AUSTIN (KXAN) — Amid possible scope tweaks coming to the Austin area’s multi-billion-dollar Project Connect transit program, city and transit officials advocated for “future proofing” discussions that keep equity and regional program buildout in mind.
Earlier this month, the Austin Transit Partnership outlined possible design considerations for Project Connect’s light rail program, including possible simplified system versions that could include shorter tunnels or at-grade services, instead of underground.
None of the proposals are absolute as Project Connect officials are gathering public feedback and cost analyses before unveiling an upgraded plan next spring.
Amid these discussions, CapMetro board members and city officials stressed the need for equity-driven planning that takes into account communities that are more dependent on transit services, as well as those being driven further from the downtown core due to increased costs of living.
Austin City Council Member José “Chito” Vela referenced his district, which includes Rundberg Lane, as a high-need public transit sector of the city. Looking at current and past gentrification patterns, he said policymakers need to help ensure the light rail program doesn’t only serve downtown but really reaches underserved communities who need access to jobs and services in the city’s core.
CapMetro Board Chair Jeffrey Travillion said this discussion of the “first phasing” of the light rail — or the initial development of subway services — needs to incorporate low and moderate-income communities and concrete plans for the buildout of the Green Line, a future system building out east. Otherwise, he said the three entities are “blowing smoke” at constituents.
Project Connect officials paused work on the light rail program in July amid rising cost projections due to supply chain impacts, scope changes and increasingly expensive real estate. During this time, they’ve been gathering public feedback to weigh out a simplified version of the program while still delivering elements residents want.
Peter Mullan, ATP’s chief of architecture and urban design, said they’ll gauge public feedback through the wintertimes and regroup on possible scope options around March before a final decision is made by the three boards in the spring.
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison added that amid the city’s increasing costs of living, reanalyzing buildout after the “first phasing” will be integral as more communities are pushed further out. She added the three boards need to prioritize “future proofing” and the implications this project could have on residents who won’t be captured with the project’s $300 million in anti-displacement dollars.
CapMetro’s Interim CEO Dottie Watkins noted the transit authority serves at a regional capacity and are actively having these discussions as well.
Greg Canally, executive director of ATP, said this pause and reevaluation isn’t to stray away from what voters want but to optimize the plan under a phased implementation approach while making “informed, rigorous decisions.”
“These extra minutes of planning work will be valuable for you as officials, but also our community,” he said.