With decisive victory, next steps are to appoint Project Connect oversight board and secure federal funding
By a nearly 19% margin, Austinites approved Proposition A, a permanent increase to the city's property tax rate that will help pay for Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of the local transit system.
With victory declared, the city and Capital Metro have their work cut out. Next steps include appointing an oversight board and starting the process to secure more than $3 billion in federal funding.
A long road
Prop A's passage comes after two failed light rail initiatives, which were voted down by Austin voters in 2014 and 2000.
Six years ago, Austin, we asked you to reject a transit proposal. That one truly did too little, and for that littl… https://t.co/CVx71Pjep6— AURA: An Austin for Everyone (@AURA: An Austin for Everyone)1604506897.0
"It has been a long road, but we now have a data driven, community designed plan that voters are telling us that they want us to build," Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said at a press conference late Tuesday evening.
Historic in scope, the transit plan includes two light rail lines—Austin's first ever—as well as an underground tunnel and a $300 million fund for anti-displacement initiatives. Proponents argue it will improve the city's traffic woes, mitigate climate change and improve mobility equity.
Austin is getting mass transit and a record $300 million for affordable housing! The passage of Prop A ensures the… https://t.co/ajNDUcjc78— Ethan Tenison (He, Él) 🏳️🌈 (@Ethan Tenison (He, Él) 🏳️🌈)1604506243.0
Victory was not guaranteed, however.
Proposition A endured a contentious campaign period, with political action committees on either side of the issue spending heavily to convince voters of their arguments.
Opponents, including those at the PAC Our Mobility Our Future and the nonprofit Voices of Austin, said Project Connect was too expensive, especially given the financial hardships of the pandemic, and depended on federal funding that is not guaranteed.
"I understand people being skeptical," Capital Metro Chairperson Wade Cooper said at the same event. "We asked people to impose a tax upon themselves in the middle of one of the worst recessions that we've seen in a generation."
But Austinites voted decisively in favor of Prop A, which Cooper attributed to multiple factors: a collaborative development process that involved more than 60,000 residents and included regular meetings between the transit agency's board and Austin City Council; a transformational plan; and turnout among young voters.
Still, Capital Metro leadership assured the 129,232 voters who opposed Prop A that Project Connect will be a community asset—for everyone.
"Tonight we should celebrate this accomplishment, but tomorrow let's come together as one community and start building a better future," Clarke said.
Now that Proposition A has a voter mandate, city officials plan to unveil more information about the Austin Transportation Partnership, a local government corporation that will oversee the implementation of Project Connect.
"Our immediately next steps are to recruit and appoint the first ATP board, craft its first budget, and begin the environmental process for individual projects," said Gina Fiandaca, assistant manager for mobility, in a statement issued on Tuesday evening.
The board will include five members. For its first two years, it will include a member of council who will later be replaced by a council appointee, such as an Austin resident or Capital Metro customer. It will also include a member of the Capital Metro board and three community experts, from fields such as capital project management, sustainability and community engagement.
Capital Metro will share more information about the partnership appointment process in the coming weeks, Clarke said.
Peck Young, executive director of the anti-Project Connect nonprofit Voices of Austin, said he hopes the ATP is vigilant in its oversight, working to ensure Capital Metro hews close to its stated budget, and that residents hold them accountable.
"This unelected board is like putting foxes and weasels in charge of the henhouse," he said.
Others are more hopeful.
Yasmine Smith, co-chair of the local nonprofit People United for Mobility Action, believes the city will make good on its promises to address equity issues because of the community input it sought out and the contracts it has put in place.
"There are legal binding documents—that was important to me—making sure they keep their feet to the fire," Smith told Austonia last month.
The transit agency will also begin working on securing federal funding, which it budgeted to cover 45% of Project Connect's $7.1 billion price tag.
Opponents were vocal about their concerns on this point, arguing that federal funding is not guaranteed and worrying that taxpayers would be on the hook to make up the difference.
"Voters want this, but I don't think they want to pay for it twice," Young said.
In his view, funding depends on the outcome of the presidential election, which hinges on a few key states that are still tallying their results.
"If (Joe) Biden wins, I think he will make a good faith effort to raise taxes on the richest Americans to have money for things like infrastructure, which includes stuff like Project Connect," Young said. "If (President Donald) Trump wins again, there's not going to be a dime for that kind of stuff."
In a statement to Austonia in early October, U.S. House Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, agreed, saying federal funding for Project Connect "is almost all dependent" on who is in office.
Congress appropriates federal transit dollars, in legislation that must be signed by the president. Since entering office, Trump has consistently tried to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a report by Bloomberg City Lab.
But Capital Metro leadership is more optimistic that the federal funds will be approved.
"One of the most important things is the local community saying they are putting money forward for the local match," Clarke said. "Tonight, the community has spoken, and that goes a long way to getting the procurement of the federal funding."
Clarke added that each of Project Connect's component projects will go through the federal funding process separately, meaning that it is not an all-or-nothing situation.
As the agency works to secure dollars for some of the core components of Project Connect, such as the two light rail lines, other projects will soon get underway, such as the implementation of four new MetroRapid routes and enhancements to the commuter rail red line, which runs from Leander to downtown Austin.
"It's go time," Clarke said.
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