Joint Project Connect vote punted as officials consider updated equity, legal language

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin, Capital Metro and Austin Transit Partnership punted on a Project Connect vote Friday amid some concerns from residents and board members surrounding public participation and legal language used.

The tri-board group was expected to vote on the joint powers agreement Friday, which is a document that outlines the goals and initiatives of the project as it pertains to equity, labor rights and community engagement. The JPA also denotes which entity would be responsible for executing specific portions of Project Connect.

During Friday’s meeting, some community members and city leaders floated concerns on how closely the language in the JPA aligned with the city’s contract with voters made during the November 2020 election. Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen countered a statement by Randy Clarke, CapMetro president and CEO, on changes in project sequences and timelines and the need for those changes to come back before council for review.

“With all due respect, that’s not the way the contract with voters is written,” she said.

Board members and city leaders considered an updated version of the JPA at Friday’s meeting. A specific timeline on when the updated JPA had been delivered to city leaders was not confirmed to KXAN.

Emily Timm, co-executive director of the Workers Defense Project, spoke during public comment in support of Texas’s low-income workers and said she appreciated recent changes made to the JPA’s language that would require accredited, on-site construction monitors.

However, she said it’s important for monitoring standards independent of the city, CapMetro and ATP in order to ensure oversight and that wage and safety standards are upheld. She also added there needs to be timely adjustments to ATP’s executive leadership to create a proper checks and balances system. Clarke currently serves in the role in an interim capacity.

João Paulo Connolly, director of housing and community development for the Austin Justice Coalition, said he appreciated the work poured into the updated JPA draft but still wanted to see enhanced anti-displacement measures and community advisory committee influence in the subsequent decisions being made.

He criticized the newly updated JPA documents and said there wasn’t an opportunity for meaningful community input on these latest updates. He also said each of the three bodies’ executive leaders need to be independent of one another to avoid any conflicts of interest that could impact the project.

Other speakers Friday shared their broad support of the changes made and backing of the project. Nancy Crowther of ADAPT of Texas said she voted for CapMetro to come to Austin and that she’s seen tremendous progress in its influence on public transit since.

“It was a fight. A very big fight in the 80s and 90s to even get people on buses,” she said. “Now, they voted and they said yes. We see the light.”

She said a central goal of ADAPT of Texas has been centered on making all transit systems and services accessible to all people, including those with disabilities as well as those aging with disabilities. She said it’s important to make sure services provided via Project Connect are equitable for all community members, and added she appreciates the work made thus far.

While a decision was expected to be made Friday, a hard meeting end time of 1:30 p.m. led to a delay in approving and executing the JPA.

Austin City Council still approved a resolution and ordinance related to the design, construction, operations and permit approvals of Project Connect. Both ATP and CapMetro’s boards approved a resolution directing each entity to work with the city on regulatory procedures “that ensure the on time delivery of the Project Connect program.”

CapMetro representatives told KXAN a delayed vote on the JPA will not impact the start of any items related to Project Connect. A future meeting date to consider the updated JPA has yet to be announced.

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