Rail could definitely pass in 2020

A photo I snapped of urban rail in Budapest earlier this year.

I was talking to a cranky road warrior on the phone the other day who promised me that it would only take $100,000 to defeat another rail bond. All you have to do, he said, is tell people that they’ll lose vehicle lanes on Lamar/Guad and the thing will go down in flames.

Michael King of the Chronicle, a transit supporter, similarly voiced skepticism about a future rail bond passing. The Lamar/Guad/SoCo route favored by most transit wonks, he says, will be opposed “tooth and nail” by South Congress businesses. “Austinites do not want to pay the tab,” he added, noting that we rejected the $287 million bond for a new courthouse in November of 2015.

I forgive Michael’s pessimism. He’s seen and covered a lot of bullshit over the years.

But I firmly believe things will be very different in 2020. In fact, I think it’s clear they are already different. Just look at the overwhelmingly majorities that approved all of the bonds this year, including a $250 million affordable housing measure. That was the partially the product of absolutely bonkers midterm turnout that saw people under 35 become the largest voting bloc in Travis County.

Turnout will be even greater two years from now and the electorate will be even younger. That bodes very well for progressive ballot propositions. That’s why I think the city would be wise to pair a rail bond (or whatever high-capacity transit plan is offered) with an ambitious pedestrian/bike bond that fully funds the bicycle and sidewalk masterplans.

Of course, the rail bond in 2014 didn’t fail just because it was a godawful Republican year. It was also vehemently opposed by many transit advocates, including the then-newly formed Austinites for Urban Rail Action, which has since become simply AURA, an urbanist group that is decidedly agnostic about transit mode. They argued that the proposed route would be a disaster, resulting in low ridership and high subsidies. Similar to the existing red line, it would become a money pit sucking resources away from worthier transit initiatives, including additional rail routes.

I can’t promise that that dynamic won’t play out again. That all depends on what Cap Metro proposes.

Without going into the merits of various routes (that’s a different blog post), I will note that because the 2020 electorate will be so much younger and more progressive than in past years, Cap Metro should feel much more comfortable putting forth whatever the best plan. It’s understandable that in the past they tried to come up with a plan that would draw the least opposition from various established interest groups and constituencies, such as property owners on the Lamar/Guad corridor or suburban commuters who drive on those roads, but given the shifting politics of the city, I think the wiser bet would be to focus on shoring up support among transit advocates and other progressive groups. If you get the progressives united behind a plan, it will win.

One thought on “Rail could definitely pass in 2020

  1. Your turnout argument makes a lot of sense, but until we see any actual plan and its likely cost, I’ll withhold judgment (certainly hasn’t gotten any cheaper to cross the river, but if we don’t, it’s effectively thumbing the nose at South Austin). The 2014 election was also weird because so many Council candidates were running against City Hall, meaning rail became just another bad idea from Downtown. My initial comments on Twitter were actually triggered by yesterday’s CitCom speakers, several of whom fought the 2014 rail plan alongside road warriors while explicitly promising that it would be “easy” to come back to the voters with a new plan “in two years.” There they were, demanding rail like they invented it. (Then Mayor Leffingwell suggested more likely 10 years, and thus far he’s winning the over/under.) Moreover, the Guad corridor is contentious for a bunch of reasons, which I won’t rehearse here. I wish light rail the best of luck, but Austin’s tortured politics can screw up the best laid plans: see CodeNext.

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