New 9-Mile Urban Rail at Highland


East Riverside Drive. A new bridge, or tunnel, crossing the river. Trinity Street and San Jacinto Boulevard. Red River Street. And either Airport Boulevard or an Interstate 35 frontage road to Highland Mall.

Officials Friday unveiled the recommended route of what almost surely would be an electric-powered passenger rail line, a project decades in the making that the city of Austin likely will take to voters in November for authorization of hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds. The proposed nine-mile route would stitch together Central Austin, downtown and Southeast Austin, running from the emerging Austin Community College campus at Highland Mall through the University of Texas, downtown, and along East Riverside Drive to Grove Boulevard. With minor deviations, it follows a path familiar from the series of maps that transit planners previously have drawn for what they call “urban rail.”

Officials with Project Connect, a joint effort of the city, Capital Metro and Lone Star Rail District, left open the possibility that the proposal in its final form could involve buses rather than train cars. But based on years of statements from local officials, the odds are high that rail will prevail this summer when the proposal takes final form and goes before the Austin City Council. The council likely will decide by August whether to put the bond proposal on the ballot.

Aside from the route, Project Connect officials also recommended Friday that the service run every 10 to 15 minutes with stops a half mile to a mile apart. And they said the twin tracks should run on “mostly dedicated” right of way, meaning that the trains would not share lanes with traffic for much of the line.

Although Friday’s map shows the entire route, that does not necessarily mean that bonds to help finance all nine miles will go on the ballot this fall.

“We can’t answer that yet,” said Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s rail lead. “Our perspective is, it’s one project. But the question is, how do we phase it? It could be just one phase.”