AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just days after Project Connect developers released a recommendation for the first phase of light rail in Austin, Mayor Kirk Watson praised the “once-in-a-generation opportunity” facing the city on its billions of dollars’ worth of transportation projects.

The multi-billion-dollar Project Connect mass transit system is one component in $25 billion’s worth of enhancements planned across the city, Watson said. Other key projects coming down the pipeline include the upcoming I-35 Capital Express Central project near downtown and the airport expansion plan in the works at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

“We have an incredible, once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape how our region grows, while also tackling big problems like affordability, workforce development, economic opportunity and of course, as I’ve mentioned, quality of life,” he said.

The Austin Transit Partnership is recommending the 38th Street to Oltorf Street to Yellow Jacket Lane is the first phase of light rail services to be built under Project Connect. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership)

Watson delivered his remarks at the Austin Transit Partnership’s light rail industry expo Thursday. ATP is the independent organization created and tasked with the design, construction and execution of Project Connect.

The expo came just two days after ATP revealed its preferred Phase 1 light rail route, and one day after the ATP Board of Directors approved that recommendation. ATP, CapMetro and City of Austin officials are poised to approve and adopt a Phase 1 light rail plan at a tri-party meeting on June 6.

The recommendation on the table is a 9.8-mile light rail route running from 38th Street south along Guadalupe Street to Oltorf Street, as well as southeast toward Yellow Jacket Lane. It’ll feature a bridge crossing at Trinity Street, 15 stations and is estimated to service upwards of 28,500 riders daily.

“We’re not going to squander this opportunity. I’m not going to let this opportunity get past us,” Watson said.

The aforementioned opportunity follows a successful voter-approved light rail ballot initiative as part of the November 2020 election. In his remarks, Watson highlighted the significance of that vote, after Austin voters shot down light rail proposals in 2000 and again in 2014.

“I think about [the failed 2000 initiative] all the time — think about what this city would be like today, had we passed that 20 years ago?” he said. “And think about how much cheaper it would have been. It makes me sick. We could have done so much.”

As part of the expo, the event served to connect industry workers and employers with project heads to help facilitate workforce connections. In addition to improving Austin’s transportation infrastructure, Watson referred to the projects as opportunities to expand a local workforce pipeline.

Currently, Workforce Solutions Capital Area is collaborating with ATP on developing a workforce infrastructure action plan, to hone local skilled talent to service Project Connect along with other projects in the works.

“When you have $25 billion’ worth of infrastructure money, you virtually create a new economic development sector,” Watson said. “And that is mobility infrastructure.”

Echoing back to the iconic “Keep Austin Weird” slogan, Watson said he wants the city to embrace economic and transportation ingenuity and establish itself as a city prepared for continuous economic prosperity and population growth.

“What [Keep Austin Weird] means is, to me, that we’re open to new thought, new ideas, new people,” he said. “Because many times the first we hear a new thought, we hear a new idea, we think that’s weird because it’s new. Austin, Texas is embarking on something really big and really new. And we need people like you to understand why we’re coming at it from so many different directions — because we need you and those ideas and thoughts to be a part of what it is we’re doing.”