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."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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