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Government leaders delay key vote on roles around multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit expansion

Monday, November 1, 2021 by Nathan Bernier, KUT

Three layers of government scheduled to approve a crucial document for the city’s $7.1 billion expansion of public transit have delayed the vote to another day, because the meeting went too long.

Austin City Council along with the governing boards of the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Austin Transit Partnership – a local government corporation created to oversee the transit expansion known as Project Connect – met in a rare joint meeting Friday morning at the Austin Convention Center.

They were there to approve a joint powers agreement (JPA) that would have cemented their roles and responsibilities around Project Connect, established some protections for construction workers, clarified the role of community input and specified the degree to which equity would guide their decision-making.

But as the clock ticked closer to 1:30 p.m., the time agreed upon as a hard stop for the meeting due to the members’ various other obligations, it became clear there would not be enough time to work through details of the JPA.

“I came prepared to vote today,” Council Member Pio Renteria said. “I want to reassure the public that we are going to take action on this, but unfortunately we just ran out of time.”

Officials did approve some measures related to Project Connect. For example, City Council passed a resolution directing the city manager to smooth out regulations that could obstruct timely development of the transit plan. Permitting and regulations will be a major issue, as the project includes underground tunnels in Central Austin and a light-rail bridge over Lady Bird Lake.

But the larger and more contentious document was left unapproved, despite last-minute changes made by staff intended to address some concerns around protections for construction workers, the roles of a community advisory committee and other issues.

Among the changes was a clarification that construction workers’ wages should be whichever is greater: the prevailing wage under the Davis Bacon Act (a U.S. Department of Labor metric of local wages for specific trades) or the living wage as established by the city of Austin, which is currently $15 per hour.

Another last-minute change, if approved, will require that supplemental agreements related to equity and anti-displacement around Project Connect be submitted to a community advisory committee for review prior to final adoption by the governing bodies.

For some residents who spoke during the public comment period of the meeting, the changes were not enough to satisfy their concerns.

Monica Guzman with Go Austin/Vamos Austin, a group advocating for residents in Austin’s Eastern Crescent, said she thinks the community advisory committee that provides input on Project Connect should have more say over key decisions.

“Without such commitments, Austin will continue its sordid, racist history,” Guzman said.

Others were unhappy that the latest revisions to the JPA were posted Friday morning, just hours before the vote was scheduled.

“That gives us exactly zero opportunities to bring community engagement into this process,” said Joao Paulo Connolly with the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice group aligned with several other organizations seeking specific changes to the JPA.

Even some board members said they would have preferred more time to understand the latest revisions to the JPA.

“I personally had a lot of hesitation,” ATP Board Chair Veronica Castro de Barrera said. “I felt things were definitely rushed, and things were not clear to me personally.”

No date was set for a future vote on the JPA, but the officials suggested each body would vote individually on the agreement. City Council appeared ready to have a conversation about legal matters behind closed doors at its next meeting on Nov. 4.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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