Is now the right time to rethink transit in Austin? Local leaders respond to community questions about Project Connect

Project Connect, Capital Metro's public transportation expansion plan, would include three light-rail lines running through the city and underground train stations downtown. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)
Project Connect, Capital Metro's public transportation expansion plan, would include three light-rail lines running through the city and underground train stations downtown. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

Project Connect, Capital Metro's public transportation expansion plan, would include three light-rail lines running through the city and underground train stations downtown. (Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper)

On June 10, Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board of directors will decide whether to adopt Project Connect—the plan developed by Capital Metro that lays out the future of public transportation in Austin.

The vote in June will present choices for local leaders regarding the technical aspects of the plan, such as where new routes will go, whether rail or bus will be chosen in particular areas of the system and whether to build a tunnel downtown with underground train stations. However, not every question will be answered.

After the June vote, local leaders will still need to decide how to phase in the work and how to set up a financing structure to pay for the project, estimated at $9.8 billion.

According to estimates from Greg Canally, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer, about 40% of the plan would be funded by the federal government, leaving a local investment of roughly $5.9 billion. After Capital Metro and the city go through their respective budget processes this summer, Canally said the city could add a transit referendum to the November ballot authorizing additional revenue to go toward the project.

The amount needed—and the tax increase on property owners—would depend on how much of the plan is funded now and the timeline for construction, all details that have yet to be finalized.

Throughout May, City Council members and Capital Metro leaders have held virtual conversations with the public to discuss the plan ahead of the milestone meeting. On May 26, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke and board Chair Wade Cooper answered questions from residents citywide.

One resident asked Adler why the city is staying with the original timeline for Project Connect and planning for a November ballot question given the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. According to a report from Workforce Solutions of the Capital Area, Travis County’s unemployment rate rose to 12.4% in April, and more than 84,000 residents sought unemployment benefits.

Adler said he believes there are two separate questions for the community to answer in this process. The first is whether Project Connect is the right plan. The second is how to go about building and financing the project—which will require an answer that is sensitive to the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. At the June 10 meeting, he said leaders will address the first question.

“Whatever else happens, as a community we need to decide, ‘Is this the plan we want?’ I think it is,” Adler said.

Cooper said that when it comes to transit, leaders “have been talking and not doing” for too many years. This plan gives Austin an opportunity to change that.

“It’s a solid plan. It’s had more community input than any plan we’ve ever had before. It’s more robust, and it’s something we can build on for generations to come,” he said.

Additional virtual meetings will be held May 28 with District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen and District 8 Council Member Page Ellis, and May 28 with Mayor Pro Team Delia Garza and District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria. A virtual open house with more information on the project is also available on the Project Connect website.


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