A look at Travis County precinct results in the 2000 (.pdf) 2004 (.pdf) and 2014 rail referendums strongly indicates that the geography of the proposal had little to do with the geography of support. Precincts moved as one large herd. Greater Austin’s voters seem to back or oppose rail based on something other than transactional geographic considerations. My guess is that the key issue for most voters is whether the rail proposal reflects their vision of Austin rather than how it affects their neighborhood. It’s likely that a majority of voters either back all referendums or oppose all referendums, while swing voters respond based on the inclinations of leaders they trust or their personal evaluations of the proposal. But precinct outcomes don’t indicate transactional voting— backing proposals that bring railroad to their neighborhood while opposing proposals concerning other neighborhoods.
When Austin’s Capital Metro transit authority held rail referendums in 2000, 2004 and 2014, only two areas would have gained rail stations from all three efforts— Downtown and Highland. The proposals’ geographical differences give us a chance to evaluate whether voters are more likely to endorse measures that benefit their neighborhoods directly. The 2000 proposal was the most ambitious, with an initial light rail line running from Downtown up Guadalupe and Lamar to Crestview and then northwest on the route of today’s Red Line up to Howard Station. A couple years later, light rail from Downtown to Ben White along Congress and a spur (along the Red Line tracks) from downtown to MLK Station. By 2025, rail would be extended to the airport via Riverside, down Congress to Slaughter, and all the way to Leander. The 2004 proposal brought into existence the current Red Line, which stretches from Downtown through East Austin and then northwest about 25 miles to the suburb of Leander. The 2014 proposal would have established light rail from the Airport in southeast Austin to downtown and then north through the UT-Austin campus along San Jacinto and Red River, terminating near the Austin Community College campus in the Highland neighborhood (2014 map). The 200 proposal lost by about 1%; 2004 referendum easily passed 62-38%; while the 2014 proposal failed 43-57%.
The 2000 and 2004 referendums were held in November in conjunction with presidential elections. 2014’s was also in November, during the mid-terms, when Texas was electing a new governor. These were the highest turnout dates in their respective cycles. There’s an argument to be made that Republicans were motivated to vote in 2014 in opposition to President Barack Obama, maybe by around 6% nationally, but won’t speculate here how this might have affected a rail referendum in Austin.
The composition of the electorate was somewhat different. Austin is a fast-growing metropolitan area and many neighborhoods saw substantial turnover in residents between 2000 and 2014. The 2000 referendum was held in areas conforming to CapMetro’s taxing district, the 2004 election was a Travis County Bond proposal, while 2014’s was City of Austin. Somewhat different configurations of precincts were involved in each of the three referendums, but I don’t yet know of a good explainer for that. I don’t believe the different configurations made a substantial difference, but I’m open to new information. About a third of the 2014 electorate was composed of precincts within what might be considered greater Central Austin, a region bounded by three highways— MoPac to the west, 183 (Research/Ed Bluestein) to the north and east, and Ben White to the south. I would guess that more than half the voters in Austin have never seen a proposal that would bring a rail line within a mile of their precinct.
Methods. Some precincts changed designations and/or boundaries in in 2001 and 2011. Working from a map (.pdf) at the time of the 2011 redistricting, I identified about a hundred precincts that kept the same number and substantially the same boundaries by eyeballing said map. That’s not the complete set of unchanged precincts and I may have made some mistakes, but I didn’t cherrypick the hundred. From that hundred, I chose a geographically diverse set to look at with kind of a case study approach. I don’t have the chops to do a thorough statistical analyzation and, even if I did, precinct changes are difficult to deal with. The following study was time-consuming enough as it was. I’m also only dealing with precincts where more than 100 votes were cast. Via Mike Dahmus and this blog article, I then used a 2000 precinct map (.pdf) to add those CTEs.
CTE=compared to electorate. I’ll be comparing how a precinct voted compared to the entire electorate for that specific referendum. In other words, the numbers cited as CTE will be that precinct’s percentage support for that rail referendum minus the entire electorate’s percentage support. More than 90% of the precincts in my hundred were within 10% of having the same percent CTE support in 2004 as in 2014. About half were within 5%. This is despite substantial turnover in many neighborhoods and vastly different rail proposals. And while some precincts were quite a bit more supportive or more opposed to rail, the majority of precincts voted within 10% of CTE in one direction or the other. There weren’t humongous differences between neighborhoods. Maybe two-thirds of the precincts had support percentages between 30% and 55% in 2014 when rail got 42% district-wide. A similar proportion were between 50% and 75% supportive in 2004 when rail got 62%. Over 90% of the precincts backed rail in 2004.
The numbering system for Travis County precincts aligns with the boundaries of the county commissioner districts and therefore some precinct numbers are changed due to redistricting after a census. The 100s in county commissioner district #1 are northeast, the most African-American of the four districts. The 400s and county commissioner district #4 tend to be majority Hispanic. The 200s are west of IH35, north of the river, and mostly close to central Austin. The 400s are rural, suburban and within the outskirts of the City of Austin. Some of the suburbs and unincorporated areas are outside the CapMetro taxing district, so they don’t always get to vote on rail referendums. In 2016, the 4th district just barely elected a Republican who is a long-time opponent of rail, although muted in 2004. (Gerald Daugherty’s campaign video went viral nationally and includes a meat-based swipe at light rail.)
So, let’s start with nine precincts far from any of the rail referendums’ proposed lines (including the 2000 referendum’s extensive rail network– explained here). These precincts’ behavior suggests that support percentages mostly move with the herd, that support for rail tends to remain consistent despite the specifics of the proposal.
Precinct 129, where I spend a lot of time, stretches southeast from the intersection of MLK at Springdale to east of 183 (Ed Bluestein here) all the way to Driveway Austin Motorsports at the Colorado River. CTEs were 6.4% below the electorate (-6.4) in 2000, +1.6 above the electorate in 2004, and +5.1% above in 2014. More African-American than most of Travis County, 129 has been gentrifying along Springdale. The denser neighborhoods near Springdale enjoy very good bus service and the eastern half includes the proposed Green Line rail line. The 11.5% CTE difference between 2000 and 2014 is rather high for these precincts.
Precinct 154 is west of where Highway 290 meets Parmer in the northeast, near the city of Manor. 2000 CTE was -5.5%, 2004 CTE was -5.2%, with -5.5% CTE in 2014. None of the rail proposals came anywhere close to 154, although it’s near the current Green Line plan for commuter rail to Manor and Elgin. That’s a ridiculously consistent level of opposition to and support for rail, but is a more typical story than 129.
Precinct 210 voters are in near west Austin, mostly north of Muni Golf Course, south of Windsor, west of Exposition and east of the Colorado River. The #18 bus serves the area. CTEs were -1.8% in 2000 (then numbered Precinct 371), +6.3% in 2004 and -3% in 2014. None of the propositions would have put rail anywhere near this old Austin neighborhood.
Precinct 211 is mostly east of Lamar between Parmer and Braker. The Red Line runs quite a bit west, but the #1 and #392 buses run along its edges. The MetroRapid 801 passes through this precinct but has only recently gained an 801 stop. The major transit center of Tech Ridge is a couple miles northeast. Tech Ridge might be the northern terminus of a future Guadalupe/North Lamar light rail line. 211’s CTE’s were -9.3% in 2000, -7% in 2004 and -3.8% in 2014.
Precinct 220 is between Mt Bonnell and where the Capitol of Texas Highway meets the Colorado River. Like 262, it’s within the city limits but far from any rail proposals and no bus routes go near it. CTEs were -4.4% in 2000, -5.4% in 2004 and -7.5% in 2014.
Precinct 262 is west of MoPac between Steck and Far West. It’s served by the #19 Bull Creek bus route and a UT-Austin shuttle route. In 2004, 62.6% of 262’s voters favored the Red Line, for a CTE of about +.7%. In 2014, the proposal got 42.8% district-wide and 41.5% in Precinct 262. CTE rounds down to -1.2%. In 2000, this precinct was somewhat smaller and that incarnation had a CTE of -1.2%, also. None of the proposals promised rail lines anywhere near this neighborhood, yet it was something of a bellwether.
Precinct 362 is in southwest Austin, west of MoPac and south of Convict Hill Road, where a bus runs. CTEs were -6.5% in 2000, -10.7% in 2004 and -12.2% in 2014.
Precinct 450, bounded mostly by Nichols Crossing, Burleson, and McKinney Falls Parkway, was -9.5% in 2000, -6.5% in 2004, and -9.6% in 2014. 450 is southwest of the airport and would have been a couple miles from any proposed 2000 or 2014 rail stops.
Since those nine precincts generally opposed rail referendums, we could argue that that their opposition is grounded in a transactional approach— that since rail will never come near their residences, they’ll oppose all rail. But it would be hard to separate that decision-making from a vision-based approach. They may choose their neighborhood because they have no interest in transit. In any case, there’s very little in the Project Connect discussions that would put better transit within walking distance of most of these voters, anyway. It’s unreasonable to devise even a far-flung rail proposal that would put rail stations within walking distance of a majority of rail referendum voters.
But maybe the voting data for precincts within walking distance of rail stations in the 2004 or 2014 proposals— but not both— would show a transactional approach.
Precinct 421 is in Travis Heights and would have gained a light rail stop along Riverside Drive had the 2014 referendum passed and one or more stations along South Congress had 2000 passed. The 2004 referendum stations were across the river. CTEs were 14.8% in 2000, +15.5% in 2004 and +15.7 in 2014. Travis Heights has been supportive of rail whether or not the plan included the neighborhood.
Precinct 260 is east of MoPac, from Braker to Research. It includes UT-Austin’s Pickle Research Center and lies just south of the Red Line’s Kramer Station. A stop at Braker Lane was anticipated with both the 2000 and 2004 rail proposals, but not in 2014. CTEs were +1.1 in 2000, +3.2% in 2004 and -2.1% in 2014.
Or consider Precinct 207, west of MoPac between Parmer and the Williamson County line. It includes Howard Station on the Red Line, which was also seen as a permanent stop on the 2000 light rail proposal. CTEs were -2.6% in 2004 and -6.4% in 2014. Frankly, I’m still unclear as to what precinct this neighborhood belonged to in 2000, but the probables (Precinct 204 or Precinct 207) both had CTEs of -2.0%.
Precinct 423, which includes Montopolis (Grove, Riverside, Ben White, Bastrop Highway), shows a possible transactional effect. The 2004 proposal had nothing for the neighborhood and its CTE was -6.2%. Different story in 2014, though, when a proposal that would bring a rail stop to Grove at Riverside had a CTE of +4.5%. The 2000 proposal would have brought light rail to Riverside eventually and the CTE was -12.1%, so it’s more likely that this significant 16.6% CTE movement has more to do with new residents.
Using only precincts that were unchanged during the 2011 redistricting left me without a Red River Street example, but it looks like Precinct 206 used to be numbered 146. 206 includes the half of the main UT campus east of San Jacinto and then neighborhoods north to 38th St. 2004’s proposal had nothing for then-146 and its CTE was 15.4%. The promise of light rail up San Jacinto and Red River increased its CTE all the way to 15.5%. And then what to make 2000, when the nearest station would have been a couple miles away and Box 146 had a CTE of +19.8%.
Such small changes in rail support may result from a number of things— residential turnover, turnout in a presidential election vs. a GOP-friendly mid-term, or maybe just a localized different attitude toward CapMetro. But even if these differences were entirely transactional, they represent a tiny inducement for adding a station or route to a proposal in order to pass it. Each of these precincts cast less than 1% of the total votes. Moving, at most, 10% of that 1% just isn’t worth diminishing the overall effectiveness of a transit proposal. And there are examples that suggest a rail station might harm support in a precinct.
Precinct 439is just east of the Plaza Saltillo Red Line Station, including territory from Comal to Pedernales and East 7th to the river. 2004 CTE was -.8%, but +13.9% in 2014. CTE in 2000 was -4.6%. This precinct has undergone a significant change in density and that probably explains the vote changes better than anything. Maybe rail increases gentrification, but there’s more evidence for gentrification increasing support for rail. The total votes cast in the three referendums were 746 in 2000, 887 in 2004, and 944 in 2014. Note that the first two elections had presidents on the ballot while the third was a mid-term. The number of ballots cast concerning a City of Austin proposition in 439 in the presidential election of 2016 was 1626.
We could also compare precincts that are near each other, one with rail in both proposals and one without. Precinct 149 goes from Airport Blvd at Lamar south and east to Duval at 53rd. CTEs were +8.1% in 2000, + 7% and +15.5%. The 2000 proposal would have seen a light rail stop near Airport and Lamar, the 2004 referendum delivered Highland Station and 2014 would have brought a separate light rail line up Airport Blvd. Did proximation to these amenities improve rail’s numbers? I doubt it. Those numbers are less pro-rail than we find in Precinct 135— Windsor Park and Mueller— which is a couple miles from both the MLK Red Line Station and the other two referendums’ proposed light rail lines. 135’s CTE’s were +7.4%, +10.8% and +21.2%. The development of the former Mueller Airport has significantly changed the relative sizes of these boxes. 149 cast 905 votes in 2000, 864 in 2004, and 737 in 2014. 135 hasn’t changed its boundaries, but the totals are, respectively, 1461, 1365, and 2475. The total ballots cast concerning a November 2016 proposition were 1181 in Precinct 149 and 4259 in Precinct 135.
Questions for future study. A precinct map for 2000 would help me include that election. There’s a collection of precincts currently numbered 333-336 that either did change its rail support or were renumbered in 2001. Otherwise, the above 2004/2014 examples look similar to 2000 precinct results.
There are better mathematical approaches than what I’ve laid out here. Someone with those skills and the ability to connect old and new precinct numbers could perform a better study.
Studies of other cities’ rail referendums would be interesting. It could be that Austin’s voters are unusually non-transactional.
What does this mean for drawing up a 2020 rail referendum proposal in Austin? The obvious takeaway is that Austin voters aren’t transactional. That is, there’s no need to promise rail to wide swathes of the city. It may well be that, on the whole, a rail station is viewed as being just as much a threat to a neighborhood as a benefit. On the other hand, a narrative that certain areas are always ignored could be harmful. My specific advice for 2020 is to concentrate on the best corridor for rail— Guadalupe/Lamar from Republic Square to the North Lamar Transit Center— and give CapMetro the authority and money to purchase land for future rail investments in other neighborhoods open to rail. The land could be used for supporting rail directly or just to capture increased land value in an effort to defray expenses.
Compared to the 2000 and 2014 referendums, 2004’s had more support from Republican leaders, including Round Rock state Rep. Mike Krusee, and muted opposition from long-time rail foe Gerald Daugherty. (Austin Chronicle Nov 5, 2004 recap here.) There’s a balancing act that CapMetro has to perform here. The agency wants broad support, but compromise too much and it’ll be stuck with a proposal that’s bad transit policy, which 2004 arguably was. Since Travis County precincts tended to move as a herd from 2004 to 2014, regardless of how Republican the precinct was, it’s an open question whether mollifying GOP leaders was all that valuable. It could be that there were larger forces at work here. The ambitious 2000 rail proposal lost by only 1%; it could be that the 2000 proposal would have passed in 2004, but not 2014, but yes again in 2000. We don’t know.
(edited July 11, 2008 to include 2000 referendum data.)