Whisking insoluble interests into an unstable emulsion, Austin officials may vote this month to mix funding for the oil and water of city transportation politics: light rail and freeways.
The Texas city council made headlines for its proposal in June, but theirs isn’t the first of its kind. Agencies in Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Seattle bundled funding for roads and railways in previous elections despite environmental and political polarization.
In Austin, officials hope the compromise will keep history from repeating; a rail-only measure failed the 2000 ballot 50.4-49.6. With $400 million in road and freeway upgrades alongside $600 million to construct a light rail, the council hopes to appease supporters from across the road-rail divide.
But the move, intended to broaden support, is actually drawing heat from some pro-rail groups, particularly those advocating compact growth.
“They want to sweeten the pot to get people to buy into it who wouldn’t otherwise support it,” says Roy Waley with the Sierra Club’s Austin chapter. “But for us it isn’t much of a sweetener.”
Waley compares the tacked-on road funds to “a cherry on top of the sundae that turns out to be sour and plastic.” That’s because the money wouldn’t just fund interchanges on I-35 through Austin’s core, but also out in the suburbs, encouraging sprawl.
Robin Stallings from Bike Texas is also conflicted, but he believes bundling makes sense.
“Road packages like this do neutralize groups that have strong feelings either way,” he says, adding that bundles can be an effective tool to pass controversial projects.
But while he thinks the proposal will be “a great alignment for rail,” he questions the specific freeway projects outlined, excluding city or surface streets that could benefit from sidewalks, bike paths and other pedestrian infrastructure.
Groups across the political spectrum are forming unlikely alliances, as CityLab detailed last month. Many rail advocates don’t support the $600 million project that’s been proposed because of its location, regardless of the $400 million roads piece.
In the cities that have used the bundling approach, there was varying success.
Los Angeles’ Measure R passed in 2008, going just beyond the two-thirds supermajority needed to raise taxes in California. L.A. Metro attributes its success to congestion. But the measure didn’t just fund an ambitious train network, it also allocated 20 percent toward highway improvements.
“For whatever reason,” says Eric Bruins with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, rail “doesn’t tend to sell unless you package it with roads.”
As in Austin, the organization wanted bike and pedestrian money set aside, but its advocacy was unsuccessful.
“We are a very diverse county,” he says. “Everyone needs to feel like they’re getting something.”
Salt Lake City also benefitted from bundling road improvements with rail. In 2006, city residents upped their sales tax to fast-track a group of projects including TRAX lines and a new stretch of highway. But it hasn’t always been a surefire way to win support. In 1992, a ballot measure that also bundled road and transit projects failed. Even though only a small percentage of those funds would have actually funded rail, its failure was largely interpreted as a “vote against light rail” according to Deseret News.
Seattle’s history is a bit more complex. In 2007, Sound Transit helped spearhead a “Roads and Transit” measure that combined funding for rail lines and road improvements. It failed — and roads were partly to blame.
“The proposal would have built 186 miles of new road lanes and 50 miles of light rail,” the Seattle Times wrote. “Architects of the plan packaged the projects together in the hope of attracting votes from both those who want bigger highways and those who favor mass transit.”
But the Sierra Club advocated against what it called an “all up or down” package. In a letter to regional transportation leaders, it asked that roads and rails be separated.
As it was, the initiative encouraged “further sprawl development that pushes auto-dependent sub-divisions to the edge of the urban growth boundary,” the letter states.
“Freight mobility should not be used as a justification for more highway lanes when other options, such as rail, exist,” it adds.
The next year, a “transit-only” package in the form of Proposition 1 passed.
While critics of Austin’s proposal abound, Waley of the local Sierra Club chapter does want the rail portion to pass. A long-time cyclist, he was hit by a car crossing a jammed intersection earlier this year and hasn’t been able to get on his bicycle since; for him, reducing traffic is of paramount importance.
“We have to start somewhere,” he says. “We’ve waited 14 years since our last bond measure — and that still lost by less than a percentage point.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.