6 key points about Austin's light-rail plan ahead of final vote
In a pivotal moment for Austin's transportation system, local decision-makers are getting ready to approve a new light-rail plan promising to increase connectivity and offer an alternative to the city's congested roadways by the early 2030s.
The Austin City Council will vote Thursday on the new 10-mile map; the Capital Metro board will weigh in Friday. The Austin Transit Partnership board already gave the go-ahead last week. This series of approvals sets the stage for the culminating final vote by all three boards at a joint meeting Tuesday.
The new light-rail proposal shaves off half the length of the plan approved by voters back in 2020 and ditches a $2 billion downtown subway. Turns out, the old plans would have cost nearly twice what local officials initially suggested.
Now, as city officials pore over the details, we're starting to get a clearer picture of how this expansive urban project might evolve. This week, City Council members put a panel of high-level staff through their paces. Here are some key takeaways.
1. Austin has funding for only the first phase of light-rail
The light-rail map above indicates "priority extensions," but without more money, they're just lines on paper. ATP would either need costs to come in lower than expected, new piles of cash to appear (maybe from the federal government) or voters to agree to higher taxes.
ATP plans to borrow $1.75 billion to help build the system and pay that off over 35 years. Those debt payments coupled with operating expenses leave not much left for new miles of rail, according to ATP's own graph.
But there should be enough cash left after round one at least to get the ball rolling on a second phase of light-rail, ATP Executive Director Greg Canally told KUT last week.
"The [property tax] revenue source that we have will allow for building out this phase and operating this phase and beginning the planning work on the next phase as well," he said.
2. ATP might be able to extend the line one station at a time
ATP's phase one plan doesn't reach as far as the "initial investment" approved by voters in 2020. But two planned extensions have been bumped up to high-priority.
One extension would stretch north from 38th Street to MetroRail at the Crestview station near Lamar and Airport boulevards. ATP says the Crestview station could be the busiest station in the entire light-rail system.
Building an extension all the way to Crestview would cost around $600 million, ATP staff told council members. Another $250 million to $300 million would be required for a "grade-separation" project to get the transit trains out of street-level traffic.
The other high-priority extension would go from Yellow Jacket Lane to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. ABIA's station would have much lower ridership, according to projections, but ATP staff say folks have been clamoring for a light-rail link to the airport.
Which extension would get built first?
That largely depends on how much money can be scraped together.
"For example, if it were a relatively smaller amount, it probably wouldn't get us all the way to the airport," ATP's engineering and construction chief, Lindsay Wood, told council members. "It might get us to one additional station, which could be 45th [Street] for example."
Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, whose district includes ABIA, asked if any funding sources had been identified for the airport extension. ATP's Jennifer Pyne said the agency didn't "have a full analysis on funding sources at this point," but promised it would be doing more digging.
3. Shuttle buses will run from Yellow Jacket to ABIA
Fuentes wanted reassurances from Capital Metro that riders would be able to get to the airport easily after reaching the Yellow Jacket station at the end of the line.
"When we do unveil the Austin light-rail, there will be some sort of shuttle service or other enhanced service going from Yellow Jacket to the airport? That is part of the plan?" Fuentes asked.
"Yes, it is," CapMetro's Andy Skabowski said. "It'd be something that would be part of our service planning as we move forward."
4. ATP might be able to squeeze in more stations downtown
The light-rail map up for approval this week shows only two stations amid the skyscrapers clustered near the lake: one station at Third Street near Congress Avenue and another on Trinity Street near Cesar Chavez.
ATP has not ruled out adding more.
"It is possible to look at that. We can't say with certainty that it's possible to accomplish it," Wood said in response to a question from Council Member Alison Alter. "There are difficult slopes to manage in that area that may be challenging, to get a relatively flat station located in there, and that's the primary reason why there wasn't one identified in the early plan."
But after hearing the same question from a bunch of different people and groups, Wood said ATP agreed to take a look.
"We do agree to look into it and fully answer that question and understand the viability of any additional stations in that area," she vowed.
5. Making 90-degree turns downtown will be a challenge
When the on-street system gets to downtown, the train tracks will need to make a 90-degree from Guadalupe onto Third Street and another 90-degree turn from Third down Trinity Street.
Anyone who has ever played with a train set can tell you trains aren't great at sharp turns.
In an earlier interview with KUT, Wood admitted: "Any time we make a tight turn, the trains do have to slow down."
Council Member Zo Qadri wanted to know how CapMetro could navigate those tricky turns "without drastically slowing down services."
Turns out, there are no easy answers.
Transit planners are studying train technology, traffic signal systems and learning from other people's mistakes, CapMetro's operations chief, Andy Skabowski, said.
"A lot has to do with now in the design process — really digging in and fully understanding what we got to do and how we handle the curves and how we best use technology on the trains," Skabowski said.
6. ATP is still scouting for Park and Ride lots near Oltorf and 38th streets
You'll notice a "P" next to the terminus at Yellow Jacket — that's a Park and Ride, a handy spot where people can leave their cars and catch the train into town. But you won't see any P's next to the Oltorf and 38th Street stations
"The reason that one is already identified is because it was part of the previous planning efforts," Wood explained in council chambers. But "similar planning" will be done at each of the light-rail end points as part of "the next phase of moving the project forward."