Austin at Large: Mobility Is a Civil Right
The new Austin electorate, for whom equity is non-negotiable, considers transit
Way back in Austin's medieval period, when State Highway 130 was yet unbuilt, I found myself in debate with both green leaders and Chamber types about the need and purpose for that road. (Because this is Austin, SH 130 was of course highly controversial, and we'd been arguing about it for years.) What if, I said, the best reason to build SH 130 was to make transportation safer and easier for the disadvantaged eastern side of our region? Not as a bypass to I-35 or a catalyst to jump-start development and further sprawl, but a road serving the people who live there? How much trouble and expense would it be worth?
The answer back then was "Not very much"; the equation of mobility with equity and justice was a strange concept to both SH 130's fans and foes. Today, SH 130's effectiveness as an equity tool is constrained by its pricey tolls, but I was more or less correct about its impact. It is neither an effective I-35 bypass, nor (with a few exceptions like the Circuit of the Americas racetrack) a scaffold for investing in what we now call the Eastern Crescent. It is mostly a road for the people who live there.
A generation later, Austin has gotten smarter about this stuff. As we return to the even more controversial and even longer-running debate about building big-city transit – the Project Connect proposal, Prop A on city residents' November ballot – we care a lot about equity and justice. That may be what finally pushes a Central Texas rail system across the finish line.
New Voters, New Ideas
We have about 7,000 words of reporting on and analysis of Project Connect in this issue, so I hope we haven't left any of your questions unaddressed. A big one we really can't address until after Nov. 3 is why so many Austinites appear to support a much, much larger, more expensive, more ambitious, and even risky transit plan than those rejected in 2000 and 2014. (Those were both November elections with hot races driving high Travis County turnout, so it isn't just a 2020 thing.)
It will be interesting to dive deep into the Nov. 3 results to see if my thesis here holds up, but I think we clearly have a new electorate, one that's more diverse than before, not just in demography but in lived experience. The potential benefits of transit are not abstract to them, and the potential counterarguments – neatly captured in the past as "costs too much, does too little" – have little impact.
A lot of transit opponents, including of Prop A and its proposed new city property tax, get kinda salty about this last fact. New, younger Austin voters, most of whom rent, many of whom may never own homes here, some of whom may not stick around very long before decamping to the next job-rich hipster mecca, have no problem voting to spend other people's money on things they think are cool. Many aging white homeowners, the main opposition party in today's Austin, get right ticked off.
As nice as some of those folks are – I too am an aging white homeowner – this is two different kinds of bullshit. Firstly, there's a reason I avoid the framing of "a (huge!) city tax increase." We are, literally, setting up a new agency; the fact that its taxing district is coterminous with the city is pretty incidental, as you can see reading the governing documents for the new Austin Transit Partnership. I keep comparing it to Central Health and Austin Community College, both comparable (actually greater) in their tax bill impact, both created and expanded by voters, both broadly popular, and both dedicated to serving Central Texans who need help, and not aging white homeowners. Transit is no different.
Neither, for that matter, is the even larger slice of city taxpayer money – almost double the ATP's estimated revenue – that still funds the Austin police force, which brings us to the second kind of bullshit. Of the many absurd and derisible poses taken by police groupies from Greg Abbott on down, the saddest is their complete failure to grapple with the stone-cold fact that Austin voters, the citizenry at large and not just a handful of pinkos, are clearly onboard with de-policing. We booted the effing district attorney! The new electorate has shown, quite suddenly in political time but quite convincingly, that real equity and real justice are important community values that will be fought for, hard.
Obviously, Capital Metro serves a lot of underserved and marginalized communities, so it's not like claims for equity and justice haven't been raised before; for many transit foes, a safety net is the only reason for the agency to exist. But conversations of mobility justice have been largely siloed. Transportation projects, like other big public sector initiatives, rely on community engagement plans in which BIPOC, low-income, differently abled, and other nondominant groups are targeted separately. I've worked on plenty myself. There are practical justifications for this, but it has the effect of isolating those communities' views and needs from the dialogue between more empowered stakeholders.
But now the justice advocates engaging on mobility are the same ones engaging on housing, on land use, on criminal justice, on environmental justice. Because these issues all intersect; mobility is a civil right. and these advocates now speak for a big chunk of electoral power, bringing these issues right to the center of debate. The $300 million anti-displacement provision in Project Connect is the largest such spend by any transit system, anywhere in the U.S., ever. We'll see soon enough if, as I think, this new thinking brings the city onboard.