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Project Connect light rail and tunnel costs projected to nearly double

The initial cost projection was $5.8 billion, but new numbers add $4.5 billion to the cost of the Blue Line, Orange Line and underground tunnel.

AUSTIN, Texas — A new report from the Project Connect team shows the voter-approved light rail project in Austin will cost nearly double the initial projections.

Initially, the two light rail lines and underground tunnel were expected to cost $5.8 billion. But new cost projections add $4.5 billion, bringing the total to $10.3 billion.

The report says real estate, inflation and supply chain issues, and changes to the scope of the projects are the three cost drivers.

“The Project Connect program is not immune to the global and national economic pressures that everyone is feeling. Transit, airport, highway, utility, housing and commercial projects are all seeing cost increases. As you all know, Austin is experiencing these impacts at an even higher level than the national average due to the unprecedented growth we are experiencing,” Project Connect Program Officer David Couch wrote in the report to the Capital Metro board, Austin Transit Partnership Board and Austin City Council.

   

Proposition A, a property tax rate increase approved by Austin voters in November 2020, was to fund a $7.1 billion transit system, which included the light rail system, tunnels, rapid bus routes and more. The newly released projections only affect the light rail lines and tunnel, not the other elements of Project Connect that were approved by voters.

"As the cost estimates for the program change, there is not a requirement to change the tax rate that funds the program. Instead, changes in program costs could result in adjustments to project phasing to balance funding of construction and operations of the system. The Project Connect team remains fully committed to fulfilling the promise to build the program voters approved in November 2020," a CapMetro spokesperson said in a statement.  

Final cost estimates won’t be released until this summer when the project is at 30% design.

“We are also cautiously optimistic that the bipartisan approved infrastructure bill signed by President [Joe] Biden will result in a larger federal contribution and/or annual funding disbursement than originally assumed,” Couch wrote.

As designers have continued ironing out the details of the light rail lines, there has been a “significant increase in the number of affected parcels” as real estate values have increased in the Austin area.

The tunnel length has also increased from 1.56 miles to 4.19 miles because of long-term street closures, FEMA flood zones and other technical details, the report said. Initial plans indicated the overall tunneling cost would be $2 billion, but the new cost has increased to $4.1 billion. 

Credit: Project Connect Team
This chart was provided in an April 7, 2022 update to Capital Metro and Austin Transit Partnership board members as well as the Austin City Council.

A design update meeting this week revealed the Orange Line tunnel will need to be longer than expected because of state laws for protecting the view of the Texas Capitol. The Capitol View Corridor runs down South Congress Avenue to Live Oak Street.

The rules will make the tunnel at least 900 feet longer. In total, the extended portion will run from Third Street to Live Oak Street, adding at least $1.4 billion to the cost of the south portion of the Orange Line tunnel.

“To comply with state law, the first location the train can surface is south of that viewpoint,” Sofia Ojeda, Orange Line director of design, said during the meeting on Wednesday. “The current extended tunnel option is the only option that is currently permissible given the requirements of the [Capital View Corridor].”

The benefits of the longer tunnel, Ojeda said, are that it provides better transit efficiency, has few neighborhood impacts and provides for a more centralized underground South Congress station.

RELATED: CapMetro proposes big shift for Downtown Austin light rail tunnel

An additional $400 million is projected for the north portion of the Orange Line, bringing the projected total cost to $4.3 billion – up from the initial estimate of $2.5 billion.

The new design of the Orange Line tunnel is one of several that has been made public since design work began.

The original plans called for the tunnel to surface near Vic Mathias Shores, but that won’t work “due to technical constraints.” The next two but non-usable options presented last July, a short tunnel and a long tunnel, would have surfaced around Academy Street and Leland Street, respectively.

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