The 9.5-mile light rail line is expected to cost nearly $1.4 billion, and attract between 16,000 and 20,000 boardings by 2030. While Austin prides itself on being more progressive than the rest of Texas, per-rider costs for Houston’s light rail lines are half or less of what Austin is planning on paying.
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Austin Unveils Pricey Rail Plan
The alignment of Austin’s acrimonious light rail project has been unveiled, along with the price tag. The line will run, as expected, from the old Highland Mall-turned-community college in north Austin, down through downtown and across Lady Bird Lake on a newly built bridge, and then turn east to serve East Riverside Drive. The route has been controversial, with rail activists preferring a route to the west, along a more densely populated corridor that’s already host to the city’s busiest bus line.
The 9.5-mile light rail line is expected to cost nearly $1.4 billion, and attract between 16,000 and 20,000 boardings by 2030. While Austin prides itself on being more progressive than the rest of Texas, per-rider costs for Houston’s light rail lines are half or less what Austin is planning on paying. Much of the cost-ineffectiveness is driven by the alignment and resulting low ridership, but unnecessarily expensive solutions to the route’s obstacles don’t help.
Of the total cost, $175 million would go toward a new bridge across Lady Bird Lake south of downtown, because the project team ruled out the cheaper option of taking any lanes away from drivers on existing bridges. City officials and their consultants are also recommending a $220 million tunnel beneath the existing Red Line tracks north of downtown, an unnecessarily expensive solution to a problem that a cheaper elevated structure or simple flat junction would have solved just fine.
The proposal will likely go to a citywide vote in November, but before that, the city must decide on phasing, since the whole project is likely too large to be funded all at once. (The feds are expected to fund about half of the construction costs.) Transit advocates wanted an entirely different project (one whose per-rider costs would’ve been closer to Houston’s more efficient lines), but are nonetheless pushing for the city to prioritize the East Riverside segment. They expect this segment, traveling southeast from downtown, to get more ridership than the section north of downtown, and also want the city to reconsider building an expensive new bridge across the lake.