I was appalled by the sticker price for a tunnel to get rail part of the way north from the Hancock Center to the Highland Mall. This sticker price has come down: from a range of $230-290M to $220M. But it is still truly appalling: the capital costs for that short tunnel alone would be about twice the capital cost of the entire MetroRail system which is forcing a tunnel in the first place and more than 4 times the capital cost of the entire MetroRapid bus improvements that led planners to rule out a route west of the University. It would cost more than going from Travis Heights all the way to 15th Street, including a brand new signature rail/bike/pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake and tracks through dense downtown.
I wasn’t alone in being appalled. At a Transit Forum hosted by Austin Monitor and KUT, I asked a question of Council Member (and CapMetro board member) Mike Martinez on the Hancock tunnel via twitter, and he said that if we had to tunnel (as Project Connect says we must), the costs go up “exponentially.” Mayor Leffingwell has said in the press that he’d like to see the $1.4B price tag for the whole route be brought down to $1B. The Hancock tunnel is an obvious first place to cut. Many early supporters of Project Connect’s plans are now cautioning against including a Hancock tunnel on the ballot. And in project lead Kyle Keahey’s testimony, he sounded almost desperate to find a way to avoid the costs of a Hancock tunnel. Even if decision makers hold their noses and vote to advance the entire $1.4B project, there’s little reason to believe that voters will do the same in November.
In light of this setback, we have to rethink more than just the tunnel, but rather the entire northern segment of the urban rail. Originally, Highland was sold as a low-cost segment with room for growth in the Highland Mall redevelopment, the old Concordia site, and along the newly re-zoned Airport Blvd Transit Corridor. Whatever you thought about the potential for these destinations to encourage ridership on a rail line (and I was skeptical), rail reaches none of them without the tunnel. Instead, it would merely run along a street not designated as a Transit corridor, through a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes that have largely struggled against becoming another University-adjacent density hotspot like West Campus, and then come to an ignominious end at a golf course and an auto-oriented strip mall. Without the Hancock tunnel, the whole raison d’etre of this route goes away.
If that were all, that would be disappointing. A medium-cost, low-ridership train is not great. But this low-ridership segment of the route threatens far worse: it could make future rail plans with higher opportunity impossible. This has happened to Austin twice already. The low-ridership, low-cost MetroRail ended up badly hemming in this route, forcing a tunnel that cost twice as much as the system itself, something that few could’ve foreseen when MetroRail was being approved. The low-cost MetroRapid gave planners reason to fear placing this rail route along the city’s most productive transit corridor. A low-ridership segment from UT to Hancock could do immense damage to future flexibility in laying rail lines. Funding a rail line that hits a hard stop before it reaches its density could end up preventing funding for parallel rail lines along more dense parts of Austin as “duplicative.” And for what? Unless city planners have a secret plan to get rid of MetroRail, we will face the same high tunneling costs next time we look into extending rail. We will have essentially backed ourselves into a dead-end that will be very difficult and expensive to get out of. Even for those who believe that rail should go to Mueller, this would remove routing flexibility from any planning efforts.
The best thing for CCAG and City Council to do is say that, in light of the new information they have on the costs of the Hancock tunnel, they will forego a vote on the more controversial, risky, poorer-thought-out northern segment of the route, advance the southern segment on its own, and come back to revisit the question of the northern route later.