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SXSW: Pete Buttigieg says passenger rail—like that included in Project Connect—should be a 'national priority'
In an optimistic conversation with MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the SXSW audience that updated passenger rail transportation should be a "national priority" to make for a more equitable and greener America.
Local transit advocates say Buttigieg's support will be critical to the success of Austin's Project Connect, a $7.1 billion overhaul of the city's transit system. About half of the project's budget will come from a city property tax rate increase, which Austin voters overwhelmingly approved last November. The rest will need to come from federal grants overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which Buttigieg heads.
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an underdog 2020 presidential candidate, Buttigieg took office as transportation secretary in early February. Shortly after, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed, sending another round of stimulus checks to households.
Our Keynote with U.S. Secretary of Transportation @PeteButtigieg in conversation with @MSNBC's @CapehartJ will begin at 1pm CT on Channel 1! #SXSW https://t.co/7BkY3HlYxM pic.twitter.com/yHZVdLNSWy
— SXSW (@sxsw) March 18, 2021
Buttigieg said that was a hopeful moment—he watched airline workers "tear up those furlough notices" and emerge from a tough period. He says his plan to improve transportation gives him the same feeling.
"We can't fight COVID unless we have a healthy transportation sector, we can't get people their vaccines," Buttigieg said. "(That is) one of the reasons why supporting transit matters so much, especially for people who are transit dependent and don't have access to a car. All of these things are connected and the design of the American Rescue Plan recognized that and I'm thrilled that it passed."
Thinking back to his teenage years in the 1990s, Buttigieg was struck when an openly gay ambassador nominated by the Clinton Administration got jammed up in the Senate, never getting a vote. Buttigieg, who came out as gay in 2015, remembered feeling that despite his talents people would view him in a bad light.
"Just a generation or two ago, I mean, certainly within the memory of some people watching this program, there were people who, never mind being a soldier or a cabinet officer... you were considered a threat, just by virtue of being different," Buttigieg said. "It's a reminder of how much has changed."
Not a stranger to adversity, Buttigieg said he wants to use his position to uplift communities and shift the focus on greener policies from a Republican-versus-Democrat narrative to something that is more constructive.
After all, people everywhere are affected by climate change. Buttigieg said that people in rural communities—think farmers—are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like natural disasters, citing the two "once-in-a-millennium floods" that hit South Bend during Buttigieg's second term as mayor.
"I think we can be having conversations that are not red state, blue state conversations for American community, conversations about how we can win by doing the right thing on climate," Buttigieg said. "This is not just a coastal concern."
When we talk about systemic racism, Buttigieg said we don't often talk about how it affected infrastructure, sometimes literally built—or not built—in.
Buttigieg wants to start getting ahead of issues now by tackling areas like transportation deserts, which he likened to food deserts, regions where people have limited access to reliable and safe transportation.
"A transit desert is really an opportunity desert because you can't get to a job," Buttigieg said. "We can't allow people to be on the brink like that and that's part of why we need to have equity on our minds as we're making what could be one of the biggest investments we've ever made as a country in the future of our transportation."
America's infrastructure is built around cars, not human beings, Buttigieg said, which causes a lot more problems that meet the eye. It isn't a one size fits all approach—some areas need bigger roads and room to grow, while others, like Texas, he said, could use some downsizing.
"It turns out that we're better off if our decisions revolve not around the car, but around the human being," Buttigieg said. "The design choices we make: how fast cars move, whether there's bike lanes, and sidewalks sharing the space with travel lanes, green space, even, all of this is part of that picture. It's an example of what it means to have a truly forward approach on infrastructure."
His comment arrives as the Texas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of a $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to expand the highway to up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard.
Project Connect supports Buttigieg's goal of reaching a carbon neutral world by 2050 and includes $300 million in funding for anti-displacement initiatives to avoid the accelerated gentrification caused by pasted transit investments, such as the construction of MoPac in 1971 and I-35 in the 1960s.
Buttigieg said he wants only the best for the future of American transportation, which starts with talking about different solutions to the problem—not debating whether it exists.
"Often we think of (climate change) in terms of doom and I understand why—the scenarios are terrifying for what will happen if we don't get a handle on what's already happened in this country from Texas freezing over, to wildfires out west, floods in my part of the country and more," Buttigieg said. "Ultimately, I want us to be thinking about climate not as a source of doom but as a point of pride. I think, frankly, pride is a little more of a propulsive and less of a paralyzing emotion than guilt."
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As Q2 packs fans like sardines, could city, CDC recommendations disrupt the 'biggest party in Austin'?
In a scene that seemed to mark the pandemic's triumphant end, over 20,000 mostly maskless fans packed into Q2 Stadium for Austin FC's debut at Austin's first professional sports stadium in June. That mask-free utopia couldn't have been possible even a month before, and it may not be possible once more as Austin and the CDC returns to mask recommendations again for the first time since May.
Austin returned to Stage 4 restrictions on July 23 as case rates tripled since the beginning of the month and hospital beds once again filled with COVID patients. The spike comes after the highly contagious Delta variant was detected in Travis County. In its Stage 4 announcement, APH said its recommendations will not affect large events, such as Austin FC games, from operating.
More recently, the CDC updated its recommendation for vaccinated people on Wednesday, saying that all people in high-risk areas—including Austin with more than 50 COVID cases per 100,000 people—wear masks.
With businesses reinstating mask policies and new fear in the air, Q2's carefree party atmosphere may be affected. The club released the following statement to Austonia: "Austin FC encourages all guests to observe Austin Public Health's recommendations and take appropriate action based on individual circumstances."
Fan clubs react
Some Austin FC fans are concerned about taking their young kids ineligible for the vaccine to home matches. (Austin FC/Twitter)
Austin Anthem member Seth Rau said he's heard a few people express more concern about home matches. Still, the demand for attending matches at Q2, which regularly reaches full capacity despite a lackluster first-season performance, is not going away anytime soon.
"We're starting to hear stories like, 'Oh, I have a 10 year old kid. My kid can't be vaccinated yet,'" Rau said. "So I think certain people are less willing to maybe go than in the past, but with everyone who doesn't want to go there are five people ready to claim their seats."
Rau said only few wore masks before last week, but at the last match on July 22, he said close to 5% wore masks. Based on sheer estimation as well as what he's heard, Rau said he expects a significant minority to pull out the masks once again when Austin FC plays on Saturday.
Masking recommendations are fine as long as the stadium remains at full capacity, Rau said.
"It's an annoyance, but it's not a big deal," Rau said. "I think if they ever started reducing capacity, that's where there would be true hell to pay."
While supporters groups, like the city of Austin, can't enforce mask mandates, Rau told Austonia they'll strongly recommend masking in certain situations, including taking a bus up to Dallas for the upcoming FC Dallas match. Rau said Stage 4 has brought new concerns and paperwork into the picture for the road trip.
"It's wild. Like, as a supporters' group, we never thought we'd have to worry about collecting people's health records," Rau said. "It is extremely important to us to keep our Verde familia safe,"
Could Q2 become a "superspreader"?
Some have drawn parallels to last fall when City Council Member Greg Casar and Austin Public Health officials strongly advised against in-person fans at University of Texas football games while in Stage 4.
No public official, including Austin FC fan Steve Adler, has commented, which a few have criticized. A city in which 63% of those eligible are fully vaccinated is different from the fall of 2020, however, and Q2 is still within CDC guidelines that don't recommend masks for those fully vaccinated while outdoors.
Still, some share concerns about the crowded stadium becoming a "superspreader," especially after a mass COVID outbreak in Scotland was tied to fans attending Euro 2020 soccer matches. Up to 2,000 fans traced their infection back to a single match, and controversial journalist Piers Morgan, who was fully vaccinated, said he tested positive for COVID on Tuesday after attending the Euro Cup final.
Now THATS a super spreader for the Delta variant. Learned today that the virus spreads like smoke in the air. Let’s get vaxxed up y’all.— Nick Garza (@nickrgarza) July 23, 2021
No matter the changes, Rau said that the fan club has supported Austin FC even in the strictest of COVID policies and won't stop now.
"We dealt with this at Colorado when we took a couple hundred people to Denver," Rau said. "But we were still able to have a great time in the middle of a pandemic."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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