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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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Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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