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Light rail is a gamble, but an important gamble.

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Few votes facing this city are as potentially important to its future as light rail. In this issue, Mike Clark-Madison does an outstanding job laying out the issues surrounding light rail ("The Road to Rail," p.24). His piece begins: "Wanna do something about the horrible traffic on the highways? Light rail ain't it. Wanna do something about our ever-dirtier air? Nope, light rail ain't that either. Wanna change the way Austin looks and works for decades to come? Now let's talk about light rail. "Lest any rail fans think this is aid and comfort to the enemy, this is all equally true of State Highway 130 or any other road-warrior dream. The problems of today are not going to be solved, or even very much minimized, by multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments taking decades to complete. Like fruit trees, you plant these systems for your grandchildren.

"And the gift you're giving the grandkids is not free-flowing traffic and country-fresh air. Even if light rail succeeds in Austin beyond anyone's expectations, beyond any other city's experience, it will still carry only a small increment of the trips that get made in a bona fide big city. (As would SH 130, whose improvement on the status quo will be barely noticed by anyone outside of southeastern Williamson County.) Even the most transit-friendly cities are still crowded and soiled. Metro areas of 2.5 million souls, which Austin will be by the time these projects are finished, have traffic congestion and less-than-clean air. They just do, and people deal, and they can still be great cities." Clark-Madison goes on to lay out the issues with clarity. A while back I found myself wavering on light rail. It is going to be very expensive, and the build-out is going to be a nightmare. At best it is a gamble. The lines will only work if they help direct development (read in the article about what is going on in Dallas). Building light rail is betting against any serious evolutionary developments in either motor vehicles or other mass transit systems.

At heart, I'm a believer in mass transit. Growing up I spent a lot of time in New York City traveling the subways and years later used Boston's notorious MTA to commute to work. At various times in Austin, I've lived without a car and been dependent on Cap Metro. But the questions raised about how mass transit can work in sprawling Southern cities are legitimate.

What put me absolutely in favor of light rail was the campaigns against it: the "damn mass transit, build more roads" philosophers; the sophomoric, syllogistic equating of the nuke with light rail; the paid anti-light rail lobbyist Max Nofziger. The array of opponents and the short-sighted weakness of their arguments firmly convinced me to support light rail.

Building more roads is probably not a bad idea (and, unlike some of the Chronicle's Politics staff, I am in favor of building SH 130, as long as it follows the eastern alignment). Building more roads as our one transportation option is lunacy. There is just so much street space in and through Austin. Adding ever more roads, without a mass transit component, just means pouring more traffic into already crowded corridors. Building more and more roads will exacerbate congestion rather than relieve it.

Nuclear power will be too cheap to meter and light rail is going to cost a fortune and won't have any profound effect for decades. Equating these two, and there is not very much identical between them, is the same as equating any two major civic projects. I'm sure there are some that would happily do that, arguing that our city has screwed up most major projects it has undertaken. There's an argument to be made there, but it's not the equation of light rail and the nuke.

Light rail is a gamble, but an important gamble. It will direct growth, target development areas, and eventually alleviate future traffic growth. Please read the piece and think about this issue.

Also in this issue, Robert Bryce offers a wrap-up on the Branch Davidian trial he has been covering in Waco. This piece ( in "Naked City" ) is about the close of the trial, but it is by no means the end of the story. end story

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