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Austin: Anger flares as council stifles public criticism, OKs disputed rail plan

Austin, Texas — At this municipality's City Council meeting Thursday night (June 26), you could almost see the sparks flying from outraged community critics of a hotly contested plan for urban rail, reacting angrily as the council voted to limit debate and thus prevent dozens of opponents of the proposal from speaking.

"The community has patiently waited two years to be able to address [this issue], and you have just silenced vast numbers of people in central Austin" said Scott Morris, a leader of the Our Rail Political Action Committee (PAC), which favors urban rail in the more centrally located Guadalupe-Lamar corridor rather than the easterly line proposed by local officials. A consortium of several agencies, called Project Connect, is promoting a $1.4 billion route running from the city's Highland Mall area on the north to a terminus on East Riverside in the southeast. (See Austin urban rail plan nixed by pro-rail neighborhoods, advocates.)

With only up to ten speakers allowed to comment against the Highland-Riverside rail plan, most critics denounced the City Council for squelching democratic process. Mike Dahmus, another strong urban rail supporter who opposes the Project Connect proposal, tore his prepared remarks into pieces at the podium as he told the council, "this was the speech I was going to give."

Instead, Dahmus also berated the panel for limiting public input. "You've chosen ... to eliminate all meaningful opportunities for public input, as has Project Connect before you. We will make sure the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] is aware of this" said Dahmus.

Thursday's confrontation with the City Council came in the context of increasing community anger over what many activists call being disenfranchised from bona fide involvement with the rail planning process. Articles on the Austin Rail Now website have documented and discussed many of these issues.

In a December blog post, the website questioned whether Project Connect would "continue to gag the public", characterizing "Project Connect’s highly rigged process" and warning that "Project Connect continues to insulate itself from real community engagement, managing and muzzling community input in a caricature of authentic 'public participation'."

Noting that "Free, open, unconstrained community meetings are essential", the website asserted that

There needs to be a groundswell of community pushback against the gagging. Project Connect needs to open up the community input process to full and free discussion, and the Austin community needs ongoing opportunities to be heard.

"You need to listen!" admonished Scott Morris in his remarks Thursday to the City Council. Morris continued:

And the game we're playing tonight is jeopardizing the federal match [of funding for the urban rail project]. And it's jeopardizing the future of mass transit in this city.

As expected, the City Council proceeded to endorse Project Connect's Highland-Riverside rail plan unanimously as the city's Locally Preferred Alternative, a prerequisite to qualify for FTA funding.

(Disclosure: This reporter, a transportation planner, also serves as a technical consultant to one of the pro-transit groups opposing the official plan, and is a contributing editor to Austin Rail Now.)

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