Capital Metro’s transit plan, featuring light rail along North Lamar/Guadalupe/Congress/Riverside and investments in popular bus routes citywide, has been highly praised. The Austin City Council and the Capital Metro board unanimously approved the plan and are now moving toward a multibillion-dollar funding measure that could go to the voters in November. But the uncertainty and recession from the COVID pandemic have raised questions about whether this is the right time to make a huge investment in public infrastructure. History says that it is.
Some of Texas’ most cherished public places were built during the Great Depression. In 1938, San Antonio voters approved a bond to begin its now world-famous Riverwalk. That wise investment created a venue and atmosphere that would host generations of parades and fiestas and come to define the city. The Riverwalk helped make San Antonio a major tourist destination, creating great economic benefits.
The iconic University of Texas Tower was approved in 1933 and completed in 1937. UT leadership focused on the long-term needs of the University and invested in higher education despite the economic hardship all around. It was the right decision and helped cement the University as one of the best public colleges in the nation.
Ground was broken on both Mansfield Dam and Tom Miller Dam in 1938, at the height of the Great Depression. The former Austin City Hall, the Montopolis Bridge, the old Austin High School, and many other public projects were built during this time. Like prior generations, we should not be afraid to make a sorely needed public investment during this COVID-induced recession. Historically low interest rates for municipal bonds and possible federal stimulus funding make this an excellent time to move forward on a large public project.
Houston and Dallas have recently built light rail systems that created mobility for residents and drove private sector investment. Peer cities like Portland, Salt Lake, Denver, and Seattle have also invested in public transit systems with great success. Austin is well behind these cities and cannot continue to delay. Our horrible traffic and lack of good public transit is hurting both our quality of life and economic competitiveness.
A major transit investment will have deep social benefits, as well. Upgrading the most popular routes to light rail directly benefits the mostly working-class people who ride the bus everyday. Many of these are essential workers who rely on transit to get to and from their jobs. And many riders are people of color, some of whom have been pushed out of the central city by gentrification. Transit is a socially just investment.
Transit is also environmentally friendly. Good light rail will convince thousands of Austinites to leave their cars at home and use transit instead. This reduces our carbon emissions and fights global warming. Converting from diesel-burning buses to electric light rail also reduces pollution and improves our air quality.
Politically, we may never have a better electorate for transit than this November. Voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election is likely to be high, pulling in many younger, liberal voters who are supportive of transit. Recent polls show Texas as a virtual tie between President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, hinting that a “blue wave” may be coming this November. A good transit plan on the ballot during a “blue wave” is highly likely to pass. A 2019 transit bond in Houston similar to Austin’s current proposal passed with 68% support.
Like the San Antonio Riverwalk, light rail running through the heart of Austin is a transformative project that will forever change the look and feel of the center city. Congress and Guadalupe could eventually look more like St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans or Beacon Street in Boston. We need a major investment in public transit. The plan put forward by Capital Metro is a good system with widespread community support. The pandemic will eventually end and we must continue to build and invest for the future. Austin needs a major transit funding plan on the ballot in November 2020.
Chito Vela is an immigration/criminal defense attorney and a former city of Austin planning commissioner. He advocates for investment in transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks as part of www.wheeldeal.org.