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Austin urban rail plan encounters intensifying community pushback

Project Connect urban rail proposal
Project Connect urban rail proposalProject Connect

Austin, Texas — A controversial $1.4 billion proposal for a 9.5-mile light rail transit line seems to be prompting more heated community opposition and pushback.

Developed by Project Connect — a consortium of several public agencies, including the City of Austin, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro), and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) — the rail plan is now headed to a Nov. 4th vote after being placed on the ballot by the Austin City Council. The ballot measure, designated Proposition 1, seeks $600 in general obligation (GO) bond funding, but specifies that the eventual issuance of these bonds is contingent upon the City providing funding for $400 million in road projects.

That road funding language has generated further controversy, since City officials are openly considering incurring additional debt in the form of certificates of obligation, which don't require a popular vote. The resulting $1 billion of debt ($600 million urban rail GO bonds plus $400 million of certificates of obligation for road projects) is expected to require substantial property tax increases, thus angering many Austin property owners. The increase for most average homeowners is estimated in the range of $150-$200 per year.

Much of that community anger was felt in a heated Town Forum on the evening of Aug. 26, focused on the urban rail and roads ballot measure. While supporters of Prop. 1 faced off against opponents on a seven-member panel, it was the supporters who took a fusillade of angry questions from the overflow crowd of nearly 200 that filled the debate hall in North Austin.

Indeed, the position of the three pro-Prop. 1 speakers was so precarious and helpless that the moderator, a local TV news reporter, felt obliged to express his sympathy that they had to "face the firing squad."

The following evening, Aug. 28, saw further setbacks for the Prop. 1 campaign in the results of two important meetings by influential community forces. Local Democratic Party politicians and bureaucrats have been the major leadership advancing the urban rail plan and Prop. 1, so an effort to get an endorsement from their own local party organization — the Travis County Democratic Party — was crucial. Thus several top Prop. 1 campaign insiders, including Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, mobilized in an effort to obtain an endorsement of the ballot measure by a key meeting that evening of county Democratic precinct chairpersons.

But that was not to be. Because of widespread grassroots resistance to the measure, and the counter-mobilization of these anti-Prop. 1 precinct chairs, the endorsement effort crashed into a virtual brick wall, as a compromise was reached between pro-Prop. 1 David Butts (a local Democratic political guru) and anti-Prop. 1 Lou McCreary (a local Austin attorney), to "table" any endorsement vote, apparently permanently.

Thus, even though Prop. 1 is a major issue fostered and backed by the city's Democratic Party elite and top leadership, the anti-Prop. 1 side managed to prevent the Travis County Democratic Party from endorsing it. This is seen as a major victory for the opposition.

Bill Oakey, a prominent community activist campaigning against Prop. 1 because of his concerns about affordability impacts, provided his own speculation about this turn of events:

David Butts is a pretty savvy guy. If he had the votes, he would have pushed for a motion to endorse. Odds are that the cease-fire was an admission that he did not have the votes.

Also occurring that same evening, Aug. 27, a major meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), representing over 80 Austin neighborhoods and community organizations, by 24 to 16 approved a resolution calling for alternative transportation plans for the city. ANC members passed out a leaflet demanding "No Bonds for Boondoggles".

"There is considerable concern and division in the neighborhoods about TxDOT's plans and also Project Connect", said Bo McCarver, an ANC member who was present at the meeting. These concerns were definitely reflected in the sharply critical tone of the resolution, which criticized "major stakeholders and benefactors of Project Connect, downtown developers, the hospital district, the University of Texas at Austin, and Austin Community College" for not having been "forthcoming with financial contributions" to urban rail and other controversial projects.

The resolution also rapped a number of public agencies, including "TxDOT, CAMPO, Project Connect member agencies, and other local governmental entities" for having "failed to provide a viable, cost-effective, and long-range plan for the corridor that fully considers mass transit options such as light rail and commuter rail to serve the I-35, U.S. 290, HWY 183, Texas 71, Lamar/Guadalupe and other potential corridors ...."

A number of the resolution's most emphatic decisions certainly imply a rejection of the course of official planning associated with the urban rail ballot measure:

Be It Further Resolved, the Austin Neighborhoods Council finds that the Project Connect planning process has been unduly influenced by political considerations, ignored public input, compromised with highway projects that are entirely unrelated to urban rail, and its process with regard to NEPA protections regarding public involvement has been terminated; and

Be It Further Resolved, the Austin Neighborhoods Council calls on the U.S. Department of Transportation, its divisions and agencies, to intervene to assume oversight and planning for a comprehensive regional plan utilizing a citizen-derived Public Involvement Process which embraces all transportation modes for the near and long-term and to place a freeze on the acceptance of new letters of intent, approvals, applications, or federal matching funds for any major Central Texas transportation projects or their related planning and;

Be It Further Resolved, the Austin Neighborhoods Council withholds endorsement of any transportation bond measures until such time as a comprehensive regional transportation plan is created that integrates intra-city, intercity and regional transportation modes that may include light rail, commuter rail and mass transit; fully assesses economic, cultural and environmental impact under a restored NEPA process; and that fosters a vibrant economic and cultural future for all counties, cities and neighborhoods in the region.

Further information on the current controversy over Austin's transportation planning and urban rail ballot measure can be found on several Austin-area websites, particularly:

Austin Rail Now

Central Austin Community Development Corporation

ATXRail

Mike Dahmus website

Love North Austin

Austin Affordability