$600M rail bond will be on ballot; many questions still loom

Urban rail vision (Courtesy: Project Connect website)
Urban rail vision (Courtesy: Project Connect website)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Fourteen years ago voters rejected an urban rail proposal in Austin. Now, city council is trying again to get residents on board with their plan.

Council members voted unanimously on Thursday to place an urban rail bond on the November ballot.

The bond will ask voters to approve $600 million that would be put towards constructing the rail system. The other portion of the cost is expected to be covered by federal funds. A condition of the bond states that the city must also provide or obtain $400 million to pay for roadway improvements.

The city wanted to lump the rail an roads project into a single bond package, but the attorney general’s office said that would be illegal.

“The road project is very specific,” Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. “It is a covenant with the voters for $400 million in local funding options for specific roadways and those are listed in the ballot language.”

The move to add funding for roads was suggested a few months ago as a way to sweeten the deal for those who felt urban rail was something they would never take due to where they live or work in Austin.

“The way the ballot language has been crafted is clear,” Leffingwell said. “If we don’t get the matching funds we will not use bond money for construction of the project.”

The 9.5-mile urban rail project would run from Austin Community College’s Highland campus to Grove Boulevard off East Riverside Drive.

“If we vote no to put it towards rail, council is not going to come back and put it towards roadways,” threatened John Langmore with the Central Corridor Advisory Group.

Still, the bond is reliant on federal matching money, which is no guarantee. However, Leffingwell remains confident the city would be able to obtain the millions from the Federal Transit Administration that is needed to make urban rail a reality.

“Before you can even approach the FTA for matching funds you have to have a local commitment and that’s what the November election will hopefully do will establish a local share for a local commitment of funding. From there we will go into a preliminary engineering and environmental analysis and we anticipate that will take about three years,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

But groups against the plan believe between the gamble with federal funds and the cost put on taxpayers it’s not worth it.

“We’re asking the voters to put out a huge sum of money, raise their property taxes by 6 cents on a $100, you’re talking about hundreds of dollars on the average home for a project that most people won’t use,” said Dave Dobbs, Ex. Director Texas Association for Public Transportation.

The city finance office estimates that taxes on a $200,000 home would be raised an average of $150 a year if the bond passes.

“We hear a lot of people can’t get where they need to go,” one skeptical citizen said, “but this line isn’t going to serve the people it is meant to serve.”

The mayor said last week one of his biggest concerns with getting the rail bond passed is convincing commuters all over the city, no matter where you live in the region there is something in it for you. He said if the bond doesn’t pass it could likely be another 10 years before a rail plan reaches voters again because of all of the planning.

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