How much should it cost to ride Austin’s light rail?

Austin’s light rail system is still a long way from becoming a reality. The first trains will only start running in 2029 at the earliest.

But already, some people are worried about the cost of light rail. They don’t want Capital Metro to charge customers like the agency does for those taking the MetroRail commuter train.

A one-day local bus pass is $2.50. A day pass to ride MetroRail and the bus is $7.

“I think it will also encourage more commuters to use the rail system,” said Katherine Kay, a bus regular who often buys a 24-hour bus pass for $2.50. “Keep the rail system, the new one, up to date with bus prices.

Environmental justice group PODER has argued that light rail fares should be the same as bus fares not only to maintain ridership, but also to ensure those who rely on public transit the most can still afford it. allow.

“We are very concerned as this would be the first time the rail system would serve the Eastern Crescent, which is mostly made up of low-income and people of color,” said Susana Almanza, director of PODER.

She specifically referred to the blue linewhich will travel from the airport through southeast Austin, along Riverside Drive and into downtown.

An illustrated cross-section of a metro tunnel showing a CapMetro light rail vehicle traveling underground.

Austin Transit Partnership

Austin’s light rail plans include over four miles of subway tunneling through downtown and south Austin.

The other way, the orange linewill initially run from Stassney Lane to the North Lamar Transit Center.

“When that rail comes, we want to make sure everyone benefits,” Almanza said. “If it’s $2.50 for the bus, it should be $2.50 for the train. That’s equity.”

Currently, CapMetro does not do this. A day pass that includes the bus, commuter bus, and MetroRail costs $7. A single train ride costs $3.50. For local bus service, a day pass costs $2.50 and a single ride costs $1.25.

A blue and red MetroRail train on the tracks near Leander station.

MetroRail costs much more to operate than any other CapMetro service, but it is also much more subsidized than the bus.

Service users differ in income and demographics, CapMetro says traffic surveys. Of all CapMetro users, only 25% reported earning more than $30,000 per year. Nearly half of MetroRail riders earn over $60,000.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, 70% of MetroRail users are white. But white people make up about a third of MetroBus riders.

“Do we want to be an exclusive service just for high-income, predominantly white people? That’s who’s hitting the rails now,” Almanza said. “Or do we want to serve all of Austin and make sure we include low-income people and people of color.”

Many US transit agencies offering light rail service charge the same price to ride the bus. But some still have higher fares for local rail service.

Philadelphia Transit System charges $2.50 to take the bus or streetcar. In Portland, a fare of $2.50 will put you on a bus, light rail, or even a commuter rail, which tends to be more expensive on most transit systems, including Austin’s. New York City charges $2.75 for subway and bus.

Boston, on the other hand, charges $1.70 to take a local bus and $2.40 to take the subway. But daily, weekly and monthly passes include both metro and bus for one price.

A subway on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Red Line stopped at the Charles/MGH station.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority charges more for the subway than the bus.

“Whether [CapMetro officials] find that light rail operating costs are higher, they might feel like they need to raise fares on those modes,” said Alex Karner, an associate professor at UT Austin who studies transit systems. public transport. “I think that would be ill-advised.

A senior Capital Metro official revealed in A memo to the transit agency’s board of directors that planners assume that Austin light rail fares will cost the same as local bus service. But any decision would be made by the council.

“We view this as an equity approach and a similar strategy that peer transit systems are moving towards due to the similarities in the services provided,” wrote CapMetro’s executive vice president of finance, Catherine Walker, in the memo. “However, pricing and pricing structure are political decisions for CapMetro’s board to make.”

The agency decided to reduce the rates for those who would have the most difficulty affording them.

In two weeks, CapMetro’s board of directors will vote on the creation of a new reduced fare level. Equifare, as it’s called, would be for those earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level, which is $53,000 for a family of four. An Equifare day pass on the bus, for example, would cost $2 instead of $2.50.

CapMetro’s board will also vote on July 25 on whether to cap the amount people pay to ride the bus or train. Under the fare cap proposal, someone could board the bus for free after paying for the equivalent of a day pass in a single day or a monthly pass in a single month. But passengers could only take advantage of the fare cap by using a new payment card called Amp.

An illustration of the Amp map offered by CapMetro

Amp cards can be loaded with a credit card or by paying cash at 7/11, CVS, Walgreens, Family Dollar or Dollar General.

Equifare and rate caps have costs, but they are not astronomical. Capital Metro’s fares represent less than 3% of the agency’s income. Almost half of CapMetro’s money comes from a 1% local sales tax.

Jose P. Rogers