- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
Nashville was going to be the template.
Now, for Austin light rail advocates — and opponents, for that matter — the May 1 election in Tennessee’s capital is more like a blank slate. They can look at the crushing result — 64 percent of the voters there rejected the five-route, multibillion-dollar plan and its assorted tax increases — and see any sort of lesson about what should, would or could happen here with rail.
“People have a tendency to learn what they already believe from events like the Nashville vote,” said James Withrow, an academic consultant and rail supporter who since the election has been part of robust discussion on an ATXRail group email list that I monitor.
Here are some of the conclusions ventured in cyberspace: Nashville went too big. Nashville cynically chose a lower-turnout election date. The Nashville electorate, because the city and county are one unified government, has too many suburbanites voting to approve a light rail plan. Proponents couldn’t settle on a unified campaign message. Nashville didn’t have an answer to the charge that light rail benefits gentrifying hipsters at the expense of African-Americans. Nashville had bum luck when the rail effort’s primary spokeswoman, now-former Mayor Megan Barry, was ensnared in a scandal in January and resigned in March. Nashville was the victim of a campaign orchestrated by the conservative Koch brothers of Kansas.
And, my favorite: Nashville doesn’t matter.
Because you can be sure that Nashville would have mattered a whole lot, rhetorically, had the referendum passed. The Tennessee capital is one of those places seen as a close cousin of Austin: rapid growth, frustrating traffic, a big music scene, southern and, critically in this context, no light rail on the ground.
Austin and Capital Metro up until now, certainly, have been following the go-big script that Nashville attempted to pull off. The transit agency’s revivified Project Connect planning effort, now in its final stages, includes 11 potential light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines, at a broadly estimated cost of $6 billion to $10 billion. That’s similar in scope to Nashville’s rejected $6.6 billion plan.
The most likely version here would include three light rail lines, with a combined length comparable to the 27.4 miles Nashville had in mind, with lines reaching well into Austin’s northern and southern suburbs. Nashville’s plan included a massive transit tunnel under downtown, an effort to counter concerns about taking away vehicle lanes in an already congested area. Capital Metro President and CEO Randy Clarke has talked about the possibility of a similar tunnel in Central Austin, potentially running under Guadalupe Street to bypass the teeming University of Texas traffic.
The populations of the two areas are comparable, with the greater Austin metro area topping 2 million and about 1.75 million people dwelling in the Nashville metropolitan area. And Tennessee is a red state, like Texas.
But, really, it is a fair question: Does a failed transit referendum in one town, no matter the similarities, portend a similar fate in another town two years later?
This would be a good moment to bring up Seattle. Certainly Austin Mayor Steve Adler does that with some regularity, particularly the $54 billion transportation plan approved by voters there in November 2016.
Yes, no typo there: $54 billion.
Actually, voters in three Seattle-area counties were asked to OK generating an additional $28 billion over 25 years by raising property taxes, sales taxes and a car tax. The rest of the $54 billion is to come from federal funding, bonds and growth in existing taxes. All this would expand the current 62-mile light rail system there to 116 miles, reaching 37 more communities in the Puget Sound area.
The plan also contemplates extending an existing commuter rail line and adding bus rapid transit lines on two Seattle-area highways.
The proposition passed with 54.1 percent of the vote.
However, the Seattle metro area has about twice the population of greater Austin. Seattle voters already had said yes to light rail twice — the 2016 plan was in fact called Sound Transit 3 — whereas Austin twice has rejected that particular form of rail (and said “yes” once to much cheaper commuter rail service). And both Seattle and the state encompassing it are true blue, a political mind-meld that is not the case here.
In the end, as the grammatically suspect truism has it, all politics is local. So what happens here in 2020 — when Capital Metro and the city of Austin are likely to bring some sort of rail referendum and bond proposal to the ballot — will have a lot more to do with local history and the situation on the ground here than what happened elsewhere. There also might be some pretty intense interest in the top of the ballot then as well, with turnout ramifications.
There’s also at least one specific difference between Austin as compared with Seattle and Nashville, and it’s one that most definitely does not work in favor of light rail here: the lack of “local option.”
The core of both of those other proposals was a menu of tax increases to pay for the huge capital spending and large operating costs to follow, something that was possible in each case (if voters said yes) only because the Tennessee and Washington legislatures had granted municipalities authority to ask for such tax hikes. The Texas Legislature in 2009 came extremely close to allowing local governments the option of asking voters for transportation tax and fee increases, but the effort was foiled in the session’s waning days.
So the only way Capital Metro and the city can raise large sums of cash — assuming the 2019 Legislature doesn’t pass a local option bill — is to propose a property-tax-backed bond such as in Austin’s unsuccessful 2014 light rail election. Capital Metro’s 1 percent sales tax is already at its maximum, and the agency sees little chance that levy will throw off extra revenue for light rail.
As I’ve written before, state law also allows Capital Metro to levy a vehicle emissions tax of up to $15 per car or truck. That would require voter approval, though, and it would raise just $10 million a year, enough to make only a small dent in a multibillion-dollar rail plan.
Clarke, the Capital Metro boss, said in an email to me that in 2017, nearly 90 percent of transit ballot measures around the country passed, and I’ve seen a 70 percent figure elsewhere for such elections over the past couple of decades. Clarke said he is optimistic about a referendum here “because our residents recognize that something needs to happen to improve mobility throughout the region.”
Yes, no doubt, they do. The real question in 2020 will be whether the “something” on the ballot, and the associated cost, makes sense to 50 percent-plus-one of those who show up to vote. None of them will be thinking about Nashville.