Will the Third Time Be a Charm for an Austin Rail System?

Project Connect looks to help make connections

A vision for an underground station at Republic Square (Images courtesy of Capital Metro)

If there's one thing that almost everyone can agree on in Austin, it's that our transportation situation is unacceptable and unsustainable. Traffic congestion has steadily risen along with the city's population; according to Inrix, a transportation data firm, the average Austin commuter lost 69 hours to congestion last year – the 18th worst in the country. For most of those commuters, that time is spent stuck behind a windshield, under stress, instead of with family or friends, or working or studying, or doing almost anything else more enjoyable.

And after dramatic declines at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, rush-hour gridlock has returned to I-35, MoPac, and other busy roadways. Those roads are themselves often hazardous to public health. In 2019 there were 6,125 crashes on Austin's streets; 89 people were killed and 554 suffered serious injuries. So far in 2020, Austin police have reported (as of Sept. 23) 59 fatal crashes.

Adding new lanes to urban thoroughfares would be extremely expensive and extremely unpopular, but also extremely ineffective at addressing congestion. Just look at Houston.

A mobility system that depends so heavily on people driving alone also isn't particularly cheap. Austin and Travis County voters have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds for road construction just within the last decade and pay millions in taxes every year just to maintain the roads in passable condition. That's on top of the thousands of dollars a year every driver pays just to be able to use the roads.

According to AAA, those who buy new cars spend an average of nearly $10,000 a year (on fuel, insurance, and maintenance, as well as the car payment itself) to own and operate their vehicles. Even bargain hunters end up devoting a significant portion of their income to car ownership. According to Edmunds.com, an online car marketplace, a 2014 Toyota Corolla will cost the average buyer $27,908 over five years. For a middle-­income person, that's pretty bad. For one working a low-wage job, it's devastating.

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison says that the people who've been guiding transportation policy don't realize what a crushing financial burden car ownership can be. In advocating for what she calls "mobility justice," she draws upon her own experience relying on public transit as a poor kid growing up in East Austin while her mom struggled to keep a busted-up Buick Regal running. "She spent a fortune trying to keep that thing up," says Harper-Madison. "She couldn't afford a car payment. So she bought a cash car. That cash car was the freaking bane of her existence."

The expression "ridin' dirty" (made famous by the 2005 hit by Chamillionaire) "comes from [when] you don't have the $70 to renew your registration," Harper-Mad­i­son claims. People who can't afford to pay are, of course, penalized with fines that they also can't afford to pay. In Texas, the penalty for driving without insurance is an immediate fine of $175-350 and a $250-per-year driver's license surcharge for three years.

The cost of driving isn't only borne by the individual; environmentally, the whole community, and even the whole planet, pays a price. For a city like Austin that prides itself on progressive values and environmental stewardship, it's hard to defend a mobility system that requires every traveler to generate tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases each year. The city has been able to stay on track with its carbon-reduction goals up until now because of its emphasis on renewables to generate power; to continue to meet them going forward, Austin must change the way it gets around. Car pollution also pollutes our waterways and dirties the air we breathe, putting children at risk of asthma. Low-income people, who are more likely to live next to busy roads and highways, are impacted the most.

A park-and-ride concept

More Bad Road Ahead

This all sounds bad enough, but it will only get worse as the population of metro Austin roughly doubles over the next 30 years, to 4.6 million (about the size of Houston's Harris County today). Even with slow yet steady changes in both land use policies and real estate market preferences, this rate of population growth, which has characterized Central Texas for decades, will still result in more sprawl. As it does, residents pay an increasing premium to live closer to their jobs, and people with lower incomes are forced to accept longer (and thus, if by car, more expensive) commutes in exchange for cheaper housing.

That's why the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), which guides the region's long-range transportation policy and spending, estimates that our average time spent traveling will double as soon as 2040 if we don't make substantial improvements to our transportation system. Realistically, that includes more roads; the biggest project to date in CAMPO's 20-year plan, the $8 billion expansion of I-35, was recently greenlighted by the Texas Department of Transportation. Plenty of other major road projects – funded by local, state, and federal dollars – will go forward as well.

But there's a hard ceiling to the number of new roads and lanes that can be built. There simply isn't much space left. We can turn farmland into new highways, but what do we do about the thoroughfares that run through the city? Adding lanes to Guada­lupe, for instance, would require buying up and demolishing the properties that currently house retailers, apartments, and restaurants to make room for a bigger road.

That would be extremely expensive and extremely unpopular but also, more importantly, extremely ineffective at addressing congestion. Just look at Houston. Between 2008 and 2011, a federally funded expansion of I-10 west of downtown, the Katy Freeway, widened the highway from eight lanes to 26, making it by some accounts the world's widest roadway. Only a few years later, the highway was more congested than ever before, thanks to induced demand – when you add more road capacity, you encourage more people to make more (and longer) trips to more places.

Could It Get Better?

Tens of thousands of people do rely on public transit to get around in Austin, though that's a too-small percentage of the total number of trips taken or miles traveled. Like many transit agencies in the Sunbelt, Capital Metro can't provide enough service – extensive routes and high frequencies – to be a compelling alternative to driving for most Austinites, though it has seen increasing (pre-pandemic) ridership.

It hasn't always been this way. Austin had a streetcar system that served much of today's central city (Hyde Park was built in the 1890s as a "streetcar suburb"), where many neighborhoods were what we call "mixed use" today – with people able to walk to jobs and services. But most of Austin's population growth since World War II has come in neighborhoods that were planned with the car-centric lifestyle in mind.

Cities that were already big before the automobile (New York, Chicago, Boston) became more densely populated as they grew. Austin, however, sprawled physically as it's grown in population for more than a century. In the typical neighborhood, even ones close to the city center, only single-­family homes (or some duplexes) are allowed. Instead of a logical street grid, winding roads and cul-de-sacs put many people a very long walk away from the nearest bus stop. Most developments (residential or commercial) in most places are required to provide parking. All these land use choices make it easier to drive and harder to provide or use transit.

And yet, Austin can change. We will likely never be a transit-dependent metropolis like New York City, but we could get on the same path as Seattle and Minneapolis, both of which have seen significant reductions in car commuting following major investments in public transit and bike infrastructure. In Seattle, for instance, car traffic actually slightly decreased between 2006 and 2019 despite significant population growth. This November, Austin voters are being asked to make a similar generational investment in alternatives to the automobile.

Two different approaches to the Blue Line along East Riverside; the cross-sections of the Orange Line along "Guadalamar" would look different.

Once in a Generation

Project Connect, the name given to Capital Metro and the city of Austin's transit system plan, is far more than one project. It includes new MetroExpress and MetroRapid bus routes, a new commuter rail line to East Austin, enhancements to the current commuter MetroRail Red Line, new park-and-rides, new neighborhood circulators, and funds for new or preserved affordable housing served by the system (see map here).

The centerpieces, however, are the two planned light rail lines. The Orange Line will run from the North Lamar Transit Cen­ter (at U.S. 183) down Lam­ar and Guada­lupe, across the lake, and down South Con­gress to Stassney. This route, which is similar to the one presented to voters in the narrowly defeated 2000 rail referendum, serves the city's largest concentrations of jobs as well as dense residential neighborhoods. It corresponds with the current 801 MetroRapid bus route, which boasts by far the highest ridership in the existing bus network.

The Blue Line will run from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport west on East Riverside Drive to I-35, then cross the lake and go up to the Convention Center. Through Downtown, both the Orange and Blue lines are planned to go underground, with stations at the Convention Center and Republic Square; to the north, the two lines will share the same route along Guadalupe and Lamar, with trains every five minutes at peak periods.

The total Project Connect "initial investment" is just over $7 billion, with the two light rail lines and the Downtown transit tunnel (and new Lady Bird Lake crossings) accounting for more than half of those capital costs. The full system plan, which includes additional MetroRapid routes and extensions of both the light and commuter rail systems, is priced at just shy of $10 billion. At one point earlier this year, buoyed by enthusiastic public feedback and optimistic economic projections, Cap Metro and the city were poised to put the entire plan before the voters at once, but dialed back as the pandemic lengthened.

Austinites should only expect to pick up 55% of the total cost, however. The project's success is premised on major support from the federal government, which is a key funder of nearly every major mass transit project in the country; a 45% federal share is in line with support of projects in other "peer cities." Unlike the transportation measures the city has put on the ballot before, Project Connect will not be paid for with bonds, which can only be used for capital costs; the Federal Transit Administration has signaled that it will not fund projects unless local government can demonstrate that it has a steady stream of dedicated revenue to support the long-term operations and maintenance of the system.

That's why Proposition A is actually a tax rate election, where voters will be asked to approve a permanent property tax of 8.75 cents per $100 valuation, projected to generate $180 million annually. With this money, along with the anticipated federal funds, Cap Metro says it will be able to build and operate the entire system. (Technically, the city and transit authority are creating a new agency, the Austin Transit Partnership, to pool their resources and efforts.) The city estimates that the new tax will cost the owner of a $325,000 house an extra $284 a year.

The majority of Austin residents are renters, so they won't see any direct tax impact, though the costs will be reflected in rents over time. Those increases will be offset by lower transportation costs; however, there are concerns that housing costs and land values in areas served by the new system will increase, potentially squeezing out low-income residents – those who would most benefit from access to public transit.

That's why Project Connect also includes the largest publicly funded affordable housing proposal in Austin's history. The $300 million the package includes for anti-displacement investments will put more money into income-restricted housing than even the record-smashing $250 million housing bond that voters approved in 2018. Among other things, the city hopes to use the money to acquire land near future transit stations for low- and moderate-income housing.

There is a reason that Project Connect is described as a "generational" investment. It will be quite a while before the system is in place. Cap Metro has suggested that it will take up to nine years to get the Orange and Blue lines ready. Planning and construction for the MetroRail Green Line – the commuter rail service to the Eastern Crescent – would come after that; Cap Metro projects that it could be operational in 13 years. (More details on the timeline for building out the "initial investment" here.) Other improvements will likely come sooner. The four new MetroRapid bus lines are projected to be ready in the next three to four years, while the three new MetroExpress routes from the suburbs may kick off even sooner. The agency says that enhanced fare payment systems – ultimately, a single method for paying for a ride anywhere in the system – could be ready within three years. However, if approved, Austinites will start paying for the system immediately, raising the prospect that taxpayers will get frustrated by paying hundreds of dollars a year for a service that does not yet exist.

An intermodal transit center with both rail and bus service

Coalition of the Willing

Project Connect and Prop A have broad support from Austin's political establishment. The City Council has voted unanimously for the plan at every step leading up to the ballot, and it's been endorsed by such prominent progressive civic and environmental organizations as the Travis County Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, Envi­ron­ment Texas, the Austin Area Urban League, Public Citizen Texas, and Texas Public Interest Research Group.

Six years ago, many progressives, including longtime transit activists, were lukewarm or even hostile to the 2014 rail plan (also called Project Connect) championed by Cap Metro and then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA), a group formed specifically to advance light rail, ended up opposing the plan, arguing that the proposed Riverside-to-Highland route would not generate high enough ridership and would become a financial and political liability, ultimately preventing the city from building a quality public transit system. They were also furious with the hundreds of millions of dollars for highway expansion included in the plan.

Prop A, however, has the full-throated support of AURA (which has since transitioned to urbanist advocacy beyond rail). For many of Austin's urbanists and transit advocates, reducing traffic is not as important a goal as providing a credible alternative to driving for future travelers, and better service options for those who already use transit.

Meanwhile, the Austin Chamber of Com­merce, the Real Estate Council of Aus­tin, and the Downtown Austin Alli­ance are also onboard, signaling the support of the business community. They view a credible transit system as one of the tools needed to address congestion and feel that the lack of such options makes the city less appealing to businesses and to the workforce. Access to public transit was a major consideration for Amazon during its notorious (and perhaps duplicitous) national search for a second headquarters in 2018.

Since the campaign began, Capital Metro and the city have focused on voter education rather than advocacy, although (as has happened in every rail election) opponents are complaining that the agencies are crossing the line. Much of the actual campaign messaging on behalf of Prop A will come from Transit Now, a political action committee that is being overseen by Mykle Tomlinson, one of the go-to consultants for local liberal candidates and causes.

Although it will not have to disclose how much money it has raised until next month, Transit Now is required by city ordinance to reveal its top five donors. So far those include HNTB, a major national transportation engineering firm that works on both roads and rail systems; Tyson Tuttle, the CEO of Silicon Labs; Nav Sooch, Silicon Labs' chairman; Jackson Walker LLP, a local legal firm; and Austin FC, the new pro soccer team that would benefit from a Red Line rail station at its McKalla Place stadium if the plan is approved.

Transit Now sums up the campaign with a simple message: "Reduce Traffic. Fight Climate Change." However, a visit to its website shows a variety of appeals, including safety, affordability, and job creation. The campaign is also hoping to draw upon the COVID-19 era's heightened awareness of "essential workers," linking the availability of public transit to the ability of those who don't have the luxury to telecommute to get to and from their jobs.

No Time Like Now?

The arrival of COVID-19, which slammed transit ridership in cities across the world, initially led some otherwise supportive political leaders to question whether 2020 is the right year for a massive transit referendum. Not only had the pandemic potentially scared people off from transit, but people would likely be less inclined to support a tax increase during a recession.

Ultimately, however, those concerns were overshadowed by the potential boost offered by the 2020 presidential election. Political strategists expect local turnout, fueled mostly by a burning desire to oust Donald Trump, to be extremely high – perhaps higher than the records set in 2008. The more progressives there are at the polls – particularly young people, who tend to be more interested in using transit and less concerned about paying property taxes – the better chance Project Connect has of passing. Had the city waited until 2022, a lower-turnout midterm election would likely deliver an older, wealthier, and generally more conservative electorate. That was certainly one of the challenges faced by the 2014 rail measure, when national voter turnout was at the lowest in nearly 70 years.

Despite the favorable political environment, Project Connect faces a well-funded opposition campaign. At least two groups are raising money to defeat the referendum.

The first to launch, Our Mobility Our Future, is run by Tori Moreland, a self-described libertarian who has consulted for a number of GOP candidates and was a key actor in the 2016 battle over regulating Uber and Lyft. She was also involved in the PAC that sought unsuccessfully to recall Council Member Ann Kitchen (who chairs the Coun­cil Mobility Committee and serves on the Capital Metro board) over her support of rules requiring Uber and Lyft drivers to get fingerprinted. Campaign finance disclosures show that OMOF is largely funded by those who have bankrolled anti-transit initiatives in the past. The first campaign finance disclosure that the group submitted in July showed $173,000 raised from 14 donors. Nearly half of the total ($80,000) is tied to three local auto dealers. John McCall, the Spicewood-based beauty supply magnate, and John Lewis, a local real estate investor, each chipped in $24,000; both are major GOP donors. Jim Skaggs, the retired businessman and GOP donor who has been a vociferous critic of transit for years, has given $14,000, as did Travis County Commis­sion­er Gerald Daugherty, the last Repub­lic­an elected official in local government and a transit critic for decades.

Despite this cast of older conservatives and vested interests bankrolling the effort, Moreland has tailored OMOF's message to appeal to progressives and young people. The group describes light rail as a technology of the past that will cost too much and benefit too few people. By the time the rail lines are built, OMOF asserts, they will be "obsolete" because the private sector will have provided better things that will get us places faster and cheaper. They envision a future where ridesharing services operate networks of autonomous electric cars that offer cheaper service (because they no longer have to pay drivers). They also promote vehicle-sharing and carpooling as ways to reduce traffic and liberate people from the burden of car ownership.

They even suggest that these technologies are so promising and the flaws of public transit so profound that Cap Metro should be dismantled entirely. Instead of funding affordable transit for anyone who wants to use it, OMOF argues the money spent on Cap Metro could be redirected to subsidize ridesharing services for low-income people. Considering how many people use Cap Metro daily now, eliminating the bus system entirely could require many tens of thousands of extra car trips – shared or otherwise – on a typical weekday.

This vision would be much more convincing if the people whom OMOF sees as our transportation saviors didn't themselves support robust public transit. Instead, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, which is based in Austin, is a backer of Project Connect. So is Lyft.

Another vision for Downtown stations, with ample amenities

Curb That Enthusiasm

There are certainly reasons to welcome more shared, autonomous, and connected vehicles – including increased safety and more efficient freight movement – but they still take up space and don't solve the geometric challenges that have created the traffic mess we're in now. As for affordability, despite charging rates that are already too high for most people to use them for daily transportation, neither Uber nor Lyft has ever turned a profit. Flush with billions from venture capitalists, both have focused on getting as many customers as possible. As they approach a decade in the red, however, industry observers are increasingly questioning whether there is any path to profitability that doesn't involve significantly increasing fares – or public subsidy that would be far more efficiently used on real transit. (It's tempting to believe that cars without drivers are cheaper, but right now those drivers, and not the ride-hailing companies, are paying all the costs for owning and maintaining those vehicles. Once Uber and Lyft have to own fleets of cars themselves, the prices they charge consumers will reflect that.)

Many parts of the world that have dealt most effectively with COVID – Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Germany – have very dense cities that rely heavily on public transit.

OMOF also points to the current pandemic as proof that we shouldn't bet on public transit. "Pandemics are more frequent and scientists say more are coming; we must consider the viability of a system so vulnerable to pathogen," their website proclaims. But the reason we'll see increased risk from pandemics, according to the study OMOF cites, is climate change, which Austin could address most effectively by reducing driving with more public transit and more compact land use. And even amid the pandemic, transit systems that take proper precautions have not been shown to be significant drivers of COVID-19 spread. Many parts of the world that have dealt most effectively with the virus – Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Kor­ea, Germany – have very dense cities that rely heavily on public transit. Rider­ship has also rebounded in major cities that were hit hard, such as New York and London; there's little evidence that passengers are running a significant risk as long as they wear masks and don't cram together.

OMOF is not handling the anti-Prop A efforts all by itself. Also opposing Project Connect is Voices of Austin, an outfit run by longtime political consultant Peck Young. Once a mainstay of local Democratic politics advising mayors, council members, and most famously former Gov. Ann Richards, Young in recent years has found himself disenchanted with the new generation of leaders at City Hall. Along with former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and former CM Ora Houston, Young has taken aim at a number of progressive causes, including the recent reallocation of police funding, the proposed (and currently stalled) revision of Austin's Land Development Code, and Project Connect.

Young said in July that he hoped to raise between $500,000 and $750,000 to "educate" voters on these issues. It's not clear who that money will come from, and we may never find out. The group will not explicitly urge people to vote for or against a specific candidate or ballot proposition, allowing it to evade typical campaign finance disclosure requirements. All we know now is that Our Mobility Our Future, which is required to disclose its spending, reported donating $5,000 to the group.

There could yet be more actors entering the fray. In particular, transit supporters anticipate the involvement of the Koch network, which has spent heavily to oppose transit initiatives in cities across the country. Most notably, the Koch-funded Ameri­cans for Prosperity played a key role in defeating an ambitious transit referendum in Nashville last year. "I'm operating under the assumption that we're running against the Republicans and the Koch network," says Mykle Tomlinson.

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