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Transportation

Here's What Austin's Underground Light Rail Could Look Like

An illustration of the downtown light rail project.
Austin Transit Partnership
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Transit planners envisage a three-level system that includes a concourse allowing people to walk for blocks underground.

The $7 billion voter-approved plan to grow public transit in Austin includes tunneling two light-rail lines through the core of downtown to move people faster than the speed of traffic through the densest part of the city.

This week, transit planners offered the most detailed vision yet of how the Orange and Blue Lines could take shape underground. The plans are only 15% done, so a lot could still change. The public will have a chance to weigh in this summer.

Station Locations

The Blue Line, which starts at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, would cross a bridge over Lady Bird Lake and go underground before arriving at a station on Trinity Street just south of Cesar Chavez Street.

Rainey MACC Station Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of a proposed light rail station near East Cesar Chavez and Rainey streets.

The Rainey Street/Mexican American Cultural Center Station could provide easy access to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail and the Waterloo Greenway, a 1.5 mile park planned from 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake.

Rainey MACC Station Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
Illustrations of the proposed Waterloo Greenway, a 1.5 mile park planned from 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake.

The Blue Line would continue north and arrive at an underground station near the Austin Convention Center/Brush Square Park area. This location would connect with the Red Line commuter rail and a future Green Line planned to go to Colony Park and eventually Elgin.

Convention Center Brush Square Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the light rail station that would sit beneath the Austin Convention Center area.

From the Austin Convention Center, the Blue Line would turn west down Fourth Street with the next stop at Congress Avenue.

Congress Avenue Station Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed light rail station that would sit beneath Congress Avenue and Fourth Street.

One early concept for the Congress Avenue Station imagines a multi-story building that includes amenities like a public market with retail and office space.

Congress Avenue Station Concept
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed Congress Avenue light rail station.

As the Blue Line continues west, it would stop next at Republic Square Park and meet up with the Orange Line. Republic Square is already a major hub for Capital Metro buses.

Republic Square Station Map
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed light rail station that would sit beneath Republic Square.

Capital Metro asked the state legislature for permission to build directly under Republic Square and Brush Square parks. A bill passed the House but never made it to a vote by the full Senate. That forced a change of plans by Austin Transit Partnership, a local government corporation set up by Capital Metro and the city of Austin to implement Project Connect. So the reimagined Republic Square Station would not touch the park at all; it would be located on an adjacent sidewalk extension.

ATP planners are speaking to the companies behind two developments under construction between Fifth and Sixth streets to see if they could incorporate additional station entrances near Republic Square.

The Orange Line, which would start at Stassney Lane and could eventually extend south to Southpark Meadows, would enter a tunnel either before or after the South Congress Avenue Station. Both options are being considered.

Orange Line Short Tunnel
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed Orange Line, which would partially run through a tunnel near Auditorium Shores. Transit planners offered two proposals of what the underground portion of the line could look like.
Orange Line Long Tunnel
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed Orange Line, which would partially run through a tunnel near Auditorium Shores. Transit planners offered two proposals of what the underground portion of the line could look like.

The Orange Line would head from the South Congress Station north to arrive underground at Auditorium Shores. Initial plans called for the Auditorium Shores Station to be above ground, but factors including utility placements and flooding concerns convinced engineers the tunnel entrance should be further south.

Auditorium Shores Station Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of the proposed light rail station at Auditorium Shores.

From there, the Orange Line would go under Lady Bird Lake. The tunnel would be dug just west of the First Street Bridge and head toward the Republic Square Station to meet up with the Blue Line and establish one of the most important transit hubs in Central Texas.

The Orange Line would then continue north to an underground station located just west of the Texas State Capitol. Original plans called for two stations in this area, but they've been combined into one. Three station placement options are under consideration with two possible "tunnel portal" locations where the train would emerge from underground.

Orange Line North Portal Design Options
Austin Transit Partnership
An illustration of three options for a light rail station west of the Capitol.

Station Design

Project Connect planners are looking around the world for inspiration on station designs, including in the Dutch city of Delft and Sydney, Australia.

Delft Rail Station Example
Austin Transit Partnership
Transit planners in Austin working on a proposal for light rail lines in the city are looking at different stations around the world for inspiration, including in Deft, Netherlands.
Sydney Rail Station Example
Austin Transit Partnership
Transit planners in Austin working on a proposal for light rail lines in the city are looking at different stations around the world for inspiration, including in Sydney, Australia.

"One of the benefits of creating a light rail system from scratch, essentially, is that we're not jerry rigging any kind of legacy system," ATP Chief of Architecture and Urban Design Peter Mullan said. "We can look to the best examples globally and then build them here in Austin."

Features ATP is looking to include in underground light-rail stations include:

  • Escalators
  • Natural light
  • Sight lines from multiple levels down to the platform
  • Clear wayfinding
  • High ceilings
  • Platform screen doors to prevent people from falling on the tracks

All downtown stations, except for the one west of the Texas Capitol, would be linked by a walkable underground concourse that could include shopping.

A cross-section of Fourth Street shows how planners want to make the corridor a three-level system. Underneath street level, the pedestrian concourse would provide access to the light-rail platforms below.

4th Street Mobility Corridor Illustration
Austin Transit Partnership
This illustration of a cross-section of Fourth Street shows how transit planners want to make a corridor between three downtown light rail stations.

"The whole goal of the system, and especially the [downtown section], is how do we make transit as easy and frictionless to access as possible," Mullan said. "So that it becomes just an integrated part of the daily lives of the community."

Mullan said a core goal of the system is for it to be accessible to those with mobility issues, the elderly, parents pushing baby strollers, travelers heading to the airport hauling suitcases or people with bicycles.

Fourth Street As A Public Space

Planners say Fourth Street would form the "spine" of the downtown system, with Brush Square Park to the east and Republic Square Park to the west serving as bookends to a pedestrian-friendly corridor that's topped with a ground-level public space, akin to Denver's 16th Street Mall or Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

16th Street Mall in Denver
Austin Transit Partnership
Transit planners say a corridor between light rail stations in downtown Austin could also become a ground-level public space, like Denver's 16th Street Mall.
Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica
Austin Transit Partnership
Transit planners say a corridor between light rail stations in downtown Austin could also become a ground-level public space, like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade.

"We don't have a design yet. We'd have to work with [Austin's Transportation Department] and downtown stakeholders to see what the design would be," Mullan said. "But we think it could be really fantastic."

Public Input

Anyone can weigh in on the design plans during virtual community meetings in late July and early August. An online self-guided meeting will be available on ProjectConnect.com for a month starting July 27. An in-person open house is planned for July 31, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Central Library.

Corrected: July 16, 2021 at 5:48 PM CDT
Correction: This story has been updated to correct erroneous information from the Austin Transit Partnership. ATP initially misidentified where the Blue Line station near the Austin Convention Center/Brush Square area would be located. A Capital Metro spokesperson said Friday that the station will be located underground. This story has also been corrected to describe the Rainey/MACC station as arriving on Trinity Street, not Rainey Street.
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