Shocking New Sticker Price Takes Highland Route from Bad to Appalling

When I compared Urban Rail corridors a few months back, my findings were pretty straightforward: the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, including a growth-crazy West Campus, along with the Riverside subcorridor, would both have crazy high ridership.  Highland was middling at best, and only scored highly under the strange rules PC decided to use. Despite the main objection to it – that it would make it more difficult to come back later and ask for money for the powerhouse Guadalupe-Lamar corridor – few thought that it would in itself be a major cost driver as an addition to a Riverside-UT route.

No longer.  Project Connect has unveiled the price tags on the Highland subcorridor and they are jaw-dropping.  What was originally conceived of–and sold to the public–as a cheap project will contain a tunnel priced at either $230M or $290M in order to avoid a rail-rail intersection between urban rail and the existing MetroRail.

Cost Comparison 1

This project goes:

  • 3.1 miles from Riverside and Grove to Travis Heights
  • across the river on a brand new purpose-built bridge at Trinity ($75M)
  • 1.4 miles through dense downtown traffic ($100M)
  • 1 mile through the dense university setting
  • 3 miles up Red River
  • 8 blocks from Red River to Airport ($230-290M)
  • A final jaunt to Highland Mall

In that long route, about half of the entire project’s cost may come from that tiny 8 neighborhood blocks from Red River to Airport.  Half for 8 blocks, and the other half for 8 miles that includes a river crossing, a major university, and a major downtown!  Madness! [See update below.]

Comparison 2

$230M (let alone $290M) is the cost of the entire MetroRapid bus upgrade ($47M) and the entire 32 mile-long MetroRail project ($120M) put together, with tens of millions to spare.  We could have dedicated bus lanes all over the city, a whole network of efficient, traffic-proofed transit, for the cost of one measly rail tunnel out in a not-particularly-dense part of town.

It is precisely because I am a transit advocate who is personally transit-dependent that I am so appalled by these numbers. It is not the fact that this project is expensive; all infrastructure is pretty expensive.  It’s the fact that the project so wastefully spends our very rare transit dollars.  $230M is real money that could be going toward real infrastructure around the city!

Two caveats here: 1) Project Connect says that these numbers are still being refined, and 2) I have yet to see a number released for what would be necessary if they ran buses instead of rail (possibly much, much cheaper, because they’re eliminating the rail-rail intersection).

But if this is what it looks like, it just looks like Austin’s rail plans have hit a major snag.  If it’s going to cost $230M+ to extend this rail line so that it hits Highland Mall, the only reasonable course of action is: don’t do it.  Connecting the new ACC would be nice for $10M.  For $30M, that’s stretching it.  For $230M, that’s crazy talk.


In the comments, Novacek and Lyndon Henry give better cost estimates.  The total cost per both of their estimates comes to just about $1B, leaving the rail tunnel to be about a quarter of the cost, not a half.  I’m still struck by how, at the beginning of the process we were told that the Highland route was the ultimate low-cost and the Riverside route the ultimate high cost.  Instead, we’re seeing that inverted.  Riverside is looking low cost, even including a brand-new bridge, and Highland very high cost.

17 thoughts on “Shocking New Sticker Price Takes Highland Route from Bad to Appalling

  1. I don’t think your numbers add up.

    None of your bulleted points are free, and their cost needs to be included as well.

    3.1 miles from Riverside and Grove to Travis Heights (195 million)
    1 mile through the dense university setting (65 million)
    3 miles up Red River (195 million)
    A final jaunt to Highland Mall (65 Million)

    I’m using the 65 Million /per mile lower bounds estimate.

    So the tunnel isn’t half the cost, it’s closer to a quarter.

    Now, whether it makes sense or not is a different discussion.

    >> Connecting the new ACC would be nice for $10M. For $30M, that’s stretching it.
    Both of those are _completely_ unrealistic. Even absent any tunnel, Highland to the southern tip of Hancock is 2.5 miles. Adding that length was _always_ going to cost at least 162 million. Highland to campus (closer to 4 miles) was always going to be at least $250 Million.

      1. Using the numbers above, and 75 for a bridge and the lower 230 tunnel, I get 925 total. Obviously those are very rough, but I’d expect a number around there. Presumably half from the feds or this thing is dead in the water, so ~500 million local money. A lot, but less than we just approved for a school district with _dropping_ enrollment (AISD).

  2. Here’s a cost tally based on the data from Project Connect’s controversial CAMPO 2040 prep document input plus other info. (The CAMPO 2040 costs may be a bit on the conservative side.)

    Riverside-Pleasant Valley $216.0mn
    New river bridge $75.0mn
    Lady Bird Lake-Hancock $275.0mn
    Tunnel $290.0mn (assumes need for Hancock interchange stn with MetroRail)
    Hancock-Highland $91.4mn
    TOTAL = $947.4mn

    Might shave a bit off the Hancock-Highland cost since there may be overlap with the tunnel. But still in the $900mn range. If no Hancock interchange station, then reduce by $60mn and drop cost down to $830mn.

    For about 8 mi of route, unit cost would seem to fall in the range of $104-$112mn per mile (including rolling stock, maintenance facilities, etc.).

    In comparison, I calculate 2014 cost of the 2000 LRT plan (from McNeil to CBD via rail ROW, N. Lamar, Guadalupe, plus S. Congress to Ben While) at $1,226.4mn for 18 miles, or about $68mn/mile. But that route was designed to travel along Austin’s central axis through the heart of the city, serving a very busy commercial corridor and the very dense West Campus, plus the busy S. Congress commercial corridor and adjacent neighborhoods. Ridership was projected at roughly 50,000 per day (2025).

    So to sum up: Austin voters would be asked to approve most of a billion bucks to pay for a Rube Goldberg-style route that goes from East Riverside “Apartment City” area, through east side of downtown, through “weak” lower-density East Campus, up Red River to Hancock. then up Airport Blvd. to Highland/ACC. Seems like quite a long shot to me.

    L. Henry

    1. In comparison, I calculate 2014 cost of the 2000 LRT plan at $1,226.4mn for 18 miles, or about $68mn/mile.

      However, that route included _major_ lane reductions (which this plan seems to be taking major pains to avoid, hence the tunnels) as well as presumably ripping out the entirety of the freight rail (I’m still not sure what the plan was for the orphaned freight rail users).

      1. Traffic lanes for urban rail:

        From my perspective as a transit advocate, I’d interpret reallocating street lanes from personal cars to public transit, rail or bus, as a capacity EXPANSION, not a “reduction”. It’s important for those who support improvement and expansion of public transit in Austin to understand this. You’re significantly EXPANDING the peak person-movement capacity of the street lane with transit, particularly rail in a dedicated alignment.

        Reallocation of street traffic lanes from cars to urban rail has been a crucial feature of new light rail systems in San Diego, Sacramento, San Jose, Portland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Houston, and Phoenix. And I’m probably missing several more.

        Impact on freight operations:

        I don’t see that Project Connect’s plans, tunnel or otherwise, would affect freight operations. A major rationale of Capital Metro’s retrofit of its Stader DMUs to meet FRA CFR 49 compliance standards has been to permit joint operation of MetroRail with freight rail without disruptions of either service. CapMetro seems to have plans to continue freight operations well into the foreseeable future.


      2. “I don’t see that Project Connect’s plans, tunnel or otherwise, would affect freight operations. ”

        The current plan, no. I meant the 2000 plan you were referring to, which included running in the freight corridor up to McNeil. I’m assuming that required removing the freight lines.

        “From my perspective as a transit advocate, I’d interpret reallocating street lanes from personal cars to public transit, rail or bus, as a capacity EXPANSION, not a “reduction”. ”

        I’m not claiming that it’s not worth it, but _politically_ its harder to push. With this new route, I’ve heard people expressing concerns about removing lanes from a couple blocks of red river. Removing half to three quarters of the entirety of Guadalupe is even harder to sell.

      1. Urban rail-MetroRail transfer:

        Well, I was assuming the long-proposed notion of a “cross-platform” (or equivalent) station stop at Hancock. A stop at the SW corner of Red River and the Hancock site, with about 4 walking blocks from the Red Line, doesn’t count.


      2. 4 blocks isn’t a transfer, no. But proper placement of the terminal station at highland still allows transfer to/from the red line at much less than 4 blocks. True, it constrains the placement of the terminal line/station. That’s the advantage of a new interchange (with the con of added expense).

  3. They’ll stop at Hancock on the Red River side. Close enough to Mueller. Was always the plan. They’ll add a leg later to Mueller. No tunnel needed for now at Hancock. Forgetabout Highland.

    1. Price from above:

      Riverside-Pleasant Valley $216.0mn
      New river bridge $75.0mn
      Lady Bird Lake-Hancock $275.0mn

      Will be just right for what the voters can bear, get ’em on the hook for the big bucks later.

      1. So, will voters actually swallow a $566mn project proposal (with close to $300mn in bond financing, or more) for a line from the old Hancock Center area, down Red River and then through the weaker, lower-density, “quiet” East Campus, through the east side of downtown, across the river, and over to “Apartment City” on East Riverside? Is this a route most Austin voters can relate to? Anything can happen, but I’m still skeptical.


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