AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austinites will soon get a preview of Project Connect light rail design considerations on the table at an open house March 21.

The community event will run from 4-7 p.m. at the Austin Public Library’s Central location at 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. It comes after Austin Transit Partnership — the entity tasked with delivering the multi-billion-dollar transit program — pressed pause on designs last summer amid projected cost increases. They had been expected to release 30% design and cost estimates then.

Here’s a look back at the past year’s worth of light rail design discussions, in advance of next week’s open house.

March 2, 2022: 4 key Project Connect design proposals outlined

Project Connect leaders unveiled a four-part community engagement period for key elements along the Blue and Orange light rail lines:

  • Riverside/Pleasant Valley Station
  • The Drag
  • Blue Line Bridge at Lady Bird Lake
  • Crestview Station

For the Riverside and Pleasant Valley Station, officials outlined two possible design scopes. One featured an underpass design where the rail system would run beneath Pleasant Valley Road and the intersection’s configuration would remain unchanged. The second teased a possible at-grade transit plaza, where rail and bus services meet and operate on the same level as through traffic.

Riverside/Pleasant Valley Station design options (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership, Capital Metro, City of Austin, Project Connect)

With The Drag, two options were floated: a combination of light rail with one lane of traffic in each direction, along with a second version that would promote light rail, bus services and shared use paths for pedestrians and cyclists while slashing vehicular traffic.

The Drag design options (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership, Capital Metro, City of Austin, Project Connect)

At Lady Bird Lake, officials had proposed a Blue Line Bridge to cross the lake, with a rail system as well as access points for cyclists and pedestrians. It was yet to be determined whether the bridge would accommodate bus services.

Four community meetings will be held for final design feedback on Project Connect’s light rail at Riverside/Pleasant Valley Station, The Drag, Lady Bird Lake and Crestview. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership, Capital Metro, City of Austin, Project Connect)

Crestview Station’s design included two options: one where the Orange Line station runs along an elevated structure on Lamar Boulevard, and another where the Orange Line runs at street level.

Crestview Station options (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership, Capital Metro, City of Austin, Project Connect)

April 8, 2022: Project Connect light rail cost expected to nearly double

Last April, officials announced the cost to add two light rails via Project Connect had nearly doubled, from an estimated $5.8 billion to a projected $10.3 billion.

Originally, the two lines and a tunnel were expected to cost $5.8 billion ($2.5 billion for the Orange Line, expected to stretch from north to south Austin; $1.3 billion for the Blue Line, expected to connect downtown to the airport; and $2 billion for a tunnel).

The cost increases were attributed to real estate costs, inflation impacts and changes in the project scope.

April 26, 2022: Project Connect teases 2 new designs for Lady Bird Lake Bridge

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

In late April, 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 are 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.

May 26, 2022: Project Connect previews possible changes to East Riverside corridor

Three stations along the East Riverside corridor were previewed as part of a community meeting last May: Waterfront Station, Travis Heights Station and the Lakeshore Station.

At Waterfront, that was proposed as an at-grade, or ground level, station as opposed to an elevated transitway. Officials envisioned the area would maintain two through lanes in each direction, the transitway corridor in the center and shared-use paths on both sides.

With Travis Heights, the transit corridor was imagined as elevating above the roadway due to the steep grade in the area. Light rails can’t operate on steep slopes.

For the I-35 crossing, Project Connect and the Texas Department of Transportation would collaborate on a single-point urban interchange, or SPUI, intersection. That would allow the Blue Line to safely cross the I-35 corridor.

June 2, 2022: Project Connect previews light rail vehicle designs

Early-stage designs depicted five passenger doors on each side of the rail car, along with cargo space allocated for strollers, luggage, bicycles and other larger-scale items. The vehicles are designed as 100% low-floor cars, which means there are no steps involved in getting from the platform onto the train. Officials said this design would help enhance accessibility features for passengers entering and exiting the car.

Other accessibility features include:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance
  • Wheelchair accommodations
  • Seating, grab handle arrangements
  • Illuminated push buttons and service status indicators
  • Bike storage
  • Emergency intercom system within the train

June 9, 2022: Project Connect teases new Pleasant Valley light rail, road design proposal

Option No. 1 proposed a blue line underpass system, with Pleasant Valley Road vehicular traffic traveling over the light rail track. Given the hillier geographic nature of Pleasant Valley Road, project representatives said there were some difficulties in constructing an underpass system. Under the design draft, another con was the location of the bus stop across traffic lanes, complicating pedestrian access.

Option No. 2 featured a roundabout and at-grade transit plaza for the convergence of light rail and bus traffic. However, pedestrians still had to walk across multiple lanes of traffic to access the light rail and bus services under this design.

June 14, 2022: Project Connect recommends car-free option along The Drag

Project Connect officials announced in June 2022 the public transit program will move ahead with a new design proposal to remove car traffic from The Drag, the stretch of Guadalupe Street that runs adjacent to the University of Texas at Austin. The latest design iteration is a hybrid of two initial options floated by project heads last year, which proposed designs with and without car traffic.

Officials unveiled Option C of design proposals for The Drag, an elevated transit mall that incorporated design elements from the original two designs. The enhanced transit mall option will feature bus and light rail transit, pedestrian and cyclist traffic only along the Guadalupe corridor, between 22nd and 29th streets.

Officials proposed two different scenarios for how to best incorporate the design options:

  • Scenario C1: Shared bus and bike lane
  • Scenario C2: Dedicated bike lane, with bus services to operate on a shared light rail transit guideway

June 22, 2022: What might Project Connect’s subway stations look like?

Project Connect officials gave a glimpse in June 2022 into some of the design elements under consideration for the light rail system’s subway stations.

Each station will include three central zones: an at-grade or underground entrance pavilion for users to access the station; a concourse where riders can navigate hopping on incoming trains or exiting outgoing ones; along with a platform where the trains will meet.

Accessibility features include ramps, elevators, escalators and stairways for multiple access methods, audible announcements and level-boarding platforms, so users don’t have to climb up or down from the platforms onto the trains.

July 20, 2022: $10B Project Connect scope might change to combat inflation costs

After Project Connect officials revealed cost projections for the light rail were expected to nearly double in April 2022, officials then announced in July 2022 the Austin Transit Partnership board will “need to align program scope and sequencing to available funding,” per meeting documents.

“ATP anticipates that costs will continue on an upward trajectory above the projections laid out in April, but ATP is working on re-envisioning the project scope/sequencing to counteract those increases,” officials said in a statement to KXAN.

In an interview with KXAN last July, ATP’s then-Interim Executive Director Greg Canally attributed projected cost upticks to increased inflation rates that have inhibited construction costs nationally.

“Because of the costs, we have to kind of change some of our priorities and the timing of everything,” he said, adding: “It’s very technically driven, financially driven, but most importantly, it has to be community driven.”

August 24, 2022: Project Connect to give light rail update amid possible scope changes

In August, 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.

Prior to the August 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 planned to host 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.

October 27, 2022: 2 years into Austin’s Project Connect, is the light rail still on track?

In April 2022, project leaders announced cost estimates for the light rail portion had jumped from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion, due to the rising prices of acquiring land, construction costs and some design changes.

Leaders with the city, CapMetro and Austin Transit Partnership — the government corporation created to oversee the project — insisted they do not plan to ask taxpayers for another rate increase. So, they acknowledged this means the scope and even the timing of the project would likely have to change to fit the available funding.

The original plan for light rail had the Orange Line connecting south Austin to the other side of Lady Bird Lake, before going up through the center of downtown. The Blue Line would take riders from downtown out to the airport. Originally, project leaders projected these lines to be constructed and commissioned in the next 10 years. Now, these plans are under review.

At ATP’s September board meeting, staff presented a timeline for the next six months, outlining the light rail scope and sequencing review. The timeline included phases for community engagement and the development of different “scenarios” — targeting spring of 2023 to have an updated Light Rail Implementation Plan.

November 17, 2022: Austin weighing street-level light rail in new Project Connect considerations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — New design considerations released by the Austin Transit Partnership Wednesday outline possible scope tweaks on the Project Connect mass transit system, including the possibility of a street-level light rail system through downtown.

The presentation provided a technical analysis of the downtown region, running from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard down south of Lady Bird Lake. The downtown region is defined as a “major driver” of the Project Connect light rail system, with officials noting in backup documents: “What we do Downtown influences the rest of the system.”

Officials are weighing a simplified system version that would have the light rail running through downtown at street level, or “at-grade,” with possible elevated portions through certain regions. Under the original project scope, that region of downtown was expected to feature underground light rail services.

One of the areas not originally billed for underground light rail services was along South Congress Avenue. Now, that could be reconsidered along with other design elements.

Similarly, original plans denoted two light rail crossings across Lady Bird Lake; now, officials are weighing the possibility of one crossing to curtail crosses. With that comes the possibility of shorter train platforms as well as possible station site relocations to keep them at street level.

November 30, 2022: Project Connect leaders call for ‘future proofing’ in light rail buildout

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.

February 27, 2023: ‘Generational decisions’ face Project Connect scope change, federal expert says

This spring, Project Connect experts are set to unveil a new light rail system design scope, one that is expected to be a modified version of what voters approved more than two years ago. Before that alternative version is released, federal strategy advisor Peter Rogoff stressed to the CapMetro board in February that creating a reliable, safe and high-quality transit system will be essential for its success.

“These are generational decisions you’ll be making for the city for as much as a century,” Rogoff said.

As of now, Rogoff said no federal dollars have been committed to the Blue and Orange light rail lines, with no future funding guaranteed. However, that doesn’t mean Project Connect won’t secure federal money down the road.

Rogoff cited construction costs are rising nationwide, and prices have spiked across the industry for non-residential construction projects. With that, Rogoff said the likelihood is transit leaders will need to deliver an initial project phase that covers fewer communities over a longer construction timeframe, but said reliability will be integral in getting residents on board with future phase opportunities.