Our organization strongly supports Project Connect, and we’ve been working hard behind the scenes to research and propose an option that will result in the best outcomes for both downtown Austin and Austin as a whole. We have taken a decisive role in advocating for a specific plan and sent the following letter of recommendation to the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) to make our position known:
May 10, 2023
To: Greg Canally
Austin Transit Partnership
Dear Mr. Canally: On behalf of the Downtown Austin Alliance, we are submitting our comments on the updated light rail implementation plan options. Project Connect is a transformational project for downtown—one that will not only enhance mobility, but also make downtown more vibrant and accessible for years to come. After the release of the updated light rail options on March 21, the Downtown Austin Alliance assembled an ad-hoc committee consisting of board members, stakeholders, and property owners adjacent to proposed alignment options. After five meetings that focused on traffic impacts, garage access, street vibrancy, safety, and connections to downtown amenities, our ad-hoc committee recommended the following comments that were approved by our Board of Directors on May 10th.
Our guiding principles were centered on creating a safe, welcoming and vibrant downtown experience. One that minimizes traffic impacts expands connections to downtown’s many destinations and offerings, maintains local access for existing and planned properties, and ensures that the transit system supports the large volumes of existing and future development in downtown.
With those principles in mind, we recommend the 38th Street to Yellow Jacket alignment, ideally with an extension to 45th Street, while continuing to identify creative sources of funding for extensions including the airport. Inclusion of adequate park and ride facilities at the terminus of each of the lines is essential. We also strongly recommend the light rail to cross Lady Bird Lake at Trinity Street and include one additional station in the vicinity of Wooldridge Square and the Sweatt Travis County Courthouse. Additionally, we ask for a feasibility study of constructing underpasses at Cesar Chavez/Trinity and/or Guadalupe/15th Street to mitigate future traffic impacts. We strongly urge Austin Transit Partnership, City of Austin and Capital Metro to explore creative financing options for an airport station, or at a minimum to acquire the right of way in the first phase.
Below we have outlined each element with more detailed analysis and comment. Also, we included detailed maps showing current and future development patterns for your review.
On-Street Light Rail with a Trinity Crossing (see appendix A): A dedicated on-street light rail alignment provides users with direct access to what makes downtown Austin a premier destination for residents and visitors. We believe that a partial underground or elevated alignment moves people either through downtown or away from street amenities such as restaurants, hotels, and music venues. As currently proposed, the elevated and partially tunneled options have no benefits and many impacts to downtown properties, parks and retail districts. Additionally, our analysis of current and planned development (office, retail, residential, and hotel units) estimates more than 10 million square feet of office and retail and over 10,000 hotel and residential units. Connecting our transit system to this emerging center of downtown, and to the existing Downtown Station, Convention Center, Waterloo Greenway, the Rainey District, future IH-35 Caps and the South-Central Waterfront is critical.
Station near Wooldridge Square (see Appendix B): As currently proposed, the distance between the Congress and 15th Street stations is approximately one mile. We recommend adding an additional station in the vicinity of Wooldridge Square and Sweatt Travis County Courthouse. This would lessen the distance between the Congress and 15th Street stations to less than half a mile and would provide much needed access to courthouses (federal and state), Austin Community College, Pease School redevelopment, Austin History Center, the Paramount and the Old Bakery. It would also facilitate east-west transfers to frequent bus routes at 7th/8th Streets, providing potential congestion relief at Republic Square.
Traffic Impacts: We strongly urge you to continue to fully evaluate the traffic impacts associated with the preferred option and offer solutions that can mitigate the impacts. One solution we urge you to study is the feasibility of an underpass at Cesar Chavez/Trinity and/or at 15th Street/Guadalupe. Per City of Austin staff traffic estimates, these two intersections would see much longer traffic delays (greater than 45 seconds).
Airport Station: We understand and share the viewpoint that ridership in Phase I is the highest priority for long-term success, yet we believe that there may be creative financing opportunities to build the Airport connection. We encourage you to explore creative funding mechanisms to complete an airport station, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and others. At a minimum, acquisition of the right of way to the airport should be obtained to ensure the connection in future phases.
With the advancement of the on-street option, the design of the street, stations and public spaces is critical. We want to ensure that opportunities are leveraged to their fullest potential, including the creation of public-private partnerships and design with people and programming in mind to create iconic transit streets and stations. Amenities necessary to operate safe, convenient and welcoming transit stations (including but not limited to security, public restrooms, wayfinding and drinking fountains) should be integrated. The design should enhance and bolster downtown’s existing buildings, creative culture, parks and public spaces, local businesses and street vitality. We ask that you involve us early and continuously through a partnership to develop the design for downtown streets and stations as well as to plan for long-term programming and activation strategies.
We appreciate the process and effort undertaken by the staff from Austin Transit Partnership and the City of Austin in advancing us to this critical decision point. The team was responsive, active and engaged with our organization and members of the downtown community. All considered; however, we have had limited time to thoroughly review all information and data requested especially traffic analysis and impacts, thus our feedback and recommendations may alter as more information becomes available during future studies and design. Most importantly, we want to remain fully involved in assisting as a partner as Project Connect proceeds.
Jeff Howard, Board Chair
DeWitt Peart, President and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance
So far, the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) board has voted to support the same Project Connect option as us. We want to continue to build momentum and support for this proposed option. City Council plans to vote on the plan on June 1 and CapMetro plans to vote on June 2.
Project Connect is a generational investment that will create transportation options for residents and visitors, create jobs, reduce traffic and parking problems, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and save lives by boosting safety for riders and drivers alike.
I respectfully ask you to support this rail system as an essential piece of the overall program and vote yes in a unified manner on the proposal before you as soon as possible, with a goal of having a decision by the first week of June. This will allow the Austin Transit Partnership to begin their application to the Federal government expeditiously, ensuring momentum to build the public transportation system Austinites need and deserve.