AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin unveils a first look at the future of light rail services in the city, residents sharing their thoughts on the designs on the table — as well as considerations they hope project heads consider moving forward.
The Austin Transit Partnership debuted the light rail designs for Project Connect, the multi-billion-dollar mass transit system city voters approved in November 2020. At the core of that system is the promise of light rail, a first for the Texas capital.
The light rail design options residents saw Tuesday evening are different in magnitude from those shown the past two-and-a-half year. They come after ATP hit pause on light rail designs last summer, amid skyrocketing costs attributed to real estate valuations, construction-related inflation costs and scope changes.
Some residents told KXAN Tuesday that, while they’re excited for plans to be progressing, they want ATP to take a critical eye when deciding where light rail systems are built during this initial phase, and who has access to them.
“I think it’s very important to consider the ridership in these plans to really think about how many people are going to have access: people in low-income communities, people of color and indigenous communities, people who are living in affordable housing,” said Susan Somers, an open house attendee.
Somers has been following transit projects in Austin for more than a decade and serves as chair of the city’s urban transportation commission. After reviewing the design options Tuesday, she noted some concerns she had with at-grade light rail services — aka, when the light rail line will run at the same level as vehicular traffic, as opposed to an underground tunnel or elevated bridge.
All five designs featured a majority street-level design, with some incorporating elevated or underground segments. She said she hopes officials weigh the benefits that could come from spending a little extra to get a more complete elevated or below-ground system.
“Although it’s more expensive to consider grade separation, it may be something we really need to look at, and make some trade-offs with the length,” she said.
Parker Sewell, an open house attendee, said he wants a better look at ridership data to tell where existing transit users are located, in turn informing where demand for light rail services could already be.
“We need to invest in this first phase, and make sure that this system is sustainable,” he said. “And what that means is that you’re building out to maximize ridership before you build out the rest of the system.”
With the light rail proposed to run at the same level as cars and buses, he said he wants more analysis done into the speed and efficiency of the system. He said those additional elements could help community members make a more informed decision.
Austinite Thanh Tschoepe said he’s still weighing out pros and cons from each option, but said listening to other residents’ thoughts have helped give him a more informed perspective on which option maximizes the success of the light rail system.
“I think that affordability, accessibility and reliability are the three most important things that come into public transit,” he said. However, he noted that he wants to see more thoughtful conversations on transit access for people with different mobility levels and needs as system designs progress.
“There’s a lot of diverse perspectives from different angles, and I really like it,” Tschoepe said on Tuesday’s open house turnout. “I think that’s important because I came here and it changed my mind because I am exposed to different needs.”
Those wanting to review the light rail options can find them online. To give feedback, you can upload them online, email your comments to email@example.com or mail them physically to ATP at 203 Colorado St., Austin.