AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Mayor Kirk Watson forewarned in a his newsletter Thursday of a possible re-vote on Project Connect, a mass transit system approved by city voters back in November 2020.

At issue: Two bills going through the Texas Legislature would require voters to sign off on all of the following components related to a project:

  • What the debt would be used for
  • How much debt product leaders need to issue
  • The tax rate needed to pay back the debt

Rep. Ellen Troxclair, who helped file the House version of the bill, cited Project Connect as motivations behind the “No Blank Checks Act.” In a March statement to KXAN, she said inflated costs related to Project Connect served as motivation behind the filing, adding the voter-approved tax rate increase election doesn’t authorize Project Connect to issue “new debt without limit, and without voters’ approval.”

In his newsletter, Watson slammed the state-level effort as “a terrible precedent for the Legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment.”

But if we’re going to protect light rail for the long run, we need to bring this question back home to the people of Austin and let the people vote — again. Sometimes, killing a bad bill (assuming the bill can be killed) isn’t necessarily the best outcome. As I’ve said before, governing often requires nuance and some long-term vision.”

Mayor Kirk Watson, The Watson Wire April 20 issue

One year ago, Project Connect heads estimated the projected budget for the light rail portion of the transit program had nearly doubled, topping $10 billion. Last July, officials affiliated with the program pressed pause on light rail designs as costs were expected to increase even more.

Late last month, Austin Transit Partnership — the entity tasked with delivering Project Connect — unveiled five reduced-scope light rail route options to the public. A final design decision is expected in June.

Watson continued that he’s worked with the city’s local House delegation and has “negotiated new bill language” to improve the legislation and allow the City of Austin to hold an election in November.

“To hold that election so fast, we prefer the bill to move quickly and be passed with enough votes to go into effect immediately,” he said. “Of course, the bill still needs to be voted on in the House and make it through committee and the full Senate.”

Watson added this state bill would require voters to authorize the issuance of revenue bonds to help finance the project. Those bonds would be funded by the property tax revenue streams voters approved for Project Connect back in November 2020 — meaning tax bills wouldn’t go up or down as a result of this upcoming election.

“The stakes are incredibly high because the election will determine whether light rail will proceed,” he wrote. “And the folks who opposed our election in 2020 will get another chance to kill it — trust me, they won’t squander this opportunity.”