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You've seen and heard messaging from the city, transit opponents, and the big money PACs. You've probably read Emma Freer's in-depth, multi-part series, a fact-based exploration of Project Connect—and the tax rate election proposal, known as Proposition A, that would fund it—from multiple perspectives.
As Election Day approaches, here are what we think are five of the strongest arguments on both sides of the issue.
Reasons to support Proposition A:
1. Congestion has been Austin's #1 community issue
Ask any group of people in Austin "what is the biggest issue facing the city right now," and, pre-pandemic, many would say "congestion." Traffic-clogged highways reduce quality of life and limit economic growth. Building more highways is not practical in a city that's already been largely built. Adding toll lanes to major highways like MoPac has not had much impact, and does nothing to solve problems on feeder roads. Transportation experts largely agree that building new highways does not reduce congestion and instead brings more people onto the roads and encourages people to make longer commutes. Congestion is starting to reappear as more people resume their traditional routes to work and school.
2. We're a big city now, and this is how successful cities do transit
Austin is the 11th largest U.S. city right now. Of the 10 ahead of us, only one, our neighbor San Antonio, has no light rail. A rail system of some kind is part of the modern city's transportation mix. Whether it's a giant system like New York's—with almost 500 stations—or the more modest systems in Houston and Dallas, rail is a proven way of moving people in urban areas. Higher housing density around transit stations may help address the city's affordability crisis and create new, walkable areas with a higher quality of life.
3. An effective transit system addresses social and environmental issues
Austin was racially, economically and culturally partitioned by our highway system—I-35 and MoPac, in particular. A rail system could provide equal transit opportunity for all and help unify the city. And moving people via mass transit is more efficient than in individual vehicles, offering cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions and less fossil fuel usage. Think about the proposed line from downtown to the airport. How many car trips would be saved? And the message to visitors would be clear: We're a modern city, and we care about our environment.
4. The sooner we get started, the sooner we'll have it
Best case, financing and building new lines will take a decade, maybe more. Voters turned down rail transit projects in 2000 and 2014. If Austin turns down this opportunity, it could be years before there's another one. Some projects are hard to visualize, but when they're complete, they seem inevitable. Think of how essential our city icons are: Zilker Park, the hike-and-bike trail, Barton Springs, the Forty Acres. A city-wide rail system could be the same.
5. City leadership supports it
Mayor Adler and every member of the council supported putting Project Connect on the ballot this year. This is what our elected leadership thinks is best for the city. If approved, we should expect them to move quickly to start implementing, without resistance.
Reasons to oppose Proposition A:
1. The total costs are unknown, and not fully funded by the ballot prop
The $7.1 billion cost figure is an estimate—the exact costs are unknown and depend on timetable and operational issues. Boston's "Big Dig" was estimated at $2.5 billion and ended up costing more than $20 billion to build. And the Prop A tax increase, best case, will only pay for 55% of the plan. The hope is to get a federal transportation grant for the other 45%. But there are no guarantees. And with federal budget deficits at an all-time high, there's no assurance that the federal money will come. What if it doesn't? Will the project be shut down? Will there be another historic tax increase? There's no plan for this scenario.
2. There are no engineering studies with the proposal
The Project Connect proposal calls for running the downtown portion of the system underground and creating underground plazas for shopping and entertainment. But no engineering studies have been done. How feasible is it to locate rail lines and plazas underground in our karst limestone geology that's marked by underground passages into the aquifer? And how much will it cost to mitigate structural and environmental issues and work around existing downtown infrastructure? These costs and operational issues are not known.
3. It's a solo effort by the city that mostly lacks regional support
Transportation and traffic congestion are regional issues, as people regularly cross boundaries when choosing where to live and work. The city is growing more slowly than surrounding areas of our region, so the ideal solutions come from a shared regional vision, cooperation and cost-sharing. But Austin is alone in this effort. There is little cooperation with surrounding jurisdictions on Project Connect, except Leander. But that city has been close to pulling out of CapMetro for more than a year, and the result may be inevitable, given what leaders there view as inadequate rail transit ridership to and from Austin. Except for the red line in far north Austin, there's no rail service proposed west of Lamar Boulevard and no linkage to West Lake Hills and Lakeway.
4. This may not be the time for a big tax raise
People are hurting. While Austin real estate prices continue to climb and some companies are creating jobs, the pandemic-driven recession has closed or impaired large numbers of businesses, leading to layoffs, furloughs and stalled hiring. Entire industries are shut down. The live music capital has no live music. With so much financial pain, is this the time for a big tax increase? By committing so much money to the transit program, the city may not have the financial flexibility to address other big issues that may ultimately be more important.
5. COVID may change things in ways that we can't foresee
No one knows how long the pandemic will last, and, in what ways, if any, it will change our society in the long term. It's possible that everything will return to a pre-COVID normal at some point. But it's also possible that live-work patterns will see lasting change as more people work entirely or partially from home, reducing traffic congestion. Ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles may create technology disruption that makes big transit systems obsolete. It's also possible that social distancing will become part of our culture, and people will be reluctant to ride on public transport with groups of strangers. Why make a multi-decade, multi-billion dollar financial commitment without knowing precisely what our city is going to need post-pandemic?
More on the argument:
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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