And Why You Should Too (if you’re a registered voter in Austin, TX)
A week ago, I cast my early-vote ballot here in Austin. Just like many of you did (or will do today) in your own communities. Along with the typical laundry list of candidate selections (governor, state representatives, mayor, city council, school board, etc.) I also voted for Proposition 1, to authorize the City of Austin to spend $600 million on a new urban rail line.
The rail line will travel 9.5 miles, connecting the rapidly urbanizing East Riverside Drive corridor with downtown Austin, the University of Texas campus, and the former Highland Mall which is being redeveloped into a major mixed-use development that will include a new Austin Community College campus. Here’s more info on Prop. 1.
The No-Vote Reasons
Before I lay out the major reasons behind my decision to vote in favor of Prop. 1, let’s go over the main No-Vote reasons. There are plenty of reasons why someone might not support the rail proposal (like, “it doesn’t run through my voting district”), but there really are three main reasons why some people are against the urban rail proposal:
- No-Vote Reason #1: It won’t decrease Austin’s horrible (4th worst in the nation) traffic congestion.
- No-Vote Reason #2: It costs a lot of money and will raise taxes for Austin property-owners (an additional $220/year in property taxes for a $200,000 home by the year 2020).
- No-Vote Reason #3: The proposed route is not the city’s busiest transit corridor. The Guadalupe Street/North Lamar Boulevard corridor has the highest transit ridership in the region.
The Yes-Vote Reasons
I agree with each of the no-vote reasons. All three are true. So…if each of these reasons offer valid justifications to vote against the urban rail proposal, why did I vote for it? Why would anyone vote for it? Here’s why:
- Yes-Vote Reason #1: It will make Austin’s urban core more vibrant. The new rail line will be good for downtown Austin. It will connect downtown to nearby urban neighborhoods, to major employment centers, and to major educational institutions. It will also raise property values and stimulate dense, walkable development along the route.
- Yes-Vote Reason #2: It will provide people with new transportation options beyond driving. It certainly won’t reduce traffic congestion on IH-35 or any other roadways. Building new transit lines simply doesn’t reduce traffic congestion, despite what some Prop. 1 promoters would like you to believe. But building a rail line will give some people the option to travel to/from work, school, and other destinations without having to drive a car. And best of all, Prop. 1 is just the beginning of a comprehensive transit system that has the potential to transform Austin’s transportation options and land use patterns. Who knows what Austin’s transit system will look like 20 or 30 years from now, but if it turns out to be anything like the map at the beginning of this blog post, Austin will become one of the few cities where you can truly live a car-free lifestyle.
- Yes-Vote Reason #3: It will make Austin even more appealing to city-loving Millenials. Today’s generation of young adults favors urban living and everything that comes with it (like not owning a vehicle, riding transit, walking, biking, etc.) much more than previous generations. And providing an urban environment that appeals to Millenials is very important for economic development. The number one issue for companies (and by extension, for communities) is access to qualified workers. Cities that can attract and retain skilled workers have a major competitive advantage in today’s economy. Building a new rail line in Austin’s urban core will help the city remain at the top of the list as one of the most successful places in the country for attracting talent.
- Yes-Vote Reason #4: It will never be less expensive to invest in a rail transit system for Austin than it is today. If our community votes against this rail proposal, we will wait another 2, 3, 5 years for the next chance to vote for a rail line…and by then, who knows how much the costs will have escalated. 50%? 75% 100%? Enough said.
- Yes-Vote Reason #5: The proposed corridor runs through three districts that are primed for major redevelopment: 1) the east side of downtown, including the Waller Creek project, which will create a new chain of pocket parks and remove 29 of acres of land from the floodplain, allowing for denser development in this section of downtown, 2) the Dell Medical School and surrounding area, and 3) the Highland Mall redevelopment, which will include a major new Austin Community College campus, Austin’s new location for Rackspace (a major cloud computing company based in San Antonio, but with a rapidly growing Austin presence), and a wide range of mixed-use buildings with up to 2,000 apartments. I’ll admit that when the proposed route was first unveiled, I was a bit disappointed like some of the other pro-rail folks in Austin who were hoping for a rail line along the Guadalupe/Lavaca corridor. But the more I’ve thought about the proposed route, the more it has grown on me, largely because of the vast redevelopment potential of this corridor.
This isn’t a make-or-break issue for Austin, like some of the pro-rail crowd that likes to use the “rail or fail” language. It’s not like Austin’s economy will fall off a cliff the day after election day if we vote against the urban rail proposal…but, it would be a huge missed opportunity to improve our city. Making an investment in a rail transit system is the right thing to do for Austin. It will help our community – especially the urban core – become a more vibrant place. So, go out and vote for Prop. 1!