Wrong Side of the Tracks?

Light Rail May Be a Heavy Burden for East Austin

While light rail is being touted in some circles as the best solution to relieve traffic congestion, curb pollution, and rein in urban sprawl, several East Austin residents fear that they'll find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks if Capital Metro is allowed to go ahead with its plans to run a train through their neighborhoods.

Paul Hernandez, an East Austin activist who has been tilting at Capital Metro for more than a decade, draws upon history for an analogy. During the 19th century, as the railroads cut through the country toward the West Coast, American Indians were forced from their lands to make way for white settlers. Likewise, he says, Mexican Americans living in East Austin may soon find they are being displaced in favor of the light rail system and the development it's expected to bring.

"Light rail is to us what the Iron Horse was to the Native Americans," Hernandez says. "It will destroy our people."

Last month, Capital Metro approved an engineering and environmental study -- at a cost of $5-10 million -- on placing a commuter rail line from Cedar Park to downtown Austin. The so-called "Red Line," which will run straight through the heart of East Austin, will be the first of four projected railways designed to move people from outlying areas to downtown and back again.

At a series of town hall meetings Cap Metro has conducted on the issue, those in attendance were split fairly evenly over whether they believe the claim that light rail is the answer to Austin's horrendous traffic problems. But when it came down to an assessment of the agency's performance, the crowd was unanimous in its opinion: Capital Metro has demonstrated a glaring inability to perform its basic function, which is operating an efficient mass transit system, and has been unresponsive -- if not outwardly hostile -- to the needs of this city's residents.

"Capital Metro, to this date, has not been fully open nor honest nor respectful of the public at large and especially its clientele," Hernandez says. "Capital Metro is an agency that's out of control."

Given its track record, Hernandez and others find it hard to believe that Capital Metro will have more success with light rail than it has had with its bus system. The agency doesn't serve several areas of town, buses rarely are filled to capacity, and the fleet has not been maintained properly, leading to numerous breakdowns and delays. Despite his other shortcomings, Adolf Hitler at least made the trains run on time -- or so the cliché goes. Considering its record with bus schedules, many doubt Capital Metro's ability to do that.

Some have come to view Capital Metro as a spoiled rich kid who has tired of the Camaro daddy bought him a few years ago, and has let the car fall into disrepair so that daddy will have to buy him the latest Corvette. Except in this case, the Camaro is a multimillion dollar bus system and the Corvette is a light rail system that eventually carries a price tag of more than a billion dollars. And we -- the taxpayers -- are the parent having to foot the bill.

Others, like Hernandez and fellow East Austin activist Marcelo Tafoya, who represents Coordinadora 2000, believe that light rail is just the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to foster growth for one segment of the community at the expense of another. "They're hoping to displace everyone, get everyone out of East Austin, so they can build their beautiful condos," Tafoya says. "It's all part of their master plan."

History of Abuse

Born and raised in Austin, 50-year-old Hernandez is a sometime spokesman for El Concilio, an umbrella group of East Austin neighborhood associations. He says East Austin's opposition to light rail goes much deeper than the common "not in my backyard" concerns being expressed by neighborhood groups in other parts of town.

"There's a long history of abuse of the east side of town, particularly because it became the segregated part of town for the brown and black, and because in the early years of this century, Mexicans and blacks had no rights, no representation, no knowledge, and no participation in the planning or even in the choosing of where you live and how to pay for it," Hernandez says.

In the 1920s, he says, minorities were forced from homes near the downtown area to the east. "Since then, anything that was not wanted was moved to the east side of town," Hernandez says, pointing to the Holly Street Power Plant, the airport, and the Balcones Recycling Center as some examples.

Today, he says, it's light rail, with noisy trains running through neighborhoods at high speeds every seven minutes, which could, according to Hernandez, pose a safety hazard for children and block automobile traffic at numerous crossings. It's a train station that's expected to spur development, which likely will increase property values out of the reach of many East Austinites. It's also a railyard and maintenance facility bringing the threat of pollution associated with the care and feeding of the diesel-powered trains.

"Even though we're in 1997, even though we're much more educated and supposed to have representation, they're still doing these things," Hernandez says. "The biggest reason white people dump on East Austin is the fact that this is the class that has not been able to defend itself.... The people do not have enough money to buy enough votes or create a counterbalance to the money powers of the City of Austin, who tend to make huge profits out of the misery that it places on people they do not care about.

"Has Capital Metro ensured that rents won't go up and that people will not be displaced? Of course not. Has Capital Metro ensured that we will still be able to afford to buy the land? Of course not. Has Capital Metro ensured that there will be no more encroachment if it becomes successful with this little venture? Of course not. There are no guarantees and we certainly can't accept Capital Metro's word or the board's word or anybody's word, because in a few years from now there will be a new board and there will be a new city council, and they will not be held to the commitments made by prior boards or councils," he says.

Questioning the Need

Hernandez, like most Austin residents, agrees that traffic is bad and getting worse. But he questions whether light rail would be an effective remedy to that ill. "To this day, I've not seen any document that has proven the need for light rail," Hernandez says. "Now there are documents that exist that will tell you we need to relieve traffic, and the projections for the increase of traffic are great. But we must start to question the need for light rail itself, the projections themselves, the projected costs and, more importantly, the losses."

As evidence, Hernandez offers "A Dark Side to Light Rail?," a study conducted by Jose A. Gomez-Ibanez, professor of urban planning and public policy at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and John F. Kennedy School of Government. Gomez-Ibanez' examination of light rail systems in San Diego, California, and Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta, determined that construction, operation, and maintenance costs always exceeded expectations put forth by proponents of light rail, while ridership numbers always fell short of projections.

Although light rail systems in these cities were only a few years old and full statistics on costs and ridership were not available when the study was completed in 1985, "The data suggests that other cities considering light rail transit should be skeptical of claims that light rail will reduce transit costs, improve service quality or increase ridership significantly."

The study concludes: "Many of the U.S. cities planning [light rail transit] systems appear to regard a new LRT system as a gift from Washington or the statehouse because the capital costs are often financed with federal or state capital grants. But the experiences of San Diego, Calgary, and Edmonton suggest that the federal or state gifts may prove to be more like the Trojan horse, in that they burden cities with significantly increased operating expenses and deficits, only small gains in ridership, and few prospects for land use change."

The failure to meet expectations, and a transit authority's attempt to suppress that information, is examined in another study completed that year, "Deception in Dallas: Strategic Misrepresentation in Rail Transit Promotion and Evaluation," by John F. Kain, professor of economics and chairman of the Department of Economics at Harvard University, and former chairman of Harvard's Department of City and Regional Planning. Kain's article states that the Dallas Area Rapid Transit intentionally "overstated the benefits and understated the costs of the proposed system and attempted, first, to conceal and then misrepresent the results of unfavorable travel forecasts."

In conclusion, Kain writes: "DART could not be trusted to provide voters, policymakers, or even its own board, with accurate and unbiased information about the ridership, benefits and costs of its proposed rail systems and, more important, of alternatives to its extravagant rail plan." Although Kain admits that the findings in his article are specific to Dallas, he says that "Abuses similar to those described here are commonplace and occur in varying degrees in virtually every metropolitan area, both in the United States and overseas."

Along with traffic congestion, curbing urban sprawl is another concern Capital Metro hopes to address with light rail. Hernandez sees a contradiction in this goal.

"By facilitating commuting, are you encouraging urban sprawl?" he asks. "While some people are talking `compact city,' the actions that are happening are quite the opposite. When you hear that Cedar Park has tripled in size and these other places west of Austin and north of Austin are growing, you know that the people who are coming to Austin to get the jobs that are supposed to be available here are people who do not want to be a part of Austin and live here."

Capital Metro's light rail plan, Hernandez says, favors those who can afford to live in the suburbs at the expense of the taxpayers who live in Austin proper. "They're destroying a viable, low-income, ethnic community in order to service an affluent, well-educated, recently arrived people from the dominant society," Hernandez contends. "I don't want to play too much on the race issue, but if you look at it, who's going to actually use this damn thing?... You see the specter of encroachment, speculation, and gentrification, and always we're expected to sacrifice. There comes a time when other people are going to have to sacrifice. For example, those who move out to these other areas, let them sacrifice their time [driving] so that a low-income person does not have to sacrifice his home."

Much of the population growth in the Austin area has been a result of an expanding high tech industry and the relocation of several computer companies to Central Texas. Capital Metro's projections on increased traffic do not take into account that telecommuting is rising, especially in the sector of the population that's growing the most, Hernandez says.

Hernandez and Tafoya agree that telecommuting is just one alternative to light rail that Capital Metro has not considered. Improving bus service to increase ridership is the most obvious alternative, and dedicating lanes for bus traffic and high-occupancy vehicles also should be considered, they say. Businesses could provide more incentives for employees to car pool. Improving the poorly designed exit and entrance ramps on I-35 would help relieve some traffic problems, and a loop to route interstate traffic around the city instead of through it is a must, they say. "We need a loop," Tafoya says. "Even Lubbock has a loop."

Broken Promises

Capital Metro's claims that light rail will provide jobs and economic opportunity for East Austin should be taken with a grain of salt, says Hernandez: "If we had a nickle for every promise made and for every promise broken, there wouldn't be any poverty in East Austin." Most of the jobs created by light rail will be service positions, offering minimum wage and little chance for advancement, Hernandez says. Historically, he adds, Hispanics have not had a good experience working on the railroad. "The track was laid by a lot of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and a lot of our grandfathers worked for the railroad and were treated badly."

Tafoya says while light rail may bring more people through East Austin, they won't be stopping. "It's ridiculous to think people are going to come to East Austin to shop," Tafoya says. "It's just a way that they're trying to sell it. They don't talk about displacement, they don't talk about what's going to happen to the community."

Leon Hernandez, owner of Hernandez Cafe on East Sixth, doesn't believe that his restaurant will benefit from the proposed rail station that may be built just a couple of blocks south of his establishment. If anything, he says, he will lose customers to the snack bar that likely will be set up in the station: "I wouldn't be surprised if they started putting their own restaurants down here."

Paul Hernandez (no relation) thinks there's little chance that East Austin restaurateurs will have a shot at operating a business in the train station's food court. He predicts that space will go to the likes of Taco Bell or McDonald's. "In order to get into business, you have to have money," Paul Hernandez says. "If you have no money, you don't have credit, and the banks do not lend to you as a people money, how are you going into business? The other thing is, how are you going to compete against a franchise corporation? There's no way."

If light rail is successful and spurs the development that's expected, property values in East Austin will undoubtedly rise. Those who lease may find they are unable to afford the escalating rents. Those who own buildings, like Leon Hernandez, will see their property taxes rise. Aside from keeping up with the increased tax burden, property owners might find themselves squeezed by developers wishing to purchase their land while they are unable to muster the resources to develop the property themselves.

Paul Hernandez, Marcelo Tafoya, and other East Austin residents have worked hard to make their opposition known, and they've been joined by several neighborhood associations in other parts of the city that aren't fond of the idea of having trains run through their backyards, either. Groups like El Concilio, Coordinadora 2000, and Barrio Unido have mounted letter campaigns, spoken out during public hearings and staged protests. Despite this, Hernandez fears that Capital Metro will not be taking this information under consideration while conducting its engineering and environmental study.

"I firmly believe that the money will be used to rationalize their position," Hernandez says. "There are two ways to use consultants: One is to prove what you said, and the other is to find out more about what you want. In either case, both sets of information are used to rationalize."

With passionate voices of dissent like Hernandez's and Tafoya's, Capital Metro officials have their work cut out for them. Not only must they win over a tax-weary citizenry -- there's also a community of East Austinites whose trust they must gain. And after what residents on the Eastside have endured, few are ready to welcome any projects that could have a negative impact on their quality of life. Hernandez says his neighbors have had enough: "For the sake of serving one sector of the community, [Capital Metro] will destroy another." n

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle