Le Morte D’Light Rail

Postmortem of a dream

Four years ago, boosters of a dubiously produced light rail proposal in Austin boldly set the stakes of the situation in their campaign motto: “Rail or Fail.”

At the time, transit supporters who nonetheless opposed the plan — primarily for the murky process that produced a route aimed more at private redevelopment than meeting existing transit demand — mocked and snarked on the apocalyptic rhetoric and pledged that, by putting our collective shoulders into it, a new, transparent proposal could be swiftly put before voters once they rejected the one at hand.

Well, who’s laughing now?

As I’ve reported previously (and, apparently, exclusively other than a few lines my former colleague Ben Wear included in his farewell address), state Sen. Kirk Watson has gone public with a new message that provides Capital Metro and its high-capacity transit planning initiative known as Project Connect with political cover to leave light rail out of the vision plan CEO and President Randy Clarke intends to debut in early October.

Just this week, Watson posted on his blog an abridged version of the speech he gave twice last month, the first time before the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the second in front of the Capital Metro board of directors. Aside from length, this latest iteration differs only slightly from its predecessors. Perhaps most substantially, the blog post includes an odd, two-part preamble that starts with Watson’s most recent motorcycle ride and ends with a eulogy for dead U.S. Sen. John McCain.

But then, he gets back to the big pitch.

“This fall, Capital Metro will start the next chapter of that conversation, and I’m urging them to lead our community into the next decade with a forward-looking plan for a truly regional electric transit system that fits our community and positions us to take advantage of new technologies,” Watson writes.

He also again emphasizes the need to “focus on outcomes, not necessarily a certain mode.”

In this version, he leaves out an aside that he repeated before both the AIA and Capital Metro’s board. Of that “certain mode,” Watson had said, “That may not — I’ll just say it out loud — be rail in the traditional sense. Frankly, I’m not sure that it is.”

Whether his decision to excise that line is a tea leaf that indicates subtle backpedaling is for the transit kremlinologists to bicker over. I called his office on Wednesday to seek clarification, but he didn’t respond as of press time (Editor’s note: This was entirely my fault for not properly communicating my deadline to his office). In any case, what’s important is that his previous audiences didn’t blink at the senator’s sudden loss of faith in light rail.

“I think the time is now,” Chairman Wade Cooper told Watson after he wrapped up his remarks at the Aug. 27 board meeting. “And we look forward to saddling up with you and others that will join this small conspiracy of folks hoping to make for a better future and see if we can grow that.”

Ann Kitchen, who also chairs the City Council Mobility Committee and sits on CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board, also voiced support for Watson’s words.

Said she, “I really like the way you articulated the path forward for us. I really appreciate that and welcome your leadership with all of us in the whole community. I think we can get it done this time.”

Meanwhile, no other prominent politicians have publicly pushed back against the idea of kiboshing rail. Mayor Steve Adler and Central Austin representative Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo both declined to comment on this story, though each of their chief opponents this November were quick to weigh in.

“Clearly we need to come together as a community to address the issue,” former Council Member Laura Morrison said in a fairly amorphous email statement that dodged specifics on mode or right-of-way. “One key to success is ensuring that we have community involvement in determining the right questions to be asking in order to achieve our goals and agreement on the approach we’ll take in analyzing the options.”

Tovo’s primary challenger in the District 9 race provided somewhat meatier insight.

“We absolutely need to dedicate space for transit,” transportation engineer Danielle Skidmore said. She conceded that she’s open to innovative alternatives to light rail, but added, “We need to make a decision, but not one based on which mode takes the least time to build. It should be the right plan for the next 100 years, not simply the cheapest and easiest option over the next couple of years.”

In the past, both Tovo and Adler have voiced support for rail. While on the trail in 2016 promoting his $720 million mobility bond, Adler explained to the Central Austin Democrats why steel wheels weren’t part of that package: “I will tell you first that I’m a rail supporter. And it’s hard for me to imagine this city, this metropolitan area where we have 4 million people in it in the not too distant future, where we don’t have an operating system like that. Because you just have to have something like that to move people around.”

Hard for him to imagine that scenario, sure, but it’s harder for the rest of us to picture a reality wherein Watson and Adler aren’t on the same page ahead of a major policy shift that represents a multi-generational sea change. If San Antonio’s young mayor can evolve from a bold champion for light rail into an advocate for science-fiction buses, then imagine what Adler — a master of convoluted schemes dressed up in soaring rhetoric — is capable of doing.

Next time, don’t let Pflugerville vote in your rail election

Of course, as the mayor had suggested in 2016, light rail in Austin has for decades had the air of inevitability, at least among the pockets of people who dig the idea of a transit-friendly urban community. For the true-blues, the excruciatingly narrow margin of the first rail referendum in 2000 was simply a matter of poor planning. The proposal wasn’t fully baked before it was put before voters in the entire Capital Metro service area — suburbs and all — in a year when a hometown Republican was at the top of the ballot. It ultimately went down by less than one percentage point even though a majority of City of Austin residents supported it. The consensus among rail advocates was that all we needed, then, was a properly drawn-up do-over.

Of course, as the years went by, that never materialized. As the grassroots waited, Capital Metro and the political establishment kept moving in different directions. First, the commuter rail vote in 2004, then the decision to run MetroRapid up the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, a few flirtations with a light rail route to Mueller, and then ultimately Project Connect’s 2014 proposal, a chimerical alignment, half of it good and half of it appalling, whose construction would have first been contingent upon several suburban highway expansions.

If there was any sense at the time that the rail advocates who helped sink that plan would try to use their post-election momentum to finally score that long-sought 2000 do-over, it was a mirage.

In true Austin fashion, the progressive grassroots hardly lifted a finger to effect their expectations. In 2015, the Central Austin Community Development Corporation shopped around a high-level proposal for a citywide transit system that included a starter alignment along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor. That effort garnered a few headlines but any sustained effort to stoke public interest petered out. Meanwhile, AURA — originally Austinites for Urban Rail Action — expanded its focus beyond its initial mission and left rail advocacy behind in favor of land use reform and bus system improvements.

Sans any dedicated groups beating the drum, individual rail fans retired to Twitter, Facebook groups, and clandestine email lists. It’s both easy and fun to imagine them sitting at their keyboards, wearing old-timey engineer hats as they LARP amongst themselves about ideal systems and vehicles and proper grade separations.

There was no public pushback against Capital Metro’s explanation that the 2014 plan failed primarily because its geographic scope was too limited. The relaunch of Project Connect was never met with a public declaration of expectations, nor have any of the initiative’s milestones drawn any responses that a reporter didn’t have to pull teeth to get.

And, three weeks ago, when Watson all but put the dream of light rail on the coroner’s table and declared it dead, nary a public peep was heard from the grassroots.

Three days after the Capital Metro board meeting, I reached out to the CACDC’s Scott Morris for his reaction. He declined to respond, citing the need for more time to understand Watson’s fairly direct pronouncement. He didn’t reply to a follow-up I sent last week, but there are signs the senator’s message has finally sunk in. More than two years into the rebooted Project Connect process, the old-guard rail advocates Morris leads are, for the first time, mobilizing to show up to the Capital Metro board mode-focused work session this Friday, a meeting whose agenda doesn’t include any time for public input.

Meanwhile, AURA seems less fazed by the sudden death of the dream. One board member I spoke to voiced agreement with the line previously emphasized by Capital Metro’s Clarke: That the matter of mode is secondary to the necessity of securing dedicated right-of-way for any future high-capacity transit projects.

“We are not rail dogmatists,” Ashkan Jahangiri told me a few days back. “We want the investment that makes the most sense and that can serve the most people.”

That pragmatism is in line with Watson’s call for supporters of specific modes to break from their silos and rally ‘round the Outcomes. Though since there really are no hardcore bus rapid transit fans out there and only a useless rump of gondola fantasists, Watson’s message should be read as a stark “sit down and shut up” to the rail crowd.

Of course, the committed rail warriors won’t give up the ghost until the ribbon is cut on the center-running BRT lanes on the Drag. And technically, there still is a path to reviving the light rail dream under this round of Project Connect. Clarke himself emphasizes that the vision plan he’ll present in October will not be the Final Word.

“It’s certainly a plan,” he told me during my chat with him on Austin Monitor on the Radio earlier this month. “It’s not set in stone. There’s no money committed. There’s been no vote to move it forward. I’m not out there with a shovel. But the idea is, like, we have to now further define the conversation.”

When the board approves the vision plan later this year, Project Connect will face up to another two years of scrutinizing and tire-kicking. To qualify for crucial federal grants, planners will have to reexamine every piece of the proposal. That means cost estimates, station locations, frequency assumptions, and, yes, even questions of mode.

“We’re going to present a vision. It’s not done,” Clarke reiterated. “But please get heavily engaged now, going forward, so that vision can turn into the community’s plan.”

That call to action represents a lifeline for rail advocates. Despite the clearly dour signalling from Watson, light rail could yet be saved by ferocious political mobilization that whips up and manages to maintain community support. While they’re at it, they could also revivify CodeNEXT, cut and cap I-35, build a true second downtown at Muny, and buy me a summer penthouse in Chicago. I have some mild doubt, though, that any of this will ever happen.

But, hey, the Capital Metro Board is convening that work session at the Convention Center this Friday to discuss the Project Connect vision map. Feel free to come down there at noon and start the long process to make me eat my words.