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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:
- 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?
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.
Can Project Connect Promote Equitable Access and Mobility Justice? Only an active, informed, and engaged… https://t.co/UqbeJ83nXq— Austin Justice Coalition (@Austin Justice Coalition)1600297740.0
Beyond increased ridership, its members say the plan will help manage congestion, fight climate change and give essential workers better mobility options.
We simply can’t solve global warming without changing how Americans get around. https://t.co/IMKWKM2POG— Environment Texas (@Environment Texas)1601596966.0
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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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.