Austin voters to decide ballot measures on sweeping investments in transportation

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Austin, Texas, voters will decide on two ballot measures on Nov. 3, one that will ask voters to approve a tax increase for a high-capacity transit expansion project, and another on the issuance of  $460 million in bonds to pay for transportation infrastructure projects.

The Austin City Council voted to put Proposition A before voters to approve the local initial investment of $7.1 billion for the comprehensive transit project that would include new rail lines, improved bus service with an all-electric bus fleet, and a downtown transit tunnel.

Project Connect incorporates a planned light rail system that will include 27 miles of service and 31 stations. Investments would be made in the Orange Line that connects North and South Austin; the Blue Line with service offered to Austin Bergstrom International Airport; and the Green Line with new commuter rail service. In addition, the city has proposed light rail service that travels underground in downtown Austin, which is expected to increase the travel time reliability and be safer than operating at street level.

Funding for the transit system would require voters to approve the maintenance and operations portion of the city’s property tax rate and dedicate 8.75 cents of that revenue toward implementing “Project Connect.” If approved, Proposition A will increase the tax rate by approximately 4 percent, while the impact on the total tax bill is also about 4 percent, according to the city.

The project, the council said, will hopefully secure funding for expansions to the transit system after the initial investment.

“Project Connect will address traffic, get essential workers better access, benefit our climate, reduce traffic fatalities, and so much more,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said on Twitter. “The dedicated investment to mitigate displacement is essential and very significant.”

The city said it expects to receive federal funding to cover approximately 45 percent of the total capital cost of the project. Additionally, Capital Metro, the city’s metropolitan transit agency, would also use its Capital Expansion Fund to help pay for the project.

The ballot measure also includes a $300 million investment in a program designed specifically to keep lower-income residents in their homes as property values in their areas rise in response to the city’s transit system investments.

David Couch, program officer for Project Connect within the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said meetings between the city and Capital Metro that started in 2018 helped to make the project tailored for the people of Austin. After a draft proposal for an overall transit plan was created in 2019, the plan was opened up for public comment in 2020, he said. The process of gathering public comments included reaching out to the public in traditional ways to holding online forums in order to get community buy-in.

“Between the time we started that process, in an April and May timeframe, and moving forward to mid-August, we had engaged some 17,000 individuals,” Couch said during a recent ENO Center for Transportation webinar on the ballot initiative. “Really we had a switch to how we approached that part of the process.”

Some opponents of the ballot measure have sited the project’s high cost.

Travis County Republican Party Chairman Matt Mackowiak told The Texan, a statewide political news outlet, that, “Project Connect costs billions of dollars over several phases, and the first phase includes a subway downtown, more rail, and precious few dollars for new roads. It’s a disaster for taxpayers and should be soundly defeated.”

Meanwhile, a second ballot measure, Proposition B, would approve the issuance of $460 million of general obligation bonds backed by property taxes, with the proceeds used for transportation infrastructure spending on sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails, safe routes to schools, and other transportation safety projects.

Among the projects funded by Proposition B are $102 million for major capital improvements to Longhorn Dam Bridge, the Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative, and additional pedestrian infrastructure as part of the 2016 Mobility Bond Corridor Mobility Programs; $80 million each for sidewalks and transportation-related urban trails; $53 million for substandard streets; $40 million for transportation-related bikeways; and $20 million for safe routes to schools.

“Propositions A and B go hand-in-hand in promising to transform mobility in Austin. Prop B would provide historic levels of funding for the sidewalks, bikeways and street infrastructure needed to get people safely to and from the new public transportation funded by Prop A,” Adam Greenfield, the campaign manager for Proposition B said.

“Austinites have a history of voting for multiple ballot items like Props A and B and with recent research showing that 55 percent of Austinites would prefer to get around in a way other than driving alone, the evidence is strong for a public ‘yes’ vote for both Propositions A and B this November,” Greenfield said.