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The Federal Transit Administration awarded Capital Metro a $900,0000 grant to support the planning and anti-displacement efforts of Project Connect.
Project Connect is a $7.1 billion transit plan. Austin residents voted overwhelmingly to support a city property tax rate increase that will help pay for it in the Nov. 3 election. Local property tax revenue will only pay for about half of the project's estimated costs; the remainder will need to come through federal grants.
The $900,000 will be used to study a 12-mile corridor that includes North Lamar Boulevard, Guadalupe Street and Riverside Drive and will be used by both of the light rail lines proposed under Project Connect. The outcome of the study will be a series of recommendations for how to prevent displacement and support affordable housing projects along the corridor.
Although Project Connect proponents say the plan will help make Austin a more equitable city by ensuring residents have access to an affordable and comprehensive transit system, there are also concerns that it could exacerbate inequity by driving up real estate prices along new routes.
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" or 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.
This has happened in Austin. The construction of MoPac in 1971 led to the destruction of nearly one-third of the homes in Clarkesville, one of the earliest freedmen's communities established west of the Mississippi and, during segregation, one of the few remaining Black neighborhoods west of I-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 place, according to the Austin Justice Coalition.
For these reasons, Austin City Council allocated $300 million of the project's budget for anti-displacement initiatives, such as developing new affordable housing and providing financial assistance to residents.
Opponents of Project Connect and the property tax rate increase that will help pay for it raised concerns about whether the city of Austin and its transit agency, Capital Metro, would be able to secure the federal funding it requires.
"The … grant award comes only one month after Austinites made a historic decision to fund Project Connect, and it is the first example of federal funding Capital Metro expects to secure in support of the program," the transit agency said in a press release Tuesday.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.