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Austin’s downtown rail plans shifted after bill allowing transit under parks failed to pass

Wednesday, July 14, 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

The crown jewel of Austin’s $7 billion transit expansion is the city’s first-ever underground light rail system through the middle of downtown, a state-of-the-art transit corridor down Fourth Street bookended by Republic Square Park on the west and Brush Square Park on the east.

But local officials, who this week are outlining the most detailed vision yet of how Project Connect will take shape downtown, are having to change course after the Texas Legislature declined to allow underground transit expansion inside the borders of those two historic parks.

“We’ve had to basically modify our plans a little bit so that we are not touching Republic Square at all with any of our construction,” Peter Mullan, Austin Transit Partnership’s chief of architecture and urban design, said during a media briefing on the latest Project Connect developments.

“It wasn’t our first choice, but it’s the hand we’re dealt with, so we’re adapting the plan to adjust for that,” Mullan said.

Under the latest version of the plan, the underground rail platforms originally intended to go beneath Republic Square Park will shift north. That would place them slightly farther away from the station entrance, which now would be on a Fourth Street sidewalk extension instead of in the park.

This is the current plan for the station near Republic Square Park. (The map is rotated in the illustration so west is up instead of north.) Image by Austin Transit Partnership

ATP is also speaking to the companies behind two developments under construction between Fifth and Sixth streets to see if they could incorporate station entrances, which Mullan described as a “very common process.”

Either way, the original plan to enmesh one of Austin’s most important public transit hubs with a historic urban park may have been dashed.

Republic Square Park and Brush Square Park are owned by the state but leased to the city of Austin on a 99-year agreement that was renewed in 2013.

Texas House Bill 3893 and a similar bill filed in the Texas Senate would have leased to Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority the rights to build under those parks for 99 years.

The Texas House approved the legislation, and the bill passed out of a Senate committee. But it never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.

Local transit activist Zenobia Joseph urged state lawmakers to kill the bill based on her belief that Project Connect prioritizes wealthier white riders in Central Austin at the expense of lower-income riders of color who live closer to the periphery of Capital Metro’s service area.

“I thank the Republican senators for understanding my explanation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin,” Joseph said to Capital Metro board members during public comment at their June 28 meeting.

ATP will not rule out the possibility of changing its plans back if it can get a similar bill passed when the Legislature meets next in 2023. Plans for an above-ground stop at Brush Square Park won’t be affected, Mullan said.

Fourth Street will form the core of Project Connect’s underground light rail service with spacious multi-level underground stations planned at Guadalupe, Congress Avenue and Rainey Street south of Cesar Chavez. An above-ground station is proposed at the Austin Convention Center/Brush Square Park. All four stations would be linked by a walkable underground concourse.

Above ground, ATP envisions Fourth Street being transformed into a pedestrian-friendly public space like the 16th Street Mall in Denver or the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

But there’s still time for the plans to be tweaked. ATP expects construction to start more than three years from now, and construction likely won’t be done until 2029.

The public can weigh in on the design plans during virtual community meetings in late July and early August. An online self-guided meeting will be available on for a month starting July 27. An in-person open house is planned for Saturday, July 31, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Central Library.

Photo caption: Republic Square Park in downtown Austin, shown here in July 2020 with temporary squares to encourage people to stay socially distanced, is owned by Texas and leased to the city. The Texas Legislature declined to lease underground rights to Capital Metro, forcing some changes to an underground transit station planned under the city’s $7 billion transit expansion called Project Connect.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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