Roads Still Popular Among Travis County Voters
The average Texas voter has never met a road he didn't like. So goes the mantra that drives successful road bond elections. That bit of Lone Star wisdom bore fruit in Travis County's Nov. 4 election for not one, but two big state highway proposals, SH130 and SH45, both of which won their biggest support from our neighbors on the rural suburban frontier. That's not to say that Austin's city slickers thumbed their noses at the road props. Indeed, the enormously popular SH130 (née MoKan) won in every Travis County region (though by only slim margins in Central and near South Austin), while SH45, less favorable because of its threat to the Edwards Aquifer, failed in the same liberal neighborhoods that voted against SH130. To be sure, the road projects were the sexiest items on a ballot spread of eight propositions that covered parks, road maintenance, jail and juvenile facility expansions, emergency services, and, alas, the proposed MoKan hike-and-bike-trail -- the lone loser of the bunch.
One proposition winner -- $13.7 million in bonds for the county jail expansion in Del Valle -- surprised even its supporters, since many Del Valle residents didn't fancy the idea of more prisoners in the neighborhood, but the measure still won easily in every county region. And with the exception of the trail proposal, the bond package triumphed countywide -- not bad for a campaign that hobbled along on a shoestring budget of less than $50,000.
Maybe you're wondering, though, how two big, multi-million-dollar road projects got the votes while a little nature trail took it on the chin. A quick summation: SH130 carried the promise of relief from I-35 congestion and boasted a cross-section of bipartisan support; SH45 appeared to hold the key to children's safety along Brodie Lane and surrounding neighborhoods, and the trail, well, the trail...
"It wasn't a perfectly formed idea," offers political consultant Peck Young, who served as advisor to the bond election campaign committee. Pre-election polling had SH130 doing splendidly while SH45 and the trail showed signs of trouble. So Young counseled the bond committee to pump up the jam on SH45 and forget about the horsey trail, as he calls it. "We weren't going to grovel for votes on the trail," he says. "We had the good sense to abandon it."
It is true, as the Statesman pointed out in its "no" endorsement of the $1.6 million deal, that the county and state had yet to negotiate a lease agreement on the old MoKan railroad right-of-way in Northeast Austin -- the site of the proposed trail. Evidently the Statesman's criticism over the lack of a long-term lease was all the convincing many bond voters -- traditionally an older, cautious lot -- needed to kill the proposal. That and some yelping from homeowners who fed bond committee members plenty of horror stories about what would happen to them and their property should a trail -- and perfect strangers -- come traipsing through their backyards. "When you start talking about public safety, people respond," bond committee co-chair Leslie Poole observes. "Public safety was the message conveyed and that was the message received."
Nevertheless, the trail scored reasonable successes in Central, near South, and West Austin neighborhoods, and in predominantly Hispanic precincts of East Austin, while it lost by a hair -- less than 2% -- in East Austin's largely African-American boxes. But the measure suffered heavily lopsided defeats among what Young refers to as "rural" voters, which means they live outside the city limits in any direction, Lakeway or Manor, for example; suburbia or the sticks. These rural voters (who in this election recorded their largest bond election turnout in about a decade) nixed the trail by 63%, while city folks in far north and far south turned thumbs down by more than 60%.
Still, there wasn't a whole lot of noise made in support of the poor trail, and the enviros were too busy trying to put out a bigger fire: SH45, the proposed southwestern Travis County highway designed to get truck traffic off of Brodie Lane and out of the Shady Hollow neighborhood. Passage of the $3.5 million bond deal helps pave the way for extending MoPac southward into Hays County. As opponents now know, preaching the hazards of road construction over the aquifer isn't half as effective as a suffer-the-little-children campaign that champions safety first.
But all is not lost where road opposition is concerned. That's how Mark Yznaga, a political consultant who opposed the road bonds, sees it. He is at least cheered by the number of votes against the road projects in areas outside the traditionally liberal voting blocs of the inner city. "Roads are going to be the pivotal fight in future elections," Yznaga says. "This is just scratching the surface. If people are informed, they're going to be willing to oppose these bad projects." The opposition campaign waged against the roads, particularly SH45, "was just a dry run" that will provide environmentalists a better understanding of where to focus their efforts in the future, Yznaga says. The work will likely point opposition organizers to neighborhoods northwest and southwest, where there were enough "no" votes to pique Yznaga's interest.
Strategist David Butts also lauded the meagerly funded campaign against SH45. "There were a substantial number of people who voted against 45," he said of the nearly 40% who voted "no" countywide. "People will vote when someone raises a red flag. What this tells us is that with well-organized opposition, road projects like this one are subject to being beaten."
Progressives, on the other hand, didn't go after SH130's $4 million bond proposition with half as much venom, and some enviros have either thrown their support behind the project, or at least bailed out of the opposition camp. But even the bond committee's own consultant freely points out SH130's drawbacks. "Most folks see SH130 as a means of eliminating the big trucks from I-35, and to the average Austinite that seems like a pretty big deal," Young says. "But once it's built there will probably only be an 8% drop in terms of total traffic load." That modest decrease, he adds, is because Austin is a destination, not a bypass. So if folks thought the 4.5-mile trail idea was half-baked, the $640 million SH130 proposal isn't even warm. The six-laner, which would run parallel to I-35 from Georgetown to Seguin and cater to the big diesel trucks, seems too good to turn down, but the reality is that funding is still a dicey issue and we could all be too old to drive by the time it's built. "My hunch," says Young, "is that, not me, but my children's children will be the ones to see that thing built."