Austin voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to back Proposition A, which would increase the city's property tax rate to fund and maintain a $7.1 billion, 15-year overhaul of the city's transit system.
If approved, Project Connect will expand Austin's rapid bus system and add two new light rail lines, which will be served by a multi-block underground downtown tunnel.
Here is a closer look at the light rail component of the plan:
Project Connect proposes two new light rail lines: the orange line, which will run approximately 21 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center at North Lamar Boulevard and Hwy. 183 to Stassney Lane; and the blue line, which will run approximately 15 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center through downtown and east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The orange line is one of two light rail lines proposed in the Project Connect transit plan.(Capital Metro)
Both lines will run along the same route from the North Lamar Transit Center to Republic Square, where they will diverge. The orange line will head south, while the blue line will head east to the Downtown Station before crossing Lady Bird Lake on its way to the airport.
The blue line is the second light rail route. Austin voters will decide whether to approve Proposition A, a tax rate increase to fund Project Connect, this Nov. 3. (Capital Metro)
There is also a plan for an extension of the orange line, pending federal funding commitments, that would lengthen it north to Tech Ridge and south to Slaughter Lane. The extended portions will be serviced by the MetroRapid bus system unless voters approve the plan and federal funding is secured.
A third light rail line, called the Gold Line, was initially proposed but eventually switched to the MetroRapid bus service because of funding concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will run from Austin Community College's Highland campus to downtown.
If voters green light Project Connect, both light rail lines are expected to begin construction in 2024, which is expected to take around five years. The total cost for the two lines is estimated to be $3.8 billion, with an additional $2.5 billion earmarked for the downtown tunnel. As a result, the line rail component is by far Project Connect's largest expense—but it allows for a much higher ridership ceiling than a bus-only system would.
Project Connect massive underground rail tunnel www.youtube.com
Multiple studies determined that bus rapid transit along the orange and blue lines would reach capacity during peak periods by 2040, a spokesperson for the city's transit agency, Capital Metro, said. After a two-year period of technical analysis and community engagement, a light rail was selected as "the locally preferred alternative" because of its increased ridership potential.
Capital Metro, which was founded in 1985, provided nearly 20 million rides between January and July of this year, according to the latest available data. This represents a 21.6% decline in ridership year-over-year, but until the pandemic first arrived in March, the agency had reported increased ridership for 17 consecutive months.
Despite the cost, Capital Metro told council members that community members overwhelmingly support the light rail component of Project Connect based on feedback collected during a three-week virtual open house in May. Of the 3,574 participants, 92% agreed with the orange line plan and 90% agreed with the blue line plan. Overall, 90% of participants agreed with the recommended system plan.
Capital Metro declined an interview for this story, citing election law. But in an interview with local safety advocacy group Farm & City last month, CEO Randy Clarke touted the plan's ability to ease traffic congestion, inequity and climate change.
We're proud to join with @texpirg @CleanWaterTx @PublicCitizenTX and many other environmental leaders in support of… https://t.co/ZaBw9gVOp5— Environment Texas (@Environment Texas) 1600956629.0
"Generally speaking, unless you're completely anti-transit or … don't want to spend any money, most everyone is really positive about this plan," he said.
Clarke also emphasized that infrastructure spending is a long game.
"Project Connect is not about next year," he said. "Project Connect is five, 10, 15, 30 and 100 years. When we're all gone, what (the city will) look like will be massively determined by this November."
An earlier light rail proposal was rejected by city voters in 2014, including some transit advocates such as Urban Rail Action, who said it was limited in scope and included too much funding for highway expansion projects.
Timothy Bray, an AURA board member, said previous efforts didn't go where people actually live, but Project Connect "gets rail right" and will help make Austin a "more sustainable and equitable city."
The investment corresponds with the impact, Bray argued, and does a lot more toward making Austin a modern city than an $8 billion plan to widen I-35, which is also underway.
Project Connect retains vocal opponents, however.
Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty is one of the top donors to Our Mobility Our Future, a political action committee that is against Project Connect, which he said is too expensive, outdated and limited in scope.
"The overwhelming majority of people do not take transit, nor will they ever take transit," he said.
Daugherty added that the cost of the plan will be carried by everyone who lives in the city—regardless of whether they're served by the new lines being added, own property or are facing financial hardships because of the pandemic.
"If you're a renter, get ready, because whoever owns your apartment complex, they're going to pass (the tax increase) along to you," he said.
As an alternative, OMOF advocates that the solution to traffic congestion is micromobility, like electric scooters, and the promise of autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, technology, an argument that pro-transit advocates have characterized as specious.
"Bottom line on this, it is ridiculous for the city of Austin and Capital Metro to promote such large spending on something that is not cutting-edge technology," Daugherty said. "Light rail is not cutting-edge technology."
Voices of Austin, another relatively new group, has also come out against Project Connect, which its staff says is slick marketing with little actual planning behind it.
Is #ProjectConnect good for #ATX? Make sure you’re registered to vote. #VoteATX https://t.co/gjrrrxP5nB https://t.co/49GSt2DcnM— Voices of Austin (@Voices of Austin) 1600452906.0
Ultimately, Austin voters will determine whether the light rail has a future in Austin when they vote on the Project Connect plan as Proposition A this November.
You can learn more about the local mobility propositions, including the ballot language, on the upcoming ballot here.This story has been updated to clarify the orange line route.
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Austin may end up staying above freezing through mid-December, a departure from typical temperatures this time of year.
The average first freeze in Austin and San Antonio usually happens around now, as the National Weather Service pointed out Monday.
The average first freeze in Austin and San Antonio is typically right about now. No freezes for the foreseeable future. There have been some years where the first freeze didn't happen until January!— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWS Austin/San Antonio) 1638210545
Still, Austin’s Mediterranean-style climate has a wider range of first freezes than many other places and we’re subject to cyclical influence, says Monte Oaks, a meteorologist with the NWS.
One influence is La Niña, a climate pattern that happens in the Pacific Ocean every few years. This is the second La Niña winter in a row, an occasion known as a "double-dip." While its impacts are far-reaching and can impact weather around the world, the U.S., in particular, is expected to experience an impact on temperature and precipitation from La Niña. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month that La Niña conditions have already developed, and in Austin, its effects have been on the mild side. As a result, Austin could have a delayed first freeze and an earlier last freeze than typical.
Many are on edge heading into winter after witnessing Winter Storm Uri hit Texas in February. The power outages caused by a failure to winterize the grid led to the death of hundreds, and in the imminent possibility of another hard-hitting weather event, Texans are still at risk.
Experts told The Texas Tribune that the state hasn’t done enough to prevent another winter blackout. Plus, recent analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas revealed the grid is still vulnerable and many power plants could be forced offline under extreme conditions. As KXAN reported, the cold blast last winter came about through a stratospheric warming event—unrelated to La Niña—that brought the intrusion of Arctic air from the North Pole. This year, winter is expected to bring fewer freezes and less snowfall.
Locally, Austinites dealt with conditions of broken water pipes, a boil water notice after water treatment plants shut off, and an outage that left thousands without water. On top of that, many also lacked gas and heat and opted to warm up in their cars.
The city has completed prep work in case of another extreme weather event. Austin Energy increased vegetation management, further sectionalizing circuits and developing processes to reduce power in the downtown network. And Austin Water carried out repairs at most of its water treatment plants, dispatched heaters, sand, and more winter equipment, and plans to have all exposed pipes insulated by the end of 2021.
The Texas sun is an encouraging sign in the face of cold conditions. Oaks says more sunshine allows temperatures to warm up. For now, the National Weather Service has only found one recent freeze at the sites they track in Austin, which happened at the airport on Nov. 23.
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Just as the world takes a breath from the Delta variant-induced third COVID surge that pushed hospitals past capacity this summer, a new variant—the omicron—is forcing countries around the world to once again consider shutting their doors.
It's too early to tell whether the variant will have the devastating effects of the Delta variant, the Mu variant—which accounted for 3% of U.S. cases before dropping off almost entirely by October—or somewhere in between. But as omicron continues to rise sharply in all provinces of South Africa, the Biden administration is reintroducing some travel restrictions that went into effect Monday.
As the variant spreads to countries around the world, including Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, the World Health Organization declared omicron a "variant of concern"—though some are calling the move premature.
What is omicron?
The omicron variant, B.1.1.529, is now under strict watch from the WHO after quickly spreading throughout Southern Africa.
It's genetically different from the Alpha and Delta variants and has up to 30 mutations in its genetic code, leading some to worry that the risk of retransmission from those who have already had COVID could be high. The strain's mutations could also aid omicron in beating out other strains and spreading more quickly to hosts.
Omicron is the latest version of the coronavirus to cause concern. Here’s what we know about where it’s spread so far and what makes it different than other variants that came before. https://t.co/ncciXnIuw9
— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 29, 2021
It appears to be doing the trick. While an Associated Press report found that case numbers in South Africa are still well below other pandemic peaks—3,220 new cases were reported in South Africa on Saturday— up to 90% of new cases in the South African province of Gauteng are omicron.
The strain's effects seem to be mild so far, and hospitals haven't been overburdened yet, though hospitalizations are rising.
And doctors worry that the full extent of the variant hasn't been realized. Vaccine hesitancy is strong among South Africa's youngest population—22% of those aged 18 to 34 are vaccinated—and most of those infected with COVID have been in those younger age groups. Doctors worry that older age groups will be more adversely affected.
And while experts in the country expected a fourth surge and possible variant, the omicron still came as a "shock" as it quickly spread to all nine South African provinces and other continents. It's now the first strain labeled as a "variant of concern" since the Delta variant.
It's unclear if the variant is more immune to vaccines, although some signs indicate that it's a possibility.
Where has it been detected?
Cases of the Covid omicron variant have appeared in more than a dozen countries as of Monday. https://t.co/2bPapBIYK2 pic.twitter.com/idnQ6LjIfH
— NBC News Graphics (@NBCNewsGraphics) November 29, 2021
The omicron strain still hasn't been detected in dozens of countries, and it's far from the first strain to make a mark since Delta. But it's coincided with a quick uptick in cases in South Africa, where it was originally found, and became the dominant strain in Pretoria, a city of around 750,000, in just a few weeks.
Omicron is now present in nearby Botswana and has jumped on board flights to Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Hong Kong has detected three cases, while 10 European nations including the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Germany have found a total of 45 cases. Canada has detected three cases, and none have yet been found in the United States.
What has been done?
Against the wishes of both South Africa and the WHO, several countries have decided to once again shut their doors.
After detecting an omicron case, Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, while Morocco suspended incoming international air travel for two weeks. Dozens of countries are restricting travel from Southern Africa to South Africa's chagrin—the government said travel restrictions are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The WHO also called for borders to remain open as closing borders appears to have a limited effect on the spread of variants, and many countries are hesitant to clamp down on restrictions that have limited its citizens for so long.
The United States said in a statement Friday that it would restrict travel from eight southern African countries except for citizens and permanent U.S. residents who test negative for the virus.
White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday that it's "too early to say" whether tightened COVID restrictions will be needed to combat omicron but that citizens must be ready to do “anything and everything” to prevent its spread.
When will we know more?
The WHO said it will take around two weeks to gauge the full effects of omicron, from its ability to evade vaccines to its contagiousness.
For now, countries have once again urged their citizens to get vaccinated. Some vaccine companies have already spoken about the strain, including Moderna, which said Sunday that a new vaccine that protects against the variant could be released in early 2022 if needed.
For now, Fauci said that the country must "prepare for the worst" just in case omicron becomes the culprit of yet another surge.
“Inevitably, it will be here. The question is will we be prepared for it? If and when, and it’s going to be when, it comes here hopefully we will be ready for it,” Fauci said.
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Homeowners in Windcrest, Texas don't take Christmas lightly. Decking out their home in thousands of lights, one Windcrest couple even won ABC’s Texas episode of “Great Christmas Light Fight” that aired Sunday.
Known as "Christmas sweethearts," John and Brenda Wilson were awarded $50,000 after going up against fellow Texans, including a family in Amarillo and two families in Corpus Christi, in the ninth season premiere of the lights show.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
Their holiday display featured a hand-built sled, a train called the Peppermint Expressway with actual peppermint smoke coming out of it and Santa's reindeer "in training." Designer and judge Taniya Nayak noted the linework of the lights displayed on the roof and the positioning of the red and lime green color palette.
"Right off the bat when the lights turned on, I couldn't believe how beautiful these peppermint lights were... it's just such a fun, happy, yummy, delicious vibe to it," Nayak said when she announced the Wilsons were the winners. "It really made a smile go from one ear to the other on my face."
Judge Nayak said she also enjoyed that their display had different stories behind each section.
(Great Christmas Light Fight)
John, or "Mr. Christmas" as Brenda called him, said he has been putting on a Christmas lights display for over 20 years—and it's only got better since he met his Mrs. Clause 12 years ago. The two said they met online and were 98% compatible.
"Brenda and I grew up back in the 50s when things were very simple, so we wanted to create something from when we were growing up," John said on the show.
And their efforts paid off: along with their monetary prize, the couple earned a light-bulb-shaped trophy.
KSAT reports the home got the attention of the show's casting directors last year, who encouraged them to apply to be on the show. The show was then shot last year, but the couple didn't learn they won until this year.
While being on the show is their intro to stardom, locals are familiar with the Wilsons' yearly display in the light-centric Windcrest. Each year their home is part of the Windcrest Light Up, a decades-old tradition where residents go all-out with their holiday light displays. They've won at least three grand prizes in the Windcrest contest and several other category first-place prizes.
The Windcrest Light Up kicks off Dec. 4.
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