Can Project Connect Promote Equitable Access and Mobility Justice?

Only an active, informed, and engaged community can decide.

“From the emancipation movement to end slavery, to the transit justice struggles that began in the nineteenth century, to the bus-rider protests and sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, for example, ongoing social movements have drawn attention to racial inequities in embodied access to spatial mobilities, which are more than simply questions of transportation.”
– Mimi Sheller, Mobility Justice

What is Project Connect?

On August 13, Austin’s City Council voted to approve the ballot language for Proposition A — which will fund the creation of the new rapid transit system known as Project Connect. This will include light rail and commuter rail, rapid lines for a new electric bus fleet, and both the improvement of existing stations and the construction of new stations. Light rail and extensive MetroRapid bus routes will connect key parts of North, South, Central East, West and downtown Austin. The construction on the Green Line, connecting downtown to Colony Park, and eventually to Manor and Elgin, is scheduled for a later phase in the project, which is expected to begin in ten years.

The initial development for Project Connect will extend over thirteen years, beginning with an NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) evaluation, to study the potential impacts of the proposed new infrastructure. During this time, preliminary engineering work and an Equity Evaluation will also take place, although precise details about these timelines and metrics will only be elaborated after the November election.

Funding for Project Connect will be obtained through a tax rate election, with the highest total tax bill impact of 3.97% for Austin’s property owners, or 8.5 cents per $100 of property valuation. Additional funding will be provided by federal grants and CapMetro’s ongoing revenue. Included in the proposition, $300 million is allocated for anti-displacement measures around new transit-rich neighborhoods, although spending plans show this investment staggered over the course of thirteen years.

The Austin Transit Partnership

If the proposition passes, these plans will be managed and implemented by an LGC — a Local Government Corporation, created in an Interlocal Agreement between the City of Austin and CapMetro. This LGC, known as the Austin Transit Partnership, will be a public non-profit corporation; its powers will be vested in a Board of Directors consisting of five people, who must all reside within CapMetro’s service area or the Austin city limits.

One of these five will be a member of Austin’s City Council, and one a member of CapMetro’s board of directors; the remaining three will be experts with a minimum ten years of experience in the areas of 1) finance, 2) engineering and construction, and 3) community planning or sustainability. The community planning expert will be required to have three to five years of specific experience with community engagement. These experts will be selected through a nomination and appointment process conducted by City Council and CapMetro .

The Community Advisory Committee

Along with the Austin Transit Partnership, a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) will be appointed by the City of Austin and CapMetro to assist with the anti-displacement and equity matters related to Project Connect. Its composition, roles, and responsibilities will be delineated in a Joint Powers Agreement after the election. The Interlocal Cooperation Agreement states that “ recommendations made by the Committee related to displacement mitigation measures or social equity issues that impact vulnerable populations must be considered at a public meeting of the Board.” The purpose of this requirement is to facilitate public deliberation to create greater transparency and accountability in the process, accruing weight to the recommendations made by the Advisory Committee.

The Benefits of Mass Transit For Austin

A Connected City
The history of transit in Austin has not been for the benefit of all. The construction of State Highway Loop 1, also known as MoPac, contributed to the displacement of the historic Clarkesville community, while the building of I-35 over what used to be East Avenue, both displaced existing Black communities and reinforced the de facto and de jure segregation of Austin designed by the 1928 master plan. Not unlike other American cities, public infrastructure has been used as a tool for segregation and displacement. However, today, we have an opportunity to start correcting past injustices that have created the East-West Austin divide by connecting all parts of town and providing the freedom of movement for residents through the city’s transit system.

A Cleaner City
Additionally, there is a growing national movement now calling for the rethinking of ‘freeways without futures’. As traffic worsens, the never-ending highway expansion splinters the city’s landscape and continues to encroach upon neighborhoods, reducing opportunities for housing, green space and other amenities. Living near a highway significantly increases the risk of lung and cardiovascular disease, particularly among children and adolescents. Heavy metal contamination of the soil, caused by runoff processes, also poses health and environmental dangers to highway-adjacent communities. By reclaiming the land taken by freeways, we create opportunities to heal and undo the spatial legacy of segregation.

A Greener City
As we face a global climate emergency, we cannot fail to acknowledge the fact that the United States remains the most automobile-rich country on Earth, and that its cars, highways, oil extraction, and expanding urban sprawl have contributed significantly to the climate disaster. Currently, transportation makes up almost 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Austin’s climate plan goal is to be a net-zero city by 2050 and better, cleaner, and greener mass transit will help towards meeting this goal.

Don’t Let Austin Be A Cautionary Tale: Who Is Project Connect For?

A quick glance at Austin’sridership by routereminds us that the preponderance of transit riders come from historically working class neighborhoods, which currently house the majority of the city’s Black, Latinx and Immigrant communities. In fact, people of color make up the majority of transit users in the United States. While African Americans comprise 12% of the U.S. population, they make up 24% of public transit riders. And while it is true that White/Caucasian people represent the single largest demographic of riders — they are still significantly underrepresented in ridership when compared to all other racial/ethnic groups. People of Color, low-income households, and renters are disproportionately likely to live in households without vehicles, according to a well-known report from the Dukakis Center. Black, Brown and Immigrant communities rely most heavily on transit to commute, access amenities, and enjoy public spaces.

Yet, we cannot simply champion new transit development as a panacea of sustainability and accessibility. We must first acknowledge that public transit itself has played a significant role in perpetuating displacement and exclusion throughout the United States. Within the railway cars, state and local Jim Crow laws maintained strictly segregated seating arrangements, while the train lines themselves were often the idiomatic segregating lines of the Jim Crow city. Transit developments of all kinds have provided excuses for the use of eminent domain in ‘slum clearance’ and the removal of ‘blighted communities.’ Meanwhile, transit police throughout the country have been known to harass black and brown passengers on trains and buses. There have also been a number of police shootings within transit stations, though these are statistically less common than police encounters with drivers in motor vehicles.

While we understand that transit can be an important public good — from providing freedom of movement to creating a greener, climate resilient city, we need a nuanced picture of the potential benefits and harms of new transit infrastructure. Tiffany Brown, from the Urban Arts Collective in Detroit has noted how the design for the Q-Line in the city focused on electronic forms of payment, alienating those who could only pay with change or cash: “As result, it became a way to transport a certain class of people from midtown to downtown and bypass those excluded people.” This is a clear example of how projects imagined as public goods can often prioritize affluent customers and overlook the needs of core users. Such designs produce results that are “oppressive and unjust.”¹

If community voices and coalitions do not actively insist on inclusive design for both transit and transit oriented development, new infrastructure will reproduce exclusionary outcomes. An insistence on colorblindness or on superficial forms of tokenism and ‘diversity without inclusion,’ will not provide the intentionality that this process requires. For these reasons, the Austin Justice Coalition, along with partner groups and advocates, has been working to frame transit conversations within a broader Mobility and Spatial Justice framework.

Mobility Justice Is Bigger Than Transit

“Mobility Justice recognizes that communities are often treated as if they are unfit to design their own futures, guide public spending, or understand the ‘real’ issues at hand — and demands that new decision-making systems and structures are created by and for those communities to center their visions and cultivate operating principles that align with their values and lived experiences.”
– The Untokening Project

Mobility Justice is not limited to questions of transportation, sidewalks, and bike lanes, although these are crucial aspects of how we design our cities, and who we design them for. Mobility Justice recognizes that when our design processes exclude people with disabilities; when schools are closed, forcing students to take longer commutes across the city; when women suffer harassment and catcalls in the street or in transit stations; when poor and homeless people are criminalized for existing in public spaces, and trans people cannot move about safely for fear of violent prejudice and intimidation — these are all forms of mobility injustice, direct expressions of how our structures control and regulate our movements and bodies. When transit or highway police stop, intimidate, and threaten the safety of black and brown people, subjecting them to brutal and often fatal engagements, advocates for mobility justice cannot afford to be silent.

A mobility justice framework for Project Connect must include the freedom of immobility — that is, freedom from coerced forms of movement. We must consider the forces of economic and spatial segregation that continue to shape life in Austin: when residents are evicted because they cannot afford to make rent, this is coerced mobility; when working class families cannot find affordable housing, or experience indirect displacement because of the shrinking pool of available housing, this too is a coerced mobility. If we recognize that increasing property values around new transit stations has the potential to exacerbate both residential and commercial gentrification, and associated displacement processes, then a mobility justice framework asks us to plan for long-term mitigation of these effects — considering approaches that allow for the right to remain and return, as well as tools like land trusts, limited equity models, and protections for renters.

As we think about Project Connect, we must consider how narratives around new transit projects are constructed, who is invited to participate in the construction of these narratives, and what their direct outcomes are: if our plans court the affluent and network-rich elites, but overlook the experiences and struggles of the working class and immigrant communities, then our outcomes will be boosterish attempts at placemaking for profit. If our narratives are not intentionally inclusive, then our attempts at managed growth and sustainability will only further gentrification, segregation and displacement.

Plenty of Work Ahead

“When people are excluded by mismatched designs, they grow intimately familiar with the nature of the exclusion and how it might be resolved. Given the opportunity, they can apply this expertise toward building inclusive solutions.”
– Kat Holmes, ‘Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design’

If Project Connect is to be successful in meeting our needs we must insist on engaging with it critically and proactively. We must understand that anti-displacement, accessibility, and inclusive design will not automatically emerge from the process. It is on us to create the community that we need. We must continue to build movements for housing justice and renter’s rights, movements against displacement, movements for better transit, public health services and antiracist schools. This process must go on well after the election in November.

We need advocates and coalitions that are not afraid to engage in long-term thinking. Our plans must consider the flows of resources and power, with a vision towards racial reckoning and spatial and mobility justice. We must reconsider our relationships to every aspect of the city, including the parts we so often take for granted. Our designs should prioritize people and communities, rather than placemaking for profit. They should reflect the wisdom and values forged in experiences of collective struggle. And they must proactively prevent displacement, reconsidering metrics, epistemic biases, or standard practices that produce exclusionary results. If Project Connect is to be part of this new paradigm, it will be because we have worked collectively to make it so.


¹Kat Holmes, ‘Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design’ — MIT Press 2018

 

Quick Visual Guide to Project Connect