AUSTIN (KXAN) — In a joint meeting Tuesday afternoon, Austin City Council, the CapMetro board of directors and the Austin Transit Partnership board of directors officially adopted the first phase of Project Connect’s light rail program, paving the way for expanded transit services in the Texas capital.
“These great, generational programs do not happen overnight, do not happen in the blink of an eye and it takes every single one of us to make them happen,” said Veronica Castro de Barrera, chair of ATP’s board of directors, adding: “This board, this vision, this program will be treated with respect because it’s your hard-earned money.”
What will the first phase of light rail in Austin look like?
The adoption followed ATP’s announcement of its recommended Phase 1 light rail investment late last month, featuring an initial service route running from 38th Street to Oltorf Street in the south, as well as Yellow Jacket Lane in the southeast.
The now-approved first phase of light rail services will feature 9.8 miles’ worth of light rail services, covering 15 stations with an anticipated average ridership upwards of 28,500 users each day. The approved plan is expected to have a sticker price between $4.5 billion and $4.8 billion.
“We think this Phase 1 of Austin light rail meets all of those values of connectivity, of investing underutilized and underserved communities, and gets Austin moving on the vision of having a better transit future,” ATP Executive Director Greg Canally told KXAN last month.
Prior to the joint adoption Tuesday, Awais Azhar — chair of Project Connect’s community advisory committee — said he was proud of this option’s selection, noting the route would service the most people of color compared to the five options previously on the table.
Possible Phase 1 extensions could feature expanded services north toward Crestview and southeast to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, should budgeted costs allow. Following a Phase 1 implementation, future buildouts of the system earmarked include northbound toward the North Lamar Transit Center and southbound to Stassney Lane.
The road to light rail in Austin
Tuesday’s official adoption followed individual approvals of the recommended first phase of light rail made by Austin City Council, the CapMetro board of directors and ATP’s board of directors. It also followed a six-week-long community engagement process, where nearly 6,000 public comments were recorded.
The path toward Tuesday’s adoption didn’t come without hiccups. Nearly a year ago, ATP leadership announced in July 2022 a pause on light rail designs amid ballooning costs due to inflation, real estate cost spikes and design changes.
Just this year, two bills filed in both the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate could have sent the city back to voters to approve debt issuances related to Project Connect. Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a non-binding legal opinion that, while not absolute, called into question Project Connect’s financing structure.
Still, Canally told KXAN last month that the appetite for light rail remains strong in Austin. A popular response among Project Connect feedback forms, he said, was simple: Get started on building it.
“We’re really proud and excited about getting to represent Austin and represent the community on this major, major investment in our future,” he said.
Following Tuesday’s vote, Project Connect staff will move forward on planning and engineering efforts, as well as solidifying a draft environmental impact statement and financing plan that await federal approval.
It will be during that EIS draft process that federal transit officials will weigh in on possible funding opportunities. Project Connect staff have anticipated roughly half of the Phase 1 light rail plan’s costs will be covered courtesy federal dollars.