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Austin: Anger over rail plan stoked by concern about bonds, taxes, ad blitz

Austin, Texas — Community opposition to local official plans for a 9.5-mile, billion-dollar urban rail line in Central Texas keeps growing, with pro-rail forces leading the opposition. (See Austin urban rail plan nixed by pro-rail neighborhoods, advocates.)

Roger Baker, a local transportation and urban issues researcher and activist, and longtime supporter of rail transit, has taken special aim at the City of Austin's intention to place a billion-dollar "2014 Strategic Mobility Plan" on the November 4 ballot. This measure would bundle bonds for a local share of the rail proposal with several highway expansion projects.

In a July 22 E-mail posting to leaders of various opposition groups, Baker cited data from a City of Austin financial analysis document (PowerPoint) that suggests such a bond measure, requiring significant property tax hikes, would seriously threaten the city's bonding capacity. Baker points to a graph on page 14 of the document indicating that, according to the analysis, the proposed $1 billion debt in general obligation (GO) bonds would leave "only $40 million" as "ALL the GO money that future councils would have to spend if the bonds pass." Thus, says Baker, "it might be that this budget-busting council is effectively crippling future councils for a decade to come."

Another issue raising community concern is the vigorous advertising campaign by Project Connect, a consortium of several government transportation agencies, which has concocted and sponsored the rail plan. The ad blitz, promoting the urban rail proposal with a barrage of tax-funded commercials on local television, has raised eyebrows ... and outrage.

"For months, Project Connect (with public tax-based funding largely funneled through Capital Metro) has been conducting an ad blitz with the clear de facto objective of soliciting voters’ support for the widely discussed urban rail bond funding measure expected to be placed on the ballot this coming November" admonished a July 14th article on the Austin Rail Now website titled Project Connect’s tax-funded urban-rail-campaign ad blitz raises red flags. (Disclosure: This reporter is a contributing editor to the site.)

"With this ad initiative, Project Connect, Capital Metro, and possibly other members of the Project Connect consortium seem to be skating very close to the edge of what may be legally permissible (and definitely over the edge of what could be construed as political abuse of public tax funding)" warns the article.

On July 11th, Austinites for United Rail Action (AURA), another pro-rail group, had raised similar questions about the ad campaign in a public statement addressed to the board of Capital Metro, Austin's transit authority. Inquiring about the funding, intention, and content of the campaign, AURA stated:

As taxpayers and transit advocates, we are concerned about the expenditure of public money for this campaign-related advertising. While the words “vote for the bond package” are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement.

In a July 16 response, Kyle Keahey, Project Lead for Project Connect, described the ad campaign as "educational and project awareness efforts" costing over $157,000 in tax-supported funds from the City of Austin, Capital Metro, and the Federal Transit Administration; the expense of City of Austin and Capital Metro staff time, also invested in the campaign, went unmentioned. Keahey asserted that these activities were legal:

Staff relies on legal counsel to continuously ensure produced educational materials are fully compliant with election laws. ... We remain committed to conducting an open, transparent and legally compliant process.

But many in the community remain angered by this attitude. Replying in a July 18 communication, AURA leaders Marcus Denton and Brad Absalom pointed out that Keahey had noted

that the ad buy will conclude on August 5th, two days before City Council is expected to place Project Connect’s road-rail bond measure on the November ballot, at which point the ads would presumably become subject to Texas law regulating the use of public funds for political advertising (Tex. Election Code § 255.003). This information appears to confirm our impression that this is a political advertising campaign, not an “educational and project awareness effort.”

While acknowledging Project Connect's claim that the ad campaign is “fully compliant with election laws”, Denton and Absalom indicated they were "much less confident that you understand that spending taxpayer dollars promoting a controversial urban rail proposal is unethical and erodes public trust."

"We appreciate that Project Connect is “committed to conducting an open, transparent, and
legally compliant process.” In the future, we hope you will commit to an ethical one as well.

Meanwhile, there appears to be no letup in Project Connect's taxpayer-supported campaign to build voter support for the urban rail plan, described on the Austin Rail Now site as "saturation-bombing".

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