDs ability to more equitably fund transit operations. The Project Connect package must elaborate how the system is going to pay for itself and how much fares will cost. The Wheel Deal could help shine a light on these lesser known O&M funding opportunities that would help the agency and lessen the burden on transit users.

MetroRapid Plus cost methodology would yield transit priority, but it is not sufficient to create its stated outcome of dedicated lanes. For example, there is currently a fiscally constrained line item in the CAMPO 2040 Regional Transportation Plan for $211 million that would convert only 40% of the length of the 803 to dedicated lane BRT. This would represent a minimum operable segment approach. We recommend identifying a second tier of corridors, and segments therein, that could benefit from a higher level of investment.

Of the seven MetroRapid BRT Lite corridors, South Lamar and Burnet Rd have the highest transit demand of any single line. Consider the BRT component MetroRapid Plus be increased to reflect the conversion of all or part of the 803 to fully dedicated transitway. South Lamar has experienced tremendous growth and would likely have been found to support a light rail investment if it had been advanced in this phase of the study. Ideally, please consider a recommendation that Project Connect revisit South Lamar’s mixed-traffic BRT status with a LRT/full BRT designation.

The Wheel Deal is a proposal that came at the perfect time, and we all appreciate its contribution to the discussion. Thank you for entertaining public comments and we look forward to seeing the next iteration of your proposal.