AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin transportation leaders discussed Wednesday updates to Project Connect’s light rail program, after officials flagged possible scope changes last month due to rising inflation costs.
At the Austin Transit Partnership’s July meeting, ATP officials said they anticipated “costs will continue on an upward trajectory above the projections laid out in April.” Estimates for Project Connect’s light rail components — originally budgeted at $5.8 billion — had increased to a projected $10.3 billion under 15% cost and design estimates.
Officials said in July they are working on “re-envisioning the project scope/sequencing” to avoid program cost hikes. Officials have said on record they do not plan to increase the voter-approved tax rate used to fund the program, instead turning to sequencing alternatives to stagger the program’s launch.
On Wednesday, board members said they are continuing to work with outside resources on independent cost estimates for the light rail’s 30% design and cost elements, building in some cost escalation factors based on some of the current inflation levels, as well as natural cost increases over time.
ATP Executive Director Greg Canally previously told KXAN in July rising cost estimates are related to increased inflation rates and construction costs impacting projects nationally.
“Because of the costs, we have to kind of change some of our priorities and the timing of everything,” he told KXAN in July, adding: “It’s very technically driven, financially driven, but most importantly, it has to be community driven.”
ATP Board Member Jeffrey Travillion added Wednesday that his priority for the program is that the technical elements are in place to deliver on the light rail plans. He said cost estimates naturally fluctuate between a program’s proposal and buildout, but added it’s important that the technical elements are secure and community members are kept up-to-date on any changes or updates.
“I want to know what I’m buying and what it’ll take to execute that,” Travillion said.
Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, project staff met with the city’s mobility committee, CapMetro’s joint planning and operations committee as well as its community advisory committee on the light rail implementation plan.
Officials are holding a series of project development workshops this week and considered a host of options to reimagine the light rail program, including a more simplified underground tunnel track and which areas of the light rail will be elevated or at-grade with the ground.
Officials said they will plan to provide monthly presentations to the board and discuss current pulse checks on key elements of the program and which design elements they’re leaning toward, based on the technical and community feedback.
Project Connect officials are also coordinating with the Federal Transit Administration on possible grant options, updates on the light rail program’s development and compliance with national environmental standards. Project development will continue in the fall through the spring, which will include both technical and community check-in opportunities.
Project Connect leaders are expected to present an updated light rail implementation plan in spring 2023. Work on other features of Project Connect, including its bus projects and anti-displacement funding efforts, are continuing as planned.
KXAN will be following Wednesday’s Austin Transit Partnership meeting. Check back later for updates.