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Fresh details on Austin's light-rail plans emerge as officials chase federal cash

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 southern segment of the light-rail line will terminate at Oltorf Street near the H-E-B currently under construction.

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Austinites curious about the city's light-rail future are being offered fresh details as the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) launches an in-depth environmental review in a bid to qualify for billions in federal cash.

A transit map showing the entire light-rail system. The legend in the upper right corner indicates the types of transit lines present: Austin Light Rail Phase I, Austin Light Rail Phase I Priority Extension, Future Austin Light Rail, the Red Line, Proposed Green Line, MetroRapid, and the High Frequency Bus Network. It also marks stations, Park & Ride locations, and maintenance facilities.
Austin Transit Partnership
The revised light-rail map approved by Austin City Council, CapMetro and the Austin Transit Partnership last June includes unfunded "priority extensions." The wished-for add-ons would extend the rail to the Crestview MetroRail station and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. But there's no money for that now, and they won't be studied as part of the federal environmental review process.

The new information on the electrically powered 9.8 mile system isn't nearly as revealing as the block-by-block maps and subway station cross-sections splashed online in 2021 and 2022. That was before local officials chopped the first phase of the project in half and killed the subway to slash costs.

But ATP is unveiling some big decisions that will have to be made and offering the public a handful of opportunities to speak directly with planners and engineers about the transit system, funded by a voter-approved property tax hike in 2020.

Some train stations could get shifted, deleted or merged. A light-rail bridge might be elevated south of Lady Bird Lake. A tree-lined hike and bike trail could run down the middle of Riverside Drive.

The rail-building agency emphasizes that none of these decisions have been made. Officials are floating the possibilities and gauging public reaction.

One proposal from a couple years ago has already been set in motion. ATP has confirmed it plans to transform the Drag into a car-free "transit mall," prioritizing foot traffic along one of the most pedestrian-heavy streets in Austin. Cars and trucks would be rerouted down Nueces Street.

A sunny, tree-lined Guadalupe Street with a variety of activities: pedestrians walking and conversing, a person cycling, and light-rail in motion. On the left, there is outdoor seating with people enjoying the day, suggesting a café or restaurant setting. Buildings of various heights provide a backdrop.
Austin Transit Partnership
The Drag is expected to be one of the biggest sources of ridership for the new light-rail system. Guadalupe Street along the UT Austin campus is envisioned as a car-free transit mall in this 2021 rendering from the Austin Transit Partnership.

The agency's so-called "priority extensions" — wished-for add-ons to reach Austin-Bergstrom International Airport or the Crestview Red Line Station — are not being studied as part of the federal environmental process. The decision means the per-mile cost could settle around $500 million — near the high end for light-rail systems in the U.S.

"We made this decision in coordination with [the Federal Transit Administration]," said Jennifer Pyne, a transit planner who built light-rail systems for consultants AECOM and the Phoenix transit system before landing in Austin in 2021.

"If additional funding becomes available for one or both of the priority extensions, we would immediately work with FTA to fold it into this phase of the project," she told KUT. "It's all doable."

Here's more of what ATP will reveal during public meetings this month.

Location of stops

ATP is planning to keep the number of stops on the system at 15, Pyne said, but some stations could get shifted while others are merged or deleted. The changes are being considered based on what residents told ATP and what engineers think makes the most sense.

A new stop could be added on Guadalupe Street at Wooldridge Square — between Ninth and 10th streets — in response to complaints that downtown was starved of stations, making the walking distance longer in a population-dense area.

A map section highlighting the location of Wooldridge Square as an option, with a red arrow pointing towards it. It's situated near the intersection of Guadalupe Street and West 9th Street.
Austin Transit Partnership
ATP is considering another station at Wooldridge Square, but might also merge or delete stations to keep the number of stops at 15 for this phase of the project.

A station planned near the Austin Convention Center could be moved inside a real estate development at Third Street and Trinity. The shift would allow trains to make a smoother diagonal turn instead of the sharp, right-angle approach originally planned.

ATP says the Cesar Chavez station near the Austin Convention Center could be installed inside a private development planned at Trinity and Third Streets, allowing trains to make a smoother diagonal turn than the right-angle approach originally planned.
Austin Transit Partnership
ATP says the Cesar Chavez station near the Austin Convention Center could be installed inside a private development planned at Trinity and Third Streets, allowing trains to make a smoother diagonal turn than the right-angle approach originally planned.

ATP is in talks about the real estate project at 309 East Third, but didn't offer details about the development. New York City-based real estate firm DHA Capital bought the property for more than $20 million in 2022 as part of a bankruptcy sale.

Travis Heights could lose a light-rail station along Riverside Drive. ATP's Lindsay Wood told board members last week they're considering axing the stop because of the "unique characteristics surrounding that station," like being in a historic district and near I-35, which is about to undergo years of construction.

A transit map section featuring the waterfront area near Lady Bird Lake and the Travis Heights neighborhood. A red points to Travis Heights Station. Interstate 35 is shown to the right of the station, providing some orientation.
Austin Transit Partnership
A train station planned along Riverside Drive in Travis Heights could get cut from Austin's light-rail plan.

Ridership forecasts might also have played a role. Travis Heights — along with neighboring stops — were projected to have some of the lowest use in the system.

Along Riverside Drive east of I-35, with higher projected ridership, two light-rail stations less than a mile apart could merge into one. The stops at Faro Drive and Montopolis Drive would be combined into a single station at Grove Boulevard.

Wood said the idea was based on "community feedback asking for opportunities to create a more seamless connection to ACC Riverside," which is farther north on Grove.

A section of transit map showing a design option to consolidate the Montopolis and Faro stations into a single station named Grove. A red arrow points to the proposed location of the new combined station, set between the existing stations along Riverside Drive. The map includes local landmarks like Pleasant Valley, ACC Riverside Campus, and the Yellow Jacket area.
Austin Transit Partnership
ATP is thinking about combining Faro and Montopolis stations, less than a mile apart, into a single stop at Grove Boulevard.

The City of Austin owns an 18.5 acre tract on Grove Boulevard just south of Riverside with plans to build 400 to 800 affordable housing units on the site.

Elevated bridge across Lady Bird Lake?

A simplified diagram of a bridge design, showing two different cross-sectional views. The top section depicts a bridge rising as it reaches the lake and then continuing straight. The bottom section shows the bridge as a straight line connecting hill-to-hill across a valley.
Austin Transit Partnership
The light-rail line would cross Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street. Transit planners are looking at elevating the bridge after it reaches South Austin. In this image, south is to the left.

Austin's light-rail line would have a dedicated bridge crossing Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street. The crossing would have space for pedestrians and cyclists, but not buses, which had been considered in an earlier version of the plan.

The hills on either side of the lake would allow for the bridge to stay elevated after crossing the lake, ATP said. Waterfront Station would be elevated, too, under this plan.

Exactly where the elevated bridge would land was unclear. ATP says the bridge would return to ground level before South Congress Avenue.

Trail down the middle of Riverside Drive?

Two cross-sections of Riverside Drive showing how the thoroughfare could be re-arranged. One option under consideration would put bike and pedestrian paths down the middle with
Austin Transit Partnership
Two cross-sections of Riverside Drive showing how the thoroughfare could be re-arranged. One option under consideration would put bike and pedestrian paths down the middle with trees providing some shade. The other would have sidewalks and bike trails on each side of the road, also with some trees added.

ATP is considering building pedestrian and bike paths down the middle of Riverside Drive from I-35 to the terminus at Yellow Jacket Lane. Would people strolling down that stretch in the middle of summer — with two lanes of cars on either side — be afforded some shade? Yes, according to Pyne.

"There will be trees, no matter what, associated with this project," she said. "That is a [chance] to provide a nice shaded opportunity for people as they are accessing the light rail or even just traveling up and down Riverside as a pedestrian or a cyclist."

Still looking for Park and Ride locations

Each end of the three pronged light-rail route — 38 1/2 Street, Yellow Jacket Lane and Oltorf Street — would have a nearby parking lot where people could leave their cars and hop on a train.

Finding available land for those Park and Rides has been hard. ATP says it will continue the hunt in all three locations at least into the spring.

Some residents of Southeast Austin don't want a Park and Ride anywhere near their homes.

"Although I adore public transit and love what this light-rail will do for the community, I'm absolutely terrified of the effects that this Park and Ride will have on me and my future family," Kayla Pair, an emergency room nurse, told the ATP board last week. She grew up near a Park and Ride in Dallas and said she was worried about the potential for increased crime.

Park and Ride lots are planned at all three ends of the light-rail line. After receiving complaints from residents, ATP said it was looking for alternative sites near Yellow Jacket Lane. The green oval is the area where ATP is looking for a site to build a 40-acre operations and maintenance facility.
Austin Transit Partnership
Park and Ride lots are planned at all three ends of the light-rail line. After receiving complaints from residents, ATP said it was looking for alternative sites near Yellow Jacket Lane. The green oval is the area where ATP is looking for a site to build a 40-acre operations and maintenance facility.

Some research suggests Park and Rides — and long-term parking in general — may attract more thieves, for example, who prey on vehicles left alone all day. But other research has found lighting, surveillance and design changes can deter would-be criminals.

ATP said it's listening to neighbors' concerns.

"We will be looking at alternative sites for a Park and Ride at the end of line near the Yellow Jacket station," Wood said.

Open houses

ATP's open houses this month feature a series of placards showing conceptual designs. Members of the public can move from board to board and speak with a staff member assigned to each station.

The agency is handing out surveys to attendees to gather feedback and demographic information. Snacks and ATP swag were available at the first open house Thursday on the UT Austin campus.

The events are part of a 45-day public input period required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an umbrella law that encompasses a swath of federal rules and regulations.

NEPA requires ATP to produce an in-depth analysis called an Environmental Impact Statement to qualify for Federal Transit Administration grants. The grants are vital to the project; the light-rail finance plan calls for the feds to cover up to half the estimated $5 billion cost.

Five more public events are planned this month, including one online. ATP hopes to wrap up this stage of the process by March 4.

Find out more and register for the events on ATP's events page. Registration is not required to attend.

ATP expects construction to begin in 2027 at the earliest.

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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