In less than a month, Austin voters will decide whether to approve Proposition A, a property tax rate increase that would pay for the initial investment of Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of the 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? Now, for today's question:
How feasible is the Project Connect budget?
Austin City Council approved a scaled-back, $7.1 billion version of the Project Connect plan in light of the pandemic and its economic impact. Under this version, Capital Metro proposed an initial investment that includes building two new light rail lines, digging an underground downtown tunnel, expanding bus service and increasing the number of park-and-ride stations.
The tunnel coincides with the downtown portions of the two proposed light rail lines, where traffic congestion and other conflicts can be avoided, according to a Capital Metro spokesperson.
Dr. Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin, said the light rail budget for Project Connect appears adequate to cover costs. But he has reservations about the tunnel, which will likely require digging through the dense, hard, native limestone—known as Austin Chalk—found beneath the city.
"As soon as we start digging underground anything can happen in terms of cost," he said.
Project Connect massive underground rail tunnel www.youtube.com
Bhat referred to comparable projects around the U.S. to illustrate the variability in pricing. In California, recent underground tunnels—ranging from 1.7 to 9 miles—have cost around $930 million per mile. In Boston, a 1.5-mile project ultimately cost $24 billion, which he said was an extreme example of how costs can spiral.
The budget for the tunnel proposed under Project Connect—which preliminary maps suggest will be about 2.5 miles—is $2.5 billion. Preliminary maps show its rough pathway is south from 11th and Guadalupe streets to Republic Square; east along 4th Street to the Downtown Station, which is between Trinity and Red River streets; and north along Trinity to 12th Street. The tunnel would also continue south from the Downtown Station to the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Rainey Street.
Still, Bhat believes there is value in an underground tunnel, which would not only allow the light rail lines to bypass traffic and leave the roads clear for drivers but also offer the opportunity for underground shops and retail spaces. "It can serve as the hub of activity," he said, which may increase its appeal to Austinites who might otherwise choose to drive.
Capital Metro employed several of the nation's leading transit construction and planning firms in planning Project Connect and developing cost estimates, according to an agency spokesperson, but final engineering and design will not be pursued unless there is a mandate from voters as they will require "a significant investment of time and public funds."
If Proposition A is approved, property owners will see a 20% increase in the city of Austin's tax rate, the revenue from which would cover just over half of the plan's proposed $7.1 billion price tag. City officials and Capital Metro leadership have expressed confidence that they will be able to secure the remaining 45% through individual federal grants for specific components.
Reinet Marneweck, Capital Metro's chief financial officer, pointed to a $2 billion light-rail project in Minneapolis that the Trump Administration recently advanced to Congress. "This further validates our 45% federal match assumption in the Project Connect financial model," she told council members in August.
But it's far from guaranteed.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said in a statement to Austonia that adequate federal resources for Project Connect "is almost all dependent" on the results of the upcoming presidential election.
Congress appropriates federal transit dollars, in legislation that must be signed by the president. Since entering office, President Donald Trump has consistently tried to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a report by Bloomberg CityLab.
U.S. Reps. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin, did not respond to requests for comment.
Opponents of Project Connect, including the political action committee Our Mobility Our Future, say a federal funding shortfall will leave taxpayers on the hook.
"We're building our whole house on this sand foundation of this federal money commitment," said Roger Falk, an analyst with the PAC and volunteer with the Travis County Taxpayers Union.
But Capital Metro cannot actually apply for federal funding until local funding is secured, in the form of voter approval, according to the spokesperson.
Another concern raised by opponents is that, even if federal funding is secured, Project Connect may run over budget.
Gerald Daugherty, a Travis County commissioner, long-time transit opponent and major donor to Our Mobility Our Future, pointed to the red line as a precedent. The 32-mile commuter rail connects Austin to Leander and made its debut in 2010—past deadline and over budget. Since then, it has reported lower ridership numbers than promised.
Daugherty and other opponents believe Project Connect is headed in the same direction. "This whole $7.1 billion thing, all it is is a down payment," Daugherty said.
Leslie Pearlman, a 10-year Austin resident who rents her home in Cherrywood, is also displeased with the red line, which she said "goes somewhere rich people live and bypasses campus" and other places she would like to go.
But she is on board with the two light rail routes under Project Connect, which she expects to be much more useful to her and others. "For me, I feel like I would use it more," she said.
This story has been updated to clarify the role of Congress in approving federal transit dollars.
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Six weeks into the federal COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the number of Ausinites who have received a shot—or two—is growing, with recipients reporting immense relief and sharing happy selfies.
Carly Hatchell, 25<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk1NC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MjE1ODcyM30.1Z8vDzZp-2FpKTXQAGAS4PE3Zmy5i7IGq5LBhTFQwvU/img.png?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C420%2C0%2C420&height=800" id="ec5ec" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="784f573e7e59226846176634e901f648" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(Carly Hatchell)<p>Like most early vaccine recipients in Texas, Carly Hatchell is a frontline healthcare worker. As a psychiatric research associate at Dell Medical School and Dell Children's Medical Center, she received her shot from UT Health Austin, the medical school's clinical arm, which was the first provider in Travis County to receive doses from the state.</p><p>Hatchell received her first shot on Dec. 18, during the initial week of the rollout, and her second shot earlier this month. "I was very clear on my decision," she told Austonia. "Public health is a big interest to me. I actually served as a contact tracer earlier on in the pandemic."</p><p>Other than some soreness in her arm, she didn't experience any other side effects.<br></p><p>Hatchell described her vaccine experience as bittersweet, mostly because although she is now protected most people around her are not. "I have parents (in Houston) who are retired and older, and I know it's really difficult for them," she said. "I kind of wish I could share my dose with them."</p><p>Until most people are vaccinated, Hatchell is planning on operating as though she isn't. "I do feel confident that I am at less risk," she said. "But I haven't reduced my precautions just because we don't yet have the data (about long-term protections)."</p>
Tom Madison, 43<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwODE0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0OTg4MTkzMX0.Iy6vqa1O2lVbX-0wE1pmCFn6zBYgxDUJfop9XNu60GM/img.jpg?width=980" id="6e343" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0c8732e6c36a94506fc53df3dd2ce2d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="480" data-height="600" /><p>Tom Madison is a lieutenant in the Austin Fire Department and the husband of Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who has lupus and is a breast cancer survivor, putting her at high risk of death from COVID.</p><p>Because of Madison's job, where he runs the risk of exposure on every shift, he moved out of <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-fire-coronavirus" target="_blank">his family's home in March</a>. Now that he has received both shots of the vaccine, he feels safer—but is still cautious. </p><p>"I'm still staying in the trailer next to the house," he said. "So we're still social distancing from one another because (Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority) Dr. (Mark) Escott told my wife that we should do it until she gets vaccinated." </p><p>In the meantime, Madison has helped administer vaccines at the Delco Center, where Austin Public Health has hosted mass distribution events. "It was a huge operation," he said. "People waited in line for hours. When they go in there, they were so appreciative. It was nice to see."</p>
Nancy Kahn, 64<p>Nancy Kahn is a nurse who works for a very small company that wasn't able to provide her access to a vaccine. So she began searching for an appointment anywhere she could find one, including a pharmacy in New Braunfels that she heard had one vial—with 10 doses—for healthcare workers. After waiting on the phone for an hour, she snagged a spot at Austin Regional Clinic. "I got lucky," she said. </p><p>Kahn's husband falls in the 1B group as someone who is over 65 years old and who has had cancer twice. So far, she has enrolled him in three waitlists. "He's number 3,000 at one place. He's 600 at another place," she said. "At ARC, I don't know what number."</p><p>Still, Khan is optimistic. "I've got a sister in Arizona and a brother in Illinois," she said. "There's no talk of 1B (eligibility in those states). So it could be worse."</p>
Stephanie E., 35<p>Stephanie E., who works for a law enforcement agency with a no-media policy and asked that her last name not be used, was surprised when her employer offered her a vaccine because she has worked from home the entirety of the pandemic. "There was a lot of guilt," she said. "But I'm also 35 weeks pregnant now. It's not likely they were going to give my dose to a teacher or anything, so I went ahead and did it."</p><p>E.'s midwife and maternal-fetal medicine doctor told her they couldn't encourage or discourage her from getting vaccinated because of the limited data. But she wasn't concerned. "If Dr. Fauci gets it, then it seems safe," she said, adding that she feels better about her upcoming hospital stay—when she'll give birth—knowing that she has an extra layer of protection.</p><p>Now vaccinated, E. hasn't let down her guard. With three kids at home, including an 11-month old, she and her husband continue to be cautious, avoiding visits with even extended family. "They're going to meet two babies at once," she said.</p>
Capri Conlon, 29<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUwNzk2NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODI3MTkyNH0.yLnRFz4NuS0DXcco02pQngPC-2cP_LW2N7oAWuset4Q/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C635%2C0%2C635&height=800" id="2c42c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="d4c1cb0bcd2dd03ece42f6e712bcd37d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" /><p>Capri Conlin is a nurse practitioner for Dell Children's Hospital. Last month, her employer sent out a sign-up link to all eligible employees, but Conlin's name was accidentally left off of it. Luckily, it was a quick fix and she received her first shot on the same day as Hatchell, in mid-December. "There's finally a light at the end of the tunnel," she said after receiving her second shot. "It feels surreal." </p><p>Conlin's patients are children and most of them are immunocompromised. As a result, she has changed her way of life to ensure she doesn't put any of them at risk of contracting COVID-19. </p><p>"Getting the vaccine, it just felt like a big relief," she said. "I just know going into my patients' room I'm not putting them at risk anymore."</p>
Lynne Wiesman, 61<p>Wiesman is a professor at Austin Community College, where she teaches American sign language interpreting. Before the pandemic, she also worked often as an interpreter in area hospitals. </p><p>Although the state of Texas did not include interpreters in group 1A, a local agency successfully advocated for interpreters to be prioritized in Travis County because of their work on the front lines. </p><p>As a result, Wiesman was able to make an appointment to get vaccinated after someone shared the number for a triage nurse at ARC on a private FB page for interpreters. "I do anticipate going back to (work in) hospitals," she said. </p><p>But first Wiesman needs her second shot, which is scheduled for early February. "They've assured us (there will be enough doses)," she said. "That's the only thing that I have a slight concern about." </p><p>Wiesman opted out of taking a photo of herself having received the vaccine. She says she didn't want to rub it in the face of less privileged people who wish to be vaccinated. </p>
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As Major League Soccer's only expansion team this season, Austin FC will receive first pick in all three rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday.