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Austinites will decide the fate of $7.1 billion transit overhaul Project Connect—and two PACs are competing for your vote
Austin voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to increase their tax rate to pay for a $7.1 billion, 15-year overhaul of the city's transit system.
If approved, Project Connect will expand Austin's rapid bus line system, add two new light rail lines—from North to South Austin and to the airport—and lead to the construction of a multi-block underground tunnel downtown.
A New Transit Plan for Austin | Project Connect by Capital Metro youtu.be
Austin City Council voted unanimously last month to add the measure to the upcoming ballot. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the council scaled down an earlier version that would have cost $10 billion.
The new figure of $7.1 billion would come from two sources. The larger amount would come from a hike in property taxes. Additionally, Capital Metro, the city's transit agency, says it will ask the federal government for a grant of $3.25 billion.
A step forward?
Transit for Austin—a coalition of community organizations and elected officials that includes all 11 members of City Council, has voiced support for the project.
The group argues that a city of Austin's size—and continual growth—is long overdue for a comprehensive transit system.
Building one through Project Connect, its members say, will make the city greener by reducing reliance on personal vehicles, more equitable by allocating $300 million to help prevent displacement and safer by getting people out of cars.
Can Project Connect Promote Equitable Access and Mobility Justice? Only an active, informed, and engaged… https://t.co/UqbeJ83nXq— Austin Justice Coalition (@Austin Justice Coalition)1600297740.0
Austin Mayor Steve Adler has been a vocal proponent of Project Connect for these reasons—and more.
"I think people want us to do this project because they want something done about traffic, they want something done about the environment; they want something to stop the fatalities and to actually address mobility equity for essential workers," he told Austonia.
In Adler's view, the broad scope of Project Connect is essential to its appeal.
"I don't think people want us to be nibbling around the edges and spending money on things that aren't actually going to be transformative," he said. "When something's big, obviously it's going to take time for it to be completed. But the public will start seeing this being handled immediately."
If voters approve the tax rate increase, Adler said they can expect to see the city purchase land for affordable housing along the proposed light rail lines and make updates to the bus rapid transit system in the short term.
For Austinites who don't plan to use transit now or in the future, Project Connect may still offer a tangible benefit.
"Even if I'm driving on the road and not trying to get on transit, I want everybody else to get off the road and get into transit," Adler said. "But in order for that to happen, people actually have to have choices that are good."
In July, a political action committee called Mobility for All filed paperwork signaling its intent to raise money in support of the tax rate increase, which will appear on the ballot as Proposition A.
While it has not yet filed a campaign finance report, the group lists its top donors on its website, including infrastructure design firm HNTB, Major League Soccer club Austin FC and Silicon Labs chairperson Nav Sooch.
A step back?
But there is also vocal opposition to the project, spearheaded by two groups: the Our Mobility Our Future PAC and advocacy group Voices of Austin.
Both argue that Project Connect is too expensive—the median homeowner will see a $317 increase to her tax bill this year, if it is approved—and that the city is overpromising to voters what it can realistically achieve.
Robert Falk, an analyst with OMOF and volunteer with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, said it is "insensitive and out of touch" for the city to ask voters to approve "the greatest debt and tax increase in Austin's history" given the pandemic and uncertainty of the future.
Sources: Austin Community College, Austin ISD, Central Health, city of Austin and Travis County.
The PAC also argues that Project Connect lacks the necessary engineering and federal funding commitment to ensure it adheres to the proposed budget, which could leave local taxpayers footing the bill.
"We're building our whole house on this sand foundation of this federal money," Falk said.
Some Austinites are invested in preventing Project Connect from being approved.
OMOF has raised nearly $100,000, according to its July 15 campaign finance report, with the majority coming from four donors: real estate investor John Lewis, Mercedes-Benz dealer Bryan Hardeman, Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Aminex Therapeutics chairperson Jim Skaggs.
The group feels it needs to counterbalance the city's slick marketing and "propagandizing" of Project Connect using taxpayer dollars.
"Prop A reads like a sales brochure," Falk said.
Voices of Austin, which formed this summer to represent Austinites who feel their views are unheard at City Hall, similarly believes that the city is not being transparent about the full cost of the plan.
"In these dire economic times we do not need Project Con, especially using illegal and misleading ballot language," Executive Director Peck Young said in a statement.
Falk describes Project Connect as 20th-century technology that will only benefit those who live along the fixed-route system. As an alternative, OMOF supports investing in emerging technologies such as micromobility—like scooters—and the promise of vehicle-to-everything, or V2X technology, and autonomous vehicle fleets.
"The future of transit is distributed, on-demand, doorstep-to-destination convenience," he said.
Unlike a light rail system, which requires riders to come to it, these new technologies meet users where they are.
"Why would we go all in on a system that will be obsolete before it's complete?" Falk asked.
The next step
After more than seven years of development, Project Connect now faces voters, who will ultimately decide whether the plan becomes reality.
Despite the pandemic, turnout is projected to break records, and Adler is hopeful that voters make it down to the proposition portion of their ballots.
"There's probably no perfect time to hold an election," he said.
More on Project Connect:
Project Connect massive underground rail tunnelThe downtown transit tunnel would separate the light rail lines proposed under Project Connect—Capital Metro's 20-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of the city's t...
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone where a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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Austin City Limits fest and iHeartRadio Fest are the latest festivals to announce the removal of rapper DaBaby, who has come under fire for homophobic comments made during a recent festival.
The 29-year-old rapper, whose real name is Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, was dropped by Lollapalooza just hours before his set on Sunday, followed by the Governor's Ball in New York and Nevada's Day N Vegas after making unsolicited comments about men with HIV/AIDS at the Rolling Loud Festival in Miami. Rolling Stone Magazine confirmed with iHeartRadio organizers that DaBaby will no longer perform.
DaBaby will no longer be performing at Austin City Limits Music Festival — lineup update coming soon. pic.twitter.com/jAYfdJFxJf
— ACL Festival (@aclfestival) August 3, 2021
There is no word on who he will be replaced with yet, though rumors on ACL's subreddit, r/aclfestival, are saying they expect Tyler, The Creator, who performed at Lollapalooza. Kirk will be replaced at Day N Vegas by rapper Roddy Ricch.
Kirk later backtracked his offensive statements on his Instagram story, but again faced criticism for not exactly apologizing.
After facing a second round of backlash for his Instagram statements, the rapper posted on Instagram, saying:
In addition to being dropped from the festivals, DaBaby has been denounced by fellow celebrities like Dua Lipa, Madonna and Elton John.
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