Austin, Texas — Surrounded by an ocean of conservative “Red State” Texas, the city of Austin has long been distinguished as an island of liberalism, with its main political institutions dominated by the Democratic Party. But a proposal for an urban rail starter line, primarily promoted by Austin’s major Democratic establishment, has split much of the liberal-leaning constituency away from the political elite like a ripsaw.
Neighborhood groups and community activists that have long supported mass transit and more progressive urban planning have spearheaded opposition to the officially favored rail plan, which proposes 9.5 miles of urban light rail transit at a projected completion cost of $1.4 billion. Many critics argue the line fails to serve the central city’s most needy travel corridor, and accuse liberal city officials of helping a faction of real estate developers interested in promoting major private projects that would benefit from the rail line. Also, they say, the rail line is aimed to help the University of Texas administration with plans to expand the campus eastward — subsidized by Austin taxpayers.
On June 26, the Austin City Council, rallied by current Mayor Lee Leffingwell, authorized placing the rail plan on a ballot measure, now called Proposition 1. However, included in Prop. 1 is not only $600 million in general obligation bonds for the rail project, but a provision that the city must find an additional $400 million from unspecified sources to fund an array of road projects. Opponents point out that this would leverage about $2.4 billion of federal Interstate Highway matching grants, surpassing the transit project in potential funding. (See Austin: Anger flares as council stifles public criticism, OKs disputed rail plan.)
In addition to the local Democratic Party leadership and a sprinkling of liberal-leaning groups such as the Sierra Club, much of Austin’s heavy business establishment has lined up to back Prop. 1, including the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), and the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA). Leading the Prop. 1 campaign is a political action committee called Let’s Go Austin.
On Sep. 18 the Austin Chronicle, a generally liberal alternative weekly newspaper, published a full-page ad, sponsored by Let’s Go Austin, that displayed a list of backers while disparaging the opposition, who were portrayed as a small handful of right-wing groups together with a more liberal group called Austinites for Urban Rail Action (AURA). AURA has supported urban rail but declared its opposition to the Prop. 1 rail plan.
Local community activist Bill Oakey, a leading opponent of Prop. 1, sent a letter to the Chronicle that declared
The Let’s Go Austin pro-rail ad in last week’s issue was a joke. Let me clarify the situation. For Prop 1. – Lee Leffingwell, Downtown Austin Alliance, RECA. Opponents – North Austin. South Austin, East Austin, West Austin.
Also in response, the OurRail Political Action Committee has published via Twitter an itemization of numerous organizations that oppose Prop. 1, including many that support urban rail in an alternative, more central and heavily traveled corridor called Guadalupe-Lamar.
According to OurRail PAC (Sep. 18), “Civic groups serving over 100,000 people in Central Austin passed formal resolutions opposing Project Connect alignments.” Groups opposing Prop. 1 and supporting urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor include a number of major and influential center-city neighborhood associations, such as Hyde Park, Crestview, Highland, and Northfield.
Other community organizations in opposition include the University Area Partners, a merchants’ association for the dense West Campus and Guadalupe commercial area known as the Drag; and the University of Texas Student Government. Also supporting the alternative Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail plan, according to OurRail, is the Central Austin Combined Neighborhoods Planning Team (CANPAC), representing seven different neighborhood associations:
• West University Neighborhood Association
• Hancock Neighborhood Association
• Eastwoods Neighborhood Association
• North University Neighborhood Association
• Shoal Crest Neighborhood Association
• Heritage Neighborhood Association
• University Area Partners
Recently, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, representing 94 neighborhoods throughout Austin, also declined to endorse the proposition. OurRail further notes that 60 of 69 candidates running for the city’s newly restructured ten council districts have declared their opposition to Prop. 1.
NOTE: This article has been slightly revised since original publication to correct reporting about the position of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (not “Association”), which has not explicitly rejected Prop. 1 but resolved that the group “withholds endorsement of any transportation bond measures until such time as a comprehensive regional transportation plan [is developed] ….”