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Unanimous Council says no to November urban rail election

Thursday, March 11, 2010 by Austin Monitor

Mayor Lee Leffingwell has decided not to bring a rail proposal to Austin voters this November. The Mayor broke the news in a long letter posted on his Web site Wednesday afternoon. During his campaign for mayor last year, Leffingwell said he would pursue a bond election on rail in November and he has talked about the idea at great length since then.


“It has become clear to me over the past few weeks,” he wrote,  “that critical questions about the City’s urban rail proposal – questions that voters need and deserve to have the answers to – will in fact remain unanswered until after November.”


Leffingwell cited four major areas of concern that arose from “countless conversations and careful consideration over the past few weeks” pertaining to the feasibility of an urban rail election in the fall.


First, he said, the city will not be prepared to propose an exact rail route across Lady Bird Lake before November, “creating uncertainty and leaving an unacceptable variable in the construction cost estimate for the first phase of the system.”


He also expressed uncertainty both that the city would be able to present voters with a final proposal for partnering with a specific urban rail entity and that a plan to minimize the impact on Austin commuters and businesses would be sufficiently developed by November.


Finally, he wrote, “I believe the city has more work to do to present a clear picture of what subsequent phases of an urban rail system might look like, how construction and operation of those later phases might be financed, and exactly what role we can expect federal funding to play.”


Leffingwell went on to accept blame for the city’s failing to meet the November goal, saying that the timeline he supported was overly ambitious and failed to “fully recognize the complexity of developing the urban rail proposal.” Though he expects the election to occur sometime before the end of 2011, “going forward,” he wrote, “the determining factor for holding a rail election must be the completeness of the proposal, not an imposed deadline. … we will only promise what we know we can deliver.”


What Leffingwell believes Council can deliver is investments in roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, and trails—$100 million worth of investments, to be exact, which represents half of the current bonding capacity the city has without requiring an increase in its tax rate. Leffingwell wrote that he would be bringing the $100 million investment package proposal to City Council in the next two weeks.


“This approach will allow us to make some near-term progress on critical transportation infrastructure,” he wrote, “while still retaining half of the bonding capacity we have at our current tax rate to devote to a future transportation proposal that includes the first phase of an urban rail system.”


“If approved by the City Council, this approach will allow us to make some near-term progress on critical transportation infrastructure, while still retaining half of the bonding capacity we have at our current tax rate to devote to a future transportation proposal that includes the first phase of an urban rail system.”


After releasing his statement, the Mayor had the unanimous support the Council yesterday afternoon. Council Member Randi Shade told In Fact Daily that the mayor’s actions showed “prudence and good judgment. We need solid answers to some big questions about urban rail before we ask Austinites to vote on this important matter, and I am confident that this delay will allow us to get to those answers.”


Shade said that she would not only be supporting but co-sponsoring Leffingwell’s proposal to use half of the city’s current bonding capacity to make improvements in roads, trails, sidewalks, and bike lanes, or, as she said, “to make a dent in our very long list of transportation needs.”


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez was also effusive in his support for the mayor’s call for a delay on the urban rail proposal. The chair of the Capital Metro Board of Directors, which is preparing for the launch of the new commuter rail line next week, said that he’s “convinced that urban rail will ultimately be vital to the success of our overall transportation system in Austin and Central Texas, especially as commuter rail now begins to become a central component of that system. I believe this delay will also allow Capital Metro to demonstrate the utility of rail transit in Austin vis-à-vis the Red Line.”


Martinez said he also strongly supports the mayor’s $100 million transportation bond proposal. “We know that solving our traffic problems will require a generations-long, multi-modal approach,” he said, “and I see no reason to wait to pursue investments we know we need to make.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole told In Fact Daily that she was glad to hear about the mayor’s decision because she had been concerned that the city had not done enough analysis of the economic feasibility of urban rail. “Absent that type of in-depth study,” she said, “I would have been very hesitant to move forward. I believe that this community is very committed to rail and I support that also, but we have to do so in a financially prudent manner.”


Though Council Member Bill Spelman was noncommittal on whether the city could finish up the urban rail plan in time for a 2011 election, he told In Fact Daily, “I’m confident we can at some point. Exactly which route we choose will determine the cost. Given another year I think we can get it together, but some of it depends on things we haven’t decided yet.”


Meanwhile Council Member Laura Morrison said that she was not interested in pushing the issue of urban rail until Council could “get it right. Clearly it seems that the information is not going to be ready for us to do a rail bond election,” this year she said, “but it makes sense to consider proceeding with the rest of that (the $100 million transportation bond election) or in looking at that.”


Finally, Council Member Chris Riley said, “The mayor’s right:  We still have a lot of work to do before we’re ready to present an urban rail proposal to the voters. My hope is that the planning work we’ve been doing will continue in the coming months, so we’ll be ready to go to the voters as soon as possible. I also hope our transit planning efforts will help shape development decisions as the economy turns around, regardless of when the election occurs.”


Even longtime local anti-rail advocate Mike Levy was inspired to come out in favor of Leffingwell. “I think Lee’s actions demonstrate that the very best politics are just good government,” he told In Fact Daily. “Lee’s statement on his site shows candor and honesty and real class in his saying he made a promise in his campaign he just couldn’t keep because he didn’t think it was the right thing for the community to do at this time, that it was not in Austin’s best interest to proceed without more information that would allow voters to make an informed decision. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. Wouldn’t it be great if all elected officials acted this way?”

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