Monthly Archives: October 2014

Why I Voted For Steve Adler, And Why You Should Too

By Bill Oakey – October 31, 2014

It is quite appropriate that the Halloween tricksters from a certain male opponent of Steve’s sent out two ghoulish mailers this week. We shouldn’t let them scare us, and it’s easy to tell that they are the ones who are spooked!

The special interests who are backing Steve’s opponents are unwilling to match his pledge of real tax relief for Austin homeowners. Instead, they conjured up a band of outside agitators from South Carolina to send out negative mailers to Austin voters. This represents an act of desperation, and it probably means that Steve’s positives messages are cutting into the hopes of any opponents who were hoping to beat him.

This is where those of you reading this come in. Make your plans to vote for Steve, if you haven’t already. You can vote at any polling location on Tuesday. Then you need to email, Facebook and tweet your friends and remind them to vote for Steve. If we keep the attention focused on these net few days, Austin can finally put the bad old days of business as usual at City Hall behind us.

Steve is a down to earth, hard working guy who is quite the opposite of the spooky character that the outsiders portray him to be. You should set a time to go by his campaign office at 301 Barton Springs Road. Volunteers will be needed right up until the polls close at 7:00 on Tuesday.

In the meantime, just keep in mind that solid, common sense principles like financial transparency, truth in taxation, and real affordability reforms instead of lip service and empty promises can be ours if we just get out the vote for Steve Adler.

Treat yourself to a grass roots victory in the mayor’s race this Halloween. Remind your friends that all of the tough problems that Austin faces today were brought about by the very people who are opposing Steve in this election. It is their “experience” that got us into this mess.

Oh, and there’s just one other thing. Wouldn’t it be fun to see that boyish grin on Steve’s face Tuesday night when he wins!

Does The City Have The Backbone To Save North Central Austin?

By Bill Oakey – October 30, 2014

I have often wondered aloud in these blog postings about Austin’s purpose or mission as a city. To many observers it would seem that Austin is in the real estate business. Certainly we can state that they (our City leaders) are in the economic development business. Either way, current residents can discern a built in contradiction with either of those two purposes.

Austin did not become unaffordable on its own. There was a lot more at play than simple “market forces.” Cities have lots of administrative tools to guide their growth. For decades City Council candidates have sought the backing of neighborhood and environmental groups, promising to protect “all that is unique about Austin” and “Austin’s great quality of life.” But what does all of that really mean? It can be interpreted very narrowly to mean that we don’t want Barton Springs to become so polluted that it is no longer safe to swim there. And it also means that we like our open spaces and do not want every inch of Auditorium Shores to become commercialized. And of course, there are issues of clean energy, climate protection and other progressive ideals.

But in this year of 2014, another giant issue has arisen that was never a part of the classic “progressive agenda.” Of course I am talking about affordability. Since many have accepted the reality that this year has become a tipping point in that area, politicians will no longer be able to sit back and be comfortable by just parroting the old line progressive themes.

In some sense, affordability falls within the realm of social justice. People should be able to buy a home in Austin and contribute to the tax base over 20 to 30 years and be able to keep their homes in retirement. As I mentioned in a recent blog posting, I have a favorite analogy for that. Imagine that your boss at your company calls you into his office and tells you that your job and your division will be phased out within six months. Your sole responsibility during that time will be to train your replacements. Whatever happens to you after the transition is nowhere on the boss’s radar. That’s the farthest thing from his mind.

Well, in today’s Austin you can simply substitute “house” for “job,” “neighborhood” for “division” and “city” for “company.” While you are sitting in your chair reading this, thousands of Austinites are staring at a looming timeline of the number of months that they can afford to pay taxes and stay in their homes. This fact was observed very clearly and very painfully by many Council candidates as they knocked on doors along the campaign trail. It was not at all uncommon for a campaign worker to come across residents who expressed their concerns through visible tears.

In the starkest and coldest terms, these people are simply biding their time to make room for their replacements. It’s as though the giant seed pods envisioned by science fiction writer, Jack Finney, have been planted in the bushes next to bedroom windows all over town. The movie of that story was called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The real-life Austin version could be modified slightly to become “Invasion of the Property Snatchers.” Imagine if you and your wife were the last ones left in your neighborhood not to be taken over by a McMansion or a luxury apartment building. Both of you will survive as long as you don’t fall asleep. But whatever you do, don’t get separated. Or else you might come back and hear some uncomfortable words from your spouse. Something like, “Oh, honey, we were so wrong before! It’s nice to give up our home. Come on and let me take you to the others. We need to be like them!” Then as the approaching mob gets closer and the footsteps reverberate like thunder, you will know they are coming after you. “He’s over here!” your wife will scream. “Come and get him. He’s over here!”

Now, About That Idea Of Trying To Save North Central Austin

North Central Austin contains many scattered neighborhoods where the older homes still stand and the residents have lived there for a considerable number of years. To see some really good examples, take a leisurely drive through the streets behind Highland Mall in the Airport Boulevard area. Many of these comparatively affordable neighborhoods lie within City Council Districts 4 and 7.

As you may very well know, the City is in the process of developing plans to “improve” those neighborhoods. In today’s planning vernacular, we are talking about “Corridor Plans.” Every major thoroughfare is on a waiting list to become a “corridor” with a “master plan.” We saw that process unfold with East Riverside. It was designated as an early cornerstone in 2010 for the proposed urban rail line. I can still close my eyes and see the faces of the displaced residents pictured in an American-Statesman article on the transformation of East Riverside from late last year. Using East Riverside as an example, it’s easy to see that these “corridor plans” are actually “gentrification plans.”

It has already been several years and two consultant reports since plans for an Airport Boulevard Corridor Plan were first launched. The vision at the time was to anchor Highland Mall with a major ACC campus rebuilding effort. Then, poof, the entire corridor would blossom into big box luxury apartment “communities.” But there was just one little problem. Certain links in the chain have failed to mesh in the right way for that plan to materialize on its own. The word that I have heard from developers is that the Burnet Road corridor has been bumped up ahead of Airport Boulevard. We know we are about to lose the Omlettry Restaurant. It’s just a matter of time before the quaint little bakeries and pet supply stores along Burnet will be scheduled for the bulldozers. And the price of new housing and property taxes for existing residents will take off like a rocket.

With a new grass roots City Council set to take office in early January, it will be time for the folks in North Central Austin to stand up and be counted. What kind of improvements would they themselves like to see in their neighborhoods? Are their ideas the same as those devised by the expensive national consultants? If not, then the new City Council will have an early opportunity to recalibrate the purpose and the mission for Austin. What are our values? Do we just exist as a ripe fertile hunting ground for local and out of state developers? Or will the people who already live here be granted the chance to directly shape their own futures?

All of us will need to stay vigilant and wide awake, at least long enough to find out if some our neighborhoods can still be saved.

About the Impending Rail Bond Failure – What Is The Big Picture?

By Bill Oakey – October 30, 2014

In the closing days before the City election, I thought it would be interesting to assess the likely defeat of the massively expensive rail bond proposition and put the issue into perspective. Other than a few “old guard” political insiders and actual members of the pro-rail PAC’s, I have not met a single voter who has told me they were voting for the bonds. What’s up with that and what can we learn from this experience? My analysis is divided into several categories.

Desperate Campaign Tactics

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you should know by now that I am not a card-carrying Tea Party member. (Far from it!) And I certainly don’t take my marching orders from the Koch Brothers. When the Let’s Go Austin PAC started using the Tea Party/Koch brothers tagline, most of Austin let out a collective chuckle. This suggestion is so absurd that it hardly deserves a response. The implication is that all self-respecting “liberal progressives” should open up their wallets and jump happily onto the rail bandwagon. After all, “We’ve got to start somewhere.” Right?

The problem here is that the approach taken by the pro-bond supporters is extremely simplistic, outdated and completely misplaced. Their appeal of course is to the supposedly united “Democratic Neighborhood/Environmental Coalition.” This amorphous group is assumed to be on call and ready at any time to accept whatever message the Old Guard wishes to thrust upon them.

The truth is much more complicated. There are numerous splits among Austin progressives these days, and they cut across all age groups, ethnicities and income levels. We need only look at the newly formed alliances that have come into play in the district City Council races to see that all of us are not joined at the hip. However, the dusty old 1980’s era tactic of calling upon the Old Guard to sell this flawed plan has been put into play. We were expected to embrace the smiles on the glossy faces of Kirk Watson and Lloyd Doggett and fall right into line behind them.

Nope!

Who’s Ready to Take That First Trip From East Riverside to Highland Mall?

It will be several years before the rail line is ready to roll if voters approve the bonds. But one of the big nails in the coffin of the supporters is of course the chosen route. The billion dollar plus price tag for 9.5 miles of rail tells voters that any investment in a citywide system would be astronomically expensive. So, most voters want to see the most bang for their buck. The so-called “first phase” simply doesn’t provide that. Even the Daily Texan student newspaper at U.T. endorsed the opposition in this election.

But if you just can’t wait to take a train ride from East Riverside and Grover (one of the most exciting intersections in Austin) to Highland Mall and the Airport Corridor (one of the hippest and most vibrant sections of Austin), well get in line. Project Connect would probably be delighted to take a list of names of people who want to be first to step aboard hat train.

But the Sierra Club Endorsed the Bonds. Doesn’t That Mean That You Should Vote Yes?

Not hardly. The “Sierra Club” as a whole did not even get a chance to discuss the complex issues involved in the urban rail plan. There were no meetings where anyone from the numerous anti-bond organizations were invited to come and speak. In fact, the entire endorsement decision was delegated to one member of the executive board. Then the rest of the board simply rubber stamped it.

If the Bonds Are About to Fail, Then What Went Wrong?

Many of the players involved suffered from big credibility problems. The City Council knew there were huge credibility issues with Capital Metro. That’s why they dreamed up the “Project Connect” moniker as a new brand to sell the rail plan. But most voters understand that even though the bonds are appearing on the City ballot, Capital Metro would manage the rail system and pay for the operational costs. In recent years Cap Metro has been riddled with debt, mostly related to costs of the Red Line commuter rail. Bus routes and the frequencies of stops have suffered since the Red Line began. And the only time the Red Line fills up is during the morning and evening rush periods.

Another major credibility problem is Mayor Lee Leffingwell and most of his cohorts on the current City Council. They have shown that they never met a spending opportunity that they didn’t like. Budget surpluses are burned up as quickly as they arrive, and there are no guidelines and no citizen input during the process. Mr. Leffingwell and Company have bowed down to the special interests over and over again, leaving Austin with a clogged and congested transportation system and an affordability problem so severe that thousands of families are being priced out of the City.

But the Fliers In the Mail Say That Urban Rail Will Wipe Out Traffic Congestion. What About That?

The level of population density along the proposed route is so low that a major “economic development” effort would be needed to boost that density. Failure to achieve the required ridership levels would jeopardize the Federal funding for the rail. So, just think about that for a minute. If the developers can succeed in packing in enough new residents from California and elsewhere into big box, high rent luxury apartment units, maybe they can achieve the density required. But if they do, think of all those new people with cars. All of those cars would more than offset any supposed congestion relief.

If the Plan Is Flawed and the Route Is Not Popular, How Did Our Local Leaders Miss the Mark?

That’s the easiest question of all to answer. Public input was never intended to be part of the equation. The East Riverside portion of the plan was set in stone as far back as 2003. You can find references to it in the Downtown Austin Plan. An even better place to look for the history of Austin urban rail is the Austin Chronicle. Just do a search for “Austin rail” and you will find tons of archives that give the history in fascinating detail.

The Let’s Go Austin folks will continuously parrot the line that the choice of route was arrived at through “data-driven” analysis. A much more appropriate d-word would be “developer-driven.”  One mind-blowing sentence in one article in the Austin Chronicle archives tells the whole story of how rail and high density development go hand in hand. On the night several years ago when the City Council voted to adopt the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, the Planning Commission made an 11th hour appeal. They begged the City Council to keep neighborhood compatibility standards in the new master plan. Below are the actual words from this article in the Chronicle dated March 5, 2010.

“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.” Once the plan was adopted, low-cost student housing units were bulldozed and a development frenzy got underway. The gentrification of East Riverside became inevitable.

Fast forward to late 2013 when the Project Connect “information sessions” and “open houses” got underway. The public was never invited to fully engage in the process and help determine where they wanted to invest their tax dollars in a new urban rail system. The special interests had already made that decision years before.

So, What Can the New City Council Do to Pick Up the Transportation Pieces After the Rail Bonds Fail?

How about this for a good start…Try listening to the people!

Watch KVUE Urban Rail Town Hall Online – We Easily Won The Debate!

By Bill Oakey – October 21, 2014

At the KVUE Town Hall this morning, the format was very informal. It was a rousing and lively discussion, and I’m happy to report that our side crushed the pro-bond folks! Many thanks go out to the management and staff of KVUE for hosting this critically important public event. It was a real pleasure to have the opportunity to participate.

And now you can share the excitement and the facts with all of your friends, neighbors and fellow voters. Please forward this blog posting to everyone you know and ask them to do the same. Tweet it, Facebook it and revel in it. And by all means go out and vote early against the Austin Proposition. It is listed right after the City Council races on the ballot.

Here is a link to the KVUE videos online. The Urban Rail Town Hall is split into 4 parts. Scroll down the page to get to the four videos:

http://www.kvue.com/story/news/local/2014/10/17/kvue-urban-rail-town-hall/17444765/

Vote Against The Austin Rail Bonds – Largest Tax Increase In Austin History!

By Bill Oakey – October 20, 2014

Early voting starts this week, so be sure to head to the polls and snuff out the “Austin Proposition.” This item was originally publicized to be called Proposition One. But you will find it in the Austin section of the ballot, listed as simply the Austin Proposition.

First, a bit of good news about the ballot. Yes, it is long. But if you vote straight party in the County and State candidate races, you will be able to fly through the ballot very quickly. You will not get stuck in a long line, and if there is a line it should move fairly fast. I voted today and was very pleased with quickly it went.

The rail proposition may be an even bigger draw to the polls for some voters than any of the candidates. Despite the efforts of some news organizations and political groups, the overwhelming number of City Council candidates have come out quite vocally against the bonds. That’s because they have been going door to door for months, talking to their constituents. Voters in all corners of the City are fed up with a City Council that raises taxes every chance they get and then spends whatever budget surplus becomes available with no public input or formal process.

There is little credibility left for Mayor Lee Leffingwell to claim in the closing months of his tenure. As the leader of the so-called “Project Connect” group that was concocted to promote the rail package, he and his colleagues at the City and Capital Metro never had any interest in listening to the public for their views. Instead they sought only to appease the downtown business crowd and the real estate developers. Their preferred route has been in the planning stages for over a decade. East Riverside emerged as the special interest choice as soon as the developers started bulldozing low cost student housing and displacing those residents to build massive big box apartment structures. in the early 2000’s the Mueller neighborhood was included in the northern section of the route. But after the Red Line was built and Highland Mall rose from the ashes to become an ACC campus, Highland became the new northern destination for “urban rail.”

The problem is that there is not nearly enough population density along the entire corridor to justify rail along that route. How many people do you know personally who are clamoring for a train that they could jump on every 10 to 15 minutes to go from East Riverside to Highland Mall? If you flew in a helicopter over Austin during rush hour, you would not see the East Riverside to Highland Mall traffic backed up and congested at anywhere near the levels that you would see in U.T.’s West Campus area, or anywhere along North Lamar.

So, how does Project Connect and the proponents of this flawed route justify their choice? They claim first and foremost that it will “take cars off the road” and “relieve traffic congestion.” Well, guess what? in order to come up with the ridership numbers needed to qualify for Federal funding, the developers would have to attract many thousands of new residents to the East Riverside and Airport Boulevard corridors. All those cars hitting the roads would far exceed any supposed gains from building a rail line.

The throngs of employees who work at U.T. and the Capital Complex live all over town and many have been priced out of Austin completely. So, only a small percentage of them would be wanting to hop on that train every 10 to 15 minutes. Many of the arguments against the rail bonds that you are reading here were expressed by the editorial staff of the U.T. student newspaper, the Daily Texan. In a historic move last week, they retracted their previous endorsement of the bonds and printed a well-articulated appeal to vote against them.

Now For the Worst Part – The Devastating Price Tag

We have all heard about the $1.3 billion total cost of the rail project. When it was first announced, we were told that the Feds would put up half the cost. Just today the Statesman reported that the best we can hope for is a Federal match of 30% to 40%. There are problems with the cost in every direction you would care to look. Nobody talks about the interest on the debt. And the subject of the annual operating costs has been conspicuously absent from this election campaign. That’s because even Project Connect cannot say with any certainty how much the operating costs would be. What they have said is that they would have to go into to debt to pay for new buses. That’s a sure sign that the already declining quality of Capital Metro’s bus service will only get worse if the rail bonds are approved.

The 6 cent tax rate increase over five years for this bond package is most likely the highest property tax increase in Austin history. Keep in mind that each year in the budget cycle, the City Council routinely haggles over raising the tax rate by a fraction of one penny. The six cent increase for this bond package includes the assumption that property values will keep going up every year. So, even though affordability has risen to become the number one issue in this election cycle, Mr. Leffingwell and his right hand voting companion, Mike Martinez, would like to stick you with the highest tax increase in Austin history.

Go to the polls this week and vote no. Tell your neighbors to vote no and tell your friends to vote no. And if you run into to anybody that is not totally convinced, ask them this handy little question. If we double our bond debt to pay for this package with the largest tax increase in Austin history, how would we ever afford to expand the system and build rail extensions to take people where they really want to go? And how would we be able to afford future bonds for the City, AISD, Travis County or ACC? If we “have to start somewhere,” let’s not start in the wrong place for the wrong price.

A much better choice would be to vote no and let the new grass roots City Council build true consensus by listening to the people and formulating a transportation plan that the entire community can support.

Watch KVUE Town Hall On Rail Bonds This Tuesday

By Bill Oakey, October 17, 2014

Be sure to set your DVR or be on hand to watch KVUE’s town hall on Austin’s rail and road proposition. It will air this coming Tuesday October 21st from 11:00 to 12:00 noon. The forum will be moderated by KVUE News anchors Tyler Sieswerda and Terri Gruca. Their questions will lead the discussions and provide equal time to address those who support and those who do not support the bond proposition.

Here are the details:

PANELISTS & THEIR TITLES

AGAINST: Lyndon Henry / Transportation Planning Consultant

FOR: Natalie Cofield / President & CEO Greater Austin Black Chamber

AGAINST: Roger Falk / Travis County Taxpayers Union

FOR: Lee Leffingwell / Mayor of Austin

AGAINST: Richard Franklin / Member of Gray Panthers

FOR: Joah Spearman / Austin business owner

AGAINST: Bill Oakey / AustinAffordability.com blog writer

FOR: John Langmore / Former Capital Metro Board Member

AGAINST: Jim Skaggs / Coalition on Sustainable Transportation

FOR: Martha Smiley / Vice Chair, Regional Mobility and Transportation for the Austin Chamber of Commerce