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AURA accuses Project Connect of funding political ads for urban rail

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 by Jenny Blair

Project Connect’s ubiquitous summer media spots about its proposed urban rail project have drawn fire from the transit activist group AURA, which calls the ads unethical. The group says the ads are a political advertising campaign funded by taxpayer dollars. Project Connect officials say they are educational.

The radio, television, print and digital ads in question are part of a $157,187 media buy, according to Project Connect team leader Kyle Keahey.

On July 10, AURA wrote an open letter to Capital Metro, saying some of the media activities seem like political advocacy.

“While the words ‘vote for the bond package’ are not included in any of the advertisements, this sort of technicality prioritizes form over substance: since the rest of the content makes no mention of opposing viewpoints or data, this advertising campaign is public relations, not genuine engagement,” AURA wrote.

Keahey replied July 16, calling the media activities “educational and project awareness efforts.” He wrote that Capital Metro’s counsel ensured the activities remained compliant with election laws.

Austin’s Hahn Public Communications is coordinating the media effort. Hahn previously coordinated Capital Metro’s ads for nighttime Metro Rail service, according to Capital Metro marketing specialist Dan Dawson.

Dawson said the media buy’s funds come from federal grant money that Project Connect’s Central Corridor Study received from the Federal Transit Administration. He added that education and outreach are grant requirements.

Project Connect has scheduled the spots to run through Aug. 5, according to Keahey.

That end date struck AURA representatives Marcus Denton and Brad Absalom as suspicious. Aug. 7 is the day the Austin City Council is likely to place a road-and-rail bond on the November ballot, asking voters to come up with $1 billion to pay for Project Connect’s urban rail line plus a series of road upgrades. AURA has called the package “auto-centric” and June 26 urged the council not to place it on the ballot.

In a July 18 response to Keahey, Denton and Absalom wrote that the timing suggests an effort more political than educational. If the proposal becomes a ballot measure, then any taxpayer-funded ads would be subject to state election law.

The Texas Election Code (§255.003) states, “an officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.” It exempts communications that describe the purposes of a measure without advocating for or against it.

Keahey told the Monitor that the end date was in fact an effort to “separate the information efforts from any campaign efforts.”

“We wanted to avoid the appearance of any conflict,” Keahey said. “If you look at the messages, it’s pretty simple about what the project is, where it goes, how much it costs, how many people will benefit from it.

“All we’re trying to do is present the costs and the benefits of our analysis in a fair fashion,” Keahey added.

Denton told the Monitor the ads were one-sided.

“They don’t mention the least popular elements of the proposal – the Highland segment,” Denton said. “They don’t mention the giant road funding package.”

The line’s proposed ACC/Highland terminus has especially irked critics, including AURA, who argue that route would serve Austin poorly and make future expansion difficult.

Project Connect’s print and digital ads mention the Highland terminus by name. The radio and TV ads do not.

AURA wrote July 18 that it was confident Capital Metro’s attorneys were correct about the legality of the media activities, but added “spending taxpayer dollars promoting a controversial urban rail proposal is unethical and erodes public trust.”

Keahey called the charge of unethical behavior an unnecessary jab.

“We are being very good stewards of public dollars that have been spent on this project, making sure that there is awareness of the study and the study’s results – that’s costs, benefits and what the project is,” Keahey said. “I think for us to do otherwise would violate our commitment that AURA made with us to be open, transparent and data-driven.”

Whether voters will give the transportation package the nod is unclear, but Denton is not betting on it.

“Using the publicly-funded marketing campaign along with adding the $400 million in roads at the last minute demonstrates to me how little support the urban rail route has on its own,” Denton said. “It’s just more evidence that it can’t stand on its own without these extra measures.”



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