Austin Voters To Decide Whether To Fund Transportation Projects

Aug 13, 2020

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The Austin City Council voted Thursday to place two transportation-related ballot measures in front of voters during the Nov. 3 election: a new property tax to help pay for transit expansion and a bond issue that would fund more active transportation projects. 

The tax would pay for Project Connect, the plan to add a downtown transit tunnel and new train and bus lines to the Capital Metro system. The tax rate would be 8.75 cents per $100 of a property’s valuation. That equates to roughly $350 a year on property valued at $400,000.

It would provide the bulk of the local funding needed for the $7 billion initial investment plan approved by the City Council and Capital Metro Board. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan called it the most fiscally responsible way to pay for the new system.

“This is a long-term sustainable funding source that ensures based on how this is designed that the money that we start collecting will actually not just pay to build it, not just pay to operate it, but will ensure its continued operation into the future over many generations,” he said.

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Officials anticipate the federal government would provide 45% of the funding for the cost for the new transit lines. Their belief was bolstered by a recent $928 million federal grant award for a light rail line in the Minneapolis area. 

The plan also calls for the formation of a new local government corporation, the Austin Transit Partnership, to oversee Project Connect’s funding and implementation. A board would be appointed soon after the November election, if the ballot measure passes.

Some transit advocates were concerned the ballot language did not include the general locations of  service for the new lines, which would violate state law. But the city’s legal department said the locations don’t need to be on the ballot itself, only on election notices that are posted by the Travis County clerk and in newspapers ahead of the election. 

The second ballot measure caused more debate among council members. The proposal, originally sponsored by Council Member Paige Ellis, would require the city to issue $460 million in bonds to pay for transportation improvements, including 100 miles of new or rehabbed sidewalks, as well as new bike lanes. It would also help pay for $40 million in improvements to roads considered substandard, particularly in the Eastern Crescent, an area that has historically seen less investment than neighborhoods to the west.

“All over the city, we have sidewalks with craters, we have urban trails that have collapsed, we have pedestrian bridges that are washed out,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said. “If these were pieces of infrastructure used by cars, there’s no doubt we’d spend hefty resources to fix them ASAP.”

The plan also includes money for upgrades to the Longhorn Dam Bridge and the Barton Springs Road Bridge.             

Council Member Ann Kitchen suggested a lower figure of $300 million, but her amendment failed on a 6-4 vote, with one member abstaining. Council members also had concerns about the timing of the bond proposal and whether there had been enough input on what projects would be included.

Proponents of the ballot measure said it would complement Project Connect, by allowing better access for pedestrians and cyclists to the new transit stops. It would also build on projects proposed and funded during the 2016 and 2018 mobility bonds. 

Got a tip? Email Samuel King at samuel@kut.org. Follow him @SamuelKingNews.

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