Yes, the November 2014 election is more than a year away. An Austin citizens commission only now is drawing the 10 districts under which the city’s revamped City Council will be elected.
And given that city leaders four times since 2008 have feinted at calling an urban rail election, and then fainted the prospect, it is by no means certain that we’ll have a rail bond election concurrent with that ground-breaking council election.
But, boy oh boy, if we do, will it ever be interesting.
Know this up front: Outside of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and perhaps state Rep. Paul Workman, both Republicans, it would difficult to find any local or state elected official in Austin who opposes building urban rail. Some of the local elected class might be withholding final judgment based on details and funding possibilities, but a predisposition toward rail is almost a given.
But with a new, expanded council, speckled with a few members from the city’s fringes, who knows?
Start with the proposed route of urban rail’s initial segment (which is subject to change, but probably won’t significantly), and the proposed council districts. Centered on downtown, the University of Texas area, and Mueller, the rail route runs through only two of the 10 first-draft districts.
Yes, future extensions as proposed now would touch five other proposed districts eventually. The district lines will move around before becoming final. Many people who live in those other, untouched districts work downtown, and presumably might use the rail now and then when they’re at work to … well, for something.
And an overall “high-capacity transit vision,” crafted as part of a city of Austin/Capital Metro concoction called Project Connect, has rail lines running throughout Central Texas. Rail proponents, recognizing the limited utility of an initial 5.5-mile rail line, for the past year have been selling it (or whatever route emerges) as part of that conceptual larger system.
But voters, when you ask them for a large sum of money (in the form of bonds that would have to be paid back from property taxes), might say, “what’s in it for me?” And with that many candidates running, many of them looking to represent areas outside the traditionally liberal, transit-friendly central core of Austin, surely some of them would emphasize that non-nexus between urban rail and their potential constituents.
Rail, in other words, likely would be an issue in the election for those 11 City Council members, including the mayor. A deciding, prominent issue? Too early to say.
But what if, despite all that, Austin voters were to say yes to $200 million or so in rail bonds? At that point, there would be a brand new larger council crowded with neophytes exhibiting more policy diversity on rail than exists on the current council. And simply approving the bonds would not necessarily mean rail would happen.
Last year, before the city ditched plans for a November 2012 bond election, the city laid out a 5.5-mile, $550 million proposal for electric-powered urban rail, a first segment of what could end up being 16 miles or more and cost multiples of the initial investment. You have probably noticed that $550 million is more than twice as much as $200 million. Which means, city officials have said, that building even that first starter line would require a substantial grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell promised that, even if voters say yes to the bonds, nothing will be built unless Austin gets that grant money.
Leffingwell, however, will be leaving office after next year’s election, so he won’t be in a position to either fulfill or break such a promise. And the new council won’t be bound by it.
Capital Metro officials, before the 2004 referendum authorizing MetroRail, said they would be pursuing $30 million in federal transit grants, a third of the line’s relatively paltry estimated cost of $90 million. After voters said yes, Capital Metro didn’t apply for that money and simply used more of the agency’s reserves for what ended up being a considerably higher cost of getting MetroRail up and running.
With urban rail’s much larger tab (even assuming the $550 million is a top figure, which history here and elsewhere indicates is likely not the case), the city would have a harder time building those first few miles without substantial federal help. But it wouldn’t be impossible, given the City Council’s authority to raise property taxes, levy fees and move money from one sector of city government to another priority such as rail. Capital Metro, which is doing better financially, might even be able to pitch in.
So, would this new mayor and these new council members take the Leffingwell rail pledge as well? The American-Statesman will be asking. Before the election.