Austin at Large: This Train Will Leave on Time
But Project Connect's power structure bends a bit to help everyone get on board
I will bet that at least 90% of you have barely thought at all about Project Connect since you voted a year ago to give it a few billion dollars. As we tried to frame last fall's big Proposition A debate, the vote to approve (the property tax rate earmarked for) the major overhaul of Austin's transit system was tantamout to creating a new local government agency, comparable to Central Health or Austin Community College. Both of those entities collect similar amounts of tax revenue as Project Connect to do their particular jobs, which before they were created by voters had not been done in Austin very well. Both have succeeded enough to convince voters to give them big tax rate increases for their next-level game-changing projects like UT's Dell Medical School (funded by Central Health to pay for services its new physicians deliver to lower-income Austinites) or ACC's reinvention of Highland Mall, which we spotlighted over the summer.
For this analogy to hold up perfectly, though, we'd have to view Capital Metro (also created by voters) as the Phase I and Project Connect, which came 35 years after the transit authority's founding, as the game-changing next step. And we are very explicitly not doing that here, as the transit infrastructure made possible by Prop A (2020)'s victory will be delivered not by Capital Metro, but by its new joint venture with the city, the Austin Transit Partnership. That entity was created in paper form before last fall's vote, but this Friday, Oct. 29, will see the adoption of the Joint Powers Agreement between the city and Cap Metro that empowers and defines the ATP going forward, along with some other action items needed to get this train a-rollin' for real.
Who's Behind The Throttle
It's kind of water under the bridge now (perhaps under a new bridge carrying the proposed light-rail Blue Line across Lady Bird Lake east of Congress) but Cap Metro and City Hall were not always this eager to work this closely together.
When people who've moved to Austin since 2000, which is a lot of you, ask why it took 20 years to follow up that year's narrowly defeated rail referendum with a plan that could pass, this is part of the answer. Various political, philosophical, and personality differences play their part in how this came about, but it wasn't until the star-crossed 2014 rail plan (largely shaped by decisions made outside Capital Metro) went down in flames, in the chaos of the city's first 10-1 election, that the painful and protacted rail debate yielded to a focus on fundamentals. We would need to spend whatever it takes to create a transit system that would meaningfully change travel behavior and future land use; perennially cash-strapped Capital Metro could not make that happen without the city's financial partnership; but the city also needed to stay in its lane and let Cap Metro lead on technical issues.
Rather early on, before the Project Connect plan was fully developed, a lot of community leaders had already gotten on board with the need for a new transit agency to handle Austin's next-level system. This understanding was at first clouded by some latent competition over who would get to be that super-authority, and some fantasizing about the scope of work it could undertake. By the time City Hall and Cap Metro went to the voters, the remit for what is now the ATP was more streamlined: limited scope, focused on project delivery on time and on budget, not replacing anything that Cap Metro and Austin's mobility departments already do. It's just a work thing, not a lifetime commitment.
Have You Found Your Seat?
That's great and welcome and all, except that in the run-up to the Prop A vote, Cap Metro and City Hall took on another political mandate, one involving representation and equity and community empowerment. The $300 million fund within Project Connect for "anti-displacement" measures is a substantial investment for a project of its size and has been rightly lauded, but it exists at a tangent to the actual buildout of a rail and bus transit system, and its execution is being handled entirely by the city, although Cap Metro's helped by opening up discussion of "equitable transit-oriented development" districts, or ETODs, around stations. There's a big community advisory committee that's participating in that process; the interlocal agreement between the city and Cap Metro to create this JPA also committed them to form that CAC, and this element of Project Connect was important in securing support for Prop A from Austin's now highly influential social justice advocacy circles, who largely stayed out of the rail debate in the decades prior.
Once the election was won and most of the stakeholders turned back to their prior business, a core group of CAC members has been watching intently, and not without concern, as the JPA has been crafted, to make sure the public, and particularly the marginalized and the transit-dependent, do still have a voice that matters, and aren't compartmentalized in the anti-displacement corral while the big construction money gets spent in ways that will also have a lot of influence on equitable outcomes for Austinites. These advocates' work can be seen in numerous changes that have been made to the draft documents up for consideration on Friday, but they also know that this work is just beginning. We've got their back.