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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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17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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