AUSTIN (KXAN) — With a Phase 1 light rail investment plan adopted in June, the Austin Transit Partnership is now gearing up for the federal funding application process for its multi-billion-dollar Project Connect program.

ATP officials said they are eyeing roughly half the capital costs of the light rail plan to be funded via federal grants.

What’s next for Project Connect?

Jennifer Pyne, ATP’s executive vice president of planning and risk management, told KXAN the organization is working with the Federal Transit Administration on that multi-year process. With federal funding a competitive process, she said ATP leadership is really tailoring design aspects of the project to best position itself for both the Austin community and federal review.

“The ways that we can maximize our grant dollars include just designing the project to really enhance ridership, to make sure that we’re providing the best possible transit project for this community,” Pyne said.

That federal funding process will take approximately two years to complete, she added. Concurrent to those project funding efforts, ATP is working toward its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, a federally-required comprehensive review of a project that incorporates federal funding or involvement.

What’s the NEPA process, and how does it work?

For Project Connect’s light rail plan, the NEPA process will evaluate all the potential impacts due to both the construction and operations of the light rail, as well as ways to try and mitigate said impacts. Analysis areas include effects on biological and natural resources, neighborhoods, and socio-economic impacts as well as both cultural and historical ones.

A draft environmental impact statement (EIS) of the light rail project will be released to the public next fall. Members of the public will be able to review and comment on the project, before a final EIS and record of decision is released in fall 2025, per ATP documents.

“Really, for the community, it’s thinking about ‘where’s this project going to go? What are the potential impacts? And based on the impacts, how can we minimize them throughout the community,'” said Deron Lozano, ATP’s senior vice president of environment and project development.

While the NEPA process is designed to identify and try to mitigate the potential impacts of the project, Pyne said Project Connect’s $300 million in anti-displacement funding is a parallel effort. The anti-displacement funding is earmarked to try and offset any increased costs of living costs for those residences and businesses along the project corridor.

Some of the primary focuses include investing dollars in land acquisition for affordable housing projects, fund contributions toward rental housing and ownership housing development efforts along with community-initiated solutions.

“[Project Connect’s anti-displacement funding is] a parallel effort to NEPA, and one that will transcend NEPA in time and space,” Pyne said. “We’re doing that as part of our planning too, as part of planning out the route and really anticipating where there might be some risks of displacement and gentrification, and what can we do proactively to minimize that possibility?”

As ATP advances its NEPA process, Lozano added that public engagement with the draft EIS will be essential, given it’s the community that will engage with the project once completed and feel the impacts of its construction and operation. During the spring, ATP had thousands of public comments submitted on the five initial light rail investment route options; he said he hopes to see a similar volume of public response to the draft EIS next year.

“We’re talking about a transformative project that’s going to come to Austin — something that’s going to have great benefits, great value,” he said. “But we do recognize there certainly are going to be some potential impacts throughout the community, so what this does is it allows us to take a look at everything from top to bottom of what this project could entail.”

What are some of Project Connect’s future milestones and benchmarks?

Alongside a final EIS and record of decision expected in fall 2025, ATP leaders also estimate the final base design on the light rail will be completed in summer 2025. Project development on the Capital Investment Grant (CIG) process — a competitive grant program overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation and administered by the FTA — for Project Connect is anticipated to wrap in winter 2026, per ATP documents

That CIG project development step will include the completion of the light rail’s environmental review process. It’ll also involve selecting a locally preferred alternative and adopting it into a long-range transportation plan.

Following project development, ATP will “complete sufficient engineering and design” as well as access commitments of all of its non-New Starts funding provided by the CIG, per documents.

Once a full grant agreement has been reached with the FTA, construction is slated to begin.

For the FTA’s New Starts grant funding applicants, federal officials consider several criteria, including:

  • Justifications: existing land uses, economic development impacts, mobility, cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits and congestion relief
  • Financial: reasonable financial plan and cost estimates, commitments of funds to the project and the current financial condition

Over the next year, ATP officials are expected to host community conversations on the light rail’s user experience and design principles, as well as deliver public updates on the light rail. Staff will continue to progress architectural and engineering work as well as procurements to help support the project’s delivery.