AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: Prop A, a $7.1 billion Project Connect plan, passed in the November election. To read more on what that means for Austinites, click here.
Austin voters are weeks away from deciding whether to approve or reject "Project Connect," Capital Metro’s $7.1 billion transit plan. Some have called the plan necessary for Austin’s future – but others think it would be a significant waste of taxpayer dollars.
The PAC “Our Mobility, Our Future” is firmly against Project Connect. The PAC believes the proposed project costs too much, does too little and will be obsolete before it’s completed. KVUE spoke with a member of the PAC, Roger Falk, about why he and his colleagues believe Project Connect is the wrong choice for Austin.
"More than 80% of this spending goes for these couple of light rails. [CapMetro] can implement bus and those kinds of things much quicker, and that’s a very small piece of this. And, really, Capital Metro should have taken care of these bus routes a long time ago. We have some transit deserts here," Falk said. "This really isn’t going to help a lot of those folks. They’re trying to make it look like a larger plan by throwing in some bus routes that should have already been in place."
Falk is also concerned about the part of the plan that involves a tunnel downtown, saying there’s been very little study done to see if it’s viable, there is no traffic plan for it and there are no disruption plans for utilities and other things that are underground where crews would be digging.
According to CapMetro, the only geotechnical and groundwater analysis for a transit tunnel so far is based on other Austin tunnel work or information from highrise tower studies.
But, by far, Falk’s biggest concern with Project Connect is its cost.
"It’s the biggest commitment of funds and the biggest tax increase we have ever had in the city of Austin by a lot … It’s huge. It is seven times the biggest bond we’ve ever, ever sold in this city. And they’re doing it very cleverly. They’re using a tax rate election that some people think are going to pay for this. It’s not. When you run the math on that eight-and-three-quarter cents, it doesn’t come up with nearly enough money," Falk said.
According to the City, the tax rate revenue, or Proposition A, is one source of funding that would help build, operate and maintain the system. CapMetro will also allocate its Capital Expansion Fund to the project. The plan also relies on 45% of funding the City and CapMetro are expecting to receive from the federal government.
"The other problem is they’ve predicated this on federal funds that are not committed, not guaranteed. They don’t even have an application in place. It’s a competitive process. They’re telling people they’ve got this thing as a done deal. It is not a done deal. And that’s going to come on the backs of our local taxpayers," Falk said.
Falk also doesn’t buy into the claims from Project Connect supporters saying the plan would make strides toward combating climate change. While he said it would reduce emissions if CapMetro goes to electric buses, he thinks the agency should be doing that anyway and "we’re going to all be driving electric cars at some point."
"We should be doing nothing and letting technology take its course because we’re going to be putting money into an old technology here. And it’s a huge mistake," Falk said. "This is the moment in time people need to realize this and vote it down because it is a big mistake."
Falk believes light rail is an "archaic system" and that its fixed-route, fixed-schedule model wouldn’t be the right choice to try to help solve Austin’s mobility problems.
"What we should be doing instead of investing in old light rail technology is putting money into tri-modal pathways and better quality infrastructure to conduct micro-mobility application, e-bikes, these kinds of things,” Falk said. “We need to get serious about this because it’s the future, and stop wasting money with light rail and start putting money into the future of mobility."
In addition to his belief that light rail is outdated, Falk also doesn’t think people will use it. He said most people are simply not going to forgo using their cars to use public transit. And he pointed out that the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could greatly affect light rail and bus ridership.
"Two-thirds of the ridership goes away, if not three-fourths, from social distancing. It’s risky. There’s plenty of studies, more coming out all the time, that show pandemic and pathogen is easily transmitted through these public transit systems. A lot of people aren’t going back to them. A lot of people won’t because they’re working from home now," Falk said.
Falk also said that the fact that, should Project Connect pass, the City intends to designate $300 million of it to anti-displacement efforts demonstrates that the City already sees a serious problem with its own plan.
"They’re going to run all the affordable housing out of here. And they’re going to replace it with for-profit stainless granite development that’s out of the cost range of the poor, low-income people, mostly people of color, that are along these transit lines. This is going to move them out," Falk said.
Overall, Falk and "Our Mobility, Our Future" think that Project Connect is a plan with mislaid priorities and that Austinites should be putting their money into other mobility solutions like micro-mobility options such as bikes and scooters.
"Instead of putting money into old, tired light rail, we should be putting that money into the future, which is what our smart mobility people are working on and implementing," he said. "That’s my prescription."
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