AUSTIN (KXAN) — The transportation entity tasked with constructing Austin’s Project Connect mass transit system unveiled Tuesday which light rail route they want to see built in the capital city.

The Austin Transit Partnership is recommending Austin’s initial light rail system runs from 38th Street down south to Oltorf Street, as well as southeast to Yellow Jacket Lane. The 9.8-mile route would feature 15 stations and service an average ridership upwards of 29,000 people per day, if adopted.

The recommended route’s sticker price comes in between $4.5 billion and $4.8 billion, with possible Phase 1 buildout points to Crestview in the north and the airport to the southeast, depending on costs and available funding.

Future light rail extensions post-Phase 1 could carry the two-line system to the North Lamar Transit Center and Stassney Lane, with southern stops proposed at St. Edward’s University and the South Congress Transit Center.

ATP’s Executive Director Greg Canally told KXAN the transit agency ultimately selected this option because of its connections to existing mass transit options, as well as service options covering the north, south and southeast.

He added the recommendation also transports people to key workforce centers and destinations throughout the downtown corridor, in turn incentivizing use. ATP data estimates the proposal will connect to approximately 136,000 existing jobs and more than 200,000 jobs down the road.

“We think this Phase 1 of Austin light rail meets all of those values of connectivity, of investing underutilized and underserved communities, and gets Austin moving on the vision of having a better transit future.”

New design renderings shared by the Austin Transit Partnership April 25 feature future investment options for light rail buildout. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership)
New design renderings shared by the Austin Transit Partnership April 25 feature future investment options for light rail buildout. (Courtesy: Austin Transit Partnership)

The recommendation still awaits approval by the City of Austin and CapMetro leadership at a June 6 meeting with ATP. However, it also marks a substantial step forward nearly three years after Austin voters approved Project Connect during the November 2020 election.

That doesn’t mean the process hasn’t been without its fair share of challenges. ATP’s recommendation comes nearly 11 months after ATP leaders pressed pause on light rail designs, citing shifting scope changes, increasingly expensive real estate costs and construction fees skyrocketing.

Most recently, the project has been subject to state-level weigh-in, including an opinion released by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Project Connect’s funding, as well as two Project Connect funding-related bills making their way through the Texas Legislature. House Bill 3899, named the “No Blank Checks Act,” will go back to the Texas House for a vote following the addition of an amendment to the legislation by the Texas Senate on Monday.

Despite that, Canally said this project recommendation is the fruition of having robust dialogues among project staff as well as with community stakeholders. He said he trusts the public’s interest and appetite for expanded mass transit.

“We will take this attorney general’s opinion as additional guidance. If there’s different things that we need to adapt to as we go through our financing process, their guidance on that will be taken under consideration as we do that,” he said. “Because we want to make sure that we can advance this project…we still feel that strength of [Austin voters’] support so much here to continue moving forward.”

Once ATP, CapMetro and the City of Austin approve an initial light rail investment in June, ATP will carry forward on planning and engineering, as well as solidifying a draft environmental impact statement and financing plan that await federal approval. During that process, the federal government will weigh in on possible funding opportunities, with ATP anticipating roughly half of the Phase 1 light rail plan will be paid for courtesy federal dollars.

“We’re really proud and excited about getting to represent Austin and represent the community on this major, major investment in our future.”