Project Connect Light Rail Estimate Rises to $10.3 Billion

Austin's Project Connect Light Rail system prototype | Image by Project Connect

The cost estimate for the proposed Project Connect light rail system in Austin has almost doubled from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, according to a memo issued by the program’s director, David Crouch.

In the memo, Crouch says the reasons for the increase include inflation, supply chain issues, higher labor costs, and a design flaw in the initial plans.

The design flaw in question centered on a bridge over Lady Bird Lake, which would have been a violation of a State Law known as the “Capitol View Corridor,” which requires the city to maintain a clear view of the Capitol Building.

Organizers have replaced the proposed bridge with a plan to create a tunnel under the lake. This change, along with other changes to the underground tunnel through downtown, has pushed the tunnel cost from $2 billion to $4.1 billion.

The project’s first phase consists of three parts: The Orange Line, which connects North Lamar to Stassney in South Austin; The Blue Line, which connects Lamar Transit Center to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport; and the transit center to be built downtown.

According to the Project Connect website, these projects should be completed by 2029.

Phase two includes the construction of the Green Line Commuter Rail, designed to complement the existing Red Line.

In 2020, Austin voters approved the initial plan for the project, which was primarily funded by a 20% increase in property tax rates.

The Project Connect Team comments in their memo that they intend to get the rest of the money from the federal Department of Transportation rather than from additional tax increases.

“Staff feel it is important to reiterate our working expectation that there will be no additional tax increase to support this program and that the parties will need to meet their commitment to voters to deliver this program with the allocated revenue sources,” the memo reads.

The Project Connect team also cites an increase in land valuation for the estimated cost increase.

The Travis County Appraisal Board recently issued a press release addressing land valuation increases.

“Reviews by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts have found that TCAD’s market values in recent years have been too low, particularly in areas of western Travis County.”

The result has been an average 56% increase in appraised value in the county, with the total roll raising 43% to $447 billion.

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