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Council to address transit-related displacement in anticipation of Project Connect

Wednesday, April 22, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority has indefinitely deferred $7.7 million in capital projects and another $11.9 million in operating projects, yet work on Project Connect, the region’s first mass transit system, may soon continue.

City Council will consider a resolution Thursday to make sure low-income residents won’t be pushed out of their homes by the increased property values if voters approve any such major transportation investment.

“Of course we don’t know our exact timing at this point because of what we’re dealing with,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said Tuesday. “But this is talking about existing recommendations that we have in place, including in our Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, and aligning what we’re currently doing … to make sure that in whatever way we do proceed with our plans for transit … we do that hand in glove with concerns about addressing the potential for displacement.”

Kitchen’s resolution would ask the city manager to put together a team from various city departments to take a close look at the correlation between transportation improvements and displacement and present some mitigation strategies and funding concepts to Council in May, early enough to include any necessary funds in the next budget cycle.

The resolution identifies the Office of Innovation, Equity Office and Financial Services Department as team participants, but Kitchen told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday it may be amended to include Neighborhood Housing and Community Development as well as Capital Metro.

Council Member Alison Alter expressed support for the resolution, but said she couldn’t support creating a fund until the budgetary impacts of Covid-19 had been more fully explored.

“I’m really comfortable with getting the information and having this team convened to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with (Covid-19), but by voting for this I’m not saying this is a key priority in the budget because there are just too many unknowns,” Alter said.

The resolution doesn’t propose any specific funding amounts or sources. Kitchen said the concept may be as fiscally negligible as consolidating existing dollars to better align housing and transit investments. Kitchen pointed to Chapter 6 of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, which outlines a number of ways to proactively plan land use and transportation investments to prevent displacement. Strategies include strategic land banking, value capture and homeowner assistance programs to help residents deal with any increases to property values and rents caused by new transportation infrastructure.

Greg Canally, Austin’s deputy chief financial officer, said the first steps of action would be to look through all potential mitigation and funding options before considering specific funding sources and eventually syncing up any efforts with Project Connect.

So far, neither Council nor Capital Metro has specifically addressed the timing of a Project Connect ballot proposal in the midst of Covid-19. CEO Randy Clarke told the Capital Metro board on Monday that Project Connect public engagement will resume in the near future, potentially keeping the proposal more or less on track with the pre-Covid-19 timeline.

“As bad as this crisis is – and we are laser-focused on it – we are going to keep one foot thinking about the future as well,” Clarke said.

In the near future, Clarke said there is potential for an additional federal stimulus package that could allow the agency to resume the many smaller-scale projects currently on pause. While the $102 million from the CARES Act is helping the agency stay in business for the moment, Clarke said the money is being used “100 percent to keep the lights on” and avoid drastic service cuts, layoffs and furloughs.

For large capital investments like Project Connect, Clarke said the agency is working to be able to secure a federal match under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act.

“Project Connect is critical infrastructure for us,” Kitchen said. “Now more than ever we’re seeing how important transit is.”

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