Project Connect officials promise equity will be at forefront of initiative

Project Connect approved a diversity, equity and inclusion statement at the Austin Transit Partnership board meeting Aug. 18. (Benton Graham/Community Impact Newspaper)
Project Connect approved a diversity, equity and inclusion statement at the Austin Transit Partnership board meeting Aug. 18. (Benton Graham/Community Impact Newspaper)

Project Connect approved a diversity, equity and inclusion statement at the Austin Transit Partnership board meeting Aug. 18. (Benton Graham/Community Impact Newspaper)

With the approval of a diversity, equity and inclusion statement, Project Connect has reaffirmed its commitment to building out a public transit system centered on equity.

During an Aug. 18 board meeting, the Austin Transit Partnership, the government corporation overseeing Project Connect, unanimously approved the statement that reads in part: “We acknowledge the role transportation systems and infrastructure play in perpetuating racial discrimination and civil rights, [and] social and economic inequities across the United States.”

It goes on to say that it will “ensure equitable access to the Project Connect system” and “allocate financial, capital, and human resources equitably.”

“It is emblematic of one of our core values of what we want to build with Project Connect,” said Courtney Chavez, Austin Transit Partnership’s director of equity and disadvantaged business enterprise, during a board meeting July 22.

Project Connect will possibly face challenges in ensuring its expanded system attains its equity goals. For example, much of the $7.1 billion in funding will go toward growing the light-rail system. However, current rail ridership is predominantly made up of higher-income riders, according to Capital Metro documents. Rail ridership is also 70% white, strikingly more than the Travis County population, which is 47.5% white.

Anti-displacement fund

Efforts aimed at equitable outcomes extend beyond building rail lines and improving bus routes.

The $300 million anti-displacement fund approved as a part of the $7.1 billion Project Connect program represents another key component of efforts to ensure that Austinites are not adversely impacted by the expanded public transit system.

Cities such as Denver and Seattle saw real estate prices near transit centers surge after building out their own public transit systems. The fund aims to counteract that dynamic by giving people the resources they need to stay in their homes and continue operating their small businesses.

The city of Austin will manage that fund, with Nefertitti Jackmon, the city's first community displacement prevention officer, at the helm. Jackmon said that the need to combat displacement has only become more urgent with the pandemic and rising housing costs creating more uncertainty for many Austinites.

“It doesn't seem like the need is going down, which is a little disappointing, the need that exists for people to get rental assistance,” Jackmon said.

As for the Project Connect anti-displacement fund specifically, the city is planning to unveil its equity tool later in August. It also plans to open applications for land acquisition projects led by community-based organizations in the fall, she said.

Equity in public transit study

Capital Metro has also been the subject of recent research around equity in public transit.

University of Texas associate professor Alex Karner looked into ways that public transit agencies can advance equity in a study published in July. Of the eight agencies nationwide included in the study, Capital Metro stood out for Pickup, its on-demand service, as well as its equity-centered advisory committee—one for fare changes and the other for improving bus stops.

“In general, Cap Metro does a good job at including people on advisory committees, including the right people on advisory committees,” Karner said.

Karner said that Capital Metro’s creation of an advisory committee for Project Connect implementation represents another potentially encouraging sign. However, he added that it is too early to determine the effectiveness of the project’s overall equity initiatives.

“The stakes for Project Connect are quite a bit higher than a particular fare change policy,” Karner said. “Project Connect is billions of dollars happening over 30 years. There’s $300 million in funds that are set aside to deal with displacement issues. The partnership board that oversees Project Connect are going to have some hard decisions in the future about how they're going to think about allocating those funds.”
By Benton Graham

Metro Reporter, Austin

Benton joined Community Impact Newspaper as a metro reporter covering transportation in Central Texas in June 2021. Benton's writing has appeared in Vox, The Austin Chronicle, Austonia and Reporting Texas. Originally from Minneapolis, Benton graduated from William & Mary and eventually moved to Austin in 2018.


 Redistricting is one of the items on the Texas Legislature's third special session, and the state Senate released proposed maps on Sept. 18. (Ali Linan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Texas Senate releases proposed redistricting maps as special session begins

Redistricting is one of the items on the third special session, and the state Senate released proposed maps on Sept. 18.

Photo of the Travis County sign
Travis County approves fiscal year 2021-22 tax rate

The newly approved rate, paired with higher home appraisal rates, will result in an increase in taxes for many homeowners.

Photo of people attending ACL Fest
City of Austin approves ACL health and safety plan, holds off on final permit

Austin Public Health gave ACL the go-ahead to allow proof of vaccination in lieu of a negative COVID-19 test, but asked organizers to require masking in some areas.

Hundreds of complaints were logged against the Austin Police Department last year related to protests against police brutality and systemic racism. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Police oversight office challenges APD handling of most 2020 protest complaints

Austin's Office of Police Oversight objected to several aspects of the police department's approach to classifying and investigating protest-related grievances.

Q2 Stadium at night
Mixed-use development Verde Square to bring hotel, office space to site next to Q2 Stadium

Verde Square, a mixed-use development, is expected to break ground on construction by the end of 2022.

Photo of ACL Fest
Zilker Park closes in preparation for Austin City Limits Music Festival

Zilker Park closes in preparation for Austin City Limits Music Festival

Austin city staff and officials are pursuing additional protections related to mold issues in rental housing. (Courtesy city of Austin)
City pursuing improvements to handling of Austin renters' mold complaints

New recommendations from a report launched in the wake of Winter Storm Uri detail adjustments Austin could make to its mold response.

Students at O. Henry Middle School in Austin head in for their first day of school Aug. 17. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD's COVID-19 rate lower than nearby districts after first month of school

Austin ISD recorded more cases in the first month of this school year than in all of the 2020-2021 school year. Still, Austin ISD saw a lower percentage of cases in students than surrounding school districts.

Wayback Burgers specializes in cooked-to-order burgers and hand-dipped milkshakes. (Courtesy Wayback Burgers)
Wayback Burgers coming to Leander; fire kills 75 dogs in Georgetown and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.

Screen shot of Dr. Desmar Walkes speaking
Austin ICUs remain crowded with COVID-19 patients, delaying some critical care

Within the past week, there was a waiting list of patients to be transferred into Austin-area ICUs, Austin Public Health leaders said.

The city of Austin this summer cleared four unregulated homeless encampments and shifted dozens of residents into shelters. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Plan to house thousands of Austin's homeless people taking shape, but outlook for local success, project funding still unclear

The strategy's first housing benchmark fell short in June, and updates on how the estimated $515 million needed for housing and services will be spent are overdue.