Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat20 November 2014
By Roger Baker
Roger Baker, a longtime Austin transportation, energy, and urban issues researcher and community activist, presented these comments to the November 10th meeting of CAMPO (the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization).
1. A top lesson is that with “affordability” taking the lead in Austin politics, it is getting risky to expect property taxpayers to fund road or rail projects without a lot of grassroots community buy-in. Transportation planners apparently plan for this funding shift onto local taxpayers to continue, despite its obvious unpopularity.
2. Putting a lot of roads and rail on the same complex bond package was a mistake. While technically legal, this was confusing and helped make the issue politically divisive.
3. Expecting voters to approve using up all our enviable AAA debt bonding capacity just before a new council takes office is not only bad policy, but it is likely to be distinctly unpopular with the new council candidates.
4. One lesson of this bond election is that the Austin voting public is probably smarter than many politicians give them credit for. The billion dollars offered little traffic congestion relief to most voters, since it was heavily geared toward future growth rather than existing residents. A slogan like “With roads and rail we cannot fail” couldn’t overcome the lack of much plausible benefit for most Austin voters.
5. It is probably bad policy to let private special interest groups like RECA [Real Estate Council of Austin] dictate the terms of bond elections like this one, simply because it doesn’t look very good when word gets out.
6. It was a mistake to assume that promoting a weak rail corridor designed to serve hypothetical growth would not hurt the proposal. Anti-rail, pro-road sentiment is relatively constant. Meanwhile, Austin has a sizable and active community of smart transit activists, many of them young and actively into social media, where information, both pro and con, travels fast. We already do have a Plan B, in the form of the currently much stronger and cheaper North Lamar/Guadalupe rail corridor.
7. Putting all our eggs in one planning basket, second-guessing the voters, and assuming that the bond promoters could win an election with over a million dollars’ worth of advertising and high-profile political endorsements didn’t work. This shows money power cannot reliably overcome smart, well-organized voter power. ■