Henry and his longtime confederate Dave Dobbs — they publish something called Light Rail Now! — have since been joined by an array of rail supporters in opposing the city ballot item, which will appear before voters as city Proposition 1.... Why? They say that the city route will produce disappointing ridership numbers, thus generating even less revenue than transit normally does (all U.S. transit requires substantial tax subsidies for operations and maintenance costs) and starving Capital Metro of money for bus operations or other rail. They say the process was biased toward producing a route congenial to development and UT interests, not one designed principally to enhance the city’s transportation network.
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Austin light rail: With friends like these
By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff
I always assumed that rail supporters would come home.
It was almost 30 months ago when I reported in this space that Lyndon Henry, a former Capital Metro board member who has been pushing for light rail in Austin since the early 1970s, did not like the route through the University of Texas’ east side and north to Hancock Center that city and Capital Metro officials had in mind. Henry and what at that time were only a few other rail fans, said running light rail up Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard made much more sense.
But the city and Capital Metro, which about then were hatching the rail planning effort Project Connect, never wavered from their easterly route. The north end of it changed, going to Highland Mall instead of Mueller, and a substantial southern leg along East Riverside Drive survived the vetting process. But the essence of the plan survived, and all of it will go before voters this fall in a $1 billion rail-and-roads debt package.
Henry and his longtime confederate Dave Dobbs — they publish something called Light Rail Now! — have since been joined by an array of rail supporters in opposing the city ballot item, which will appear before voters as city Proposition 1. Based on recent interviews and public comments, their opposition appears to be implacable.
Why? They say that the city route will produce disappointing ridership numbers, thus generating even less revenue than transit normally does (all U.S. transit requires substantial tax subsidies for operations and maintenance costs) and starving Capital Metro of money for bus operations or other rail. They say the process was biased toward producing a route congenial to development and UT interests, not one designed principally to enhance the city’s transportation network.
This new political wrinkle has produced a series of strange-bedfellow tableaus, perhaps best illustrated by a Proposition 1 forum held last week. Odd enough, first of all, that the venue was the back office section of a North Austin food distribution warehouse. Your transportation columnist covered the event standing in the empty-for-the-evening cubicle of an unknown warehouse employee.
But what was totally weird was seeing Henry and longtime rail foe Jim Skaggs sitting in common cause on the panel, arguing against rail, while Austin City Council Member Bill Spelman and attorney Martha Smiley advocated the rail proposal.
Better, Henry and others said that night (not Skaggs, however), to defeat this proposition and come back in two to four years with a Guadalupe-Lamar plan.
No, prime rail booster Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said. Defeat this plan and it would be at least a decade before another rail plan makes it through the political wringer, if then.
Whatever the merits of the actual rail proposal, I think the mayor’s got a point about what happens if Proposition 1 goes down.
Capital Metro voters (mostly Austinites) barely defeated a 52-mile, $1.9 billion light rail plan in 2000. So Capital Metro, seeking safer electoral haven, radically scaled back its immediate aspirations and in 2004 put a commuter rail plan on the ballot. The 32-mile route from downtown Austin to Leander would be on existing tracks rather than city streets, would have few cars and stations, and, they said, would cost only $90 million (an estimate that ended up at least 50 percent low).
Voters said yes.
The ancestor of what we’re voting on in November, a streetcar plan, emerged soon after. But getting to the ballot was tortuous. Despite the support of two successive mayors, many business leaders and virtually every elected official in the county, it took a decade (even after a successful rail election) to get this rail plan before voters. And even now, the Austin City Council had to agree to tack on $400 million in road spending, trim $100 million from the rail request and make rail spending contingent on nailing down the road funding and federal matching money for light rail.
And much of the current political leadership, at least at the city level, is about to leave the dais. In this same November election, Austin will be turning its city political system on its head, ditching a seven-member council elected citywide for one with a mayor and 10 council members chosen in geographic district elections. At most, two of the current council will still be in office come January, and some of the new members from suburban districts are likely to be anti-rail.
For a while, getting this new bunch to agree on almost anything of substance will be difficult, much less on launching a multibillion-dollar rail plan. And at that point, light rail would be 0-for-2 in Austin, a powerful indication of civic disinterest.
No will probably mean no for much longer than four years.
Aside from this daunting challenge from rail advocates, light rail had another significant setback Wednesdayevening. The Travis County Democratic Party’s executive committee’s agenda included a potential endorsement of Proposition 1. Bringing the resolution up, under the party’s rules, would have required a two-thirds vote of the party’s precinct chairs, I’m told.
Despite a lobbying letter from Let’s Go Rail signed by state Sen. Kirk Watson, the entire City Council and several Democratic legislators, and despite a brief appearance at the meeting by Leffingwell, supporters decided to pull the measure down without a vote and reportedly promised not to bring it back for consideration in the future. The buzz at the meeting, one elected official said to me, was that support was running at about 50 percent.
Among Democrats. In Travis County.
Proposition 1 is in trouble.
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