AUSTIN (KXAN) — A light rail bridge crossing Lady Bird Lake? That’s a key tenet of Austin’s upcoming multi-billion-dollar transit overhaul courtesy Project Connect.

On Tuesday, community stakeholders outlined two design proposals for the bridge, set to host the blue line light rail services. The 8.2 mile light rail transit corridor will run from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to the Republic Square in downtown Austin, before connecting with the orange line to extend services north.

Under current design considerations, community members will weigh in as to whether the Lady Bird Lake Bridge will provide strictly light rail operations, or add on a separate guideway to run buses across the lake.

Option A: Light rail services with pedestrian, bike facilities

This proposal would include a light rail track for the blue line in addition to a shared use path for pedestrians and bicyclists. The light rail would travel through a downtown tunnel before crossing the blue line bridge at Lady Bird Lake.

Preliminary cost estimates anticipate this version would cost approximately $150 million. These costs are not finalized and still pending design considerations.

Option B: Light rail, bus services with pedestrian, bike facilities

Option B would feature a guided pathway that runs above the bridge for bus services, with a separate designated corridor for the light rail. Additionally, the proposed designs feature a shared-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists.

If approved, buses would travel along Trinity Street and cross Lady Bird Lake along the dedicated guideway. Preliminary cost estimates for the combined light rail and bus services option are reported at $210 million.

What do residents, community members want to see from the Lady Bird Lake Bridge?

Tuesday’s design meeting on the Lady Bird Lake Bridge is the second one Project Connect officials have held. In October, members of the public shared input on design proposals and key features they’d like to see from the transit bridge.

“They were excited about the possibility of this bridge and everything that it could be, and the ways in which it could become a place — the new gathering place for Austinites,” said Peter Mullan, chief of architecture and urban design for Austin Transit Partnership.

It was during this design meeting and feedback forum, Mullan said, that the idea of a potential bus line along the bridge surfaced. At issue: Could this bridge have the ability to carry buses, along with the light rail, pedestrians and cyclist paths?

“We’re really testing the feasibility of the bridge with these two different options and the core differences,” he said. “We studied having them share the same guideway and operationally, it really doesn’t work. We don’t actually get that much out of [a combined light rail and bus pathway]. So they would be in two separate, dedicated guideways.”

On Tuesday, Mullan and fellow Project Connect leaders presented findings from this analysis to the public, as well as some of the pros and cons that might accompany each option.

While program heads don’t have a specific stance on whether to go with Option A or Option B, there could be some bus route access and frequency concerns if bus services aren’t incorporated into the bridge design, said Dottie Watkins, deputy CEO of CapMetro.

“Not doing this [option] does provide some challenges for our bus users. So if we were to determine that we were going to preclude buses from using the Lady Bird Lake Bridge, then that means that we will have some destinations that we can’t serve well by bus, and our bus riders would likely see increased travel times as we try to cram everything across the other crossings,” she said.

Project Connect leaders haven’t identified specific bus routes that would run over the bridge, should that design option be selected, Mullan said. However, he said team members have identified a north-south corridor along Trinity and San Jacinto streets that, if this bus option is chosen, could bring buses in from the east to feed into these two roadways and transit corridors.

“I think there’s a transit planning opportunity here for us that we could take advantage of,” Mullan said. “Certainly, there are going to be some cost considerations and in everything we do, we have to keep that in mind. You know, that’s our responsibility to the community and the voters as well.”

Earlier this month, Project Connect leaders said light rail services would likely cost almost double the original estimated amount, increasing from an estimated $5.8 billion to a projected $10.3 billion. Mullan reiterated taxes will not be increased to implement the light rail projects.

“One of the tools in our cost management toolkit is time, right? And so how we build out the system over times does have an impact on the overall project cost,” he said. “And it’s one way in which we can manage the overall project cost.”

Project Connect officials attributed increased light rail cost projections to inflation, increased costs for real estate and right of way acquisition and program scope changes following community input, such as the subway’s length.

During an attendee feedback portion of Tuesday evening’s meeting, viewers listed their biggest pros and cons for each option. Common feedback for the strictly light rail option includes:

  • Benefits:
    • Pedestrian and bicycle path access
    • Cheaper project costs
    • Faster construction timeline
    • Concise, more elegant design
    • Trail connectivity
  • Drawbacks:
    • Lack of buses
    • Congestion on downtown roadways due to lack of bus crossings via bridge
    • More expensive
    • Noise concerns for pedestrians, neighboring residences and businesses

As for the second option that includes light rail and bus services, these were popular comments received:

  • Benefits:
    • Equity, more accessibility to multiple transit modes
    • Increased access to and frequency of public transit to and from downtown
    • Reducing traffic volumes along Interstate 35
    • Helps provide increased transit options for growing population
  • Drawbacks:
    • More complex design
    • Concerns about cars trying to enter bus guideway
    • Longer construction timeline
    • More expensive
    • More buses entering downtown might cause more congestion on other roads

Other comments received included concerns from the City of Austin’s Housing Authority over its Lakeside Apartments, located along Trinity Street. The 160-plus housing unit services lower-income families and older residents, and representatives shared concerns about the effects increased construction and congestion could have on these communities.

Likewise, residents from the Rainey Street area shared their hesitations over a high-volume project passing near a small, densely populated region of downtown Austin and the impacts the line could have on residents and businesses there.

What are some potential benefits to the downtown corridor via the Lady Bird Lake Bridge?

At the October public interest meeting on the Lady Bird Lake Bridge, Mullan referenced the “metaphorical” symbolism of bridges as a community connector and placemaking staple. With these designs, he said he hopes these same ideals manifest in creating better connection, and instilling even closer community bonds, among residents.

“I think the bridge is sort of this great big symbol of that — you know, stitching two sides of the city together, giving it a human scale,” Mullan said. “We’ve got the ability to connect the South Shore and the North Shore and these growing neighborhoods in a new way that, you know, I think is very exciting and actually will make this city feel smaller and more connected.”

What are the next steps for the Lady Bird Lake Bridge?

This summer, Project Connect leaders will release 30% design and cost estimates, to give a better — albeit still preliminary — gauge of the project’s proceedings. Community engagement will continue beyond this summer, Mullan said, with key decisions on the program expected to be made by the end of this year.

In June, Mullan said staff will submit their preferred bridge design option to the Federal Transit Administration for review.

As for other related community events coming down the pipeline, the Austin Transit Partnership will cohost with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department a community update meeting on the Waller Creek Boathouse. The latest updates from January outlined six potential relocation sites for the PARD-owned boathouse and its tenants, including the Austin Rowing Club.