Austin, TX voters will decide next month on a ballot initiative that could transform the region's transportation offerings and move Austin closer to its climate goals — that is, if it can get past vocal opponents.
The Project Connect Initial Investment measure, also known to Austin residents as Prop A, would raise the initial funding needed for the city's comprehensive transit plan to build a new rail system and downtown transit tunnel, and expand electric bus service. If passed, the measure would raise property taxes by 8.75 cents per $100, (approximately 4%) annually, according to Austin's transit agency Capital Metro.
While some opponents say the plan is a "mistake" and an improper use of taxpayer dollars, Mayor Steve Adler is pushing the measure to ease traffic problems, reduce carbon emissions and support parts of the city that are underserved by transit.
"We have a growing city with insufficient mobility options," Adler told Smart Cities Dive. "As we are forced to see by this pandemic, we have considerable lack of equity in mobility choices for essential workers. There are large parts of our city that have historically been underfunded."
The COVID-19 pandemic did make some proponents of the ballot initiative question if now is the best time for a tax increase, but, said Adler, "if we want to come out of the pandemic, this is the most equitable thing we can do."
A transportation reset
Project Connect's overall price tag totals $7.1 billion, with 20% of that funding to come from the ballot initiative's tax hike and 45% of that anticipated to come from the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) Capital Investment Grants program. The plan's cost was originally projected at $9.8 billion, but city council approved a revised plan to eliminate one line and scale back another to make the project more affordable.
For $7.1 billion, Austin residents would see:
- New light rail lines connecting different parts of the city and the airport
- New and expanded commuter rail service
- A transit tunnel downtown that would separate rail from cars
- Expanded bus service with an all-electric fleet, new routes and on-demand circulators in some neighborhoods
- Nine new Park and Ride stops near transit centers
- An all-electric bicycle fleet stationed at transit hubs
The proposed rail system and its transit tunnel are the biggest parts of the Project Connect plan, and by far the most expensive coming in at $5.8 billion. The system would include 27 miles of rail service and 31 stations, and would utilize the downtown tunnel to increase on-time performance.
Proponents are determined to secure the rail system to offer an alternative way around the historically auto-centric city, which suffers some of the worst congestion in the country. Most people are dependent on single-occupancy vehicles to get to the city's center, which makes this transit plan so crucial, said Mateo Barnstone, executive director of the Central Texas Congress for New Urbanism.
"We need to reset how we get around the city," said Barnstone. "We’re one of the fastest growing cities in the area. We’re a city of 1 million in a region of 2 million. We’re going to become a city of 2 million in a region of 4 million in the next 20 or 30 years."
While the pandemic temporarily curtailed traffic, Mayor Adler said vehicle miles traveled in the city are already back to 80% of pre-pandemic levels.
"This plan is for the next 25, 30 years. It doesn’t make much sense to think of COVID in that kind of time scale," Barnstone said.
Jacob Calhoun, project manager for Project Connect at Capital Metro, estimates the light rail lines would be completed in eight years. The bus rapid transit (BRT) lines could be implemented much sooner, with on-demand circulators running in six months to a year and new bus lines in three to four years. Some buses would operate like shuttle buses, picking up people in a designated zone and dropping them off in another designated zone or at a destination.
Austin is already home to two BRT lines, but the Project Connect plan would add four more. Under the expanded BRT system, dubbed MetroRapid, buses would come more frequently, make fewer stops and have the ability to jump the line at a traffic signal or use a priority lane — all resulting in faster service. Capital Metro also plans to have 80 electric buses in service by 2024, eventually transitioning to an all-electric fleet.
Under the plan's circulator system, Capital Metro would partner with ride-share companies to provide taxi-type service. Metro Bike is also considered a circulator. The all-electric bike fleet would be stationed at transit hubs and would be integrated into the CapMetro app for bike rentals and payments.
Environmental and health benefits
Transportation produces more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in Austin and surrounding Travis County, according to the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG), which supports the ballot measure. Project Connect would prevent 109 million vehicle miles of travel annually, keeping an estimated 30 tons of nitrogen oxide and 43,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of Austin’s air every year and promoting health benefits to residents, said Bay Scoggin, director of TexPIRG.
Project Connect fits well with Adler’s work to combat climate change in the city. In a September webinar hosted by the bipartisan peer-to-peer network Climate Mayors, Adler said Project Connect would be the city's "largest single investment in preserving climate." Austin is one of six Texas cities represented in the Climate Mayors coalition.
"Now, 90% of our trips are by car," Barnstone said. "The goal over time is to move us to 50% by other means – walking, biking, transit, scooter. Every time people are using something other than a car, it’s going to be reducing the carbon load."
The Initial Investment measure includes $300 million for anti-displacement efforts, which Capital Metro says is the largest investment of its kind in a transit-related election. Most of that money would be spent to build or maintain affordable housing near transit stations, with a goal of 60% of income-restricted housing to be "within a half-mile walk to a station," Adler said.
The city council also got involved with the equity component of the plan, creating an Equity Assessment Tool with recommendations for funding anti-displacement strategies. The council plans to work with neighborhoods to ensure that local priorities are identified and tracked, and to establish performance triggers that, if met, would automatically come before the council.
The anti-displacement strategies will vary by neighborhood, said John-Michael Cortez, special assistant to the mayor. He said in some more established neighborhoods with older homeowners, for example, the displacement fund would be used to help homeowners "clear up a title" or "help with a senior exemption."
"We will engage the community around the station, and develop strategies most appropriately applied in that neighborhood," said Cortez. "In some places not already in the process of being gentrified, that could mean acquiring properties and land-banking them."
Facing the opposition
Austin's Prop A is not the first light rail measure to face city voters. Austin attempted to pass light rail investment measures in both 2000 and 2014, with the 2000 vote coming in "very, very close," said Scoggin of TexPIRG.
Calhoun of Capital Metro said Project Connect had "broad support" prior to the COVD-19 pandemic, but "circumstances are more difficult now" as that support has slowed down. Overall, the city remains closely divided on the ballot initiative, mainly due to its high cost.
Our Mobility Our Future, a political action committee (PAC), describes itself as "a diverse coalition of Austinites, taxpayers, business owners, and transportation nerds who believe Project Connect will be a costly burden on our future." Roger Falk, the group’s transportation policy expert, is a commercial landlord who describes himself as "just a taxpayer advocate."
"For under $700 million, you can do everything in Project Connect except light rail, without the tax rate increase,” Falk told Smart Cities Dive, noting that the PAC is okay with the parts of Project Connect outside of light rail. He warned that the city should be aware of "all the options, the coming technologies sweeping the mobility space."
One of those key technologies is vehicle-to-everything connectivity (V2X), which allows vehicles to communicate with each other and with traffic infrastructure. Falk said the city should be investing in these innovations and "not putting money in old technologies" like light rail.
“A lot of the funding we need to go forward with infrastructure for V2X is going to be absorbed by Project Connect,” Falk said.
Prop A is NOT a bond.— Our Mobility Our Future (@OurMobilityATX) September 29, 2020
It is a tax rate increase. It increases with appraisals, compounds future increases, and is perpetual.
Lightrail wouldn’t run for a decade, the giant increase begins now. We don't have to put up with this arrogance from the city.
Reject Project Connect!
He went on to say much of the rail system's ridership would be people who were already utilizing transit options like buses, therefore its efforts to get people out of their cars may not be successful. Falk also predicted the city's traffic will not return to pre-pandemic levels after the pandemic.
"Austin is a high-tech town," he said. "So many workers have found they can work remotely. That’s going to diminish the commute command that Project Connect hopes to serve."
Kara Kockelman, a professor of engineering who specializes in transportation at the University of Texas-Austin, agreed that Project Connect might not be the best way to deal with traffic and climate change, but the city doesn’t have "a lot of easy options."
"They should be taking a bigger step on things like gas taxes," Kockelman said, noting those taxes are "far too low and do not reflect the real cost and damage” of driving. She pointed to alternative solutions like congestion pricing, which has been implemented in major cities including London and Singapore to charge motorists who drive into certain city zones.
"Everybody’s scared about congestion pricing because no one wants to raise taxes, but it would be far more cost-effective," she said.
Another more efficient, inexpensive idea is to offer preferred parking for anyone whose vehicle gets 50 mpg or more, Kockelman said, but it would also be politically unpopular.
With Election Day quickly approaching on Nov. 3, the pressure is mounting for Austin officials to prepare for next steps, whether or not the Project Connect Initial Investment measure is approved. Yet Mayor Adler said he is unsure what the next step would be if the measure doesn’t pass.
"Our challenges are so great," Adler said.
CNU's Barnstone said the next 20 years will certainly see massive transit investments in the city. “The question is, what form are they going to take? If we don’t make any investment, we’re just kicking the can down the road," he said.
In the near term, "we’ll still go ahead and implement some aspects of the program if the ballot initiative doesn’t pass," said Calhoun of Capital Metro. The federal money is dependent on local funds, so light rail would be out but the BRT lines and circulators could be added.
"There’s no good time do a package like this because no one wants to pay more," Adler said. "If you want to do something that’s transformational and generational, you have to act big. People want to do something that’s big enough, on a great enough scale to have an impact on climate and on transportation choices."