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Austin's proposed rail plan "worse than nothing", say rail supporters

Austin, Texas — Opposition to the urban rail scheme proposed by Project Connect, a consortium of several government transportation agencies, has continued to gain momentum — spearheaded mainly by pro-rail transit groups and activists in the community. As previously reported by Examiner, the 9.5-mile rail proposal, projected to cost over a billion dollars, has been the focus of particular criticism as a weak route offering relatively low ridership.

With the headline Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”, a July 21 article on the strongly pro-rail Austin Rail Now website criticizes Project Connect's vigorous tax-funded advertising campaign as "saturation-bombing" to promote "its $1.4 billion urban rail plan, primarily aimed at bolstering development plans and centered on the interests of private developers and the East Campus expansion appetites of the University of Texas administration." (Disclosure: The article is co-authored by Dave Dobbs and this reporter, also a contributing editor to the site.)

The article describes the tax-funded effort as

a “Pinocchio-style” campaign (and plan) packed with exaggerations contrived to try to sucker voter support. Perhaps the worst problem is the “city-wide system” deception that Project Connect is pushing in its ad blitz — the make-believe that an urban rail line on East Riverside through the East Campus to Highland will lead to rail in other parts of the city.

In reality, claims the article, "just the opposite will happen. The staggering cost will soak up available local funding for years to come — and that in itself will impede future rail transit development." It concludes that "A plan that impedes good transit development and future system expansion is worse than nothing."

A day earlier, the July 20 Austin American-Statesman published an op-ed by Marcus Denton, a leader of the pro-rail group Austinites for United Rail Action (AURA), similarly warning that "the city’s proposal to spend $1 billion doubling down on highways and highway-oriented urban rail is worse than doing nothing." Noting that "many of the city’s staunchest public transportation proponents oppose the road-rail bond package as a threat to the city’s transportation future and a setback for walkable urbanism in Austin", Denton recommended that "Austin voters should join with grass-roots public transportation advocates in rejecting it in November and working toward real solutions."

These latest criticisms join those of a growing chorus of Austin activists and civic leaders raising doubts about Project Connect's proposal. In a May 7th Austin Business Journal column, staff writer and real estate market specialist Jan Buchholz provided a scathing assessment:

The latest rail plan rolled out … is a $1.4 billion project that will run from Highland Mall to East Riverside Drive. Already, folks are decrying its high cost, but I don’t think it’s the cost that’s the real issue. It’s the fact that it’s a very small plan benefiting a limited group of people. That makes this price tag hard to swallow.

Austin can expect the barrage of criticism of the plan, as well as exhortations of support, to intensify as a likely Nov. 4 vote — on a proposed $1 billion bond measure to fund the local match for road projects as well as the urban rail plan — comes closer.

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