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Austin voters will soon determine the fate 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?
- How feasible is Project Connect's $7.1 billion price tag?
- How much has Capital Metro spent on advertising Project Connect and who is funding the groups that oppose it?
- How will Project Connect affect transit ridership?
Today's question, our final installment in this week's series, is: How does the pandemic affect Project Connect?
Like most issues surrounding the transit plan, supporters and opponents have diverging takes on this one.
Supporters stress that Project Connect, if built, will help make Austin a more equitable city, both by expanding transit infrastructure and allocating $300 million in funding for anti-displacement initiatives.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler has emphasized the importance of transit for essential workers, who may rely on it to get to their jobs at grocery stores, schools, hospitals and construction sites.
"I think people want us to do this project because they want something done about traffic; they want something done about the environment; they want something to stop the fatalities and actually address mobility equity for essential workers," he told Austonia during a phone interview last month.
In March, Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke sent a letter to the Texas Congressional Delegation urging it to support federal coronavirus relief funding as a job creator.
"Capital Metro is uniquely ready for additional investments should there be funds to apply for recovery actions," he wrote, adding that the agency had plans to expand the local transit system via Project Connect. "With Federal support, these projects make ideal public works initiatives that can put thousands of people to work quickly."
The #COVID19 crisis will hit transit agencies hard. We’re asking our Congressional Delegation to consider financial… https://t.co/5QrvPYjpye— Capital Metro (@Capital Metro)1584564641.0
Bay Scoggin, director of the left-of-center Texas Public Interest Research Group, is also optimistic about Proposition A. In testimony before council and public statements, he has stressed its appeal to students looking for more transit options and Austinites concerned about climate change.
"I think one of the biggest takeaways from the primary runoff election was a historic turnout from the youth vote," he told council members in August, "and we should expect that same turnout come November."
Not everyone sees it this way.
Gerald Daugherty is a Travis County commissioner, long-time transit opponent and major donor to Our Mobility Our Future, a political action committee that opposes Project Connect. He argued that raising people's property taxes during a period of such financial uncertainty is yet another reason to vote against Proposition A.
"People are trying to figure out if they're even going to have a job this time next year," he said. "The pandemic has just murdered businesses."
Ultimately, city council chose to approve a scaled-back version of the Project Connect plan, shaving around $3 billion off an earlier proposal. But after nearly a decade of development, its members chose not to delay it amid the pandemic.
Additionally, the pandemic has led to wide swaths of the local population working from home, which opponents say makes ridership projections uncertain.
The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority recently released the results of its first online survey about post-pandemic travel. More than 900 Texans participated, nearly two-thirds of whom reside in Travis County. Sixty-five percent reported they believe they will work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic subsides.
But CTRMA also cites data indicating that congestion relief precipitated by the pandemic is short-lived. According to Texas Department of Transportation data, Austin saw traffic cut in half around March and April. By July, however, it was back to around 80% of its pre-pandemic levels.
Despite the pandemic, voter turnout is expected to break records this election, and Adler is hopeful voters make it down to the proposition portion of their ballots.
"There's probably no perfect time to hold an election," he said.
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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.