On Prop 1: Let Us Talk About Lives

Let Us Talk About Lives: On Social Equity, Growth and Why I Support Proposition 1 and the Immediate Future of Light Rail in Austin
by Brendan Wittstruck

 image courtesy of Project Connect

image courtesy of Project Connect

Dear Austin,

I am tired of how we have been talking about Proposition 1.

I am tired about talking about rail in numbers instead of people.  We have reduced to mere statistics the people who need public transit opportunities and people who want choices for how they move in this city by calling them “ridership numbers” or “boardings per day”.  We have allowed conversations to dwell on our taxes and not the benefits to others.  Austinites deserve the opportunity to see light rail as a means by which to shape a truly progressive nature of growth and address critical socioeconomic concerns in a city whose wealth and services are recklessly inequitable.  It is time to think about Austin’s future more broadly.  And, I dare say, more unselfishly.

The City of Austin Bond Proposition known familiarly as Proposition 1 is a necessary step toward achieving the future for Austin that we talk so much about wanting.  It’s a question of quality of life, public health and an equitable vision for Austin.  It’s time to stop talking about how many people will use the rail and start talking about how people need the rail.

You have likely heard that Austin is the fourth fastest-growing city in the country right now.  What you haven’t heard is that Austin holds another distinction—far more worrisome—in having the second highest percentage increase in suburban poverty over the past 10 years.  Between 2000 and 2012, Austin’s number of suburban residents living below the poverty line skyrocketed from 42,578 to 111,602 residents, an increase of 162.1%.[1] 

There are a number of causal factors at work—from property tax rates to insufficient manufacturing and trade jobs to the “missing middle” of central Austin housing types—but a lack of transit options is also a generator for suburban poverty.  The commuting costs based on living outside of the city center but working within it are often called the “double tax,” in that suburban Austinites who work downtown not only pay high property taxes (compared to similar properties in Dallas or Houston, for example) but also pay an additional “tax” in the cost of their commute.  By the standards of the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation (H+T) Affordability Index, nearly the entirety of the developed six-county Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Area is currently unaffordable.[2]

There is no such thing as a perfect rail route, and the proposed route will do an admirable job of connecting people to civic and cultural services, promoting smart economic growth opportunity and offering future service extensions.  It also represents an important tool for how to shape the magnitude of growth that Austin is facing.

The proposed East Riverside/Highland route is more favorable to East Austin neighborhoods, where residents are more likely to rely on public transportation than West Austin’s higher-income neighborhoods.  Moreover, West Austin is generally far below the approximately 9 dwelling units per acre necessary to support transit, and is unlikely to densify significantly.[3]  One can point out future developments such as the State-owned Bull Creek site as driving future residential density, but the fact remains that West Austin does not need public transit access as much as East Austin.  An argument for the centrality of the Guadalupe/Lamar axis fails completely to understand how the city has shifted—and continues to shift—eastward.[4] 

In addition to serving Austinites’ needs, light rail will offer a new option for transit.  Consider this: if even a fraction of the 90,000 or so who descend upon Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on fall Saturdays could get there using reliable rail transit, how many drunk drivers did you just take off the road?  What about reliable safe passage to and home from SXSW downtown?  The proposed light rail route will provide new transit options at critical locations like the stadium and downtown.  No wonder advocacy groups like ATX Safer Streets have thrown their support behind Proposition 1.  Where do the lives saved figure in to ridership spreadsheets?  How do you quantify the quality of life of people having sound transportation choices? 

Options alone won’t solve our socioeconomic problems, but embracing them is an important step toward improving lives in Austin.  Research from the Texas Transportation Institute has shown that people in cities with both rail and bus spent less on transportation than people in bus-only cities.[5]  And while buses and bus rapid transit are important parts of a complete mobility vision, light rail represents both a broadening of Austin’s transportation options and a route commitment needed to secure investment that buses by nature cannot provide.  Economic development in itself should not be the driver for a light rail initiative, but establishing private development supported by rail and its future expansions will be a valuable tool for creating Midtown economies that will relieve pressure—and traffic to and from—Austin’s downtown.

Proposition 1 will put us on a path to a comprehensive transit system that can build our Midtown and address the slow-motion disaster of rising poverty levels and traffic gridlock unfolding in almost all of the Austin metro area.  Estimates toward the price the central core will pay for Proposition 1 have ranged between an annual property tax increase of $160 and $220 for a two hundred thousand dollar home.  I sympathize with the concerns over residential property tax burdens in Austin, but real property tax reform needs to come from removing commercial property tax exemptions and addressing existing housing supply shortages, not by excising needed infrastructure for our City.  There are means of property tax relief that do not preclude important investments in our future.

Austin is already very far behind.  We have heard much about the cost of passing Proposition 1, but the social costs of doing nothing are far greater.  Some opponents of Proposition 1 have suggested that they will bring a new bond to general election for a Lamar/Guadalupe light rail line within four years of the rejection of this bond.[6]  This seems highly unrealistic, particularly with a freshman 10-1 Council coming to the dais.  More likely, a rejected bond proposal will delay light rail construction in Austin by up to a decade, as evidenced by the 14 years between this bond and the previous rail bond initiative in 2000.  During this time, the city will continue its exponential growth, suffocating over-reliance on highways and systematic reinforcement of disturbing suburban poverty trends.

Or, worse, it will stop growing.  Mayoral candidate Steve Adler has pointed out that the often-cited figure of 110 new residents moving to Austin each day is a net figure; his numbers suggest that closer to 150 people move to Austin each day, while an additional 40 people leave.[7]  If Austin cannot provide the quality of life promised to its current and new residents, they will stop coming and they will start leaving.  We have already seen a worrisome 5.4% decline in the city’s appallingly underserved African-American population in the last decade, according to the latest U.S. Census data, making Austin the only major U.S. city to lose African-American population during that time.[8]  What happens when this socioeconomic diaspora reaches its tipping point?

When you go to the polls, I urge you foremost to make your own choice.  Don’t vote yes because I told you to and don’t vote no because opposition voices said so.  Make your own informed decision. 

But remember this: we are talking about an investment in the future of Austin, a future that will accommodate the needs of hundreds of thousands of people and that will represent the sort of lifestyle choices that long-time and new residents of Austin alike have championed.  Austin is changing.  This is an opportunity to usher in that change and shape how our city grows up.

People in Austin will have new opportunities open to them because of this rail line.  So let us stop talking about Proposition 1 in the faceless abstracts of ridership figures and growth projections and let us talk about lives.



Comments welcome at gumbully@gmail.com


(Special thanks to James, Philip, Julia, Dylan, Cassidy, Clayton, Elena and Rachel for their thoughtfulness and contributions to the words and ideas offered here)

Brendan Wittstruck is a founding member of GUMBULLY and works in architecture and urban design with a focus on advocacy, sustainable transportation and water systems.  He does not stand to profit financially from Proposition 1.

[1] “Profiles and Data,” Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, accessed October 24, 2014, http://confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org/action-toolkit/top-100-us-metros/

[2] The H+T Affordability Index compares two metrics in defining affordability; housing costs alone must be less than 30% of total household income and combined housing and transportation costs must not exceed 45% of total household income.

[3] Doug Farr, Sustainable Urbanism (Wiley, 2008), 111.

[4] This shift is partly due to the axial power of IH35 which has produced a revised concept of “west” and “east”; while the Driskill Hotel may rest on East Sixth Street, for example, you won’t find anyone in Austin who considers it on the East side.  It is also impossible to ignore the skyrocketing property taxes and levels of displacement on the East side, both of which signal a dramatic shift in character and hint at the mental lines being redrawn.

[5] Jeffrey C. Arndt et al, “Transportation, Social and Economic Impacts of Light and Commuter Rail,” Texas Transportation Institute (2009): 11, accessed October 25, 2014, http://d2dtl5nnlpfr0r.cloudfront.net/tti.tamu.edu/documents/0-5652-1.pdf

[6] Lyndon Henry, “Lose Rail Vote? Comeback May Be Sooner Than You Think,” Railway Age, July 7, 2014, accessed October 24, 2014, http://www.railwayage.com/index.php/blogs/lyndon-henry/lose-rail-vote-comeback-may-be-sooner-than-you-think.html

[7] “An Affordable New Way Forward,” Adler for Mayor, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.adlerforaustin.com/affordable-new-way-forward/

[8] Corrie Maclaggan, “Austin’s Black Population Leaving City, Report Says,” New York Times, July 17, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/18/us/austins-black-population-leaving-city-report-says.html?_r=0