Austin voters back a $7 billion ballot to fund urban trailways, bikeways, and a mass transit system

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Austin voters back a $7 billion ballot to fund urban trailways, bikeways, and a mass transit system

Voters in traffic-plagued Austin, one of the fastest growing cities—if not the fastest growing city—in the U.S., have passed two separate ballot measures that aim to boost mass transit and pedestrian/cyclist infrastructure. (Matthew Rutledge/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Earlier this week, voters in Austin, Texas, voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition A, a property tax levy that will provide the initial investment needed to kickstart Project Connect, a $7.1 billion mass transit plan for the inner Capital Region that will usher in the creation of three new light rail lines and a quartet of new rapid bus routes. The transformative infrastructure plan is geared to enable commuters to get around the exceptionally fast-growing—and increasingly congested—city while leaving their cars at home. In addition to the 31-station light rail system and zippy new bus routes, all operated by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the gridlock-alleviating plan also calls for new park and ride locations, on-demand neighborhood circulator shuttles that will connect Austinites with the new mass transit lines, maintenance facility improvements, a 20-block-long downtown transit tunnel, and a $300 million community displacement investment that will aid residents impacted by construction activity.

As of this writing, 67.06 percent (274,188) of votes cast in Travis County for Proposition A were in favor of the ballot measure, which authorizes the city to increase its property tax levy for one year by $87.5 per $100,000 in assessed value, while 32.94 percent of votes cast (134,677) were against. It’s anticipated that roughly 45 percent of the transformative infrastructure plan’s total cost will be covered by federal funds. Despite its passage, the measure did, however, face vocal opposition and things reportedly became rather heated between boosters and opponents of Proposition A in the days leading up the election.

“You can declare victory right now,” the Statesmen reported Austin Mayor Steve Adler as saying while the numbers, bolstered by early voting, started to roll in on Election Day. “Bottom line, I am just really proud to live in a city that is so looking forward to its future, one that is saying emphatically that it will not accept the status quo.”

As the Proposition A ballot language details, Project Connect sets out to do a lot: “… address traffic congestion, expand service for essential workers, reduce climate change emissions, decrease traffic fatalities, create jobs, and provide access to schools, health care, jobs, and the airport; to include neighborhood supportive affordable housing investments along transit corridors and a fixed rail and bus rapid transit system, including associated road, sidewalk, bike, and street lighting improvements, park and ride hubs, on-demand neighborhood circulator shuttles, and improved access for seniors and persons with disabilities.”

As elaborated by local National Public Radio affiliate KUT, Austin now must iron out the bureaucratic details for enacting the plan, including making appointments to a local governmental corporation, the Austin Transit Partnership, that will oversee Project Connect as it is realized over the coming years. (Austinites are going to have to hold their collective breaths for the light rail system given work on that is several years off while smaller but still impactful elements of the plan are underway.) The five-person board, which must be finalized by January 1, will include a member of Austin City Council, a member of the Capital Metro Board, and three experts—one in community planning, one in finance, and one in engineering.

While similar mass transit plans that have come before Austin voters in the past have failed, Adler has stressed this is the one that can help make a dramatic difference in a city where the quality of life has “been so eroded by traffic,” as he told ABC affiliate KVUE in a recent interview. “We have the ability and chance to come out of this virus as a better, fairer, more just city that can really reach for the aspirations that we have for our community. And if we don’t take advantage of this moment, this time, to be able to move forward on Project Connect, I don’t think we get another chance to make the same kind of choices.”

While much attention, both locally and nationally, has been paid to Proposition A and its tax implications, Austinites also voted in favor of a distinct but complementary ballot measure, Proposition B, that will focus squarely on improving and expanding pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in and around the city via the passage of a $460 million transportation infrastructure bond. Of the total reported votes cast, just over 57 percent (240,693) of votes cast for Proposition B were a “yes” while 42.07 percent of the votes (174, 766) were against it.

Of the total taxpayer-approved funds, $50 million will be used to construct 78 new miles of sidewalks in areas identified by the city’s Sidewalk and ADA Transition Plan while $30 million will be earmarked for the repair of crumbling and problematic existing sidewalks; $80 million will be used to identify, design, and construct urban trails that link up to existing transportation infrastructure; $40 million will be used to create new bikeways that follow Austin Bicycle Plan’s All Ages and Abilities Bicycle Network, and $65 million will be used to enhance pedestrian safety through several unique Vision Zero initiatives. Additional funding will go toward, among other things, identified capital improvement projects, upgrades to streets that are in particularly rough shape, and a Local Transit Enhancement program that will tackle community mobility projects not covered by Project Connect.

While the Statesman’s Philip Jankowski described Proposition B as “arriving on the ballot in the shadow on Proposition A,” the infrastructural concerns that the measure sets out to remedy are no less worthy than a sleek new commuter rail system in the eyes of most voters.

“The most common phone call and email we get in our office is about getting sidewalks on their street, getting sidewalks on the way to their school, getting a bike lane in their neighborhood,” Council Member Greg Casar told the paper. “People always ask how come Austin has so many amenities but does not have the sidewalks.”