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City, Capital Metro agree on Austin Transit Partnership ahead of transit election

Monday, August 10, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

After approving an interlocal agreement with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to create an Austin Transit Partnership – the local government corporation that would guide administrative, financial and some technical components of Project Connect – City Council posted a draft ordinance and ballot language for a Nov. 3 transit tax rate election to Wednesday’s budget hearing agenda.

If the ordinance is adopted during Council’s tax rate and budget hearings later this week, Capital Metro’s Project Connect system initial investment would ask voters to raise the city’s property tax rate by 8.75 cents to a rate of 53.35 cents per $100 valuation. All tax revenue generated beyond the voter-approval tax rate adopted by Council would be used to fund the mass transit system. The property tax rate for the current fiscal year is 44.31 cents.

“Ultimately, this all rests in the hands of our voters,” Eric Stratton, Capital Metro’s Williamson County representative, said at Friday’s joint meeting with Council. “What we are doing here is providing extra assurance to the voters that we’ve got everything laid out and in place. … None of this will go forward, none of this will happen unless the voters authorize it in November.”

A successful transit election would mean the city and Capital Metro have until the end of June 2021 to develop a thorough joint powers agreement detailing the contractual obligations of the city, Capital Metro and the five-member Austin Transit Partnership board, a transparent entity tasked with governance, financing and implementation. The agreement will outline responsibilities for system development and implementation, financial management and administrative tasks like auditing, contracting, safety oversight and community engagement. Much of the work will be taken on by the partnership board, which could be formed as early as the start of 2021.

The board will include a member of Council for at least the first two years of its existence, after which Council may appoint residents and Capital Metro customers to serve in that position. The board will also include a member of the Capital Metro board and two community experts in different fields related to large-scale capital project management and implementation. The fifth board member will be a community expert with 10 or more years of experience in the field of community planning or sustainability and three to five years of experience in community engagement.

Given the city’s long history of inequitable housing and transportation practices and its failure to address displacement, many of those giving public comment Friday questioned whether the planned level of community engagement would be sufficient to help communities most at risk of being displaced and most reliant on public transit. Some community advocates called for the Austin Transit Partnership board to also include local residents who rely on transit and live in neighborhoods that will be directly impacted by the transit system.

Resident Susan Pantel requested that the board include at least one community member to guarantee equity up front and represent the lived experience of local transit users, or at a minimum, that community members be added to the four-member nominating committee that will decide on board member applications.

“The community members who ride transit every day have a very good knowledge of the transit system; they know it like the back of their hand and they can provide good input on the design of the system,” Pantel said. “For example, if you have an engineering expert who says, ‘Let’s put the station here,’ you may have a community expert – a bottom-up expert as opposed to a top-down expert – who says, ‘Yeah, but if we move it half a mile down, there’s a store that everybody wants to go to, or there’s a library around the corner, or there’s a very steep hill here where you were going to put it.’”

Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion agreed that the region needs to find a way to include marginalized voices as authorities in the development of Project Connect, whether through an expanded Austin Transit Partnership board or some other avenue.

“It’s important that we understand that people want to be heard and want to be involved with the future of Austin,” Travillion said. “And though we are ready to go – we know that our community needs this – we have to make sure that we are sensitive to the interests of the folks who are going to be impacted by this, who are also going to vote it up or down.”

While the adopted interlocal agreement was not amended to include a larger board with community representation, it was amended to allow for an exception to the 10-year professional experience requirement of the three local experts, a condition Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said could be a barrier for women and minorities who face systemic challenges in many professional fields. “At the discretion of the nominating committee, City Council and Capital Metro Board, alternate forms of experience or qualifications may be substituted to meet the experience requirements,” the adopted agreement reads.

Within six months of a successful election, the city manager would be directed to present an equity assessment tool to analyze all issues related to transit and displacement while offering a variety of neighborhood-level strategies to help low-income residents stay in place. Council Member Greg Casar said the final joint powers agreement would also provide a much higher level of detail on issues of equity and community engagement as it relates to the system plan and the use of the $300 million in anti-displacement funds included in the $7.1 billion initial investment.

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