AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Austin unveils a first look at the future of light rail services in the city, residents share their thoughts on the projects on the table — as well as considerations they hope project leaders will take into account moving forward.
The Austin Transit Partnership debuted light rail designs for Project Connect, the multibillion-dollar mass transit system approved by city voters in November 2020. At the heart of that system is the promise of light rail, a first for the capital of Texas.
The light rail design options that residents saw Tuesday night are of a different magnitude than those shown in the last two and a half years. They come after the ATP put light rail projects on hold last summer amid skyrocketing costs attributed to property valuations, construction-related inflation costs and scale changes.
Some residents told KXAN on Tuesday that while they are excited about the progress of the plans, they want ATP to have a critical eye when deciding where to build light rail systems during this initial phase and who has access to them.
“I think it’s very important to look at usage in these plans to really think about how many people are going to have access — people in low-income communities, people of color and Indigenous communities, people who live in affordable housing,” said Susan Somers , a participant in the open house.
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Somers has followed public transportation projects in Austin for more than a decade and is chairman of the city’s transit committee. After reviewing design options on Tuesday, he noted some concerns he had with level light rail services, namely when the light rail line will operate at the same level as vehicular traffic, as opposed to an underground tunnel or elevated bridge. .
All five projects featured a predominantly street-level design, with some incorporating elevated or underground segments. He said he hopes officials evaluate the benefits that could come from spending a little extra to get a more complete above-ground or underground system.
“While it’s more costly to consider grade separation, it may be something we really need to look at and make some compromises with the length,” he said.
Parker Sewell, an open house attendee, said he wants to look better at passenger data to tell where existing transit users are, in turn informing where demand for light rail services might already be.
“We need to invest in this first phase and make sure this system is sustainable,” he said. “And that means you’re building to maximize passenger numbers before you build the rest of the system.”
With light rail proposed to operate on a par with cars and buses, he said he wanted further analysis of the system’s speed and efficiency. He said these additional elements could help community members make a more informed decision.
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Austinite Thanh Tschoepe said he is still weighing the pros and cons of each option, but said hearing other residents’ thoughts helped give him a more informed perspective on which option maximizes the success of the light rail system.
“I think affordability, accessibility and reliability are the three most important things that go into public transport,” he said. However, she noted that she wants to see more thoughtful conversations about transit access for people with different mobility levels and needs as the design of the system progresses.
“There are a lot of different perspectives from different angles, and I really like that,” Tschoepe said during Tuesday’s open house turnout. “I think it’s important because I came here and it changed my mind because I’m exposed to different needs.”
Those wishing to review light rail options can find them online. To provide feedback, you can upload it online, email your comments to [email protected], or physically submit it to the ATP at 203 Colorado St., Austin.