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Interview: Mayor Leffingwell on Call to Postpone Urban Rail Vote

Photo by Daniel Reese for KUT News
Mayor Leffingwell on the postponement: "We have some breathing room."

Mayor Lee Leffingwell announced on Friday that he opposed putting urban rail funding before voters in 2012 – a move that effectively nixed rail’s funding chances in the November bond election, and raised another round of hand wringing over transportation solutions for Austin. KUT News spoke with Mayor Leffingwell shortly after his announcement.

KUT NEWS: I doubt there was any one variable that lead you to your decision, but what were your reasons?

Lee Leffingwell: It’s a whole bunch of things coming together, but underlying it is, we have not yet answered some of the basic questions. We might have an answer prior to November, but time is running short to get the complete picture in place and to be able to go out and market it. Because you don’t just put this on the ballot and go away and hope for the best. You’ve got to really present it to the public. There’s a full education process that goes on with something like this. You have to go out and explain it to people.

… I felt like it was incumbent on me to make my position known clearly to the council, so that they can make that decision will all the information available. I don’t think it would’ve been fair for me to just bide my time and conceal what I was really thinking.

KUT NEWS: So this has been a pretty recent development, just in the last few days?

Leffingwell: The decision to actually do this – we’ve been mulling it over several weeks, months. Should we go ahead and do this, or should we postpone it? We finally got to a point where we realized we can actually do both. We can go ahead, but yet we can defer the action that provides voter approval and provides local matching funds. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do. The Transit Working Group is going to continue to meet, and staff is going to continue to plan.

The next three years, whether or not we had voter approval of these bonds, would still be a planning process. It would see an alternatives analysis, there’ll be environmental studies. And so how we’re addressing that is we’re going to ask for a small amount of money in the bond package that is put before the voters – the no tax increase bond package, hopefully* – so that we can do that work. Then in three or so years, where we’re ready to go into the preliminary engineering stage which involves a little bit more money. Before we enter that stage, I think we have to have both our local funding in place, and we have to have good assurance on the part of the federal government that they’re going to be our partners in this.

[*In his blog post calling for the delay of the rail funding vote, Leffingwell also said this November’s bond election should be limited to $400 million – an amount that could be funded at the city’s current bonding capacity, without a property tax increase.]

KUT NEWS: Austin’s affordability was a big theme in the recent mayoral election, and you referenced a lot of those same themes in your blog post – the coming Austin Energy rate increase, for example. You just feel it isn’t in the best interest of Austin citizens to vote on this right now?

Leffingwell: I hate to ask too much of people. And we do have all these things that are sort of coming to the forefront at a single point in time. We’ve had electric rate increases, there are other jurisdictions in our local area here that may be going to the voters and asking for more money. And we’ve got to be aware, take a holistic approach in other words – what does this look like to the voter? We’re a part of it but were an important part of it.

KUT NEWS: The delay might give some people pause – we were once talking about a rail vote in 2010, and then this year. You also just referenced environmental impact studies and other studies. I think people may be sort of doubtful rail is going to materialize anytime soon.

Leffingwell: It does seem that way, I’ll be the first to admit it. … We brought in people that have rail transit systems in place, and what we found is, they all basically went through this same process. Dallas, it took them about 20 years to go from original concept to actually having something on the ground.

KUT NEWS: You don’t have any idea in mind for when rail might be fully cooked and read y to be sent to voters yet, do you?

Leffingwell: We have target dates in mind, and that another important point. We don’t, right now, expect this action – that is, going to the voters – to affect that timeline. If we got voter approval in November, we’d expect phase one of the project to be completed in the 2019-2021 timeframe. Or if not, our end target is the same.

KUT NEWS: But there’s no target for when that election might come to approve funding.

Leffingwell: Having done this in the past, and having to change what I said, right now I’m not ready to project a date. I’ll just say that we have some breathing room.

KUT NEWS: Anything else you care to add?

Leffingwell: I still remain optimistic; I think the concept is really gaining support, really, day by day. My fondest hope, and what is believe is this action to delay the step of going to voters – I don't think it will diminish that enthusiasm, and I know people who support this and believe that it’s an important part of our future will continue to work for it. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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