Project Connect could be on the ballot again this November
Austin's mayor is adopting a new strategy against a Texas bill that threatens to derail the city's voter-approved transit expansion: Get the legislation passed as quickly as possible with overwhelming support in the Texas House and Senate.
The approach seemed shockingly counterintuitive to some Project Connect advocates who would prefer Austin try to slay the legislation rather than accept the bill's likely passage in the Republican-led Legislature.
But Mayor Kirk Watson, who spent more than 13 years in the Texas Senate, says he would rather try to create the most favorable possible conditions for an election this November.
"There's not a concession here," Watson told KUT. "This isn't about winning the battle and losing the war. I want to win the war on this."
The battle is over House Bill 3899. The legislation was authored by state Rep. Ellen Troxclair, a Republican who used to represent Southwest Austin on the City Council.
HB 3899 would require the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) — a local government corporation created to design, finance and build the light-rail system — to obtain voter approval before issuing bonds. Bonds are a form of debt that helps governments and corporations raise money.
If the bill passes and an election is held and Austin voters choose not to allow ATP to issue long-term debt, light-rail could become impossible to finance. The ATP is currently planning to issue about $1.75 billion in bonds, treasurer Bryan Rivera said. The agency would use the dedicated property tax approved by voters in 2020 to repay the bonds over 35 years.
"Large infrastructure projects typically have a longer repayment period to align the useful life of the project with the repayment period of the debt being issued," Rivera said in a statement.
But a vote to terminate ATP's bonding capacity would not lower taxes. Likewise, granting ATP the power to issue bonds would not raise the tax rate.
Troxclair says her bill is about transparency for taxpayers.
"[Bond elections are] already a requirement for any city, county or school district," Troxclair said. "However, because the city chose to set up a local government corporation, they're claiming they have the ability to issue bonds without voter approval."
Texas law allows local government corporations to issue bonds, but they have to be approved by the state's Attorney General Ken Paxton — another avenue of concern for supporters of Project Connect. KUT asked Paxton's office if voter approval of ATP's borrowing powers would make him more likely to authorize ATP bonds, but we did not receive an answer before this article was published.
Watson, one of the five voting members on ATP's board of directors, said he pushed for changes to HB 3899 by cooperating with Democrats in the House and speaking with Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, the Republican who chairs the committee overseeing the legislation with whom Watson has a longstanding political relationship.
For example, an earlier version of Troxclair's bill would have only allowed local government corporations to issue bonds with a repayment period of 15 years — another potential kill shot to Austin's light-rail ambitions. A 15-year repayment term would have drastically reduced how much ATP could borrow. The bill adopted unanimously by the House committee last week extended the repayment term to 40 years.
"If the Legislature is going to force this on Austin, let's at least improve it so that we have as fair an election as we can get," Watson said. "Let's get it done as quickly as we can, so Austin voters can get on with building the light-rail system that they deserve and they've already voted for."
Watson wants an election this November instead of in 2024 to clear the way for ATP to secure federal funding as quickly as possible. Grants from the Federal Transit Administration are expected to pay for up to half the cost of building Austin's light-rail system. The FTA considers the financial viability of a project when considering how to distribute its highly competitive grants.
Watson's political strategy has already gained support from some members of the City Council who also sit on Capital Metro's board of directors.
"It's entirely likely that the bill would come back again in two years," said Leslie Pool, the District 7 council member and vice chair of the CapMetro board. "We will have been further down the road, potentially even having turned some ground, and we would be in a much harder place."
District 4 Council Member Chito Vela, who's also on CapMetro's board of directors, is confident Austin voters would support a second election on light rail.
"Given the very bad Texas Legislature that we're dealing with, this is the least worst option that we have, unfortunately," Vela said.
The ATP is currently circulating five new light-rail options with the public, seeking feedback on plans to scale back at least the first phase of the original proposal to rein in costs. Vela said any light-rail plan would need to be finalized well ahead of any November election.
"Once we can decide on the route, I think people will rally behind it because it's going to serve tens of thousands of people, and it's going to bring great benefit to Austin," Vela said.
But some public transit proponents fear the Texas Legislature could still mess with Project Connect in the future whether this bill passes or not.
"It seems like the Legislature is bullying us," said Alex Karner, a University of Texas associate professor who studies transit and sits on the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee. "The way to respond to a bully is not to capitulate but to mount a forceful challenge."
Karner said the city should try to stop the bill from passing or fight it in court.
"If we roll over this time, I fear they're going to just keep coming back," he said.
Meanwhile, opponents of Project Connect are salivating over the possibility of a second chance to ax the light-rail system they failed to stop in 2020.
"I will absolutely work against it 110 percent," said former Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican with a long history of fighting against taxpayer-funded rail projects. "I will be as aggressively opposed as I was when they first voted for it, absolutely."