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March 2023

Moving forward with Project Connect

Elections matter. I heard that bit of wisdom a lot over the years in the Texas Senate when the majority was getting its way on matters that the minority opposed. And, it’s true. In our form of government, we ask the voters what they want and put it to a vote. The people decide how things are going to be. We might not always like the results, but as Churchill said, “democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

The voters of Austin elected in 2020 to dedicate a portion of the city’s property tax rate to implement a light rail system. Light rail has been an elusive goal for many Austinites – including me – for well over two decades, and our voters made an affirmative decision to invest in a more affordable and sustainable future for our community.

Now, some folks who didn’t like the outcome of that election in 2020 have assured that the Texas Legislature will attempt to undermine the will of Austin’s voters – all in the name of protecting Austin voters.

What Did Austin Voters Do in 2020?

In very basic terms, we created something akin to a new city department – a light rail department – that would design, build, operate and maintain a public transportation program that will serve the people of Austin long into the future.

The voters approved an ongoing source of revenue to ensure the city could continue to pay for that ongoing service. From a tax perspective, it’s really not different than how we pay for the ongoing operations of the Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services Department or the Austin Public Library.

But it is different in that the city created an independent entity – known as a local government corporation – to receive the dedicated revenue from the city and use it to “oversee and finance the acquisition, construction, equipping, and operations and maintenance of the rapid transit system.” The city used the local government corporation model for the Mueller redevelopment, which has been wildly successful.

The independence of the Austin Transit Partnership was integral to the success of the 2020 tax rate election. And, according to a recent report from a national think tank, it’s also a best practice recommended to American communities to deliver good light rail projects more consistently. It was done in large part to protect this major investment from the political whims of the Capital Metro Board of Directors and/or the Austin City Council. In other words, the voters said they wanted an independent entity to handle the money and build the system instead of having politicians mess with things for, well, political purposes. ATP has worked through some start-up challenges but is now well positioned to deliver a light rail system.

That is, if the Legistature (can you say, “politicians”) doesn’t kill it first. The legislation filed last week would require another vote of the people before the ATP could issue the revenue bonds – backed by the voter-approved city tax revenue and federal dollars – needed to finance the multi-billion dollar system. Forcing another election would drive costs through the roof. The uncertainty around the financing would cause contractors to tack on an additional risk premium and potential bondholders to increase interest rates. Meanwhile, the federal government will be watching and wondering if it should send the billions of infrastructure dollars elsewhere. Project Connect would no longer be viable.

I’m all for transparency and accountability to voters, and elections are really the most transparent way of doing things. I’ve also been kicking around some ideas about how to answer the desire for more transparency and accountability without denying that Austin voters have already said what they want. I intend to do what I can to make sure my former colleagues in the Legislature listen to them.

And there’s some irony when someone who supports legislation like this says they’re for transparency and accountability when they’re not accountable to the Austin voters (or only a tiny percentage of them).

Rightsizing Project Connect

Since we’re all now pandemic-era supply chain experts, we understand that construction inflation has affected every infrastructure project everywhere. And there was definitely some vision creep by the previous leadership that led to some eye-popping cost estimates for the project.

So we’ve had to recalibrate our expectations for Project Connect to live within our means while focusing on the community goals and priorities that voters supported when they approved this historic investment.

To that end, ATP has worked up several viable options for the first phase of light rail that fit within our available revenue. On March 21, members of the public are invited to Austin Central Library to view the various options and discuss the pros and cons with the experts.

As I’ve been considering the various options, I keep going back to the community values and goals that have driven this project from the beginning and asking myself:

• Which options will best serve transit riders?

• How will they shape the community we want for our future?

• And will they help build the mobility system we need to meet the demands of our region?

None of these options will meet anyone’s idea of perfection. They all have trade-offs. But we can’t let the ideal get in the way of moving forward.

Project Connect rendering

Project Connect Open House

Tuesday, March 21 | 4 – 7 PM

Austin Central Library

710 W Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX 78701

Learn about updates on the light rail system from the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP), find out what’s next for Project Connect, and share your feedback.

Can’t make it? You can still view materials and provide feedback at

Respecting the People

“The people of the city reserve the power of direct legislation by initiative...”

 – Austin City Charter

The people of Austin long ago enshrined in the City Charter the rights of initiative and referendum to ensure they have a direct voice in city government.

They can initiate or challenge ordinances and let the public vote on the proposals. Over the years, they’ve reinstated the camping ban, imposed strong water quality standards over the aquifer and killed off an effort to prevent a rewrite of the land development code.

You might oppose a specific initiative. And you might not like the process of even allowing initiatives. But anyone who talks big about respecting the Rule of Law should respect that the people have the right to be heard in this way.

City of Austin by Lady Bird Lake

Why it matters right now

Last year, a group called Equity Action obtained enough signatures to have an initiative put on the ballot. The city clerk certified the signatures and the last City Council put the initiative on the ballot for this coming May. The initiative specifically addresses issues related to what Austin needs to do in a police contract.

If the city agrees to a contract with the police before May, the contract’s terms will preempt some aspects of the initiative, even if the initiative passes. That preemption will occur for the length of the contract. If the contract’s terms conflict with the initiative’s terms, the will of the voters can’t go into effect until the end of the contract.  A four-year contract would preempt the will of the voters for four years. A one-year contract, like the Council has asked for, would preempt it for a very short time, but allow us to hear the voters and begin negotiating and hopefully get a new contract before the end of that one year.

This is an unfortunate box to be in. It can be argued that there are real benefits to a longer contract. But, as Mayor, I have an obligation to support the Charter and not preempt the voters’ right to weigh in, as long as the correct process has been followed. Many people who want the City Council to just approve a four-year contract don’t know, appreciate or accept that doing so would effectively silence Austin voters in May. Governing, as opposed to advocacy, sometimes requires nuance and an effort to satisfy multiple principles all at once.

Actually, there are two ballot initiatives. The second one comes from a group called Voters for Oversight and Police Accountability. 

These dueling ballot initiatives have highlighted some clear problems in the current initiative process. The City Council will take up an item on Thursday to begin a review of the City Charter with the specific aim of addressing those problems and instituting better transparency and ethical standards.

In the meantime

Last week, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza released details of a generous police retention and recruitment package that the City Council authorized on Feb. 23, when we also unanimously passed an ordinance based on my substitute ensuring that officers’ wages, benefits and retirement would be protected, even if we don’t have a contract with the police union by the end of the month. And while you might’ve heard some absurd statements that we’re “defunding” the police, the retention and recruitment plan actually includes:

A 4% increase in pay for all officers under the rank of assistant chief, effective April 1, 2023;

Up to a $15,000 incentive for new cadets; Retention incentives for current officers, including a pay increase for officers nearing retirement, which may help alleviate the current concern for officers considering retirement.

As Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said: “This plan demonstrates the commitment this City has to keeping its word and supporting our officers. APD officers keep this community safe, and they deserve to be compensated well for doing so; this plan is an important part of ensuring officers feel valued by the people they serve.”

  • Additional provisions within the plan include continuation of longevity pay, field training officer pay, mental health certification pay, bilingual pay, shift differential pay, assistant chief pay, among others.