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(Emma Freer/Austonia)

When Austin residents vote this election, they will find Proposition A toward the bottom of their ballots. If approved, the proposition will raise the city property tax rate by around 20% to help fund 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: What does Capital Metro's transit ridership look like currently and how might it change if Project Connect is approved?

Capital Metro provided nearly 21 million rides between January and August of this year, according to the latest available data. More than three quarters of these rides were on the agency's MetroBus. Year-over-year, ridership has declined 24.5%. Prior to the pandemic, however, the agency had reported increased ridership for 17 consecutive months.

Capital Metro projects that Project Connect will lead to a tripling of its ridership. The two light rail lines—both of which will run from North Lamar Boulevard and Hwy. 183 through downtown, with the orange line continuing south to Stassney Lane and the blue line east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport—were selected because of their increased ridership potential compared to bus rapid transit, according to Capital Metro spokesperson Jenna Maxfield.

This capacity is critical to Project Connect's appeal.

Dr. Chandra Bhat, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas at Austin, said Austin needs an expanded transit system because of unabated population growth. As a result, extreme commuting—more than 50 miles each way, such as from Marble Falls to central Austin—has become more common, and there are fewer opportunities to expand roadways because of lack of space.

"In my opinion, there's never going to be a magic bullet," he said. "I'm not saying having this new train system or having Project Connect is going to immediately take care of all traffic congestion."

But Bhat does believe that Project Connect, in conjunction with other policies, will help alleviate congestion and make transit more appealing to Austinites such as Leslie Pearlman.

Pearlman lives in Cherrywood and owns a car but mostly relies on her bike to get around town. If Proposition A is approved, she expects to use transit more often because the light rail lines proposed under Project Connect go where she wants to go.

"I've wanted to support this from the beginning," Pearlman said. "I've lived in multiple cities in the United States and abroad that have public transit, and it just makes such a difference in how I interact with the city but also how people across the spectrum of incomes and where they live and other demographics can access it."

Mobility for All, a recently formed political action committee that supports Proposition A, represents a broad coalition of community advocates and elected officials, including all 10 members of Austin City Council, Mayor Steve Adler, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Austin Tech Alliance, Environment Texas and the Travis County Democratic Party.

The Austin Justice Coalition also supports Project Connect, which it says "can make life better, healthier and more affordable" for those communities that are disproportionately likely to rely on transit, including people of color, low-income households and renters.

Beyond increased ridership, its members say the plan will help manage congestion, fight climate change and give essential workers better mobility options.

Timothy Bray is a board member for the local urbanist organization AURA, which opposed a previous light rail proposal for being too limited in scope. But the group champions Project Connect. "It's a major piece of the puzzle for solving our transportation problems," he said.

Bray contrasted the plan with the $8 billion effort to widen I-35, adding that Project Connect "does a lot more for (around) the same cost."

Critics of Project Connect dispute these ridership projections, arguing that anyone with the option to drive will choose to do so and pointing to a drop in ridership since the pandemic.

Voices of Austin, a recently formed nonprofit, said in a press release issued on Monday that it "must question if this is the time to make a $7.1 billion initial investment in a transit system with a reduced commuter base."

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 of respondents reported they believe they will work from home at least some of the time after the pandemic is over.

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.

Our Mobility Our Future, a political action committee that opposes the plan, has also advocated for alternative solutions, such as micromobility and the promise of vehicle-to-everything, or V2X, and autonomous vehicle fleets.

Bhat agrees that such technologies will develop over the next couple of decades. But he said cities will have to promote transit options that do not rely on individual vehicles—whether an Uber or a self-driving Tesla—if they are to have any meaningful impact on congestion.

"In the large scheme of things, I don't think that driverless cars should be the basis for solving transportation problems," he said.


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