With Project Connect in Flux, Here’s How to Get Involved

Community engagement so far has lacked diversity

Photo by Jana Birchum

As inflation and rising real estate values conspired to vault Project Connect cost estimates from $7.1 billion to over $10 billion, Austin's transit leaders began to think through aspects that could be tweaked and changed to reduce costs. Project Connect's three governing bodies – the Austin Transit Partnership, Cap Metro, and the City of Austin – are now looking into how those rising costs could impact the scope and phasing of implementation. In fact, said Cap Metro board member Wade Cooper during a Nov. 30 tri-party meeting, "A lot is up in the air." With those potential changes likely to crystallize in the coming months, the public will again have a chance to voice their opinions.

But so far, engagement hasn't been representative of Aus­tin at large. Almost 70% of participants in community meetings from March to June 2022 were white, per a report presented in June. Ensuring community engagement is conducted equitably will be an important piece of the program's development. ATP Interim Executive Director Greg Canally told the Chronicle ATP has been consciously working to engage Black, Hispanic, and disabled communities. Members of those communities have been included on the Community Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committee, which will both play large roles in how the scope evolves in the coming months, he added.

During the tri-party meeting, Courtney Chavez, ATP's director of equity and inclusion, said equity and sustainability will encompass technical analysis, evaluation criteria, and phasing options. She also noted that the community engagement process will continue to evolve. "It's been really moving us into a new phase of centering community values, meaning that we are shifting the way that we do community engagement to ensure that we are ... identifying locations, communities, areas where we maybe have not been as active or effective in engaging before," she said. Thus far, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison likes what she's seen from community engagement. "It's not an additional variable, it is a part of the equation from the start," she said during the meeting.

So what will be up for discussion? Canally said the "table has been mostly set" for the big picture of Project Connect's scope. "I feel really strongly that our board and the other partners are committed to Austin light rail, and that is our charge, and that's what we're working on," he said. The rescoping will be about refinement, and ensuring that "it's a table for all of Austin that benefits the most of Austin."

Those refinements could include one light rail Lady Bird Lake crossing rather than two, not putting the light rail below ground on South Congress, and deciding where the first phase of light rail investment will go. ATP will engage with the community to inform those decisions leading up to a late spring tri-party meeting. All the while, it needs to ensure that it meets Federal Transit Administration requirements, as the federal government is a key investor in the project, Canal­ly said. During that spring meeting, ATP will put forward "choices and trade-offs" for Project Connect moving forward, he added.

Be Heard on Project Connect

• Next ATP meeting: Friday, Jan. 27 at 10:30am (pending confirmation)

• Keep an eye out for tri-party meetings and community engagement events at projectconnect.com/get-involved

• Join the Project Connect Ambassador Network at publicinput.com/H5233, or a working group at bit.ly/3WkyxtM for the Blue and Orange lines

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