The Austin Chronicle

November Calling: PACs Form on Rail Vote

By Mac McCann and Michael King, April 8, 2014, 9:00am, Newsdesk

As November’s expected vote on a transportation bond nears, Austinites are beginning to form groups and taking positions on mass transit. Two groups have formed in expectation of support for the fall bond; a third, unhappy with the initial Project Connect plans, expects to oppose the bond.

The latest entry into the local mass transit discussion is “Austin Gets Around,” which describes itself on its Facebook and web pages as a “grassroots movement that informs and inspires the energy to improve transportation options in Central Texas.”

AGA (not yet a formal political action committee) has scheduled a launch party for Wednesday, April 16 at Mettle (507 Calles St.). While the group’s early statements promote general improvement of “all transportation options,” its logo and vision statement are rail-centric: “Transportation is inextricably tied to many other concerns in our city: affordability, economic development, efficient use of financial and natural resources - by failing to improve how we get around Austin we are failing to address a myriad of issues. The most immediate way Austin Gets Around wants to help is to build excitement for Urban Rail.”

Meanwhile, Greg Hartman, a chief administrator at Seton Healthcare, recently formed the “Let’s Go Austin” PAC to support the “transportation bond for City of Austin.” Hartman is a longtime go-to organizer on bond issues, having experience with AISD bonds, the medical school vote, and many other community efforts. Let’s Go Austin is in the early formation stage, but Hartman told Newsdesk, “We’re going to be looking at raising money and then hopefully be able to educate city officials, community leaders, and then voters if this moves forward and becomes a sort of thing that we hope the community can support as a new transportation solution.”

“Right now, we’re just waiting to let the process happen,” Hartman said. “But we’re not trying to use the PAC to influence that process right now. Assuming something gets on the ballot for November, the PAC will be used to help raise funds to help build a campaign around transportation investment on the November ballot.”

“The real work,” Hartman said, “begins once we see what is actually proposed, and what it looks we’re going to be building, and what’s going to be offered for the voters,” a process expected to be completed over the summer.

Finally, the Scott Morris-led “Our Rail” PAC was recently formed as well, and is an unofficial extension of the ongoing argument over the preliminary Central Corridor Advisory Group route recommendation to build a “Highland sub-corridor” rail line (running along the western side of the UT-Austin campus to the Highland neighborhood). According to its treasurer filing, “Our Rail” was specifically formed “to support a city charter amendment to designate the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor to receive top priority for a light rail transit alignment” and “to oppose the 'Project Connect' Mass Transit Referendum,” or “A ballot measure authorizing a mass transit alignment serving the City Manager-recommended sub-corridors approved by Austin City Council on 12/12/13" (i.e., the Highland sub-corridor).

Morris confirmed that the PAC aims “to oppose any Highland rail route.” More generally, Morris wrote, “Our Rail committee members and our donors think that the voters of Austin deserve a choice of where the initial light rail should go, not an up-or-down decision on the outgoing council's alignment preference.” (See also, “Project Connect: Phases and Stages,” April 4.)

According to Morris, petitioning a charter amendment onto the November ballot is only a possible option; if the group does go forward, its proposed amendment would likely mandate an East Riverside-to-Lamar line, connected by a bridge over Lady Bird Lake. By having “a true choice on the ballot,” said Morris, “Austinites could move forward with an affirmative decision on light rail, while at the same time rejecting a poorly formed plan.”

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