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Austin's newly approved $7 billion transit expansion plan boasts an ambitious set of goals that, according to Mayor Steve Adler, meets "so many long-held needs." The project will expand bus and electric bike share services, build a transit tunnel, and install almost ten miles of commuter rail.
While efficient and popular with transportation planners, light rail has a darker connotation for many community activists like Susana Almanza. Almanza, who serves as director of environmental justice organization PODER, worries about the effects of the new transit infrastructure on local communities, citing a history of displacement that frequently follows new rail lines. As transit-adjacency transforms from an undesirable reality to a highly valued urban amenity, low-income communities near rail lines become displaced by luxury housing developments aimed at upwardly mobile workers. An NRDC study of California's major urban areas found that rent for a two-bedroom apartment within a half-mile of a transit stop averaged more than $3,000, well above affordability for most transit-dependent families.
Austin's leaders are addressing these concerns head-on with an equity plan and dedicated budget aimed at helping low-income residents stay in their homes and reducing the negative impacts of rail construction. The budget includes rent subsidies and homeowner assistance to help the communities that rely on transit the most and offset the neighborhood change inevitably brought by new transit infrastructure. As part of the equity plan, the city plans to create a neighborhood-level equity assessment tool and community advisory committee that will monitor performance progress once projects are underway.