City Council needs to get serious about Project Connect

Transitways – Envisioning Possible Center Lanes
A light rail rendering, courtesy of Cap Metro.

Even when it looked like Trump had a good shot at reelection, there was little doubt that turnout in Travis County would be through the roof. If there was ever a year to put a progressive wishlist on the ballot, it was 2020. 

Which is why leaders at both City Hall and Cap Metro were confident that Project Connect, the proposed generational investment in public transit, would easily win voters’ approval in November. Even if it meant voters had to approve a significant 11¢ property tax increase (about $360/yr for median homeowner). After all, most young people don’t (directly) pay property taxes. 

I still think voters will approve Project Connect. But it’s not clear whether City Council members believe so. In fact, it’s not clear what City Council members think. There’s no evidence that the most consequential transportation policy in a generation has crossed any of their minds in recent weeks. 

In their defense, they are distracted by the greatest public health crisis in a century and the largest protest movement in American history. But Austin’s desperate need for mass transit also needs immediate attention. This is not a niche issue; it is one that strikes at the heart of all of our most pressing issues: affordability, mobility, climate change and economic/racial segregation. 

Why this can’t wait until 2022
Some political and business leaders who were initially supportive of Project Connect will be tempted to say that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the moment, we should postpone action until a future election. Maybe 2022. After all, the centerpieces of Project Connect — the 2-3 light rail lines — likely won’t be built and ready to go until 2027 if the funding is approved this November. So what if they aren’t built until 2029? 

The problem is, there is unlikely to be another election as favorable to mass transit and tax increases as 2020. In a hyperpolarized political environment, the key to success is picking an election where there are as many Democratic voters — particularly young and low-income Democrats — at the polls.

The party that holds the White House, which in 2022 will likely be the Dems, typically performs poorly in midterm elections. That is particularly true for Democrats because youth and minority turnout is VERY low in midterms. Indeed, this dynamic helps explain the GOP wave elections in 2010 and 2014, which have erroneously been interpreted by pundits as a rejection by “swing voters” of Obama but were in reality simply a result of low turnout among young and minority voters. Yes, the 2014 rail bond suffered due to sincere opposition from some transit activists, but it likely would have passed in 2016 or 2018 simply due to increased Dem turnout. 

In other words, the only way the 2022 will be a good year for a major transit bond is if Trump happens to pull off another victory this year, setting us up for another blue wave midterm. 

Don’t wait for polling. Shape the polling
It’s 36 days until City Council will decide exactly what, if anything, to put on the ballot in November. Do we go for the whole thing? Do we cut the project down a little to bring the cost down? Do we propose a less scary financing mechanism? 

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be are waiting for polling to tell them what to do. This is a recurring theme since Reagan: Democrats follow public opinion, while Republicans shape it. 

While City Council and Transit for Austin, the business-backed group founded to support Project Connect, are sitting on their hands, transit opponents are kicking into gear to shape opinion on the issue (see below in News Around Town). 

As is the case for housing, the surge in progressive activism over the last few weeks offers an amazing opportunity for public transit advocacy. Sure, there are plenty of people who turned out for Black Lives Matter protests who won’t see the connection between public transit and racial injustice, but many others will if they’re presented with the evidence. Car-based transportation systems were built with racial and economic segregation in mind. Nowhere should that be better-understood than in Austin, where only a few weeks ago protesters were tear-gassed on the same highway that has historically separated white Austin from black and brown Austin. 

Many of the powers-that-be backing Transit for Austin likely are much more comfortable making arguments and congestion and economic development than economic and racial equality, but they shouldn’t be the ones speaking anyway. The leaders on City Council and activists in the community are much better messengers. 

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