Capital Metro board approves $50 million for building bus lines
Capital Metro's board of directors on Monday approved spending $50 million over five years to build more high-frequency bus lines known as MetroRapid. The authorization did not include independent job-site monitoring that construction worker advocates have been demanding.
The $50 million includes money to pay for these routes:
- Expo Center: A MetroRapid line from the Travis County Expo Center in eastern Travis County to the University of Texas and downtown
- Pleasant Valley: A MetroRapid line from Goodnight Ranch in South Austin to the Mueller development in Northeast Austin
- The Gold Line: A MetroRapid line from Austin Community College Highland Campus to Republic Square Park that could one day be converted to a light-rail line
- An extension of MetroRapid route 803 from Westgate Transit Center to Oak Hill
- An extension of MetroRapid route 803 from Westgate Transit Center down Menchaca Road to an area near Slaughter Lane
The project includes constructing more than 100 new bus stations over the next three to four years, adding Park and Rides at the end of the Expo Center and Pleasant Valley lines, and building various other infrastructure. Construction is scheduled to start in December.
Exactly how that construction should be overseen was a matter of some dispute.
Labor advocates have said the use of independent monitors who could inspect construction sites for safety violations was promised to voters as a condition of authorizing the multibillion transit expansion dubbed Project Connect.
"The independent on-site monitoring is the most critical piece of this program," said Jessica Wolff with the Workers Defense Fund, which advocates for low-wage immigrant workers in the Texas construction industry. "Organizations who advocate with and for construction workers are asking you to provide what our community was promised, which is truly independent monitoring."
Before the November 2020 referendum — a tax increase of 8.75 cents per $100 of property value to pay for Project Connect — the Austin City Council adopted a set of promises referred to as a "Contract with the Voters."
The Contract with the Voters included a provision that construction workers who build Project Connect be afforded protections under the "Better Builder Program or a similar program with ... on-site monitoring independent of construction companies and their affiliates."
The Better Builder Program was created by the Workers Defense Fund. Versions of the program have been adopted by the City of Austin and Travis County, among other local governments.
Austin's Better Builder Program requires certified independent on-site monitors be allowed to visit construction sites at least once per pay period to speak directly with workers about safety and legal compliance.
Capital Metro instead will have its own staff conduct on-site monitoring. Some visits will be unannounced.
"That's why the 'or' in that sentence is incredibly important. That says 'Better Builder or similar,'" Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke said.
"Cap Metro is not a private developer. We are not someone that maybe has a history of violations or other issues. We are the government," Clarke said. "We probably have the deepest level of safety of any component you will ever see in the Central Texas area."
Even though the vote was unanimous, some Cap Metro board members expressed reservations about the lack of independent monitors ahead of a rare joint meeting of local governmental bodies Friday that could wind up requiring such monitoring for Project Connect.
The Capital Metro board, the Austin City Council and the Austin Transit Partnership will convene Friday to formalize their responsibilities around Project Connect. They'll do so by creating something known as a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA). The Contract with the Voters will guide the creation of the JPA.
Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen, who's also a Cap Metro board member, was concerned that Friday's negotiations around the JPA could conclude with a requirement that construction sites have independent monitors, given the ambiguity of the language in the Contract with the Voters.
"We're taking this [$50 million vote] out of order," Kitchen said. "We're taking this up before that decision is made on Friday."
But Clarke said if the JPA winds up creating new worker protections not included in the $50 million MetroRapid expansion, transit agency staff would come back to the board requesting a change to come into compliance. No construction companies would be hired before Friday, he said.
"With the clarifications we have on the record, I'm comfortable with proceeding," Kitchen said moments before the board voted unanimously to approve the MetroRapid expansion.
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