TX: Urban Rail Campaign to be an Odd Mix of Pros And Cons

June 22-- In retrospect, the 2000 light rail campaign seems almost quaint.

The lines were so clearly drawn back then: rail supporters, including much of the downtown business and political establishment, as well as a tapestry of liberals, versus a small but effective band of libertarian-leaning opponents who said the 52-mile, $1.9 billion proposal would cost too much and do too little.

The opponents prevailed.

Austin Rail Smackdown II more or less kicks off this week. The Capital Metro board on Monday and the Austin City Council on Thursday will vote on endorsing a 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion plan. Then in early August, the council is likely to call a November bond election.

The teams for and against are an intriguing, counterintuitive mix. And the probable bond vote will come in the midst of an epochal shift in Austin's city government, with all 11 slots of what will no longer be an at-large-elected council up for grabs, along with a large Austin Community College bond proposition and several flashy statewide races.

It should be fun.

So, who's openly for rail, or likely to be?

Start with the Downtown Austin Alliance, which has been pushing for rail in the city's core for 20 years. Its stance is no surprise, nor are the official endorsements of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and the Alliance for Public Transportation, a low-profile transit advocacy group established here several years ago.

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which came out for the 2000 light rail plan and the MetroRail commuter line plan in 2004 (which was approved by voters over token opposition and is in operation), hasn't weighed in yet. The chamber board is set to consider the matter Thursday, and all signs point to another endorsement.

But chamber officials have been pushing for the bond proposal to have ample spending on roads in addition to as much as $700 million the city would need for rail (the feds, in theory, would supply the other half). How ample? I'm told the chamber wants a 60-40 split, with the larger percentage for rail.

That would launch the bond amount over the politically daunting $1 billion mark, which would carry a property tax increase of more than $150 a year for the average Austin home, valued at about $200,000.

Negotiations on this ticklish issue are in progress as I write this. But expect the chamber to be on board, with dollars as well as effusive words. The chamber's transportation committee reportedly backed the rail plan a couple of weeks ago on a 25-1 vote.

Speaking of money, rail supporters in March formed the Let's Go Austin political action committee, designating Seton Healthcare Family President Greg Hartman as treasurer. The dollars have already started to flow to the PAC, I'm told, but we'll have to wait until mid-July to get a first look at how much, and from whom.

The Real Estate Council of Austin hasn't taken a position, at least not yet. But Tim Taylor, its former president and a current executive committee member, served on Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell's rail advisory working group over the past several months. Ten days ago he was on the prevailing side of a 13-1 vote in favor of the rail plan.

The mayor's committee included Pat Clubb, a University of Texas vice president who also voted for the plan. The university can't officially take a position on the proposal but has been involved in the rail planning effort for years.

Then there's Ben Barnes, the former Texas lieutenant governor and longtime lobbyist. Barnes, who in the 1990s represented the successful bidder for a Texas high-speed rail project (the deal fell apart long before construction), is all in on the rail plan and wants to be involved.

This is where at least one of the crosscurrents hits. Barnes lives at the Four Seasons Residences at Trinity and East Cesar Chavez streets. The urban rail project includes a bridge over Lady Bird Lake that would alight on the lake's north shore on Trinity, wiping out the city of Austin's 2-year-old, $3.4 million boathouse.

The bridge and rail line would pass yards away from the Four Seasons Residences' east facade, the site of its loading dock, a parking garage entrance and an access point to the parkland along the lake. Representing some of the city power brokers who live there, the condo association in mid-May sent a letter to Leffingwell expressing the group's "clear and unequivocal opposition to this route and plan" and pledging "to work with others adversely affected to defeat the bond measure."

Barnes might have to do a few elevator speeches on rail.

Things get even stranger elsewhere on the opposition side.

Retired high-tech executive Jim Skaggs and Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who have been the anti-rail poster boys around here for years, will be back, of course. They'll have a political action committee as well, although Skaggs said it hasn't formed yet, and probably a healthy amount of money to spend (but likely to be much less than Let's Go Austin will have).

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, which has opposed rail before because it draws money away from bus service and the union's drivers and mechanics, will once again be working against it, union President Jay Wyatt told me.

But the big difference this time is that several groups of rail supporters say they'll not only vote no, but actively oppose the proposal. They say that the proposed route in North Austin, from Highland Mall south along Airport Boulevard and Red River Street, is the wrong corridor. They have advocated for two years a Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard route instead. Better to just start over, they say, even if that means another several years of delay before Austin gets light rail.

This diverse group includes AURA (formerly Austinites for Urban Rail Action), Light Rail Now (basically Lyndon Henry, a former Capital Metro board member, and Dave Dobbs) and the Central Austin Community Development Corp. The size of these groups is hard to gauge, and they probably will have little money to spend.

But they are committed and know how to use social media. And having committed rail supporters arguing against a rail proposal could carry a wallop.

Fasten your seat belts. Or, in rail terms, grab an overhead strap and hang on.

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