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.
- Elon Musk "The Boring Company" tunnel to be built in Austin ... ›
- 5 ways Project Connect is moving forward in Austin - austonia ›
- City, Capital Metro form oversight board for Project Connect - austonia ›
- Austin voters ask: How feasible is Project Connect's $7.1B price tag ... ›
- Dramatic downtown Austin drone shows scope of Project Connect's ... ›
Since Austin voters approved a property tax rate increase to help fund Project Connect last November, the 13-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of the local transit system has moved full steam ahead.
In addition to the creation of a new oversight organization, Austin City Council has allocated millions of dollars for initial anti-displacement efforts, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has delighted public transit advocates and crews have taken the first steps toward the downtown tunnel.
1. First stop: oversight
(Top left going clockwise) Mayor Steve Adler, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, Veronica Castro de Barrera, Eric Stratton and Tony Elkins.
Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of trustees created the Austin Transit Partnership, which will oversee the implementation and governance of Project Connect, in December.
The ATP board includes five members: Austin Mayor Steve Adler, representing council; CapMetro board member Eric Stratton; Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University; Veronica Castro de Barrera, principal owner of the VCdB Architecture & Art firm, which designed CapMetro's commuter rail stations; and Tony Elkins, an infrastructure, transportation and project finance professional.
ATP's responsibilities include coordinating resources and implementing anti-displacement strategies.
2. Anti-displacement efforts are moving forward, with $23 million in initial funding
Previous transit projects, including the construction of I-35 in the 1960s, displaced existing Black communities and reinforced segregation. Project Connect aims to avoid continuing this legacy. (Emma Freer/Austonia)
The Project Connect budget includes a historic $300 million anti-displacement fund, of which $100 million is to be spent in the first two years.
In February, Austin City Council allocated an initial $23 million for anti-displacement projects, including land acquisition and preservation, to be spent, ideally, by Sept. 30. The former focuses on providing funding to community-based organizations so that they can buy land in areas vulnerable to gentrification and near Project Connect routes, in the hopes of developing affordable housing on those sites. The latter involves helping preserve existing affordable housing by developing cooperatives among tenants and homeowners in the same areas.
Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested some of the funding be used to acquire land near the forthcoming MetroRapid bus routes at Pleasant Valley and the Expo Center. "I would be concerned if we don't use this $23 million to take advantage of really trying to protect for anti-displacement along those lines that are coming up first," she said at a March 11 housing and planning committee meeting. "Because that was the idea behind upfronting the $23 million this year to get a start on that."
Meanwhile, the city of Austin and ATP have convened a group of residents in need of transit and vulnerable to displacement to help identify equitable ways to allocate the remaining $267 million in funding.
3. A green light for federal funding
Pete Buttigieg marched with Austin Mayor Steve Adler through downtown in 2019 during Austin's Pride Parade. (Pete Buttigieg/Facebook)
The Federal Transit Administration awarded Capital Metro a $900,000 grant in December to support Project Connect planning and anti-displacement efforts. Nearly half of the $7.1 billion budget is expected to come through federal grants. Although this initial grant represents only a fraction of the federal funding required, public transit advocates say Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will be a champion of local initiatives such as Project Connect.
Last week, Buttigieg spoke to KVUE about President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes funding for transit systems. "One remarkable thing about Austin is that with efforts like Project Connect, the city, the community, the people have already made a decision to step up and deliver more infrastructure," he said. The passage of the infrastructure plan would mean "that there will be more federal dollars to back up those communities that are making those tough choices and preparing for the future."
4. Laying the tracks for light rail
A little over two months since Prop A passed, the NEPA process & engineering is underway! A drilling barge will be taking soil samples from Lady Bird Lake—one of the 1st steps in obtaining soil info for the Blue Line bridge over the lake for #ProjectConnect’s proposed Blue Line. pic.twitter.com/CRGJouZS7R— Capital Metro (@CapMetroATX) January 14, 2021
Project Connect includes two light rail lines: the orange line, which will run approximately 21 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center at North Lamar Boulevard and Hwy. 183 to Stassney Lane, and the blue line, which will run approximately 15 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center through downtown and east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
Although the lines aren't expected to open to the public until 2029, engineering and field crews have already begun work on them: finalizing the track plans, taking soil samples under Lady Bird Lake where a downtown tunnel is planned and surveying heritage trees along the rail routes. By this summer, 15% of the design should be complete.
5. Getting the community on board
🚉 Austin's new MetroRail Downtown Station has arrived! In less than 18 months, the much-anticipated downtown station is now open, ahead of schedule and under budget! Watch as we debut the new station and public plaza with @MayorAdler and other city and community leaders. pic.twitter.com/2YFde0Jd8Z— Capital Metro (@CapMetroATX) October 22, 2020
CapMetro will host a series of virtual public meetings this week, with a focus on forthcoming stations. Interested in providing feedback on what the stations should look like and offer? You can register for Zoom meetings on Tuesday evening, Wednesday midday or Thursday morning here. Austinites can also share comments with the project team via online survey, phone, email or mail. More information can be found here.
- Dramatic downtown Austin drone shows scope of Project Connect's ... ›
- Project Connect includes $300M to fight displacement - austonia ›
- Austin voters ask: How much with Project Connect raise my taxes ... ›
- Project Connect begins scoping phase, officially hitting the road ... ›
- Pete Buttigieg says the future of transportation is clean - austonia ›
- Austin's Project Connect's downtown tunnel changes routes - austonia ›
Keeping Austin weird: 9 times 'the People's Republic of Austin' was more progressive than the rest of Texas
There's a reason Austin is known as that "blueberry floating in a bowl of tomato soup," even if the phrase was not meant to be taken as a compliment. "The People's Republic of Austin" has a history of doing things differently than the rest of the state sometimes.
Whether being thrown around by Texas' longstanding Republicans, like when Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated "getting out of the People's Republic of Austin," or embraced by Austin's leftward-leaning, the phrase was coined for Austin's stark departure from the values of the rest of the state.
But what actually sets Austin apart from the rest of Texas? Here's how Austin has been more progressive than the red state it's in.
1. The local mask mandate is still in effect
Masks are still required in Austin. (Pexels)
Despite Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order that 100% reopened Texas last month, the city of Austin fought to continue to mask use through a loophole allowing the city health authority to make COVID ordinances. Though Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against the city, Austin stood its ground and won when Texas Judge Lora Livingston ruled the city could keep its mandate.
2. Project Connect passed, despite big tax increase
A rendering of what Project Connect will bring to Austin. (Capital Metro)
Despite the $7.1 billion price tag and a 20% increase to the city's property tax rate, Austinites passed Prop A in November, a.k.a Project Connect, with flying colors. A long time coming, voters rejected two other light rail proposals in 2014 and 2000. Project Connect is expected to be partially complete by 2030, a long investment, but is expected to reduce Austin's worsening traffic, provide transit equity and reduce the city's carbon footprint.
3. Cannabis has been decriminalized
Austin does not make arrests for low-level marijuana offenses. (Pexels)
Former police chief Brian Manley announced that APD officers would no longer make arrests or write tickets for low-level, non-violent possession of marijuana offenses on July 2, 2020, six months after Austin City Council ordered APD to do so. After Manley argued against the order, saying it was still illegal on the federal level, Austin City Council voted to no longer pay for marijuana testing, which severely impacted the chances of achieving conviction. Of course, Austin stoner Willie Nelson rejoiced, announcing a cannabis line and convention earlier this year.
4. "Black Austin Matters" mural
Black Artists Matter is painted on East 11th Street in Austin. (Lars Plougmann/CC)
Setting the city apart from other big metro areas like San Francisco, New York and the rest of Texas, The Austin Justice Coalition and Capitol View Arts decided to keep focus local when they painted "Black Austin Matters" instead of "Black Lives Matter" on Congress Avenue, leading up to the Texas Capitol, on June 16, 2020. While Dallas was the only city in Texas that beat Austin to the punch, painting the resonant phrase "Black Lives Matter" in front of Dallas City Hall, Austin's was the first city-sanctioned mural and the only city with two declarations; on East 11th, the same organizations painted "Black Artists Matter" in support of not only Black Austinites, but Black Artists who have been keeping the arts alive in Austin for decades.
5. Austin embraced the Green New Deal and is working toward greener energy
Austin has been forthcoming with plans to be a greener city. (Capital Metro)
The highly-contested Green New Deal, brought forth by U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to try and curb greenhouse gas emissions, was formally backed by Austin City Council in May 2019. Though the deal did not pass, some council members called the resolution "a win/win for everybody," as it addresses issues Austin currently deals with: natural disasters and carbon-based transit. Known as Flash Flood Alley, Central Texas is no stranger to inclement weather and one resolution in the Green New Deal called for cities to hire a "resilience officer" to guide Austin through future environmental challenges. Austin still has yet to hire said officer but City Council has recommended it on more than one occasion. The second resolution called for cities to lower the carbon footprint through greener transit options. As part of Project Connect, Austin has committed to purchase only zero-emission electric buses by 2022 (and they even have USB ports). The City also plans to integrate 125 new electric bikes in addition to the 200 already on the streets.
Additionally, Austin Energy has made a commitment to shift to more use of renewable energy with a solar, wind and biomass plant.
6. Austin is a "Freedom City"
In an ongoing battle to address immigration and racial disparities in the city, Austin City Council voted in favor of "Freedom City" policies in June 2018. In two resolutions, the City committed to the reduction of arrests for low-level charges, as they contribute to racial disparities in the Travis County Jail system and deportation. The City also vowed to create policies to protect immigrants, such as informing them of their right not to answer when asked of immigration status and document the circumstances that led to the question being asked. The policy is the first of its kind in the U.S.
7. Austin's total reverence for Leslie Cochran
Colloquially known as "Leslie the homeless man," Cochran was ahead of his time. A cross-dresser, though he would likely be known as a "queen" in today's terms, Cochran became famous for strutting around the streets of Austin in a leopard-print thong and platform heels. Cochran became the epitome of weird in Austin, running for mayor three times, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and was an outspoken advocate for homeless rights and justice against police brutality. The city was completely devoted to Leslie; he died on March 8, 2012, after a head injury in 2009 left him in declining health. The date was declared "Leslie Day" by former mayor Lee Leffingwell. Hundreds gathered at Cochran's memorials, a "Love for Leslie" parade and he is still known for being a symbol of tolerance.
8. “Keep Austin Weird” was popularized by a desire to keep businesses local
Keep Austin Weird can still be found on bumpers around town. (Al Mendelsohn/cc)
Local Austin Community College librarian Red Wassenich called his local radio station to make his annual donation in 2000. Asked by the host why he was donating, Wassennich said it "helps keep Austin weird," and a local brand campaign was born. The slogan was written on bumper stickers by Wassenich and his wife and popularized as a movement. Quickly picked up by Waterloo Records and Book People, which sold bumper stickers as well, the phrase became synonymous with local businesses. When chain bookstore Borders tried to move in, on 6th Street and Lamar in downtown Austin, across the street from the original Book People and Waterloo, it was heavily opposed by the community and local nonprofit, Liveable City. In the end, Borders pulled out of the development and small businesses won. Austin stayed weird.
9. Austin is the only “topless tested” city in Texas
A nude notice sign sits outside Hippie Hollow at 7000 Comanche Trail. (CC)
Technically women can go topless anywhere in Texas, according to advocacy group GoTopless, which cites that the Lone Star State is one of "top freedom" among a majority of other U.S. states. However, Austin is the only "topless tested" city in Texas, and one of only 15 cities total, meaning our local women are more likely to free the nipple. Austin doesn't have any local public nudity laws but that doesn't mean you can't be arrested for disorderly conduct or lewd behavior. If you want to don your birthday suit, you might be better off heading to Hippie Hollow, Texas' only nude park.
- Thinking about moving to Austin? Here are 8 Things You'll Love ... ›
- The grackle is undoubtedly Austin's most controversial bird - austonia ›
- How to Austin: a field guide to a weird city - austonia ›
A Capital Metro MetroRail train hit a car at a North Austin crossing around 11 a.m. Tuesday morning. One passenger in the car has been transported to a nearby hospital, according to a statement.
The CapMetro team called for emergency services. A few customers were on the train and are being transported to their destinations.
"We will conduct a comprehensive safety review of this incident, and we will support our partners at the Austin Police Department to fully asses this incident and any next steps," according to a statement.
The MetroRail is a 32-mile route that connects downtown to North Austin and Leander.
- Project Connect in Austin proposes two light rail lines - austonia ›
- Capital Metro maps out next steps for Project Connect - austonia ›
- Capital Metro approves $24M Broadmoor MetroRail station - austonia ›