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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By Abby Livingston
WASHINGTON — With the support of Texas' two senators, the U.S. Senate approved the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 52-48 vote Monday evening.