AUSTIN (KXAN) — New design considerations released by the Austin Transit Partnership Wednesday outline possible scope tweaks on the Project Connect mass transit system, including the possibility of a street level light rail system through downtown.

The considerations come four months after ATP board members opted to pause work on Project Connect’s light rail system to reconsider its scope and features amid burgeoning costs associated with the project. Back in April, officials confirmed costs of the light rail system were expected to nearly double, with project heads citing real estate, design changes and inflation levels as contributors.

The presentation provided a technical analysis of the downtown region, running from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard down south of Lady Bird Lake. The downtown region is defined as a “major driver” of the Project Connect light rail system, with officials noting in backup documents: “What we do Downtown influences the rest of the system.”

New design considerations floated by the Austin Transit Partnership Wednesday include a possible at-grade, or street level, light rail system running through downtown. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership)

Officials are weighing a simplified system version that would have the light rail running through downtown at street level, or “at-grade,” with possible elevated portions through certain regions. Under the original project scope, that region of downtown was expected to feature underground light rail services.

Greg Canally, executive director of ATP, told KXAN Thursday that grade scope is one of three main focus areas the ATP board is evaluating:

  • Can project heads simplify the underground light rail portion of the project, which is currently in the downtown corridor?
  • How do we minimize that downtown scope but still accomplish the goal of being underground?
  • In areas of Austin where underground portions weren’t originally planned, could those be added?

“When we look at underground, it’s an area to get through downtown,” he said. “But at the same time, it comes with some costs. Being at-grade comes with other issues as well, but also has a cost [benefit] factor.”

One of the areas not originally billed for underground light rail services was along South Congress Avenue. Now, that could be reconsidered along with other design elements.

Similarly, original plans denoted two light rail crossings across Lady Bird Lake; now, officials are weighing the possibility of one crossing to curtail crosses. With that comes the possibility of shorter train platforms as well as possible station site relocations to keep them at street level.

New design considerations floated by the Austin Transit Partnership Wednesday include the possible reduction from two Lady Bird Lake light rail crossings to one. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership)

Officials are also weighing out traffic access and how the possible at-grade light rail configuration would gel with those patterns.

“We want to have conversations about mobility choices, decisions about accessibility, about what we’re trying to connect for our accessible community,” he said, adding: “Everyone needs to see we’re working on lots of choices, lots of things we’re still working through. But we’re excited about moving this all forward in a very time way.”

Right now, ATP is in the technical data review phase, and will later analyze different opportunities and create plausible scenarios for proposed light rail options to see how they fit into the current landscape.

Additional community feedback opportunities will be conducted this winter. Those community opportunities will include both broader, communitywide feedback opportunities as well as zeroing in on targeted focus groups to get a pulse check from key priority populations, Canally added.

“Once we get through the New Year, just talking about choices and tradeoffs. But again, it’s really about getting the light rail done and progressing in a way that we’re going to hit the spring and we’re gonna keep moving and getting light rail implemented and built for Austin.”

The ATP Board, the CapMetro Board and Austin City Council approve the revised light rail scope in spring 2023. From there, ATP will complete its National Environmental Policy Act process with the newly-approved light rail scope in mind.