Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Lawsuit claims Austin voters misled about Project Connect

Manoo Sirivelu
Daniel Young, general manager of Dirty martin’s, stands in front of the podium at a conference held at the restaurant on Nov. 8.

A lawsuit filed on Nov. 6 claims City of Austin leaders and Austin Transit Partnership misled voters in 2020 about Project Connect, the city’s multi-billion dollar public transportation project. 

The lawsuit, which names Mayor Kirk Watson, City of Austin Council Members and ATP board members in their official capacities, asked the court to suspend the collection and expense of property taxes for Project Connect. The suit was filed in Travis County district court.

“It’s not only that it’s misleading, it’s unlawful (and) it’s illegal,” said Bill Aleshire, the attorney representing the filers. “The tax code requires that they have voter approval, but they must continue to carry out that plan that voters approved or they’ve got to go back to the voters. The lawsuit is standing up for voter control of how taxes are used.”

In November 2020, voters approved Project Connect in exchange for a nearly 20% property tax increase.

Almost three years later, in June 2023, the city approved several changes to the project, including a downsize of the light rail line, a key feature of the project, from 28 miles to about 10 miles due to cost increases.

“Austin taxpayers are not getting anything close to the benefit of the bargain they made for Project Connect ‘Contract With the Voters,’” the lawsuit stated. “The truth is, the 2020 Project Connect Bait was never feasible or legal.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include Dirty Martin’s, former Texas Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Travis County commissioner Margaret Gomez, former City Council Member Ora Houston and Susana Almanza, founding director of the social justice organization People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources

The plaintiffs and their attorneys held a press conference on Nov. 8 at Dirty Martin’s.

“They didn’t tell us prior to the election the real destruction and real displacement Project Connect was going to cause,” said Daniel Young, Dirty Martin’s general manager, at the press conference. “It seemed like something Austin citizens should’ve known before voting.”

Lindsay Wood, Austin Transit Partnership executive vice president of engineering & construction, said ATP is moving forward with the light rail project as planned.

ATP, responsible for constructing the light rail, held an event in the Union building at the University on Nov 16. to inform students about Project Connect and receive community feedback.

“Costs have increased dramatically,” Wood said. “As part of the implementation plan, we did look at design changes to address those cost increases and to make sure that our first phase is a financially viable project that fits within our budget and funding source. That led to the adoption of the implementation plan in June.”

A conference occurred with the city and ATP attorneys on Nov 14. to discuss scheduling, but the defendants are not required to file their response until the first week of January, Aleshire said.

“The voters approved this ongoing multi-billion-dollar project that will bring much needed mobility infrastructure to the city of Austin,” Mayor Kirk Watson said in an email statement. “We are disappointed to see the new lawsuit challenging Project Connect, but we will review all allegations carefully and take appropriate next steps.”

Aleshire said he anticipates the lawsuit will remain for a few years, but he intends to prevent the city from spending any tax dollars to build a maintenance facility connected to the project that Montopolis residents were informed would be built in their South Austin neighborhood this year.

“The goal is to stand up for voter control with taxes,” Aleshire said. “I hope that if we win or if they’ve got common sense or at least a common love for democracy and respect for the will of the people that they will voluntarily pull down the city tax that’s being used for this and submit a new plan to the voters. Even if they need to do it in phases, at least that’s an honest way to do it.”

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