AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly three years ago, Austin voters approved in November 2020 the creation of Project Connect, a mass transit program that would bring light rail services to the city.

Initially, the system was envisioned to incorporate an underground subway system through downtown.

However, after pausing design work last summer and issuing five scaled-down recommendations in March, the Austin Transit Partnership has issued a recommendation for the future of light rail services: a 9.8-mile, street-level route that would run from 38th Street south to Oltorf and southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane, with a Lady Bird Lake crossing at Trinity Street.

How would a street-level design work in downtown Austin? ATP’s Executive Director Greg Canally told KXAN a street-level offering could provide enhanced accessibility for a vast majority of transit users. As part of the community feedback period, Canally said ATP heard from many people in the city’s adaptability community who favored a street-level approach.

“I’ve had such impactful conversations with community members in our adaptability community, about their dependence on using transit to get to their jobs, to their doctor’s appointments,” he said. “And so we’ve known, studying this from a planning perspective and engineering, making that system accessible — getting on and off a vehicle is simple and doesn’t have barriers to it — was, for us, incredibly impactful.”

From a design standpoint, Canally said ATP also favored the street-level version because it allows immersion of light rail into Austin’s environment. Light rail, he said, becomes an “enhancement” to the streetscaping and can offer place-setting and ease of knowing exactly where the light rail is and how to board on and off of it.

From a technical standpoint, ATP’s top engineering and design staff told KXAN earlier this month the street-level light rail would operate on its own guided pathway and would not share a lane with vehicular traffic.

Lindsay Wood, ATP’s executive vice president for engineering and construction, said a street-level plan would operate on precise signalization, particularly in the denser downtown core.

“Those signals for the traffic intersections will communicate with the train control signals, and the traffic signals will know exactly where the train is at every moment in time so they can synchronize when those cross (traffic) movements that would conflict with the train movement can move without inhibiting the train movements,” she said.

While ATP released its recommendation Tuesday, the initial light rail phase still has one more hurdle to jump through. ATP, CapMetro and the City of Austin will approve and adopt a Phase 1 light rail implementation plan and route at a June 6 meeting.