With Project Connect decision coming to voters, South Austin residents weigh local costs and benefits

Project Connect heads to Austin voters in November.
Project Connect heads to Austin voters in November.

Project Connect heads to Austin voters in November.

South Austin resident David Foster lives along Menchaca Road, a short walk away from the Westgate Transit Center. He uses Capital Metro transportation when traveling to the office and heading downtown and said that when Austin FC begins playing games in North Austin next year, he will be taking the bus there and back as well.

But while congestion has been lighter in recent months as residents work from home during the coronavirus pandemic, Foster said he knows as the pandemic recedes, traffic will return and continue to get worse each year.

“I can go stand at a stoplight on Menchaca Road on a weekday morning, and there will be two to three dozen cars stacked up waiting to go north,” he said. “When you look at the cars, maybe 90% of the time you’ve got only one person in each one of those cars.”

The city of Austin and Capital Metro will ask Austin voters in November to fund a plan that would connect Austin neighborhoods to downtown through public transportation in an effort to reduce the number of cars on the road and provide transit access to residents who do not own vehicles.

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. Capital Metro’s board initially approved a $10 billion plan, which could still be built if additional funding sources become available in future years.

District 5 Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen said Project Connect outlines a communitywide investment that could greatly aid those in South Austin.

“It’s bus improvements; it’s rail; it’s park and rides; it’s neighborhood circulators; it’s metro bikes; so it’s really a whole transportation package, and South Austin gets a piece of all of that,” she said.

South Austin investments

One new light-rail line, the Orange Line, is the largest investment to touch South Austin within Project Connect. Voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to fund a $2.3 billion line from the North Lamar Transit Center to a future station at the corner of South Congress Avenue and Stassney Lane. A second $1.7 billion phase, which is not part of the funding decision in front of voters, could extend the line north to Tech Ridge and south to Slaughter Lane.

Kitchen said Project Connect would bring changes to bus service and parking options as well.

Specifically, MetroRapid bus service—which offers rides every 10 minutes on dedicated lanes—would be expanded along Menchaca south to Slaughter. A MetroRapid line would also be introduced to South Pleasant Valley Road in Southeast Austin, a move that Kitchen said would help serve one of the lower-income areas in the city.

The city is also exploring 15 circulators—a neighborhood transit option that would connect residents with main metro bus routes—eight of which are south of the Colorado River.

“You can’t run a bus through the middle of every neighborhood, so the circulators are ready to help people get to the bus system,” Kitchen said.

Austin voters will decide this fall whether to increase their property taxes to fund Project Connect’s $7.1 billion price tag. The increase is 8.75 cents per $100 of valuation. For a home valued at $250,000, the annual property tax bill would increase by $197, while a bill would increase by $394 for a home valued at $500,000.

Peck Young is a longtime political strategist and the executive director of Voices of Austin, a group calling for local government to take a new path.

Young said the cost of light rail to Austin property taxpayers is not worth the return.

“I personally think, and most of the people I’m working with think, that there is no sound reason Austin should get stuck with an expensive subway here at the beginning of the 21st century when most cities are having issues with maintenance and operating costs,” Young said.

Traffic problems multiplying

Projections from the Capital Area Council of Governments, a collaboration of local governments in the 10-county Central Texas region, show the area’s population is expected to balloon from about 2.4 million to roughly 4.1 million by 2040.

Even if work behaviors change after the coronavirus pandemic, Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke said traffic will continue growing significantly worse as the population grows if Austin does not take action.

Austin resident Brandon Miller runs a firm that specializes in consulting and marketing for residential home developers and focuses on neighborhoods along South Congress Avenue, where the proposed Orange Line would be built.

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

The benefits, Miller said, would likely extend to housing prices in new developments. If Austin built a light-rail system, the city would be in a better position to lift its current requirement that necessitates 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 to build.

“Developers are losing money on parking. Eventually that cost has no choice but to be baked into the price of the home,” he said.

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

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

‘The opposite playbook’

If Project Connect were built in an equitable way, Carmen Llanes Pulido—executive director of local health access nonprofit Go Austin/Vamos Austin— said she has no doubt it would have a “phenomenally positive impact.” But she said the communities GAVA serves have little faith in the city to execute its promises because of Austin’s history.

“Displacement is imminent with a light-rail system. You better have all your anti-displacement and affordable housing initiatives penciled in from the beginning,” she said.

Local leaders recognize that inflating home values along the transit lines could deepen city divides.

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, not drive them further out to Austin’s periphery.

District 1 City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison—who has spent her entire life in Austin—said the opportunity exists now to build a system that does not repeat the destructive past of city transportation projects but exists as something residents can take pride in.

“I see Project Connect as a chance to run the opposite playbook of what we did in the past,” Harper-Madison said.

The exact uses of the $300 million have not been spelled out specifically, but options include buying land to build affordable housing, home repair, rental subsidies and financial assistance for home ownership.

“That’s all designed to help people with housing opportunities because we recognize housing and transportation go hand in hand,” Kitchen said.
By Jack Flagler
Jack is the editor of Community Impact Newspaper's Central Austin and Southwest Austin editions. He began his career as a sports reporter in Massachusetts and North Carolina before moving to Austin in 2018. He grew up in Maine and graduated from Boston University, but prefers tacos al pastor to lobster rolls. You can get in touch at jflagler@communityimpact.com
By Nicholas Cicale
Nick has been with Community Impact Newspaper since 2016, working with the Lake Travis-Westlake and Southwest Austin-Dripping Springs editions. He previously worked as a reporter in Minnesota and earned a degree from Florida State University.


The beer garden The Good Lot will be located at 2500 W. New Hope Drive, Cedar Park, near Veterans Memorial Park. (Courtesy Unsplash)
Beer garden The Good Lot coming soon to Cedar Park and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Photo of a vote sign
Here is where Travis County voters can cast their ballots on Election Day

Travis County voters can stop by one of 54 polling locations Nov. 3.

The early releases will begin Nov. 11 and includes 17 days through the rest of the school year. (Community Impact Newspaper file photo)
Leander ISD adds early-release days and more top Central Texas news from this week

Read the top stories from the past week in the Austin area.

The Central Texas Mobility Authority's board of directors paused a scheduled 5-cent increase per segment on the MoPac Express toll lanes. (Community Impact staff)
Tolls on Central Texas roads will increase Jan. 1; MoPac base rate will stay the same

The Central Texas Mobility Authority's board of directors paused a scheduled 5-cent increase per segment on the MoPac Express toll lanes.

The Austin School of Fashion Design, or ASFD, relocated from North Austin to Georgetown in October. (Courtesy The Austin School of Fashion Design)
Austin School of Fashion Design moves to Georgetown and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Ahead of Election Day, Nov. 3, four Austin City Council members have asked Austin Police Chief Brian Manley for more information on the police department's plans to respond to possible protests. (John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Council members ask police to detail response to possible Election Day protests

The four council members said protests from the spring represented "a failure to keep people safe" and asked Chief Brian Manley for more information to how police would respond to potential protests around Nov. 3.

After a significant drop soon after the onset of COVID-19, home sales nationally have risen in the past few months. Austin has followed the same trend, but in a more pronounced manner. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin's economy is crawling slowly back to recovery. So why is the housing market booming?

Low interest rates, constricted supply and continued population growth have accelerated the sellers' market in Central Texas, leaving 26% fewer homes on the market this September than there were at the same time last year.

Local violinist Shawn LeSure
HAAM gets funding boost from Central Health to enroll musicians of color in health coverage

Days ahead of open enrollment beginning in the health care marketplace, Travis County’s health care district and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians struck a deal to secure increased health care coverage for the city’s musicians of color.

Less than a week ahead of the Nov. 3 Election Day, Cihan Varol, an associate professor with Sam Houston State University's Cyber Forensics Intelligence Center, shared insight on foreign election hacking and what it means for voters. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Q&A: Sam Houston State University cyber forensics intelligence expert talks foreign election hacking ahead of Nov. 3

"There is a very slim chance that the hackers can change vote count, but they can definitely influence people to believe that they did manipulate it," Cihan Varol said. "If election fraud is going to happen, it'll be because of disinformation."

Face coverings are not required for those entering polling places in Texas during the general election. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
UPDATED: U.S. appeals court pauses decision voiding face covering exemption at polling places

The court temporarily stayed a district judge's decision to void an exemption to Gov. Greg Abbott's statewide face covering order concerning polling places.

The Native Plant Sale is open to reservations only through Nov. 22. (Courtesy Lady Bird Wildflower Center)
From fall festivals to 5Ks, here are 16 events to put on your calendar in Southwest Austin, Dripping Springs and around the region

From the virtual Texas Book Festival to ghost tours in Georgetown, find an event to attend this October and November.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir speaks to reporters Oct. 28 at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County breaking voting records; clerk expects turnout to climb as high as 80%

More than 480,000 ballots have been cast in Travis County, surpassing the total from the 2016 presidential election.