In November 2020 Austin voters approved an expansion of Austin’s public transit system through a project called Project Connect. When voters approved the project it was estimated to cost $7.1 billion, however, the estimated cost has since risen to $11.6 billion. The Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) has said the increased costs are due to increased labor and material costs, and increased property values for the land needed for expanded right-of-way (ROW). In response to growing costs the designs for the project’s planned light rail lines have been revised. At a public Open House on March 21, 2023, the ATP unveiled five possible design options for the revised light rail system.
All five light rail design options presented propose a significantly smaller system than what was previously planned. The original planned light rail system included two train lines and about 28 miles of track. Of the five new light rail design options, the longest option only includes about 12 miles of track. Two of the options presented include only street level track, two options include elevated portions of track and street level tracks, a final option includes a small underground section of tract with the rest of the track at street level. All five options propose slightly different routes for the system. The option with the furthest north route stretches to a proposed new North Lamar Transit Center on Lamar Blvd. north of US Hwy 183. The furthest south reaching option stretches to a station on South Congress Ave. near St. Edward’s University. The option that travels the furthest eastward would reach Austin Bergstrom International Airport. None of the options presented would travel further west than North Lamar Blvd. The Austin Transit Partnership did indicate that it views these smaller proposed designs as merely a starter system with the ability to expand any of the options in the future. However, there are currently no proposed future plans for expansion of the system beyond the five design options presented.
All five light rail design options will require an expansion of the ROW along the lines’ routes. Until a final design is chosen it is not possible to determine exactly which properties will be impacted by ROW expansion. The ROW expansion is expected to displace residents and the project’s budget currently dedicates $300 million to displacement issues. It is unknown if the current concerns surrounding the project’s cost will affect this displacement budget. The Austin Transit Partnership is currently taking public feedback on all of the design options and plans to choose a final design in June 2023. ATP expects the earliest the process for acquiring new ROW could being is sometime in 2024, with although ATP stated that the process of taking a few unidentified parcels of land could begin as early as 2023.