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Leffingwell Announces ‘Rail – or Fail’

In final ‘State of the City’ address, mayor strongly pushes urban rail
Michael King, 4:00pm, Tue. Feb. 25
Photo by John Anderson
Mayor Lee Leffingwell
With a trace of lighthearted nostalgia, Mayor Lee Leffingwell delivered his final State of the City address today, calling this “the golden era of our city’s long history,” and touching on economic development, city incentives, the planned U.T. medical school – and the traffic “crisis … a deadly serious threat to almost all of the things we have achieved.”

Leffingwell engaged the Four Seasons crowd hosted by the Real Estate Council of Austin with his characteristic self-deprecating humor, joking that following his sixth year as mayor, he would “sooner slash [his] wrists” than run for a 10-1 City Council seat, and announcing that after stepping down at the end of the year, he would be recording an album of duets with Willie Nelson, including such Council-meeting inspired tunes as “I’m Sorry, Your Three Minutes Are Up” and “That Passes on a Vote of 5-2.” At another point, he kidded his own plainspoken style, cuing the packed house explicitly, “Yes, this is what I look like when I’m being positive and upbeat.”

But in addition to bragging on Austin’s economy, natural beauty, climate, and good demographic luck – the inevitable tones struck in any State of the City speech – he had a few strong remarks on a couple of hot city topics. He strongly defended the city’s economic incentives policy, noting that it has helped recruit to Austin such high-profile companies as Apple and Facebook, and that during his term in office, Council has approved a total of 11 incentive deals: “That averages out to about two per year.” He noted that those deals will mean “over 8,000 good new jobs, and more than $550 million in new investment in our community.”

Leffingwell called incentives “an effective tool … to attract economic opportunity,” and he warned that recent reform efforts “burden those incentives with other requirements that are so stringent as to render the benefits moot.” Calling that a “speech for another day,” he didn’t elaborate, but in brief remarks following the formal speech, he said he was referring to “gateway requirements” on wage scales and the like that will discourage companies – especially manufacturers – from even applying for the incentives program, “So that we won’t even get a chance to negotiate on those issues, which I support. We won’t even know that a company has passed us by.”

But the heaviest burden of the speech was on transportation, and the mayor warned that if the city does not get more serious about building mass transit, “Our traffic crisis also undermines our efforts to keep Austin affordable." Saying, “We can’t just build off of our strengths, we also have to attack our weaknesses,” Leffingwell spoke at length about mass transit – particularly rail – and said that while we have done well to build and repair roadways over the last decade, in the end “building more roads to solve your traffic problem is like buying a longer belt to solve your weight problem.”

Calling strongly for a “change in approach,” he said, “That means one thing: We must – we must – prioritize and invest now in a real multi-modal mass transit system for this region, if we want Austin to continue to prosper.” And while he joked that at one time he might have believed that the Zilker Park Zephyr might be a sufficient rail system for Austin, by the time of the unsuccessful 2000 light rail vote, “It was apparent to me that Austin needed a real urban rail system.” Fourteen years later, he pointed to the November 2014 election, expected to include an urban rail proposal, and said, “It’s crystal clear to me that the price of failing at the ballot box this time would be enormous.”

He said neither roads nor rail alone will solve our traffic crisis, “but it’s clear we’ll never succeed without both.”

“Let me make it even simpler,” Leffingwell concluded. “Rail – or fail.”

The mayor reiterated that call for a favorable rail vote as he ended his talk – touching in passing on social services for veterans and the elderly, the coming of high-speed internet, and prospects of the new 10-1 districted Council. He ended on an exhortation to “leave Austin a better place than we found it,” and then closed: “It has been, and it remains, the great privilege of my life to serve as the mayor of my hometown – and so I say thank you, God bless you, and God bless Austin, Texas.”

Taking a couple of followup questions from the crowd, Leffingwell was asked did he have any thoughts on the coming of the 10-1 Council district system. "Why do you think I'm leaving?" he joked, but then said it is a necessary change that will be more representative of the entire community. (During his speech, he had noted of 10-1, "Let us not forget that Austinites are and always have been a connected community.")

Finally, Mayor Leffingwell was asked if he had any advice for the next mayor, whoever that might be. He responded simply: "Try to keep an open mind, keep a cool head, keep the lines of communication open – and never let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

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