Nov 7, 2023 - News

Why Austin City Council is being sued by a burger shop

Austin MetroRail train stopped at a light rail station in Austin. Photo: Peter Tsai/Getty

Austin's embattled light-rail plan now faces a lawsuit from a famed local burger joint and several longtime Austin political figures.

Driving the news: Dirty Martin's Place, at West 29th and Guadalupe streets, is suing Austin City Council and the board of Austin Transit Partnership, alleging, in effect, false advertising.

  • Other plaintiffs, who are slated to appear at a press conference at the restaurant today, include former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, former Austin City Council member Ora Houston, and longtime Austin civic activist Susana Almanza, all prominent Democrats.

Why it matters: The lawsuit is the latest challenge to the city's marquee transit project, which has had to be scaled down in the face of soaring costs.

  • An effort to kill the plan in the state Legislature failed on procedural grounds in the spring.
  • Preliminary plans for the transit project indicate that some businesses will be displaced, including Dirty Martin's, which has been serving up burgers for nearly a century.

Catch up quick: In 2020, Austin voters approved, by a nearly 2-1 margin, an 8.75-cent increase per $100 in taxable value to city property taxes to help pay for Project Connect, as the transit plan is known.

  • Ballot language and a city website in the run-up to the 2020 election suggested the $7.1 billion transit plan would include as many as three rail lines running 27 miles, a downtown transit tunnel, new rapid and MetroRapid bus routes and money to mitigate community displacement.

In June, the Austin City Council approved a scaled-down plan for an on-street, 9.8-mile light-rail route that would connect North and South Austin from West 38th to Oltorf streets and run southeast to near Ben White Boulevard.

  • The plan does not reach Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, although ATP officials say the option prioritizes a future expansion to the airport and farther north to Crestview.

By the numbers: The new plan is projected to stay within the project's $5 billion budget — with a cost estimate between $4.5 billion to $4.8 billion, using a mix of local and federal dollars.

What they're saying: "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 City Council, said Bill Aleshire, the lead attorney on the lawsuit.

  • The lawsuit asks a Travis County district judge to prevent the city from collecting Project Connect taxes "because they no longer have voter approval for the tax" and to prohibit the defendants from using tax money already collected from acquiring right-of-way or constructing major portions of the project.
  • It also aims to bar the ATP from issuing any long-term debt or bonds for the project.

The intrigue: Gerald Daugherty, the Republican former Travis County commissioner who has long opposed local rail projects, tells Axios he is raising money to help pay for the lawsuit.

  • "This is the biggest scam perpetrated on this community in the 55 years I've been here," Daugherty tells Axios.

The other side: "Regrettably, the same people who opposed rail in 2000 and 2014, and lost in 2020, are trying to circumvent the will of the people through a lawsuit," Bill McCamley, executive director of Transit Forward, a nonprofit booster group for the transit plan, said in a statement.

What we're watching: If Austin's rail transit ever expands beyond the Red Line, which connects Leander to downtown.


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