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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Austin FC's opening match at LAFC has already gotten plenty of buzz, and not just because the team will be playing its first-ever match. The opener will also see two famous fans pitted against each other: Will Ferrell and Matthew McConaughey.
Since he joined the club as a part-time owner in 2019, McConaughey hasn't been quiet about going Verde. The Austin icon has been a hypeman for the team on the Jimmy Kimmel show, spoken with MLS Commissioner Don Garber at SXSW and is vocal about the club on Twitter.
On Tuesday, McConaughey talked all things Austin FC from what appeared to be an Airstream.
"We've been talking about this," McConaughey said. "We've been building this brick by brick. We understand it's Verde, it's listos, but now it's live."
"I just got some chills saying that," McConaughey added.
This weekend will put the club to the test for the first time against LAFC, which also happens to be part-owned by a big Hollywood name. Comedian and actor Will Ferrell will be on the other side of the pitch come Saturday, and he's ready to start a rivalry.
After talking to McConaughey about both teams, Ferrell told Spectrum News he's excited to watch his team play the so-called "Austin Cacti" this season.
"I can only hope for a rivalry," Ferrell said. "I think Austin is going to be a fantastic market for a brand new soccer team, and I can't wait to be there when LAFC plays the 'Austin Cactuses.'"
Talked to Will Ferrell about his connection w/ @McConaughey as @MLS owners. He welcomes a @LAFC rivalry w/ @AustinFC and has his own nickname for the team. 🌵⚽️ @SpecNewsATX #DownhillMovie pic.twitter.com/yTPfTzVchM
— Victor Diaz (@VictorOchoDiaz) February 14, 2020
Now with five days to go, McConaughey said that he and Ferrell had been having a "war with words" over the match and are planning on placing bets before game time.
It's not the first time the two have found themselves on opposing sides of a sport. Back in 2018, Ferrell made his way to Austin to see USC football duke it out with the Longhorns (psst,—UT won.)
McConaughey and Austin FC are hoping to see yet another loss for Ferrell as they head to their first game on Saturday, but the match will be quite the challenge.
The MLS set the opening schedule for more than fame; the newly-formed Austin FC has been one of the most talked-about teams this preseason, and LAFC is projected at No. 2 in the league's power rankings. Austin FC currently sits at No. 21.
Head Coach Josh Wolff has said LAFC has one of the best offenses in the league.
"LAFC has one of the best attacking teams in the league," Wolff said. "They will punish you. They've never been shy of putting up goals, and again, I expect them to be one of the best teams in the league this year."
The club has lived up to Wolff's words: in just their second season of existence, LAFC took first in the Western Conference and were Supporters' Shield winners in 2019.
Austin FC will need to hold off LAFC captain Carlos Vela, a versatile winger/attacking midfielder who won the Most Valuable Player title in 2019, as well as high-scoring forward Diego Rossi.
Meanwhile, LAFC will face challenges in DP Cecilio Dominguez and midfielder Alex Ring, the former NYCFC "ringleader" who has worn the captain's armband already for his newest team. Forward Rodney Redes may or not be playing Saturday due to a "ding" on his knee, but if he does, he'll be a force to be reckoned with as well.
Austin FC's inaugural match will be nationally broadcast on FOX and FOX Deportes and will be featured on Alt 97.5 FM.
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Starting Monday, Austin voters will decide whether to reinstate a ban on sitting, lying and camping in certain areas of the city. Proposition B is one of eight proposed city code or charter amendments on the May 1 ballot, but it is perhaps the most contentious.
Spearheaded by the political action committee Save Austin Now, Prop B is a direct response to City Council's 2019 decision to overturn a 23-year-old ban on such activities. This is the second time the group has tried to get the issue on the ballot since the first petition was ruled invalid by the county clerk for duplicate signatures and other issues last year. Homeless advocates campaigned against the ban, arguing that it criminalized homelessness and led to citations and tickets that prevented homeless people from accessing housing, employment and other resources. Since then, the city's homeless population has grown in size and visibility.
SAN, advocates and council members generally agree that the situation is untenable, but they disagree about the ban's merit. Austinites who are directly impacted—including people who live near camps, downtown business owners and homeless residents—feel similarly embattled, telling Austonia that, regardless of how they plan to vote, not enough is being done to house the homeless.
Word on the street
Lisa Novak bought a condo in the East Riverside neighborhood in 2013, drawn in by its affordability and Guerrero Park. She attributes the increase in camping along the Riverside Drive median to council's decision to repeal the ban. "It turned into open season," she said.
Lisa Novak took this photo of campers along the Riverside Drive median, near where she lives. (Lisa Novak)
Novak worries about the recent spate of fires and how camps affect area business owners and incoming tourists. After her husband witnessed a violent exchange between two panhandlers, the couple stopped walking to their neighborhood H-E-B. She will vote for Prop B and disagrees with advocates who say it criminalizes homelessness. "I'm sorry, but as a member of society there are certain rules and regulations," she said.
Kevin Ludlow's Windsor Park home sits right behind a long-time homeless camp along Little Tannehill Branch Creek. He estimates he has spent hundreds of hours talking to city staff, council members, nonprofits and police about trash and safety concerns.
Ludlow is undecided on Prop B. He thinks a ban will address these issues, but he also feels police could be more responsive to reports of theft, vandalism and other crimes without penalizing campers who are otherwise law-abiding. "There's no winning hand, and I feel it's by design," he said.
Longtime Downtown business Kruger's Diamond Jewelers often has homeless residents camping outside the entryway. (Emma Freer)
David Kruger, fourth-generation owner of Kruger's Diamond Jewelers on Congress Avenue, is similarly ambivalent. Although homeless residents often camp out in his entryway, his issue is with city leadership, whom he feels are incapable of developing solutions. "I'm probably going to vote in favor of it, I guess, but I'd feel better if there was another item that addressed the problem," he said, comparing Prop B to trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Christopher Carr, a member of the Austin Homeless Advisory Committee who has been intermittently homeless since graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, is more decisive. A poet who loves opera and has bipolar disorder, he camps near the intersection of 15th and San Antonio streets. When the ban was in effect, he was often harassed by police he says. "You felt like you might have a few seconds before the cops showed up (if you sat down on a sidewalk)," he said.
Christopher Carr attends a meeting of the Challenger Street Newspaper, for which he is a contributor and distributor, outside of City Hall on Sunday. (Emma Freer)
Since the ban was lifted, Carr feels Austin's housed residents have turned against the homeless: "If you don't like seeing all these tents everywhere, why don't you not like the country where this level of indigency exists?"
A stopgap measure
Save Austin Now argues that repealing the ban has adversely impacted public safety, residents and businesses and left homeless people to live in unsafe conditions. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association and SAN board member, added that the council vote left residents out of the process. "For me, the big issue is 'let the citizens vote,'" he said. "If the citizens vote down Prop B, we'll live with it."
But the May 1 election is likely not the end of this debate. Texas lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on public camping in a clear rebuke of local policy.
Chris Harris, director of Texas Appleseed's Criminal Justice Project and an activist who helped overturn the ban in 2019, argued that the decision has made homelessness more visible, leading to greater investment by the city and nonprofits. "No matter what happens with Prop B or with these bills at the Legislature, our community can't forget about this issue," he said. "We decriminalized homelessness not because we saw it as a solution to homelessness but because we thought it was (an issue of) right-or-wrong."
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University of Texas students can expect a "near normal" fall semester this year.
The plan, sent to the Daily Texan via email from communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost Kathleen Harrison, is to hold 91.7% of classes in person, 4.2% of classes in a hybrid format and the remaining 3.1% of classes will stay online.
The announcement is a stark increase from last fall, during which over 60% of classes were online, 24% were hybrid and only 16% were in-person. President Jay Hartzell said last month he expects the upcoming semester to look more similar to fall 2019 than fall 2020.
The new schedule is not set in stone—Harrison said UT will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation on campus and that safety of the community is a top priority.
"The University's decisions are based on the latest data and information available," Harrison said. "If conditions change, we will continue to keep the safety of our community a top priority and adjust as needed."
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