On Nov. 3, Austin residents will choose whether to approve Proposition A, which would increase the city property tax by around 20% to help fund Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of he city's transit system.
Although it has been in development since 2013, the plan is still opaque to some residents, who have questions about what it might mean for their neighborhoods—and their wallets.
This week, Austonia will be answering some questions, ranging from the cost of the plan to the projected ridership. Each day, we'll tackle a new one. So far, we've answered: How much will Proposition A raise my taxes if approved? and How feasible is Project Connect's $7.1 billion price tag? Now, for today's question, a two-parter:
How much has Capital Metro spent on advertising Project Connect? And who is funding the groups that oppose and support the plan?
Sponsored content, paid for by Capital Metro and providing a "quick snapshot" of Project Connect, has appeared on The Daily Texan, the Austin Business Journal, on radio stations and billboards—even in Instagram feeds.
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.
The sponsored content varies, but one thing is always missing: the cost of the project.
Jeffery Bowen has lived in Austin since 1989 and is a member of the Project Connect ambassador network, where he represents the Austin Neighborhood Council. The experience, he said, has left him concerned about transparency.
"There's a lot of confusion by the general voters," he told Austonia. "There's still some that think this is a bond. It's not."
Instead Proposition A would raise the city's property tax rate permanently, creating a revenue stream that would go toward the construction and maintenance of Project Connect.
A New Transit Plan for Austin | Project Connect by Capital Metro www.youtube.com
These placements have fueled opposition groups, such as the political action committee Our Mobility Our Future and the recently formed nonprofit Voices of Austin, both of which have characterized Project Connect as something akin to smoke and mirrors.
Roger Falk, an Our Mobility Our Future analyst and Travis County Taxpayers Union volunteer, said Capital Metro would be better served spending that money on engineering studies. "They haven't done the planning," he said. "What they've done is spent all the money on marketing."
Our Mobility Our Future is a political action committee that is opposed to Project Connect.(Our Mobility Our Future)
On the other hand, some Austinites may have questions about the opposition groups.
Our Mobility Our Future is the latest iteration of a small group of motivated and monied conservatives who have bedeviled Capital Metro since the 1990s and helped defeat two previous light rail plans.
The political action committee has raised nearly $375,000, according to its July 15 and Oct. 5 campaign finance reports, with the majority coming from four donors: real estate investor John Lewis, Mercedes-Benz dealer Bryan Hardeman, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Aminez Therapeutics chairperson Jim Skaggs.
Voices of Austin is a 501(c)(4) organization, which means its financials are not public record. It describes itself as a bipartisan and diverse group with a goal "to change what is happening now at City Hall." It supports increasing police funding and a land use policy that continues to preserve neighborhoods.
Executive Director Peck Young said it is funded by locals and unaffiliated with police unions or Michael Levy, the founder and former publisher of Texas Monthly. "None of us know the surviving Koch brother either," he said, referring to the role of the billionaire Republican mega-donors in defeating a recent transit referendum in Nashville.
Mobility for All, a pro-Project Connect PAC, recently filed its first campaign finance report, which reports it has raised $969,941. Its biggest individual donor, Impossible Ventures CEO Jonathan Coon, gave $50,000. Other top contributors include Silicon Labs Chairman Nav Sooch and CEO Tyson Tuttle, Fairway Real Estate Management President Timothy Horan Jr. and Enoctech Engineering Consultants CEO Ali Khataw.
Organizations that contributed at least $100,000 include the transportation engineering firm HNTB, Major League Soccer club Austin FC and developers Brandywine Realty Trust and Endeavor Real Estate.
This story has been updated to include details from Oct. 5 campaign finance filings and an update from Capital Metro regarding its paid media costs.
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