AUSTIN (KXAN) — Capital Metro could dig deep to try to reduce congestion on Austin roads. It released its latest Project Connect plan that it’ll officially present to Austin City Council on Monday.

The updated recommendations include light rail transit for the Orange and Blue lines. About 1.6 miles of the light rail will be underground in the downtown area.

The Orange Line would provide a north to south route from the North Lamar Transit Center along the North Lamar/Guadalupe corridor, through the University of Texas at Austin’s campus into downtown all the way south to Stassney Lane.

The Blue Line would carry riders to and from the airport to downtown.

Light Rail Concept (Source: CapMetro)

“The real thing people should take away from rail is we need very significant capacity to handle the size of the city we are and the size of the city we’re going to be,” said President and CEO of Cap Metro Randy Clarke.

Clarke explained, “We need to be able to move people like our big peer cities that have invested very significantly over the last 20 years. So the tunnel is to relieve downtown congestion, make it faster, faster transit, more reliable transit.”

Austin’s Underground Tunnel would feature retail, restaurants, a transit store and service center, and public restrooms. (Source: CapMetro)

Transit officials said the underground system will separate light rail from downtown traffic ensuring a faster and safer commute. It will also offer restaurants, retail and public restrooms.

The Regional Transportation Center Concept features mixed-use developments. (Source: CapMetro)

Digging under a developed downtown

When asked if it’s possible to dig and build a tunnel under a downtown as developed as Austin’s, The University of Texas at Austin Engineering Professor Chandra Bhat responded, “That’s a trick question. Is it possible? Absolutely.”

However, he said, “It’s a trick question because it can be quite expensive. In many of these tunnels, digging projects, there have been unexpected turns.”

Chair of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Bob Gilbert explained, “It is complicated. Things can go wrong, which is part of the cost. In Seattle, they were using a tunnel boring machine and it broke down right at the beginning, and it took them more than a year to fix it before they can start tunneling.”

Cap Metro told KXAN they don’t know yet if they’ll use a tunnel boring machine. They also said, “The methods for cut and cover vary depending on local conditions. We expect this method to be utilized in limited area in conjunction with traditional tunneling.”

At this time, Cap Metro said it’s too early to say which method will be utilized mainly to build the tunnel.

The agency also said, it’s looking at examples from cities, such as Washington D.C., Seattle and Pittsburgh.

The initial concept right now has the tunnel going under existing streets like Guadalupe, Trinity and 4th Street. That would minimize disruption to any existing building foundations.

Gilbert said when engineers designed a tunnel, “The first thing is we try to make sure we know where everything is, and then the second thing is we can work around what’s there. Sometimes, we can go deep enough, so we’re not running into existing infrastructure. Other times, we can change what’s there so we can move a utility line over if we needed, or we can move a foundation for the building. We can shift how it’s being supported if we need to, but generally we try to avoid it if at all possible.”

Cap Metro said Austin Chalk is ideal for tunneling. It’s a dense, hard, chalky limestone and can be found at various depths.

Both professors said considering how quickly the region is growing, the city needs a new way to move people quickly and efficiently.

Gilbert said, “We’re going to need trains. We’re going to need more buses. We’re going to need better direct routes to the airport. There’s just all sorts of needs we have right now, and this is one step in the right direction.”

John Langmore, Chairman of Transit for Austin, said if nothing changed, “I think traffic would be unbearable, and I’m certain that any employers contemplating moving here or having an event here 10-15 years from now, every one of them will second guess that decision if we don’t have something like Project Connect built between now and then.”

Other recommendations and costs

Other recommendations include a new line: the Gold Line. This will take riders from Austin Community College’s Highland campus through downtown with a stop at the Convention Center and Republic Square. It would be a Bus Rapid Transit line, which would run on a dedicated transit-only lane free from street traffic.

CapMetro is also expanding its Commuter Rail Service and adding new service.

The first phase of the Red Line adds two new stations at the Austin FC soccer stadium, adjacent to the Domain. The second phase of the project improves bus frequency and hours of service and add longer station platforms for increased train capacity.

A new commuter rail line would operate on existing freight track, the Green Line will connect neighborhoods throughout East Austin. The first phase runs from Downtown to Colony Park. The next phases go further east to Manor and possibly Elgin.

The plan also includes seven new MetroRapid routes, expanding the service and 14 new Park & Rides as well as a new neighborhood bus service known as a Circulator.

Phase 1 of the new MetroRapid routes includes the Expo Center and Pleasant Valley routes, as well as the southern extension of the 803 to Oak Hill and Menchaca. Phase 2 includes the Crosstown, MLK and ACC to Tech Ridge routes. Phase 3 includes the Parmer route.

CapMetro is also moving forward with all-electric, zero-emission vehicles as well as upgrades to stops, digital signage and safety lighting.

(Source: CapMetro)

The cost for this Project Connect plan is expected to be anywhere between $5 to $10 billion and CapMetro expects to receive federal funding to cover about 40%. The rest could be proposed in a bond later this year or a potential tax rate hike.