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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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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."