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On-street light rail route selected as best option for city’s mass transit plan

Tuesday, May 23, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Local transit leaders have selected an entirely on-street light rail line that runs through downtown and stretches mostly north and east with a spur that reaches somewhat into southern Austin as the route that will most likely be approved for construction.

Austin Transit Partnership today announced that the two-train route running from 38th Street south to Oltorf Street, with an eastern extension to Yellow Jacket Lane toward Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, was the option it viewed as the best from the five Project Connect scenarios put forth in March for six weeks of public comment.

The 9.8 miles of rail are expected to cost between $4.5 billion and $4.8 billion, with an estimated travel time of 23 minutes north to south, and 31 minutes from the northern terminus to the station at Yellow Jacket Lane.

The plan also designates possible extensions to the Crestview neighborhood to the north and the airport to the east if local leaders can secure additional local or federal transit funding in the years ahead. A 2020 election to approve a new property tax levy to pay for the system received 60 percent approval, though pending state legislation could require another affirmative vote.

Daily ridership for the selected route is expected to reach 28,500 by 2040, with the 15 stations giving passengers access to more than 20,000 affordable housing units, 136,000 current jobs and an additional 200,000 jobs forecast to come into Austin as the population continues to grow.

The five scenarios revealed in March presented scaled-back versions of what many transit backers had expected could be built, mostly because of cost increases in the construction market as well as engineering concerns that arose following the 2020 vote. Three of the options put the entire train route at street level, while one offered limited elevated tracks and another offered below-grade tracks through downtown traffic.

Greg Canally, ATP’s executive director, said the 38th/Oltorf/Yellow Jacket route was selected in part because it offered extensive coverage and is opening high-speed transit to portions of the city that have historically lacked significant infrastructure investment.

“It’s a two-line system that gives us the greatest coverage, connects to great affordable housing that’s already been built and is planned, and it gets us to do an investment in a part of the community that’s been underinvested in,” he said. “It also has really fantastic connections to our existing transit network and the transit network that’s going to be built out as the MetroRapids and other elements of that come out.”

Lindsay Wood, executive vice president of engineering and construction for ATP, said trains running on the street will have preferred green light timing so they won’t have to stop at intersections between stations, reducing possible delays that were a concern for the street-level routes. She also said the two sharp turns the trains will take through downtown, forcing a reduction in speed, were close enough to three planned stations at 15th Street, Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street that the trains already would have had to slow down anyway.

“We heard the desire for the most coverage we can provide from community and on-street gives us that. But we also heard things that on-street will really help us with a system that people can see, understand how to use, and they can access it easily,” she said. “It doesn’t have any barriers to accessibility for either people with disabilities, parents pushing strollers, and you don’t have to go up stairs, escalators or elevators. And you can activate the street with it and connect at the level that people are at with the on-street options.”

With the plan revealed, the boards for ATP and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as well as City Council, will consider it separately at their next meetings, with approval from each expected in June. Following that, ATP will begin the environmental impact and approval process at the local and federal levels while beginning the financial diligence needed for the two-year process to apply for federal transportation funding.

Bill McCamley, executive director for Transit Forward, said service to housing and employment clusters near the University of Texas, downtown Austin and the Riverside and Pleasant Valley corridors made the “upside-down wishbone” route the one that most closely met the public’s desire expressed during community feedback sessions that ended in early May.

“A big issue was ridership, and how can this system get folks who live in dense areas to places that they work. What light rail brings to the table in an overall transit system is you’ve got a stop-by-stop bus network and you’re going to have Project Connect MetroRapid buses that help in that vein as well,” he said.

“Light rail is really good at getting folks from places where there are a lot of dense housing areas to places where a lot of people work. You’ve got the Drag, which is one of the densest neighborhoods in the state of Texas. You’ve got the area around Pleasant Valley and Riverside, and then a lot of folks work downtown where you’ve got hospitals, people that work at state office buildings, the city, UT, all those places are downtown, as well as a lot of the tech offices.”

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