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This is Project Connect's $1.4 Billion Proposal for Austin Urban Rail

Project Connect

Austin officials unveiled plans today for the city's first urban rail line.

The 9.5 mile long line would run along East Riverside Drive and turn north near the Austin-American Statesman building, cross Lady Bird Lake via bridge, continue through downtown and the University of Texas and end at Highland Mall. The plan also calls for four park & ride areas, two each toward opposite ends of the line.  

The project cost is estimated at $1.38 billion. Officials with Project Connect, the working group of city, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials that made today's recommendation, say they believe the federal government would pay for half of that estimated cost.

"We've got the best number that we have, given the level of detail that we have," Project Connect head Kyle Keahey said. "We've got a lot of additional design that we have to move forward with."

Today's announcement is a further refinement of preliminary findings tapping the East Riverside and Highland Mall regions as preferred corridors for rail. Two of the bigger refinements today: decisions on how to cross Lady Bird Lake and how to proceed in the Hancock Center region, where the route is prohibited from being on the same grade as Capital Metro's MetroRail commuter line.

For a lake crossing, Project Connect proposes a bridge option instead of a tunnel; at $175 million, the bridge was the cheaper of the two options. However, a tunnel is required in the Hancock corridor to avoid conflict with MetroRail, and Project Connect organizers proposed a $220 million tunnel from 41st to 47th street.

Not all urban rail backers support the plan. Local transportation consultant Lyndon Henry told city leaders he supports urban rail – but not this route.

"A line that bypasses the heart of the city and slowly meanders nine miles from the East Riverside apartment city area, through the backwater east campus up to Hancock, then through a tunnel and into the old Highland site. How many Austinites are traveling such a route?" he asked.

Voters would have to approve rail spending in a bond election expected this November. The Austin City Council is expected to formally call for a rail bond proposition this summer. 

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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