Texas AG’s appeal halts civil trial on Austin’s light rail plans

June 18, 2024

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on Monday filed an appeal in Travis County to halt the trial to determine whether the proposed financing plan for Austin’s $7.1 billion light rail is allowed under state law.

The AG’s office filed the interlocutory appeal moments after Travis County Judge Eric Shepperd began the trial to hear arguments in the pending bond validation lawsuit filed by the City of Austin and the Austin Transit Partnership — a nonprofit created to guide the Project Connect Initiative.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals will determine whether the lower court has jurisdiction to hear the case.

The ATP said it planned to file a motion to dismiss the request.

“Austin Transit Partnership and the City of Austin asked for this trial today so that we could have an impartial judge confirm that we have complied with state law at every step in moving Project Connect forward,” ATP Executive Director Greg Canally said in a statement to Government Market News. “A handful of transit opponents are taking unprecedented measures to delay these proceedings and deny ATP, the City and Austin voters our day in court because they know the law does not support their position.

“ATP and the City were ready for trial today, and we will file an emergency motion to dismiss this latest attempt to delay.”

The City of Austin and ATP filed the lawsuit in February. The bond validation lawsuit was consolidated with one filed by Project Connect critics seeking to block the bond sale last fall.

The project design has undergone modifications since originally being introduced to voters. Opponents contend that because voters did not approve the latest design, the city can’t issue debt or spend property taxes to pay for the project.

In an opinion filed in May, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the pending lawsuit, claiming neither the city nor Austin Transit Partnership can issue bonds to build the planned improvements, including the centerpiece light-rail system. The Republican attorney general asked the judge to dismiss the city’s request to affirm the bonds.

Voters approved Project Connect in 2020 by more than 15 percentage points. The initiative raises the ad valorem property tax rate by 8.75 cents — an increase to the city’s property tax rate by more than 20%.

Current plans rely on the new property tax and at least a 50% match in grant funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

The tax pays for updating the city’s transit map to include a new light-rail system, high-frequency bus routes and other improvements.

The current plans call for a 9.8-mile line stretching north, south and east of downtown Austin but stopping short of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Photo courtesy of Project Connect

Miles Smith

Miles Smith has more than two decades of communications experience in the public and private sectors, including several years of covering local governments for various daily and weekly print publications. His scope of work includes handling public relations for large private-sector corporations and managing public-facing communications for local governments.

Smith has recently joined the team as a content writer for SPI’s news publications, which include Texas Government Insider, Government Contracting Pipeline and its newest digital product, Government Market News, which launched in September 2023. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s in journalism.

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