AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin’s Project Connect light rail program gears up for its federal funding and environmental processes, area transit leaders gathered Sunday to reflect on the past year of transportation developments.

Voters approved the multi-billion-dollar Project Connect program in November 2020, with one of its primary appeals being its light rail system. After nearly a year’s worth of route reviews, scope scale backs and public feedback, the City of Austin, Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) and CapMetro adopted phase one of light rail plans in June.

On Sunday, transportation nonprofit Transit Forward and urbanist organization AURA hosted an event to reflect on the past year of mass transit developments. At that press conference, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said the path toward light rail has been one decades in the making, highlighting a first — and failed — ballot initiative to approve it in 2000.

That initiative failed by less than 2,000 votes he said. The best time to pass rail in Austin, Watson said, was in 2000; the second best time to build is now.

“This is a defining moment for Austin, Texas,” Watson said.

But this “defining moment” hasn’t been without its challenges.

State Rep. John Bucy reflected on efforts in the Texas Legislature’s 88th regular session to derail Project Connect. House Bill 3899, also referred to as the “No Blank Checks” bill, aimed “to ensure local government corporations in Texas follow the same rules as cities and counties when issuing debt backed by property taxes,” a release during session read. It ultimately died and didn’t pass.

“I’m a proud supporter of Project Connect and will continue to fight for it and more robust public transportation for our community,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett echoed those same sentiments, adding that honing in on mass transit initiatives is especially vital now from an environmental standpoint. As Project Connect moves forward on its electrified bus and rail efforts and the City of Austin pursues its Climate Equity Plan goals, he said it’s a critical opportunity to ease greenhouse gas emissions will improving mobility in the region.

“The work that we’re doing today is work that will spur economic development and connect us to a safer and cleaner Austin and a cleaner planet,” he said. “So I’m in favor of transit forwarding together here in Central Texas for a future that has more accessible transportation options, and less fossil fuels and less fossilized thinking.”

Later this week, he said he’ll be meeting with representatives from ATP to discuss that federal funding process. ATP leaders are eyeing roughly 50% of light rail funding to come via federal dollars, with a two-year-long competitive process ahead of them.

On the user front, transit rider Frances Jordan said it’s imperative to remember there are many Central Texans who are dependent on connective, reliable and efficient mass transit services for their everyday commutes and needs. Mass transit, she said, is the only way to minimize carbon emissions and help meet the city’s climate-centric goals while working toward a more sustainable future for Austin.

Not only that, but she said in order for Austin to best serve its current residents and maximize appeal to potential future ones, it needs to embrace mass transit as a more equitable and cost-effective system.

“Austin is full of opportunities,” Jordan said. “If it wants to compete with other large and diverse cities in the country, we must seize the moment to create a place where a better transit system is a reality.”