Tag Archives: Austin rail

Taxpayers Rejoice! Rail Bonds Trounced By 14 Points!

By Bill Oakey – November 5, 2014

We did it! The people have spoken and now we can celebrate! We just defeated the largest tax increase in Austin history! Congratulations to all of you who voted and thanks for all of your efforts…

Balloons

The final tally was 57.2% against and 42.8% for. That is a difference of 14.4 percentage points, a resounding victory by any measure! If you would like to see a breakdown by precinct of how the rail bond votes were cast, check out this report:

Travis County Results By Precinct

Click on the image below to see a City-generated map of the precincts and their percentage of support for the rail bonds:

Urban Rail Precinct Map

Notice the numerous bright red areas where the bonds failed by over 65%. The highest margin that I have found so far is in Southwest Precinct 363, where the bonds failed by 76.36%. There are many lessons that our civic leaders and a long list of insiders from various organizations can learn from this experience. First among them could not be more basic…

Listen to the people!

When over 70 candidates for the City Council precincts began talking with their constituents early in the campaign, most of them learned quickly that public sentiment was against the cost and against the route for this rail plan. However, community involvement was never considered to be a major part of the planning process by the City Council, Capital Metro, or Project Connect. Instead, they relied on the strong arm tactics of developers and other downtown special interests to tell them what was best for all of us. But coming on the heals of a massive tax increase to allow U.T. to build the only tax supported medical school in the history of the nation, voters have made their position abundantly clear – Enough is enough!

Now What’s Next for Project Connect?

That is a very good question. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight never did connect with the public. Hordes of people were not clamoring to take a train ride from East Riverside to Highland Mall. So, now what will happen to all of the staff bureaucrats who have been planning, reporting, compiling and otherwise pontificating on the future of light rail in Austin? Will they disband their operations and turn off the spending spigot? Or will they simply take a break and then get back down to business?

After all, we had the ROMA consultant report on rail almost a decade ago. I shudder to think how many tens of millions of dollars have already been poured down the rat hole for this failed route for a rail system. It was 9.5 miles to be a “first phase” of a citywide system. We would have exhausted our City bonding capacity to pay for it. And yet no one ever publicly talked about how much it would cost to build and maintain a citywide system. It would probably be safe to assume that the planning and building cost alone would be at least $10 billion and possibly much more. The Portland rail system that is so often highly touted got its start in the 1980’s when building costs were infinitely less expensive.

And We Have One More Taxpayer Victory to Celebrate!

img-thing

The ACC proposition to raise the cap on the tax rate went down to defeat last night! This is wonderful news. It is helpful to recognize that ACC has been raising taxes above the rollback rate on a regular basis. Now they should get the message that taxpayers have reached their limit. Remember that little thing called affordability? And besides, property appraisals will continue to increase until the inevitable bust at the end of the boom. So, ACC will have plenty of tax revenue coming in.

For the rest of the City Council members heading into a runoff on December 16th, please remember this. The people have let their voices ring loud and clear. Affordability is the number one issue. You will not be able to sit back and coast along on the time-worn mantras and cliches that have paved the path to victory in earlier elections. Let the debates begin, and may the best affordability candidate win in each of the remaining districts!

Advertisements

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!

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

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.

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

Who Do You Know That Supports The Highland Mall To Riverside Rail Plan?

By Bill Oakey – June 6, 2014

Quick question – How many friends, neighbors and acquaintances do you know that plan to vote for the Highland Mall to Riverside urban rail bonds in November?

What was that…say again…?

Try asking that question the next time you are at a restaurant, a backyard gathering, a party, or a civic function.  The first thing you might hear is that they haven’t really thought enough about it.  Or, you might hear that they need to wait and see what the City Council decides to put on the ballot.

What you probably will not hear is a resounding chorus of support for the proposed rail plan and the staggering stair steps of annual property tax increases that come along with it.  (The Austin American-Statesman reported that the tax bite could raise our property taxes by 15% over the next six years).

I’ve been to enough public events over the past year to know that the kind of broad support needed to pass the rail bonds is simply not there.  The core voters who turn out for every Austin election do not have the “yes word” on their lips when the subject comes up.

What’s even more telling is how seldom the subject comes up at all.

We all hear a lot about traffic and transportation, and how Austin needs to find a way to deal with it.  But in all my discussions with various City Council candidates for the districts and the mayor’s race, not a single one has voluntarily brought up the Highland Mall to Riverside rail plan or told me that they were clamoring for it to pass.

And I will go another step further.  I’ve had numerous appointments with current City Council members on affordability issues since last year.  Not a single one of them has urged me to support the urban rail plan.  This tells me that at least some of them probably dread the fact that they are up against an August deadline to make a decision on what to put on the November ballot.  I strongly suspect that several Council members toss and turn at night, wishing that the issue would simply go away.  With the possible exception of Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

So, Where Does That Leave Austin After The Rail Bonds Fail?

That will be the subject of my blog posting on Monday.  You might be very surprised at the positive outcome that I will predict.