clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Longtime Austin Burger Joint Is Saved From Proposed Rail Line Project for Now

Dirty Martin’s is staying put on Guadalupe Street after Project Connect changes its plans

A restaurant building at twilight with a sign reading Dirty Martin’s.
Dirty Martin’s.
Dirty Martin’s

Austin’s not-great infrastructure doesn’t match the rate of its expanding population — congested highways, poor public transportation, nonexistent sidewalks. In an attempt to address these issues, city officials have been working on projects to better these systems to create a livable, more viable metropolis. This includes the proposed light rail plan, Project Connect. However, some members of the community have pointed out that progress could come at a high cost — specifically, the potential destruction of legendary Austin businesses, including the nearly 100-year-old West Campus burger joint Dirty Martin’s. But in a welcome and unexpected piece of recent news, the Austin Transit Partnership announced that the restaurant’s address will be removed from the planned path of the train.

Backtracking a bit, in November 2020, Austin voters approved Proposition A, a measure that would ensure city funding and tax dollars for the building of a light rail system. Project Connect would be the biggest expansion of the city’s mass transit since CapMetro started running city buses in 1985.

Project Connect’s first proposed phase includes the Orange Line, a track that will run north-south, with construction projected to start in 2027. The original draft included a route that would pass through Guadalupe Street, replacing car traffic on the section alongside the University of Texas at Austin campus. And that stretch contains many businesses and restaurants, which includes Dirty Martin’s.

When this was announced, Dirty Martin’s owner Mark Nemir and general manager Daniel Young sprang into action. They launched an online petition in March 2022 asking CapMetro (which is leading the project) to change the route and save the business, which gained over 24,000 signatures.

In November 2023, the Dirty Martin’s team joined a lawsuit filed with former and current city and state officials and an environmental nonprofit that called for Project Connect’s tax contributions to be suspended. The suit argued that the plans changed from the original promises that Austin residents voted for in 2020 and what was approved by the city in June 2023 (which includes downsizing the light rail line to only 10 miles). Thus, the voters aren’t “getting anything close to the benefit of the bargain they made,” per the suit.

Several months later, Dirty Martin’s efforts finally paid off. On February 7, 2024, the Transit Partnership announced that after reexamining the designs and speaking with community members, it decided to change the plans. The organization “is confident [...] that the existing buildings along this stretch no longer have conflicts with the light rail alignment,” it shared on its website. It’ll shift the proposed track along Guadalupe away from the businesses and place bike and bus routes on nearby side streets, thus saving Dirty Martin’s, as well as restaurants Mighty Mo’s, Abu Omar Halal, Whataburger, and the Ballroom, per KXAN.

Nemir told CBS Austin that he is “cautiously thrilled” about the change, but that he won’t assume the restaurant is in the clear until he sees the new proposal in writing. The lawyers representing the lawsuit plaintiffs, Bill Ashire and Rick Fine, shared a statement with KVUE that while their clients are happy about this news, they won’t be dropping the suit. They shared a statement with the news channel saying that the plans have changed so often from its inception that “it doesn’t even resemble what voters approved,” and they ask, “Are there any limits to how much they can undemocratically change the transit plan?”

Realistically, it’ll be a long time until the light rail system even gets started. This lawsuit could take years to resolve, which would require a hold on rail construction until the suit is dropped or settled. CapMetro was approved for a multi-million dollar grant from the Federal Transit Administration in 2023 to help offset the Project Connect expenses. But that fund is contingent on a years-long process of check-ins and benchmarks, so it could be years before the valuable funding comes in. At the same time, the Austin Transit Partnership will continue its studies and analyses to figure out exactly where stops should be placed and how the track structures should look and function (like the studies that resulted in Dirty Martin’s reprieve), which could extend the timeline even further.

What also complicates Project Connect’s plans is another large-scale infrastructure project happening simultaneously: the expansion of I-35, a massive (and controversial) highway project launched by the Texas Department of Transportation with state and federal funds. The I-35 project is scheduled to begin by late 2024, and because there are some potential area overlaps between the two, the city may encourage CapMetro to hold off on Project Connect until the I-35 development is well underway (or even until it’s complete). That may very well add many more years to Project Connect’s timeline. And just as Project Connect threatened the existence of Dirty Martin’s and other businesses on the Drag, the I-35 plan could result in the removal of shops, bars, and restaurants along the I-35 frontage road, like the Stars Cafe diner and the Glass Coffin in Cherrywood.

Don’t expect Dirty Martin’s to stay quiet now that it’s been removed from the kill list for now. The petition remains active in case plans change (again). Nemir and Young also continue to show up at public meetings about Project Connect. In 2023, filmmaker Harrison Chiu released Keep Austin Dirty: A Tale of Old Austin, a documentary that covers the decades-long history of Dirty Martin’s and makes a case for why this city institution needs to remain exactly where it is.

Dirty Martin's Place

2808 Guadalupe Street, , TX 78705 (512) 477-3173 Visit Website