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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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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