Why Project Connect deserves your support

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If you’ve been a regular APN reader for a while, it’s already apparent to you that I’m a strong supporter of Project Connect (Prop A) and the active transportation bond (Prop B) that are on the ballot this year. So why am I wasting time and space on an old timey newspaper endorsement? 

First, because I know that I have a fair number of you are still not convinced of Project Connect’s merits. Second, I hope that the arguments I present will help those of you who do support it to become more effective advocates in the coming days and weeks. There’s very little you can do to change someone views on national/state partisan politics, but you can have a big impact on how your friends and family vote in down-ballot races such as Prop A and Prop B. Your cousin or neighbor or the guy you met at that party one time may very well have no opinion on the issue until they see a Facebook post from you on the matter.

Vote YES on Prop A
Opponents of Project Connect levy numerous arguments against Prop A, but perhaps their most appealing one to otherwise liberal voters is this: “Now is not the time.” 

In the midst of a deep recession and uncertainty about if and when the pandemic will end, is it really the time for a 4% property tax hike? It’s never a good time, but the alternative simply isn’t acceptable. Forfeiting the opportunity to invest in mass transit doesn’t simply commit us to the unacceptable status quo, it commits us to a future that will be significantly worse.

The Austin metro area is going to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. As much as I hope and believe the pandemic will result in a big shift towards remote work, we’ve already seen traffic return to 80% of pre-pandemic levels and the eventual defeat of the pandemic, combined with population growth, guarantees that there will eventually be more cars on the road than there were before COVID-19. The idea that this region will double in population over the next 20 years but somehow traffic will get better is utterly delusional.

Like every other major city in the world, Austin car traffic will always be bad. Despite what this city’s gang of Know-Nothing transportation gadflies would have you believe, this is not because our city leaders “hate cars.” It’s because cars are an ideal form of transportation in low-density settings but cannot efficiently scale in large population centers. Just look at what the 26-lane Katy Freeway did for congestion in Houston: jack shit. Greg Abbott himself has said that TxDOT will soon be done building new highways, meaning that all of the state’s major metro areas, all of which deal with serious congestion, are going to have to find alternative strategies.   

To be clear, the purpose of Project Connect is not to combat car congestion. The goal is to provide a long overdue alternative to car travel because continued car-dependent growth is not sustainable. There simply isn’t enough space left in Austin to pave over with new roads and parking lots. Mass transit offers us the opportunity to dramatically increase the carrying capacity of our existing corridors, so that we don’t have to build new roads and new parking lots everywhere.

In many other parts of America, high-capacity transit doesn’t make sense economically. In a city that is approaching 1 million residents, it is the absence of high-capacity transit that doesn’t make sense. 

Beyond being the most practical response to our mobility challenges, mass transit at this moment in Austin’s history is a moral imperative.

Our car-dominant transportation system is economically unjust. It forces poor and working class families to commit an enormous share of their income to car ownership. When you take into account the cost of fuel, insurance, maintenance and repairs, there’s no such thing as a cheap car for low-wage workers. Strategic investments in mass transit will help thousands of families become less dependent on cars, allowing them to go from two to one cars or one to no cars. It’s hard to imagine a more effective form of economic relief targeting those who need it the most. 

Our car-dominant transportation system is also an environmental disaster. It dirties our waterways, pollutes our air and is the most significant contributor to global warming. It’s incredible to me that this even has to be said, but global warming poses an existential crisis. It requires every community in the world to step up. If “progressive” cities such as Austin won’t, then who are we expecting to stand up for the planet?

The past 70 years vs the next 70 years
In a recent debate hosted by the Austin Board of Realtors between County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and mayoral aide John-Michael Cortez, Daugherty, a longtime transit critic, noted that overall Cap Metro ridership is similar now to what it was 30 years ago. That is evidence, he argued, that there simply isn’t much demand for transit among Austin’s growing population. 

Cortez replied that our lackluster transit ridership reflects the fact that we simply aren’t offering transit where people live. And why aren’t we offering transit where people live? Because over the last 70 years we have planned and grown with cars in mind. City leaders have blocked growth in the central neighborhoods that are best-served by transit and instead encouraged sprawl. The city heavily subsidizes driving via mandates that require builders to provide parking –– often far beyond what the market demands –– in residential and commercial developments. When you look at the thousands of miles of absent sidewalks, the huge city-mandated parking lots and the general misery involved in trying to cross many of our roads as a pedestrian, it’s not an exaggeration to say that cars are prioritized over people. 

It wasn’t always this way. The city’s earliest neighborhoods around downtown and the university (East Austin, Hyde Park, Clarksville, etc) were built with walking and streetcars in mind. They blended commerce and residential, apartments and single-family homes, and tended, as much as possible, to have logical street grids that make it as easy as possible to get around on foot, bicycle or (at the time) horse. 

Unfortunately, like many other cities that “grew up” after World War II, Austin bought into the idea that people would be better off living separately from the places where they work, shop, and socialize. Residential areas would be strictly separated from commercial areas. If people wanted to get something to eat, they could drive there. 

As a result, the city has continued to grow “out” but not “up.” Public transit cannot effectively serve low-density sprawl. This helps explain why our transit ridership, although it increased mightily in the first 20 months following the service changes in June 2018, has generally been stagnant over the past 30 years. 

Aha!You just admitted that Austin isn’t made for public transit! No, we already have big parts of the city that are transit-friendly and generate high bus ridership, notably the Lamar/Guad/SoCo and Riverside corridors that are being targeted for light rail. Those corridors will continue to densify in the coming years, making the future routes even more productive. 

But the thing is, these routes are just the beginning of what should be a long-term transformation in transportation and land use. We need to think not just about the next 20-30 years, but the next 50-70 years. As the population of the metro area doubles and likely doubles again, the city will be forced to change the way it accommodates growth. Unless we want to pave over Barton Springs, we’re going to have to allow more people to live in our central neighborhoods and the most logical and sustainable way to move them around is with mass transit. I understand that there is still staunch resistance to this type of change, but I am confident that that will eventually give way to the more progressive attitudes held by younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z are nowhere near as attached to the car-centric lifestyle as their parents and they feel more strongly about the threat posed by climate change.

Whether we have a new land development code in the next few years or not, Project Connect is a key investment in building a city that is able to absorb the massive population growth that is coming in a way that actually enhances quality of life, with walkable neighborhoods, green spaces, and affordable housing and transportation. That stands in sharp contrast to the alternative: more environmentally destructive sprawl that further entrenches economic and racial segregation. 

Indeed, the $300 million for affordable housing included in Prop A is just the beginning of what will hopefully be a long-term effort to provide housing near transit for those who are most likely to benefit from it. 

Betting on proven technology
Finally, I need to address the argument that “choo-choo trains” will soon be obsolete. Simply put, there’s no evidence that that’s the case. Those who make such claims conjure up a future in which we eschew fixed route mass transit in favor of door-to-door solutions, notably autonomous ridesharing vehicles. But they never explain how that system will resolve the geometric challenges that bedevil today’s cars or why it will be more affordable than today’s Uber and Lyft. The prices Uber and Lyft currently charge are not low enough for regular people to use on a day-to-day basis and yet neither company has ever turned a profit. The prospect of driverless cars cuts out one big cost (the driver) but presents another major cost that they have thus far avoided (the vehicle itself). Ridesharing, autonomous or not, is an important part of the mobility mix, but it’s not a substitute for mass transit. 

Light rail is still the best bet we have. The technology governing whatever runs on those tracks will inevitably change in the coming decades, but what’s important is that we dedicate the right-of-way and reserve it for moving large numbers of people in an efficient, sustainable way. It’s the least we can provide to future generations. 

You can read more about Prop A in this lengthy Chronicle article I wrote the other week. 

Please Vote YES on Prop B too!
Prop A isn’t the only important mobility initiative on the ballot. Prop B is another long-overdue investment in multi-modal transportation. The $460 million for sidewalks, bikeways, urban trails and safety improvements will make it much easier for Austinites to get around on foot, wheelchair or bike.

Like Project Connect, Prop B is both a practical investment and a moral imperative. Practical because this type of infrastructure is extraordinarily cheap but, if done right, can have a meaningful effect on the number of people who walk or bike instead of drive. The key investments in urban trails and bikeways are particularly important: it’s been proven in cities throughout the world as well as in public opinion research that people will bike if they feel safe from cars. That sense of safety is what protected bike lanes and urban trails provide.

No, for the umpteenth time. Not everyone is going to start biking everywhere. That’s not the point. But wouldn’t you like to have the option to bike at least sometimes? Or at least feel safe letting your kid bike to school or to a friend’s? 

Making it comfortable and easy to bike is a great act of economic and environmental justice. It’s an extremely cheap way to get around and I believe it will become even more popular, even in the hot summer months, as electric bikes continue to drop in price. Believe me –– I got one in January and it was the best $1,200 I’ve ever spent. In the coming years they will only get cheaper and the prospect of biking will become attractive to an even larger share of the population because of the speed and comfort e-bikes offer. But we need to have the infrastructure in place first.

This is just a small sample of what you get EVERY weekday if you subscribe to the Austin Politics Newsletter

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