Proposition A is Austin’s latest and most ambitious attempt at developing a robust mass transit system. If approved by voters, the $7.1 billion bond will expand the MetroRapid bus system as well as adding two light rail lines, a downtown tunnel and a second commuter rail line to the city’s public transit infrastructure. Despite requiring a 4 percent property tax increase, the plan is a necessary investment for a rapidly growing city.
Smaller ballot initiatives that primarily called for the construction of a light rail system were rejected by Austin voters in 2000 and 2014 due to concerns over costs and infrequent ridership. Proposition A is more expensive than those earlier proposals. However, these costs are a consequence of delaying the inevitable. The plan will likely raise annual property taxes by $339 for homes worth $415,000 – the median value for an Austin home. This hike may seem daunting, but proponents of Prop A believe the potential benefits are much greater.
In 2018, the average Austin driver lost 104 hours in traffic. Time is money. Time lost in traffic cost the average driver $1,452 annually. Austin already has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation and the world, and unless structural change is enacted, Austin traffic will worsen.
Car dependency is expensive. The average car owner loses $9,576 annually due to depreciation, maintenance, parking, license and registration and insurance costs. There are plenty of individuals and families who own a car–or multiple cars–out of pure necessity. On average, nationwide public transit commuters save $812 compared to their motorist peers.
The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) agency provides a compelling Texas-specific example of this trend. DART–consisting of four light rail and two commuter rail routes–saves Dallas residents $9,453 annually on fuel, parking, insurance and maintenance expenses.
It is not reasonable to assume that a majority of Austinites will abandon their cars if Project Connect passes. However, Austinites should have the option to choose reliable public transit over the burdensome costs associated with vehicle ownership.
RACIAL AND ECONOMIC EQUITY
I-35 remains a stark reminder of the city’s racial and economic divide, as many underserved Austin communities live in transit deserts.
For example, the two MetroRapid bus routes largely operate west of I-35, predominantly serving more white and affluent communities. Similarly, the commuter rail (Red Line) only makes two stops east of the highway.
Project Connect will bridge some of these gaps. The two proposed light rail routes (the Blue and Orange Lines), along with the expanded MetroRapid routes, will serve areas where close to half of the population is non-white and poverty rates hover around 20 percent.
Reliable transportation is a basic necessity. In a comprehensive study on social mobility, Harvard University researchers determined that commuting time is the most relevant factor tied to overcoming poverty in the United States.
Additionally, $300 million of the $7.1 billion raised for Project Connect will be used to prevent displacement that may result from the construction of transit lines.
Under Project Connect, newly added trains and bus fleets will be 100 percent electric. In Austin, transportation is responsible for producing roughly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, this phenomenon resulted in close to four months of unsafe air for Austinites. Car emissions exacerbate a multitude of cardiovascular, neurological, and respiratory diseases.
Public transit has lower emissions per person than cars. On average, per capita emissions are 76 percent lower for commuter rail, 62 percent for light rail and 33 percent for buses relative to personal vehicles.
According to these national trends, Project Connect will be a significant boon to the environment. Austin has one of the least developed transit agencies among large cities in the United States and is approaching a population of one million residents. In 2016, Capital Metro serviced fewer riders than the transit authorities of multiple cities that maintain only 100,000 residents.
Austin’s population and commute times are projected to double within the next 20 years. Delaying robust transit will only lead to more expenses and a less livable city in the future. A vote for Prop A is a vote for a more equitable, prosperous and environmentally sustainable Austin.