Project Connect scenarios balance budgets against potential size and ridership

Photo by Austin Transit Partnership. Conceptual rendering of Guadalupe Street at Republic Square.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Cost constraints facing Austin’s planned light rail line through downtown have resulted in five options that feature shorter routes and place tracks at street level with traffic, in a substantial departure from the initial plans approved by voters in 2020.

The five light rail scenarios, which will be viewed by the public today at an open house at Austin Central Library, all generally run north-south via Guadalupe Street, Lamar Boulevard and Congress Avenue, with four of them continuing eastward on Riverside Drive toward Austin-Bergstrom International Airport near a planned maintenance yard for the system.


Two of the routes that cover the most distance are entirely at grade meaning at street level and could face difficulties with traffic downtown. Three other shorter routes include some portions running either underground or on elevated tracks, with one featuring both forms of grade separation through downtown.

The trade-offs of system length versus the benefits of costly grade separation illustrate the balance that system planners have been trying to achieve for much of the past year to stay within the budget for a system in which projected costs have climbed to about $11.6 billion, or roughly double the anticipated available funding.

Today’s open house will be the first of a number of public events around the city over the next six weeks where the Austin Transit Partnership will seek input on the five routes and which would best serve the city. Once the sessions are complete, leaders with ATP, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and City Council are expected to decide in June on which route to build.

The revisions from the initial vision of the system have sparked concerns about the future of transit in the area. Some people fear that operating light rail mostly or entirely at street level would lead to longer travel times and reduce potential ridership.

Greg Canally, ATP’s executive director, said the five scenarios were designed based on multiple questions and considerations  such as how best to connect with buses and other transit options, where ridership is most concentrated, how the system could best reach and service minority populations, and what areas are expected to have the most job density.

“The days of overpromising are over,” said Canally. “In the last 10 months, we’ve been very clear and transparent about the work that’s ahead of us. And we will always be like that. We’re going to be transparent about our cost and how we’re going to live within our budget. And if there’s a day out in the future where if new money comes in and we want to position ourselves to get those funds to get more done, that’ll be a great spot to be in.”

With the route length and engineering options limited, he said residents and city leaders will decide on how to best start the system and set it up for future expansion, likely with substantial federal support.

Canally told the Monitor that ATP will deliver a “core light rail system” that works within a $5 billion budget. “The initial vision map was exactly that, a vision,” he explained. “Any of the five options presented to the community will connect seamlessly with existing and future high-capacity transit in Austin. Each option has different aspects including some having two lines. What is most important is to ensure we are meeting community needs and values while fulfilling the will of the voters. Each of these options accomplishes those goals.”

“We want Austin to weigh in on those trade-offs … most importantly and fundamentally, each of the five options do, at the core, what the vision said of giving people a new transit choice. (Each option would result in) a high-capacity transit system to link into our existing bus network, our existing sidewalk and trail and bike network,” he said. “Since day one we’ve said that to accomplish light rail we need to get those federal dollars flowing back to Austin, and to do that you’ve got to go through a rigorous process. It has to have a system that can operate as a standalone light rail, it has to have the right ridership, and it has to have great land use.”

The public engagement process is moving forward at the same time that some state lawmakers are pushing legislation to require another public vote before the city could make any substantial debt commitments related to the system.

Daily ridership estimates for the five options, which will factor heavily in considerations for future funding, range from 39,300 riders (for the route running from far North Lamar and ending at Pleasant Valley Road) to 20,000 riders (the shortest route that runs from the University of Texas campus and ends at Yellow Jacket Lane).

Canally said the connections with other transit options and the likelihood of more federal money for future expansion need to be kept in mind as the public decides on which phase one approach will best fit the city.

“From a foundational perspective, we’re in a good place with the federal government. As we finalize this, if we pick a good decision that has good ridership, connects good destinations and does things in an innovative way … we know the federal government is looking at new innovative ways to deliver transit,” he said.

“We can get to a place where there are opportunities to enhance our funding, not only from the federal government, but as we start working with (private) industry to stretch our dollars and making sure we’re de-risking the Austin Transit Partnership.”

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This article First appeared in austinmonitor

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