May 23, 2023 - News

Austin light rail plan unveiled as state officials question financing

Photo: Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

Austin Transit Partnership officials released their preferred plan Tuesday for the city's light rail network, recommending an on-street, 9.8-mile route that would connect North and South Austin from West 38th to Oltorf streets and run southeast to near Ben White Boulevard.

Driving the news: The final recommendation comes after the local government corporation narrowed their plans to five light rail options in March. Officials said they made the decision after receiving more than 5,000 public comments and holding 90 community meetings.

Details: The selected option does not reach Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, although ATP officials say the option prioritizes a future expansion to the airport and farther north to Crestview.

  • The two-line project — crossing Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street — would feature 15 stations and serve roughly 28,500 riders each day, according to projections.
  • The trains would travel along Guadalupe Street, South Congress Avenue and East Riverside Drive.
  • Of the five Project Connect light rail options, only one would've made it to the airport on the first round of construction.

What they're saying: Lindsay Wood, ATP's executive vice president of engineering and construction, said the chosen plan would serve the most possible riders and provide the opportunity for expansion in multiple directions.

  • "That really creates not only balanced coverage and really contributing to the full system vision in each direction, but it also helps with the expandability," Wood tells Axios.

By the numbers: The preferred plan stays within the project's $5 billion budget — with a cost estimate between $4.5 billion to $4.8 billion, using a mix of local and federal dollars — but an extension to the airport and Crestview would require additional funding to bring them into the first phase of development, Wood said.

  • Officials had to cut initial plans to include a subway tunnel downtown as estimated costs would have increased from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion.
  • The selected plan ends at Yellow Jacket Lane, 3 miles from the airport. ATP plans to "leverage additional funding sources and also partner with other regional planning projects" in an effort to expand the line to the airport, Wood added.

Yes, but: The future of Project Connect hangs in the balance after state lawmakers approved a measure Monday that would send the light rail plan back to voters.

  • House Bill 3899 would force a new round of voter approval before issuing any future debt for Project Connect.
  • Casey Burack, ATP's executive vice president of business and legal affairs, said the city has followed state law and ATP will continue to move forward, adding: "It is unfortunate that some want to try to undo the results of a valid election … If the state is going to require another vote, we view that as just another step toward fulfilling Austin’s desire for a generational investment in light rail and a more affordable and sustainable future for all of Austin.”
  • Meanwhile, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion Saturday that raised concerns over the city's use of tax revenue toward Project Connect.

Flashback: Voters approved a property tax hike for the transit plan in November 2020, when motivated progressive Austinites showed up in droves to vote against former President Trump.

What's next: Wood tells Axios that Project Connect will continue, full steam ahead.

  • "We are advancing the project and fulfilling our commitment to the voters," Wood said.

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