Archive for the ‘Austin 2014 urban rail bond campaign’ Category

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Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

20 November 2014
Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City's Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

Campaign sign from OurRail PAC, which advocates light rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, but strongly opposed City’s Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and the $600 million bond proposition to fund it.

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. ■

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Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

5 November 2014
Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

Election night graphic on KXAN-TV News showed heavy loss for Highland-Riverside urban rail bonds proposition. Final tally was 57%-43%. Screenshot by L. Henry.

On November 4th, Austin voters resoundingly defeated the seriously flawed Highland-Riverside urban rail plan and $600 million bond proposition by a wide 14-point margin. The final tally is 57% against vs. 43% in favor of the bond measure.

Significantly, this was the first rail transit ballot measure to be rejected by Austin voters. In 2000, a proposed 14.6-mile light rail transit (LRT) running from McNeil down the Capital Metro railway alignment to Crestview, then south on North Lamar and Guadalupe to downtown, received a narrow majority of Austin votes — but the measure failed in the broader Capital Metro service area because of rejection by many suburban voters. In 2004, Capital Metro voters, including Austin, approved the 32-mile “urban commuter rail” plan from downtown Austin to Leander, subsequently branded as the MetroRail Red Line.

So why did this proposal fail? We believe it’s because Austin’s most dedicated, most experienced — and most knowledgeable — rail advocates opposed the official Highland-Riverside urban rail plan. These included long-established pro-transit organizations like the Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) and its Light Rail Now Project; the nonprofit Central Austin Community Development Corporation (CACDC); AURA (Austinites for Urban Rail Action); the Our Rail Political Action Committee; and an array of important north and central Austin neighborhood and community groups.

Our own reasons for so intrepidly opposing this plan are presented in numerous articles throughout this website; for a representative summary of several of our key criticisms, see Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course.

Opposition from rail advocates and otherwise pro-rail organizations and neighborhood groups throughout the community seems to have thrown preponderant voting weight against the disastrously misguided rail plan, and thus, together with the usual pro-road and anti-tax opponents, tipping the balance toward majority voter rejection. As we wrote in Let’s Go Austin — Tea-baiting from an awfully glass house,

Of course, highway proponents, anti-taxation activists, and, yes, some Tea Party sympathizers have emerged to oppose this rail bonds proposition — but wouldn’t they do so in any case? What’s surely revved them up, and encouraged them to pour exceptionally heavy resources into this fracas, is undoubtedly the leading role of rail supporters disgusted and outraged at the corruption and distortion of the rail transit planning process and de facto disenfranchisement of the wider community from involvement.

But it’s clear that Austin is basically a very pro-rail city. Widespread community sentiment for urban rail — much of it for just about any rail line, anywhere — was palpably strong. This has been an uphill struggle to convince pro-rail voters that a very bad rail plan could actually be worse than nothing. (See Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”.) That’s one major reason why we believe this community can move forward quickly to a sensibly designed, cost-effective light rail plan in a strong, logical route — a Guadalupe-Lamar starter line.

Nevertheless, channeling pro-rail sentiment into a vote against this terrible project has been a challenge. And added to that was the additional challenge that our side was a relatively small David against a very powerful Goliath — a fairly solidly unified political and civic elite, heavily bankrolled, backed by influential business and real estate interests with a stake in the proposed rail route, able to muster media support, and assisted by a network of various community and professional organizations (environmental, New Urbanist, technical, real estate, and others) seemingly motivated into an almost desperate embrace of the urban rail plan. And let’s not forget the 800-lb gorilla in Goliath’s corner — the University of Texas administration, dead-set on a San Jacinto alignment to buttress their East Campus expansion program.

So, against this Goliath, how did David win this? A lot of this victory is due to the broad public perception of just how appallingly bad the Highland-Riverside rail plan was. And with a staggering $1.38 billion cost that required a staggering local bond commitment, which in turn required a hefty property tax rate increase. And all that in the context of recent homeowner property tax increases and utility rate increases. So, would voters really want to approve over a billion dollars for even a mediocre rail project, much less a terrible one?

That message was disseminated widely through the community — not by pricey media advertising (rail advocacy groups and their followers didn’t have big bucks for that, anyway), but by a vast network of activities involving social media, Email messages, excellent blog-posted information, and community meetings. But traditionally anti-transit, pro-highway groups also weighed in, with big bucks to fund effective advertising (with a message focused predominantly on the shortcomings of the particular Highland-Riverside plan) to rebuff the months-long, heavy ad and media blitz from the Project Connect/Let’s Go Austin forces backing the official proposal.

This vote also represents not only a rejection of an unacceptable rail transit proposal, but also a protest against the “backroom-dealmaking” modus operandi that has characterized official public policymaking and planning in recent years — a pattern that included shutting community members out of participation in the urban rail planning process, relegating the public to the status of lowly subjects, and treating us all like fools. Leaping immediately into a process of community inclusion and direct involvement is now essential. The community must become re-connected and involved in a meaningful way.


Minneapolis-area community meeting on proposed Southwest light rail project. Photo: Karen Boros.

Real community involvement in the planning process means real community meetings with community members having a direct say in planning and policy decisions, as in this meeting in Minneapolis area. Photo: Karen Boros.


On election night, as the defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail bonds proposition became evident, Scott Morris of the Our Rail PAC issued the following statement:

Tonight’s results are gratifying, but the work remains. With this vote, Austin has rejected a bad urban rail plan. It was the wrong route and it was formed by values that were not shared by our community. What we do share with those who supported this measure is a resolve in moving forward with true mobility solutions that make transit a ubiquitous part of life in our growing city.

01_ARN_ourrail9 Today, Austin delivered a strong statement, that transit must serve the existing population first. Transit planning should not be subordinated for the purpose of shaping future development to the exclusion of ridership, cost effectiveness and efficiency. This is a mandate that any first investment in urban rail must serve the community first. If we put service to people first, it will be built and operated in a cost efficient way. The citizens did not accept the argument that a defeat would create a long delay until the next opportunity to vote on rail. Austin is ready to get the right plan on the ballot as soon as possible, with true citizen involvement in shaping that plan.

This election is just one more step in the process. As a grassroots organization, we’re committed to work hard for a solution. Tonight is the first step in a new direction. Austin has a new plan to create and a strong case to build for rail, and we think it will succeed. We will support and work with our transit agency, Capital Metro; to develop a plan for rail that is cost effective, open, fair and transparent with strong community input. It will need the community’s full support and engagement to preserve and enhance its basic services, especially to transit dependent populations, as it adjusts to a growing city.

The people have assumed a new leadership role in determining the future of transit. With this action, they have also assumed a strong responsibility for guaranteeing its future.

Let’s take a breath and get back to work.

The Highland-Riverside plan may be dead, but the campaign for a Guadalupe-Lamar light rail starter line is firing up. Light rail in this heavily traveled, high-density central corridor can become the basic spine of a far more effective and truly extensive urban rail system in the future for the city.

There’s already a strong constituency and base of support for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. But the majority of Austinites don’t want another 14 years of top-level dithering and wavering — they’re ready to move forward with a workable, sensible urban rail plan. And certainly — especially with a new political leadership — we do face an exciting challenge informing the entire community and explaining why rail transit is essential, why it’s a cost-effective, crucial mobility solution, and why central-city street space needs to be allocated for dedicated transit, including light rail as well as improved bus service.

We’re already rolling up our sleeves. ■


Passengers waiting to board train at Dryden/TMC station Photo: Brian Flint.

Houston’s MetroRail shows how dedicating street lanes to light rail transit can dramatically improve urban mobility. MetroRail has highest passenger ridership per route-mile of any U.S. light rail transit system. Photo: Brian Flint.


This article has been slightly revised since its original posting.

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Lloyd Doggett — Dupe, or accomplice in rail bonds campaign’s “Tea-baiting”?

27 October 2014
Campaign mailer from Let's Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett's backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or "strong-armed" into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

Campaign mailer from Let’s Go Austin publicizes Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s backing of urban rail bonds proposition in Nov. 4th election. Was Rep. Doggett duped or “strong-armed” into supporting this seriously flawed proposition?

It’s become clear that a prominent, desperate tactic of the “Let’s Go Austin” campaign to promote the urban rail bonds ballot measure is to “Tea-bait” the opposition — to try to smear all of us, “progressives”, liberals, leftists, rail transit advocates, transit critics, moderates, conservatives, neighborhood associations, and other opponents of this misguided proposal — as homogeneous minions of the rightwing Tea Party. Most recently, apparently in an effort to drop a late-campaign “bombshell”, they’ve managed to enlist liberal Democratic U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett in this smear campaign.

Project Connect leaders and the Let’s Go Austin campaign know very well that this is not only a fraud, it’s an absurd fraud. Ironically, what’s made this light rail ballot battle especially newsworthy — even on a national scale — is that rail supporters and “progressive” community leaders and neighborhoods have been in the forefront of criticizing and opposing the official planning process and its ultimately selected route plan since the beginning.

Whether Rep. Doggett was aware of any of this is dubious. In any case, it’s apparent that, to corral both political and business support into (at least nominally) backing their lemon of an urban rail plan, supporters of the urban rail plan and ballot proposition have been engaging in a whole lot of strong-arming. Businesses, for example, are vulnerable to this because they need City of Austin permits for expansion or other commercial needs, or perhaps they’re angling for a public contract. Not only has there been a kind of “bandwagon” effect, but top officials and civic leaders have seemed to require allegiance to the Highland-Riverside rail plan as virtually an article of faith, akin to “kissing the royal ring”.

Similarly intense has been the political pressure from the local Democratic Party elite to extract lockstep fealty to the urban rail bonds proposition from the Democratic fold — both elected officials as well as wanna-bes. This now has apparently included the “bombshell” of Lloyd Doggett’s endorsement — first with his participation in a Let’s Go Austin rally on Oct. 19th (the day before the start of early voting), and now by being featured in a Let’s Go Austin campaign mailer (see graphic at top of this post).

Is a Congressional representative really vulnerable to being “strong-armed” by mere local and state-level party officials? It’s certainly plausible, since U.S. elected representatives depend on strong local party support in their home districts to help them at re-election time. And with Texas state GOP gerrymandering that has been moving the boundaries of his district, Rep. Doggett probably feels especially vulnerable. Keeping good relations with the local elite is a must.

In any event, whether this is a case of being duped or being a willing accomplice, for Rep. Doggett — and a large segment of his “progressive-liberal” supporters who are dismayed by his alliance with the Let’s Go Austin forces — his emergence into public support of this widely unpopular ballot proposition is very unfortunate. And eroding a major segment of voter support is surely not helpful to Rep. Doggett’s political security.

Neutrality probably was an option, and definitely would have been a choice preferred by many of Rep. Doggett’s most ardent supporters in the community. ■

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A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line

5 October 2014
Proposed 6.8-mile "Plan B" light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect  the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S> 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It's projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost.

Proposed 6.8-mile “Plan B” light rail transit line in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor would have 17 stations and connect the North Lamar Transit Center at U.S. 183 with Crestview, the Triangle, UT and the West Campus, the Capitol Complex, the CBD, and the Seaholm-Amtrak area. It’s projected to serve 3 times the ridership of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside rail line at slightly over half the capital cost. (Click to enlarge.)

Supporters of the Proposition 1 urban rail proposal have been issuing dire warnings that “there’s no Plan B” if Prop. 1 — with its Highland-Riverside rail line — is rejected by voters on Nov. 4th.

Apparently, they’re willfully ignoring that there definitely is a “Plan B”. All along, there’s been an alternative urban rail project on the table … and it’s ready to replace the Project Connect/Prop. 1 plan if it fails.

Light rail transit (LRT, a.k.a. urban rail) for the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor has been in various stages of planning since the late 1980s. The ridership potential has been assessed in the range of 30,000-40,000 a day (see Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route).

There are various design alternatives (see, for example An alternative Urban Rail plan and Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.)

In this particular proposal, including elements in both alternative G-L plans listed above, we present a plausible and fairly simple option for an LRT starter line aimed at minimizing design and cost while providing an attractive service with adequate capacity. Like the Prop. 1 plan, this would require re-allocation of some traffic lanes to dedicated rail transit use, some intermittent property acquisition, and streetscape amenities including pedestrian and bicycle provisions. Our plan would route LRT entirely on the surface; thus there are no major civil works (although there is a bridge included over Shoal Creek and rebuilding of the pedestrian interface).

We assume a 6.8-mile line starting at the North Lamar Transit Center (NLTC, Lamar and U.S. 183) on the north, running south down North Lamar and Guadalupe, then Guadalupe and Lavaca to the CBD, then west on 4th and 3rd Streets to a terminus to serve the Seaholm development and Amtrak station at Lamar. (See map at top of post.) We’ve assumed 17 stations, but have not proposed specific locations except for the termini at NLTC and Seaholm-Amtrak.

As a starter line for urban rail, this plan would serve Austin’s most heavily traveled inner-city corridor (North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St.) plus the West Campus, Texas’s third-densest residential neighborhood — both totally ignored by the seriously flawed Prop. 1 plan. Our plan would also serve the Seaholm-Amtrak area. All these crucial residential and activity areas are missed by Prop. 1’s proposed line.

At Crestview, we’ve assumed a track diversion into and through the mixed-use development to facilitate interchange with the MetroRail Red Line; the tracks would return into N. Lamar at each end of the development. There are other options for achieving this transit interface, including a major overhaul of the entire intersection of N. Lamar, Airport Blvd, and the Red Line.

Through the West Campus area, to serve this dense neighborhood and the University of Texas campus, we’ve assumed a simple route on Guadalupe. However, several other options are possible, such as a split-directional alignment with one track on Guadalupe and another on Nueces.

We assume 30,000 to 40,000 as a plausible potential ridership range for this proposal, based on previous forecasts for this corridor plus factors such as the interconnection with MetroRail service at Crestview, and extensions both to U.S. 183 and to the Seaholm-Amtrak site. Our “horseback” design and cost assessment (generally similar to a typical “systems-level” engineering estimate) envisions sufficient rolling stock to accommodate this volume of daily passenger-trips in 3-car trains at 10-minute headways. We’ve estimated average schedule speed at 16 mph and a round trip of roughly an hour.

On this basis, we’ve assumed a fleet of 30 LRT railcars, including spares. Storage, maintenance, and operations facilities would be located at the NLTC, which would also provide expanded park & ride facilities.

As presented in the table below, we’ve estimated the capital investment cost of this project at $586 million. We believe this is a far more affordable investment for an initial LRT starter line than the daunting $1.1 billion ($1.4 billion in year of completion) estimated for the Highland-Riverside proposal in Prop. 1. With 50% Federal Transit Administration funding assumed, this would mean a local share of $293 million, most likely financed from local City of Austin bonds and possibly other sources.

Line installation includes right-of-way acquisition, trackwork and running way construction, minor civil works, electric power supply and distribution, signal and communications system, stations and facilities, and streetscape amenities, including sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Rolling stock is assumed as “short” low-floor LRT cars similar to those recently procured in Salt Lake City and Atlanta; a storage, maintenance, and operations facility is included. Total cost includes a 25% contingency and a 15% administrative/engineering allowance.

2_ARN_PlanB-G-L-urban-rail-altv-est-cost

Unit capital cost of this “Plan B” project calculates to about $87 million per mile — roughly 73% of the cost per mile of the Prop. 1 proposal. Total cost is 52% of the Prop. 1 Highland-Riverside plan. Thus, for just over half the cost of the Prop. 1 plan, this proposal would render about three times the ridership. We’d expect this high ridership (as well as high passenger-mileage) to translate to signficantly lower operating & maintenance (O&M) unit costs compared with the Prop. 1 rail proposal, as well as lower unit subsidies.

In addition, it would serve Austin’s most heavily travelled inner-city arterial corridor, one of the state’s densest neighborhoods, the city’s highest-density corridor, and a number of Austin’s most established center-city neighborhoods — neighborhoods that have anticipated and planned for light rail for well over a decade. It would also serve centers of development such as the Triangle area, clusters of major new development emerging in various segments along the corridor, and much of the very high-density residential and commercial development booming in the western section of the CBD.

Hopefully, by investing dollars wisely and conservatively in an affordable initial starter line project, Austin will be in a position to budget for a vigorous expansion of LRT lines in other potential corridors citywide, such as:

• South Congress
• North Lamar to Parmer Lane
• Northwest to Lakeline Transit Center
• South Lamar
• East Riverside to ABIA
• Mueller development and northeast Austin
• Lake Austin Blvd.
• West 38th St.

Plan B — possibly this design or something similar to it — is definitely ready and waiting. Hopefully, it will move forward vigorously if Proposition 1 is rejected on Nov. 4th. ■

Portland's light rail transit line on 4-lane Interstate Avenue gives an idea of how urban rail could operate in reservation in G-L corridor. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

Portland’s Yellow Line LRT on Interstate Avenue serves a corridor similar to Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar. (Photo: Peter Ehrlich)

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Official urban rail plan bulldozed to ballot — in bulging bundle

11 August 2014
City Council's Aug. 7th urban rail ballot measure was included in massive bundle with other disparate items. Graphic: Glogster.com.

City Council’s Aug. 7th urban rail ballot measure was included in massive bundle with other disparate items. Graphic: Glogster.com.

With about as much suspense and excitement as, well, making sausage, the Austin City Council this past Thursday, Aug. 7th, finally rammed through the official (and seriously flawed) Highland-Riverside urban rail plan to the next big step — a ballot item placed up for voters’ approval (or rejection) this coming Nov. 4th.

While Austin transportation officials and some Project Connect representatives have tried to radiate a public image of “openness”, “transparency”, “fairness”, sweetness, and cooperation in their pursuit of their urban rail agenda, the machinations, subterfuges, and intrigues involved with this Council vote expose a more troubling reality. This consistently ruthless, damn-the-torpedoes, bulldoze-the-opposition functional style for well over a year has dismayed, outraged, disgusted, and angered a wide swath of the Austin community who have consistently felt shut out of bona fide participation in the public transportation planning process. (See, for example: City Council to Austin community: Shut Up; Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?; City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead; Meetings, “open houses”, workshops … and democratic process.)

Another move to gag public criticism

The Council’s Aug. 7th vote shenanigans seemed to draw from this same playbook. Perhaps the most salient indication of this is the City administration’s bundling of the urban rail bond measure in a single ordinance with the totally unrelated authorization of the vote for the new “10-1” Council. Item #17 on the council’s Aug. 7th agenda proposed to

Approve an ordinance ordering a general municipal election to be held in the City of Austin on November 4, 2014, for the purpose of electing a Mayor (at large) and City Council Members (single member districts) for District 1, District 2, District 3, District 4, District 5, District 6, District 7, District 8, District 9, and District 10; ordering a special election for the purpose of authorizing the issuance of general obligation bonds; providing for the conduct of the election; authorizing the City Clerk to enter into joint election agreements with other local political subdivisions as may be necessary for the orderly conduct of the election; and declaring an emergency.

By packaging all this — in effect, the basic election of the new Council itself — in a single “kitchen sink” ordinance, the smooth operators of the current administration thus set up the ordinance so that if a current councilmember would vote against the urban rail/transportation proposals (highly unlikely in any case, given all the strong-arming behind the scenes), he/she would also be voting against calling the election for the new council. Most likely, the real intent of this maneuver was probably to place community opponents of the urban rail bond plan in the awkward position of calling for a No vote to the election of the new council if they called for a No vote against putting the bonds on the ballot. Thus, the tactic seemed yet another method of suppressing criticism and opposition. Machiavelli would surely be proud.

But the urban rail ballot ordinance wasn’t just “bulging” with the entire new Council vote authorization thrown into the package. The Aug. 7th ordinance also includes authorization for Capital Metro — the sales tax-supported transit authority — to allocate its own funds to an urban rail project with lots of amorphous pieces and blurry edges:

As contemplated by the Locally Preferred Alternative contained in the 2014 Strategic Mobility Plan approved by Council on June 26, 2014, the fixed rail transit system is expected to consist of a 9.5 mile urban rail double-tracked, electrified route in mostly dedicated guideways. The general location of the proposed route of the fixed rail transit system is expected to run along a route that will serve the East Riverside Corridor, downtown Austin, the State Capitol complex, the Medical School complex, the University of Texas, Hancock Center, Austin Community College Highland campus, and surrounding neighborhoods. The general description of the form of the fixed rail transit system, including the general location of the proposed route, is provided herein pursuant to Section 451.071, Texas Transportation Code, to authorize Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to participate and to spend its funds in building, operating and maintaining the fixed rail transit system. The final alignment of the route may be adjusted to accommodate any required governmental approvals and to maximize service characteristics, including stop spacing, speed, frequency, and reliability. Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority shall participate in building, operating and maintaining the fixed rail transit system to the extent and pursuant to such terms and conditions as shall be mutually acceptable to the City and Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Road projects potentially dwarf rail

However, the really huge, disjointed component of this ballot package has been the focus of leaks, news reports, and small dollops of information for weeks. As is now widely known, a hefty assortment of major roadway projects were included in a cumbersome, disparate hodgepodge hastily contrived and christened the “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan”.

According to leaks and hints in news reports, bundling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of road projects with the rail proposal had been demanded by major pro-highway business interests as a condition for their support and the contribution of a million dollars to the prospective war chest for Project Connect’s ballot initiative campaign. The result was the “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan” (SMP), reportedly designed to appease the prevailing leadership of groups such the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Real Estate Council of Austin with $400 million of politically selected road project sweeteners.


Council's ballot measure makes urban rail funding contingent on road construction projects potentially more expensive than rail. Photo: Robert Miller, via TexasFreeway.com.

Council’s ballot measure makes urban rail funding contingent on road construction projects potentially more expensive than rail. Photo: Robert Miller, via TexasFreeway.com.


Another “sweetening” factor: Federal funding match for road projects is typically far higher than for transit; for Interstate highway system projects, the nominal Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) match is 90%. Thus, the $240 million of I-35 projects listed in the SMP could well facilitate projects of $2.4 billion in actual magnitude. And the other federal-system road projects in the SMP could also receive outsized FHWA matching grants. Plus contributions by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

In contrast, the rail project is expected, at best, to qualify for just 50% Federal Transit Administration match, implying a maximum project of about $1.2 billion. Thus, under the “green” facade of “urban rail”, the SMP package is a rubber-and-asphalt-oriented concoction in which the potential highway projects grotesquely dwarf the rail component.


City's "2014 Strategic Mobility Plan" is packed with road projects that must be funded before urban rail bonds can be issued. Potential cost dwarfs cost of rail. ("Future Phases of Urban Rail" dashed lines on map are likely just sucker bait to lure support from gullible voters; fine print specifies merely "high-capacity transit" which could mean "bus rapid transit", term used to describe MetroRapid bus service.) Map: Screenshot from SMP.

City’s “2014 Strategic Mobility Plan” is packed with road projects that must be funded before urban rail bonds can be issued. Potential cost (including federal and state match) dwarfs cost of rail. (“Future Phases of Urban Rail” dashed lines on map are likely just sucker bait to lure support from gullible voters; fine print specifies merely “high-capacity transit” which could mean “bus rapid transit”, term used to describe MetroRapid bus service.) Map: Screenshot from SMP. (Click to enlarge.)


As City of Austin officials endeavored to craft the ballot language for the “roads + rail” bond package, they at first envisioned a combined $1 billion package ($600 million rail + $400 million roads). However, they hit a snag: Texas law forbids the bundling of such bonds. To avoid a deal-killer with the pro-road interests, a peculiar work-around was conceived — zap the bond proposal for the roads component, but make the rail bonds contingent on “providing” $400 million of unspecified road works funding! We’re not kidding!

At first most news media reporters and journalists were fooled, reporting the Council’s Aug. 7th ordinance as placing “a one-billion-dollar bond package” on the ballot. But their stories were quickly revised to report a $600 million rail bond package, plus the cumbersome, contingent road funding component, as they read the actual ballot language more closely:

The issuance of $600,000,000 bonds and notes for rail systems, facilities and infrastructure, including a fixed rail transit system to be operated by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which may spend its funds to build, operate and maintain such system) servicing the East Riverside Corridor, downtown Austin, the State Capitol complex, the Medical School complex, the University of Texas, Hancock Center, Austin Community College Highland campus, and surrounding neighborhoods, and roadway improvements related to such rail systems, facilities, and infrastructure; provided that the City may not issue bonds or notes to pay costs of the fixed rail transit system (other than expenditures for planning, designing and engineering) unless (i) the City obtains grant or match funding for the cost of the fixed rail transit system from the Federal Transit Administration or one or more other federal or state sources and (ii) the City provides funding in an amount not less than $400,000,000 to pay costs of roadway improvement projects of regional significance that are designed to relieve congestion, enhance mobility and manage traffic in the I-35, US 183, SH 71, RM 620, RM 1826, RM 2222, FM 734 (Parmer), Lamar Boulevard, and Loop 360 corridors; and the levy of a tax sufficient to pay for the bonds and notes.

More debt, but without public vote?

So where might this mysterious $400 million in road funding come from? Unless the City has a hidden cache of $400 million tucked away somewhere, almost surely this would require some form of debt financing. One option could be to place another bond measure on a future ballot asking voters to approve $400 million in additional City debt for these road projects.

However, as Austin community transportation activist and researcher Roger Baker has pointed out, other debt financing options are available that don’t require public votes, as do bonds. For example, there are Certificates of Obligation (COs), Anticipation Notes, and Time Warrants. Useful descriptions of such public funding alternatives can be found online in a “Public Finance Handbook” published by the Texas Association of Counties and a “Public Finance Issues” guide posted by Thomas M. Pollan with Austin-based Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP.

Of these alternatives, COs may be the leading choice for City of Austin and Project Connect leaders in their quest for a $400 million road project funding solution that avoids a risky and awkward public vote. As the Handbook cited above relates, “Unlike G.O. Bonds that always require an election, the CO’s do not require an election unless at least 5% of the registered voters in the county submit a valid petition protesting the issuance.” (Emphasis added.)

Often, the public entity may desire to sell the COs for cash “in order to have funds to pay contractors, equipment suppliers, and costs of issuance.” But there’s a catch — “The list for which CO’s may be sold for cash with only a tax pledge is limited…”, including fairly extraordinary situations such as “it is necessary to preserve or protect the public health of the residents” of the district holding the COs. (Emphasis added.)

Well, whaddaya know — lo and behold, the Austin City Council’s humongous hodgepodge ordinance, authorizing the new Council election, the urban rail bond election, and the kitchen sink, just happens to contain a Part 13 that — hold on to your chair — stipulates the following:

The Council finds that the need to immediately begin required preparations for this election constitutes an emergency. Because of this emergency, this ordinance takes effect immediately on its passage for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety. [Emphasis added.]

Hefty property tax rate increase

So how much would all this debt to preserve our “peace, health, and safety” cost us? Part 7 of the ordinance itself details the bad news:

As reported in the 2014 Strategic Mobility Plan, applying the assumptions used in the General Obligation Bond Capacity Analysis dated April 29, 2014, which includes forecasted growth in taxable assessed values, City financial staff has determined that, if the bonds and notes are issued, the City’s total tax rate would increase by $0.0625 per $100 of taxable assessed valuation (as compared to the City’s total tax rate as of the date of adoption of this ordinance) …

Even for fairly lower-middle-income and low-income homeowners, that implies an annual property tax bill increase of at least over $100. For average-income and homeowners and those at higher levels, it almost surely means an additional tax bite of at least several hundred dollars — an additional body-blow to taxpayers already seriously financially stressed with steep home valuation hikes, other prospective property tax increases, and hikes in electric and water service rates. Meanwhile, local officials continue to dispense seemingly endless giveaways from the public treasury to corporate interests (in exchange for dubious and largely undefined and untracked benefits).


Austin homeowners and other residents are steadily burdened with higher taxes and utility rates, with the rationale of vague "projections" of local "new jobs" and other benefits whose validity is never reliably tracked. Are massive subsidies to real estate developers, projects like the F1 racetrack, UT's East Campus expansion plans, the Medical Center development, a largely "showpiece" urban rail line, and other ventures worth this sacrifice?

Austin homeowners and other residents are steadily burdened with higher taxes and utility rates, with the rationale of vague “projections” of local “new jobs” and other benefits whose validity is never reliably tracked. Are massive subsidies to real estate developers, projects like the F1 racetrack, UT’s East Campus expansion plans, the Medical Center development, a largely “showpiece” urban rail line, and other ventures worth this sacrifice? Graphic: Active Rain website.


If what’s proposed were a worthwhile new urban rail line, cautiously implemented and cost-effective, that actually addressed true mobility problems, would local voters consider that a beneficial project worth paying for? Maybe.

But it may be hard for many voters to perceive any way the Highland-Riverside alignment proposed by the City of Austin on November’s forthcoming ballot solves, or even addresses, any real mobility needs or congestion problems. Particularly since it misses the city’s densest, most heavily traveled central corridor (Guadalupe-Lamar), with its string of major activity and employment centers plus the West Campus.

So, Austin voters need to ask themselves: Is this proposed line useful enough, and beneficial enough, to justify the cost to us? Are the land development goals of local real estate interests, and the East Campus expansion aims of the University of Texas, worthy of this much taxpayer subsidy?

The answer to those questions will come on November 4th. ■

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Austin pro-rail group declares war on Project Connect urban rail plan

15 June 2014
Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect's urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

Julie Montgomery, AURA leader, was sole member of Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) to vote against Project Connect’s urban rail plan. Photo: L. Henry.

In a 13-1 vote this past Friday (June 13th), a key mayor-appointed review committee, the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG), approved recommending Project Connect’s urban rail proposal to the Austin City Council. If (as expected) the council endorses the plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for urban rail, it could set the basis for approving, perhaps in August, a ballot measure for bond funding in the November 4th election.

The CCAG vote context on this controversial project was far from placid, with public comments criticizing the plan as well as supporting it (the usual speakers’ limit of five was obligingly expanded to allow two extra supporters, while an opponent was turned away). The first speaker, Marcus Denton, representing a major pro-rail group, Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA), announced the organization’s opposition. AURA’s constituency includes a significant segment of particularly influential and technologically savvy young professionals in the Austin community.

Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant and former Capital Metro board member (and currently a contributing editor for Austin Rail Now), noted that the Project Connect plan fell short of serving the University of Texas West Campus, one of the densest neighborhoods in Texas. He suggested that a rail line in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — backed by many community groups and individuals — could include branches serving both the West and East Campuses, but called for UT’s administration to take “responsibility for funding its fair share of what it wants.”

CCAG member Julie Montgomery, one of AURA’s top leaders (see photo at top), was the sole member of CCAG to vote against endorsing Project Connect’s urban rail plan, particularly questioning the validity of the data, methodology, and projections on which it’s based.

AURA immediately issued a media release (below), now posted on the AURA website.

Marcus Denton announces AURA's opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Marcus Denton announces AURA’s opposition to Project Connect plan at CCAG meeting. Screenshot from City of Austin video.

Following today’s vote by the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) recommending a $1.4 billion Riverside-to-Highland urban rail line, AURA announced the route would act as a long-term barrier to a comprehensive, efficient transportation system and urged Austin City Council not to put it on the November ballot.

“We’ve worked for months – some of us years – trying to get an urban rail route we could support, but unfortunately this is worse than no rail,” AURA board member Steven Yarak said. “Squandering scarce funds on a second low-ridership rail line would set back public support for more effective public transit investments for decades.”

AURA’s Project Connect Central Corridor Committee co-chair Brad Absalom noted that, “While we’re supportive of the more cost-effective Riverside segment, we’re very worried the northern section will block rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, our most productive corridor, indefinitely, even as it drains funds from buses.”

AURA urged City Council not to place a Riverside-Highland urban rail bond proposition on the November ballot. Susan Somers, AURA board member, described AURA’s transportation agenda going forward: “Step one in building a better transportation system is preventing this urban rail bond from making the ballot, and defeating it if it does. As we continue lobbying for an urban rail line we can support, we’ll be pushing hard for improvements to Austin’s bus, cycling, and pedestrian infrastructure.”

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.

AURA leaders indicated they would actively campaign to defeat a bond measure for Project Connect’s rail plan, while striving to substitute a new urban rail plan, more effectively meeting community needs, together with broader public transport and other alternative mobility initiatives. ■

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)

Majority of CCAG votes to endorse Project Connect urban rail plan. AURA leader Julie Montgomery, at table at left in photo, voted No. Photo: L. Henry. (Click to enlarge.)