The city of Austin’s light rail bond proposition has picked up an unexpected foe: longtime Democratic Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gómez, who served on Capital Metro’s board for more than 12 years and chaired the transit agency panel during the final stages of MetroRail construction.
“It’s just unaffordable,” Gómez said of the $1.4 billion, 9.5-mile light rail proposal.
The project would be partially funded from $600 million in bonds going before voters Nov. 4, a ballot initiative that contains a proviso that the Austin City Council must first put $400 million into road projects. The proposed rail route includes a leg along East Riverside Drive in Gómez’s precinct.
“I have heard from people in South Austin and East Austin,” said Gómez, who since 1995 has represented Precinct 4 in Southeast Travis County. “I ask them, ‘Are you going to use (light rail)?’ and they say no. Perhaps this time around we should think of our pocketbooks.”
The $1 billion in rail and road debt by 2020, once all the bonds have been sold, would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $217 in added annual property taxes, city officials estimate.
Gómez’s position on light rail emerged earlier this week, when she told fellow Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty that she would like to speak at a press conference called to unveil Citizens Against Rail Taxes. That group, through a political action committee it formed Aug. 5, will be raising money to oppose Proposition 1 on the ballot.
Jim Skaggs, a longtime rail opponent and treasurer of the PAC, said Tuesday that he was “surprised, but elated” that Gómez had joined the anti-rail fold. “It takes courage for one to really come out and express their firm beliefs.”
Skaggs declined to say how much the PAC has raised so far. By law, the group must reveal what it has raised a month out from Nov. 4 and again eight days before Election Day.
Gómez’s stance puts her in a distinct minority among local political and business leaders.
Let’s Go Austin, the political action committee formed to support Proposition 1, on its website lists 15 organizations, 15 current or former elected officials, and more than 200 others who support the proposal. Among those on the list: state Sen. Kirk Watson; Travis County Commissioner and former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd; former Mayor Gus Garcia; three local state House members; all seven members of the Austin City Council; Seton Healthcare Family leaders Greg Hartman and Jesus Garza; the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and the Austin chapter of the Sierra Club.
Attorney Martha Smiley, a former University of Texas regent who has been an enthusiastic Proposition 1 supporter, said that Austinites in general — and Gómez’s constituents in particular — need to put this initial light rail line into a larger context.
“I don’t know why our community is having so much difficulty understanding we’re talking about a system of mobility, and we can’t build all the parts at the same time,” Smiley said. “We do have to address affordability, but we can’t do it at the expense of having a workable transportation system.”
Asked about Gómez’s position, Smiley noted the lengthy list of Let’s Go Austin supporters.
“We’re not going to get everybody,” she said. “But for it to be someone whose district is served by the line is pretty stunning.”