Following an announcement by Austin Transit Partnership officials on their final recommendation regarding the light rail portion of Project Connect on May 23, ATP Executive Director Greg Canally spoke with Community Impact about the future of the project.

Why did the ATP choose the 38th Street to Oltorf Street option?

We wanted to choose the option that would sustainably support the growing region that is Austin. Light rail has been talked about for over 25 years, and we are now moving forward with that. We are ready to get going. This option allows us to increase network capacity, improving access between affordable housing and jobs. Phase 1 connects to 20,000 affordable housing units and 126,000 current jobs, with more jobs projected in the future. So, this option gives great coverage and the most expandable system in the future. It gets people north, east and south—with expansion to the west in the long-term. We want a system that Austinites see as their own.

How did the ATP balance community feedback wanting an airport connection and the organizations' feedback wanting the 38th to Oltorf proposal?

We had 90 different meetings, including 45 different bus stop trips, and had over 8,000 contacts with folks. A lot of community groups also set up a dialogue, and we got comments back about how accessible and responsive our team has been throughout the six-week listening tour. This decision reflects the expertise of our engineering staff and the community's priorities. We heard loud and clear that Austinites wanted to get something built and make sure it is a system connected with the current and future transit system. The community has rolled up its sleeves along with us, and this recommendation is of the community and from us, too. We have strong support for this alignment.

What does the priority connection to the airport mean, and what does that timeline look like?

We heard from the community that access to the airport is really important. The end of the Yellow Jacket connection to the airport would be a priority extension. We have a couple of years of planning to figure the details out for this while we complete the federal grant program and the environmental process. While this is happening, we will continue talking with the community about the impacts of this extension. We are not sure yet if this will be an additional bus or train, but it will be part of the interconnected system—we are in the business of seamless connections. We have to have the right financial conditions to move forward with this and include the extension in Phase 1. We would have to have an additional funding stream that we don't currently have. If that does not happen, we have eight to 10 years of construction for Phase 1 to figure out this extension and when we could do it.

What is the expected timeline for construction to start, and when should we see the light rail trains up and running?

The first step is acquiring federal grants, which will match about 50% of the funding needed for this project to move forward. It will take about one to two years for the federal grant process. After that, it will take about six to eight years for construction, so we are looking at an overall timeline of about eight to 10 years. This is an extensive project, and we need to make great urban design decisions that reflect the fabric of our transit network and keep in mind our environment. We want to do it right, and we want to do it well. We still have a lot more listening to do before we move forward.

What are the possible effects of both the Senate Bill 3899 legislation and the attorney general opinion on the project's finances and a possible future election?

We just received the attorney general opinion on Saturday, [May 20], so we are still looking at it. As far as the legislation goes, it is still moving forward. However, we feel confident that there is strong support for advancing the Austin light rail system. We had nearly 60% of support when the election happened a few years ago, and whatever the Legislature does, we can strongly make sure we know what we are doing is to fulfill the voters' wishes. We are focused on the community and responding to the community.