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Transit and city leaders agree on final plan for Austin's light-rail system

 An infographic showing the light-rail plan being recommended by ATP. The infographic says the system would have 9.8 miles of train with 15 stations. Estimated travel time from 38th Street to Oltorf would be 23 minutes. Estimated number of average daily riders served would be 28,500.
Austin Transit Partnership
An infographic showing the newly approved light-rail plan: 9.8 miles of line with 15 stations serving an estimated 28,500 riders per day.

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Austin city leaders on Tuesday gave an official thumbs up to the city’s massive rail-line project just two weeks after the plan was revealed to the public.

The final vote taken by the Austin City Council, the Capital Metro board and the Austin Transit Partnership sets in motion the next phase of the plan, which includes the design work and initiates the funding process. The Austin Transit Partnership is the group in charge of building the rail line for Project Connect.

City Council and the CapMetro board both separately approved the plan last week. This is the final and cumulative vote from all three boards of directors.

The vote follows political backlash at the Texas Capitol over the financing plan. House Bill 3899 would have required a second vote from Austin before debt could be issued, but that bill died.

Mayor Kirk Watson last week said while this was a chance to take a deep breath, the city was expecting some kind of litigation.

Still, city and transportation leaders approved the plan in a joint meeting Tuesday, calling the move an exciting opportunity for residents, visitors and future generations.

Veronica Castro de Barrera, chair of the ATP board, said the project was a chance to bring a much needed alternate transportation option to Austin and the region.

“Light rail is just one portion of the vision and my deepest hope is it becomes a unifying tool that builds a resilient transit ecosystem that we can all be proud to bestow to generations to come,” Castro de Barrera said.

“Project Connect is more than just about trains,” Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said. “This is about connecting our community and addressing affordability. … We had to make some hard decisions in this initial phase to stay within budget, and there is more work to be done.”

In November 2020, Austin voters approved a property tax increase to fund the $7.1 billion project.

Plans include a nearly 10-mile on-street rail line through downtown Austin. The line will begin at 38th Street and Guadalupe Street and travel south before splitting on the other side of Lady Bird Lake. One line will go east along Riverside Drive to Yellow Jacket Lane, just short of the airport; the other will continue along South Congress Avenue to Oltorf Street. There are 15 stations along the route. Costs are estimated around $5 billion, which will be partly funded through federal grants.

Opportunities to extend the line north to the MetroRail at Crestview and east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will depend on funding.

For example, extending the rail to Crestview would cost around $600 million with another at least $250 million to move the train out of street-level traffic, Austin Transit Partnership officials told the City Council last week.

The new plan was scaled back from an initial design that would have nearly doubled the price of the project. Initial plans included two light-rail routes, a downtown subway tunnel, a new commuter rail line to East Austin’s Colony Park and an expansion of multiple rapid bus routes. Voters in 2020 also approved housing funds, equitable development planning and more city park-and-ride options.

To get the project back on budget, the Austin Transit Partnership weighed five options in March that included a mix of on-street, partially elevated and underground lines.

Officials said the newly approved option was the best because it provides easy access to the city’s core downtown area, where many jobs and UT are located, and provides access to low-income residents living in affordable housing complexes along the route.

The project is not expected to be completed for several more years. Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, chair of the CapMetro board, applauded the teamwork and patience it took to get this far.

“I think as we become one of the 10 top cities in the country it is necessary we are connected to each other,” he said. “We have shown a great deal of trust, understanding and commitment to continue to communicate, align ourselves and work together to make sure all our communities are brought together … I hope we continue to work together and build a city that we all deserve.”

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at lmorenolozano@kut.org. Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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