Prop. A: CapMetro's Project Connect Initial Investment. Feedback Needed

How does FAN membership feel about Capital Metro’s Proposition A: Project Connect System Plan (AKA, “initial investment”) coming before Austin voters this November?

A ballot measure for the Project Connect Initial Investment will be on the November 2020 ballot.

It was a collaborative process between the Capital Metro board and the Austin City Council that resulted in the Initial Investment portion of Project Connect being put before voters this year. Leading up to the November election, the governing bodies took the following actions:

  • August 13: The Austin City Council voted unanimously to include Project Connect's Initial Investment on the November ballot. The vote approved an ordinance ordering an election to authorize and fund the Project Connect Initial Investment of $7.1 billion.
  • July 27: The Initial Investment proposal was adopted by the Capital Metro Board and approved by the Austin City Council. It includes a portion of the System Plan, which will advance through development and be considered for both local and federal funding. Not all of the System Plan's elements are included in the Initial Investment.
  • June 20: The Project Connect System Plan was adopted by the Capital Metro Board and approved by the Austin City Council.
  • Two questions:

    1. Should FAN support Project Connect? Why or why not?
    2. Regardless of support, how could Project Connect better serve Austin neighborhoods?

    Yes, imo FAN should support Project Connect. It will be a huge win for the environment, sustainability, and affordability. We continue to sprawl today at our own peril.

    From the Vision page of the FAN website:

    1. Our neighborhoods should be inclusive and friendly, welcome new residents, encourage participation by the full diversity of neighborhood stakeholders, and offer a diverse, abundant, and affordable choice of housing options.

    Better public transit will help us meet these goals by acknowledging that the larger Austin region is a stakeholder in every neighborhood. Amenities in Hyde Park, Rosedale, or the University don’t exist for the exclusive use of those nearby, and transit makes to everyone in the city.

    2. Our neighborhoods can be complete communities, with families and people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds, and with a variety of employment, goods, services, and transit accessible to all residents.

    This one is certainly explicit, in that it names transit specifically. Access to employment is another big one here, and Project Connect provides fast, reliable transit to the major job centers in Austin.

    5. Austin neighborhoods must continually evolve with the changing needs of the City, and we recognize such natural change presents opportunities to improve our neighborhoods. Accordingly, we support the kinds of changes that will enhance the affordability, inclusivity, connectivity, mobility, and quality of life in our neighborhoods.

    This one is also pretty explicit. Owning a car is an expensive endeavor. The Project Connect plan in particular does a good job of extending to traditionally underserved areas (the blue line, the purple line) and would be a massive quality of life improvement for many of our city’s residents.

    On a more personal level, here’s why I support it:
    My wife and I volunteered for Refugee Services of Texas, and one of the things we did was help newly settled refugees navigate public transit. On one occasion, we were asked to help a single mother of 3 children take the bus from 51st and Manor to CommunityCare North off of Lamar and Braker. That trip takes 15 minutes by car, but was an 1.5 hours by transit! That’s the difference between a lunch break and taking the whole day off. Looking at the proposed ProjectConnect routes, that family would now have access to the Purple line, and by extension, the Orange line.

    Moreover, the Purple line would empower her to take her family to the Mueller Lake Park, the Thinkery, the farmer’s market there and/or downtown, it would give her better access to job opportunities, etc. etc. This plan would be transformative to what she and her children are able to access in our city, and even if I never saw a single personal benefit from this system I would still wholeheartedly support it for that reason alone.

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    Note that FANs previously voted to support the overall Project Connect system plan. View that resolution and vote breakdown here.

    The question now is whether to support the initial investment and associated property tax increase on the ballot this November as proposition A.

    There is some confusion (and perhaps misinformation) about the proposed tax increase. The tax increase would only be on the City of Austin portion of a property owner’s property taxes. The City of Austin portion is typically about 20 - 25% of the total property tax bill. The vast majority of property taxes are for Austin ISD, ACC, and Travis County. The Project Connect increase would not affect those tax rates.

    As an example, my total property tax bill for 2020 would have been about $300 higher if the Project Connect tax increase had already passed and gone into effect.

    Also note that the taxes would pay for the following community benefits, based on peer-reviewed estimates by Capital Metro and its consultants:

    • Ridership of up to 129,060 people per weekday.
    • Travel times significantly less than a car during rush hour.
    • Reduction of 45,120 tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions.
    • Reduction of 119,920,000 vehicle miles traveled annually.
    • Service for 114,495 individuals in poverty in station areas.
    • Service for 299,898 minorities in station areas.

    FAN, AURA, and Farm & City have teamed up to host a Q&A on propositions A (Project Connect initial investment) and B (active transportation bond). The event is tonight from 7 - 7:30 pm and will include Susan Somers, co-founder of Wheel Deal and member of the Project Connect Ambassador Network (PCAN); @jcrossley, Executive Director of Farm & City, and Caleb Pritchard with the Transit Now campaign. The Zoom link to join is here. Details are on the FAN calendar event.

    Project Connect has great ideas. It’s unreasonable to ask for property taxes to fund it entirely and it makes it more difficult for people to buy a home because the mortgage company will factor that tax payment into their eligibility.
    Who SHOULD help pay? New developments that are granted increased capacity. that’s not a mandate from the City (illegal) but it’s a negotiation: we’ll grant you
    Council has voted on 3 new developments near the Montonposis granting 11 units per acre/8. Split the difference of the profit on 5 extra condos to get funding for the Blue Line

    From my understanding, we aren’t asking taxpayers to fund it entirely. Much of the expense is being covered through funds from the federal government.

    If you have evidence that this would meaningfully affect someone’s ability to get a mortgage, I would be interested in seeing it. I can tell you from personal experience that my loan company definitely treated a few hundred dollars a year like a rounding error.

    To put some math behind it, let’s assume that we’re looking at a $400k home. That’s about $37 a month difference in the actual mortgage payment. I’m having a hard time seeing a scenario where a family would be comfortable paying $2324 a month for their home, but $2361 is unworkable. This is basically a 1% difference, and if you’re cutting it that close, you probably can’t afford either number.

    You rightly identify that we can’t make new developments pay for it, and we’ve seen over and over that when given the choice of paying exorbitant fees and going through a prolonged and painful negotiation process or just building a McMansion, they’re happy to build the McMansion and move on. Ultimately, it comes down to these two things:

    • Developers don’t need to build MF housing near transit to make money. McMansions are selling just fine. I’m sure McMansions next to light rail will sell even better.
    • Light rail needs medium-density to be effective. The sweet spot is at or above 10k people per square mile (this is roughly what Hyde Park is).

    To that end, we need to incentivize developers to add more units on valuable property near transit to make this happen. When we increase their costs if they choose to develop multi-unit, we’re effectively incentivizing new one-unit developments on prime transit-adjacent property. As we’re seeing right now, that drives up the cost of a home faster than an .11% tax increase will.

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