The Long, Strange Trip to Austin’s Transit Victory

In November 2020, Austin passed Proposition A, authorizing a $7.5 Billion transit expansion which includes rail. There have been various interpretations of why this succeeded. I’m not a transit or political expert, but I am an Austin resident who has been paying attention to transit issues since the initial, fateful 2000 loss. Here are my impressions of the various campaigns, and how we ended up passing the 2020 plan.

The 2000 Referendum

The 2000 loss was a true heart-breaker. It lost by less than 1%, fewer than 2000 votes. A couple of things that were in play that election:

The whole CapMetro area was voting on the plan, which added a lot of suburban voters. Central Austin really needed to perform to overcome those votes.

The anti-rail campaign had more traction in the central Austin electorate. Max Nofziger was still a respectable voice in local politics, and respected as an environmentalist. Climate change from automobile emissions felt less urgent then, and he led the charge against the plan, largely being a mouthpiece for South Congress merchants (i.e., Guerros) that rail would be bad for business.

Some potential advocates felt they could vote against this and get a monorail passed in a couple of years. It did feel like the plan was rushed to the polls, and there wasn’t the sense that all modes had been thoroughly considered.

With such thin margins, any of the above could have made a difference.

Red Line 2004 Passes

In Trains, Buses, People, Christof Spieler writes (something to the effect) that if nobody opposes your transit plan, it probably isn’t a very good plan. Pretty much nobody opposed the 2006 plan, which is why it passed.

The line runs on existing rail, so the capital cost seemed pretty cheap. It seemed like a good way to dip our toe in the water of light rail. In hindsight, it was the wrong idea. The line is slowly gaining ridership, but it isn’t the sort of smash success that makes people clamor for more. It will likely become a valuable element of the system after it connects to the orange, blue, and gold lines of project connect.

I often read that the 2020 election was Austin’s third try at rail, which ignores the 2006 election entirely. I think there is a sense in that this doesn’t count. It’s a commuter train, and doesn’t serve residents trying get around within the city. It also wasn’t a hard sell. Nobody was really asked to give up anything. The agency already owned the existing track. Even so, it’s relevant as a something that informs the typical Austinite’s perception of rail.

The 2014 Referendum

The 2014 referendum lost by a wide margin. Even transit advocates opposed the plan. Instead of addressing the densest areas, it was a speculative plan that tried to anticipate future growth by building in a corridor that was sparsely populated. The University of Texas played a part in ruining the line, as they wanted to encourage development along their eastern edge, since the western edge (where the 2000 and 2020 plans go) is already built out with some of the most historic buildings on campus. The western edge is also densest with residences, retail, and academic buildings. The 2014 plan ignored all that density.

Austin already had a rail line that had low ridership (the Red Line from 2004, opened in 2010), and the outsized operating budget of the line was a drain on the whole system. Transit supporters felt that the proposed line would perform poorly, drag the whole system down with it, and doom any additional rail investments for a long time. The secondary effect of this is that the plan was left without an army of community activists who would do the legwork it takes to push a citywide referendum over the finish line.

The 2014 failure is a best understood as a failure of leadership. It wasn’t messaging. It wasn’t pro-road sentiment. It wasn’t even anti-tax sentiment. I doubt a more transit-supportive electorate would have saved it. It was that the initial process ran amuck and ended up with a plan that served very few.

2020 Success

If the 2014 failure was a failure of leadership, I think it is fair to credit the city’s and Capital Metro’s leadership in the 2020 succes. The outreach was clearly superior. I had several feedback opportunities. CapMetro did the traditional forums at the community rec center, but they also did lots of virtual sessions (accelerated by COVID by the end). They seemed geared to take and incorporate feedback, rather than just present results.

At the beginning of the process, CapMetro seemed to be showing a worrying attraction to Autonomous Personal Rapid Transit, and other novel, unproven gadgets. I don’t know the story, but I like to think they were just doing due diligence. Maybe they knew these systems were unlikely to pan out, but they had to walk stakeholders through the decision process that leads to a system that can move tens of thousands of people in a space-constrained corridor. During the campaign rail opponents were full of promises of imminent technology we should just wait for. That sort of talk was much less resonant this time, and promises of non-existent autonomous vehicles, HyperLoop, monorail, and goldolas were not taken seriously. Maybe we got lucky, but the final plan was so solid that I suspect Cap Metro knew what they were doing all along.

The community engagement undoubtedly lead to a more equitable plan. As good as the 2000 plan was, it served very privileged parts of town and the distant suburbs. The only thing offered to the historically underserved east Austin was the promise that a central spine could improve the whole system. The 2020 plan incorporates east Austin into the core of the system with the blue line, rapid buses, and eventually a green line commuter rail.

The team apparently had the political space to pursue the best plan. My impression of 2014 is that Mayor Leffingwell didn’t do much to protect the transit team from political pressures. He might have even though he could harness those special interests to his advantage, without considering the damage they would do to good transit fundamentals. This time, the team seemed to address the project as a transit project, not as a development incentive. They haven’t shied away from proposing construction in a crowded, busy corridor. Construction on Guadalupe will be painful enough that plenty of Austin mayors have shied away from proposing building a rail line along that corridor. The Project Team felt empowered to suggest the best transit route.

In the end, pretty much any organization with political weight in Austin got behind the plan: business groups, multiple Democratic party groups, social justice groups. The anti-rail groups was reduced to car dealerships, the one-off local businesses (Guerro’s and Esther’s Follies), and the ever-present road-warrior crowd.

Austin had 20 years to reflect on the real costs of inaction. There is no option that improves automobile traffic within the city. Things are pretty densely built around narrow rights of way. There is no space to widen roads.

I’ve read about the demographic changes that drove much of the change. I don’t have much to add to that. I’m sure it’s true. I don’t know how it balances against, say, the equity elements of the plan. Or against the slow, methodical consensus building that resulted from community outreach. Or the scope and reach of the entire plan. But all of these are really part of the same thing. The plan is large, comprehensive, and equitable because of diligent public outreach and reacting to that feedback.

They all worked together, which enabled a $7.5 billion plan, funded by a tax increase, to be passed by a wide margin during a pandemic. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.