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Preliminary work begins on  Austin's $7B transit project while city chases federal funding

Crews took soil samples along Guadalupe on April 22 in preparation for the forthcoming light rail lines included under Project Connect.

Since Austin voters approved a property tax rate increase to help fund Project Connect last November, the 13-year, $7.1 billion overhaul of the local transit system has moved full steam ahead.

In addition to the creation of a new oversight organization, Austin City Council has allocated millions of dollars for initial anti-displacement efforts, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has delighted public transit advocates and crews have taken the first steps toward the downtown tunnel.

1. First stop: oversight

(Top left going clockwise) Mayor Steve Adler, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, Veronica Castro de Barrera, Eric Stratton and Tony Elkins.

Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of trustees created the Austin Transit Partnership, which will oversee the implementation and governance of Project Connect, in December.

The ATP board includes five members: Austin Mayor Steve Adler, representing council; CapMetro board member Eric Stratton; Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, president of Huston-Tillotson University; Veronica Castro de Barrera, principal owner of the VCdB Architecture & Art firm, which designed CapMetro's commuter rail stations; and Tony Elkins, an infrastructure, transportation and project finance professional.

ATP's responsibilities include coordinating resources and implementing anti-displacement strategies.

2. Anti-displacement efforts are moving forward, with $23 million in initial funding

Previous transit projects, including the construction of I-35 in the 1960s, displaced existing Black communities and reinforced segregation. Project Connect aims to avoid continuing this legacy. (Emma Freer/Austonia)

The Project Connect budget includes a historic $300 million anti-displacement fund, of which $100 million is to be spent in the first two years.

In February, Austin City Council allocated an initial $23 million for anti-displacement projects, including land acquisition and preservation, to be spent, ideally, by Sept. 30. The former focuses on providing funding to community-based organizations so that they can buy land in areas vulnerable to gentrification and near Project Connect routes, in the hopes of developing affordable housing on those sites. The latter involves helping preserve existing affordable housing by developing cooperatives among tenants and homeowners in the same areas.

Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested some of the funding be used to acquire land near the forthcoming MetroRapid bus routes at Pleasant Valley and the Expo Center. "I would be concerned if we don't use this $23 million to take advantage of really trying to protect for anti-displacement along those lines that are coming up first," she said at a March 11 housing and planning committee meeting. "Because that was the idea behind upfronting the $23 million this year to get a start on that."

Meanwhile, the city of Austin and ATP have convened a group of residents in need of transit and vulnerable to displacement to help identify equitable ways to allocate the remaining $267 million in funding.

3. A green light for federal funding

Pete Buttigieg marched with Austin Mayor Steve Adler through downtown in 2019 during Austin's Pride Parade. (Pete Buttigieg/Facebook)

The Federal Transit Administration awarded Capital Metro a $900,000 grant in December to support Project Connect planning and anti-displacement efforts. Nearly half of the $7.1 billion budget is expected to come through federal grants. Although this initial grant represents only a fraction of the federal funding required, public transit advocates say Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will be a champion of local initiatives such as Project Connect.

Last week, Buttigieg spoke to KVUE about President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes funding for transit systems. "One remarkable thing about Austin is that with efforts like Project Connect, the city, the community, the people have already made a decision to step up and deliver more infrastructure," he said. The passage of the infrastructure plan would mean "that there will be more federal dollars to back up those communities that are making those tough choices and preparing for the future."

4. Laying the tracks for light rail 

Project Connect includes two light rail lines: the orange line, which will run approximately 21 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center at North Lamar Boulevard and Hwy. 183 to Stassney Lane, and the blue line, which will run approximately 15 miles from the North Lamar Transit Center through downtown and east to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Although the lines aren't expected to open to the public until 2029, engineering and field crews have already begun work on them: finalizing the track plans, taking soil samples under Lady Bird Lake where a downtown tunnel is planned and surveying heritage trees along the rail routes. By this summer, 15% of the design should be complete.

5. Getting the community on board

CapMetro will host a series of virtual public meetings this week, with a focus on forthcoming stations. Interested in providing feedback on what the stations should look like and offer? You can register for Zoom meetings on Tuesday evening, Wednesday midday or Thursday morning here. Austinites can also share comments with the project team via online survey, phone, email or mail. More information can be found here.


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