Project Connect is starting to take shape, Capitol Metro announced, and officially beginning with the scoping phase that includes an environmental report that is set to go on from now to 2022. Although that may seem like a long process, the overall project is starting a timeline of 13 years before it is complete.
During meetings to discuss the orange and blue light rail lines of Project Connect, a complete overhaul of the city's public transit system, Project Connect officials detailed the two lines' futures over the next nine years, when they expect a large part of the project to be complete.
Right now, the project teams for the orange and blue lines are entering the environmental impact scoping phase, which they plan to last a year, followed by two years of final design planning and then five years of construction and testing.
The orange line will connect North and South Austin, starting at Tech Ridge, with 22 stops along the way until it hits Slaughter Lane. There will be service every 10-15 minutes, according to officials.
The proposed orange line will reach the following stops:
- Tech Ridge (Park & Ride)
- North Lamar International District
- The Triangle
- UT campus
- Republic Square
- Auditorium Shores
- South Congress
- Southpark Meadows (Park & Ride)
As for the new blue line, service will cover Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Republic Square park downtown with a proposed 11 stops along the way. Just like the orange line, there will be service every 10-15 minutes.
The proposed blue line will reach the following stops:
- Travis Heights
- Austin Convention Center
- AustinDell Seton Medical district
- UT campus
The blue line will follow the same timeline as the orange line and is expected to be complete in nine years.
Before the project moves any further, an environmental impact statement must be developed. The EIS is part of the National Environmental Policy Act and is a crucial step to beginning new developments because it scopes the surrounding area and helps engineer better ways for the project to fit into the community.
As part of the scoping period, AECOM's Orange Line project manager Jerry Smiley said they will be asking for public feedback regularly for the next several years.
Since construction of the new lines will begin at different times, some lines may be done before then, like the red line, which starts construction this year.
Welcome to town!
This week, you'll see stories useful for someone new to Austin in anticipation of Austonia's "How to Austin" event. To attend, sign up here.
Although the pandemic rages on and many of Austin's most iconic attractions—live-music venues, honky tonks and long lines outside of barbecue joints—remain closed, people continue to flock to the city.
Based on 2018-19 population estimates outlined in an October report by the Austin Chamber, the metro is now growing by 168 net new residents each day, mostly thanks to people who relocate here. And there are already indicators that suggest Austin's growth has continued amid COVID-19.
Being new to town is something of a common experience among Austinites, with natives sometimes referred to as "unicorns" due to their rarity. Still, recent arrivals may find the city foreign in unexpected ways. Here are eight things to know while settling in.
1. Where are people moving from?
More than half of new Austin residents come from other parts of Texas, according to the Chamber report. Californians, who are sometimes blamed for Austin's growing pains, made up 8% of migration to the Austin metro between 2014 and 2018, followed by New Yorkers (3.3%), Floridians (3.1%) and Illinoisans (2.3%).
In more recent news, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Austin a magnet for new corporate jobs last month, thanks to its lower costs (and taxes) compared to San Francisco and New York City. Between April and October 2020, for every one person who left Austin for the Bay Area, almost three people moved in the opposite direction, and for every one person who left Austin for New York City, more than two New Yorkers came to Austin.
LinkedIn also reported that Austin gained the most newcomers of any city in the country in 2020, based on an analysis of its 174 million U.S. users.
2. Is it really a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup?
(Charlie L. Harper III)
(Charlie L. Harper III)
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once likened Austin to a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup because of its liberal politics in a red state.
Texas hasn't voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1976. In that time, Travis County—which includes most of the city of Austin—went blue in all but one race, in 2000, when then Texas Gov. George Bush was first elected.
Today, Austin is governed by an 11-person council, with 10 members who are self-described Democrats, and the county is governed by an all-Democrat Commissioners Court. Its elected officials have voted to support paid sick leave, police budget cuts, affordable housing investments and immigrant protections, often facing pushback from state officials and lawmakers.
But Austin is no longer the only blueberry in this unappetizing metaphor. Bexar, Dallas and Harris counties—home to Texas' three largest cities—also vote reliably Democratic, as do as an increasing number of suburban counties.
3. Where does Austin stand in terms of affordability?
Austin housing costs have risen dramatically since the late 1990s as an increasing number of affluent residents moved into urban core neighborhoods, displacing low-income residents, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
This trend has been most pronounced in the city's Eastern Crescent, where historically low housing costs drew in affluent residents. One reason these neighborhoods were relatively affordable is because of segregation codified by the city's 1928 master plan, which limited public services for Black residents to a "negro district" east of I-35.
Austin City Council has made significant investments in recent years in an attempt to address the affordability crisis, including approving a $250 million affordable housing bond, which voters approved in 2018, and earmarking $300 million in anti-displacement funding as part of Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit plan now in the works.
But housing—and especially affordable housing—remains limited in Austin. Council has spent nearly a decade on a land use code rewrite, which urbanists say could help address the dearth of so-called missing-middle type housing.
4. What is CodeNEXT and why do I keep seeing signs about it?
CodeNEXT refers to an attempt by the city of Austin to rewrite its land use code, which determines how land can be used throughout the city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built. The code was last rewritten in the mid-1980s.
The CodeNEXT process began in 2012 and aimed to streamline local zoning rules and allow for denser and more affordable housing in accordance with population growth. But in 2018 Austin Mayor Steve Adler scrapped the effort, which he wrote had become "divisive and poisoned," and asked the city manager to create a new process.
The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019 but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.
But signs declaring "CodeNEXT wrecks Austin" and "CodeNEXT is BACK" remain posted in many yards around town. Multiple community groups organized in opposition to the rewrite, which members claim is exclusive, panders to developers and will destroy neighborhoods. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that single-family zoning stands in the way of a more equitable, sustainable Austin, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
5. What are some of the other major policy issues I should know about?
In addition to housing, which ties in the related issues of affordability, gentrification and zoning, the city of Austin is also focused on:
- The pandemic, including an equitable vaccine rollout and preventing evictions
- Police reform, including revamping its training academy amid reports of racism and hazing
- Public transit and traffic congestion
6. How bad is the traffic situation here?
Austin is the 18th most congested city in the country, according to the latest traffic scorecard from analytics company INRIX in 2019, with the average driver spending 69 hours in congestion a year at a cost of $1,021.
Rapid population growth has led to longer commutes and more traffic. But local and state officials say that Project Connect and a forthcoming expansion of I-35 will help address the gridlock.
Austinites overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase last November that will help pay for Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion plan to overhaul public transit and bring light rail to town.
The Texas Department of Transportation similarly touts its $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to widen the highway up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard, as a salve for congestion. Critics, however, dispute this claim, arguing that similar expansion projects in other cities have led to induced demand.
7. There were some major Black Lives Matter protests in Austin last summer. Did anything change?
After mass protests against police violence and racial injustice last spring and summer, Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the Austin Police Department budget by around 5%, becoming the first city to do so amid activists' calls to "defund the police." The main impact of this decision was the cancellation of three planned cadet classes at the department's training academy, which has raised concerns in recent years due to its "paramilitary" culture.
Council members also approved moving 32.5% of the department's budget into transitional funds that will allow several of APD's traditional duties to continue while officials work out which to move from under police oversight.
Criminal justice reform activists also called for the resignation of APD Chief Brian Manley, who remains in his position.
8. Why do I keep hearing about homelessness?
As the city becomes increasingly unaffordable, homelessness grows more acute. It has also proven to be a political lightning rod, dividing city residents and incurring criticism from state Republican lawmakers.
The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population between 2019 and 2020, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.
But many disputed this explanation, blaming it on the City Council's controversial 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping.
9. Is it just me or are there a lot of elections here?
It can sometimes feel like there is an election every other month in Texas. Last year, there were five: a March primary to determine who would run in the November general election, May local elections, a July primary runoff for those March races, the November general election and a December runoff.
One reason for this is the runoff elections, which tend to have lower turnout. Texas, like some other former Confederate states, still holds primary and general runoff elections for those races in which no one candidate earns at least 50% of the vote.
The next election is on May 1. City officials are in the process of reviewing two citizen-led petitions. If validated, they will be placed on the upcoming ballot, where Austin voters will determine their fate. One, submitted by the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform, aims to increase voter turnout through a series of charter amendments. The other seeks to reinstate the camping ban.
More information on how to register to vote as a Travis County resident can be found here.
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My first day of work at Austonia was on Monday, March 9. By the end of that week, local officials had canceled SXSW and our small team was headed home to work remotely.
It was from our virtual newsroom—spread out across our respective kitchen counters, living room couches and home offices—that we launched a daily newsletter and, in early April, our website.
Since then our team has covered the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, our newest corporate citizen (Tesla) and celebrity resident (Joe Rogan), homelessness, two elections, the mayor's trip to Cabo San Lucas, Project Connect and the administration of the first COVID-19 vaccines.
To end the year, we've compiled a list of 10 important stories we published this year. Here's to more to come in 2021!
1. 'Somehow life feels richer than ever' for some Austin families finding new at-home routines (April 16)
Karen Brooks Harper spoke to local families early on in the pandemic to learn about how they were coping—and discovered that many were bonding during all the time spent at home together. "I don't want this crisis to go on forever, but I desperately want our future as a family to look more like this," one mom said.
2. Two days of protest: demonstrators shut down I-35, Austin police respond with tear gas as police killings mobilize residents (June 1)
In late May, Austin residents took to the streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos in Southeast Austin. Protests continued through the summer and ultimately led to the Austin City Council voting to cut the police department's budget—to the chagrin of many state lawmakers.
Editorial advisor Rich Oppel and myself teamed up to write about one of the biggest economic development projects seen in Austin this generation: the forthcoming Tesla Gigafactory, which is under construction in Southeast Travis County after a marathon process to secure property tax abatements and environmental permits.
4. Meet the two names from Austin behind the transformation of the new Joe Rogan podcast studio (Sept. 10)
Senior Producer Sonia Garcia profiled two local business owners entrusted by mixed martial arts enthusiast and comedian Joe Rogan to construct his new podcast studio, where he has since interviewed fellow Austinites Matthew McConaughey and Alex Jones. The recent transplant moved to the Texas capital from Los Angeles in July, bringing his $100 million podcast with him.
5. The Austonia guide to Proposition A, the ballot issue that could green-light Project Connect (Oct. 14)
(Emma Freer/Austonia staff)
On Nov. 3, Austin voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition A, which raised the city's property tax rate to help pay for Project Connect. The $7.1 billion transit overhaul plan is already being implemented, but it faced vocal opposition. This guide dives into how much Project Connect will raise property owners' tax bills and how it will address concerns about displacement.
Publisher Mark Dewey was thrilled to announce that the Local Independent Online News Publishers association had chosen Austonia as a finalist for its national best emerging publisher award. "Recognition like this from our peer group motivates us to work even harder on our mission of connecting you to our ever-changing city," he wrote to readers.
Photojournalist Jordan Vonderhaar visited homeless camps around Austin to document how residents were dealing with the pandemic—and ongoing cleanups orchestrated by local and state agencies. Last year, Austin City Council voted to overturn the city's camping ban. Advocates applauded the move as an important step toward decriminalizing homelessness. But many residents, business owners and state leaders opposed the decision, which they argued would threaten public health and safety.
8. Austin health official concerned about bars "masquerading as restaurants" to stay open amid COVID surge (Nov. 20)(Laura Figi/Austonia)
Reporters Laura Figi and Waylon Cunningham wrote about a state loophole that allows bars to reclassify as restaurants in jurisdictions, such as Travis County, that have not allowed bars to reopen. Dr. Mark Escott, the local public health authority, raised concerns about this policy last month, citing the rising number of COVID cases and hospitalizations, and has continued to advise residents not to attend such establishments. But bar owners and employees say they must remain open—or close permanently.
9. What Adler's Mexico vacation means for his chances in the Biden administration—and post-COVID political career (Dec. 3)
Earlier this month, news broke that Austin Mayor Steve Adler had hosted a small, outdoor wedding for his daughter in early November and then traveled via private jet to a family timeshare in Cabo San Lucas—while publicly asking Austinites to stay home. I spoke with political experts about what this scandal might mean for his career, especially if he runs for higher office.
10. Good times have faded at the TarryTown Shopping Center, the once-thriving neighborhood hub where animal rights activist Jeanne Daniels has pushed out local favorites (Dec. 22)
Writer Bryan Rolli took a deep dive into the once buzzing TarryTown Shopping Center that now stands desolate. Since inheriting the shopping center in 1999, Jeanne Crusemann Daniels has enforced strict rules that have resulted in the elimination of businesses that used or sold animal products. Long-time Austinites and former business owners remember what the shopping center was once like.
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The 97-acre mixed-use development slated for 4700 East Riverside Drive has a new name—River Park—and master plan that includes the addition of a 12-acre retail center.
The developer behind River Park, Presidium, shared its vision for the project, which will include more than 400 affordable units as well as 10 million square feet of offices, shops, hotels, parks and homes.
Bordered by the Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metro Park and Country Club Creek, the development will feature access to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trailer and more than 30 acres of publicly parkland and urban trails. It will also be served by a forthcoming light rail line planned under Project Connect, the $7.1 billion transit overhaul that Austin voters recently chose to fund.
"The location and size of River Park provides a unique opportunity to solve and address some of Austin's biggest challenges such as housing supply, affordability, connectivity and mobility—all on an urban-infill site within five minutes of downtown," Presidium Director of Development Michael Piano said in a statement Monday.
River Park is scheduled to be built in phases over the next two decades, with a preliminary start date planned for 2023.
Austin City Council voted 6-3 in October 2019 to approve zoning changes for the site, which is at the intersection of Riverside and South Pleasant Valley Road, after months of controversy.
Members of Defend Our Hoodz—a local advocacy organization that the Austin Police Department has said overlaps with the Mike Ramos Brigade, a local antifa group—protested outside the homes of Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria and Michael Whellan, an attorney whose firm represents the developer.
The University of Texas at Austin student government voted to approve a resolution asking the council to vote against the zoning change or to provide more affordable student housing in the area, which is home to many lower-cost apartments.
Council members acknowledged concerns that the project would worsen gentrification in one of the few remaining affordable urban core neighborhoods. But they also conceded that development was inevitable.
"Rejecting this rezoning request will not deflate the redevelopment pressure facing this area," Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said at the time. "It's a difficult but very real truth."