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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The Food and Drug Administration will consider Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine application for emergency use authorization in 5-to-11-year-olds on Tuesday. The vaccine will likely be available to kids starting next week.
With 2.9 million Texas children in this age group, state health officials say this is a "big factor" in reducing the virality of COVID. At a Monday press conference, the Texas Department of State Health Services released info on the rollout efforts of the vaccine for children.
Here are some of the answers to your questions.
When and where will it be available?St. David's Healthcare staff unpack the first few shipments of its initial supply of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.(St. David's Healthcare)
Assuming the FDA approves this version of the Pfizer vaccine this week, vaccines will start shipping out almost immediately with the first vaccines for children likely available next week.
DSHS has already put in an order of vaccines under the federal government's "pre-order prior to launch" program.
COVID vaccine providers will begin receiving those first shipments 1-5 days after the approval. After Monday night, DSHS will have put in three different orders for vaccines. The second shipment will arrive 3-7 days after approval and the third shipment will take place 5-9 days after the approval.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will meet on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 to discuss best practices for administration, allowing for the first shots to be administered after.
The state will be allocated 1.3 million doses across 814 providers in 120 counties. Individual county allocations have not been released but each county got to send a request for how many doses they may need. Federal retail pharmacies, such as H-E-B and Walgreens, are getting their own shipments.
The health department advises using its vaccine finder tool to find the nearest vaccine provider near you.
How is this version of the vaccine different than the first one?Abbott says COVID vaccine to be available to other groups by end of March
The COVID vaccine for 5-11-year-olds is one-third of the dosage of the current vaccine available to those 12 years of age and older.
It is being identified as the orange cap vaccine, unlike the current purple cap. The purple cap vaccine cannot be administered to younger kids, according to the state health department.
And like the current vaccine, it is 95% effective. The first and second doses are the same and will be advised to be taken 21 days apart.
What are the side effects for children?
During clinical trials, it was reported that some kids in this age group felt pain at the injection site, fatigue and headaches.
The data submitted to the FDA shows no serious complications, such as cases of myocarditis inflammation of the heart muscle, or pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart—rare complications that have been reported among young boys and men receiving the vaccine in other trials.
How will this affect herd immunity?
With so many children across the state, DSHS said "we need to have as many people vaccinated as possible."
State health officials said the herd immunity threshold is still being looked into, but with 3 million children soon to be able to get the vaccine, it will be a big factor in reducing the viral load in the state.
"Until we're able to add all the children, we'll see a bigger wave in stamping down the pandemic," DSHS' Imelda Garcia said during the conference.
Of those 12 and older, 72% are fully vaccinated in Travis County as of Monday.
I'm not sure if my child needs this vaccine. Why should I have them get it?
DSHS says this vaccine is important for young kids because it will protect the older population and others around them as well as themselves. The department says to ask experts and doctors questions if you are hesitant so you can be confident with your decision.
Tesla is officially in with the big guns.
After Hertz Global Holdings Inc. placed an order of 100,000 Teslas—the biggest single electric car purchase ever—Tesla officially hit the $1 trillion market cap for the first time.
The trillion-dollar club has some big names, including Apple, Facebook and Amazon. With the purchase, Tesla's stock shot up to more than $1,045 a share by midday Monday, a new record after topping $900 a share just a day earlier.
The $4.2 billion deal is the biggest purchase of electric vehicles to date. Hertz said it will use the Teslas to round out their fleet of electric rental cars by 2022 just months after filing for bankruptcy protection.
The news came just days after Tesla followed its leader, CEO Elon Musk, and relocated its headquarters to Austin. Austin's Giga Texas plant, which is currently finishing construction, is set to begin producing Cybertruck models at the end of 2022 and will begin "volume production" by 2023, Musk said in the meeting.
Musk celebrated the stock market victory on Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 25, 2021
Shortly after moving to Austin, Tesla saw its best quarter yet with Q3 revenue coming in at $13.76 billion—up from $8.77 billion this time last year. It was the electric car companies' ninth straight profitable quarter.
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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
While Northwest Arkansas isn't exactly looking to be a breakfast taco-loving, live music-having tech hub, it is branding itself as the Austin of yesteryear. And who better to come to the quickly-growing paradise than Austinites themselves?
OZ Brands is the latest NW Arkansas organization to entice Austin residents to pack up and make the move. The company, which is named after the area's Ozark Mountains, promotes travel, trails and art within the region and is owned by Runway, a NW Arkansas business investment group. Runway is headed by Walmart founder Sam Walton's grandsons, Steuart and Tom Walton.
Oz is targeting Austinites with the "One Way Out" giveaway, a program that will give at least 10 Austinites a one-way Allegiant ticket from Austin to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
"Fall is the perfect time to visit and explore the natural beauty of the Ozarks," the program's website reads. "Why just one way, because once you're here, you won't want to leave!"
Why swap cosmopolitan Austin for NW Arkansas' forest-filled hideaway? Just like other local programs including the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and the NW Arkansas Council, OZ Brands is looking to capitalize on priced-out Austinites who may not be pleased with the region's unprecedented growth.
"It's okay, Austin, we get it. You're tired of the tourists, the traffic, the hassle," the website says, escalating to an all-caps message reading, "YOU NEED A BREAK, AND WE ARE HERE TO GIVE IT TO YOU."
OZ is far from the first program to offer financial incentives to move to the area. Ads for Greater Bentonville began cropping up on the feeds of Austinites weeks ago as they promoted their annual tech summit, while the NW Arkansas Council rolled out similar ads. Instead of "Austin City Limits," the organizations promised "Bentonville City Limitless." If you "wish you'd bought in Austin 10 years ago," the Council promises that the area is perfect for you.
The Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and NW Arkansas Council have both made moves to bring Austinites to the region. (Greater Bentonville)
Like similar programs in the past, One Way Out "is an opportunity for Austinites who no longer feel at home in their own city to see for themselves the value and qualities of Northwest Arkansas ... It's for those living in the Texas city who feel the growing pains of Austin expanding beyond its limits," the company said in a press release.
The region has recently experienced substantial growth, moving to fourth on the U.S. News and World Report's list of 150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021-2022 and enjoying an influx of businesses, tech workers and startups tired of the West Coast's crowds and priciness. And with a great arts and culture scene, a lower cost of living and even a financial incentive to move to the area, talents like film producer Kristin Mann decided it was time to swap Austin for sunnier skies in Arkansas.
"I love (Austin) how it is now, don't get me wrong, but I've always fantasized about what it might have been like before it really exploded," Mann said. "And I feel like that's similar here...There's something really unique about this town, and it feels like there's something really exciting happening here."
The contest ends Oct. 29 and is open to anyone 18 and older that lives within 50 miles of Austin. Winners must book their trip within four months of the competition and finish the trip by May 1, 2022.
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