AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new lawsuit filed aims at the revised Project Connect light rail plan adopted by the City of Austin, Austin Transit Partnership and CapMetro in June. The lawsuit names both Austin City Council and ATP as defendants, alleging both entities “do not have voter approval for the replacement transit plan,” per a Tuesday release.
“The city and ATP are collecting and spending tax dollars approved by voters in 2020 for a dramatically different Project Connect than was recently approved by the City,” said Bill Aleshire, the lead attorney on the lawsuit, in the release. “The law does not allow property tax revenue approved by voters for one project to then be used for an inferior replacement project. Nor can Austin just ignore statutory and constitutional restrictions on use of property taxes.”
Austin voters approved Project Connect in the November 2020 election. Based on the ballot language, voters greenlit a designated tax rate and revenue stream “for the purpose of providing funds for a citywide traffic-easing rapid transit system,” the ballot language read in part.
“Approving the ad valorem tax rate of $0.5335 per $ 100 valuation in the City of Austin for the current year, a rate that is $0.0875 higher per $100 valuation than the voter-approval tax rate of the City of Austin, for the purpose of providing funds for a citywide traffic-easing rapid transit system known as Project Connect, to address traffic congestion, expand service for essential workers, reduce climate change emissions, decrease traffic fatalities, create jobs, and provide access to schools, health care, jobs and the airport; to include neighborhood supportive affordable housing investments along transit corridors and a fixed rail and bus rapid transit system, including associated road, sidewalk, bike, and street lighting improvements, park and ride hubs, on-demand neighborhood circulator shuttles, and improved access for seniors and persons with disabilities; to be operated by the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, expending its funds to build, operate and maintain the fixed rail and bus rapid transit system; the additional revenue raised by the tax rate is to be dedicated by the City to an independent board to oversee and finance the acquisition, construction, equipping, and operations and maintenance of the rapid transit system by providing funds for loans and grants to develop or expand transportation within the City, and to finance the transit-supportive anti-displacement strategies related to Project Connect. Last year, the ad valorem tax rate in the City of Austin was $0.4431 per $100 valuation.”City of Austin’s November 2020 Proposition A ballot language
However, in the lead-up to and months following the election, city officials shared a conceptual system map that depicted 27 miles of light rail service and 31 stations divvied up into the following lines:
- Orange Line: initial investment to run from North Lamar Boulevard and U.S. Hwy. 183 to Stassney Lane
- Blue Line: Running from North Lamar Boulevard and U.S. Hwy. 183 to downtown and to the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
- Green Line: Commuter rail service running from downtown to Colony Park in east Austin
That all changed in July 2022, when officials paused design work as the costs to construct the light rail continued to balloon due to scope changes, increasing real estate costs as well as construction-related inflation issues. Following that, officials whittled down that conceptual plan to five scope variations in March before selecting the initial investment plan and adopting it in June.
That adopted first phase of light includes 9.8 miles of light rail services and 15 stations along the route, which runs from 38th Street to Oltorf Street in the south along with Yellow Jacket Lane in the southeast.
Rick Fine, co-counsel for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, criticized the new light rail plan, referring to it as “piecemeal” as the original interpretation shared with voters.
“I voted for the original proposal because it would have served all of Austin. But the plan the voters approved has been thrown out the window, and I would never have supported the replacement piecemeal plan that leaves out most of Austin yet will still cost billions in property taxes,” Fine said in the release.
In a statement to KXAN Tuesday, ATP officials said they are committing to continuing work on the light rail system.
“Austin Transit Partnership is not commenting on the pending litigation and continues to advance the project,” said Casey Burack, ATP’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs.
On Wednesday ATP spoke with KXAN.
“Our goal is to build something people will like and want more of,” said Lindsay Wood with ATP. “We prioritize transparency with our community to show the differences to share the data,” said Wood.
Mayor Kirk Watson shared his own comment with KXAN, acknowledging his “disappointment” with this lawsuit filing.
“The voters approved this ongoing multi-billion-dollar project that will bring much-needed mobility infrastructure to the city of Austin,” Watson said. “As part of the approved proposal by voters, an independent entity – Austin Transit Partnership — was established to spearhead implementation. We are disappointed to see the new lawsuit challenging Project Connect, but we will review all allegations carefully and take appropriate next steps.”
On Wednesday, the plaintiffs, legal team and several current and former elected officials, along with residents spoke about their lawsuit.
Response from plaintiffs
“In June of this year the Austin City Council and the Austin Transit Partnership replaced that voter approved plan with a different transit plan, but claim that they can spend the voter approved funds on this replacement plan, we disagree,” said Travis County Commissioner, Margaret Gomez, who is named in the lawsuit.
“The people who voted for it (Project Connect) I respect that, but at the same time we ought to go back to the people and say this is what is being voted on, this is what is going to be constructed, this is what it is going to cost, let the people vote again,” said Former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.