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Update: Austin's Project Connect rail will tunnel under Lady Bird Lake instead of building bridge


The downtown tunnel, a key component of the $7.1 billion overhaul of the city's public transit system, is growing.

Local officials unveiled an expanded version of the light rail tunnel, which will now go under Lady Bird Lake to South Congress Avenue rather than over it, according to local reports.

The announcement arrived after the Texas Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have leased the underground property of Republic Square and Brush Creek Park—historic state property—to Capital Metro so that it could build the downtown tunnel as proposed.

Peter Mullan, chief of architecture and urban design for the Austin Transit Partnership, which is overseeing the implementation of Project Connect, told KUT: "We've had to basically modify our plans a little bit so that we are not touching basically Republic Square at all with any of our construction."

There were other concerns that factored into the decision, including traffic conflicts and flood zone risks on either side of Lady Bird Lake, according to Community Impact Newspaper.

Preliminary maps of the downtown tunnel show its rough pathway is south from 11th and Guadalupe streets to Republic Square; east along Fourth Street to the Downtown Station, which is between Trinity and Red River streets. From there it would head north along Trinity to 12th Street and south to the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Rainey Street, where one of the proposed light rail lines would then progress above ground across Lady Bird Lake to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Earlier plans for the downtown tunnel, mapped out here by the gray-and-yellow line, saw it crossing Lady Bird Lake above ground. New plans will it go underneath. (Capital Metro)

The new route will see the underground rail platforms originally intended to go beneath Republic Square shift north, under Guadalupe Street between Fifth and Sixth streets, according to KUT. In addition, the tunnel will now extend under the lake just west of the First Street bridge, with an underground stop at Auditorium Shoes, as reported by KVUE. It's not yet clear where the tunnel will give way to an above-ground track, with one option taking it near Academy Street on South Congress Avenue and another taking it as far down as Leland Street.

"In the case of the crossing of the lake, we learned more about some of the conflicts associated with the bridge alignment that led us to think that going underground would really be the more feasible strategy," Mullan told KVUE.

The cost of the expanded tunnel remains unknown, but ATP staff said it won't require asking voters for more money. "We have to work within the budget constraints of the funding that was provided for us by the voters … and it's up to us to figure out how to make that happen," Mullan told KVUE.

Austin voters overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase to help fund Project Connect last November. It will bring two light rail lines and expanded bus service in addition to the underground tunnel over the next 10 to 13 years.

The tunnel route may still change, as construction on the light rail lines isn't due to start for at least three years. In the meantime, ATP staff will present the updated plans to the ATP board on July 21. Capital Metro is also hosting a series of virtual and in-person community events to discuss changes in late July and early August.


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