Five new options up for consideration in Austin's Project Connect light rail plans
Editor's note: this article has been corrected to show that voters approved a property tax increase, not a bond, to finance Project Connect.
More than two years after Austin voters approved the city’s massive transportation infrastructure plan, dubbed Project Connect, local transportation leaders are back out in the community to refocus efforts on the project and what it could look like through downtown.
This week, the Austin Transit Partnership, the group tasked to implement Project Connect, unveiled five new options for a core light rail system, a watered-down version of what was originally proposed in 2020.
This comes after much contention and frustration over the project’s growing cost.
From 2022: Austin voters said yes to Project Connect. Where do things stand?
First, some background on Project Connect, Austin's light rail plans
Austin voters in 2020 approved a tax rate increase to help finance Project Connect. Initial plans included building two light rail lines, a downtown tunnel and multiple rapid bus routes. The plan also includes housing funds, equitable development planning and more city park-and-ride options.
Voters approved an 8.75 cent increase per $100 in taxable value to city property taxes to help pay for the project, but more than half of the project’s cost is expected to be funded by federal grants.
But in May 2022, local transportation officials informed the Austin City Council that the project's costs had grown an additional $4.5 billion, blaming higher property costs and surging inflation on materials and labor. The proposed tunnel had also doubled in price from $2 billion to $4 billion due to environmental concerns and because the original plan would have violated Austin’s Capitol view corridor rules.
Mayor Kirk Watson has said that one of his top priorities is getting Project Connect back on track, and he promised to do it within the allocated budget set by voters.
“We have to get our arms around Project Connect,” Watson previously told the American-Statesman. “The voters wanted and were promised a system of transit. And it's time for us to get (the community) answers about where this will go.”
Starting this week, residents are now getting a chance to weigh in on the new proposed options. Let’s take a look at the new proposals:
From NovemberAustin ordinance aims to fast-track Project Connect planning, construction
An underground line could run near UT
A proposed line that would stretch from the University of Texas campus to Yellow Jack Lane in Southeast Austin, would have a portion of the line underground.
The plan proposes to run the line about a mile underground from 20th Street and Guadalupe Street to just south of Eighth Street and Guadalupe. It would have one underground station.
The remainder of the line would run above ground with an elevated line from Eighth Street to Auditorium Shores, crossing Lady Bird Lake at South First Street to East Riverside Drive. Eight stations are plotted along the route with a park-and-ride lot at the Yellow Jacket station.
This is the only proposal that keeps an underground line, and it is shortened from the original downtown tunnel design near Republic Square that officials then said would have been akin to a small subway system.
The designs: three proposals at street level, lots of options
The new designs show that three of the new plans would include running rail lines completely on the street, parallel to vehicle traffic, which experts say provides longer rider options, greater reliability and greater connections to existing transit as well as with bikers, drivers, and pedestrians. In some cases, that could mean taking away a lane of traffic currently used by cars.
The first is a line that would run from 38th Street along Guadalupe Street to Oltorf Street via South Congress Avenue. The line has a potential to stretch north to 45th Street and south to St. Edwards University.
A line also would branch off to run to Yellow Jacket Lane on East Riverside Drive. The line would still offer a park-and-ride lot at the station end.
The line has two options to cross Lady Bird Lake: at South First Street or Trinity Street.
Another option is a rail line running on the street from the North Lamar Transit Center, where there's a park-and-ride lot, to Pleasant Valley Road on East Riverside Drive.
The route runs south on Lamar Boulevard and then to Guadalupe Street with several stops, including access to the UT campus and Texas Capitol, before reaching downtown and then heading east.
This plan also calls for two crossing options over Lady Bird Lake at South First Street or Trinity Street.
A third option stretches from 29th Street on Guadalupe Street to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. This is the only option that would connect residents to the airport.
Plans show the rail would be completely street level from the downtown central area, but have an elevated line from Texas 71 to the airport terminal.
Another option: partial elevation downtown
A different proposal would run from 29th Street to Oltorf Street with another line that would branch off to Yellow Jacket Lane, but this plan shows an elevated line on a portion of the route.
Unlike the route that would put a portion of the line underground near the UT campus, this proposal calls for the line to be completely street level starting at 29th Street to south of Eighth Street before elevating at Eighth Street to just east of Auditorium shores.
The remainder of the line would run both south and east at street level and would cross Lady Bird Lake at South First Street.
Experts said this option would reduce impact to parkland, utilities and right of ways. It also would lessen concerns of building in the flood plain.
How to give feedback on Project Connect plans
Residents will have a chance to give their feedback over the next six weeks. The Austin Transit Partnership team is hosting a virtual town hall on April 6 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Registration is available here.
Comments also can be submitted by sending an email to email@example.com or visiting the virtual open house.
“This light rail system is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help folks throughout Austin access jobs, health care, child care and everything that our city has to offer," Watson said. "Light rail has been an elusive goal for Austin for well over two decades and now, thanks to the community working together, it’s really going to happen.”
A final option will be chosen by the Board of Directors in June. To view the options and find more information visit atptx.org.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: New Project Connect light rail plans are presented to Austinites