Austin weighs street-level light rail in new Project Connect considerations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — New Design Considerations released Wednesday by the Austin Transit Partnership outlines possible changes to the scope of the Project Connect transit system, including the possibility of a street-level light rail system running through downtown.

The considerations come four months after ATP board members chose to suspend work on Project Connect’s light rail system to reconsider its scope and features amid the soaring costs associated with the project. In April, officials confirmed that the costs of the light rail system were should almost doublewith project managers citing real estate, design changes and inflation levels as contributors.

The presentation provided a technical analysis of the downtown area from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to south of Lady Bird Lake. The downtown region is defined as a “major driver” of the Project Connect light rail system, with officials noting in backup documents: “What we do downtown influences the rest of the system.”

New design considerations launched by the Austin Transit Partnership on Wednesday include a possible ground-level or street-level light rail system running through downtown. (Courtesy of Austin Transit Partnership)

Officials are considering a simplified version of the system that would see the light rail run through downtown at street level, or “level,” with possible elevated portions in some areas. As part of the original scope of the project, this downtown area was to include light rail transit services.

ATP executive director Greg Canally told KXAN on Thursday that ratings reach is one of three main areas of focus that the ATP board assesses:

  • Can the project managers simplify the light rail portion of the project, which is currently in the downtown corridor?
  • How to minimize this reach of the city center while achieving the goal of being underground?
  • In areas of Austin where underground parts were not originally planned, could they be added?

“When you look at the basement, it’s an area to walk through downtown,” he said. “But at the same time, it has costs. Being level also comes with other issues, but also comes at a cost. [benefit] factor.”

One of the original unbilled areas for light rail service was along South Congress Avenue. Now this could be reconsidered with other design elements.

Similarly, the original plans designated two light rail crossings across Lady Bird Lake; now officials are evaluating the possibility of a crossing to reduce crossings. This comes with the possibility of shorter train platforms as well as possible relocations of the station site to keep them at street level.

New design considerations launched by the Austin Transit Partnership on Wednesday include the possible reduction of two Lady Bird Lake light rail crossings to one. (Courtesy of Austin Transit Partnership)

Officials are also evaluating traffic access and how the possible light rail layout at ground level would tie into these patterns.

“We want to have conversations about mobility choices, accessibility decisions, what we’re trying to connect for our accessible community,” he said, adding, “Everyone needs to see that we’re working on a lot of choices, a lot of things we’re still working through. But we’re excited to get all of this moving forward in a very short time.

At present, the ATP is in the technical data review phase and will later analyze different opportunities and create plausible scenarios for the proposed light rail options to see how they fit into the current landscape.

Additional community feedback opportunities will take place this winter. These community opportunities will include both broader community-wide feedback opportunities as well as focusing on focus group discussions to get a pulse check from key priority populations, Canally added.

“Once we get through the new year, let’s just talk about choices and compromises. But again, it’s really about doing light rail and moving forward in a way that we’re going to get to spring and we’re going to keep moving forward and putting in and building light rail for Austin.

The ATP Board of Directors, the CapMetro Board of Directors, and the Austin City Council approve the revised light rail scope in the spring of 2023. From there, the ATP will complete its process of national environmental policy law keeping in mind the scope of the newly approved light rail.

Jose P. Rogers