This November, don’t repeat mistake of 2000

David Chincanchan

You don’t need a statistic to know that Austin traffic is getting out of hand.But just in case you’ve been cooped up in the PCL for too long, let’s start with two simple facts: Austin traffic congestion is ranked as the fourth worst in America, and Austinites now waste an average of 40 hours per year stuck in traffic.

Anyone who has been in Austin for longer than an ACL weekend knows we have something special here. Despite the Austin metro area being the fastest-growing in the nation, we have been able to maintain a casual, laid-back culture and a spectacular quality of life.However, our traffic crisis is changing all of that. It’s likely stifling our economy, harming our environment and fundamentally changing who we are as a city. And unless we take action now, it will only continue to get worse.

Thankfully, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to bring a well-thought out and data-driven plan to Austin voters this November in the form of Proposition 1. Prop. 1 will start addressing our traffic problem by funding major road improvements and building the first phase of an electric-powered, energy-efficient urban rail system that will eventually connect the entire city and take tens of thousands of cars off our roads.

The Prop. 1 road improvements include major projects on Interstate 35, at Riverside, Oltorf, Stassney, William Cannon and elsewhere, as well as funds to engineer and design future projects on 360, 2222, 620 and Parmer.  Most people agree that these projects will make a big difference.

But what’s been most discussed and debated is the urban rail investment. The first phase of urban rail will service the East Riverside Corridor, downtown, the State Capitol, the Medical School complex, UT and the new ACC Highland job-training campus.

The initial route was carefully selected and analyzed by local and national transit experts to serve the greatest need in the city and be the most competitive for federal funds.

As a result, every single dollar Austin voters approve for the construction of this route will be matched one-for-one by the federal government. That’s as much as $700 million that would go to another city or even another state if we fail to approve Prop. 1.

The initial route was also selected in part because of its proximity to student housing and the highest number of affordable housing units and transit-dependent riders. This route will be a huge boon to the UT community. 

The rail line will have stations that are safe and well lit and will include four park-and-rides with thousands of parking spaces. Additionally, all rail cars will have Wi-Fi capability so riders can read, check email, Facebook or play games during their commutes.

The urban rail line is also planned to run mostly in dedicated lanes. That means that arrival and departure times will be consistent because, unlike buses, rail cars will not have to sit in traffic. This will allow students and other riders to confidently plan ahead.

Despite the clear benefits of this plan, there is opposition. The leaders of the anti-Prop 1 campaign include tea party activists who oppose any kind of public spending, and longtime anti-rail activists who only support building more roads. 

But that’s the approach that got us into this mess to begin with. Sadly, there’s also a fringe group of “transit activists” who have decided to side with the tea party and “road warriors” during this election. Their disagreement stems from a myopic view that this plan doesn’t do enough and thus should be voted down. But the reality is that it is impossible to serve all parts of the city at once. We’ve got to start somewhere, and Prop. 1 is the best first step we can take, serving those who need it most.

That’s why over 30 community organizations, ranging from the Austin Sierra Club to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, are all supporting Prop. 1. That includes campus groups like the University Democrats and UT Student Government.

This moment in Austin’s history calls for us to think beyond the four walls of our apartments, dorms or houses and beyond the city blocks that make up our neighborhoods. We have to think about what’s best for Austin as a whole and in the long term.

I am among the younger transit advocates frustrated by the fact that the generation of Austinites that came before us voted down urban rail 14 years ago.  But instead of looking back, students who didn’t get a say then should do the right thing for UT and for Austin now by voting for Prop. 1 this November.

Chincanchan is a field director at Let’s Go Austin. He graduated from UT  in 2014 with degrees in government and communication studies.