Point Austin: Running in Place

On November rail vote, Leffingwell says ... not just yet

Mayor Lee Leffingwell in 2010
Mayor Lee Leffingwell in 2010 (Photo by John Anderson)

Well, we've kicked the can down the (rail)road again.

That's the most immediate reaction to Mayor Lee Leffingwell's announcement, posted on his blog last Friday, that he will not be supporting an urban rail bond proposal for the November election. "Taking ... two considerations together – the remaining level of uncertainty regarding the rail proposal, and the potential cumulative financial strain on Austin taxpayers," Leffingwell summarized, "it's my strong feeling that 2012 is not the right time to bring urban rail to the ballot." He added that while he remains committed to planning a system and building public consensus in its support, competing needs for the fall ballot – several of those not specifically determined yet – have convinced him that it doesn't make sense to add the proposed $275 million for the first phase of urban rail. Even assuming some of the outstanding questions might be better answered in the coming months, wrote Leffingwell, "perhaps even sufficiently to give Austin rail voters the level of assurance they would want and deserve this November – I'm uneasy about the magnitude of the unresolved issues and the shortness of the timeframe."

In the same post, Leffingwell said he wants to hold the current line on property taxes: "I intend to be a strong advocate for limiting the 2012 City of Austin bond package to a total figure that will not require a tax increase, currently estimated to be about $400 million" (emphases original).

Initial reaction to the mayor's announcement from rail proponents was muted, even supportive. Jeb Boyt of the Alliance for Public Transporta­tion said via email, "A no tax increase election that includes funding for urban rail planning is the best position for the City of Austin to take." Pamela Power, board chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance, issued a statement saying in part, "While we are disappointed urban rail will not be part of the November 2012 bond election ... we strongly support Mayor Leffingwell's plan to move urban rail ahead, as a rail system is a critical, essential piece to addressing our transportation issues." Capital Metro President Linda Watson concurred with the mayor's inclination "to allow more time to thoroughly plan and build consensus for an urban rail system that will meet the needs of Austin." (Council members haven't publicly weighed in yet, but the silence is telling.)

The Same Old Song

Friday afternoon, the mayor acknowledged to me that it's "kind of embarrassing" that what he's saying in 2012 sounds so much like what he was saying in 2010, when he made a similar website announcement ("Mayor Kills Nov. Rail Vote," March 10, 2010). He said that with bond proposals and budget decisions pending, he needed to lay out his thinking for the benefit of the public and other council members, and that his decision should give officials "breathing room" in trying to assess current city needs, without tacking on the prospect of an additional $275 million for rail. He added that transit planning would proceed, with the likely addition of about $10 million in bond money – and that even with this voting delay, the operational goal of 2019 to 2021 should not be affected: "For about the next three years, it's just going to be continued planning – alternatives analysis, environmental studies – before you go to the federal government and ask for that tentative first go-ahead."

Leffingwell wouldn't suggest a new date for a rail vote ("it's come back to haunt me"), but others may not be so shy. The APT's Boyt noted the growing involvement of regional officials (especially on the Leffingwell-chaired Transit Working Group), and wrote, "If we keep moving forward with our planning efforts and discussions, we'll be ready for a vote next year."

A Lengthy Timetable

We've long since gotten used to delays on action for mass transit – "waiting for the train" is hardly a metaphor – but Leffingwell insists "it feels different this time," and that creating rail systems has taken at least 20 years, from concept to execution, elsewhere in Texas and across the country: "Looks like it's going to be the same for us." That depends, of course, on when you start counting – Leffingwell pointed to Cap Metro's failed 2000 light rail proposal, but it's arguable that that vote was the low point of a campaign that began 20 years earlier.

In the meantime, more people have certainly come to realize that "more roads" is an insufficient answer, especially in congested areas (e.g., UT Austin, the Capitol, and Downtown) where additional motor vehicle capacity simply isn't possible. We need more options, and the specific choice (rail vs. say, bus rapid transit) will depend on the routes and the cost. Asked if he was concerned that a potential November change at the White House might imperil indispensable federal funding, Leffingwell said, "That's a bridge we'll have to cross when we get to it." Despite one more apparent delay, the mayor concluded, "I think rail's going to be an essential component of our future, and I think more and more people are beginning to believe that."

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urban rail, Lee Leffingwell, election, City Council, transportation

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