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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:
17 years and three medals later, Osterman's last ride with USA softball is over. What's next for Cat?
Nearly two decades after her debut with the University of Texas and 17 years after her first Olympic gold, softball icon Cat Osterman stepped off the Olympic pitcher's mound for the last time with a silver medal to take back home.
Osterman, a three-time Olympian who has been called the "Michael Jordan of softball," will officially retire from the international realm at 38 after a decorated career that included Olympic golds, years of retirement and plenty of adversity—from a worldwide pandemic to dashed gold-medal dreams.
Osterman and her crew left Tokyo on a bittersweet note on Tuesday with a silver medal in hand.
Osterman with Team USA in 2008. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
Osterman in the final in 2021. (Antoni Majewski/Twitter)
After a year of sparse in-person training and over a decadelong hiatus, Team USA and Osterman flew to the finals. In five games, the team beat Italy (2-0), Canada (1-0), Mexico (2-0), Australia (2-1), and Japan (2-1).
Deja vu struck in the final match. On one side, Osterman and fellow 2008 Olympic teammate Monica Abbott took the mound; on the other was the 39-year-old Yukiko Ueno, a familiar foe who helped the team beat Team USA last go-round.
"Just like 13 years ago," Ueno said in a press conference, "we were facing each other in the final."
Ueno, who had lost hopes at gold to Osterman in '04, outpitched her longtime opponent with six scoreless innings as Team USA was held to just three hits. The same team that squandered their gold-medal hopes 13 years before had done it once again.
Your Tokyo 2020 Olympic Silver Medalists 🇺🇸#TokyoOlympics | @TeamUSA pic.twitter.com/MOMNOedHUd
— USA Softball Women's National Team 🇺🇸 (@USASoftballWNT) July 27, 2021
"There's a little bit of disappointment in not bringing home the gold since that's the eye on the prize when you go over there and you know you have a shot at it," Osterman told Austonia. "But more than anything, I'm very proud of the way our team handled everything that was part of this journey and not just the six games."
It's that very loss at the 2008 Olympics that partially motivated Osterman to get back on the mound. She officially put down the glove in 2015 after six seasons with the USSSA Pride, took time with family and began coaching at Texas State University.
Osterman helped ace Randi Rupp to greatness while a coach at Texas State University. (Active Voice Health/Twitter)
She thought her Olympic endeavors were well over—until talks of reinstating softball into the Games reentered the conversation.
"It wasn't until 2016 or 2017, that it ever crossed my mind to possibly put the USA uniform on again," Osterman said. "After the World Championships in 2010, I walked away, and I thought that my career on the international stage was done. So this was a pleasant kind of new opportunity."
Three years after facing any competition, Osterman was on the field once more with world-class athletes. Some, like Osterman and Abbott, had been playing together long enough to form a formidable "Fire and Ice" duo on the mound. Others had just graduated college.
Osterman said playing with a younger generation of athletes was one of the most rewarding aspects of this year's Games.
"It can be very different when you have 24- and 38-year-olds on the same field," Osterman said. "The adversity put us in some challenging positions and we came through with flying colors. And this group will forever be special just because what we had to go through is so different."
While on the mound, Osterman's job was to give the team a calm start. Off of the field, she felt her role had much of the same effect: she knew that new Olympic feeling, and she served as a deep breath to her first-time teammates.
"There's no words to explain how nervous and excited you get knowing that the whole world can be watching," Osterman. "I think using those emotions and figuring out how to get all our butterflies lined up and going in the right direction, so that way we were all moving together, was kind of my role outside of pitching."
We've heard her retire once before, but this time Osterman said she's gone for good—even from coaching. After her final time with Team USA on Sept. 27, she plans on returning to Austin, where she'll look to work for a nonprofit.
A gold and two silvers will have to do for one of the most decorated athletes in U.S. softball history.
"To be able to say you're a three-time Olympic medalist is a pretty special deal, right?" Osterman. "I played for a long time. But those are the pinnacle, in my mind, and kind of what elicits the dream to keep playing."
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Hospitals are facing a "significant" increase in admissions of pregnant women due to COVID-19 complications, Austin-Travis County health officials say, revealing what could be a long-term side effect of the virus.
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes met with three maternal medicine specialists on Monday morning to warn of yet another COVID-19 Delta variant concern: severe cases of the disease affecting unvaccinated mothers-to-be.
The doctors said unvaccinated pregnant women face an increased risk of preterm births, long-term effects, preeclampsia, ICU stays, stillbirths, being put on life support and even death if they are unvaccinated.
"We are really concerned that we are not getting that population of folks to hear this message of the safety of vaccines, so today we're assembled, one and all to say, wear a mask and please get vaccinated," Walkes said. "Vaccinations are the way to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations and death."
Medical Director of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. David's Women's Center of Texas Dr. Kimberly DeStefano said 95% of pregnant women admitted with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, stressing that all pregnant and lactating women should get the vaccine not only to protect themselves but to protect their babies from infection, which can be passed through breastmilk or birth.
"We know that the earlier in pregnancy you are vaccinated, the more antibodies are present at the time of birth for the infant," DeStefano said. "This is something that's very important, both during the pregnancy and postpartum."
Catching COVID-19 while pregnant can cause adverse effects on the baby, particularly because it increases the risk of preterm births. Baylor Scott & White Maternal Obstetrics Chief of Maternal Medicine Dr. Jessica Ehrig, said that preterm births are one of the "biggest impacts" on childhood development.
"We know that (preterm births) can have long-term effects depending on how early a baby's born," Ehrig said. "It increases the risk for long term respiratory issues, for blindness sometimes (and) for neurologic development delays."
Since mid-July, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on a steep rise that sent the city back to recommending Stage 4 guidelines. As the seven-day rolling average of hospitalizations surpassed 50 admissions, Stage 5 guidelines could be on the horizon. The city reported 54 new admissions and 546 total new cases on Friday.
Delta is more contagious than chickenpox, Walkes said, and even vaccinated individuals can catch and spread the virus without symptoms. The group of doctors asked everyone, especially pregnant women, to mask while in public as local hospitals pass the Stage 5 threshold.
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