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Light rail: "It's the future, stupid."

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I'm scared light rail is going to lose. The arguments against it are simple: It is another government boondoggle; it will cost too much; people will not leave their cars behind; Capital Metro can't be trusted; what a waste of our tax dollars. The campaign against it has been inspired and broad-based. Essentially it is a simple message to get across. (See ROAD's plain dishonest TV ads -- "It costs too much and does too little.") The only consequence of voting "no" on light rail, we are assured, is more money for roads. What about the traffic? Not now but 50 years from now and 50 years from then?

The arguments in favor of light rail are more complex and abstract. Basically, however, they boil down to this: "It's the future, stupid." The campaign to support light rail hasn't been very effective. Long-term planning is a hard package to sell to present-day voters, so the pro-campaign has championed the short-term benefits of light rail, arguing that it will remove cars from the roads to a noticeable extent. This doesn't ring true to the voters, who are suspicious of big-money projects anyway. In their guts, they don't believe this multibillion-dollar project is going to have any real impact on their commute. They think building more roads will.

Ironically, under the heading of "no good deed goes unpunished," one of the negatives of the pro-campaign is the support of high tech. Often chided for not being more involved with their greater community, high tech took the lead in raising funds to support light rail, a venture they saw as critical to the future of Austin. Unfortunately, the perception (of some, at least) is that these mega-millionaires are trying to tell us what to do. According to this reasoning, the folks causing the traffic mess are now trying to get us to bail them out. So an act of civil involvement is used as proof against the venture.

Even beyond this, the pro-light rail forces have not done a good job of making their case. A last-minute TV blitz featuring the mayor and Lance Armstrong arguing for light rail may be poison rather than the antidote. People aren't buying many of their arguments. The best reason to vote for light rail is not what happens in the next decade but in the next century.

The one crucial question is the one most ignored by the anti-light rail side. If not light rail, then what? Roads, of course, and then more roads and some more roads beyond that. The truth is that some roads alleviate congestion, but many add to it. There are no roads that can be built to make downtown more accessible. In fact, most new roads will sooner or later add to downtown congestion. Light rail is not a short-term solution to current traffic woes. It is a long-term tool to keep downtown functional.

A friend of mine argued that in previous columns, I had missed the point -- Southwestern folks just aren't going to give up their cars like those Northeastern folks. I don't buy this. Northeasterners are as ornery and independent as Texans. They use mass transit because it works; they use it when it is the most effective way to travel. Whenever possible, they use cars. They have grown up in cities where mass transit is often the most effective option. This is a learned, not a natural, response.

I don't believe even the most environmentally friendly professionals are going to abandon their cars for light rail. But in decades ahead, when traffic in the Central Austin area hits complete car-to-car gridlock for much of the day, when parking is either not available or outrageously expensive, the light rail cars will be packed. If we don't build light rail, downtown will still be unusable and there will be no other option for transportation. If there is an economic downturn or two over the next half-century this is still going to happen. This area will continue to grow. If we build more and more roads, gridlock is going to happen very quickly. When downtown is packed and parking impossible, then either the city will build something like light rail or the downtown will start to die. By then, I doubt building a mass transit system will have much effect, given how long it takes them to have an impact. The truth is, you have to build a light rail system a few decades before you really need it, and we are already running late.

Explicitly: There is going to be more and more traffic. New roads will help some, but they will also encourage growth and lead to more congestion. We still need to build them, but we have to think of alternative transportation systems which will not necessarily alleviate present congestion. Instead, they will allow the city to breathe when it has become smothered by autos.

Why do you think so many cities are building or expanding their mass-transit systems? Many of them are not exactly bastions of progress (think Dallas). It is because logical city planners know that modern mass transit is a necessary component of our cities' futures.

It is not about current ridership or even projected ridership over the next decades. I agree with my friend that people who have done everything by car are going to be reluctant to change. I grant (though I'm not sure it's true) the anti-light rail folks that current ridership rates around the country aren't yet impressive. At some point, however, it will be to the advantage of many commuters to take mass transit rather than drive. It won't be a civic decision; it will be a question of convenience. At some point there will be generations raised with light rail who use it as a crucial tool of urban existence. At some point, the system will be packed and people will complain about the inept city government that lacked the foresight to build out even more light rail lines.

If defeated, light rail -- or some other form of mass transit -- will be back. Not because fuzzy-headed liberals are pushing their agenda but because it is crucial to the city's existence. If you think the price tag is expensive now, think how much more expensive it will be then.

end story

Please vote next Tuesday. I think we all are very nervous about how this election is going to turn out. As a cautionary tale, read Robert Bryce's fascinating story about the conflict between chicken magnate Bo Pilgrim and state Senator Bill Ratliff ("Not Clucking Around," p. 30). In many ways, this article shows how politics really works.

end story

There is some temptation here to go on about the Nader campaign and its real-life negative implications for minorities and the working class, especially the working poor. Make no mistake, this is a spoiler campaign. Nader taught us that if it acts like a lemon and drives like a lemon, it is a lemon. The reason Nader attacks Gore and not Bush is because that's where the votes are. end story

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