This Nov. 3, city residents will determine the fate of Proposition A. If approved, it will increase the city's property tax rate by 20% to help fund Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of Austin's public transit system.
The upcoming tax rate election is historic in its scope (and cost). Additionally, the pandemic has raised questions about the long-term future of work-from-home policies and local traffic congestion.
With early voting starting Tuesday—and less than a month until Election Day—we've rounded up our weeks of coverage on this issue, which answers some big questions.
There are two light rail lines included in the "initial investment" under Project Connect.
The orange line would run approximately 21 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center at North Lamar Boulevard and Hwy. 183 to Stassney Lane.
The blue line would run approximately 15 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center through downtown and east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
What is the proposed pathway of the downtown underground tunnel included in the "initial investment" of Project Connect?
The tunnel proposal is still being developed, but preliminary maps show its rough pathway is south from 11th and Guadalupe streets to Republic Square; east along 4th Street to the Downtown Station, which is between Trinity and Red River streets; and north along Trinity to 12th Street.
The tunnel would also continue south from the Downtown Station to the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Rainey Street, where one of the proposed light rail lines would then progress above ground across Lady Bird Lake to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
If approved, Proposition A would lead to a 20% increase to the city of Austin's property tax rate. It's important to note, however, that city property owners also pay property taxes to other entities, including Austin ISD, Travis County, Austin Community College and Central Health. If Proposition A is approved, city residents would see their overall property tax bill increase by around 4% because of Project Connect. Those who live outside the city limits will not be impacted.
Mobility for All, a recently formed political action committee that supports Proposition A, represents a broad coalition of community advocates and elected officials, including all 10 members of Austin City Council, Mayor Steve Adler, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Tech Alliance, Environment Texas and the Travis County Democratic Party.
Both argue that Project Connect is too expensive—the median homeowner will see a $317 increase to their tax bill this year, if it is approved—and that the city is overpromising to voters what it can realistically achieve.
Capital Metro and city officials say federal funding is very likely to come through if voters approve Proposition A. But opponents have raised concerns about their claims, and U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said such funding likely hinges on the political affiliations of the president.
Capital Metro expects that Project Connect will lead to a tripling of its ridership. And Dr. Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin, said such increased capacity will be needed given Austin's unabated population growth.
But critics of Project Connect dispute these ridership projections, arguing that anyone with the option to drive will choose to do so and pointing to a drop in ridership since the pandemic.
Like most issues surrounding the transit plan, supporters and opponents have diverging takes on this one.
Supporters stress that Project Connect, if built, will help make Austin a more equitable city, both by expanding transit infrastructure and allocating $300 million in funding for anti-displacement initiatives.
But opponents say it is unconscionable to propose a tax rate increase when so many Austinites are struggling financially because of the pandemic. They also argue that the new work-from-home policies should be factored into ridership expectations.
Proponents of Project Connect say it will help make Austin a more equitable city by ensuring residents have access to an affordable and comprehensive transit system. But past transit initiatives suggest that the project could deepen the fault lines it hopes to address, which is why Austin City Council has allocated $300 million in anti-displacement initiatives under the proposed plan.
Capital Metro debuted an updated Project Connect proposal in June, which included nearly $3 billion in cuts in light of the pandemic. The changes included shortening the proposal Orange light rail line and replacing the proposed Gold light rail line with MetroRapid service. As a result, the proposed increase to the city of Austin's property tax rate fell from 11 cents to 8.75 cents.
Jenna Maxfield, a spokesperson for Capital Metro, wrote in an email to Austonia that the agency is required by the Federal Transit Administration to advertise public meetings and "create educational messages," which it does by paying for sponsored content on area news sites. In FY 2020, which ended Oct. 1, Capital Metro anticipates it spent $1.1 million on such messaging; the agency is still tallying its September expenses.
Ben Wear, who covered transportation for the Austin American-Statesman for 15 years, wrote about why Capital Metro and its supporters had "the wind at their backs" before the pandemic hit and why COVID-19 has made their pathway to victory murkier.
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