Austin at Large: Lord, Gotta Keep On Moving
New and welcome spirits animate the fight for transit
On Monday morning, a whole bunch of people from a variety of Austin's civic power centers gathered at the Central Library to lift up in praise the mammoth transit bond package local voters will almost surely see on their November 2020 ballots. Organized as Transit for Austin, the coalition used different words, because that package still requires some assembly; big questions remain as to what kind of transit, and what routes, will emerge from the current Project Connect (v. 3.0) process to be costed out and pitched to the community. But what I think will most likely happen is a $1 billion-plus initiative with some amount of light rail and more stretches of bus rapid transit along the familiar core transit corridors Austin has been preparing for a generation now.
This same news conference has happened before; we in the consulting trade (where I was 2005-17) even had a nickname for it: the "we-are-the-world." This mighty cloud of witnesses from Austin's grasstops also brought you a medical school, a plan to end homelessness, and other milestones in Austin's emergence as a big city, under the auspices of elders like Deacon Sen. Kirk Watson. It didn't, however, bring you a transit system in 2014 – not a good electoral year for progressives in general, and one which saw the Project Connect 2.0 rail plan go down by 10 points under fierce lashings from both its left and its right. (Of the 80 or so people who ran for City Council in 2014, the first 10-1 election cycle, maybe 10 at most supported the rail plan.)
On Tuesday morning, there was another media release, this time by the Austin Coalition for Transit, which is different from Transit for Austin. These include the old heads, the prophets in the desert, the people who've been fighting for rail transit – just rail, only rail – since Capital Metro was created in 1985. They've dashed their feet upon stones not once but twice, in 2014 and with the 0.8-point loss of the 2000 plan that would have put urban rail transit on the ground in Austin a decade ago. Imagine how different Austin would be.
Moving On Up a Little Higher
The ACT folks are great people whom everyone appreciates, but they've heard "Yes, but ..." for a generation from political and community leaders who think a transit package can only win if it either involves little to no risk or has "something for everyone," which means road investments in the suburban fringe, even if these be merely symbolic or clearly superfluous. The 2014 package included a lot of road spending to buoy up this prosperity gospel, but lo, it did not open the hard hearts of reddish edge-city voters. Modern Austin's one successful transit election, in 2004, was to create the Capital MetroRail Red Line, which – since it was just repurposing an existing freight line – seemed to carry little to no risk, and even that didn't work out so well at first.
So here we are for our third walk up to God's heaven – a genuine high-capacity system, preferably rail, that connects Austin's jobs and opportunities, still clustered in the center of town, with the people who need them – with a third group, which held its rollout Tuesday evening at the Carver Museum. People United for Mobility Action – PUMA – has a nifty logo that is both roaring mountain lion and rolling transit line, and its own spin on we-are-the-world. It's "dedicated to transforming Austin so that every person has access to safe, affordable, and convenient choices to get around and meet their daily needs." Its ministry will include "community organizing, building local capacity, and supporting existing and future mobility efforts."
If you were around in 2014, you may be thinking PUMA sounds like AURA – then Austinites for Urban Rail Action, advocating for a plan different and better than Project Connect 2.0, now de-acronymized and decoupled from transit to fight the larger urbanist fight. Indeed, there is some overlap. But there is also notable inclusion within PUMA of folks who were not welcomed, and indeed were abused, by AURA before.
But more importantly, PUMA includes folks who have too often been strangers to this town's 30-year transit dialogue – leaders and advocates for social and environmental justice, for equity above all things, for those on the margins who (in PUMA's words) "are most dependent on the outcomes of transportation planning," especially now in the hot shadow of the looming climate crisis. PUMA is about both faith and works; it's not limiting itself to engagement around a November 2020 big-ticket transit plan, but foresees a broad coalition that can "work directly with communities to identify and implement practical projects that will improve access to transportation."
It is not a secret that Austin has not lifted every voice during the political calculations to make transit or any other big-ticket initiative happen, because "they" don't vote. But all around us, the story of Austin 2020 and Texas 2020 is one in which respecting justice and demanding equity are the values buoying a progressive agenda to political success. It can, will, and must be so in our schools, in our houses (especially the ones we still need to build), and now, in the streets. Let the people say amen.