Poor Track Record
San Antonio's plans for light rail jumped the tracks on Saturday when just 30% of Alamo City voters supported VIA's proposed quarter-cent sales tax hike for a 53-mile-long light rail system. The defeat was a crushing blow to the plan that VIA offered, and it may have repercussions for Austin. Capital Metro officials were closely watching the San Antonio elections, and they are now putting a positive spin on the results.
"The big difference is that they were asking for a new tax," says Cap Metro general manager Karen Rae, pointing out that Austinites will only be asked to approve that the sales tax Cap Metro already collects be used for light rail. And, Rae said, while VIA used many of the same arguments that Cap Metro is using to justify light rail (air quality, congestion, growth management) the key difference is the perceived importance of transportation issues. "Transportation doesn't seem to be a big issue in San Antonio. It does seem to have a higher profile in our region," she said.
Another key difference is that the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank that may have endangered its non-profit status by its open and outspoken opposition to light rail, is headquartered in San Antonio. No similar group has emerged in Austin to fight light rail. In addition, Cap Metro can count on high-tech executives with deep pockets to start pushing for light rail. A group of execs led by Vignette Corp. co-founder Ross Garber are reportedly planning to hold a press conference later this month touting the benefits of light rail. Garber has also reportedly begun forming a political action committee and an attack plan to support passage of the November referendum.
While high-tech money and backing will certainly work in Cap Metro's favor, the bottom line for light rail in November may be credibility. VIA's loss in San Antonio has largely been blamed on the agency's poor reputation. So it may be Cap Metro's reputation, not the merits of light rail itself, that ultimately decides light rail's future in Austin.