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Austin confronts legal challenge to 10-mile light-rail plan

A photorealistic illustration of a lively urban street scene. On the left, a blue light-rail vehicle with the destination "Northbound" is in focus. The middle of the image features shows people walking and conversing. On the right, there's a large H-E-B. The clear sky suggests a pleasant, sunny day.
Austin Transit Partnership
The new light-rail plans approved in June would have trains operating at street level downtown.

Austin City Council and the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) are firing back against a lawsuit aiming to terminate the vision for a 10-mile light-rail network — the single most ambitious public transit project in the city's history.

In legal filings in Travis County civil court, the City Council and ATP don't cede any ground. They deny all claims in the lawsuit by plaintiffs including Dirty Martin's Place, a 98-year-old burger joint slated for demolition in earlier light-rail plans.

“ATP will uphold the mission of the organization and defend against any lawsuit that attempts to stop ATP from advancing its mission," the agency's executive director Greg Canally said in a statement.

Austin Transit Partnership Director Greg Canally doing an interview. He's wearing a blue suit and speaking into a microphone while seated at a desk.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT News
Austin Transit Partnership Director Greg Canally said the agency will "defend against any lawsuit that attempts to stop ATP from advancing its mission."

The Council has already authorized spending up to $350,000 in the court fight with the international law firm Norton Rose Fulbright.

Those suing to slam the brakes on the transit expansion argue the city lost its authority to collect taxes for light-rail when the plans changed after the 2020 election to authorize a property tax hike.

"[The city's and ATP's fillings] could have been written by a 1st-year law school student," the plaintiffs' attorney Bill Aleshire said in an e-mail. "We accept that the ball is in our court to move this case along, and we will."

Bill Aleshire speaks into microphones at a podium. He's wearing a blue suit and has his hand on his tie. Part of an old Project Connect map is situated to his left.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT News
Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County Judge, is the lead attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In the battle of words, Austin Mayor Kirk Watson suggested the group of plaintiffs, which includes Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, D-Precinct 4, was attempting to undermine the will of Austin voters.

“The voters of Austin spoke loud and clear in 2020 when they overwhelmingly approved the funding mechanism needed to build, maintain, and operate light rail," Watson said in a statement. "Some folks didn’t like what the voters had to say, and they’ve tried to kill this project first in the Legislature and now in the courts," he said, referring to a bill to kill Project Connect that came close to passing the Texas legislature last May.

The 2020 Project Connect ballot proposition passed with 58% support. Austin voters signed up to pay hundreds of dollars more in property taxes each year in exchange for high-frequency electric buses, improved commuter rail, park and rides, on-demand transit and the crowning jewel: a 20.2 mile light-rail network with downtown subway.

By April 2022, costs for the light-rail component had ballooned from $5.8 billion to $10.3 billion — a cost surge blamed on higher real estate costs, inflation in the construction business and more than doubling the proposed length of the subway to over 4 miles.

Last summer, the Capital Metro and ATP boards along with the city council approved a smaller 10-mile light-rail map. The new vision came in under budget, estimated at less than $5 billion, but was half the length of the plan presented before the November 2020 election.

A transit map showing the light rail line stretching from downtown in three directions: east to Yellow Jacket Lane, north to 38th Street and south to Oltorf Street.
Austin Transit Partnership
The transit map adopted by the Austin City Council, Capital Metro and ATP shows the light rail stretching in three directions from downtown: north to 38th Street, south to Oltorf Street and east to Yellow Jacket Lane.

Local transit officials say the entire light-rail system promised to voters will get built eventually, likely without the $2 billion subway. They point to the permanent property tax as a funding source but offer no timeline beyond the current 10-mile phase.

Now, with a lawsuit looming large over the project, ATP is citing the litigation in trying to withhold key documents about Project Connect.

The Green Line, a commuter rail route that's part of the Project Connect plan, would stretch from downtown to Colony Park in northeast Austin. The rail project was relabeled "proposed Green Line," on some of the new 10-mile light-rail maps — a change pointed out by the lawsuit.

Capital Metro and ATP both insist there's no delay in the Green Line. Construction was always planned to start around the time the light-rail would begin operating, an ATP spokesperson said. Neither agency explained why the Green Line had been labeled "proposed" in the new map.

KUT has filed public information requests seeking recent financial and planning information about the Green Line. ATP has asked the Texas Attorney General for permission not to release Green Line documents, citing a provision in state law that allows government agencies to withhold documents if they relate to a lawsuit. Capital Metro, which is responsible for building the Green Line, is requesting the same exemption from the Attorney General on ATP's behalf.

ATP is also citing the lawsuit in seeking permission to withhold documents about the agency's application for federal funding — a document that could provide valuable insights into the plans. Federal grants to pay for close to half of the light-rail construction costs have become a do-or-die piece of the Project Connect puzzle. KUT has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in an attempt to obtain the application.

Meanwhile, ATP has been working to advance the light-rail plan, drumming up interest among potential contractors, drafting early blueprints for the system and meeting with FTA officials. The agency plans to start an in-depth environmental process early this year that could provide the most comprehensive look yet of what could take shape on Austin's streets.

Correction: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to the city asking plaintiffs to cover attorney fees. The filing on behalf of city council members asks the judge to award "costs and all other and further relief to which they may be justly entitled." This includes court costs but not attorney fees.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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