Point Austin: Dis Connect
The early omens ain't great for Austin mass transit
The campaign to stop Austin's next urban rail plan is under way.
The "Project Connect" rail proposal is currently making its official rounds and its public outreach tour (more details in "Project Connect Accelerates"), although final decisions about the size and cost of the project are yet to be made. The appointed Central Corridor Advisory Group will make a recommendation Friday that goes to the City Council and the Capital Metro board, at a joint meeting that will take place Tuesday, June 17, and both bodies will respond with decisions by late June. A Council decision on a potential bond ballot – expected to include road projects as well as rail – is scheduled for August 7. Presuming that's approved, a public campaign to support the bond, and the urban rail plan, will formally commence.
By that time, it might well be too late. As we reported online earlier this week ("Bedfellows Getting Strange," Newsdesk, June 9), the draft Project Connect proposal is already under fire from both the right and the left, in an unofficial alliance likely to proceed on separate but parallel tracks for the next few months. The venerable local road warriors, represented currently by the Coalition on Sustainable Transportation, consider any and all transit rail projects a waste of money, a political ploy (designed to draw down federal matching funds), and an unnecessary diversion of dollars better spent on buses or highways (although where those highways are to be squeezed into gridlocked Central Austin is an engineering mystery). COST informed policymakers this week that an urban rail project is "contrary to the greater good of the community."
Meanwhile from the left, a small but fervent group of hardcore transit advocates has steadily opposed the specific proposal emerging from the Project Connect planners – the so-called "Highland Corridor" plan (along the east side of the UT campus toward the Highland/ACC mall), insisting instead that the only viable initial route is along Guadalupe/Lamar. Most recently, a letter from the Central Austin Community Development Corporation (a fledgling community organizing group), co-signed by reps of several neighborhood associations and UT student government, all of which have voted resolutions opposing the Project Connect routing, informed planners that while they "strongly support light rail, Project Connect's East Riverside to Highland Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) would result in a broken system, an ineffective transportation investment for our city and region, and a politically non-viable ballot measure."
This inadvertent tag team – however many potential November voters they may actually represent – is far from the only obstacle in the way of a November rail (or rail-and-highway) bond. Rising property tax bills have made local residents particularly restive this year, and this week both the Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court considered ways to address the increasing public backlash over inequitable assessments of commercial and residential property. On Tuesday, the Court declined to do more than study the matter, and, as I write Wednesday, it's unknown whether Council will choose to challenge the Appraisal District's evaluations and/or take other measures intended – in the long run, meaning not before November – to have some effect on rising tax rates.
For what it's worth, local officials are correct to point to the Texas Legislature for maintaining a state financing system that relies far too heavily on local property taxes – but that knowledge and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee under the Capitol come January.
As if all this weren't enough, four of the current Council members are running for office – against each other – in what will be a historic but still untested single-district election, and few incumbents will be eager to go down with the ship, if that ship is a $1 billion bond ballot that may or may not evoke federal matching funds, sometime in the future.
Rail and Fail?
I'm no Nate Silver, but all that sounds like a perfect storm facing Austin's next urban rail plan at the ballot box. Add to it the long planning delays and intermittent bungling of the rail team (most recently, canvassing Hyde Park with an outdated map), and it does not seem to be a recipe for victory. Roughly 30% of the electorate reacts reflexively against any new spending, and there remains an allied flock of voters opposed to all non-automobile transit spending. Then add the smaller but avid core of self-described pro-transit folks who will oppose this plan – and continuing to insist on Guadalupe/Lamar at this prohibitively late date in the planning cycle is indistinguishable from opposing this plan – and a de facto majority is in the works.
That doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room (or time) for the yet-to-be-organized pro-rail team to find its voters and get them to the polls. Maybe there's a groundswell lurking in the political underbrush, but if nothing changes dramatically in the next couple of months, supporters will have a high and rocky hill to climb.
On the other hand, some of those "pro-transit" opponents insist it's simply a question of cheerfully defeating this plan, and then returning to the voters in a year or two for a railway to heaven along Guadalupe and Lamar. Considering the history of mass transit in Austin – some of that history documented in their own earnest research and polemics – it hardly seems reasonable to presume that if we've spectacularly bungled it again this time, surely we'll get it right the next time, and soonest. That's one familiar definition of insanity.