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Candidates say rushing rail question to voters could doom plan

Friday, April 25, 2008 by Mark Richardson

City Council candidates got their first crack Wednesday night at the light rail line proposed this week by the ROMA Design Group. Most of the candidates said it is a necessary addition to the city’s transportation system, but no one came up with any new ideas on how to pay for it.


Candidates met at the Austin Club for a forum sponsored by the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, and answered a number of questions regarding growth, housing, public safety and transportation issues in the downtown area. About 75 downtown residents attended the program.


The newly proposed, 14-mile light rail system would run from Austin Bergstrom International Airport to Downtown Austin, through the Capitol complex and UT Campus to the Mueller redevelopment. Early cost estimates were as high as $500 million.


Place 3 candidates were asked whether proposed light rail system be put on the ballot in November. Incumbent Jennifer Kim was direct and to the point.


“Light rail is something we need to just get done,” she said. “It’s a critical element of Austin’s growth and we need to find whatever way is necessary. We may want to take the extra time to vet the plans for it and get the public behind it. That may mean waiting until next May to get it on the ballot.”


Challenger Randi Shade said rushing the project could doom it to failure.


“I remember the last light rail election back in 1999,” said Shade. “That failed by a small margin. And I think if this deal is rushed, if we fail to get input, don’t have a viable plan to pay for it, it will likely fail again. There are too many unanswered questions to rush this on to a ballot. We don’t need to put it out there too soon if that means it is going to fail.”


Ken Weiss, also vying for Place 3, was one of the few who outright opposed the light rail proposal.


“This thing is going to cost up to one-half billion dollars,” he said. “We haven’t had any chance to study the proposals, but for that amount of money, they really need to just revamp the bus system to make it run properly. Capital Metro is broken, and we need to fix it.”


In Place 4, candidate Laura Morrison was also concerned about moving too fast on a light rail proposal.


“We should wait to put it on the ballot until it has been properly vetted,” she said. “We need a plan for how it’s going to be paid for, and how it would fit in with the broader transit plan. It’s important to have those issues discussed out front.”


Cid Galindo said moving forward on rail was critical to future growth.


“We need to formulate a rail plan that will serve the needs of the region,” he said. “We don’t want to be setting rail up to fail just to get on the next election. We cannot put it on a ballot and win without a substantial amount of public input and buy-in.”


Challenger Robin Cravey said you have to change the culture of the ridership in Austin to accept mass transit.


“I voted for light rail in 1999, and I am now,” he said. “It’s something we need. But we also need to improve the bus service. We need a transit company that treats its riders like customers. We need to provide service so that the customers actually want to ride the bus. We need to change Cap Metro’s mentality.”


In Place 1, only candidate Alan Demling was present at the forum. Both challenger Jason Meeker and incumbent Lee Leffingwell had other commitments. Campaign aide Andy Mormon sat in for Leffingwell.


Mormon did not respond to the light rail question, and Demling said he preferred that money be spent to make Austin more bicycle- and pedestrian- friendly.

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