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Austin takes light rail subways off the table

Planned light rail in Austin city centre. (Austin Transit Partnership

Planned light rail in Austin city centre. (Austin Transit Partnership

Austin, Texas, is the 11th largest city in the US (population 965 000) and is without rail transit (apart from a  51km (32-mile)diesel light rail line to the suburban city of Leander). The modal split is 72.7% for private cars and just 5% for transit and it has been ranked as having the worst traffic congestion in Texas despite having a bus service which is provided by Capital Metro.

In November 2020 voters approved a property tax to finance a USD 10bn transit expansion plan called Project Connect, that proposed a USD 5.8bn three-line 45km (28-mile) light rail network to serve the city, with subways in the city centre. However, due to the impact of the pandemic not only had the estimated cost of the light rail portion almost doubled – due to inflation and firmer cost estimates -, transit patronage had halved due to the travel restrictions put in place.

In March 2023, the Austin Transit Partnership, the overseers of Project Connect, presented a revised proposal to the city council and the Capital Metro board to deliver the light rail system within the funding budget available. They aim to significantly cut costs by increasing reliance on surface tracks on the city streets and largely doing away with city centre subways (which cost a lot more to implement).

Just one of the options available includes a subway portion of the system, about a mile under Guadaloupe Street from 20th St to 8th St. Even this route makes use of some elevated sections to avoid traffic at junctions and to move across, rather than under Lady Bird lake.

These proposals have reduced the cost of the system to USD 3.5 bn. This should give it a more than favourable position in its quest for federal transit funding. Six weeks of public consultation will now follow before the final recommendation is presented to the city council.