What Austin stands to lose if light rail opponents succeed in court | Opinion

A MetroRail train stops at the Crestview Station in Austin. One of the extensions for the city's proposed light-rail system would connect to the station. (Credit: Jay Janner/American-Statesman/File)
A MetroRail train stops at the Crestview Station in Austin. One of the extensions for the city's proposed light-rail system would connect to the station. (Credit: Jay Janner/American-Statesman/File)

In 2020, Austin voters overwhelmingly approved Project Connect, including a new light rail system and the funding to make it possible during an election with record turnout.

The culmination of years of robust community planning and engagement, the results marked a bitter defeat for a small group of transit opponents. Having lost at the ballot box, these opponents went next to the Texas Legislature to try to change state law and kill the project. Failing there, they filed a lawsuit to stop (or indefinitely delay) this critical transit investment.

The City of Austin and Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) — the local government corporation created by voters to design and build the project — are now asking an impartial court to confirm that the funding mechanism voters approved complies with state law. With a trial date set for later this month, it’s important for Austin residents to understand what our community stands to lose if this vocal but small opposition group succeeds in derailing voter-approved light rail for Austin:

More mobility options — According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the number of registered vehicles in Texas surged by 172% over the last 40 years while highway capacity increased by only 19%. We simply cannot build enough roads and highways to accommodate our population growth, and that’s particularly true within the tight spatial constraints of our central cities. Project Connect also includes upgrades to bike and pedestrian infrastructure and connections with CapMetro’s bus routes that will improve service. All of this adds up to more choices for drivers tired of sitting in traffic, and an option that will be more convenient than driving and parking for many Austinites.

Billions of dollars in federal funding — Austin Light Rail offers the opportunity to secure one of the largest competitive federal transportation grants ever received in our “donor” state, which routinely sends more tax dollars to the federal government for transportation infrastructure projects than it receives in return. Our need for more transportation choices won’t go away if opponents succeed in halting the construction of Austin Light Rail, but the opportunity to secure a record-setting federal grant to help pay for them will.

Much-needed housing — Spurred by the new rail system, the Austin City Council is poised to enact land use reforms that will allow far more housing along the entire 10-mile system with policies designed to provide a significant increase in affordable housing that will expand access to job opportunities and civic amenities.

More walkable neighborhoods and less car dependency— Development near rail stations will also expand commercial services within walking distance of homes and transit, providing more people with the option of eating out or running errands without the hassle of driving, parking, or paying for an Uber.

When Project Connect, including Austin Light Rail, was approved in 2020, city leaders and CapMetro had no way of knowing that the unprecedented global pandemic would send the cost of everything from materials and labor to real estate and financing skyrocketing. When it became clear that the original rail plans no longer fit the proposed budget, ATP leaders worked closely with the community to modify the first phase of the light rail project to meet the budget voters had approved. The agency followed state law and the contract with voters.

Opponents suing ATP to stop the project and overturn the 2020 election results are not safeguarding Austin taxpayers, they are instead attempting to undermine their vote. This frivolous suit only threatens to ensure that Austin pays an even higher price later for the transit investment we need now.

Bentley is an Austin business executive, and a board member for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, United Way for Greater Austin, Austin Ed Fund and Leadership Austin.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin loses if Project Connect opponents prevail in court