$1 billion rail, roads proposal rejected

12:06 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014 Local

Rail failed in Austin on Tuesday, again, and — given the emphatic “no” vote and the difficulty of bringing such a complex venture to the ballot — even the measure’s head cheerleader doesn’t see another serious proposal arising anytime soon.

“It’s dead until somebody revives it,” retiring Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said as disappointed rail supporters mingled quietly around him at a somber Threadgill’s election party. “And that will be a long period of time.”

The city’s $1 billion rail-and-roads proposal, the culmination of a generation-long effort to enlist Austin in the national light rail movement, remained well behind Tuesday with more than 80 percent of the vote counted.

The measure, if approved, would have allowed the city to borrow $600 million to provide most of Austin’s share of a proposed $1.4 billion, 9.5-mile light rail starter line through the city’s core. The proposition also would have had the city first “provide funding” — almost certainly by acquiring still more debt — for $400 million in improvements to Interstate 35 and a handful of other city roads.

City and Capital Metro officials, who had planned the project in tandem, hoped that the companion proposal for roads would draw in enough rail skeptics to put the measure over the top. But that approach drew criticism. Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, long known for his support of building highways, called it “blackmail.”

Jim Skaggs, a retired high-tech executive and longtime rail foe who formed a political action committee that raised more than $270,000 to fight the proposal, said the electric rail line would’ve had no noticeable effect on traffic.

“For the 99.7 percent of the people who take daily trips on our streets, it is obvious we need to improve our road structure, and do it with urgency,” Skaggs said, suggesting that the incoming 10-1 Austin City Council should expand local highways and streets.

“Austin needs to get serious about fixing its own roads,” he said.

The proposed light rail line would have run from North Austin near Highland Mall and the Austin Community College campus taking root there, through downtown, and east on East Riverside Drive to Grove Boulevard. Transit officials estimated that the line could be ready to open by 2022 and would have daily ridership of about 18,000 by 2030.

Borrowing the money for both the rail line and road projects would have increased taxes on a $200,000 home by $217 a year by 2020, city budget officers estimated. That projected hit to taxpayers, and a general sense that Austin is becoming too expensive a place, led to the defeat, Leffingwell said.

Getting a rail proposal teed up this time took seven years, promotion by two Austin mayors, endless meetings and several million dollars for consultants. Those who think a different rail proposal can quickly return to the ballot are “Pollyannas,” Leffingwell said.

Not so, said Lyndon Henry, a former Capital Metro board member who was among a coterie of rail supporters who nonetheless opposed the city ballot measure because they favored an alternative route on the city’s most popular transit corridor, Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard.

“This city leans toward good transit solutions,” Henry said. “But people looked at this and said, ‘This is not a good plan.’ I think they would go for a plan that makes sense and is in the right corridor. And that’s what we’re going to work for.”