Success at last! Austin votes to install light rail system

30 November 2020

Campaign poster for Austin’s Proposition A transit ballot measure, showing LRT trains, with annotation after Nov. 3 victory. ACTPAC graphic, annotated by ARN.

It’s taken over 40 years of proposals, planning, debate, defeats, and delays, but finally, on 3 November 2020, despite the daunting challenges of the global Covid-19 pandemic and massive economic crisis, 58.3% of Austin voters approved a $7.1 billion major transit upgrade and expansion to the Capital Metro (transit authority) system, including a New-Start electric light rail transit (LRT) system for the city. For the initial starter system, two lines are proposed, intersecting in a downtown subway tunnel. About 45% of the capital funding is expected to come from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. To cover the local 55% share, even in these hard times, voters okayed a modest increase in the local property tax ($0.0875 per $100 valuation).

At long last, this amazingly successful vote redeems the very narrow failure of Capital Metro’s LRT vote in 2000. While that plan received a majority of City of Austin votes, it failed by less than 2000 total votes in the more suburban and rural parts of Capital Metro’s service area. In contrast, the 2020 ballot measure involved City of Austin voters (and City bonding authority) only, receiving a comfortable majority margin of eight percentage points. Ironically, the Orange Line component of the LRT plan just approved is, in large part, a replication of the central North-Lamar-to-South-Congress alignment proposed in the 2000 plan!

This latest vote, for the ballot measure identified as Proposition A, also approved not just light rail, but a massive increase in Austin’s overall transit system, including an upgrade of the bus network with improved service frequency plus new “bus rapid transit” (more the “light” variety than the full, capital-heavy type); conversion to an all-electric bus fleet; a citywide on-demand pickup/circulator bus/van system; and an upgrade and expansion of the MetroRail light regional railway service, operated with diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) rolling stock compliant with Federal Railroad Administration “heavy” mainline railroad standards. In the map below, the proposed new LRT lines are shown in orange (gold) and light blue; the “BRT” lines are purple; the existing MetroRail line is red, and the new MetroRail line is green.

Map shows system plan of public transit system approved by Austin voters on Nov. 3rd. Graphic: Project Connect.

The basic anchor of the planned LRT system is the Orange Line, which will create a powerful public transport backbone along the crucial North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress travel and urban development route – Austin’s heaviest-traffic, highly developed, and most centrally positioned major local corridor. For background, the importance of this corridor, and the decades of intensive, agonizing public interest, studies, hopes, indecision, deliberations, and proposals concerning it, are described in ARN’s 2015 report, Long saga of Guadalupe-Lamar light rail planning told in maps. For additional background on the importance of this corridor, also see: Latest TTI data confirm — Guadalupe-Lamar is central local arterial corridor with heaviest travel and Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

The initial alignment of the Orange Line is planned to stretch from the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC) at U.S. 183 and North Lamar, southward down Lamar, then Guadalupe, and into a downtown subway with a major underground hub at Republic Square (W. 4th St.). Continuing south, the subway is currently proposed to extend under the Colorado River (locally known as LadyBird Lake). Emerging back to the surface, it would proceed in the median of South Congress southward to a provisional terminus at Stassney Lane. The longer-range plan entails extending this line north to Capital Metro’s transit hub at Tech Ridge, and southward to a new multi-modal center at Slaughter Lane/Southpark Meadows.

The Blue Line, to be developed concomitantly, would interline with the Orange Line from the NLTC into the downtown subway. At the Republic Square junction, the Blue Line would branch eastward, running in its own short tunnel a few blocks to a proposed Downtown Station. Emerging from the subway, it would then head across the river on a new multi-modal bridge. It would then turn eastward again, following East Riverside Drive and other alignments to reach a terminal at the ABIA Airport

Preliminary tunnel construction plans have envisioned using the cut-and-cover method. However, geometric and engineering constraints and subsurface conditions may favor the use of deep boring. For rolling stock, planning has assumed peak four-car consists of articulated electric LRT vehicles. For the Orange Line alone, ridership in excess of 85,000 per day has been forecast for the year 2040 in systems-level planning.

Vigorous grassroots community involvement has been key to the successful outcome of Austin’s long-recognized need for urban rail. A persistent campaign spearheaded initially by the Texas Association for Public Transportation in the 1970s, joined in the 2000s by the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC), gradually mobilized a coalition of local activists and organizations to maintain an unrelenting public focus on the need for an LRT system anchored in the North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress corridor. To its great credit, Capital Metro’s planning program, Project Connect, mounted a massive community outreach program, reaching tens of thousands of individuals throughout the city, and created the Project Connect Ambassadors Network (PCAN), involving dozens of key community activists who met monthly to interact with the official planning team, inputting ideas and helping shape the development of the final plan.

During the election campaign the official campaign leadership and planning team, organized as Transit for Austin and the Mobility for All PAC, managed a well-run, aggressive, consistent, and effective public involvement and media campaign that certainly played a crucial role in achieving this victory. This was bolstered by other community efforts, particularly the Austin Coalition for Transit PAC (ACTPAC).

All in all, Austin’s LRT New Start achievement is an amazing leap forward for a concept that started with the vision and aspirations of a few community activists in the 1970s. These early dreams and hopes led them to catalyze the effort to create a transit authority in the mid-1980s; to persevere through the narrow LRT plan defeat in 2000; to inspire and attract additional community support; to reject the flawed plan in 2014; and finally to soldier on to an astonishing success for a widely supported multi-line LRT system in this otherwise catastrophic year.



  1. Sad day for Austin! Huge tax increase, decades long transit projects which will serve only 1% of the population, accelerate gentrification, economically harm the least prosperous and minorities, force people out of Austin, not reduce congestion, not improve air quality, and will be obsolete and useless. The only beneficiaries of this disastrous spending are a handful of rail enthusiasts who have no common sense, consultants, politicians and bureaucrats. Completely ignored (because it does not have a toy train) is an Austin citizen invented mass transit solution Cellular Mass Transit http://www.CMT4Austin.org known since 2007, which would serve 100% of the population, cost a fraction of Prop A&B with no tax increase, be implemented in a fews years, not decades.

  2. “Sad day for Austin?” HORSE MANURE. This is one of the greatest days in the history of the great city of Austin and the NONSENSE, the utter and absolute INANITY coming from the road warrior above who sent in the previous comment is proof that the only people who will not benefit from this marvelous initiative are damn fools such as he and his ilk who have vested interest in the same and still in existence Conspiracy which destroyed much–if not most–of America’s street and electric railways. The people who voted for this project are the ones who not only DO have common sense but who realize that this great project will be good for the region environmentally, economically and ecologically. Congratulations to those who were and are smart enough realize that the curmudgeonly stupidity of the anti-rail mass transit haters had to be overwhelmed and overcome, and the people of Austin did exactly that. Congratulations to one of Texas’s and America’s greatest–and smartest cities.

    • Sad to hear people who don’t know the facts regarding Austin’s failed rail system, and country wide decline in transit ridership for decades that a 7 billion more of the same won’t cure. Good luck spending more to get less.

      • And much, much, much sadder to hear people who don’t know the facts regarding Austin’s upcoming great rail system. And since it hasn’t even been built, how could it be “failed,” which is nonsense spoken by a true rail-hater. As for his utter fol-de-rol regarding a “country wide decline in transit ridership for decades,” how could there not be when all the state has done– other than in Dallas and Houston–nothing but pour billions upon billions into the debacle called highways, all built at taxpayer expense and costing billions to maintain with NO–none of any kind–return of revenue to the taxpayer. Not only will the construction bring thousands of jobs but once the system begins operating–from the very first day–it will show its value. PS: all the highways do–even the toll roads–is cost us more and more, so anything we do to get cars off the road is a step forward in improving our economy, our environment and our ecological surroundings. Time to get off the rail-hating Conspiracy horse, Skip. That ol’ girl should have been put out to pasture more than seventy years ago.

  3. Great news, it will make getting around Austin a MUCH more pleasant experience!

  4. This is nice to hear, way to go. As a transportation planning consultant who has been working in the industry longer than I care to admit (I’m getting old, my left knee actually creeks) and has been following your city’s transit development for more than a decade, I congratulate you. However, the hard part is just starting, don’t loose your focus.

    My oldest friend in the world is a developer who prefers developing in city cores and areas that are interested in building new kinds and types of businesses and housing. He prefers cities with real rail transit networks and a highly educated population as well as a great “alternative & funky vibe”. I’m sure he will be heading to Austin very soon.

    @Skip Cameron, unfortunately road warriors like yourself are on the wrong side of history. As cities get bigger, roads as the main type of transportation infrastructure become less and less cost and operationally efficient. Oh, if I had a dollar everytime someone proposed something like your transit idea, I would have retired years ago.

    You have made several critical assumptions that are wrong and don’t understand the great inefficiencies of your plan. The primary problem is that your trying to do it on the cheap with little excess capacity for future growth. Road based systems have been massively subsidized far more than rail ever has in the U.S.A. Your country has the most expensive to maintain, over built and inefficient road network ever built. Transportation systems like roads and rail based rapid transit require big government and or private investments. Roads also rarely make a profit. This is one of the reasons why, with all your roads, your country has one of the biggest infrastructure deficits in the world.

    More lanes won’t help, they make it worse through induced demand and produce an built environment that few want to live in unless, its an inward facing, home or business development locked away in its own single use building, or development area. With little mixing between the public and with any other developments.

    However, keep trying, I never look away from good new ideas.

  5. Interesting to see how the different dynamics at work from state to state play out…..looks like this is a national issue that plays out at different levels of success…..

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