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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Austin police lifted the shelter in place order after searching the area around 9600 block of Great Hills Trail near the Arboretum for a 41-year-old man named Stephen Broderick, who they believe is responsible for shooting and ultimately killing three people in Northwest Austin
As of 5 p.m., the suspect is still at large and considered to be armed and dangerous, though police do not believe he is actively targeting anyone else. During a press briefing at 4:45 on Sunday, APD Interim police Chief Joseph Chacon said they are switching the search from the immediate area to a fugitive search as they have exhausted all the leads they currently have.
Chacon confirmed during the briefing that Broderick was a former Travis County Sheriff's Office deputy. Chacon said they will remain on the scene for "several hours" and there were 75 FBI agents on the scene as of the briefing.
APD @Chief_Chacon provides updated media briefing in relation to Great Hills Trail incident. - PIO8 https://t.co/47siNWhARI
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 18, 2021
Police believe the victims, who have been identified as two Hispanic women and one Black man, knew their assailant. Chacon said a child was involved but is now safely in police custody. Broderick was described as 5 foot, 7 inches with a medium build and was last seen wearing a gray hoodie, sunglasses and a baseball cap.
"We're very sorry that obviously that this has happened and we continue to try and locate this individual, we are transitioning from a search in this area to a fugitive search and those efforts will continue until this person is located," Chacon said. "I don't want anyone to think that we're packing up and going home. We're going to continue to look for this individual because he continues to pose a threat to this community."
At a 2:30 p.m. press briefing, Chacon said APD responded to a "shoot, stab, hot shot" call on Great Hills Trail and Rain Creek Parkway at 11:46 a.m. to find the three victims with gunshot wounds. APD was joined by the Austin Fire Department. ATCEMS, the local chapter of the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, Department of Public Safety, and the Round Rock Police Department for support.
Though Austin Travis-County EMS originally reported it as an active shooter situation, police now believe the incident was an isolated domestic event.
"This is still an ongoing and active investigation and we do not have this individual in custody yet," Chacon said during the first press briefing. "We would ask if you have your neighbors, phone numbers, call or text them check on them and make sure that they're okay. We are concerned that he might possibly take a hostage and be himself sheltered somewhere waiting for us to leave."
At this time the Great Hills Trail scene is still active. We are still asking residents to shelter in place and report suspicious activity. While a suspect is still at large it appears this is a domestic situation that is isolated and there is no risk to the general public. -PIO8
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 18, 2021
Three helicopters and SWAT teams were sent to the area, as well as 18 ATCEMS response assets. According to Austin Police, the incident occurred at an apartment complex near Great Hills Trail and Rain Creek Parkway.
#texasshooting #masshooting Arboretum shooting Austin. pic.twitter.com/SkIsgDoYHt
— Jamie Hammonds (@jamie_hammonds5) April 18, 2021
APD announced at 1:02 p.m. that Loop 360 will be shut down in both directions from Spicewood Springs to 183 due to the incident. The roads will remain closed until law enforcement is able to wrap up the crime scene and units demobilize.
TRAFFIC UPDATE: Loop 360 will be shut down in both directions from Spicewoods Springs to 183 due to ongoing incident. - PIO8
— Austin Police Department (@Austin_Police) April 18, 2021
This is a developing story.
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Formula 1 is returning to Florida for the first time since 1959, announcing that the brand-new Miami Grand Prix will join the calendar in 2022 and Austin will no longer be the only F1 race in the U.S.
Held at the Hard Rock Stadium complex in Miami Gardens, this will be the first race in the Sunshine State in 62 years. With a new track setup, F1 will loop the stadium, home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Excited for @F1 @f1miami @HardRockStadium - a Global Entertainment Destination. This event will bring opportunities for so many and will be world-class. Thank you to @gregmaffei #chasecarey #stefanodomenicali @MayorRHarris @Ogilbert @CommishDiaz @MayorDaniella pic.twitter.com/n6dDDD1cPX
— Tom Garfinkel (@TomGarfinkel) April 18, 2021
The new 3.36 mile circuit has 19 corners, three straights and potential for three DRS zones, with expected top speeds of 198 mph.
Now with two races in the U.S., F1 President Stefano Domenicali said they will avoid having back-to-back events by keeping the Miami Grand Prix separate from the U.S. Grand Prix, which is held at Austin's Circuit of the Americas.
The date of the race has yet to be confirmed, though Domenicali said he expects the first race in a 10-year deal to take place in the second quarter of 2022. Austin's race will take place on Oct. 24 this year.
"The USA is a key growth market for us, and we are greatly encouraged by our growing reach in the U.S. which will be further supported by this exciting second race," Domenicali said.
Miami will mark the 11th race location in the U.S. since the Championship began in 1950: Circuit of The Americas in Austin; Dallas, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Sebring, Florida; Riverside, California; Watkins Glen, New York; Long Beach, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Detroit, Michigan and Phoenix, Arizona. COTA was first opened in 2012.
Domenicali said F1 will be working with the FIA and the Hard Rock Stadium to leave a lasting impact on the community: discounted tickets for residents, a program to support local businesses and a STEM education program through F1 in schools.
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