Yesterday Austin approved Proposition 1 and thus $90 million in bonds for multi-modal transportation projects, with 91,721 (56.3%) voting for it and 71,154 (43.7%) voting against it.
While I’m sure there are those who are, and should be, dancing in the streets about this victory, the final result (as well as what led up to it) very much troubles The Placemaking Institute, especially upon taking into account the big picture.
Mayor Leffingwell’s belief that Prop 1 would be accepted by 85% of the voters is on the record. He also said, “I’ve heard about polls that indicate this is going to be a close contest. We had not expected that to happen. I think that’s entirely due to a large infusion of money by opponents into media and signs and so forth.”
But, as Ben Wear pointed out, “(W)hat is not arguable is that the larger infusion of money actually has been from supporters (who) through Oct. 23 had raised more than twice as much money as opponents.” And he’s not even including the approximately $600,000 the City spent on its website!
In no way should this race have been so close, and I cannot believe that people are surprised by the outcome. What actually surprises me about yesterday’s vote is that the opposition wasn’t ultimately successful. To be polite, this situation denotes Pollyanna-ish complacency, as well as a lack of among other things political leadership and wherewithal. Scarcely being able to generate passage of a relatively innocuous bond at a cost of, for all intents and purposes, a piddling $90 million does not bode well for the projected 2012 $1.5 billion Urban Rail Bond proposal – Unless the so-called powers that be learn from their mistakes.
Why do I feel this way?
Because the City of Austin was caught with its pants down and got lucky. In football parlance, their offense consisted of one-yard-and-a-cloud-of dust, running the same play, even though poll after poll indicated the issue was not gaining traction. The Prop 1 opposition, on the other hand, viewed this bond election as a great way to sharpen their knives for the Urban Rail issue, and they reacted accordingly. If this campaign had been a contest of managerial skills, they would have blown the City’s doors off.
Because political campaigns try to reduce opponents to caricatures, that’s why. And to this end, despite only having spent about $50,000 on advertisement, the anti-Prop 1 lobby succeeded. They ran a tight organization, which they always do when fighting any proposal that contains anything but roads and roads and more roads. Anybody surprised by this has essentially been sleeping throughout the past 30 some odd years of Austin’s history.
Because the first political rule of thumb is “know thy enemy;” their hackneyed arguments were transparent, predictable, and they should have been both anticipated and nipped in the bud. If the City’s campaign was in any way adequate and had done so, Prop 1 would most likely have been passed by a more definitive majority that could have been used as a firm groundswell foundation for other multi-modal endeavors. Their failure lies in the fact that it allowed the opposition to frame the issue, forcing reaction instead of action. I could go on and on and on with examples, believe you me.
But to give just one: the main argument against the bond was that it favored projects downtown at the expense of those elsewhere. What the City should have done was first prove the economic development benefits of the bond package before showing how those benefits will begin permeating throughout the rest of the region. How could the City not anticipate this happening?
While some rinky-dink organization like the Placemaking Institute did? Because, in fact, several months ago we floated a grant proposal to several Prop 1 proponents that received no interest whatsoever. It shall suffice as next week’s installment of The Placemaking Institute’s “Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity.”