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The problem here is that the approach taken by the pro-bond supporters is extremely simplistic, outdated and completely misplaced.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.
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!