This FAQ provides a pro-transit, anti-Proposition 1 perspective. Here’s the extended version of this FAQ.
What are we voting on?
$600 million for East Riverside-to-Highland light rail that requires another $325.5 million in City of Austin debt for highway enhancements, $30 million for a regional transit center, and $44.5 million for ten studies of potential future highway and rail expansions.
Will the package help reduce congestion?
No. This is acknowledged even by proponents. In a growing region, additional road capacity creates sprawl, undercutting travel-time improvements. The rail proposal at best addresses less than 4.5% of car trips on I-35 according to its proponents own figures.
Worse, by using up so much of the City’s debt budget, it creates a fiscal and political obstacle to a wide variety of City capital project responsibilities that would be more cost-effective at reducing congestion such as transit-oriented affordable housing construction, bike infrastructure, and sidewalk extensions.
Will rail increase transit ridership?
No. For the first decade (and likely beyond that) it will decrease system-wide ridership because of the high fixed costs of rail and the low-ridership route. Basically, rail riders would be highly-subsidized at the expense of riders on productive bus routes. You can get the details here.
Is this the start of a system expansion?
Not for decades, if ever. The new debt represents a 53% increase in the City’s debt service obligations; they will take 20 years to be paid off. There’s no local or regional entity that could feasibly pay for additional expansions. CapMetro’s operational budget will also be forced to destroy the equivalent of 6-10% of its present day bus budget to operate the low-ridership route.
What will it cost me?
For a $500,000 assessed property, it will mean a bump of $312.50 per year for 20 years in City property taxes.
Won’t rail densify the corridor and create economic development that justifies the investment?
Not really. Research indicates that transit is not a cost-effective tool for creating density; ultimately, broader market forces and government policy (land use regulations, development incentives) are more important (research).
Are there alternatives?
The alternatives – optimizing bus service, reforming land use, investing in bike infrastructure, and congestion pricing – are more effective but less sexy. These alternatives have a diverse base of support: grassroots transit and bike advocates in Austin, our local Chamber of Commerce, and future City Council members.
Unlike the pro-roads-and-rail PAC, the folks advancing the alternatives don’t have $1.1 million to make you aware of their work. And frankly, most Austinites don’t have the time to follow local transit policy details day-to-day. That’s why you probably haven’t heard of them.
The main impediment to greater transit use in Austin (including light rail) is actually land use policy. The City is overwhelmingly zoned to be a place for single-family residences.
People typically have to walk or bike to the bus or light rail services. So if not enough people live close enough (a quarter to third of a mile) to those services, the system can’t gain ridership.
There are precious few places in Austin that have sufficient transit-supportive densities outside of parts of East Riverside and West Campus to support light rail. This map from the Chamber’s Mobility Report 2012 illustrates how few pockets of transit-supportive density (5,000 people per square mile) we have in Austin. For light rail, something closer to 8,960 people per square mile is required for cost-effectiveness.
And remember, many neighborhoods along the proposed route lost population between 2000 and 2010.