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

Mobility Committee weighs feedback on new Project Connect options

Wednesday, April 12, 2023 by Ava Garderet

Following the release of scaled-back plans for Austin’s future in light rail, representatives from the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) and the city provided an updated briefing on Project Connect light rail at the City Council Mobility Committee’s regular meeting last Thursday.

Some Council members at the meeting raised concerns about the design of the portion of light rail that would run through downtown. For example, Council Member Zo Qadri said most of the options seemed likely to eliminate some of the only protected bike lanes currently downtown.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes emphasized that she would like to see comparisons of other rail systems throughout the country to better understand best practices for an elevated system, particularly in the downtown area.

According to the community feedback ATP has received so far, Austinites are concerned about the portion of the light rail that would run through downtown. Constituents want to emphasize elements like pedestrian safety, visibility and accessibility, but are finding it difficult to prioritize which are most important to them with each of the current five options.

Capital Metro, ATP and the city said they’re receptive to the comments, and that the feedback period will “essentially be a discussion of trade-offs,” as Sharmila Mukherjee with Capital Metro put it.

“We have received very mixed feedback on the elevated option from our community,” Lindsay Wood with ATP said.

“Some are very concerned about the visual impacts of elevation through downtown, and others prioritize the benefit that it brings in terms of eliminating conflicts with other modes of transportation on the street,” Wood said.

Fuentes said that she hopes to see the engagement strategies reach throughout the entire city, a step she contends will be crucial to achieve the goal of encouraging mode shift and behavior change in the Austin community. 

The light rail team agreed that it will be important in the next couple of months to focus on direct outreach in the community. 

“Attending existing neighborhood association meetings, making it easy for people to learn about the options and issues at hand … not forcing them to come find us,” Robert Goode, interim assistant city manager, said. “We also need to make sure that we are talking to a representative group of people within our community, not just the ‘transit nerds’ but the everyday ‘normal’ Austinites.”

Goode also mentioned that one of the outreach strategies being implemented is “bus stop conversations,” where staff goes to bus stops to talk to people who are already thinking about and using existing transit options.

The Project Connect light rail would be a major investment in the city’s transit network, and Mukherjee said ridership data shows the community is receptive to making this type of public transit mode shift.

“In the last 12 months our annual boardings reached 22.3 million. This was during a (Covid-19) recovery period where we outpaced many other, much larger transit agencies across the nation,” Mukherjee said. “That speaks volumes on transit sensitivity and receptivity in the community.”

Since 2020, ATP has been working to understand and evaluate the different options for a successful light rail. Each option currently under consideration includes the estimated number of riders served, which vary from around 20,000 to 40,000 riders per day.

The five options for light rail include three on-street options (one extending from North Lamar Boulevard to Pleasant Valley Road; another from 29th Street to the airport; and a third from 38th Street to South Congress Avenue to East Riverside Drive), and two partially elevated options with similar routes. 

ATP presented the options to the public on March 21 in an open house that began a six-week public comment period extending through May 2.

In addition to encouraging a citywide shift away from a reliance on cars, the new line will serve as the “spine” to the existing Capital Metro transit network, and will provide crucial access to and from employment and activity centers.

Jennifer Pyne with ATP described the “community values” used to evaluate the light rail options as factors such as customer experience, access to opportunities, environmental benefits and land use/housing. 

“We used these to make sure during the design that we were going to deliver a quality transit product, and to help us evaluate the options in terms of what’s really important to the people in Austin,” Pyne said.

A big part of that is considering how light rail will interface with not only the existing transit network but also the bike and pedestrian infrastructure. 

“We realize that for any part of the transit journey, each rider is going to be a pedestrian at one point,” Pyne said.  “So the degree to which all of these systems work together is going to make the plan much more robust.”

The community engagement, outreach and feedback collection period that is currently underway will extend until May 2. The City Council meeting in which a light rail decision will be made is scheduled for a month later, on June 6.

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