Why Austin leaders face a rocky road in raising taxes to pay for the ambitious Project Connect transit plan
The map for the new $9.8 billion Project Connect regional transit plan is certain, but there are still many questions to be answered ahead of a November ballot question where voters will decide the fate of the proposal.
The two biggest items to be decided: the exact language and tax rate that voters will see, and how the body created by the city and Capital Metro to manage the system will be composed—as well as what kind of power it will have over budgets and operations.
And there is also the matter of deciding how to sell voters on a significant property tax increase—estimated to be $360 per year for the owner of a median-priced home—in the middle of a recession and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Paying for Project Connect—and only Project Connect
The plan for Project Connect includes three light rail lines connecting north and south Austin, the airport and downtown; a downtown transit tunnel with stations; expansion of the Red Line commuter rail through East Austin and a new Green Line running northwest from downtown; better bus service and a zero-emissions fleet; 24 park and ride lots; and customer technology to "plan, pay and go."
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that the state's recently instituted annual cap on property taxes, which requires voters to approve increases over 3.5% in combined city and county tax revenue growth in any one year, created the ability for the city to fund the transit plan without the extensive approvals from the legislature that had been needed for prior transit proposals.
Flannigan added that the ballot language tying the new money to the transit system should give voters some assurance that the increase won't wind up in the general fund and eventually be diverted to parks, law enforcement or emergency services.
"It's more about the system you build and governance of the financial system that you build at the beginning, and if the moneys dedicated to transit have any possibility of being redirected to other things, you're screwed," he said. "The decisions you have to make for transit are generational, but your immediate shiny object needs will always win."
Three light rail lines form the basis of the plan for Project Connect.(Capital Metro)
The governing body
The issue with the most need for compromise appears to be how the governing body for the system will operate. The city and Cap Metro will have to come together to create an interlocal agreement that will state how its membership will be decided, and how much authority it will have.
Flannigan said he thinks the governing body for Project Connect should mostly be involved in the management of money and priorities passed to it annually by the city and Cap Metro—a regional transportation provider led by elected and appointed board members from Austin and several suburbs.
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen said the governing board may have more autonomy, but will need to include members with deep experience and awareness of the ways transit impacts the entire region.
"To the extent that the body has discretion like about timing or locations of services—it will be important to include people who represent and are accountable to the public, such as elected officials," she said via email. "The Board must include people who have expertise and/or experience with equity issues, including mitigation of displacement. The Board must also include people who have an understanding of the impacts on businesses, especially small businesses during construction phases."
Project Connect aims to provide a better bus system for the Austin area.(Capital Metro)
Impact and equity
Along with those questions, advocacy groups tied to transportation will continue to press the city and Cap Metro on issues such as equity and the financial impact of the likely property tax increase.
Yasmine Smith, vice-chair of People United for Mobility Action, said her group is waiting for data on the possible impacts —and how they can be limited—on lower-income communities located along some of the proposed light rail lines.
"There are lots of questions yet to be answered and yet to be fleshed out in order for us to ensure that this will not impact our most vulnerable community members," she said.
"It is hoped that the city adheres to their stated goals during the planning initiative ... it is going to be up to groups like PUMA to hold them accountable to what they have stated they will achieve, which is an evolution in mobility but one that does not continue the historic precedence of disenfranchising vulnerable populations."
To help make sense of the all information emerging about COVID-19 in Austin, we're answering a few big questions:
1. Why do I keep hearing about Austin's ICU capacity?<div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3127217" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/3127217/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div><p>Because we may not have enough of it.</p><p>ICU beds are Austin's "critical limited resource" and Austin is at risk of reaching capacity—and overwhelming the city's health care system—sooner than previously thought, Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers told Austin City Council on Thursday. <br><br>Dr. Meyers, a modeler at the University of Texas at Austin, said she and her team of researchers recently experienced "a fundamental shift" in their understanding of hospital capacity. ICU beds are filling up faster than regular hospital beds, making ICU capacity the most important metric to watch.</p><p>"It is very possible that we may hit our lower limit for ICU capacity soon," Dr. Meyers said, giving an estimate of early August.</p><p>Area hospitals report they have the beds and staff needed to treat up to 331 COVID patients in their ICUs. If they are able to access additional personnel—such as through contractors and the U.S. military—that capacity could increase to 474.</p><p>If the ICUs fill up, it could threaten the ability of the hospitals to care for COVID patients as well as patients with other medical issues.</p><p>The current state of ICUs:</p><ul><li>There are 149 COVID patients in Austin area ICUs as of Wednesday evening, and they account for about a third of the occupied beds.</li><li>Austin's ICUs are at about 85% occupancy, up from 80% last week, according to a Tuesday report from the Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare hospital systems.</li></ul><p>The continued influx of COVID patients is straining area hospitals, which are also facing requests to accept patients from other Texas cities, according to Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott.</p><p>"It is not normal operations," he said.</p><p>To meet the rising demand, hospitals will have to reassign non-ICU doctors to care for their patients, which means "a different standard of care than we're used to," Dr. Escott said.</p><p>In the worst-case scenario, patients will spill over into the Austin Convention Center, which could open as a field hospital for low-acuity patients as soon as July 20.</p>
2. Is the COVID-19 fatality rate improving?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NTg3My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxOTQ3NzIxN30.wTIFalip3a_dj2_xbbzNCKH_-ngM4tkqb_mGQ3s0ER8/img.png?width=980" id="db25c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="85e039ae61eeebdf2b91a3f582088700" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p>Yes, but with caveats.</p><p>Austin's COVID-19 <a href="https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/3121104/" target="_blank">fatality rate</a>—defined as reported deaths per confirmed cases—continues to drop, even as the local caseload and <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/austin-hospitals" target="_self"><u>related hospitalizations increase</u></a>. But Dr. Escott cautions that it likely does not show the full picture.</p><p>Travis County has confirmed 13,161 cases as of Wednesday evening and reported 159 deaths, for a fatality rate of around 1.2%. This is down from <a href="https://austonia.com/Coronavirus/coronavirus-deaths-austin" target="_self"><u>1.8% on June 22</u></a> and 3.6% at the end of April.</p><p>However, many of the confirmed cases have been reported in the last two to three weeks, which means those patients have likely not yet required hospitalization—or died.</p><p>"The deaths that are going to happen for the people in the hospital just haven't happened yet," Dr. Meyers told the council Thursday.</p><p>There are some signs that the fatality rate is declining—at least to some degree—for two main reasons:</p><ul><li>Improved treatments—such as the antiviral drug remdesivir, steroids and convalescent plasma therapy.</li><li>An increasing number of cases among young people, who have a higher probability of recovering.</li></ul><p>But COVID-19 remains disproportionately fatal for certain groups.</p><ul><li>People over 60 account for 11% of confirmed cases but 85% of deaths.</li><li>Black residents, who make up 9% of Travis County's population, account for 6% of confirmed cases but 10% of reported deaths.</li><li>Latino residents—34% of the population—account for 52% of confirmed cases and 41% of deaths.</li></ul>
3. Are we moving to Stage 5?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NjAzNy9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTEwNTk5MX0.VDN5YmTKWAXjP37di8y2V9nHBJOuElRm7HWxqi593pU/img.png?width=980" id="ab95f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="654ed55191bb22d73a3257b8782a35e7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
4. What does this mean for Austin schools?<p>In her presentation to the council, Dr. Meyers delivered projections about what may happen when Austin ISD begins its school year on Aug. 18.<br></p><p>Even if the city issues a 35-day shutdown order between now and then, modeling shows some students will arrive at school with COVID-19.</p><p>In the case of less severe restrictions, the number of infected students expected to arrive at schools next month is higher.</p><p>During the same meeting, Dr. Escott said schools could see COVID clusters—like those reported at nursing homes and construction sites.</p><p>"There shouldn't be an expectation that there will be a school without a cluster," he said.</p><p>Education Austin, a union that represents AISD teachers and staff, is pushing for online-only instruction and encouraging its 3,000 members to avoid campuses if the district doesn't change its plans.</p><p>"All signs point to disaster," ED President Ken Zarifis said during <a href="https://austonia.com/education/austin-schools-online" target="_self"><u>a press conference</u></a> Wednesday.</p>
5. What is Austin City Council doing about this?<p>Austin City Council unanimously approved on Thursday two ordinances that allow for stronger enforcement of existing COVID-19 restrictions:</p><ul><li>One allows civil penalties—including daily fines of up to $2,000—for people who violate masking orders and other rules set by APH to curb the spread of COVID-19.</li><li>The other allows the city to declare properties a public health nuisance if they do not do enough to slow the spread of COVID-19, including enforcing the state's mask mandate and limiting the number of individuals who gather or stand together to a total of 10 or fewer.</li></ul><p>Properties maintained by government entities, used as residences, or that provide medical services or childcare are excluded.</p><p>Mayor Steve Adler said he and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe will be appealing to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for state assistance to address the staffing shortages faced by area hospitals.</p>
6. Is there any good news?<p>Possibly.</p><p>There is some evidence that transmission of COVID-19 is slowing down in Austin, Dr. Meyers told the council. She attributed the change to policies implemented in late June, including the statewide mask mandate, and an increased culture of caution.</p><p>"It looks like we may have slowed things a little bit," she added.</p><p>But Dr. Meyers said that this is no reason to abandon precautions.</p><p>There is about a 10-day lag in the data she and her team use in their modeling, which means that the transmission rate could have changed.</p><p>"We don't know where we are today exactly," Dr. Meyers said.</p><p>The modeling also indicates that any slowdown that may be occurring is not at a high enough rate to avoid overwhelming hospitals, which could see ICUs reach capacity by early August.</p><p>"It is very, very uncertain," she said of any slowdown. "If anything, we should be reinforcing this culture of caution."</p>
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Gov. Greg Abbott said on Friday that "the worst is yet to come" in the Texas COVID-19 surge. "If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19," Abbott said during a TV interview, "the next step would have to be a lockdown."
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Update 7/10 6:58:
The Austin Watershed Protection Department said in a statement that there is now some preliminary concern about algae found at Red Bud Isle yesterday, though so far results are not definitive.
Fifteen people set to work during the July 14 election, including two election judges, have quit due to fears about the coronavirus pandemic, the Travis County Clerk's office confirmed.
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Fighting over child custody and visitation is painful under even the best of circumstances, but attorneys and parents say the coronavirus pandemic has brought more stress, more fear, and more "live ammunition" to the battlefield.
A high level of fear<p>Austin family attorney Robert Luther said situations like M's have become a regular occurrence.<br></p><p>"There's a lot of acrimony out there, caused by the philosophical and political positions relative to the pandemic," said Luther. "Everybody's fear level is super high, or their defensiveness is super high. It's one or the other."</p><p>And if it was bad in the beginning, when canceled schools in March threw custody agreements into chaos, then it's even worse now with the latest surge in numbers, Luther said.</p><p>Arrangements between parents who disagree on how to handle the pandemic—or who just don't trust each other—were uncomfortable, but the parents had resigned themselves to it for a few months, he said.</p><p>Now trust is eroding, he said.</p><p>"This new level of long-term fear has affected a whole different round of people, I think, who thought they were being optimistic," he said. "And now being optimistic is really hard to do."</p>
Help from the courts<p>In April, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that— without hearings—custody agreements must be honored, regardless of pandemic orders or school calendars.<br></p><p>It helped M, whose relationship with his son had been relegated to texting and Zoom. In June, a judge threatened to hold his ex-wife in contempt if she tried it again, and said M could make up the lost time, according to court records.</p><p>The judge also directed him to have a COVID-19 test before another overnight visit with his son.</p>
An uneasy arrangement<p>Austin mom Jodi has been uncomfortable for months about sending her two young kids to spend time with her estranged husband, who she believes is too cavalier about the virus.<br></p><p>As the numbers have spiked, so have her fears. But there is no written visitation agreement, and the uneasy cooperation that allows them fairly equal time with the kids is precarious. A custody agreement is likely in the future, when a divorce gets filed, and it's vital to her that they stay on good terms.</p><p>"I don't agree with how he's handling it, but I don't want to fight," said Jodi, who also asked that her full name not be used to protect her children.</p>
New lines of communication<p>Some divorced parents have found a way through years of anger and hurt, finding that the pandemic has opened up new lines of communication that benefit the kids.<br></p><p>Anthony and My-Cherie Haley have worked hard to make things easy during this uncertain time, they said. A birthday party and a Pre-K graduation spent together with the kids during lockdown would have been unheard of in the five years since the divorce.</p><p>"It's not been bad for us, interestingly," Anthony Haley said. "All that's just been put aside, and we're just working together on all of it. It's the only way to make it through this."</p><p>Said My-Cherie Haley with a laugh: "Was it always hunky-dory? No. But we've been really flexible with each other because of this pandemic."</p>
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The newest addition to the Austin Zoo is in need of a name, and for a $2 donation, you can pitch your own idea.