Earlier this year, the group overseeing Austin’s massive transit initiative, Project Connect, made an announcement: skyrocketing construction costs and the price of land would likely bring the price tag of the project up. The cost estimates for the light rail project, specifically, nearly doubled. Project leaders say they will not be asking taxpayers for another rate increase so they have some potentially tough decisions to make about how to move forward with the funding that’s available. KXAN investigators took a closer look at what this means for keeping the project on track.
AUSTIN (KXAN) – Max Bernhardt tries to spend as little time waiting for the train as possible. He lives within walking distance to two different Metro Rail stops, so if he times his trip just right, he only waits a couple of minutes for it to arrive – despite the train only coming every half an hour.
“It’s still pretty convenient for me to be able to get downtown,” he said.
He only takes the train on the weekends, for now, because it doesn’t get him any closer to his job during the week, but he’s looking forward to the day he can take a future transit system to other spots around the city.
“I’ve just seen too many examples of where transit has been really successful,” he said.
However, he is prepared to wait quite a bit longer before that happens here, after learning that at least the rail portion of Austin’s ongoing, massive transit initiative — Project Connect — is under review.
Pump the brakes
The Red Line that Bernhardt rides is a commuter train that runs out to Leander, stops near Q2 Stadium, snakes through neighborhoods on the east side of the city and stops outside the Austin Convention Center. It is currently the only rail option for Austinites.
In 2020, he and other voters overwhelmingly approved an increase to the city’s property tax rate, dedicating 8.75 cents per $100 of property valuation to Project Connect — a plan which included the construction of a second commuter train, two new light rail lines and an underground tunnel over the next dozen years.
Plus, Project Connect calls for four new Rapid Bus routes, additional circulator buses and millions of dollars in anti-displacement funding set aside to help home and business owners who might be affected by the development.
By April 2022, project leaders announced cost estimates for the light rail portion had jumped from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, due to the rising prices of acquiring land, construction costs and some design changes.
Leaders with the city, CapMetro and Austin Transit Partnership — the government corporation created to oversee the project — insisted they do not plan to ask taxpayers for another rate increase. So, they acknowledged this means the scope and even the timing of the project would likely have to change to fit the available funding.
The original plan for light rail had the Orange Line connecting south Austin to the other side of Lady Bird Lake, before going up through the center of downtown. The Blue Line would take riders from downtown out to the airport. Originally, project leaders projected these lines to be constructed and commissioned in the next 10 years. Now, these plans are under review.
At ATP’s September board meeting, staff presented a timeline for the next six months, outlining the light rail scope and sequencing review. The timeline included phases for community engagement and the development of different “scenarios” — targeting spring of 2023 to have an updated Light Rail Implementation Plan.
“No one said it was going to be easy,” Bernhardt said.
With his masters degree in Urban Planning from the University of Texas and a history of working with Denver’s transit system, Bernhardt said he understands this is a common phenomenon for engineering mega-projects.
“It’s to be expected that it’s going to be a massive undertaking, but at the same time, I think people really just want to see this get built,” he said.
Click on the timeline events below to read about milestones in Austin’s light rail history. Story continues below.
‘What moves first?’
Awais Azhar chairs the project’s Community Advisory Committee, a group of Austinites designated to give input on the project — especially about system features meant to serve people with disabilities or people who need to use the system in different ways.
He said while the committee has heard from many people who want to see the light rail built as quickly as possible, it’s also heard from others who are glad for the opportunity to give their input, as the project slows its pace for the next six months to review the light rail plan.
|Technical & Planning Review and Program Optimization||August – January 2023|
|Community Engagement/Community Criteria||September – January 2023|
|Funding Plan and Scenario Development||November – February 2023|
|Community Engagement & Feedback on Scenarios||February – April 2023|
|Updated Light Rail Implementation Plan||Spring 2023|
“I think we were moving at this breakneck speed — looking at design. We were very quickly zooming in, and I think this has allowed people to step back, look at the larger picture and see what this project means for their communities,” he said. “Looking at the process and seeing, how do we include more people? How do we give people the space to engage in this conversation?”
Azhar said his committee is also particularly interested in ensuring the plan and timeline for the project remains equitable, as decisions are made about where to start construction.
“Where equity really comes in is: what piece of the project gets prioritized? What moves first?” he said.
KXAN sat down with Greg Canally, Interim Executive Director of ATP, who agreed one of the biggest questions his organization faces is where to begin. He emphasized the project was always intended to be a nine to 11 year-long endeavor, but the group is reviewing how much of the original vision will actually be completed during that timeframe.
“All of the Austin light rail will have to be spread out over time, but the first investment will still occur in that initial window,“ he said. “So, as we determine what our first investment will be, we still think that is the right time period that we’ll be looking at.”
When asked whether any major pieces of the project could be removed from the plan, Canally didn’t directly give an answer, but pointed to the map of the project and said ATP was committed to investing in that plan.
Canally believes taking the time to make careful decisions now will pay off in the long run.
“Projects get into trouble when you rush them and you make rash decisions about them. The costs come at the end, when you’ve already started digging, and you’re finding things that you hadn’t thought. So, the time to do the work is now — the time to do this analysis,” he said. “Once we’re ready, we get to keep moving. From a financial perspective, I think that’s a much better place to be. You don’t want to be stuck with a project in the future. You’ve got to do the work now: be rigorous about it, be methodical about it.”
More than just a line on the map: design decisions being considered
ATP leaders said in addition to discussing the project’s sequencing, its engineers and experts have been scouring the project’s designs to look for cost savings.
The technical advisory committee gave a report to the board in September, outlining various “opportunities being explored” on the design and engineering side. These included:
- Simplifying the underground tunnel downtown
- Discussing where to elevate trains or keep them at surface level
- Connecting the Orange and Blue lines south of Lady Bird Lake to create a single river crossing
- Exploring modular construction strategies
Tyler Dick, an associate professor in the University of Texas Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, said these kinds of dilemmas and trade-offs are not surprising, as different construction options can drive the price up or down — and can extend or shorten the timeframe for building a project.
Types of Rail
- Commuter rail: Train operations between a central city, its suburbs or another central city; may be locomotive-hauled or self-propelled and using tracks that are often part of the general railroad system
- Light rail: an electric rail system with single cars or short trains generally carrying a lower volume of passengers
“When you look at initially estimating the cost for a system like this, you’re dealing with sometimes nothing more than a line on the map. You have to sort of estimate, based upon typical average costs for other systems. You know, what is the expected cost going to be in the future?” he said. “The difficulty of looking into the future and forecasting things: it’s just a real challenge for engineers across all types of projects.”
For example, project developers must decide where to build the rail at-grade, meaning surface level with existing traffic, or where to build in “grade separation” by either elevating the trains or taking the system underground. Dick says these options not only impact cost and efficiency of construction, but ultimately the experience for riders and other drivers on the road.
Dick said putting the trains at surface level is generally the base-line option in terms of cost and efficiency to build, but this route does pave the way for potential safety hazards and conflicts with existing road traffic.
Putting the rail line above city streets on elevated viaduct structures can eliminate some of the conflicts with existing traffic flow and ultimately allow for more efficient trips for riders. However, this option is not always feasible given existing buildings or development along the rail path. Dick said this option generally costs four to five times more to build than surface level trains.
Taking trains underground can provide the most efficient trips for riders in the long run, he said. However, he added that while this option allows project developers to avoid many of the conflicts common with the other two options, tunneling underground does come with a level of risk and uncertainty. Plus, Dick said the cost could reach seven to 10 times more per mile than a surface level option.
A portion of the overall increased cost estimates announced in April were credited to design changes for the underground portion of the project. Initially, the tunnel was supposed to be 1.56 miles, but updated designs instead eyed a 4.19 mile tunnel, featuring new underground stations and a pedestrian concourse. The cost estimate for this piece of the project effectively doubled, adding $2.1 billion to an already $2 billion price tag.
Canally told KXAN those expanded plans for the underground section are now being reconsidered.
“So that’s the work we’re doing now: going back and looking at — looking at the cost and looking at the extents of that underground, to see if we can look at simpler options for that — to still preserve that,” he said.
He also mentioned reviewing different grade options at other locations.
Back in the spring, Project Connect leaders also floated the idea of an elevated structure at the Crestview Station, where the planned Orange light rail line will ultimately converge on the existing Red Line at Lamar Boulevard. Around the same time, ATP leaders presented various scenarios for where and how to cross over Lady Bird Lake.
Another choice for designers, Dick explained, is whether to use a modular construction model with similar station designs across the city — “like Lego building blocks on the project” — or to opt for custom station designs for specific stops. While modular construction obviously offers the benefits of efficiency and general cost savings, he touted the effects of custom designs on ridership and user experience.
“It’s very similar to if you’re looking at building or buying a home: do you come up with the set floorplan? Or do you have an architect design a brand-new custom home for you that’s unlike any other one?” he said.
Many rail systems, according to Dick, feature some combination of the above options, in order to deliver the best possible service for a specific location or area at the best price.
“You always want to provide the best solution, right? The most economical solution for the conditions at hand and the service required,” he said.
How does Austin compare?
Dick said this is why most projects opt for phased approach. He saw it work well as an engineering consultant in the Dallas-Forth Worth metroplex with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, or DART.
DART was created in 1983 and funded through a sales tax levied in cities in the area. With around a dozen cities benefitting, the system now features four light rail lines, several commuter lines and city buses. The light rail lines alone run for more than 90 miles across the service area, but when the project was originally pitched, it called for more than 150 miles of light rail. The plans were pared down several times before construction began, and before the first 20 miles opened in 1996. The system has been expanded several times in the years since, and currently features the longest light rail system in the country.
Dick described the approach this way: “What’s the minimum investment required to get the system operating to get a critical mass — to sort of test the market — to see if people are going to ride this, and then expanded afterwards.”
In 2008, Valley Metro Rail opened a single, 20-mile light rail line serving the cities of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa in Arizona. The system has been expanded twice already, and now reaches 28.2 miles. Plans for more expansions are currently ongoing.
By comparison, Denver’s first light rail line opened in 1994 with just 5.3 miles, but now its system features eight different light rail lines. With its additional four commuter lines, the system spans more than 100 miles in total.
Dick told KXAN Denver had a “very similar plan” to what was being proposed in Austin, with a mixture of multiple types of rail projects to be built in very compressed timeframe.
“One of the advantages that Denver had is they had many existing freight rail corridors, that were either still in service or had been abandoned,” he explained. “So, when they went to develop a lot of those lines, they had existing corridors to build along. That made it easier and less expensive for them to develop certain parts of their system. It was one of the reasons that ultimately, you know, it came in closer to the budget and plan than a lot of other previous systems out there.”
Denver’s project faced some critique from transit experts saying this approach led its rail lines going “around the city,” meaning it doesn’t serve as many people as it could.
Max Bernhardt said he saw those critiques made in real-time when he worked there.
“What you ended up having in Denver was that the areas that were underserved by roadways were also transit deserts,” he said. “Ideally, transit is supposed to help plug those gaps in the system.”
He thinks Austin’s current map and plan will avoid this particular pitfall by traveling straight through densely populated downtown and offering options for other parts of the city. However, he hopes ATP will start to communicate more as the light rail review process and other parts of the project move forward.
“My ask is that they educate the public a little bit more on potentially some of the red tape that might be holding these sorts of things up and prevents them from moving forward with the work that can get done right now,” he said.
Bernhardt said that roadblocks often arise on projects of this size when trying to meet federal and environmental regulations, and Canally echoed this point when talking to KXAN.
Canally said part of that work being done right now involves Project Connect “turning in its homework” to the Federal Transportation Administration in order to receive grants and funding moving forward.
“It’s a test of the federal government to make sure that we have very thoughtful financial tests in place,” he explained.
Full steam ahead
Azhar said he thinks most people don’t realize how much of the project will be unaffected by the ongoing light rail review — and how much work is already happening.
“Light rail is perhaps one-fifth of what the project is. For us, right, some of the most equitable pieces are some of those other things,” he said, referring to the millions of dollars in anti-displacement funding and the addition of four new MetroRapid bus routes.
“This is not just your local bus line — this is frequent service, better service. There will be new shelters, and so on, and so forth. So, a lot of things that those communities have lacked, we are at last going to make amends and provide those services,” Ahzar said.
He pointed to two lines in particular, connecting parts of south and east Austin, where construction has already begun.
A spokesperson for CapMetro, which is overseeing this part of Project Connect, added some additions and enhancements to the existing Red Line will be ready as soon as this month. The spokesperson noted this will mark the first project completed as part of the Project Connect program and says it will “immediately benefit riders today.”
Still, Canally recognizes many people are excited about the light rail project in particular.
“It’s a long project, but the citizens will see activity quickly once we get a decision made,” he said of the targeted spring 2023 update. “A lot of things in this town sometimes take an extra hour or two to get done, but I think Austin comes together really well on big projects and big efforts. At the end of this we’re going to have a great success.”
Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artists Rachel Gale and Aileen Hernandez, Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Transportation Digital Reporter Kelsey Thompson and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.