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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🗓 All weekend
Check out this highly anticipated art exhibition with illuminated art along Waller Creek. Tickets are free and the event includes food vendors, dazzling lights, live music, and hands-on activities
All weekend 6 p.m - 10 p.m | 📍Waterloo Park
This iconic holiday tradition lights up for the first time this holiday season starting this weekend! Reserve your spot for an enchanting light and sound performance, delicious hot cocoa, sweet treats, and some overall fun with your friends or family. The show runs till January 6th.
6 p.m and 9 p.m | 📍Mozart's Coffee Roasters - 3825 Lake Austin Blvd, Austin, TX 78703
This fitness event is free and open to the public. Get your morning started right with a "Fitness in the park" class for kickboxing! The class will be led by certified instructors and is a great way to get a cardio workout in while also honing your self-defense skills.
10 a.m - 11 a.m | 📍 Metz Park
Support local LBGTQ+ and female artists at this outdoor market with over 150 vendors. Get your holiday shopping out of the way at this event, with vendors for food trucks, handmade goods, raffles, hands on workshops and activities, and more.
Did someone say cheese?! If you're like me and always willing to get your hands on a bowl of mac and cheese, then this event is for you. Check out the Mac and Cheese festival happening this weekend to decide which vendor has. the best mac and cheese for yourself, and enjoy the bar with creative cocktails while you're at it. Tickets start at $45.
11 a.m - 3 p.m | 📍Lantana Place - 7415 Southwest Parkway
Timmy and Tommy are ready to play.
As the 2-month-old white-and-tabby brothers swat feather wands, chase toys and generally hold court inside Purr-fecto Cat Lounge, a half-dozen potential adoptive parents look on lovingly, trying to get their attention.
“This is kind of like the speed dating of cats,” said Lupita Foster, owner of Purr-fecto Cat Lounge. “I intentionally didn’t put in any tables. That’s why we call it a lounge instead of a cat café because we have these lounge areas where you can sit and relax and cuddle.”
Foster, who has owned a cleaning company, Enviromaids, for 18 years, was inspired to open Purr-fecto Cat Lounge after adopting her own cat, Romeo, from a local shelter.
“When you want to adopt a cat, you have to spend a lot of time with them to get their personality,” Foster said. “I wanted to do something to help the community and something that makes me feel good, that warms my heart. A business with a purpose. This was a perfect idea.”
Actually, a purr-fect idea.
Inspired in part by a cat lounge she visited in Los Angeles, Foster began laying the groundwork for the business in late 2021 and officially opened the doors of Purr-fecto Cat Lounge, located at 2300 S. Lamar Blvd., in July 2022. Since then, she’s worked with rescue organizations such as Fuzzy Texan Animal Rescue and Sunshine Fund Cat Rescue to facilitate nearly 100 cat adoptions.
At any given time, there are 10-15 cats living in the space, which features an ideal blend of calm, cool corners and adorably Instagrammable backdrops with phrases such as “I want to spend all my 9 lives with you.”
Lina Martinez, 32, learned about Purr-fecto Cat Lounge from a friend’s Instagram post and made an appointment to visit two days later.
“My first impression was, ‘AWW!’” Martinez said. “The kittens were to die for. I felt happy and at peace – just what I needed.”
Visitors to the cat lounge pay $15 for a 30-minute CATXperience session or $30 for a 70-minute session that is spent getting to know the personalities of each cat. Foster said the first thing she typically sees from visitors to the lounge is a smile.
“Everybody that enters the door is smiling,” she said. “And we’ve seen people who have cried because they can’t have kids and they decide to go and adopt a cat instead.”
Foster said she loves bringing in cats who might not have a chance to be adopted at traditional shelters. She told the story of one cat named Izzy, who was partially blind, who was adopted by a family that had a deaf cat at home.
“Izzy was not going to get adopted anywhere else, but she’s extremely beautiful,” she said. “If she was in a cage in a rescue and you tell people she’s blind, she was probably going to be overlooked. But visiting our space, she doesn’t seem like she’s blind. She knows her way around. She moves around perfectly.”
Although Martinez, who had been casually looking for a pet to adopt since moving to Austin nearly four years ago, was interested in a cat named Ruby that she had seen on Purr-fecto’s social media, at the lounge she instead found herself drawn to 5-month-old mixed breed Tuxedo cat.
“I thought he was a star,” she said. “He worked the room and introduced himself to everyone. When I laid down to pet Ruby, he ran from the other side of the room and cuddled with me. It was game over. He got me.”
And she, of course, got him, complete with a commemorative photo that read “My Furrever Family” the day she took him home. Although his original name was Emmanuel, she renamed him Sullivan after her favorite DJ.
“Purr-fecto is special because of the amount of effort and love they put into taking care of the cats,” Martinez said, “and finding them good homes and making possible adopters feel at home.”
Foster, who spent a recent Thursday hosting a group of teenagers in foster care at the lounge, several of whom expressed interest in working there, said the best part about her new endeavor is that her heart is always full.
“I just feel complete,” she said. “I always felt as an entrepreneur that I was missing something. I knew I accomplished a lot, but in my heart I was missing a little connection with the community. Now I’m creating connections between humans and pets and that’s amazing. I’m creating family bonds. It’s just about love, you know. And we need that.”