Voters in Austin, Texas, will likely be asked to approve bonds for a multi-billion-dollar light rail project this fall after the city’s mayor signaled that would be the best path forward as a bill to force a vote advanced in the state legislature. 

In order to ensure Project Connect proceeds, Mayor Kirk Watson said Austin voters should vote on it again, adding that negotiated new language in the bill would allow for a November ballot measure.
“The biggest threat to this generational project is time, and the looming threat from the state imperils this project because it could cost us valuable time and money,” he wrote in a city newsletter Thursday. “We’re already decades behind in critical public transportation infrastructure and can’t waste any more years.”

Austin voters in November 2020 approved the use of property taxes to help fund what was billed as a $7.1 billion project. By April 2022, it was projected to cost $10.3 billion. 

The project’s rising costs caught the attention of Texas legislators who introduced legislation to require voter approval of bonds issued by local government-created corporations like the Austin Transit Partnership that are allowed to tap property tax revenue for specified projects.

House Bill 3899 advanced out of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee April 17 in a 9-0 vote. 

Supporters of the so-called “no blank checks” bill, cheered Watson’s concession. 

“We hope the next campaign will be far more careful with their ‘estimations’ and give voters a fair crack at voting on an actual plan with an actual budget and realistic deliverables,” said Gerald Daugherty, a former Travis County commissioner, in a statement.

Watson, a former Texas state senator, said it was “a terrible precedent for the legislature to muck with a voter-approved infrastructure investment that is allowed under state law almost three years after an election that also fully complied with state law.”

Watson, elected mayor in 2022, served an earlier term in the office from 1997 to 2001.

“No other project in the state would be subject to this duplicative process,” he said. “But we’ll get it done so we can keep moving forward.”

Austin Transit Partnership, a corporation created by the city and its Capital Metro Transportation Authority to build Project Connect, last month unveiled five, lower-cost options for the light rail system that carry a price tag of about $5 billion each and would take as much as 10 years to complete.

The partnership can issue bonds, notes, and other obligations for the project, which is also counting on federal funding.

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