Economic Displacement Feared As Austin Gets Moving
By Sara Schleede
When Austin voters decided a third time was the charm and signed a big check to get the city moving with a massive transportation project, they included a plan to mitigate community gentrification.
Research suggests big infrastructure projects, especially for transportation, can contribute to economic displacement as property values rise along transportation corridors — already a problem in much of Austin as the city grows and prospers.
“When you make sort of major scale infrastructure investments — particularly around transit in a city like Austin or Denver or Seattle or those technology based cities that have become really popular — that makes them much more desirable and much more expensive,” said Steve Pedigo, director of the Urban Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.
Proposition A, also known as Project Connect, passed with 58% of the vote in last November’s election. The $7.1 billion plan outlines two light rail lines, a downtown tunnel and additional rapid bus routes and commuter rails. It also includes a $300 million anti-displacement fund.
Project Connect took inspiration from cities like Denver, which created the Transit-Oriented Development Fund in 2010 to create and maintain affordable housing near mass transit. This tactic, known as land banking, involves buying land along transit corridors before it increases in property value so it can be turned into affordable housing.
“No regional group has sort of done this proactively,” Pedigo said. “Seattle and Denver have similar anti-displacement funds, but they were added after the fact.”
Proposition A allows a property tax increase that will fund the project, as well as future maintenance and operation costs once the construction is complete. An average Austin property owner will see a 4% increase on their property tax bill. Federal funding and Capital Metro’s Capital Expansion Fund will cover the rest.
“I know that that’s not an insignificant number, but I do think that it will be spread out in a way that’s a lot more equitable than something, for instance, that’s based on a sales tax where it’s regressive,” said Sam Sargent, deputy chief of staff at Capital Metro.
Austin has seen other rail proposals on the ballot before. A proposal in 2000 for a 15-mile line from Ben White and Congress to Parmer Lane failed by over 2,000 votes. In 2014, a proposal for a light rail line from Austin Bergstrom International Airport to Highland Mall lost by 14%.
“I think people finally, in a way that was not felt in 2000, said something’s got to give,” Sargent said. “Even if I don’t take transit every day, something needs to be done. We need moreoptions. We need to move people more efficiently.”
Now that Austin’s population is double what it was 20 years ago, Pedigo said it is time to create a transportation system that matches the size of the city.
“It’s like a teenager, when they were 11 years old, they put on their pants and the pants fit, and they’re now 16 and they’re trying to still put on the same pair of pants but they’re four or five inches taller,” Pedigo said.
According to data from the Travis County Clerk’s website, most opposition to Prop A was found in precincts in West Austin where property values and, likewise, taxes are already high. East Austin precincts, largely populated by low-income communities and communities of color, voted to approve the transit plan.
“Not only do the votes skew heavily along the corridors where the investments are going to be directly, but they really scatter much more out into East Austin than they had in 2000 or 2014, which I think is a really good sign of people feeling educated and feeling heard,” Sargent said.
Now that the proposition has passed, a new independent government organization, Austin Transit Partnership, was established to oversee the implementation of Project Connect. Sargent called the upcoming 24-hour light rails “a big game-changer” for the city.
“This is really going to be a dividing line between the Austin that we were and the Austin that we want to become.”