The Facts So Far
You're giving permission (politically, if not literally) for Capital Metro to commence with building a 52-mile light rail system, which will, according to the transit authority, take at least until 2018.
What are we voting on?
In 1997, the Texas Legislature, in response to public controversies about Capital Metro's management and accountability (and the valiant efforts of anti-rail forces), dissolved the all-citizen Cap Met board. They also gave Capital Metro the authority -- which, given the context, meant they gave Cap Met an order -- to hold an up-or-down referendum on light rail in or before November 2000. Cap Met waited until the last minute so that as many details as possible about rail would be available to the voters.
Why are we voting on it?
Since its creation in 1985, Capital Metro has had the authority to levy up to one cent of sales tax to pay for whatever transit system it deems appropriate. Voting for light rail on Nov. 7 will not raise your taxes or subject you to long-term bond debt. (There is a chance that, in the future, Cap Met will ask you for permission to issue long-term revenue bonds, but that still wouldn't raise taxes.) The authority could have approved light rail without a referendum -- until the Lege intervened.
Why wouldn't we be voting on it anyway?
Capital Metro wants the federal government to pay for half of its system, and this means it needs to do a federally prescribed "preliminary engineering and environmental impact study (PE/EIS)," just like highway builders do. The authority had already started moving toward this stage before the 1997 coup d'état, but when the dust settled the new Cap Metro decided to make substantial changes to that project, which slowed everything down. The first draft of the PE/EIS probably will be ready in February.
Why don't we have all the details?
The 1997 plan would have started with the Red Line from East Austin to Leander along rail right-of-way that Cap Met already owns. The current plan starts with the "Red/Green Line" -- that same route from Howard Lane south to Lamar and Airport, but then an alignment south along the Lamar/Guadalupe corridor past UT, the Capitol, and into downtown. That's the route the PE/EIS is studying. That was also the route, more or less, of the original Cap Met rail plan from back in 1992, and because it goes past the heaviest traffic generators in Austin, it's the route the feds apparently wanted to see.
Right now, after the Red/Green Line, Cap Metro intends to build an East Austin connector from Seaholm, across downtown toward Plaza Saltillo, and then north along the Red Line to MLK. It also is committed in this "Phase 1B" to building a southern extension down South Congress (probably) to Ben White. After that, Cap Met wants to finish the Red Line to Leander, continue south to Slaughter Lane, and continue southeast out to Bergstrom, but in what order it doesn't know.
What about the other routes?
About $2 billion, though Cap Met tells anyone who will listen that these numbers are deliberately on the high side, and that "value engineering" during the construction phase will bring the costs down. The Red/Green Line itself costs about $970 million; it's hard to tell for sure until an exact alignment is determined. Half of that money is supposed to be from the feds, and the other half from your sales taxes. Cap Met also has $120 million in the bank.
How much will all this cost?
That's one of the things a PE/EIS determines. Right now, the only real wiggle room in the Red/Green route is past UT and into downtown, where there are still several realistic options (see map). The Red Line segments will, naturally, go where the right-of-way already runs, which is why the Crestview and Wooten neighborhoods in North Central Austin -- which are bisected by the Red Line -- are so hopping mad at Cap Met. The authority explored rerouting that section along U.S. 183 to Lamar, but isn't crazy about the idea.
And where will it go, exactly?
The $2 billion question. The acronym of the leading anti group, ROAD, stands for "Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars." The Lege has already feinted at forcing Cap Met to cut its tax rate in half -- a half-cent being what, opponents think, Cap Met needs to run a bus service -- so it can allocate the rest to highway construction. This is half a sure thing; if light rail fails, Cap Met will, voluntarily or not, lower its tax rate. But what happens to the rest of that money is up to the Legislature. (Cap Met is also already committing nearly $100 million to build high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the highways, but has been asked by the Chamber of Commerce to double that amount.)
What happens to that money if light rail fails?
Cap Metro says bus service will actually be expanded along with light rail, although the routes themselves may be "realigned" to hook up with the rail system. The authority is actually going through a separate planning process -- the "Five-Year Plan" -- to sketch out the bus system of the future. Worth noting: When Los Angeles did, indeed, cut the bus budget to support light rail, it got slapped with a civil-rights lawsuit (given that bus riders were far more likely to be persons of color than were light rail riders) that it had to settle at great expense.
So what about bus service?
Right now, the heavy hitters are all piling up on the pro-rail side. The Chamber, with its nose held, endorsed rail, as did the Real Estate Council of Austin. The city of Austin has done everything but lead voters to the polls in support of rail. As well, there are several groups out there taking money to campaign for a yes-on-rail vote. The one you've seen most is Get Around Austin, the high tech confab led by Vignette tycoon Ross Garber, responsible for "I'll take the A-Train!" First out of the chute was what is now called Get Austin Moving, founded by Cap Met board chair Lee Walker and former Mayor Pro Tem Gus Garcia. And the grassroots are being held down by Austin Choices for Transportation, chaired by City Council alumni Brigid Shea and Bill Spelman.
Who is supporting rail?
ROAD is chaired by former Tracor CEO Jim Skaggs but is really the brainchild of Gerald Daugherty, owner of the Pleasant Valley Sportsplex, whose avocation for years has been saving Austin from the excesses of Capital Metro. The group is a fairly loose coalition of mostly Republicans coming from anti-tax turf. The other organized entry is the Austin High-Performance Transportation Association, chaired by former mayor Lee Cooke and former Cap Met board chair Steve Bayer, who want to see the authority devote its money to buses, vanpools, and other low tech improvements rather than rail. And most importantly, many, many Austin neighborhood leaders (including many in the Austin Neighborhoods Council itself) are hacked at Cap Met and leaning against rail, including merchants along South Congress who've been represented by former council member turned hired gun, Max Nofziger.
And who is opposing it?