City staff last May released what at the time was supposed to be the final take on that first segment, 5.5 miles at a cost of $550 million running from Fourth Street downtown to Mueller, passing through the Capitol complex and the University of Texas along the way.
While finding the money to build urban rail is a challenge — the complete system would be several times longer than what the officials have proposed for this first election — the city at least has the flexibility to ask voters to devote a portion of property taxes to pay off bonds. And the Federal Transit Administration does have some money to help cities build rail systems, although the competition is fierce and 39 cities are ahead of Austin in line asking for that money.
The perhaps more vexing problem is what comes after the ribbon-cutting: an open-ended, multimillion-dollar annual commitment locally to cover operations and maintenance costs. Transit fares typically cover only 5 to 20 percent of the cost, leaving the rest to come from taxes or other sources.
Capital Metro officials, looking at the next several years, have said paying for its current bus and MetroRail operations will require all of what it takes in from the agency's 1 percent sales tax. That levy is as high as state law allows.
Even so, Leffingwell said last week that Capital Metro's sales tax might be a source of operating money. He also cited toll revenue from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, although that agency has so far shown no inclination to divert its still modest toll surpluses to transit.
Or the city could create so-called tax-increment financing districts associated with rail, he said, dedicating property tax revenue to its operations, or a "public improvement district" as exists downtown now. That district levies a property tax on downtown property owners. Others have said that the private sector could somehow help. None of this has evolved into a specific plan.
Despite all the delays, City Council Member Bill Spelman said the answers are findable.
"My guess is that our funding difficulties are greater here than in other places" that have electric-rail systems like Dallas, Denver and Salt Lake City, Spelman said, because of state limits on both Capital Metro and city sales taxes. "But we can figure it out, and I think we are closer to figuring it out than we were."
A 2014 election is more likely than the track record would suggest, Spelman said.
"In the absence of the promise by the mayor, I'd say maybe, maybe not," he said. "But the mayor is very careful about his promises."
A bigger picture
Leffingwell in fall 2011 reconvened Wynn's transit working group, this time with the broader mission of crafting an overall transit plan for Central Texas in conjunction with a joint city and Capital Metro effort called Project Connect. The group of about 20, chaired by Leffingwell, met more or less weekly until June last year. The fruit of this $760,000 process (the city covered $660,000 of that) was a "vision" map showing a network of urban rail, commuter rail (linking Austin to San Antonio, Georgetown, Taylor and Elgin), "rapid" bus routes and express toll lanes on major highways where buses theoretically could move faster and more dependably than they do now.
Building all of it would take decades and, while no official estimate exists, several billion dollars.
The point was to put urban rail in a larger and more favorable context. Political and business support for the plan had been weak, officials say, because the proposed system was focused on the city's core and thus unlikely to meaningfully affect freeway congestion.
"Without some context, urban rail doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Spelman said. "But the value in the short-range connection is it makes the long-range connections from commuter rail and bus rapid transit work. We needed to bring into the foreground that this is about a whole system, not about connecting Mueller to downtown."
The city Transportation Department and its consultants, meanwhile, are busy again looking for those elusive answers. Karla Villalon, a spokeswoman for the department, said a detailed ridership estimate should be complete by spring, along with more detailed estimates for capital and operating costs.