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District 9 challenger says no to rail proposition

Wednesday, October 8, 2014 by Alex Dropkin

Erin McGann, a challenger to two current City Council members vying for the District 9 position, made her stance clear as early as possible on Monday night. The forum in the Ballot Boxing series was sponsored by the Monitor with partners KUT, the Austin Chronicle, KXAN and Univision, and hosted at KUT’s Studio 1a.

“I’m the only candidate who will be voting against the rail in November,” McGann said in her opening statement, referring to Proposition 1, a $1 billion plan that includes repairing Austin roads and a new downtown rail system. “We don’t have a lot of accountability for what’s happening to our tax money … we need to work on having some more affordable housing, and additionally we can do things with our traffic that won’t cost us one billion dollars.”

McGann and her opponents, current Council Members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley, agreed that affordability was the most important issue to District 9, which includes portions of downtown Austin, the University of Texas, Bouldin Creek, Travis Heights, Mueller, Cherrywood, Clarksville and Hyde Park. However, they divided on transportation and its role in affordability.

“If we do, as a city, pass Proposition 1 in November, we will see an increase in the unaffordability of Austin,” McGann said. “You cannot say you’re for affordability and be for the rail. Those things are diametrically opposed.”

Proposition 1 would authorize the City of Austin to sell $600 million in bonds to build a 9.5- mile urban rail system that would run from East Riverside Drive to Austin Community College’s Highland campus. Mayor Lee Leffingwell has said that the tax increases from the plan, if approved, will be about $15 more a month for the typical household once an application for matching federal funding is approved three years from now.

“There is no one traffic solution that will solve all our traffic problems,” Riley said. “We can’t just make our roads better and then expect everybody to be able to drive everywhere. We need a whole array of options.”

Riley cited bicycle and pedestrian mobility and revising the land development code as additional solutions to the traffic crisis, but said that if Proposition 1 fails, the city will need to continue to look at “high-capacity options.”

Austin is ranked the fourth most congested city in the country, and proponents of the proposal say the rail system is the right answer.

“We can actually very quickly solve a few of our problems by implementing synchronized traffic lights,” McGann suggested. “The city already has the technology for doing that. That’s not going to reduce any of the traffic, but it’ll make the flow better.” McGann also pointed to an increase in the number of buses, depending on demand, as a solution to the city’s traffic.

Though Tovo agreed with McGann that city buses should expand their services, she said that, in addition to small road improvement projects and working with large employers to adjust their employees’ schedules, another high-capacity transit solution may be needed if Proposition 1 fails.

“We have a situation that did not happen overnight, and it’s not going to be solved easily,” Tovo said. “I would definitely make sure, if the proposal does go down in the fall, that we continue to look at all of our ways to reduce traffic.”

Early voting in the election begins Oct. 20, and the general election is on Nov. 4.

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