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Tax and Spend ... and Pave

Travis County voters say yes to more roads.

By Amy Smith, Fri., Nov. 9, 2001

Bond opponents gather at Aussie's restaurant.
Bond opponents gather at Aussie's restaurant.
Photo By John Anderson

Despite a last-minute rush of mailers and phone calls by opponents urging voters to reject a $185 million road bond package, the effort was no match for a well-financed campaign that paid off at the polls. In a turnout that exceeded expectations, Travis County voters -- 14% of them -- passed all four bond propositions by respectable margins.

The biggest surprise was the easy passage of the $28.6 million park projects proposition, initially feared to be the most vulnerable because of opposition from both conservative right and progressive left camps. The Travis Co. Republican Party had deemed the parks bond "a hidden tax increase," while other opposition groups, such as the Save Our Springs Alliance, rejected it as part of their overall objection to a bond package dominated by suburban road projects. Nevertheless, voters stood by tradition and gave the parks proposition a 56.5% victory, while the road bonds got between 57.7% and 64.6% of the vote.

As in past county elections, the tabulation process limped along during the Palmer Auditorium evening. At midnight even some die-hard election junkies packed it in, leaving the tabulation crew to labor for another hour or so.

"No" votes on the road propositions came largely from the Central City, roughly Oltorf to 51st. Results showed these voters more opposed to Prop. 3's SH 45 project, and "somewhat" against Prop. 1's road and bridge projects. "Those areas were not as supportive of roads, but were supportive of parks," said political strategist David Butts, who drew his conclusions Wednesday morning without the assistance of a precinct-by-precinct breakdown. "Austin voters have consistently shown that they can pick and choose between propositions, and there seems to be a growing awareness that city taxpayers are being asked to pay a great deal for roads that they may almost never use. What that portends for the future will depend on what type of propositions are on the ballot."

Mindful of Central City voting trends, the Yes! Travis County Bonds Committee employed a "special messaging" strategy, mailing out pro-bond postcards bearing the signatures of mayor-elect Gus Garcia, Council Member Will Wynn, and environmentalist Robin Rather -- all three recognized as relatively progressive.

"We put our resources in communicating to likely voters," said Yes! Committee spokesman Howard Falkenberg. "We did know last week as we telephoned voters -- voters who previously said they were undecided -- that they were breaking in favor of the bonds. Then at some point last night [Tuesday] Gus Garcia's people [Butts and Mark Yznaga] were telling us that we had it in the bag. But I was still biting my nails because I knew anything could happen." What may have clinched it, said Falkenberg, was a late surge of voting. "The turnout alone put us beyond our expectations."

Karen Sonleitner and Todd Baxter were the only county commissioners to put in lengthy appearances at Palmer Auditorium -- Election Central. Early in the evening, Sonleitner was optimistic the bonds would pass. And that, she said, would demonstrate county voters' willingness to work toward regional cooperation. "And with interest rates as low as they are now," she said cheerily, "it's a good time for people to invest in their communities with these types of projects."

Opposition strategist Mike Blizzard wasn't terribly surprised by the road bonds' success. "People are stuck in traffic, and they're looking for solutions," he said. "A lot of people do not believe that these bonds and these strategies are really going to fix the problem, but there aren't a lot of alternatives being offered. We had the pro-bond people outspending us 10 to 1 and telling people that [roads] are the solution. That's not a logical solution, but when you're stuck in traffic on a two-lane road and there's a proposal to turn it into a four-lane road, I can understand that [our] argument is counterintuitive."

Environmentalists did score one pre-election coup, in their successful opposition to the proposed Frate Barker Road project, which had very nearly ended up on the ballot until environmentalist opposition appeared to threaten the entire bond package. In retrospect, had that measure also gone to the voters, the vote for more pavement might not have been an outright victory.


Travis County Election Results

Prop. 1 ($57.43 million in road bonds)

For 42,799 58.7%

Against 30,166 41.3%

Prop. 2 ($28.6 million in park bonds)

For 41,157 56.5%

Against 31,687 43.5%

Prop. 3 ($32.73 million for FM 1826 & SH 45)

For 42,058 57.7%

Against 30,851 42.3%

Prop. 4 ($66.2 million for SH 130)

For 47,074 64.6%

Against 25,785 35.4%

Abolition of County Surveyor's office

For 49,284 73.60%

Against 17,676 26.40%

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