Is the Prop 1 PAC running a campaign for Republican Rail?

This is the first post in a two-part series on the supposed partisan or ideological aspects of the city of Austin bond proposition (“Prop 1”). Today’s topic is funding sources behind the Let’s Go Austin PAC. The second post will cover the widespread opposition to Prop 1 among progressive candidates for City Council.

If you’re a registered voter in Austin, you’ve probably received a mailer from the Let’s Go Austin (LGA) PAC telling you to vote for the city’s $1 billion roads-and-rail bond proposition, informally known as Prop 1. As our readers probably know, we oppose Prop 1, and have spent the past two years showing why this rail plan is worse than nothing. Unfortunately, the LGA PAC has favored ideological attacks over a campaign on the merits of the plan. Therefore, we think it is now relevant to examine the funding sources behind the LGA PAC and its expensive campaign. As it turns out, a look at the relevant filings reveals that the LGA PAC is largely funded by deep-pocketed Republican donors.

The LGA PAC’s campaign has attempted to portray voting for the bond as a “progressive” or partisan choice: their latest mailer (pictured below) asks readers to “know whose side you are on,” and past ads have even attempted to tar AURA by grouping it in a list with the Austin Tea Party.

Recent Let's Go Austin PAC Mailer

If partisanship is relevant to Prop 1, then this is an important finding: a review of the LGA PAC’s latest campaign finance report reveals that much of its funding comes from major donors to Republican Party candidates and causes. The LGA PAC’s portrayal of Prop 1 as a progressive choice thus appears to be another in its series of deliberate efforts to distract and mislead Austin voters. Frankly, it would be fairer to describe Prop 1 as a plan for “Republican Rail.”

According to its September 25th report, the LGA PAC had raised $485,876 from 78 donors, an average donation of $6,229. (A grassroots campaign this is not.) By far the largest ‘donation’ came from the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), which contributed $253,000, though it would be more accurate to call that money ‘an investment.’ The DAA is a Public Improvement District funded by property owners in the eastern and central portions of downtown Austin whose property is worth more than $500,000. If the proposed rail line were built, the members of the DAA would gain millions in localized benefits while the billion-dollar costs would be diffused to all Austinites. And these ‘socialize the risk, privatize the profit’ incentives aren’t the only problem with the DAA’s money. DAA’s treasurer, Carol Polumbo—also an individual donor to the LGA PAC—is managing partner of McCall, Parkhurst & Horton, L.L.P., a law firm with an extensive history of large donations to statewide Republicans, including more than $75,000 to Greg Abbott.

The next largest donation to the LGA PAC is $75,000 from the Greater Austin Economic Development Corporation (EDC), an arm of the Chamber of Commerce which receives funding from the City of Austin and other local governments. Public money is arguably being laundered through the EDC to spend on the bond campaign. Moreover, the Chamber itself is not exactly a champion of progressive causes: recall its opposition to the new generation plan for Austin Energy, which would make Austin’s power some of the cleanest in the nation.

The third largest donor to the LGA PAC is the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), which contributed $25,000. RECA also has a long history of contributing to Republicans, including $50,000 to Rick Perry and more than $63,000 to David Dewhurst. A quick search of RECA’s history in the Texas Tribune’s campaign finance databasefinds at least $180,000 in contributions to major Republicans.

The Republican donor trend continues with individuals, corporations, and PACs that donated to the LGA PAC in the $1,000–$5,000 range. A set of eight donors who gave $36,500 to the LGA PAC (almost 30% of the funds we have not yet detailed here) also contributed more than $700,000 to a veritable Who’s Who of the Texas Republican Party.

All told, the LGA PAC’s donors and DAA board members have contributed more than a million dollars to Republican campaigns. If you were to apply the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s preferred campaign strategy, you’d say that a vote for Prop 1 is a vote for Dan Patrick!

Given this funding base, perhaps it’s no wonder Prop 1 sacrifices the rest of Austin’s transit system to benefit a handful of private business owners and real estate developers. Funneling taxpayer money into private hands is the very essence of the Texas Republican Party’s ‘business friendly’ agenda, and a similar agenda is at the center of the Let’s Go Austin PAC’s campaign. Just follow the money.

To ensure we don’t damage our already inadequate transit system and to retain the opportunity to invest a billion dollars in other progressive projects—libraries, parks, housing the homeless, investing in clean energy, and many, many others—Austin voters should join transit activists in making the truly progressive choice: Vote NO on Prop 1.

Urban Rail Working Group System Crash Report

AURA’s urban rail working group has completed an analysis of the impact that the Austin roads-and-rail bond proposition would have on the city’s transit system.

Their report, titled “System Crash: The High Costs of Low Ridership Rail,” estimates that the urban rail plan contained in city Proposition 1 would reduce Capital Metro’s system-wide transit ridership by 28 to 30 million boardings over the rail line’s first decade of operation. This is roughly equal to a  permanent annual cut of 10 percent of present-day MetroBus service.

Transit-Oriented Austin Pledge Press Conference

Good morning. My name is Niran Babalola, and I’m a member of AURA, a grassroots organization that fights for abundant housing and abundant transit for all Austinites.

Proposition 1’s urban rail plan is the most controversial issue of this election. AURA urges you to vote “No” on this bad urban rail plan, because the city’s data shows that it will hurt our transit system.

Rail is a tool for saving money. Cities around the country save money by switching from buses to rail, and they use those savings to expand their transit systems. However, Austinites will be voting on a rail plan that has higher costs per rider than the buses it will replace, which will shrink our transit system.

This city desperately needs better public transit. Our roads are full. The only way we can move more people is by making transit work. Failing to improve our transit system will end our economic winning streak. So will voting for this bad rail plan that will shrink our transit system.

Voting against this rail plan doesn’t mean progress will stop on transit in Austin. Austinites need to elect a City Council that has pledged to make our transit system a top priority. We need to start working on a plan for transit that makes our system move more people, not fewer. We need a City Council that’s going to act on transit immediately.

Over a dozen candidates across the city have pledged to do just that, at They’ve pledged that when they plan rail, they’ll make sure it saves money like in other cities. They’ve pledged to improve our bus routes as well, because they recognize that most of the city is going to be served by buses for the foreseeable future, and that all Austinites deserve transit improvements.

Most importantly, they’ve pledged to support the urban density that’s necessary for a great transit system. Our transit system isn’t bad because Cap Metro is incompetent. It’s bad because Austin is way too spread out to make transit work well. We’re less dense than San Antonio. Less dense than Dallas. Less dense than Houston, by 24%! These candidates have pledged to make sure people who want to live near great transit can afford to, which is a huge step for Austin—where adding more people to central neighborhoods is often against the law.

Most of the candidates who have taken this pledge join AURA in urging you to vote against this bad rail plan. Some of the candidates support Proposition 1, but they agree that our next plan for investing in transit shouldn’t be controversial, and the principles in the pledge will make that happen.

Austinites who want this city to be a transit-oriented city should visit to see the list of candidates who have pledged to make that happen. They should vote for those candidates, and vote “No” on Proposition 1’s bad urban rail plan.

Red Line Subsidy Increase a Harbinger of Proposition 1 Problems

The recently approved CapMetro budget for fiscal year 2015 included an increase in operating subsidy for a single boarding on the MetroRail RedLine, placing it above $20.  In contrast, the average bus per-boarding subsidy is $4, but is closer to $1 on the most productive bus routes.

“The operating losses we see for the Red Line are the same type of losses that will play out with Proposition 1 rail, but on a much larger scale,” said AURA member Kevin Miller. “The proposed route goes through low-density areas, but it has high fixed costs. The rail will siphon money away from bus service, reducing ridership and likely leading to cuts in bus service. Let’s not condemn ourselves to repeating another unforced error.” Miller is the author and maintainer of, a website that details the pro-transit argument against the road-and-rail package on this November’s ballot.

AURA member Niran Babalola stressed the importance of learning from the operational history of the Red Line. “Voting ‘No’ on Prop 1 is not about waiting for a perfect plan. The starter rail line in Houston moves more people per dollar than the bus lines they replaced. That’s a plan worth voting for. Prop 1 is worse than nothing because it hurts system ridership, just like the existing Red Line does.”

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.


  • Brad Absalom, AURA Project Connect Central Corridor Working Group Chair:, 214-236-3293
  • Kevin Miller, AURA Project Connect Central Corridor Working Group:, 512-560-5208

Council Candidates Pledge to Improve Austin’s Transit System

AURA and several City Council candidates are holding a press conference on Wednesday, October 15 at 9:30 am in front of City Hall to announce that the candidates have taken a pledge to push for real solutions to our transportation problem.

Austin’s streets are full. Moving more people is going to require a much better public transit system. Proposition 1’s urban rail plan—on which AURA urges Austinites to vote NO—is controversial. But the need to improve our transit system is not controversial.

For the first time in Austin’s history, candidates across the city have pledged to take concrete action toward improving Austin’s transit system within their first 100 days in office. This pledge was written by AURA, a grassroots organization that fights for abundant transit and abundant housing for all Austinites. We encourage Austinites to read the pledge at

By taking the pledge, the candidates have committed to following a few principles to ensure that Austin’s next rail proposal isn’t controversial.

  1. The candidates will work to make sure that future rail plans reduce our costs, like good rail plans do around the country. It’s smart to make a large investment up front to reduce the annual costs to move each person via transit, but so far Austin’s rail plans haven’t had that goal.
  2. The candidates will spend at least as much effort improving our bus system as they do on rail. Even when we build more rail lines, the vast majority of transit riders will be on the buses that run through the whole city.
  3. The candidates will support the density required for great transit across the city. Capital Metro isn’t the biggest problem with our transit system. The problem is that Austin is too spread out for transit to be great—the last census says we’re 24% less dense than Houston!

Join us Wednesday morning as we show Austinites which candidates are dedicated to improving transit in this city.

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.


  • Niran Babalola, AURA member:, 775-576-4726
  • Brad Absalom, AURA Urban Rail Working Group chair:, 214-236-3293

Proposition 1 PAC’s New Ad Is Rife With Deception

AURA is opposed to Proposition 1, the roads-and-rail bond proposal set to go before Austin voters on November 4. But that’s about all that is correct in a full-page advertisement in this week’s Austin Chronicle paid for by the new political action committee Let’s Go Austin.

The advertisement from the Let’s Go Austin PAC tries to sell Proposition 1 as a plan to combat “traffic congestion.” But as acknowledged by Project Connect lead consultant Kyle Keahey, Proposition 1 will do almost nothing to reduce congestion for those who continue to drive.

The ad also continues a pattern of Project Connect supporters trying to mislead Austin voters regarding the relationship of Proposition 1 to a supposed “plan to create a citywide rail transit system.” As reported by Ben Wear in the Austin American-Statesman, Project Connect spent $20,000 earlier this year to distribute flyers that conjured “a tangle of rail lines” but incredibly “did not show the proposal” that is actually on the table. Proposition 1 would provide partial funding for a single rail line. Due to its poor location, that line could not be much extended in the future, and we expect the line would have low ridership and would incur large operating costs—outcomes that would likely derail any hopes of proceeding to build a larger system.

Packaged with these misleading statements is a crass effort to smear or ignore the many Austinites who oppose Proposition 1. The PAC’s ad lists only three groups as “opposing” Proposition 1: AURA, the Travis County Republican Party, and Austin Tea Party. But there are others, too, such as Our Rail, that like AURA are supportive of wise mass transit investments yet openly oppose Proposition 1.

And sometimes in politics, a group’s silence says a lot. While a few area Democratic Party clubs have endorsed Proposition 1, last month the Travis County Democratic Party had to use procedural maneuvers to prevent a vote of its precinct chairs against endorsement. Furthermore, Austin Neighborhoods Council has emphatically refused to endorse Proposition 1, in part because no “comprehensive regional transportation plan” exists and because “the Project Connect planning process has been unduly influenced by political considerations, ignored public input, [and] compromised with highway projects that are entirely unrelated to urban rail.”

Although opposition to Proposition 1 appears to be deep and widespread among Austinites, the Let’s Go Austin PAC tries to say that opponents are few—and then it stoops lower. KUT’s Wells Dunbar wrote that the PAC’s ad was “slagging” AURA by making it appear as though we are the only opponents not hailing from the political right wing. We agree with Dunbar.

Members of AURA—just named ”Best Grassroots Group” for 2014 by Chronicle readers—have been intimately involved in promoting a better urban rail plan for the past two years, and they have been pushing from the beginning to try to make the Project Connect process work. But having seen that process firsthand, some feel compelled to speak out strongly against Proposition 1.

“Proposition 1 will force Capital Metro to spend an additional several million dollars annually out of its already limited budget to operate a low-ridership rail line, weakening its ability to maintain and expand service in heavily used transit corridors. That funding shortfall will force Capital Metro to finance new bus purchases with debt, something the agency only does as a last resort,” says AURA board member Amy Hartman.

“The city’s proposal to spend $1 billion doubling down on highways and highway-oriented urban rail is worse than doing nothing,” says AURA member Marcus Denton. “By burdening the city with an expensive-to-operate yet poorly located line, Proposition 1 would be a huge setback for walkable urbanism in Austin.”

“Let’s Go Austin is a popup PAC that will be dissolved after Proposition 1 is defeated in November, but AURA will still be here advocating for abundant housing, environmental protection, and effective transportation options in our community,” says AURA board member Susan Somers.

“I am looking forward to November 5—the day after Election Day—when the newly chosen 10-1 City Council members will be ready to leave the station. The lame-duck council will be surprised to learn that the alternative to their bad rail is not ‘fail’ but, rather, new faces seeking honest answers and striving to give Austinites transit we can use,” says AURA board member Steven Yarak.

For these reasons, AURA continues to call on all Austinites who desire more and better public transportation in our city to vote “NO” on Proposition 1.

AURA is a grassroots urbanist organization focused on building an Austin for everyone by improving land use and transportation through policy analysis, public involvement, and political engagement.