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Roads Must Come With Rail

October 6, 2014

Roads first then rail. That’s what Austinites will get to decide November 4 when they head to the polls to vote on a package to spend up to $1 billion to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure. The proposal, listed as Proposition 1 on the ballot, calls for $400 million in road spending and studies and $600 million in bonds to pay for new rail. The rail route would consist of  9.5 miles of track to connect East Riverside through the UT campus to the new ACC Highland campus — the “locally preferred alternative” identified through the Project Connect process.

While the merits of the rail component have been the subject of intense debate, there is no debate over the urgent need to improve the city’s  continually increasing roadway congestion. Time and again, regional business executives are identifying traffic and rush-hour congestion as weaknesses that negatively impact our environment, quality of life and the business community’s ability to attract and retain top jobs and talent in the region.  Austin is the envy of much of the nation because of our job growth and relative prosperity, yet congestion is the Achilles’ heel that could bring that growth and prosperity to a halt.  We know that other communities competing for the same businesses as Austin are using our congestion against us, and we cannot ignore the impacts that worsening congestion will have on our economic vitality and quality of life. 

That’s why earlier this year RECA and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce worked to secure commitments in the ballot language to ensure that no bonds for rail development be issued until the city provides funding of at least $400 million for roadway improvement projects. These projects would include notoriously high-traffic areas like I-35, FM 734 (Parmer), Lamar Boulevard and Loop 360, as well as US 183, SH 71, RM 620, RM 1826 and RM 2222. Providing this funding assures that the planning and development work necessary to prepare these projects for construction will be done, thus expediting the projects and better positioning them to compete for available construction dollars. 

This specific language in the ordinance to prevent rail bonds from being issued until roads are addressed creates a “contract with the voters” - one that gives our community an assurance that the city will adhere to  RECA’s and the Chamber’s intent to improve our traffic issues via both road and rail improvements.  The failure to do so is subject to legal action for failing to comply with the conditions expressly stated in the ballot language. 

Because it’s also crucial that Prop 1’s funding is fiscally sound, RECA worked closely with the city to make sure matching funds are secured before any of the money starts being spent on rail construction. Language in the proposal clearly states that the city of Austin will not begin construction on a high-capacity transit project unless the Federal Transit Authority or one or more federal or state sources commits grant or matching funding to the project, meaning that sources other than bond proceeds (and local tax dollars) must be used for 50% of the construction costs.  

If Prop 1 passes, RECA also believes  it is important for the city to undertake an economic study to assess the impact of the project on businesses within the rail corridor during and after construction. A full traffic impact analysis of the impacts of the project on traffic and mobility, and a study of the impact of the project and associated debt on local property taxes should also take place.

Our traffic congestion is threatening the competitiveness of Austin as a place to do business. We need to take action as a community and support both road and rail infrastructure by passing Prop 1 on November 4.

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