Let There Be Light Rail
Light rail looks like a done deal. Sure, the election won't happen for another seven weeks. And Capital Metro hasn't even decided exactly where the first line will run. But pro-rail forces have a streetcar full of cash, they have the city's power structure stepping on the gas, and they're getting ready to unleash their secret weapon: Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong, the two-time winner of the Tour de France, recently taped a commercial for Get Austin Moving! (www.getaustinmoving.org). The commercial, made by local media consultant Dean Rindy, features Armstrong talking about the need for both roads and light rail and is scheduled to begin airing during the Olympics. While Armstrong's endorsement will help, rail supporters claim their polls already show that Austinites support the $919 million rail project by a margin of 59 to 31. Rail opponents claim the pro-rail polls are unreliable and cite their own poll, which shows the proposal failing by a margin of 51 to 39.
Regardless of the poll numbers, the pro-rail forces have a huge advantage in fundraising, with $450,000 at their disposal. Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars (ROAD), the group opposing light rail, has raised about $50,000. Indeed, so far, the pro-rail forces have spent twice as much money as the anti-rail people have raised. But Jim Skaggs, the chairman of ROAD (http://www.roadaustin.com), isn't worried. "We
expected them to raise more money. The proponents of light rail have outspent guys like us in every city," says Skaggs, pointing out that about 80% of all the referenda on light rail held so far have failed. "In San Antonio, they outspent them six to one and the anti-light rail guys won."
Indeed, on May 6, San Antonio voters crushed the light rail proposal by a margin of 40%. But Austin isn't San Antonio. And traffic here, particularly lately, has been horrendous. The Texas Dept. of Transportation has closed I-35 several times in recent weeks in order to install overpasses at the U.S. 290 interchange. The closings have caused miles-long columns of cars to stack up as they weave their way along the freeway's feeder roads through central Austin. Meanwhile, street closures for downtown construction projects are choking traffic to the point of suffocation.
"If traffic has served any useful purpose, it's been to promote light rail," says Austin political consultant Bill Miller, who believes voters will approve the rail proposal. Rail proponents, says Miller, have "marshaled their forces. They have a message and they have a situation [traffic] that plays right into their hands. Politically, it's perfect."
Rail is getting broad support. Most of the city's environmental leaders have spoken out in favor of rail, including former Save Our Springs Alliance chairwoman Mary Arnold and Hill Country Conservancy executive director George Cofer. If the pro-rail forces can rally the vaunted Green Machine to turn out for the election, the greens could make the difference. The proposal is also being supported by high tech execs, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the local daily -- which has run a number of pro-light rail editorials -- and prominent East Austin leaders like the Rev. Sterling Lands and the Rev. Joe Parker, both of whom spoke at Get Austin Moving!'s press conference last week. Light rail is one of "the most important issues we will face in my lifetime," said Parker, the pastor of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. The project, Parker added, will help make Austin "a world-class city."
The next filing date for contribution and expenditure reports for groups working for and against light rail is October 10.