This year has proven to be a critical one for transit investment in Austin. Despite the pandemic, the metro welcomed its latest corporate resident, Tesla; received billions of dollars in state funding to expand I-35; and watched as city voters overwhelmingly approved Project Connect, which will transform the local transit system.
The Austin Chamber hosted a virtual regional mobility program on Monday to discuss the impact of these projects, with a special focus on job creation. Here are five big takeaways from the event:
1. Austin's workforce lured the Tesla Gigafactory.
When Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in July that his electric car company would build its next Gigafactory in Austin, local taxing districts had already promised significant tax breaks to sweeten the deal.
But Rohan Patel, senior global director for public policy and business development, said Austin's most alluring asset was its people.
"One of the major reasons we chose this site is because of the availability of talent among all levels," Patel said during the Chamber event.
Since July, Tesla has begun construction on the Southeast Travis County site of its forthcoming factory, set to open this spring, and posted more than 100 local jobs.
"We're just raring to go," Patel said.
Aside from construction work, Tesla promises to create 5,000 new jobs by the time its factory is fully built. To support those positions, the company is working closely with Del Valle ISD and Austin Community College to build workforce pipelines.
"Even during this really difficult time for the country and the globe, the welcome and the, overwhelming really, reception that we've gotten in Central Texas and Travis County is just fantastic," Patel said.
2. Signs point to the federal government investing in Project Connect.
With decisive victory, next steps are to appoint Project Connect oversight board and secure federal funding.(Capital Metro/Twitter)
Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit system overhaul, will be paid for primarily by 1) a property tax rate hike for city of Austin residents and 2) as-yet-unsecured federal grants.
In the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, opponents of Project Connect worried that banking on federal funding in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn was akin to building a house on a sand foundation.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, acknowledged that federal funding largely hinged on the results of the presidential election.
Now, with President-elect Joe Biden poised to take office next month, transit supporters are optimistic that Capital Metro will be able to secure the federal funding its needs to bring light rail to Austin.
"We know public transportation will have a friend in the White House come January," American Public Transportation Association Chairperson Nuria Fernandez said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler feels similarly, adding that he has spent time with members of Biden's transition team.
"I know it's a priority," he said.
3. Mass transit is a top consideration for companies considering a move to Austin.(Capital Metro)
Companies looking to relocate look for two big things in a potential new home: talent in the form of a ready workforce and mass transit options, said Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust, which has partnered with Capital Metro to redevelop the IBM campus in North Austin.
"The economic impact of a mass transit system on value creation is fairly significant," he said.
In addition to its economic development benefits, public transit investment also correlates with increasing real estate values for both commercial and residential properties and job creation, Sweeney added.
With voter approval of Project Connect and state funding committed to the I-35 expansion project, Austin is more appealing to companies looking to relocate than ever.
"We need to stand on three legs: transportation, economic development and talent," said Shaun Cranston, vice president and director of land development services for the Dallas-based engineering firm Halff Associates. "When one of those three legs is weak, the other two cannot stand. I am proud and pleased to say that all three legs are strong and that we have a great future ahead of us."
4. The I-35 expansion projects offers more than congestion relief.
TxDot has proposed three expansion plans as part of its I-35. expansion project. This is one.(TxDOT)
The Texas Department of Transportation touts its $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to expand the highway to up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard, as a salve for traffic congestion.
Critics of the project dispute this claim, arguing that cities cannot build their way out of congestion and pointing to recent expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston, which increased capacity but also led to induced demand. In other words, more lanes drew more drivers.
Regardless of where people stand on the congestion debate, supporters of the project say it offers other benefits. By burying a portion of I-35—between Airport Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Street—underground, it could allow for a reconnected downtown street grid.
A February report from the Urban Land Institute proposed building a surface-level boulevard over the underground portions of the interstate, which would allow for public plazas and other amenities.
"Thank you, TxDOT, for taking the main lanes below ground," Adler said during the Chamber event.
5. The Broadmoor development offers proof of some of these claims.5. The Broadmoor development offers proof of some of these claims. (Brandywine Realty Trust)
Broadmoor, a 66-acre, $3 billion master-planned community underway in North Austin, hints at the transit-oriented development that could come as a result of Project Connect.
Brandywine Realty Trust, a Philadelphia-based developer, is behind the project, which will transform the IBM campus near the Domain from a 1-million-square-foot office park to a 7-million-square-foot mixed-use destination by 2036.
Brandywine partnered with Capital Metro on the project, which is oriented around the forthcoming Broadmoor commuter rail station. When completed in 2022, it will be served by the red line and accessible to some 25,000 employees within a half-mile radius.
"We are big believers in mass transportation," Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney said.
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Welcome to town!
1. Where are people moving from?<p>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%).</p><p>In more recent news, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Austin <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-remote-work-make-austin-a-magnet-for-new-jobs-11607423401#_=_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a magnet for new corporate jobs</a> last month, thanks to its lower costs (and taxes) compared to San Francisco and New York City. <a href="https://austonia.com/wsj-austin-jobs?q=magnet" target="_self">Between April and October 2020</a>, 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.</p><p>LinkedIn also reported that Austin gained <a href="https://austonia.com/newcomers-moving" target="_self">the most newcomers</a> of any city in the country in 2020, based on an analysis of its 174 million U.S. users.</p>
2. Is it really a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQwNzIxNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTc3ODk3N30.xNqLWrumZXeeyS_i4KoMfYJWc24Csc8gMZVflzAav_E/img.png?width=980" id="36484" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08d4b6360ef8ea54d5cc1bcefc86cdcd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Texas State Capitol" />
(Charlie L. Harper III)<p><em>(Charlie L. Harper III)</em></p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/06/texas-trump-biden-counties-rural-suburban-city/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reliably Democratic</a>, as do as an increasing number of suburban counties.</p>
3. Where does Austin stand in terms of affordability?<p>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 href="https://centralaustincdc.org/diversity/cityofaustinplan_1928.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a 2018 report</a> by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. </p><p>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 <a href="https://centralaustincdc.org/diversity/cityofaustinplan_1928.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the city's 1928 master plan</a>, which limited public services for Black residents to a "negro district" east of I-35. </p><p>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 <a href="https://austonia.com/project-connect-next-steps" target="_self">now in the works</a>. </p><p>But housing—and especially affordable housing—remains limited in Austin. Council has spent nearly a decade on <a href="https://austonia.com/zoning-austin-politics" target="_self">a land use code rewrite</a>, which urbanists say could help address the dearth of so-called missing-middle type housing.</p>
4. What is CodeNEXT and why do I keep seeing signs about it?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzk4MTkzMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1MDgwMX0.wo8BZTgfx3Sbxn_krJmy5nJQHeQVAY2segZ4kmm0Mco/img.jpg?width=980" id="1bf06" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4936c8de4ecf6a26e0842fe8e9fbbe32" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
(Emma Freer)<p><em>(Emma Freer)</em></p><p>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.</p><p>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. </p><p>The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019 but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit. </p><p>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 <a href="https://www.kut.org/austin/2019-12-09/white-homeowners-dominate-input-over-austins-land-code-rewrite-one-group-is-trying-to-change-that" target="_blank">racist and classist</a>, at worst.</p>
5. What are some of the other major policy issues I should know about?<p>In addition to housing, which ties in the related issues of affordability, gentrification and zoning, the city of Austin is also focused on:</p><ul><li>The pandemic, including an equitable vaccine rollout and preventing evictions </li><li>Police reform, including revamping its <a href="https://austonia.com/racial-inequities-apd" target="_self">training academy</a> amid reports of racism and hazing </li><li>Homelessness</li><li>Public transit and traffic congestion</li></ul>
6. How bad is the traffic situation here?<p>Austin is the 18th most congested city in the country, according to the latest traffic scorecard from <a href="https://inrix.com/scorecard-city/?city=Austin%2C%20TX&index=77" target="_blank">analytics company INRIX</a> in 2019, with the average driver spending 69 hours in congestion a year at a cost of $1,021. </p><p>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.</p><p>Austinites overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase last November that will help pay for <a href="https://austonia.com/project-connect-next-steps" target="_blank">Project Connect</a>, a 15-year, $7.1 billion plan to overhaul public transit and bring light rail to town. </p><p>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 <a href="https://austonia.com/transit-in-austin/4-the-i-35-expansion-projects-offers-more-than-congestion-relief" target="_blank">induced demand</a>. </p>
7. There were some major Black Lives Matter protests in Austin last summer. Did anything change?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NzExNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDQzNTM4OX0.Mpbm0dmtxuJrIbl7QUZjAbOnuIVr10ZhsTUP2wJF0Lo/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a089" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0d2100b55619275ce6b9fc9e8092e439" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="huston tillotson protest" />
(Emma Freer)<p><em>(Emma Freer) </em></p><p>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 <a href="https://austonia.com/racial-inequities-apd" target="_self">raised concerns</a> in recent years due to its "paramilitary" culture.</p><p>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. </p><p>Criminal justice reform activists <a href="https://austonia.com/video-remove-police-chief-austin" target="_self">also called for</a> the resignation of APD Chief Brian Manley, who remains in his position. </p>
8. Why do I keep hearing about homelessness?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDcwNjU0OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODI4MjM5N30.3K4RQ_OvX41EkinAWptBCqBOrQte3fn5GgdU6EIsKcE/img.jpg?width=980" id="adefa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3bb749a0789de85ac084bd54f493a9e8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
(Jordan Vonderhaar)<p><em>(Jordan Vonderhaar) </em></p><p>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.</p><p>The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-homeless-camps-data" target="_self">a 45% increase</a> in the city's unsheltered population between 2019 and 2020, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.</p><p>But many disputed this explanation, blaming it on the City Council's controversial 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping.</p>
9. Is it just me or are there a lot of elections here?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDUxMjcxNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDAzNDE2OH0.sGG9sH3j7lmlyXuZEKSdwoV-Jn9-uOqn0qpIPMgnXQ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="4375d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cf0ccefd43b021c6a9df1708235e853d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
(Bob Daemmrich)<p><em>(Bob Daemmrich)</em></p><p>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. </p><p>One reason for this is the runoff elections, which tend to have lower turnout. Texas, like <a href="https://www.vox.com/21551855/georgia-ossoff-perdue-loeffler-warnock-runoff-election-2020-results" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">some other former Confederate states</a>, still holds primary and general runoff elections for those races in which no one candidate earns at least 50% of the vote. </p><p>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 <a href="https://austonia.com/austin-strong-mayor" target="_self">increase voter turnout</a> through a series of charter amendments. The other seeks to <a href="https://austonia.com/save-austin-now-camping" target="_self">reinstate the camping ban</a>. </p><p>More information on how to register to vote as a Travis County resident can be found <a href="https://tax-office.traviscountytx.gov/voters/registration" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.</p>
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