Tuesday, August 2, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

PAC’s poll shows big support for light rail

A grassroots effort to put a light rail referendum on the November ballot is adding one more curve to the course as City Council members sprint to decide whether to send Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million mobility bond proposal to voters.

The Our Rail political action committee took it upon itself to personally conduct a poll that found that 56 percent of likely voters across the city would support an initial 5.3-mile light rail route up the spine of Central Austin on Guadalupe Street and North Lamar Boulevard.

Only 27 percent of the 497 respondents said they would vote against the proposal, while 17 percent said they were unsure.

The poll’s margin of error is 4.4 percent.

The Our Rail PAC is an offshoot of the Central Austin Community Development Corporation, which has independently cobbled together a detailed proposal for a $400 million light rail line that would run from Crestview Station to Republic Square Park. That segment would be the initial phase of a larger citywide network, according to the plan.

This year, the Urban Transportation Commission endorsed a light rail referendum in three separate resolutions. Last Wednesday, the city’s Joint Sustainability Committee unanimously voted to recommend that Council put up a bond that includes funding for a minimum operable rail segment, and on Monday night, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association also added its support to the CACDC’s plan in a 20-1 vote, with six abstentions.

However, the CACDC’s proposal has found little traction on Council. The body has given serious consideration only to Adler’s bond proposal, which would funnel money toward projects along regional roadways and key corridors. The plan also includes millions for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as well as funding for the city’s Vision Zero plan to drastically reduce car-related deaths.

Adler’s playbook has instead put the onus of rail planning on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Project Connect Central Corridor Study, which will kick off in earnest later this year. However, the political calculus could conceivably shift thanks to the Our Rail PAC’s new poll, in whose creation Adler himself played a key part, according to the PAC.

“This poll was necessary to confirm the findings of the (March 2015) Zandan Voices of the Austin Community Poll that reported 66 percent support for a new rail system,” Our Rail’s Scott Morris told the Austin Monitor in an email on Monday night. “In discussing the Zandan poll with Mayor Adler during a meeting with our group on June 15, he requested that we conduct a poll for a Guadalupe-North Lamar starter line, cross-tabbed by district. We agreed with the Mayor that this needed to be undertaken, and we pledged to complete it.”

The PAC claims that it conducted the poll by itself due to the steep cost of professional polling firms. Morris told the Monitor that the group has taken extraordinary steps to ensure the survey’s credibility.

“We sought out advice on how to conduct the poll, provided the raw data and methodology for anyone who wants to download it, and followed all disclosure recommendations of the National Council on Public Polls,” he said. “I don’t know of any partisan organization that has followed that level of rigor and transparency in polling. If this poll is somehow different from a professionally done poll, we would like to know how.”

According to the documentation, the PAC’s unpaid volunteers used official voter history files from Travis and Williamson counties to reach out to 13,342 likely voters via telephone, email or postcards with a link to an online survey. Of that group, only 549 responded to the seven-question survey.

Morris said his goal is to get Council to add the PAC’s light rail proposal to the November ballot, increasing what would already be a large request of voters to north of $1.1 billion. That would outdo the record set by the failed $1 billion rail-and-roads bond voters shot down in 2014.

Echoing Adler’s rhetoric about “going big” in the so-called Year of Mobility, Morris said, “If we are really serious about our mobility challenges, it’s time to go bigger.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Central Austin Community Development Corporation: In their own words, this non-profit group was "created to align public resources with citizen intent" and enhance "the livability, safety, and diversity of our community by building bridges of communication and respect among people."

November 2016 elections

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