Concerns About Equity and Worker Safety Push Project Connect Negotiations Into Overtime

Council to pass the joint (powers agreement)

City Council, Capital Metro Board of Directors, and Austin Transit Partnership discuss the Project Connect joint powers agreement on Oct. 29. (Photo by John Anderson)

After last week's joint meeting between City Council, the Capital Metro Board of Directors, and the board of the Austin Transit Partnership – the new agency created by the city and Cap Metro last year to oversee the Project Connect build-out – ended without adoption of a joint powers agreement between the three entities, Coun­cil is prepared to revisit its end of the agreement as it meets today, Nov. 4.

The JPA outlines the responsibilities of the three entities – the city, Cap Metro, and the ATP Board – as they implement a $7.1 billion transformation of the Central Texas transit system.

The JPA is a document outlining the responsibilities of each of the three entities as they implement a $7.1 billion transformation of the Central Texas transit system, funding for which was approved by Austin voters in November 2020. The prior inter­local agreement between City Hall and Cap Metro to create the ATP, as well as the "contract with voters" that accompanied the city's tax rate election, stipulates that a JPA be approved by all parties before the end of 2020. The Oct. 29 meeting, the first to include the ATP Board members in what has been a two-year series of joint deliberations, was intended as the venue for each agency to approve the agreement. But as the meeting approached its hard stop time of 1:30pm, it was clear that significant differences remained.

Partly, the meeting ran long because a bevy of community stakeholders, including the Austin Justice Coalition, Workers Defense Project, and Go Austin/Vamos Austin, called in to the meeting at the Austin Convention Center (and encountered many technical difficulties, causing further delay) to express their dissatisfaction with the JPA as written. AJC and GAVA both shared concerns that Project Connect would not be implemented with equity in mind; while all three parties to the JPA have embraced broad-reaching equity goals, in practice so far that discussion has been limited to the $300 million in anti-displacement funds being managed by the city as part of Project Connect, and not the transit network itself. Advocates are concerned this could lead to less focus on Cap Metro's existing and new bus services as the ATP builds out the light rail lines (with plans for future extensions) that make up the bulk of Project Connect's infrastructure investment.

Meanwhile, Workers Defense has focused on the construction itself, and on how the workers who build out Project Connect will be treated, in line with its Better Builder protocols that have been adopted on a number of city-sponsored projects. As written, the JPA places responsibility for monitoring worksite conditions on Cap Metro, rather than with an independent third party as advocates would prefer.

Significant differences remain.

Many of the specific changes in the JPA's language sought by advocates, and raised as potential amendments by Council Mem­bers Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen (the latter also a Cap Metro Board member), were incorporated in the fast-evolving draft document. The other major outstanding issue, at least for Council and advocates, is who should lead the ATP so as to maintain its independence. The interlocal agreement and ATP bylaws stipulated that Capital Metro's CEO, Randy Clarke, should also be the partnership's executive director upon its founding, without specifying when or how he would be replaced. Community members are concerned that this will inevitably lead to conflicts of interest. Mayor Steve Adler has proposed a compromise to be considered at today's meeting: Let ATP Board members choose their own director, after they conduct a community engagement process to build a leadership profile that can be used to recruit qualified candidates.

Another JPA amendment proposed by CM Paige Ellis (chair of the Council Mobility Committee) would direct each agency to engage in "supplemental planning" work to assist in the implementation of Project Connect; she hopes for improvements to sidewalks and bike lanes, as well as transit-oriented development around stations, to secure maximum ridership.

Once Council votes on the JPA, Cap Metro and ATP will need to take separate votes at their own meetings to finalize the document; at the Oct. 29 meeting the chairs of both boards (Cap Metro's Wade Cooper and ATP's Veronica Castro de Barrera) indicated they were ready to do so at any time.

Council is also set to approve a resolution from CM Leslie Pool that would direct city staff to negotiate and execute an agreement with Austin Pets Alive!, which operates adoption services out of the city-owned Town Lake Animal Center. This agreement would allow APA! to accept animals from outside the five-county metro area at TLAC, which the nonprofit says is necessary for them to continue to help Austin be one of the nation's leading no-kill cities. In return, APA! will have to agree to a new minimum intake requirement of animals from the Austin Animal Center (the city's actual shelter in East Austin), to be negotiated with city staff, and provide monthly updates on intake and placement to the city's Animal Services Department and the Animal Advisory Commission.

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