Austin Streetcar Proposal: A Play in Two Acts?

Plans unveiled for rail transit

Here's the latest political drama for the Austin streetcar project: In how many acts should a city of Austin/Capital Metro proposal be submitted to the Transit Working Group of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization? All at once? Or in two phases: First a proposal that addresses substantive questions of project benefits, ridership, and costs, then – if it's deemed worthy – a proposal for how to finance it?

Austin City Council members represent the city – and its interests – on the regional boards of both CAMPO and Capital Metro. This overlapping representation makes for some interesting plot twists, not to mention confusion on who's wearing which hat in any one scene. From an Austin perspective, here's the cast of characters:

CAMPO Transit Working Group: Will Wynn (chair), Brewster McCracken, Mike Martinez;

CAMPO board: Wynn, McCracken, Lee Leffingwell, Sheryl Cole;

Capital Metro board: McCracken, Martinez;

City Council Audit & Finance Committee: McCracken, Martinez, Leffingwell, Cole.

Martinez recently auditioned to move over to the open CAMPO appointee position on the Cap Metro board; he has since withdrawn that application and will remain a city of Austin rep, but he is considered a strong candidate to replace Lee Walker as chairman. City staff is preparing the council Audit & Finance Committee, who will be running lines on a streetcar system cost and financing options, expected to include regional partners.

Directing the show is CAMPO Chair Kirk Watson, who wields unusual political powers in his multiple roles as state senator, former Austin mayor, et al. Watson has made it his mission to reframe all regional transportation decisions so that proposed projects are publicly evaluated on their merits, not championed or killed on the basis of positional politics. To date, his political will has trumped all other agendas – including Wynn's call a year ago for a November 2008 rail referendum. As one council member put it – understandably anonymously – "Nobody wants to piss off the senator."

Earlier this year, conflicting visions and agendas killed the opportunity to get a required rail referendum to the voters this November. The next potential opportunity is May 2009. McCracken said recently that he would ask City Manager Marc Ott for an official legal opinion as to whether and how a voter referendum could be prepared so as not to violate the state edict that Capital Metro can hold such elections only in November of even-numbered years. If a May election is viable, the streetcar proposal would need to be blessed by CAMPO and equipped with a sound financing plan by early next year to make it presentable to voters.

Thus the delicate political process Austin now faces: Moving a streetcar project proposal (prepared by the city and Capital Metro) through the CAMPO Transportation Investment Decision Tree vetting process. The decision tree is a step-by-step list of project evaluation and cost/benefit criteria, organized in 11 sequential boxes; projects are meant to pass the test of each box in order.

Submitting a proposal to the TWG is politically virgin territory under an exciting but uncertain new regional-consensus paradigm; political missteps in April already have created some bruised sensibilities. No project has yet been tested publicly by the TWG decision tree, although teams preparing both the city of Austin proposal and an Elgin-Manor commuter rail line proposal have privately tested them against the decision tree.

We asked four key Austin players for insight into how they see the process proceeding.

Will Wynn: "It wouldn't surprise me if the Transit Working Group is prepared to accept proposals that include everything but 'How would we pay for it?'" the mayor remarked from the dais at the July 24 council session. Then, only "after agreement that it's the right product, at the right time, at the right price" – e.g., a blessing by the TWG on a Stage I proposal – a financing plan would be pursued.

Wynn clarified later by e-mail: "By the time staff presents the preliminary proposal back to council publicly – hopefully during one of our next two meetings – I trust we will be prepared to do just that; that is, direct the manager to work up the partial, or Phase 1, submittal to the TWG. While that's occurring, we could have Audit & Finance [the council committee] begin their analysis of financing options and partners."

Brewster McCracken: "I agree with the mayor. We need to pursue methodically, openly, and aggressively a sound financing plan to build and operate this system. This process will include working with Capital Metro and the TWG and potentially the Austin-San Antonio Commuter Rail District. We of course will not take anything to the voters until we have a fully developed financing plan."

Mike Martinez: "Our issue is finance. Before the citizens vote for anything, the question we must answer is how we pay for it and who pays for it. I don't want to rush it, and I don't want to talk about a May 2009 goal [in the sense of] announcing it will be on the ballot. The mentality of having to hit a date – I think that creates distrust with the citizenry."

Martinez said this week: "I believe we have a great foundation to begin vetting the latest proposal. The decision tree of the TWG is a great start to a communitywide conversation. If we are able to gain community support and buy-in, then I believe an election at some point in the future would occur."

Kirk Watson: "The purpose of the Transit Working Group and the decision tree is to create a mechanism and thought process that would get you to a good outcome. It is not meant to say, 'Only when you get a complete all-or-nothing proposal can you talk about it.'

"I can see very easily somebody bringing a proposal to the TWG where only the questions in the first several boxes are answered. ... I've always seen it as a way to train ourselves to make reasonable, rational, thoughtful, step-by-step decisions.

"That's the way policy ought to be made! We have become so accustomed, unfortunately, to 'all or nothing' decision-making. People just take a position, even when we don't have all of the questions answered. ... That's the whole point of having the decision tree – to help guide that process and to make it public at each step."

The CAMPO Transportation Investment Decision Tree is among the materials posted under the May 5 Transit Working Group meeting agenda at

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streetcar, rail transit, ROMA, Transit Oriented Development

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