Austin Embraces $7 Billion Transit Investment Plan

A Capital Metro train in East Austin.

A Capital Metro train in East Austin. Steven Polunsky/Flickr

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

City voters approved a tax hike that will fund a new rail system, bus routes, and shuttles, in addition to investments in bike lanes, sidewalks, and urban trails.

Austin voters overwhelmingly backed a plan aimed at making the Texas capital easier to get around without a car, agreeing to tax hikes to pay for major investments in the city’s public transportation infrastructure. 

Austin voters last week approved two ballot measures. Proposition A, arguably the most ambitious transit plan the car-centric city had ever proposed, called for a permanent increase in property taxes to fund a $7.1 billion investment in mass transit, primarily a new rail system and expanded bus fleet. Proposition B authorized the city to issue $460 million in bonds for transportation improvements focused on pedestrian and bicyclist safety, like new bike lanes, sidewalks, and urban trails. Both passed by wide margins. 

The improvements are part of a plan that Capital Metro, the city’s transportation authority, dubbed “Project Connect.” The goal is to build the city’s first light rail system, complete with 31 stations along 27 miles of track, along with expanded bus routes, shuttles to transit stations, and new park-and-ride stations. The project will also include electric bicycle fleets stationed at transit hubs and a new 20-block-long underground tunnel through downtown for both trains and cars. Project planners estimate that the new transit options, built out over the next eight to ten years, could eliminate 250,000 daily car trips.

The property tax hike will provide the initial funding for the project, and local leaders are hoping to get another infusion of cash from the Federal Transit Authority Capital Investment Grants program. The next step is for the city to pick five people to sit on the board of Austin Transit Partnership, the body in charge of contracting and disbursing funds.

Randy Clarke, president of Capital Metro, thanked voters for giving the transit authority the green light to move forward on Project Connect—especially considering that voters rejected similar proposals to build a rail line in the city in both 2000 and 2014. “This yes vote for Project Connect is a huge step toward creating a more equitable and livable city, providing more and better ways for people to access jobs, education, health care and new opportunities,” he said. 

Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, said that while Austin was “slow to join the movement” due to their trouble getting plans approved in the past, it’s “great to see them become a competitive city…where it will be easier to attract and retain talent.” 

Osborne was particularly enthused to see that Prop A includes a measure intended to limit displacement as the city builds new transit options. It’s not uncommon for new transportation projects to lead to gentrification as floods of young workers move closer to transit options and drive up rents for long term residents. In Austin, there’s a history of transportation projects—namely the construction of highways in the 1960s and 1970s—that displaced Black residents. 

In July, City Councilmember Natasha Harper-Madison told local news station KXAN that Project Connect was a chance to finally “get it right.” Prop A sets aside $300 million to go towards rental subsidies, construction of new affordable housing development, and financial assistance for homebuyers who live near new transit stops. 

“If you make a good investment in a neighborhood, it’ll naturally make the neighborhood more valuable,” Osborne said. “Having a parallel effort to ensure that the residents of that community are the real beneficiaries of that investment shows that they’re being intentional about progress. We need to see more of that going forward.”

Opposition to Project Connect focused not only on the cost of the proposal, but also on the fact that public transit ridership is down in the coronavirus pandemic. Peck Young, director of the advocacy group Voices of Austin, was the most prominent opposition voice as Election Day approached. Young voiced concerns that with more people working from home—a trend many people believe could continue even after the pandemic— “investing in light rail is like investing in landline telephones.”

But Romic Aevaz, a policy analyst for the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said that while there was uncertainty about the success of transit-oriented ballot measures during the pandemic, the “fact that the measure not only passed, but also passed with an overwhelming margin, is a sign that voters saw the long-term value in investing in a mass transit system.”

“It is worth noting that many of the pro-Prop A campaign materials emphasized the critical role of public transit for many of the city’s (and the country’s) essential workers, and framed a vote for Prop A as a vote for essential workers,” Aevaz continued. “I also noticed a significant emphasis from many Prop A supporters framing the measure as ‘Austin’s Green New Deal.’ So while people may not be focusing explicitly on mass transit amid low ridership if they are working from home, people nonetheless appear to value the role that transit plays post-Covid, and at a minimum understand the role it will play as part of the city’s climate strategy.”

The measure’s success might also be owed to young people in the city who don’t have cars and are more likely to live in dense neighborhoods where public transit is the preferable option. Capital Metro Board Chair Wade Cooper, in a press conference on election night, said that young people “showed up in droves and took ownership in changing the future for our city.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a supporter of the plan who had urged voters to approve it, said he was “proud to live in a city that is looking to its future—one not satisfied with the status quo.”

“Austin is pushing to be more sustainable, equitable and affordable in new and innovative ways,” he said in a statement. “The community has spoken, and it demands transformative change to traffic, climate, and to achieve fundamental fairness and justice for all.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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