Post-Prop 1 Election Quarterbacking

3 11 2010

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.”




14 responses

3 11 2010

The fact that somehwere around %15 of the total funding was for the boardwalk was not an intelligent decision. You can’t call something a transportation bond and then allocate so much of it to what most people see as amenities. The sidewalks and boarwalks should have been broken out into smaller packages. If that was done, my guess is that both would have passed with overwhelming majorities.

3 11 2010

Yes. You are correct, sir. Again, I could go on and on about all the missed steps and oversights. What it comes down to is marketing…An insightful response to your rightful, and quite expected, argument should and could have been anticipated in an adequate manner.

The fact that it wasn’t only further proves our point about the failure of leadership on all levels.

3 11 2010

So how does one craft a strategy now for the 2012 bond issue? How do you bring the differing groups together?

4 11 2010

Well, what I would say is that the first argument that those against it will make, and maybe even the only argument they will need to make, is why do another rail system when the Red Line was such an abysmal flop?

How does this get nipped in the bud and co-opted?

By admitting the truth: “Yes, you’re right, it’s a flop. But that’s because it should have been Phase V/VI of our City’s light rail strategy. The reason why it’s a flop is because the greatest path of least resistance was followed. We recognize that, and now we have to learn from our mistakes and start fresh by doing what we should have done in the first place: convince UT and the State and the County to get on board (the true definition of sustainability is ‘be a good neighbor’) so that rail can be run right down the middle.” Then they should go on to explain how doing so will benefit the whole region, as well as firmly emphasize how and why the projects of Prop 1 set the foundation for, and will tie into, any Urban Rail proposal.

Also, for the past couplathree years I’ve been looking at how all folks from all walks of life, including real estate developers, up in North Texas have been organizing…here’s a good link:

Also using the information provided by TTI and TxDOT itself will forestall their “let’s just build more roads” strategy, which I included in this post:

What are your thoughts on the matter?

5 11 2010

The problem is that nobody – not Capital Metro, not our city council members, not the city staff – nobody who needs to – is admitting that the Red Line was a failure and a dumb idea. They can’t; they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If only somebody had warned people back in, oh, I don’t know, 2004 that exactly this was going to happen.

5 11 2010
Elliott @ Austin on Two Wheels

So I’m a political professional and have seen most of the polling in this city in the last 10 years. I also saw a lot of polling in this election cycle. Considering the political climate and the electorate in an off year election, I was pretty pleased by the margins. The bar of 85% was unrealistic in any situation. I know of no proposal that has ever passed by more than 70%. Most pass in the 55-60% range.

Could the pro-Prop #1 campaign have done more? Yes. I always run campaigns expecting the worst from opposition and clearly the Prop 1 people got lucky the anti-bond forces were too little, too late. Running a little more scared would have done them good. Having said that, I think the margin was pretty healthy for the bond election in this kind of election.

2012 presents a better opportunity for rail. Basically, the younger, browner, and Democratic you are, the more you vote for rail. This year’s electorate was old, white, and Republican (BTW, this is also why you DO NOT want a rail election on the May city ballot or odd year November Constitutional Election.) The electorate in a Presidential election favors rail as much as it ever will in this city. Yes, we need to be prepared for opposition. Yes, we need to run a real, aggressive campaign. However, I am not down on these results. Seeing what went on this fall, the victory margin makes me feel good about future bonds.

5 11 2010

Even if all the electioneering above is true, and I have strong disagreements with much of it (May elections have actually produced more liberal city council candidates IIRC), the problem is that urban rail will be running against 2 more years of the Red Line failing – and sucking up more and more money that it would have needed. At the same time, the Republicans just took over the purse-strings, meaning the maximum possible federal contribution even if the Red Line was stopped from competing with us just went way down.

6 11 2010

I agree with Mike. Again, the only hope for any Urban Rail bond proposal is if officials admit that the Red Line is a millstone around our community’s neck, a mistake that they have indeed learned a lesson from. Passing a $90 million bond package is one thing but, especially in the current socio-economic environment, $1.5 billion is a whole ‘nother story. The campaign for Urban Rail is integral to Austin’s future, and it needs to begin yesterday.

Elliott: “I know of no proposal that has ever passed by more than 70%. Most pass in the 55-60% range.”

Ben Wear: “Six of eight city transportation bond elections since 1979 were approved by more than 70 percent . All eight bond measures passed, and only once did fewer than 60 percent of voters say yes; in 1992, 59 percent authorized a $500,000 sidewalk bond while 72 percent approved a separate road bond measure on the same ballot.”

10 11 2010

It’s still a little early to call the light rail a failure. The project was run horribly (no surpise there), but hopefully it’s the type of project that the city will grow into. As the city grows and gets more dense development along the rail, hopefully it will pick up steam. I do agree that it shouldh have been a later step instead of the first one for these reasons. A huge issue will be addressing CapMetro’s involvement in any future urban rail project. Their political capital is in the sewer after their mangling of the Red Line.

10 11 2010

Adam, it’s already a failure if you’re calling it light rail. HINT.

You need a lot more background if you’re that misinformed. for starters.

11 11 2010

I’ve been amidst doing some land use research about running rail right up the middle…two interesting and related tidbits about the Red Line’s failure: less than 1% of UT students comprise its ridership; and the State Complex has a 1:1 parking ratio and only 27% of them are unused.

And great link, Mike, thanks…Although as of late I’ve been thinking that running rail on Guadalupe might not be the way to go, for the same point you made about Great Streets in the recent post…running it up San Jacinto might make sense because doing that could unlock real estate development potential and help reinvigorate/densify that “black hole.” It would be compatible with this:

11 11 2010

Oops…forgot to conclude my thought on the above: Albeit, instead of San Jacinto, I believe that the most appropriate street to run rail right up the gut of Austin would in fact be Speedway.

15 11 2010

Speedway would be great for UT workers – not so great for people downtown wanting to patronize businesses on the Drag. San Jacinto would be horrible.

Building transit to revitalize corridors when modeshare is so low just results in transit that underwhelms. You go first where the demand is, and then density fills in around existing density, and then, when you have modeshare and mindshare way up, ONLY THEN, can you really succeed on other corridors.

30 11 2010

Go south down Speedway through UT’s campus, at 15th bloop around the Capitol via Colorado before using 11th to reach Congress…Going north on Congress, at 11th bloop around the Capitol via Brazos to 15th, and then running north up Speedway through UT’s campus.

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