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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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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