Austin's Rail and Roads Bond: An Explainer to End All Explainers

Nov 4, 2014

A map of the proposed starter light rail from East Riverside to Highland.
Credit Project Connect

Update, Nov. 5: Austin voters decided against the light rail and road improvements proposal, commonly known as Austin's 'Prop 1.' The final tally of votes had the proposal losing by a wide margin, with 57 percent of voters saying "No" and 43 percent voting "Yes." That's a 14-point loss for the light rail and roads proposal. 

Original story, Nov. 4: It's the biggest debt proposal in Austin history, and it comes to a billion dollars in all: $600 million of it for a starter light rail line, with $400 million for improvements to state roads.

There's a lot to unpack here, and plenty of debate on the merits of this transportation proposal. So here it is, the (hopefully) last explainer you'll need this election for Austin's rail and roads proposition, featuring our reporting over the many months (and years) leading up to today's decision. 

What is "Prop 1"?

If voters approve it, the proposition would partially fund a 9.5-mile starter light rail line and improvements to state highways in and around Austin. The light rail line would would run from East Riverside, through downtown and the UT campus on San Jacinto, up Red River and then go over or under (and parallel to) a portion of the existing MetroRail Red line up to ACC Highland and the Highland Mall. 16 stations in all, four of them with park and rides. If approved, the line is expected to be in operation by 2022 and by 2030, planners say the line will have 16,000-20,000 boardings daily. While the line is part of a larger transit system vision approved by the city with the potential for more light rail in the future, this $600 million would only go towards this one 9.5-mile line. Read more:

What about the roads part of this? 

The road improvements are several projects that would widen or reconstruct lanes and entrances, exits and overpasses on state highways, including I-35. They wouldn't build any new roads or add much in the way of travel lanes to existing highways, but planners say they are designed to improve traffic flow. Read more: 

So if I vote for this proposition and it passes, we're approving spending for these road projects? 

Not really. The spending on road projects is a precondition for construction of the starter light rail line, but technically you're not approving (or disapproving) the $400 million in road spending by voting on the proposition. The next city council could theoretically do these road improvements with or without the passage of this proposition, because they're not actually voter-approved bonds. Voters are in essence being asked to decide on a light rail line that will only be built if road improvements accompany it, not to approve spending on both rail and roads.

However, many of the candidates running for the future council are openly against the rail and roads proposal on the ballot, so if it does pass it's possible they could use this $400 million in road spending contingency as a way to delay or derail the project. Read more:

What Will This Light Rail Do for Traffic?

Not a whole lot, according to transit experts. And that includes the head planner of the proposed light rail line, Kyle Keahey of Project Connect. "Can we solve the congestion problem? That is something that quite honestly never gets solved," he told us. Keahey says the project isn’t a fix for traffic, but a way to create alternatives for drivers stuck in their cars on congested roadways. The light rail line isn't expected to reduce travel times on I-35, for instance, but for some people it could provide a new mobility option. Read more: 

What will this do to my property taxes? And what exactly does this money pay for?

Your property taxes will go up. For a home currently worth $200,000, the anticipated property tax increase works out to about $220 a year, for twenty years, for a total of $4,400. 

This $1 billion in city debt would pay for part of the starter light rail line and state road improvements. Other light rail lines envisioned by the city are future possible extensions, but they are not funded as part of this proposal. If this line is built and then extended, the city would need to take on additional debt, which the city has said would likely be done in the same way: voters would have to approve a debt increase that raises property taxes again. Read more:

I noticed you keep saying 'Rail and Roads Proposition' but I thought it was called 'Prop 1'? 

On the official ballot, the rail and roads proposal is called 'Proposition, City of Austin,' not 'Proposition 1.' That's because it's the only city proposition on the ballot -- if there had been others, they would have been Proposition 2 and so on, but because it's all on its own, it's called 'Proposition, City of Austin.' Read more: 

I also noticed you keep saying 'Light Rail.' But I keep hearing city leaders and project planners using the term 'Urban Rail.' What's the difference?

There's not a difference. No other cities use the term 'Urban Rail.' 'Urban Rail' is what light rail is being pitched as here in Austin, part of a legacy of a failed light rail proposal in the city in 2000. "Urban rail is our terminology for light rail in this region," said Robert Spillar, Austin's Director of Transportation. Read more:

If this proposal fails, is there a 'Plan B'?

Advocates of the proposal say "we've got to start somewhere" and that the line will take 10,000 cars off the road every day by 2030. Opponents say approving this plan is "worse than doing nothing" and it won't do much for traffic considering there are nearly a quarter of a million cars on I-35 every day. If the proposition doesn’t pass, it certainly doesn't mean the end of mass transit in Austin. Every day, there’s over 100,000 trips taken on Capital Metro buses and rail. Estimates say the proposed light rail line will add 6,000 new transit trips to that mix 15 years from now. One likely transit option for the corridor if light rail doesn't go forward is rapid buses. Read more: 

Where is the rail and roads proposition on the ballot?

It's toward the ends of a very long ballot, and the ballot language for the proposition is also lengthy and complex, coming in at 220 words. Take a look:

  • "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 necessary to obtain grant and/or match funding) 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."

If the rail and roads proposition passes, will the light rail line definitely be built?

There are two conditions included in the ballot language that must be met before construction can begin on the East Riverside-to-Highland light rail line. One is that the project must get matching federal funds of $600 million from the Federal Transit Authority's New Starts Program, which pitches in for transit projects throughout the country. There are dozens of other projects in line for that limited pool of money, and it would be a few years before the Austin project would apply and get an answer. Federal matching funds aren't guaranteed. The other condition is the one we mentioned earlier, where $400 million in state road improvements must be funded before construction on the light rail line begins. 

If the proposition does pass, could the route of the light rail line be changed? 

That depends on who you ask. One of the leading candidates for mayor, Steve Adler, has said that he thinks the proposition is "an authorization, not a mandate, and the next council will have the ability to revisit decisions this council is now making." But the ballot language is pretty clear that if the rail line funding is approved, the line must serve the East Riverside to Highland route. 

One last question. Where do I vote? 

A list of Travis County polling places is available here, and there's also some app options to guide you, too, like The Voting AppYou will need a photo ID to vote this year because of Texas' Voter ID law.