DALLAS – Austin is considering a plan to lease its airport to finance a light rail system, a move that would allow the Texas capital city to bypass bonds for an inaugural 5.5-mile transit line.
In sketching out the plan that has been under discussion in recent months, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Austin could net about $600 million after paying off the outstanding $200 million debt for the airport.
“We’re trying to find some way to fund part of a mass transit system sometime in 2014,” Leffingwell told the Austin American-Statesman. The proposal is expected to come up for discussion at the May 9 Austin City Council meeting.
A spokeswoman for the city said details of the proposal have not been formulated.
Attempts to fund an initial 5.5-mile urban rail line have been thwarted by economic events and uncertainty over federal funding. The airport proposal could allow the city to circumvent the federal funding issues.
Leffingwell had hoped to call for a $275 million general obligation bond vote for light rail in 2012, but the city council decided to put $400 million for other city projects on the ballot. Voters approved those bonds in November.
A Delta Airlines pilot for 31 years, Leffingwell ran for mayor in 2009 on a platform calling for urban rail in Austin, but declined to include it in a $90 million street and road bond package approved in November 2010.
Voters narrowly rejected a light-rail line in 2000 that would have traveled the most congested north-south corridors of the city, including the Capitol complex and the University of Texas.
Officials are now considering a light-rail bond proposal for May 2014 or November 2014.
Leffingwell told the newspaper that a bond election might not be necessary if the city leases the airport but that a referendum on the rail system would still be required.
Among the numerous considerations for such a move are federal laws restricting the use of most airport revenues to aviation needs.
The city has continued to develop the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, breaking ground this week on a $155 million rental-car facility financed with taxable revenue bonds.
While Austin’s general obligation bond rating is triple-A across the board, the rental-car bonds were rated A-minus by Standard & Poor’s, Baa1 by Moody’s Investors Service and BBB-plus by Fitch Ratings. Outlooks are stable.
Opened for service in 1999 at the site of the former Bergstrom Air Force Base in Southeast Austin, ABIA generates a $2.4 billion economic impact to the Austin area annually, according to city estimates.
ABIA replaced the old Mueller Airport, whose site has been redeveloped. A proposal for the inaugural rail line would connect the Mueller site to downtown Austin.