STATESMAN EXCLUSIVE URBAN RAIL
February 28, 2014
PolI: Urban rail faces tough haul
Survey shows 51 percent would oppose project if funding meant $180 increase in property taxes
By Ben Wear firstname.lastname@example.org
With the campaign for this fall's urban rail election unofficially underway after Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said this week that the city faces a "rail or fail" choice, an opinion poll has surfaced indicating supporters face an uphill pull to pass the initiative.
In the poll, conducted eight months ago at the behest of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which supports rail, a narrow majority said they would oppose rail if it meant paying approximately $180 a year more in property taxes. Specifically, 43 percent said they would support a tax increase of 50 cents a day "to have more transit options" such as those being suggested in a joint city of Austin-Capital Metro planning effort called Project Connect.
Fifty-one percent said no to that question, an 8-point margin. The June 2013 phone survey of 601 registered voters in Central Texas (rather than only city of Austin voters, the electorate for a likely rail vote in November) was conducted by Baseline & Associates and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Statesman obtained the: poll results from the Downtown Austin Alliance after being alerted to its existence by a tweet from Scott Morris of the Our Rail political action committee.
Morris is a rail advocate who opposes the route suggested by rail planners and would ·prefer the city build rail along Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard.
The poll result, said longtime Austin political consultant Peck Young, "is a damned disaster."
"They're losing to begin with, which for any one running a bond campaign by definition means your tail is fried," Young. Said. "You have to go into a bond campaign at least 10 percent up, or you're toast. Anyone with any money can create at least 5 percentage points of confusion even if you're trying to finance the Second Coming. And Capital Metro isn't the Second Coming."
Actually, the probable rail election this fall would involve city of Austin bonds, although Capital Metro has been intimately involved in the planning and likely would end up running the line if it is approved and built. Project Connect officials last week released a tentative route for the electric powered passenger line, running 9 miles from Highland Mall in North Austin to Grove Boulevard and East Riverside Drive in Southeast Austin.
Further details, including the all-important price tags to build and operate the lines, won't surface for a couple of months. The City Council likely will call the election in August, asking voters to authorize several hundred million dollars of borrowing through bonds.
That in turn would carry a property tax increase of about 1 cent per $100 million of bonds, Greg Canally, the city's deputy chief financial officer, said Thursday.
If the city borrowed as much as $500 million for rail - a 9-mile line with a river crossing could cost close to $1 billion, and the city hopes federal grants will cover half - that eventually would equate to a tax increase of about $120 a year on a home at the average Austin price of $237,000. That is a third less than the tax figure in the Baseline poll.
Baseline also asked voters for their opinion of both the city and the transit agency. On that, the news was better for rail advocates.
About 65 percent of those polled said they find the city and Capital Metro “very credible” or somewhat credible” Almost 70 percent said they support building “transit options such as rail.” or both roads and transit. And 62 percent said they support "local agencies taking the next steps" toward a, transportation plan that includes rail.
But when asked about paying for such improvements with added taxes, the support ebbed.
"The question is whether the voter is prepared to help do what is going to be necessary to do," said political consultant David Butts, who worked on the 2000 light rail campaign that voters narrowly rejected. "Or the argument may be, “What they're proposing is not the solution.”
As for the bad news for rail in the poll, he disagreed that entering the campaign in that posture spells doom for whatever specific proposal emerges.
"Obviously you want a lead," Butts said,. He said that a number of factors - Austin's numbing traffic and Democratic turnout padded by state Sen. Wendy Davis' gubernatorial effort, among them - could help turn the tide.
"It's going to be hard, but not impossible to win," he said.
Butts said an urban rail advocacy campaign is in its formative stages, likely involving political consultants Mark Nathan, who has worked with Leffingwell extensively, and Lynda Rife, who has been a part of Project Connect and worked on Right Track PAC in support of Capital Metro's 2004 commuter rail election.
Nathan said that no political committee has been formed at this point but that "hopefully that'll happen in short order, by some party."
Rife, who was out of the country, didn't immediately return requests for comment Thursday.
On the other side, longtime rail opponent Jim Skaggs, whose opposition group in 2000 raised and spent more than $250,000,to argue against rail, was asked if any sort of campaign against this urban rail initiative is in place.
"Without any definition at this point, probably so," Skaggs said. He said that he and other rail foes plan to meet within the next week "to discuss some of these topics."
Asking voters to approve a city-changing rail plan in November, even as Austin is electing members of a radically restructured 11-member City Council, is inappropriate, Skaggs said. But he said the confluence of the two city elections could work against rail.
"It's going, to be a major topic among council candidates, and I think that's good," Skaggs said. ",Because the truth will come out."
Contact Ben Wear at 512-445-369