Trains! Tunnels! Billions! Austin Gets First Look at Proposed Transit Plan

Next steps: public input, May Council vote, November election

Concept for a station on the Blue Line along East Riverside. (Image courtesy Capital Metro)

Capital Metro has released its recommended Project Connect plan for high-capacity transit in Austin - with light rail in the Lamar/Guadalupe/South Congress corridor and along East Riverside to the airport, underground Downtown stations, bus rapid transit to serve UT and ACC Highland, new crossings of Lady Bird Lake, and more.

The transit authority and the city of Austin will formally present the Project Connect staff recommendation on Monday, Mar. 9 at 12pm at the Austin Central Library, at a joint meeting of the City Council and the Cap Metro board of directors. That kicks off close to three months of community input (on top of efforts to date that have, according to Cap Metro, engaged 40,000 Austinites) with a final revised recommendation slated for approval by the two policymaking bodies in late May, which will then lead to an expected public vote on the plan and its recommended financing at this November's election.

That financing strategy, which the city's staff will discuss in detail at Monday's meeting, could include both bond funding and a dedicated stream of tax revenue, both requiring voter approval. The technical recommendation, which has been led by Capital Metro's staff, is for a system at the more extensive and expensive end of the range of options explored during the current Project Connect planning effort; in January, that carried a price tag of up to $9.7 billion. Federal funding under the New Starts program of the Federal Transit Administration is expected; that could defray around 40% of the project capital cost.

That's an enormous amount of money, far more than the cost of earlier transit plans rejected by Austin voters in 2000 (narrowly) and 2014 (decidedly); the 2020 proposal combines elements of both those plans, and adds the high-ticket enhancement of a Downtown transit tunnel and underground stations. Project Connect planners, echoing political leaders at the city and Cap Metro, acknowledge the proposal is a big lift, but a necessary one give how far behind Austin now is in investing in the mobility systems the endlessly growing region needs. "How do we recover from years of not having something in place?" Capital Metro's Dave Couch told reporters on Thursday, March 5. "We believe the benefits from the investment will be transformational."

Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said in a press statement, "These recommendations are a bold vision for moving people today and planning for the future of our growing region. Our community made it clear that they are ready for action, and this plan is the beginning of a mobility transformation that will improve the quality of life for everyone." Clarke's boss Wade Cooper, chair of the Cap Metro board, noted the CEO had been hired "to develop a data-driven and community-supported transit plan" and described the last two years of work on Project Connect as "one of the most transparent processes ever conducted in our city."

Some more details of the technical recommendation:

Orange and Blue Lines: The Orange Line is the "Guadalamar" route from the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S 183, south past UT along (and perhaps above) the Drag, through Downtown and across Lady Bird Lake, and then along S. Congress to Stassney. The Blue Line would run from the airport (directly from the terminal) along E. Riverside into Downtown and then "interline" with the Orange Line heading north, meaning headways of five minutes along the city's busiest transit route. Both of these lines would take advantage of the dedicated transitways prescribed in the city's Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. Extensions of the Orange Line north (to Tech Ridge) and south (to Slaughter Lane) are envisioned for future phases, with the existing 801 MetroRapid filling the gaps until then.

BRT Gold Line: This busway, also in a dedicated lane, would run from Cap Metro's Downtown Station over to Republic Square, then through Downtown and the UT campus up to ACC Highland - in effect, the northern leg of the rail route proposed in 2014. It would be suitable for future conversion to light rail.

Austin Underground Transit Tunnel: The plan recommends 1.6 miles of subway Downtown, including at least two stations (basically below the Convention Center and Republic Square) with big-city amenities (retail, restaurants, restrooms, and air conditioning); the tunnel would extend north nearly to UT and might, pending ongoing feasibility study, extend below the lake; otherwise, the plan calls for two new bridge crossings.

Other elements: Seven new MetroRapid routes, 14 new park and rides; additional circulators like the current Pickup; electric buses (as well as the rail and BRT vehicles); more frequency and two new stations on the MetroRail Red Line (at the new Austin FC stadium on McKalla Place and at the Domain); and the new Green Line serving the Eastside out to Colony Park, with future service to Manor and Elgin.

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Project Connect, light rail, Orange Line, Guadalupe/Lamar, Blue Line, East Riverside, Gold Line, bus rapid transit, ACC Highland, MetroRail, Red Line, McKalla Place, Austin FC, The Domain, Green Line, Colony Park, Convention Center, Downtown Station, Republic Square, underground station

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