The Austin Transit Partnership Recommends the Flexible Light Rail Option
Stretching the light rail
By Benton Graham,
11:07AM, Tue. May 23, 2023
The Austin Transit Partnership has whittled down its light rail options from five to one.
The recommendation includes two lines (ATP has yet to identify colors for the rail lines) that both start at 38th Street at the north end but split south of the river to go to Oltorf and Yellow Jacket. The train moves down Guadalupe from 38th into Downtown, turning left on Third Street, right on Trinity Street to eventually cross the river.
“What's great about this implementation plan is it sets us up for a wonderful, expandable system in the future,” ATP Executive Director Greg Cannally said. That expandability comes into play with what ATP calls “priority extensions” that would go to the Austin Bergstrom International Airport and Crestview Station. While not a part of the initial $4.5 billion project, ATP wants to be ready if they find additional funding. It also lists “future light rail” options, which represent the phase after “priority extensions,” at places like the North Lamar Transit Center and South Congress Transit Center.
ATP is hoping to leverage relationships with local entities to integrate light rail construction with other large-scale projects – namely the airport expansion plan and Cap Metro’s efforts to lower the Red Line tracks at Crestview. “In both cases, we could look for additional funding opportunities associated with those integrated projects to potentially accelerate that extension phase,” said Lindsay Wood, ATP’s executive vice president of engineering and construction.
The entire system would be at street level, which presents cost and accessibility advantages compared to underground or aboveground. It also means that the light rail will run in the middle of streets and possibly lead to reduction in car lanes on roads like Guadalupe Street, Wood told the Chronicle. She added that the only way to move more people through the maxed-out Downtown is with increased public transit.
Cannally and Wood stressed the importance of community feedback in the decision process. After revealing a pared-down five options in March, ATP went to work collecting community feedback, attending over 90 meetings and going to 45 bus stops. It found existing riders wanted more coverage, more frequent service, and to serve the most people. According to ATP estimates, the recommended system would carry about 28,500 passengers per day by 2040; the highest of the five options under consideration carried 40,000.
But Cannally said ridership was not the only consideration. “Our values are about connecting to some places that have been under invested in. Sometimes ridership levels reflect previous investments that have occurred right there,” he said. He added that ATP wanted to make sure the project hit different parts of town, and this option reaches parts of North, East, and South Austin.
Moving forward, the state legislature looms large. House Bill 3899, which passed the Senate on Monday, would require a vote on whether ATP can issue bonds paid for using property taxes, a mechanism the agency plans to use to fund the project. “We will partner with the city on that to make sure that's all done lawfully, just like the 2020 election was done by the books according to state law,” Cannally said of a possible November election. He added that he doesn’t see it delaying the process.
The recommendation will be presented to the ATP board of directors on Wednesday. It then goes in front of a tri-party meeting with the ATP and Cap Metro board of directors, and City Council in June. As for when the first rider will be able to cruise from The Drag to Pleasant Valley, that likely won’t be until the early 2030s.
* Editor's note Tuesday, May 23, 5:10pm: A previous version of this story stated House Bill 3889 had passed the Senate Monday; it was House Bill 3899. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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May 19, 2023
May 19, 2023
Project Connect, Austin Transit Partnership, light rail, House Bill 3889