This November, Austin voters will decide on one of the biggest expenditures in city history: a $1 billion proposal for a new light rail line and road improvements. It’s not the first time light rail has come before Austin voters: 14 years ago, in 2000, rail was narrowly voted down. How and why that plan failed has informed the latest plan voters will decide on this year.
If the light rail plan had passed back in 2000, one thing’s for sure: Austin's transit network would look very different today. The 15-mile line would have gone from Ben White and South Congress through downtown on Guadalupe and Lamar, all the way up past Parmer Lane. Think of it this way: if it had been built, you could have a burger at Hopdoddy on South Congress, then hop on a train up to Anderson Lane and Lamar, where it'd be a short hike or bike ride for another burger at the other Hopdoddy.
"2000 was kind of a pivotal moment, I think, in planning for rail transit in Austin," says Jeff Wood with The Overhead Wire, a transit consulting firm in San Francisco. He's studied the 2000 vote closely. "You had this huge election, and George Bush was on the ballot, and it lost by less than 2,000 votes."
While a slight majority of voters within city limits cast ballots in favor of the plan, the vote was in all of Capital Metro's service area at the time. Suburban voters were seen as pivotal in defeating the measure. That failure has informed the proposal Austinites are considering today.
How? To start with, just take a look at the name.
Back in 2000, voters were deciding on a "light rail" line. Now planners are calling the new proposal an "urban rail" line, even though they're the same thing. "Urban rail is our terminology for light rail in this region," Robert Spillar, Austin's Director of Transportation, told a group of realtors at a recent forum on the rail proposal.
A Route Revised
The 2000 plan was a shoo-in for federal funding, with a promise it could even jump ahead of other projects already in the works. That's because the line was projected to have over 37 thousand trips a day. The current plan is expected to have less than half that, and will have to compete with dozens of other projects in other cities for federal funding. And a proposal for federal funding for roughly half of the current proposed line's $1.4 billion capital costs won't be submitted for several years. (If federal or state matching dollars don't come through, according to the ballot language, the line won't be built.)
The failure of the 2000 plan has also meant a different route this time around. It takes away fewer existing car lanes and serves a less dense area of the city – not the more heavily-traveled Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.
"There were a lot of people that thought, they were scared of that alignment, of bringing it back, because it had such a defeat," Wood says. "The loss in 2000, I think, really hit a lot of people hard. A lot of people that had pushed for that alignment."
One of those people is Lyndon Henry (no relation), who's been advocating for transit and rail in Austin for decades. He was (and is) a big proponent of the 2000 plan. And he thinks the failure of that plan had a negative impact on the rail proposal we have today.
"Well, it spooked them about community attitudes, mainly," Henry says. Some neighborhood groups and South Congress businesses were actively against the 2000 light rail plan and subsequently fought to keep it from coming back. "And, boy, has that stayed in people's minds," Henry says. "Unfortunately, it's kinda warped thinking in terms of what we could do here."
While Henry has long supported rail on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, he's taking a different approach to the current plan's route (which would go from Grove and East Riverside through downtown on Trinity, through campus on San Jacinto, and up Red River and Airport to where the Highland Mall and ACC Highland are today). Henry says this route is too expensive and will suffer from low ridership and high operational costs, hurting existing bus service which is funded out of the same pot.
Henry is part of a vocal group of pro-transit Austinites opposing this rail plan, particularly it's proposed route north of Lady Bird Lake, and that opposition has surprised the people planning the project.
"I think it's a remnant of the 2000 vote," says Kyle Keahey, the urban rail project lead for Project Connect (a partnership of regional transit agencies), which came up with today's plan. "It is a little surprising, because I think we've acknowledged there is a need for a system," Keahey says. "Lamar, Mueller, South Congress – all of those need to be served. So I worry as a community that we may make zero progress if that position is taken."
Because of their concerns about the route's ridership and cost, you're now seeing in Austin how politics truly makes for strange bedfellows: pro-transit, anti-prop 1 groups find themselves on the same side of the fence as some of the leading Republican, anti-tax voices also against it. Those are some of the same folks that fought hard against the 2000 rail proposal, like Jim Skaggs of Citizens Against Rail Taxes and Precinct 3 Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, a Republican.
"I'm not interested in watching this community spend six to seven hundred million dollars on something that will [have] such a small, small number of people that will be able to use it," Daugherty said at the recent Austin Board of Realtors rail forum. Daugherty was joined in presenting the opposition to Austin's Proposition 1 that day by Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, a representative of AURA (originally for 'Austinites for Urban Rail Action'). AURA is a pro-transit group that is opposed to the light rail plan on the ballot, saying it's "worse than doing nothing."
"We've avoided this issue in the past, we've kicked the can down the road," says Greg Hartman of Seton Health Care and the treasurer for Let's Go Austin. "You know, a lot of the problems we have now are because people didn't make investments a long time ago."
There's one more big difference between the vote today and the one in 2000. Back then, voters were only deciding on a rail plan, one that could be funded without property tax increases -- it wasn't a bond election. It was a simpler proposal before voters, too -- the ballot wording was just ten words; this time the convoluted ballot proposal runs 220 words.
This election, voters are being asked to decide on a proposal that includes both roads and rail, a move to broaden its appeal. In all, a billion dollars in additional spending is on the line: $600 million in bonds for the light rail proposal and $400 million in city debt for road improvements. That's a price tag that will raise average property taxes by hundreds of dollars a year.