Clogged Austin Rejects $1.4 Billion Light-Railway Project

Voters in Austin, the Texas capital whose population has climbed by more than a third since 2000, aren’t persuaded that a $1.4 billion light-rail project is the antidote to its traffic-snarled roads.

A plan to sell $600 million of general-obligation bonds to finance a new rail system linking downtown, the state capitol, the University of Texas and other areas failed in Nov. 4 elections amid concern that it would further jam streets in the city with the nation’s fourth-worst traffic. Opponents garnered 57 percent of the vote to supporters’ 43 percent, according to Travis County election returns.

The project would have added to a debt load that’s risen 30 percent since 2004 as Austin grew into the nation’s 11th-largest city. The opposition argued that the system would’ve taken taken road space away from cars, and that the money would be better spent creating more lanes for vehicles and improving traffic flow, said James Skaggs, treasurer of Citizens Against Rail Taxes, a political-action committee that fought the plan.

“It just made no sense whatsoever and a lot of people understood that,” Skaggs said in a phone interview. “It would have taken funds away from what we really needed to do to address congestion.”

Standing Out

The rejection stood out as voters around the country passed 13 of the 15 largest bond proposals in this week’s elections, led by borrowing for drought-fighting measures in California and school technology in New York.

Nationwide, at least $16 billion of debt measures won approval. Voters passed about $748 million of bonds for the Katy Independent School District outside Houston, which is building and renovating schools and adding a stadium as it grows by 3,000 students a year.

Texans also funded transportation projects targeting congestion by approving a constitutional amendment that would let the state divert oil and gas taxes from its rainy-day reserves.

Local governments in Texas, home to seven of the nation’s 15 fastest-growing cities, bear the financial burden of accommodating new residents. While the state has lured businesses with subsidies from its Enterprise Fund, localities have paid for infrastructure such as schools and water systems.

Debt Burden

Austin has expanded to about 885,000 residents as of last year, from about 657,000 in 2000, Census data show. The metropolitan area tallied about 1.9 million residents. The city’s debt has risen almost as much since 2004, by 30 percent to $5.6 billion at the end of June 2013, according to financial reports.

The area’s economy was the fastest-growing among large cities last year, with a 4.6 percent increase in production of goods and services, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report in June. Expansion by technology companies such as Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. helped propel the performance.

The growth has clogged roads. Austin trails only Los Angeles, Honolulu and San Francisco in terms of its traffic congestion, according to Inrix, a Kirkland, Washington, company that collects traffic data. About 100 people move to Austin every day, adding some 70 cars to the streets, according to city records.

The rail plan would have used debt proceeds and federal funds to build a line in central and southeast Austin. The city was also going to commit $400 million for road improvements.

Cost Question

Opponents cited the cost for the 9.5-mile (15-kilometer) system, which would average out to close to $150 million a mile, said Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who has opposed rail systems in the city and was a member of Citizens Against Rail Taxes.

“This was a colossal failure on the part of the proponents,” he said. “It was a joke. That’s why people defeated it.”

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell wasn’t available for comment, said spokeswoman Bailey Mintz. Greg Hartman, treasurer of Let’s Go Austin, a political-action committee that raised money to support the proposal, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The bond issue failed because of the cost and the property-tax increase that would have been needed to fund the plan, said Jeremy Martin, senior vice president with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, another backer. The city estimated that the project would have added $217 to the annual property tax on a $200,000 house.

“Much of it became an anti-tax referendum,” said Martin.

The Chamber and city will consider other ways to unclog roads, including tapping rainy-day money, Martin said.

City officials also are working to use computers to make traffic flow more efficiently and are even encouraging more bicycle use, said Robert Spillar, Austin’s director of transportation.

“We have to make sure that, as new growth happens, that part of the transportation grid doesn’t get closed off,” Spillar said.