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Austonia answers: How does the pandemic affect Project Connect?
(Emma Freer/Austonia)

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:

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."

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.


Part Two: Kaitlin Armstrong sought and captured, charged with murder of cyclist Moriah Wilson
Austin's Kaitlin Armstrong after capture in Costa Rica.

Dateline NBC

(Editor's note: this is part two of a two part Austonia series tracking the Dateline NBC investigation of Moriah Wilson's murder. Read part one here.)

After pro gravel biker Moriah "Mo" Wilson is gunned down in South Austin on May 11, police investigators develop a "person of interest," Austin's Kaitlin Armstrong, 34, a real estate agent, yoga teacher, amateur cyclist, and longtime girlfriend of Austin cyclist Colin Strickland.

Originally from Michigan, where a childhood friend described her as "fun loving" and "smart," Armstrong finished college and traveled the world studying yoga, in places like Iceland, Bali, and Mexico. She ended up in Austin where she met Colin Strickland. The two were business partners in a vintage trailer business, along with her own venture flipping houses. "Business partners and life partners," NBC said.

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