Project Connect light rail plan gets stamp of approval from Austin City Council

The Austin City Council gave a stamp of approval to the Project Connect implementation plan that was unveiled last week. The $7.1 billion project will include 9.8 miles of new light rail line stretching from 38th Street through downtown and southeast partway toward the Austin airport.

Thursday’s vote is an important step in the approval process, as the plan makes its way to the design phase ahead of construction. It could still be several years before the city sees the rail in full operation.

The Austin City Council gave a stamp of approval to the Project Connect light rail plan that was unveiled last week.

“This is very exciting,” Council Member Chito Vela said. “This has not been an easy path to get here. It was under serious attack at the Capitol, and thanks to everyone who made sure the Texas Lege didn’t kill Austin's light rail.”

Austin’s light rail financing plan was under scrutiny at the Legislature this session as part of House Bill 3899, which would have required another vote before issuing debt to build the light rail. 

Project Connect light rail details: What we know about the $7.1B project

The bill, however, died.

In 2020 Austin 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.

Mayor Kirk Watson, who has been fighting against the bill at the Capitol for months, said while “for now we can take a deep breath,” the city will be vigilant of any moves and changes, and anticipates seeing litigation.

“I am really pleased where we are with this,” Watson said. “The key underlying message is that our community still strongly supports the Austin light rail and wants it done now. ... We’ve overcome a lot of challenges to get here today and did so by working together as a community.”

The joint recommendation from city staff, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority staff and the Austin Transit Partnership, the group tasked to implement Project Connect, received praise earlier this week, saying the plan allows the city to expand its transit options to the city’s center, where many jobs are, and its ability to serve low-income families, and those living in affordable housing, who they say could benefit from the rail.

More: Austin Democrat delivers possible fatal blow to anti-Project Connect bill in Texas House

Plans call for an on-street train to start at 38th Street, traveling down Guadalupe Street and turning on Third Street before crossing Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street. Once the train crosses the lake, the line splits – one line down South Congress Avenue to Oltorf Street, and another east on Riverside Drive to Yellow Jacket Lane, stopping short of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. There will be 15 stations along the route.

Extending the route north to Crestview and east to the airport could be possible, and is laid out in the plan, but will depend on funding. Until the line can reach the airport, a shuttle service from Yellow Jacket Lane is expected.

Council members this week showed support for the plan but still had questions about how the group will choose which piece to extend, as well as how to add or adjust the station stops and regulate traffic flow through the many intersections. Several council members also reiterated the need to beef up other transportation options, such as buses and the existing metro commuter rail lines, to better connect riders.

Officials said the plan is still preliminary and there was still room to adjust the station stops. The stops between Congress and 15th Street are about a mile apart. City leaders asked about adding or moving a station between that area, but staff said there are typography challenges and slopes that make it difficult to add a station in that area but they were going to work on lessening that gap.

Additionally, the designers were still studying how best to regulate the train schedule with traffic flow. The city was also working with CapMetro and other partners to ensure the line would connect to buses, bike routes and other modes of transportation.

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The plan was also supported by the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee and the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Awais Azhar, chair for the community advisory committee, said the plan aligned with its goals, including making the line completely on-street to increase accessibility and allow more seamless connections with other transit modes, and ensure the line reaches those who need it most.

“In addition to work happening here, we also support looking at how we align (all our) transit services in the future,” Azhar said.

Melissa Barry, who oversees strategic programs and initiatives for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the alliance shared some of the same concerns about more connections, adjusting station stops and traffic flow impacts.

But overall, she said, the group felt the project, with the expansion of Interstate 35, would bring opportunities to get more people around Austin efficiently.

“Downtown is the center of our community and region,” Barry said. “And this is going to allow more people to access downtown whether it's for fun, work, to see a live show or visit local retailers. The ability for people to access downtown and become more welcoming as a whole is really important.”

Second, she said the downtown area continues to grow. Last year, downtown added 5.5 million square feet, and there is no end in sight.

More: Kirk Watson cedes legislative fight over Project Connect, prepares for November election

“We can't add any more roads,” she said. “So this allows us to move people in and through downtown.”

The CapMetro board is expected to vote on the plan Friday. The city, Austin Transit Partnership and CapMetro will meet again on June 6 to approve the plan.

Greg Canally, executive director for the Austin Transit Partnership, said the vote puts into motion the planning, engineering and design work for the initial phase of Austin light rail.

"Most importantly, this adoption allows the organization to initiate the federal funding process for this new plan,” he said. “As we progress on this transformational project, community engagement will continue to ensure we are connecting Austinites to each other and the places they need and want to visit."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin City Council approves Project Connect light rail plan