Advocates want to spend $11 billion to fix Austin's crappy public-transit system. But many critics say the price tag is too high for a system hardly anyone will use.
- Officials say an $11 billion public-transit plan could make Austin safer, greener, and more affordable.
- Some locals worry that adding a light-rail system costs too much and won't be accessible to all.
- Advocates are willing to scale back their proposal but firmly defend its wide-ranging benefits.
- This story is part of "Advancing Cities," a series highlighting urban centers across the US that are committed to improving life for their residents.
Austin is one of the most popular cities to move to in the United States, with the Texas capital adding about 100 new residents a day.
Between 2010 and 2020, its population grew by 36% — the highest growth rate of any major metropolitan area in the country, according to US Census data. And Austin's population ballooned from 1.98 million in 2019 to an estimated 2.22 million in 2023, as people fled the coasts during the pandemic to relocate to cheaper, lower-tax states.
Transplants are drawn to Austin's warm climate, lack of income tax, lower cost of living, and reasonably affordable homes. Then there's the comparatively healthy job market: Over the past several years, tech giants including Apple and Google have opened satellite offices there, and Tesla and Oracle have moved their headquarters to the area.
But with growth comes problems. Austin's abundance of drivers has put stress on its roads and highways, leading to heavy congestion. The city's pollution levels now rank among the highest in the state. And in 2023, the city broke its fatal-crash record with 122 traffic-related deaths, the Austin-American Statesman reported.
City officials and Austin's transportation authority, CapMetro, are proposing a solution for some of these woes: Project Connect, a now-$11.6 billion public-transportation plan that includes a network of light-rail lines, an underground subway, and an expanded bus system. The Austin Transit Partnership, the independent government corporation tasked with implementing the plan, believes that increasing public transit will make Austin safer, easier and faster to navigate, and more sustainable. And advocates predict it will generate revenue by bringing new businesses and jobs to the city.
Austinites voted to approve Project Connect in 2020 when its total price tag was $7.1 billion. Almost three years later, though, policymakers and residents are still debating whether the good it may bring to Austin is worth its ever-increasing price tag. Critics counter that building new stations and train tracks could disproportionately displace residents in poorer communities and neighborhoods of color and that residents could be left with an ineffective system that costs too much and that too few people will use.
Despite these objections, Greg Canally, the executive director of ATP, maintains that Project Connect would boost Austin's economy in the long run, in part by encouraging the development of housing and other buildings along the new train lines.
"There is permanency about where we're building," Canally said. "We've seen around the country where that permanency allows for investments to happen, especially around stations."
Critics say Project Connect is too expensive, outdated, and might cater to residents with higher incomes
Our Mobility Our Future, a coalition of business owners, community activists, and current and former elected officials, argues that the project costs too much and the new rail system that's being proposed will quickly become outdated.
Austin residents voted to approve Project Connect in 2020, when $5.8 billion was earmarked for the new light rail lines. By 2022, though, that amount grew to $10.3 billion for the light rail alone, and about another $1 billion to upgrade and expand other train options and the bus system — in part due to the increased costs of purchasing land and paying for construction.
"The cost of this light-rail system will shackle and burden many future Austin generations from access to funds necessary to address general community and mobility needs based on the reality of the future," the coalition's website reads, and that "the proposed outdated transit plan must be defeated."Then there is the issue of equity. Chandra R. Bhat, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas, doubts the proposed light rail will benefit Austinites of all backgrounds equally.
"Rail users tend to be on the higher side of income," Bhat said. "If we build these rail lines, some of which are intended to serve low-income and people of color, the ridership might not be great."
The American Public Transportation Association found that rail riders are more likely to identify as white. White Americans make up 46% of all rail riders, while Black riders make up just 19%.
Bhat said this disparity is likely because rail rides tend to be more expensive than other forms of public transportation, such as buses, and that can be a barrier to lower-income people using the system.
Data from CapMetro shows that only 25% of its riders who use public trains and buses earn more than $30,000 a year. However, nearly 50% of the riders of MetroRail — the city's current rail system — earn more than $60,000 a year.A MetroRail daily pass is $7, or $3.50 for a reduced fare for seniors, members of the military, or riders with disabilities. A daily pass for Austin's current bus system, the MetroBus, costs considerably less: $2.50, or $1.25 for a reduced fare.
"There is an equity issue that must be kept in mind," Bhat said. "The bottom line is the 'haves' already can get from one place to another. It is the people who are totally dependent upon the public-transportation system that need more options. These equity considerations need to be thought through carefully."
Public-transit advocates say the plan is worth the cost
Supporters of Project Connect are open to lowering its price tag. In March of 2023, ATP unveiled five scaled-down versions of its light-rail plan that cut costs from the inflated $10.3 billion to under $5 billion.And in an acknowledgment of the sometimes prohibitively expensive cost of riding trains, Project Connect organizers plan to implement a reduced fare they've called an Equifare — of $3, compared to the regular rate of $7 — that will be available to those who have a household income below 200% of the federal poverty level.
Advocates still believe that it would be a net positive for the city. And many people agree that faster transportation is needed.
Take Austin resident Michael Hill, who doesn't own a car. He takes three buses and spends an hour and 15 minutes each way commuting to work, The Austin Chronicle reported in 2022.
But on a larger scale, Project Connect supporters say that public transportation provides better access to healthcare, education, employment, and affordable housing. There is evidence that cities with mass-transit systems tend to be more affordable in terms of housing and transportation than those without.
More than just winning over opponents, the ATP may need to once again convince voters of the merits of its proposal. New legislation introduced in March by the Texas House of Representatives would require an election before a body can issue debt or sell bonds, which the city would do to help pay for Project Connect.
Austin still has time to execute Project Connect or a revised version of it. It helps that the Texas capital is in a relatively early phase of its growth.
California's Silicon Valley may be the namesake of Austin's tech-dominated neighborhood Silicon Hills. But Texas Monthly's Michael Agresta notes that Austin can still grow in a responsible and careful way to avoid the fate that befell San Francisco, which suffers from social ills including unaffordable rents, a vast wealth gap, and a growing homeless population.
"The bright spot for Austin is that, again, the city still has time to make better and more equitable decisions. Is it possible to manage drastic changes in the cityscape in a way that actually serves poor and minority stakeholders? Where did San Francisco go wrong, and where can Austin do better?" Agresta asked in his 2021 article. "Signs of changes in Austin city politics," which include support for the Project Connect proposal, "suggest that the citizenry is engaged with these questions."