Monumental $7.1 billion transit plan with North Austin rail stations in the hands of Austin voters

Capital Metro Red Line
Photo by Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper

Photo by Amy Denney/Community Impact Newspaper

The city of Austin and Capital Metro will ask Austin voters Nov. 3 to fund a plan that would connect neighborhoods throughout Northwest Austin to downtown through public transportation. Project Connect, a $7.1 billion investment, with about $3.85 billion coming from local property tax funds, would include two light-rail lines, an additional commuter rail line and a downtown, underground train station.

As vice chair of the city’s mobility committee, District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he sees Project Connect as a smart and holistic approach to the city’s worsening transit problems.

“The system reaches parts of Austin that have never before had access to high-quality transit, and it includes improvements to bus service, bike lanes and sidewalks,” he said.

If approved, Project Connect would build an Orange Line—a north-south rail service that would run from Stassney Lane in South Austin to the North Lamar Transit Center at US 183. A new MetroRapid bus route would connect downtown to a terminus at Broadmoor near The Domain.

A potential future expansion—a term used to refer to routes not funded by the Nov. 3 ballot item—could include extending the Orange Line even farther north to Tech Ridge, according to Project Connect maps.

“Planning and design for the extensions will happen along with the rest of the system while the partnership with [the Texas Department of Transportation] is developed. Much like in Dallas, with their now-expansive DART system, once the initial system is launched, the extensions follow with more funding partners at the table,” Flannigan said.

Another potential future expansion would create a Purple MetroRapid route from Lakeline Boulevard east along Parmer Lane before ending near Manor.

Local leaders have said the improvements are not only long overdue to combat Austin’s traffic issues but that they would also break down a major economic barrier by allowing residents who do not have access to a car to have access to efficient ways to get to work, their child’s school or the grocery store.

Baked into Project Connect is a $300 million investment intended to make sure the new public transportation lines are built to serve the people in the neighborhoods they will traverse, and not to drive them further out to Austin’s periphery.

Traffic solutions overdue

Austin’s population surpassed 1 million residents as of July 1, according to projections from city demographer Ryan Robinson. By 2040, projections from the Capital Area Council of Governments show the number of people in the 10-county Central Texas region is expected to balloon from about 2.4 million residents to roughly 4.1 million.

U.S. Census data shows that about three in four Austinites commute to work by driving alone. Even if the coronavirus pandemic leads more residents to work from home permanently, Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said, traffic will worsen as the population grows if Austin does not take action.

“Every human being that moves here for the next 20 years would have to work remotely to have the same rush hour we had in February. One hundred percent would have to not touch a car during rush hour in order to not have the traffic we had before the pandemic,” Clarke said.

Austin developer Brandon Miller runs a firm that specializes in consulting and marketing for home developers. He said for more than 15 years, he has wanted Austin to be more aggressive when it comes to light rail.

“Austin needs to get to the point where not everybody needs a car,” Miller said.

The benefits, Miller said, could extend to housing prices in new developments. If Austin built a light rail system that allowed residents to get around without a car, the city would be in a better position to lift a requirement to provide at least two parking spaces for every single-family home, duplex unit or townhome.

That, Miller said, would make housing cheaper to build. He said each parking spot costs developers about $40,000.

However, the price of existing housing around the light rail lines would likely increase because of the presence of new options to get around the city. That is a benefit for property owners if they want to resell, but the resulting increase in property taxes also has the potential to overburden homeowners.

A 2014 study from the University of Minnesota regarding an 11-mile light rail line built between St. Paul and Minneapolis found that home values increased by $13.70 per square foot between the announcement of the federal grant in 2011 and operations starting in 2014.

“Displacement is imminent with a light rail system. You better have all your anti-displacement and affordable housing initiatives penciled in from the beginning,” said Carmen Llanes Pulido, executive director of Go Austin Vamos Austin, a nonprofit that works with Austin communities to build programs that improve access to health.

If Project Connect were built in an equitable way, Llanes Pulido said, she has no doubt it would have a “phenomenally positive impact” on those communities. However, she said, those communities have little faith in the city to execute its promises.

“This is my biggest concern,” Llanes Pulido said. “There is not a track record of action or fulfillment.”

A chance to get it right

When I-35 opened in Austin in 1962, it deepened a segregating divide that dates back to the 1920s. In 1971, when the MoPac Expressway was built, homes in the historically Black Clarksville neighborhood on the west side of the Missouri and Pacific railroad tracks were destroyed.

Elizabeth Mueller, a professor at the University of Texas School of Architecture, said $300 million alone—the amount included in Project Connect to combat displacement—would not do enough to address gentrification. The key for Austin will be leveraging the money with grants, nonprofit partners and other sources of city revenue to extend its impact—and the city will need to act quickly.

“How can you act fast enough to buy some of these places before people are getting pushed out?” Mueller said.

Heather Way, a professor in UT’s School of Law who, with Mueller, co-authored “Uprooted,” a 2018 report that studied gentrification in Austin, said similar research in other cities has shown that if voters approve Project Connect, the impacts on home values could be felt as soon as the votes are counted.

“It is such an enormous challenge and a very expensive problem to address,” Way said. “We can never do enough. We can always be doing more. But the city has really taken some good steps in the right direction.”

Those steps in the right direction are a vast improvement from 2000, when Capital Metro made its first attempt at a light rail plan, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Traviilion said. Back then, there was little outreach to churches, parent-teacher associations or neighborhood groups in Black communities, according to Travilion, who was the president of the NAACP’s Austin chapter until 1997.

This time, Travillion said, the city and Capital Metro are being more proactive, but he said he still wants to see the growth and development happening east of US 183 benefit residents of those areas in an equitable way.

“What I fear most is that 183 is becoming the 35 of our generation,” Travillion said.

Flannigan asserted that Project Connect is a sound proposal that builds upon other successful public transportation initiatives while establishing accountability for the use of funds.

“Project Connect is financed through a long-term sustainable funding approach that really builds on lessons learned from other transit programs across the country,” he said.

By Iain Oldman
Iain Oldman joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2017 after spending two years in Pittsburgh, Pa., where he covered Pittsburgh City Council. His byline has appeared in PublicSource, WESA-FM and Scranton-Times Tribune. Iain worked as the reporter for Community Impact Newspaper's flagship Round Rock/Pflugerville/Hutto edition and is now working as the editor for the Northwest Austin edition.