Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why You Should Vote Against The Rail Bonds On Nov. 4th

By Bill Oakey – August 29, 2014

  1. This bond project is so expensive that it would double our general obligation bond debt from $1 billion to $2 billion. Far too many Austinites are being priced out of their homes with our current level of taxes. If we stretch our existing bond capacity for this one project, it will stifle our ability to fund other capital needs. Keep in mind that there will be other bond elections for AISD, Travis County, ACC and other City projects.
  1. To put the tax impact into perspective, consider this. For the last few years during the budget cycle, the City Council has only had to modify the tax rate by a fraction of one penny. When property appraisals are escalating, tax rates often go down. But even with projected annual increases to property valuations, this bond package would raise the tax rate by 6 cents over 5 years, making it one of the largest tax increases in Austin history.
  1. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) claims in their 2040 growth plan that we will need $32.4 billion over the next 25 years for transportation projects. That comes out to a whopping $1.3 billion per year. Their report states that 80% of that money must come from local funding sources. So, every time you hear someone say, “We have to start somewhere” on this rail plan, hang onto your wallet! Does anyone really think we can afford to spend anything close to that amount of money every year for 25 years in a row?
  1. The selected route for the rail line is based on highly speculative growth projections and density aspirations for an eastern alignment from East Riverside to Highland Mall. In order for these lofty growth projections to be met, we would have to attract so many cars to future developments along that corridors that they would easily wipe out any potential traffic relief provided by the rail system. Not only is this self-defeating, congestion-generating scenario possible, it is essential to achieving the rail ridership numbers required to obtain Federal matching funds.
  1. We have all heard about the marvelous light rail system in Portland. But did you know that even with their 75-mile light rail network, the percentage of mass transit ridership has actually decreased from 9.8% to 7.0% between 1980 and 2012? We simply can’t afford to double our bond debt and impose crippling taxes upon our residents to serve a tiny fraction of the population.

Tracing Austin’s Urban Rail Plan Back to 2007

By Bill Oakey – August 22, 2014

In case there are any folks out there who thought Austin’s East Riverside urban rail plan was something new dreamed up by Project Connect, you are in for an interesting trip through time. While it’s true that some form of light rail has been bandied about since at least the 1970’s, the current incarnation that includes East Riverside Drive starting coming into focus in the fall of 2007.

We can thank the Austin Chronicle for keeping its handy archives online to help with this type of warm and fuzzy nostalgia. Before we begin the journey, let me point out a few unmistakable factors that underpin all things related to urban rail – growth, developers and high density housing. And we might as well throw in gentrification. Once you frame that picture in your mind, everything else falls neatly into place.

October 2007 – Mayor Will Wynn Calls for 2008 Bond Election

In 2007 Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken were the two big urban rail advocates. At his State of Downtown Speech, Wynn laid out a vision for a “modern ultra-light-rail streetcar” system. The Chronicle described it this way. “Its route would take riders Downtown, to multiple Central Austin locations (such as Mueller and Zilker Park), serve the UT and state office buildings, and connect major work-live-play nodes.” The next sentence mentions “a crucial link to Bergstrom Airport.” It just so happens that East Riverside Drive is between downtown and the airport. You can read the article here.

Despite proclaiming that he was “hellbent on calling an election in one year,” Mayor Wynn did not put the rail plan on the ballot in 2008. Perhaps it was slowed down by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and that event commonly referred to as the Great Recession.

May 2008 – A Consultant And A “Transit Working Group” Come Together

The ROMA Design Group, based in San Francisco, and the Transit Working Group of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) began to hold public meetings on the light rail plan beginning in April 2008. The highlight of this article is a bold move by Brewster McCracken to pull away from everyone else and announce his own rail plan, in an apparent move to position himself to run for mayor. He ultimately lost to Lee Leffingwell in the 2009 election.

August 2008 – The Council Gets the Final ROMA Plan

The ROMA design team presented the City Council with a $550 million to $614 million plan for a 15.3 mile system. They estimated that the train would carry 32,000 riders per day by 2030, and that the cost per mile to build the system would be $36 million to $40 million. You should read this article to see how the four-phase construction layout compares with today’s plan proposed by Project Connect.

October 2009 – Austin Seizes Control and Rebrands The Train System As “Urban Rail”

Because of Capital Metro’s repeated delays and problems launching the commuter Red Line, the City of Austin decided to cut them out of the loop for the new local rail system. At the same time they coined a new non-standard label to describe the system – “urban rail.” Management of the project was turned over to the City’s Transportation Department.

Now for the first time we see East Riverside Drive brought into the conversation. Here is the Chronicle’s description of the route. “The first stage would serve Downtown, the Capitol complex, and the University of Texas area; it would also probably cross the river to Riverside, later going all the way out to the airport.”  You can read the article here.

March 2010 – City Council Adopts East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, Rejects Planning Commission’s Plea for Compatibility Standards

Well before the genesis of CodeNEXT, East Riverside received the official blessing of the City Council to become one of the first “activity centers” envisioned in the Imagine Austin Plan. This would soon lead to the bulldozing of affordable apartments for U.T. students and low-income residents, many of whom were Hispanic.

Included in this article is a one of the most significant and most telling statements in the entire history of Austin’s urban rail saga. Here it is verbatim from the Chronicle. It speaks for itself. “The mayor and council members rebuffed a last-minute recommendation from the Planning Commission to apply the usual compatibility standards (which limit height near houses) in the master plan; that could have gutted the density necessary for the new rail transit line at the heart of the plan.” Notice that it identifies the new rail transit line as being “at the heart of the plan.” Why the ROMA plan eventually fell apart would be an interesting matter to explore.

Now Comes the Big Question That Everyone Should Be Asking

I’m almost afraid to blurt this out, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Just close your eyes and try to imagine how much the City, Capital Metro, CAMPO and Project Connect have spent on this rail plan in the seven years since 2007. It would have to include the staff expenses and consultant fees paid by all of the public entities during that entire span of time. And every penny of it was spent without any of the officials having a clue as to whether the public would ultimately vote to approve the East Riverside to Highland Mall rail plan. What we now know is that it is shaping up to be one of the most unpopular bond propositions ever to come down the pike. City Council candidates are coming out in droves to openly oppose it. Voters in their districts are telling them that they don’t want it.

The saddest part of all is that a large segment of the Austin population does stand firmly in support of rail. They just want a route that will take them where they need to go. They don’t want rail in a location designed to attract the heavy high density development needed to garner the required ridership to qualify for Federal funding. Most everyone understands that development of that magnitude would bring in enough additional cars to more than offset any potential traffic relief that we could ever hope to gain by building the rail line. In fact the resulting congestion would probably be worse than it is today.

The Lame Arguments In Favor Of The Rail Bonds

By Bill Oakey – August 21, 2014

Here’s A Little Baseball Analogy

Picture a young boy in the early 1960’s.  He is a huge baseball fan.  He has built up an impressive collection of baseball cards from those 2 cent packages of chewing gum. Now he wants to take a giant leap forward. At the age of 12, he is convinced that he is ready to test his prowess on an actual baseball field. So, he joins a Little League club.

Perhaps we can call this little guy Timmy. Timmy has a very large circle of friends. Everybody likes him a lot because of his outgoing personality and his ability to make other kids laugh. When he holds a birthday party, everybody from blocks around shows up. Now he is ready to invite them all to his first Little League Baseball game.

There is just one little problem. Timmy has never been good at outdoor sports. The reason for that is – to put it bluntly – the poor guy is just too clumsy and uncoordinated. But he won’t let that stop him. He has every intention of making up for that with an over-abundance of pride. No one is willing to warn Timmy that he might make a fool of himself.

On the big day of the game, the crowd is nearly twice as big as normal. Everybody turns out to see Timmy’s grand entrance. Because he is new, he isn’t allowed onto the field until the last inning. The score is tied 6 to 6 as Timmy steps out for his first chance to pitch. He picks up the ball and attempts a windup. It comes across even more awkwardly than his worst fears.

The crowd is still anxious, thinking he will come through. But after an embarrassing second windup, which is even worse than the first, he pitches the ball far to the left of the batter and nearly loses his balance in the process. The crowd is disappointed, but sympathetic. Timmy’s friends try to hide the sinking feeling that he will not succeed on the field. None of the ones who should have known better will admit that fact. That sad truth overwhelms everything else. When people know enough to know better, why don’t they just face reality?

The Sad March of the Good Little Soldiers

Last night at a meeting of the Central Austin Democrats, I witnessed a very similar exercise. Speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphone to make their stumbling and uninspired speeches. Like poor little Timmy, they each struggled to launch a winning pitch.  It was so sad that it was almost painful to listen.

“I wish I could say that this is a great rail proposal,” the first speaker began. “It is not a great proposal. Maybe it is not even a good proposal. But at least it’s an OK proposal.” Then came the punchline that set the tone for all of the other good little soldiers…

“We have to start somewhere.”

One by one they marched in lock-step to the stage to deliver their remarks. They could have been lip-syncing to a canned recording. The lack of any real conviction or enthusiasm was pronounced. The best that could be said of the expressed pro-rail message was that the City Council supports it. Capital Metro supports it. Some big-name local Democrats support it. Therefore, it must be the right thing to do. And gosh, won’t it be exciting to take that first trip from Riverside to Highland Mall?

Yawn…

These speakers offered no compelling statistics to justify the staggering $1.4 billion cost. Nor did they explain where or how Austin would come up with the remainder of the $8 to $10 billion total cost of a citywide light rail system. If the November bond proposal would double our debt capacity and raise taxes far beyond today’s already unsustainable levels, how would we ever be able to afford to expand the system? One speaker even dared to suggest that building the rail would improve affordability.

A resolution in support of the rail bonds passed by a narrow two-vote margin. Central Austin Democrats accomplished what they set out to do. In the process, they tore a gaping hole in the fabric of democracy. At a previous meeting, they allowed a single presentation from a pro-rail organization. But they never offered equal time to the other side. This shows not only a measure of distinct unfairness, but also a huge dose of insecurity on the part of the insiders who never wanted a fair discussion in the first place. What were they afraid would happen if both sides had been given the same opportunity? And is this the model of behavior that they intend to stand on for all major issues in the future?

Looking back on the people in the room, I am reminded of our hapless Little League pitcher named Timmy. When the rail bonds fail by a significant margin, the rest of us will wonder why none of the “good little soldiers” could see it coming. When people know enough to know better, why don’t they just face reality?

Austin Urban Rail Town Hall – Mark Your Calendars

By Bill Oakey – August 15, 2014

It is critically important for you to send this notice to everyone you know.  The November rail bond election could result in the doubling of our bond debt, and most likely the highest property tax increase in Austin history.

Please join us for the:

Austin Urban Rail Town Hall

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 from 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Greater Austin Merchants Association (GAMA)

8801 Research Blvd

As voters, we should be asking tough questions in November. That’s why Gray Panthers and Love North Austin are hosting a Town Hall on Austin’s $1.4 billion Urban Rail proposal. We will have a diverse cross section of panelists to answer questions from the audience about the new Rail bond that will come before voters in November.

Join us:

August 26th, 7-9pm, Greater Austin Merchants Association,
8801 Research Blvd

Panelists:

Lyndon Henry, Urban Rail Today
Bill Oakey, AustinAffordability.com
Steven Knapp, Vice President Crestview Neighborhood Association
Jim Skaggs, COST Austin
Pro-Rail Representatives, 3 Panelists to Be Announced

Moderator:

Andy Pierrotti, KVUE

Organizers & Co-Hosts:

Mary Rudig, Editor Love North Austin
Clint Miller, Gray Panthers
Laura Pressley, City Council Candidate, District 4

The Most Important Rail Statistic You Will Ever See

By Bill Oakey – August 10, 2014

“In 1980, Cato Institute fellow Randal O’Toole says, the census reported that 9.8 percent of Portland area residents used transit (buses, at the time) to get to work. In 2012, 75 miles of rail transit later, that number had fallen to 7 percent.”

That is a direct quote from Ben Wear’s Austin American-Statesman article on Portland’s sprawling light rail system. This is a system that cost many billions of dollars over more than 30 years, with far more Federal and state cost sharing than Austin could ever hope to see.

And don’t forget one huge factor in that figure of 7% transit ridership as of 2012. It includes all public transit – buses as well as rail. There is much more to write about, talk about, and think about with regard to Austin’s proposed urban rail, as we look to the November bond election.

But for now, let me just say it one more time. Portland has built a massively expensive 75 mile rail system. The percentage of their population that uses mass transit, including both rail and buses fell from 9.8% to 7% between 1980 and 2012.

So there you have it.

Steve Adler Supports City Homestead Exemption

By Bill Oakey – August 5, 2014

Voters who were still undecided in the mayor’s race can breathe a big sigh of relief.  The decision just got a whole lot easier with yesterday’s announcement.  Steve Adler is calling for the City to adopt a 20% residential homestead exemption on our property taxes.  No sooner did the words spring forth from his lips, than Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole shrieked their resistance.

Of course the City cannot be more responsible in its budget.  Of course they can’t grant us the very same exemption that Travis County has offered for two decades!  What an outlandish and preposterous idea!  The financial rule of thumb at City Hall has been to spend as much money as possible as quickly as possible. And if there is a budget surplus in midyear, be the first out the door with ways to spend that too.

That’s precisely why Austin has an affordability problem.  If the local leadership does not set the right tone, every other group, public or private, will assume that we don’t have a problem.  But this time around, the citizens know better.  We have seen how affordability affects our own family budgets.  And we cringe at the thought of so many good people having to sell their homes and leave Austin.

What we need to do is tell Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole that their time is up.  They each had eight years to steer the City onto an affordable path.  Instead they did the exact opposite.  Both major utilities are facing unending rate increases.  Taxes and fees at every level have spiraled out of control.  So, why should we expect anything more than business as usual from either incumbent candidate for mayor?

Here’s What Steve Adler Says About the Homestead Exemption

“Yesterday, as I officially filed for Mayor on the City of Austin ballot, I announced my support for a twenty percent property tax homestead exemption for Austin homeowners. I hope you’ll join my efforts in charting a new way forward, away from the same old policies that have left our city the most unaffordable in the state.”

“The time has come for tax relief for Austin homeowners. I propose phasing this in over four years in a revenue-neutral way, without cutting city services and without significantly impacting renters.”

“I would prefer this homestead exemption be a flat amount instead of a percentage, but state law does not provide that remedy. A twenty percent homestead exemption is the maximum allowed by Texas state law, and is one of the only tools we have for property tax relief now. As mayor, I will fight hard at the legislature for more fairness in our tax structure.”

But What About Those Loud Voices Criticizing Steve Adler on the Environment?

Out of hundreds of legal cases over a long career, Steve participated in a tiny number of cases that were not favorable to the environment.  It is a huge stretch to even think about comparing those to the untold number of harmful votes by both Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole.  During eight years in office, they attended close to 400 City Council meetings.  In that time period, they voted against neighborhoods and the environment dozens upon dozens of times.

If you are happy with the status of development over the Edwards Aquifer, or the wasteful spending on Water Treatment Plant #4, or the steady erosion of neighborhood plans and protections, then feel free to vote for more of the same.  If you have not met with Steve or attended a forum to listen to his ideas, then keep an open mind about him.  You owe it to yourself to consider a fresh start to a badly broken and unaffordable system at City Hall.

The next time you pull out your wallet or purse, ask yourself if you are better off than you were a few years ago.

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Ask yourself if you can afford more of the same.  Or, if you would rather vote for a mayor like Steve Adler, who will listen to all of the people instead of just the special interests.

What Happened To Austin’s Budget Surplus – And Why Is Nobody Talking About It?

By Bill Oakey – August 1, 2014

Back in March, readers of this blog launched a successful email campaign to stop the City Council from spending a $14.2 million budget surplus.  But since then we have heard nothing from City Hall about what has been done with that money.  This week the City Council began discussing the budget in earnest during a two-day work session.  But there are several critical questions that have not been brought to light:

How Much Has the Budget Surplus Grown Since February?

It was at a March City Council work session that they made the decision not to spend the $14.2 million surplus.  So, if that money went into a reserve account, how much is it worth today?  We were told that the announced February surplus came from a combination of increased sales tax revenues, vacant staff positions, increased permit fees, and other revenue increases from an improving local economy.  Now we deserve to know how much the surplus has grown since February?

I have repeatedly recommended that the City Council ask for detailed quarterly reports on the budget versus actual spending numbers.  These reports should be presented to the City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee.  This simple, common sense reform should have been in place already.  And we should not have to wait for the new City Council to enact full transparency for our taxpayer dollars.  Especially when two long term incumbents are asking voters to elect one of them as our next mayor!

How Much Money Is Left Over From All Those Vacant Staff Positions?

As of last December 31st, the City Manager reported that 9.7% of the City’s workforce existed only on paper as unfilled vacancies.  Every month that has gone by since then with unfilled vacancies presents the potential for increases to the budget surplus.  When I researched this issue back in May, I learned something quite disturbing from Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman.  They both informed me that the vacant positions are fully funded in the budget, and that the affected City departments can transfer the money and spend it on other items!  We are talking about millions of dollars of taxpayer money that is repeatedly and consistently allowed to slip down into a black hole.

Despite my meetings with both Mr. Martinez and Mr. Spelman, no action has been taken to improve the accountability or the transparency of these surplus budget funds.  Even at a time when affordability has risen to the top among the issues in the current City Council campaign.

In previous postings to this blog, I have recommended that the City limit the funding of vacant staff positions to the 5% level that has been adopted by Portland, Oregon.  And I suggested that the City Council enact the Honolulu model for controlling funds for vacant staff positions.  In Honolulu, these funds are held in a provisional account in a central office.  They are restricted for use only to hire new employees, and the funds are distributed on an as-needed basis.  It is long past time that the taxpayers of Austin be given the same accountability standards that other prudent American cities enjoy.  And we should only elect City Council candidates who commit to adhering to these logical and reasonable standards.

To learn more, you can read one of my previous blog postings on this topic here.

Rag Radio Interview Today From 2:00 – 3:00

By Bill Oakey – August 1, 2014

Be sure to tune in to KOOP-FM at 91.7 on your radio dial at 2:00 PM today.  I will be a guest on Thorne Dreyer’s excellent Rag Radio series.  Appearing with me will be long time transportation activist, Roger Baker.  The discussion will include the outrageous $1 billion Project Connect urban rail boondoggle, as well as a wide range of other affordability topics.

You can listen to the show on your computer or portable device.  Click here for a link to live streaming of the show.  If you are not available to listen in live, then save this page so you can listen to the podcast later on.

One More Thing:  You are invited to Thorne Dreyer’s 69th birthday bash tonight from 7:00 – 9:00 at Maria’s Taco Xpress, 2529 South Lamar.  Come and party like it was 1969!  See all of the details here.