Urban Rail

Project Connect

Austin officials unveiled plans today for the city's first urban rail line.

The 9.5 mile long line would run along East Riverside Drive and turn north near the Austin-American Statesman building, cross Lady Bird Lake via bridge, continue through downtown and the University of Texas and end at Highland Mall. The plan also calls for four park & ride areas, two each toward opposite ends of the line.  

The project cost is estimated at $1.38 billion. Officials with Project Connect, the working group of city, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials that made today's recommendation, say they believe the federal government would pay for half of that estimated cost.

Texas Archive of the Moving Image

Austin is inching its way towards the creation of a possible new rail line.

Later today, Project Connect, a group of regional transportation officials including the City of Austin and Capital Metro, is widely expected to unveil a proposed route for urban rail.

The announcement is a further refinement of preliminary findings tapping the East Riverside and Highland Mall regions as prime corridors for investment – a finding many Austin transit advocates found fault with. Once set for the ballot by the Austin City Council, citizens will vote on whether to approve rail funding in an election this November. 

A rendering of upcoming changes to Auditorium Shores.
City of Austin

In its final meeting of the year, the Austin City Council approved a full slate of items.

Among the measures passed was a decision restricting where dogs are permitted at Auditorium Shores. More than a dozen speakers took to the council floor to argue against the change, which would prohibit dogs from lingering on the so-called "Event Lawn" on the east end of Auditorium Shores.

Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensely said the department took community suggestions under advisement when revising the $3.5 million plan for the parkland. But under a new amendment, dogs are only allowed on the event lawn when traveling from a parking lot to the neighboring areas where dogs are allowed. (No one on Parks staff or the City Council bothered to explain just how that would be enforced.)

Wells Dunbar, KUT News

Disclaimer: Project Connect is a KUT sponsor.

Update: The Austin City Council unanimously endorsed two locations for urban rail last night: the Highland Mall region and East Riverside. You can watch citizen testimony and council action on the recommendation.

As KUT reported, investment in those corridors was proposed by Project Connect – a working group of City of Austin, Capital Metro, and other regional transportation officials.

Project Connect named Highland and East Riverside after what it said was a robust, data-driven public input process – but many rail advocates present at the vote last night questioned the process and the decision.

Original story (Dec. 12): To hear Project Connect tell it, they’re practically drowning in data. Project lead Kyle Keahey cited some 45 different measures of information and 11 indices when the group announced its recommendation. (You can look at lots of that data here.)

Project Connect

The group advising the city on urban rail has come out with initial recommendations: a transportation investment that runs from the East Riverside Corridor, through Downtown and out to the Highland Mall region.

As KUT previously reported, the recommendations began by dividing Central Austin into 10 subcorridors – similar to compass points pointing out from a center, including Downtown and the UT campus.

In the end, they chose two subcorridors for investment: Highland and East Riverside.

Project Connect

Now’s your chance to name the parts of Austin that should be served by urban rail.

This week, the City of Austin and its transportation partners are inviting the public to name the subcorridor that would benefit the most from urban rail.

Planners at Project Connect, the team coordinating the city’s rail and regional transportation efforts, have identified 10 subcorridors within central Austin. Not counting downtown’s core, they are (in clockwise order): Lamar, Highland, Mueller, MLK, East Austin, the East Riverside Corridor, South Congress, South Lamar, West Austin, and Mopac. 


It's no secret that traveling through Austin comes with a price: traffic.

However, the way Central Texans commute could change by the turn of the next decade as the region seeks a potential solution to traffic: urban rail.


Austin doesn’t have urban rail – but it’s already suffering from an identity crisis.

That was one big takeaway from a presentation by urban planning experts on how Austin can get a rail project up and running.

Austin is one of four U.S. cities chosen as part of an Urban Land Institute fellowship focusing on urban issues. The participating cities each chose a focus issue for a year-long study – and Austin chose rail.

Callie Hernandez for KUT News

If you’ve ever wondered why a bus line stops at a certain place, or why some parts of town have more transportation options than others, this week Capital Metro has been having a series of open houses to answer those kinds of questions. Residents have shown a lot of interest in plans for urban rail.

Urban rail is still in the planning stages. But the first phase is expected to go from the downtown Convention Center through the UT campus and on to the Mueller neighborhood.

California Rail Map, Alfred Twu

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has promised a public vote on an urban rail system before he leaves office. Considering Austin was just ranked the fourth worst U.S. city for traffic congestion, that news could make for a lot of happy commuters.

Meanwhile, a California group envisions a national high-speed rail system that could transport a person from any major city to another in hours. And this vision has Austin as major train connection hub.


The Austin City Council is tackling a full agenda today. While no one item looks to have the potential to grind the meeting to a halt, a clutch of smaller controversies have the potential to make this meeting a long one. Here’s what’s on the agenda:

The proposed sale of a plot of land on Rainey Street, next to the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC), has likely been taken off the table.

As KUT News reported earlier this week, a private group of investors had offered to buy the parcel and build a parking structure; today, the council was set to consider offers for the land.

The MACC’s board of directors protested that it was never consulted about those plans, which it said would impact the MACC’s view and future plans for the area. 

Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

The Austin City Council will consider Thursday whether to authorize an agreement with Capital Metro to spend $5 million for urban rail planning. The bulk of the money ($4 million) will come from a federal grant that requires a local match of 20 percent ($1 million).

So why spend such a large sum when previous money hasn’t produced any visible results? That was a question raised by council member Bill Spelman at council’s work session Tuesday. “A lot of people are concerned that we are putting the cart before of the horse,” he said. “We are spending four million dollars when we really haven’t decided what to do”.            

In May, the city released recommended routes for the first two phases of Urban Rail. Robert Spillar is the director of the city’s Transportation Department, and he sees the release of the money as the next step. At Tuesday’s work session he said getting the city’s stamp of approval would allow the Transportation Department to “restart” the alternatives analysis. 

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News

Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced on Friday that he opposed putting urban rail funding before voters in 2012 – a move that effectively nixed rail’s funding chances in the November bond election, and raised another round of hand wringing over transportation solutions for Austin. KUT News spoke with Mayor Leffingwell shortly after his announcement.

KUT NEWS: I doubt there was any one variable that lead you to your decision, but what were your reasons?

Lee Leffingwell: It’s a whole bunch of things coming together, but underlying it is, we have not yet answered some of the basic questions. We might have an answer prior to November, but time is running short to get the complete picture in place and to be able to go out and market it. Because you don’t just put this on the ballot and go away and hope for the best. You’ve got to really present it to the public. There’s a full education process that goes on with something like this. You have to go out and explain it to people.

Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

Citing timing and financial constraints, Mayor Lee Leffingwell is arguing funding for Urban Rail shouldn't be put to voters this November.

In a post on his website, Mayor Leffingwell writes "we do not yet have a sufficient level of certainty regarding a plan to fund and manage operations and maintenance of an urban rail system. We also do not yet have the degree of certainty that I would like to see as it relates to a prospective federal funding match for construction costs, which is a fundamental need."

He also notes that in addition to potential rail funding on the ballot this November, "we are also poised to ask [voters] to approve a host of other critically needed bond investments." 

Image courtesy theoverheadwire.blogspot.com

On paper, the Austin City Council’s urban rail work session this morning was devoted to rail investment options. While the council discussed funding – including a worst-case scenario where the city collected bond dollars, but no matching federal grant – the proposed rail route received another vetting.

Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar started the session by recapping much of the work so far, and some of the reasoning behind the proposal as it stands. For instance, part of the reason rail has been proposed in two phases is due to what Spillar said was a desire to “simplify the overall proposed investment, making it that much more competitive when we go to the federal level.”

Those federal dollars – or lack thereof – were the subject of discussion.

Photo by Liang Shi for KUT News

For all we know, our Austin City Council members – like most the rest of Austin – got in some rest and relaxation over Memorial Day.

Here's hoping they did, as despite the absence of a regular council meeting this Thursday, today brings two high profile work sessions on hot button topics: urban rail, and Austin Energy rates.

Urban rail is up first, at 9 a.m. Last week, the council received its first detailed briefing on funding schemes the city’s considering to pay for the first recommended phase of rail. That first phase would serve downtown, the Capitol Complex, the University of Texas, Hancock Center and the Mueller development.

Photo by Wells Dunbar for KUT News

The Bond Election Advisory Task Force has continued to refine a potential bond package to send to Austin voters this November.

The latest iteration of the proposals comes in at $400 million. That's down from an initial $1.5 billion department-wide “needs assessment,” then packages valued at $650 million and $575 million. The Austin City Council will eventually choose the projects that make it to voters.

Funds are organized under the following categories: affordable housing, city facilities, community-based projects, parks and open spaces, and transportation and mobility. 

Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

What’s the estimated cost of Austin’s first urban rail investment? $550 million.

That was the price tag the Austin City Council heard in a work session this morning. Assistant City Manager Robert Goode said some $550 million was required to build the first proposed phase of urban rail, from the convention center through the UT-Austin campus and on the Mueller neighborhood.

And while the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts funding program could cover roughly half of that, rail consultants said the city would need to cover the other $275 million, likely in large part through a bond election – should council place it on the ballot, and voters approve it.

Photo by Caleb Bryant Miller for KUT News

Austin’s urban rail plans will take a major step tomorrow when a preliminary funding and phasing plan will be outlined during an Austin City Council work session.

The Austin Transportation Department sent out a memo last Thursday outlining initial phases of investment for urban rail. 

The first proposed phase would serve Downtown, the Capitol Complex, UT, Hancock Center and Mueller. Phase Two would cross the river and head down Riverside Drive to Pleasant Valley.

Image courtesy Austin Transportation Department.

The City of Austin Transportation Department says the first phase of a new urban rail system should run from the convention center downtown, through the UT-Austin campus, and on to the Mueller neighborhood.

In a memo released today, the department also laid out a path for a second phase going south of the river. That route would head south from the convention center, across Lady Bird Lake and then run along East Riverside Drive to Pleasant Valley road.

The memo doesn’t have cost estimates for either route. The Austin City Council will take up the recommendations and cost estimates during two upcoming work sessions. On May 22, it will hear a conceptual funding plan, then on May 29, the council will hear a Transportation staff-recommended “next investment.”