On Nov. 3, Austin residents will vote on Proposition A. If approved, it will increase the city's property tax rate by around 20% to help pay for Project Connect, a $7.1 billion overhaul of the local transit system.
Proponents say the plan will help make Austin a more equitable city by ensuring residents have access to an affordable and comprehensive transit system.
But past transit initiatives suggest that the project could deepen the fault lines it hopes to address, which is why Austin City Council has allocated $300 million for anti-displacement initiatives under the Project Connect proposal.
The broken spoke
District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told Austonia that the pandemic has magnified infrastructural failures and exposed disparities in health care, education and transit access.
"Multiple generations of disinvestment have to be reconciled," she said.
Although Project Connect provides a chance for the city to catch up, it could also lead to some unintended consequences.
In other U.S. cities, transit investment has accelerated gentrification and displacement.
Researchers at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found that the "predominant pattern" of neighborhood change following transit investment was "one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common," according to a 2010 report.
Some Austinites have seen this happen in their own backyards.
The construction of MoPac in 1971 led to the destruction of nearly one-third of the homes in Clarksville, one of the earliest freedmen's communities established west of the Mississippi and, during segregation, one of the few remaining Black neighborhoods west of Interstate-35.
Similarly, the building of I-35 in the 1960s "both displaced existing Black communities and reinforced the de facto and de jure segregation of Austin" codified in the city's 1928 master plan, according to the Austin Justice Coalition.
As a result, there is concern that, if implemented, Project Connect could worsen Austin's affordability crisis and deepen the inequities it aims to rectify.
"Once this is approved in November … the speculation of real estate is going to happen instantaneously, almost over night," said Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
The alternate route
Aware of this likelihood and the precedent of past transit investment, Austin City Council worked to ensure the Project Connect budget includes $300 million in anti-displacement funds to be spent over the next 10 to 13 years on things such as:
- The construction or development of new affordable housing,
- Preservation, repair and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing,
- Financial assistance for homeowners,
- Home repair,
- Rental subsidies
- And right to return assistance.
"If it's after the fact, we've missed the boat," District 5 Council Member and Capital Metro Board Member Ann Kitchen said at an Aug. 7 meeting.
Dr. Yingling Fan is a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched the effects of light rail development in Minnesota's Twin Cities. In 2012, she co-authored a report that looked at neighborhood change induced by new transit corridors, including gentrification and displacement.
"My opinion is we need to be aware of the potential impacts," Fan said, "but there is a lot of opportunity for government agencies to work with neighborhood organizations to ensure affordable housing supply is protected."
Austin Mayor Steve Adler and others have stressed that no city has done as much as Austin proposes to with Project Connect to offset displacement.
Harper-Madison pointed to the city of Denver, which established its Transit-Oriented Development Fund in 2010 with an initial investment of $15 million—or 5% of what Austin plans to allocate.
"We're going to be the gold standard," she told Austonia.
The next stop
But some community members have raised concerns that the funding will not come through or, if it does, not achieve its stated aim.
David King, speaking as a long-time resident of the Zilker neighborhood, worries that Project Connect is "a perfect storm for displacement" and that $300 million is inadequate to prevent what is coming down the tracks. (He is also a member of the city's zoning and platting commission.)
"I don't think the city is as committed to preventing displacement as it could be," King told Austonia, adding that he would like to see more concrete parameters for how such funding will be allocated and demands on developers who build near transit stations.
In response to such concerns, council members established a "contract with voters" that ensures the city will create neighborhood-level strategies with community members, develop an equity assessment tool and publicly track the progress of its anti-displacement initiatives.
Yasmine Smith is a co-chair of the local nonprofit People United for Mobility Action, which works to ensure every Austinite has access to safe, affordable and convenient transit options. She has been heartened by the city's commitment to equity in developing Project Connect and believes the contract with voters will ensure the anti-displacement funding is put to best use.
"I like to analogize it to gumbo," Smith said. "Right now, we're in the roux stage. We've made a good roux, a great base, with the legal binding documents."
If Proposition A is approved by voters, it will take a long time "to get the tenderness of the meat just right," but Smith said she will be at the stovetop, stirring away.
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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