The Austin Area Research Organization (AARO) urges voters to approve the City of Austin’s Proposition A to support implementation of the 2020 Project Connect System Plan.
Central Texas will continue to be an attractive place to live, work, play and visit in the post-pandemic world. The regional population is projected to reach 4.7 million people by 2045, traversing the region in ways we can only imagine. While an increasing number of these people will be able to work from home, the vast majority will need to leave home for work or school. Ride sharing services, buses in managed lanes and planning for proximity between jobs and housing can all help, but the sheer volume of people moving into, and communting daily through, the region requires transit-at-scale — an integrated system of rail and high capacity bus lines — to make our transportation system work.
The 2020 Project Connect System Plan (Project Connect) represents a wise investment in transit-at-scale. It is a well-crafted system with layers of service types appropriate to current and anticipated ridership density in each corridor. It establishes a strong baseline for a regional system over time and, with the planned downtown transit tunnel and terminal, it will accomodate long-term growth in population and ridership as well as expansion locally and regionally as surrounding communities connect to the system.
Project Connect will result in historically underserved parts of our community receiving better transit service and enhanced connectivity to essential city services, dozens of educational facilities, hunderds of thousands of jobs, many health clinics and hospitals and more than 30,000 affordable housing units. Proposition A includes $300 million for anit-displacement strategies in Project Connect corridors, including Equitable Transit Oriented Development, and additional commitments from the city of Austin to identify, monitor and work to mitigate disparate impacts. This is perhaps the first major urban transit plan anywhere in the nation that dedicates funds on such a large-scale address nearby displacement from the very beginning.
Capital Metro currently serves tens of thousands of essential workers daily. During the initial and most strict shutdown period of the pandemic, daily ridership averaged 38.500 — comprimising essential workers such as nurses, grocery store clerks, cooks and others. As more people have returned to work, ridership has also increased. While many people are working from home successfully now, many more are unemployed, ill-suited to working from home every day or in jobs that require in-person interactions. We have already seen a return to some levels of light congestion as people begin returning to work and recognize that now is an opportune time to make a transformational investment in transit that will support our economic recovery and enhance the region’s resiliency. When Project Connect is constructed as planned, it will provide over 280,000 trips for Central Texans daily — more than double Capital Metro’s average daily ridership in January 2020 and significantly more than the 175,000 daily trips on IH-35 across Lady Bird Lake.
The economic impact to the region of such an investment will be significant. It has been estimated that federal funds could match nearly dollar-for-dollar the funds invested locally and, for every cumulative $1 billion invested, nearly 10,000 jobs and $1.38 billion in economic activity will be generated over the life of the system buildout. The long-term benefit to the region will be felt in time and cost savings for commuters, productivity and recruitment success for employers, increased density along transit corrdidors, a more efficient international airport, a safer mobility alternative to automobiles and a lower carbon footprint as Capital Metro transitions away from diesel-powered vehicles.
Financing the City’s investment in Project Connect with a tax rate election is also sound public policy. Doing so ensures greater trasnparency with respect to the cost of the system to taxpayers, provides a permanent source os operating funds, reduces financing costs by providing a revenue source for inital expenditures and provides flexibility to maximize federal matching funds and leverage private investments.
The investement is unprecendented, as is the partnership between Capital Metro and the City of Austin. The Austin Transit Partnership oversight board will provide transparency and accountability for the construction and operation of the projects. It should serve as a model and a framework for the future participation of regional communities in a truly regional transportation system to meet our future needs.
AARO envisions Central Texas as an exemplary region: dynamic, thriving and sustainable for all. Accordingly, AARO has long advocated for mobility infrastructure and recently pledged to do more to end institutional racism and systematic inequities — investing in Project Connect is an important step toward that vision.
Like Austin did when it approved the creation of ACC and Central Health, it is time for our community to once again step up and agree to a generational investment in a sophisticated high-capacity transit system anchored in the core of the region with plans to develop future regional connections as land use, density and population warrant. Project Connect is a worthy investment to that end.