AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly two-and-a-half years after the approval of a massive transportation plan called Project Connect, Austin voters have had their first look at five design options for the city’s future light rail system. Before these new projects were unveiled, however, millions of taxpayer dollars had gone into the project.
In 2020, voters agreed to raise the city’s property tax rate by dedicating 8.75 cents per $100 of property appraisal to Project Connect. The vote also created the Austin Transit Partnership, or ATP, the entity created to oversee the project, which began operating jointly with CapMetro and the City of Austin before approving its first independent budget in September.
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According to ATP’s fiscal year 2022-23 budget, these property tax funds will provide $159 million in revenue for its group this year, in addition to other revenue streams such as contributions from the CapMetro budget. This marked an increase from the previous fiscal year, in which tax revenue was estimated at $157.3 million.
Executive Director Greg Canally said the ATP’s goal was to be “great stewards” of these public dollars, moving Austin closer to his vision of transportation. He said the new design options are just the first step.
“What the voters did was think about the future. Not only will all those funds help build the system, they’ll help make it work. This was truly the only thing Austin voters did, compared to anywhere in the United States,” she said.
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KXAN investigators took a closer look at ATP’s budget documents, finding an operating budget of approximately $90 million dollars for the most recent fiscal year. The group also planned to spend $50 million in capital funds for the light rail project, in particular, using money set aside in previous years.
This capital grant pays for ongoing and future contracts with outside firms for preliminary engineering work, project management, and other services. For example, according to budget documents, one of those contractors helps ATP personnel manage the program, provides national environmental compliance analysis, and helps secure federal funding or the project.
ATP’s budget also funds 87 full-time employees.
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This budget was unanimously approved at its September meeting, but not before at least one board member raised questions about planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on payroll and consultants so early in the project. These concerns have been voiced in ongoing conversations about the skyrocketing cost of the light rail system.
ATP originally announced a cost estimate of $5.8 billion for the light rail system, but by April 2022 it jumped to $10.3 billion, due to rising prices for land acquisition, costs construction and design changes. At that time, the group put the light rail project on hold to evaluate these changes and the overall cost, before proposing further design options.
At Tuesday’s community meeting, Canally estimated each of the five new light rail design options to cost about $5 billion, closer to the original estimate for the light rail system.
When asked about the money spent, so far, on the light rail project, Canally stressed the amount of work that has gone into these proposed projects.
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“We have budgeted to advance all the work that you see today – not just our experienced staff, but our experienced consultants, to make sure that these options that you see today have been looked at from an engineering standpoint, from a planning, and they’re rooted in data and they’re rooted in financial accountability,” he said.
Following community feedback on the five proposals, Canally said the ATP would recommend a final version by June. He said each of these options has, in total, a nine to 10-year timeline to complete.