AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin residents got their first look at the future of light rail in the city, with five scaled-down proposals on the table for Project Connect’s mass transit system. The new options were on display at an open house at the Austin Public Library’s Central location from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday.
Voters approved the multi-billion-dollar Project Connect back in November 2020, greenlighting a property tax revenue stream to go toward the expansion of bus transit along with the creation of a light rail system. The conceptual version voters approved highlighted Blue and Orange light rail lines; improvements to CapMetro’s existing MetroRail Red regional line; a future MetroRail Green regional line; as well as enhanced MetroRapid bus routes and the Gold Line.
Why Project Connect paused light rail designs last summer
Amid rising construction costs, increased real estate valuations and scope changes, Austin Transit Partnership — the entity tasked with delivering Project Connect — hit pause on those light rail plans last summer. Now, officials have whittled the system down to five scope options, variations that primarily include street-level light rail services with operations extending from north Central Austin down through the southeast.
Greg Canally, ATP’s executive director, told KXAN he believed these five options get the city closer to fulfilling the “vision” voters approved for Project Connect, even if the options themselves are different from the initial conceptual map.
“Each of them, in their own, do what the vision said: it connects people, it connects destinations to people, to jobs, and we’re excited about where we are on that,” Canally said. “The best way to get to the full vision is to start with an initial core system, and we believe these five options get Austin down that path to a full-on vision of light rail and an enhanced transit system that Austin deserves.”
Joseph Kopser a transportation expert says even though the plans are different from what leaders touted a few years ago, the project is still delivering on what the voters approved..
“I think ballot language can sometimes be used at any level, city, state, federal to portray a particular angle, or use words that sometimes confuse voters on purpose, but I think in this particular case the scope of the project was so hard that we generally knew what we were voting for,” said Kopser. “We either wanted more infrastructure for mobility or we did not.”
38th Street to Oltorf Street to Yellow Jacket Lane
Option No. 1 would have a street-level system extending from 38th Street in the north down south to Oltorf Street via South Congress Avenue, and southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane via East Riverside Drive.
There are also possibilities the route will extend north toward 45th Street, or south toward St. Edwards Drive.
As for lake crossings, those could come via South First Street or along Trinity Street.
North Lamar Boulevard to Pleasant Valley Road
Option No. 2 features a more prominent footprint in north Austin, albeit a shorter extension southeast. The line’s endpoints include the North Lamar Transit Center, running street-level from NLTC down North Lamar Boulevard. It would then veer southeast along East Riverside Drive, before ending at Pleasant Valley Road.
Similar to Option No. 1, Option No. 2 would cross Lady Bird Lake either at South First Street or Trinity Street.
29th Street to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Option No. 3 would begin in Austin’s North University neighborhood at 29th Street and Guadalupe Street before heading southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane via East Riverside Drive.
The majority of the path would be on-street, while a segment of it will be elevated from SH 71 to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. This is the only segment featuring a route that heads directly to AUS.
Option No. 3 would cross Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street.
29th Street to Oltorf Street to Yellow Jacket Lane
Option No. 4 runs at street level from 29th Street at Guadalupe Street down south of 8th Street. From there, there would be an elevated segment south of 8th Street along Guadalupe Street southeast to Auditorium Shores. This area would have elevated stations.
Afterwards, the route will continue at street level east of Auditorium Shores to Oltorf Street via South Congress Avenue, as well as southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane courtesy East Riverside Drive.
Option No. 4 would cross Lady Bird Lake at South First Street.
University of Texas at Austin to Yellow Jacket Lane
Option No. 5 features a partially underground route that heads from UT Austin down to Yellow Jacket Lane. The route begins underground at 20th Street and Guadalupe Street, before heading south of 8th Street. It’ll include one underground station.
Afterwards, it’ll be elevated south of 8th Street along Guadalupe Street, traveling east of Auditorium Shores, where there will be elevated stations.
As it moves further east from Auditorium Shores, the route will move to street level and carry on along East Riverside Drive to Yellow Jacket Lane. Option No. 5 would cross the lake at South First Street.
All five options present a majority at-grade system that would run at street level. Some versions feature elevated segments or brief underground segments near the Texas State Capitol. Only one option features a light rail route extending southeast to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“The original vision had, it got us to a lot of places, and we want to make sure that we’re showing options that get us to some of those key destinations in town,” Canally said. “We’re really proud and excited that we have options that get us far north, and options that get us out to the airport, and options that get us south.”
The alterations in that “vision” come after projected costs on the original version spiked last year. In April 2022, officials announced the estimated costs of the light rail system had nearly doubled, jumping from $5.8 billion to a projected $10.3 billion in April 2022.
When ATP paused plans last summer, ATP officials said those already increasing costs were expected to continue to climb, should they continue light rail designs without any modifications. Canally told KXAN the estimated costs of the five options now on the table are to the tune of about $5 billion.
What happens after community members weigh in on the 5 proposals?
Following community feedback on the five proposals, Canally said ATP will narrow down and select a final version to move forward. From there, Canally said ATP officials will do some additional engineering work.
Afterwards, that final selection will be incorporated into Project Connect’s environmental impact statement draft, an overview of the program that requires approval from the Federal Transit Administration.
Once the FTA greenlights that plan, Canally said ATP will enter the federal process to begin securing national funds to help support the project’s construction. Based on November 2020 estimates, ATP officials had anticipated the federal government would match approximately 45% of the program’s costs, leaving Austinites to foot roughly half of the bill through the approved tax revenue stream.
“We’ve heard loud and clear: Our community wants to move forward on Austin’s light rail,” he said, adding: “We as ATP want to bring people together and convene people to get to a great decision for Austin’s community about light rail.”
More details on the Project Connect program is available online. To give feedback on the latest design options, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.