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Analysis shows Austin urban rail votes closely tied to proposed route

How Austinites stood on the city’s defeated rail-and-roads proposal had a lot to do with where they lie down at night, based on a review of Tuesday’s precinct-by-precinct results.

The closer people live to the proposed route of the 9.5-mile light rail line, the more likely they were to vote yes Tuesday. And in a city with more than 500 square miles, a great many people’s homes are a great distance away from what would have been a 30-foot-wide sliver of rail.

The $1 billion measure got a majority of the votes in just 49 of the city’s 228 voting precincts, losing citywide 57 percent to 43 percent and throwing serious doubt on the future of rail in Central Texas. Light rail, which fell about 2,000 votes short in a Capital Metro election 14 years ago, this time lost by 27,289 votes.

“Southwest Austin, Southeast Austin, Northwest Austin just said, ‘You gotta be kidding,’” said Peck Young, an Austin political consultant for decades and now an Austin Community College professor. “Because for those people, their taxes were going up and they were as far away from that train as you could possibly get.”

In Precinct 304 in Circle C Ranch, for instance, just 28 percent of the 2,096 people who voted said yes to the measure, even though it also had a $400 million roads package that would have included widening nearby RM 1826. Under the proposition, the city would have borrowed $600 million to supply most of the local share of the line’s estimated $1.4 billion cost.

But in Precinct 429 along East Riverside Drive, which would have had light rail cutting through it from one end to the other, two thirds of the 1,437 voters approved of the proposition. The other six precincts with more than 65 percent in favor of rail were either along the rail line within a mile or two.

Conversely, with only a handful of exceptions, the precincts north of U.S. 183, west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and south of Ben White Boulevard disdained the proposal, many of them by 2-1 ratios or greater. The proposition also failed in East and Southeast Austin precincts beyond the city’s core.

To former Capital Metro board member John Langmore, who made a number of appearances at forums in favor of rail during the campaign, that geographic tie-in — insufficient for passage as it turned out to be — is actually an argument for continuing to pursue rail in Austin.

“It’s not an indictment of rail, it’s an endorsement of rail,” Langmore said. “The direct beneficiaries of it totally get it, in large numbers.”

As for those nowhere near the proposed line, Langmore called it “completely logical” that they voted no.

“Those people in Southwest and Northwest — understandably, by the way — looked at this and said, ‘There is nothing in it for me,’” he said, other than a steep property tax increase.

Langmore, while acknowledging that the city’s political class might not have the motivation to do so anytime soon, said a similar if not identical rail route should be brought back to voters and again be packaged with road spending. But the proposed road projects, he said, need to be tactically spread out around the area.

“You have to give them something,” Langmore said.

Young, who in his time ran numerous bond campaigns, said packaging rail and roads in one up-or-down proposition was a mistake.

“The voters actually appreciate the opportunity to choose,” he said. “And very often the fact that you offered them a choice makes them give you all of them. All or nothing? The answer is nothing.”

Austin attorney Pete Winstead, who formerly chaired the state’s tollway authority and describes himself as a “road warrior,” worked vigorously for the city proposition. Even so, he said Wednesday that the balance of the proposal was off. In an area plagued by highway and city street congestion, putting 60 percent of the proposed $1 billion toward something few would use was poor strategy, he said.

In any case, Winstead said he was worried about where this leaves Austin’s transportation future, and its economy.

“My concern is that it really shuts everything down for five to eight years,” Winstead said. “The congestion is just going to get worse. I’m getting a lot of feedback from companies that ‘if we had known Austin was like this, we wouldn’t have come here.’”

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