Take the A-Train

Sooner or Later, Austin Will Build a Light Rail System. Why Not Now?

Take the A-Train
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

By the time Ross Garber discovered light rail, I was burning out on it. It may have been because the Vignette tycoon discovered light rail that I burned out on it. If this story, which has been going on in Austin for 15 years or more, and which in cities across the globe has been a political deal of epic proportions, can be distilled as "I'll Take the A-Train!" by marketeers aiming to "re-brand" Capital Metro, then Austin no longer needs a Light Rail Answer Man. That was my job.

Cap Met board chair Lee Walker says that if light rail fails, he's heading back to his porch. (One of his porches, anyway.) The authority's most famous antagonist, Gerald Daugherty, says that if light rail passes, he's going to work on his golf game. I empathize with both, but a journalist's work is never done, and whatever the outcome of the November 7 referendum, light rail fans and foes will search me out, on the porch or the (miniature) golf course. After all, I've been here before. More than once.

As far as I know, I've covered light rail and Capital Metro longer than anyone else in Austin. For 11 years, at three different publications, but mostly for this one, I have been off and on the light rail beat. This is the sixth time I have been on the cover of the Chronicle with a Capital Metro or light rail feature [see Tied to the Tracks, Magical Mystery Tour, At the Crossroads, The Road to Rail]. (Although it's the first time, and I trust the last, that "I" am literally on the cover.) I wouldn't say our coverage is "better" -- to be honest, I think the Statesman's Kelly Daniel now wears those laurels -- but after dozens of stories, probably close to 50,000 words about public transit in Austin and elsewhere, I hope my coverage has been something close to definitive and exhaustive. (Or at least exhausting.)

So, along with the transit triathletes who've been at this from Day One (people like Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs), I am now an increasingly dusty piece of the transportation furniture. And if light rail wins, I could remain planted in that place for 25 more years. And if it loses, well, like I said, I've been here before.

In early 1993, the Capital Metro board was one vote away from putting rail in the ground. Then it got cold feet. Two general managers later, the Cap Met board in 1997 arrived at that vote, and for its trouble got fired and watched the agency get keelhauled and saddled with the "opportunity" to take its rail plan to the ballot box. Now, another general manager later, the authority is back with a different plan, retooled and recrafted and still far from complete, but heading for the voters now because politics will not allow otherwise.

Take the A-Train
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

So light rail has already risen from the near-dead. Even if the referendum fails, and the worst-case scenario is realized -- the Legislature takes away half of Cap Met's money -- rail will still only be near-dead. As far as the state and federal governments are concerned, Greater Austin's long-range transportation plan includes 54 miles of "fixed-guideway" transit, regardless of who's crying on November 8.

Many cities who now have successful rail systems saw their projects get shellacked at the polls more than once. Unlike Austin, those were projects that required tax increases or public bond financing, often in tight-pursed states where most any public expenditure requires voter approval. Only in Austin, I think, has light rail been forced to run for its life in a pure popularity contest, where the transit authority is threatened with losing the money that local citizens have already agreed, by law, to spend on public transportation.

But light rail is starting to become something that New American Cities just do, like offering up the mayor for online chat or naming the stadium after a fine corporate citizen. So Austinites' thoroughly ambivalent and terribly deliberate consideration of light rail confirms for the international tech set that we are indeed a backwater. Conversely, the fact that we've thought about it at all confirms for the George Bush generation that we are indeed a pinko cesspool in need of a good legislative scrubbing.

And both sides think now is our best, last, or only chance to embrace, or spurn, transit and thus brighten the future. As with any Main Chance, everyone (and we do mean everyone) has gotten into the mosh pit, where the "debate" moves quickly, sounds noisy, and smells faintly rank. Not that there aren't good, smart, and sincere people on both sides, or that the text and texture of their advocacy is knowingly specious. But this is what happens when you have a referendum.

Anyway, with all the hoo-hah out there, what more do you want to know about trains, roads, ridership, traffic, smog, sales tax, sprawl, infill, station areas, headways, lane miles, corridors, Crestview, Pflugerville, El Concilio, Ole Mexico, corruption scandals, audits, ISTEA, TEA-21, SH 45, FTA, APTA, NEPA, VMTs, DMUs, HOVs, PE/EISs, value engineering, revenue bonds, farebox recovery rates, Al Gore, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Earl Blumenauer, Paul Weyrich, Wendell Cox, San Diego, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, or Curitiba, Brazil? I thought so.

So as befits the occasion of my last light rail treatise before the big vote, I figured I'd try to answer the question I am most often asked, in one phrasing or another: So, Mike, you know all this stuff. What do you think of light rail? What follows is an attempt to flesh out how I decided what I decided, surrounded by more information than decent people truly need. Perhaps it will help you decide, too.

The Red and the Green

First of all, light rail itself has changed a lot in the last decade. Not the practicalities of the proposal itself; though there have been many switchbacks and sidetracks, the plan before you now is basically what Cap Met then-GM Tony Kouneski put up for sale in 1992. The starter segment, from Northwest Austin to downtown, runs along the same corridor (the "Green Line"), past the same destinations and the same angry neighborhoods as did the 1992 plan. If the Cap Met board had given Kouneski the OK back then, you might be riding the A-Train right now.
April 17,1992: It looked like Capital Metro would actually start the light rail system it was created (in large part) to build. Then people started bitching. Including me. About a month later, the Cap Met board got cold feet and sent rail back for further study.
April 17,1992: It looked like Capital Metro would actually start the light rail system it was created (in large part) to build. Then people started bitching. Including me. About a month later, the Cap Met board got cold feet and sent rail back for "further study."

That's Plan A. There also has been, from the beginning back in 1984 -- before there even was a Cap Metro -- a Plan B, focused on that lengthy stretch of railroad track the transit authority now owns (the "Red Line"), with some form of rail to the Williamson County suburbs. From the day I first jumped on this train, it has seemed a little silly that we'd put full-on rail on the Northwest Corridor, where we then, as now, only had the most cursory bus service, without trying any options in between to either expand transit or transform land use. Right as Capital Metro moved forward with a Red Line plan in 1997, the intersection of U.S. 183 and RR 620, through which rail would run, was being transformed by the tilt-wall explosion that is now "Lakeline," an edge city that doesn't even have sidewalks within the powercenters, let alone between them.

I still feel that way about the Leander route, even if Cap Met does wait 10 or 15 years to build it out. To build out the Red Line (especially the Outer Red Line, from Lamar northwest) first is pushing the bounds of common sense, but that's what a lot of rail advocates wanted, because it would be cheap and easy, and that's what the agency decided to do in 1997, which did not do it any favors politically. Would Cap Met have been so soundly spanked if it had instead proposed the more difficult, more expensive, but obviously more useful Green Line, which would likewise be under construction right now?

But, the advocates say, Red Line service would have given Austinites a chance to see, feel, touch light rail and experience its transforming power and coolness. These are often the same people who say that the Average Austinite would never willingly get on a bus, and attribute that to some core thread of the modern American character. I say bull-ca-ca. No system, no matter how shiny, should be an end in itself.

I moved here from San Francisco, which in addition to its celebrated cable cars and BART heavy-rail system and CalTrain commuter rail line has the Muni Metro, which is technically a light rail system. Though it mostly runs out to the little boxes of the Sunset District, I used to pick it up near my flat in Haight-Ashbury and ride downtown with the same cast of characters every day, including the stand-up comic who is now president of the Board of Supervisors. (It stopped right in front of a comedy club.)

None of us chose transit just to ride the exciting Muni Metro, in all its orange-vinyl-and-plastic splendor, because we all rode the bus already, all the damn time, like everyone else in San Francisco, because it went everywhere and you didn't have to plan your day around its schedule. So this yuppies-won't-use-transit crap has never rung true to me. Who wants to drive on clogged and ill-maintained streets, and hassle with the parking meters and anti-theft devices, when you don't have to?

I have thought since moving here that Cap Metro could learn something from what has worked for Amtrak. If it did, it would dramatically expand current service -- perhaps with rail and perhaps with buses -- spending money to make money by seeking out potential riders and then serving them. That's a far better approach than cutting service back, repeatedly testing the comfort and patience of the current ridership, and pinning all our future plans on a shiny train that would seduce the inner child within each of us. I don't think Cap Met will take that latter course. If I did, I'd be first in line to vote no.

April 4, 1997: Five years later, Capital Metro finally took the vote it dodged in 1992. We published this huge slab of copy about the money, the technology, the neighborhoods. What really mattered was the politics. The legislative destruction of Capital Metro was an attempt to stop light rail.
April 4, 1997: Five years later, Capital Metro finally took the vote it dodged in 1992. We published this huge slab of copy about the money, the technology, the neighborhoods. What really mattered was the politics. The legislative destruction of Capital Metro was an attempt to stop light rail.

Big Shiny Train

My first exposure to a big shiny-train system came in Sacramento, to which the Chronicle sent me back in 1992, because it was the Big Tomato's RT Metro system that Kouneski was flogging as the model for a system in Austin. It was not true (though I have been chastised since for saying Kouneski lied) and I was not impressed. What Sacto had was the Red Line, a commuter system with enormous park-and-rides and little relationship to the streets or the town's major destinations. Most of it ran in existing freeway right-of-way. As a then-City Council member in Sacramento told me, "they [RT Metro] seized the opportunity and built the easiest and cheapest line they could."

I have since ridden the light rails on the Chron's dime in Portland, Dallas, San Jose, San Diego, and St. Louis (and on my own dime in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Hong Kong). I have yet to see a workable system -- one that really simplifies people's transit needs and choices and provides a framework on which to direct growth and reinvestment -- that does not seek, even through heroic measures (like the San Diego Trolley's 20-mile run to Tijuana), to serve the bulk of places people actually want to go. If you're going to approve light rail at all, you need to approve the Green Line.

A caveat, though: The biggest change I've seen on the light rail front is the advent of Smart Growth (or New Urbanism, or livability, or sustainability, or whatever the hell you want to call it). Actually, all the ideas of Smart Growth were already in place; they just hadn't yet been embraced by real estate developers, who now are falling over their own feet to build transit-oriented development. Talk to folks at DART in Dallas (or to Mayor Ron Kirk), and they'll tell you rail's biggest achievement has been to draw nearly a billion bucks of real estate cash back into the urban core.

That is now the mission and mandate of light rail; the annual confab Rail~Volution (a silly name, but I've been twice) used to be subtitled "Building Livable Communities With Transit." It has since dropped the last two words, because it is an article of faith that you cannot build a livable community without transit, rail transit especially. (I think this shows remarkably little faith in the self-preserving traits of the human species, but never mind that.)

And, Cap Met's detractors on the left argue, you can't get the Smart Growth bonanza if you build rail in a corridor that's already built out. I don't get this. West Campus is already the most urban, and dare I say the most SmartGrown, neighborhood in Austin, and no one thinks it's reached its development capacity. And it's not as if North Lamar Boulevard is the Champs Elysées, planned with precision and now inviolate. Almost the entire Green Line corridor could be redeveloped, densified without the neighborhoods even noticing it, and turned into a genuinely interesting streetscape. But only if you take some of the cars off North Lamar. Light rail may not, ultimately, take many cars off the road, but it will take most of them off of that road.

Now, in the light rail mosh pit, nobody cares about this Green vs. Red stuff any more except for a corps of longtime rail advocates who are, to varying degrees, having a lovers' quarrel with Cap Metro. But I still keep it in mind because, regardless of what pros and antis say about the scope and meaning of this do-or-die vote, it's not over until your hindquarters are planted in a light rail car speeding down the street. You need to premise your vote on the possibility that the Green Line, or even just part of the Green Line, will be the only line we have.

La Vie en Rose

Before moving forward, a few words about Portland. The Oregon metropolis was not the first to have light rail, nor does it have America's most extensive light rail system, and despite the Rose City's rep as Smart Growth Capital of the World, voters turned down extensions of the MAX system even after the first line was up and running. But Portland does have a light rail fetish, which is not a bad thing; it's a product of the city's history, just as Austin has a creek fetish. The MAX is Portland's Barton Springs. Portland's progressive regime coalesced around transportation the way ours did around water quality.
August 15, 1997: You'd never know this guy was gonna get canned in about two months, would you? Maybe Justin Augustine was thinking of his eventual severance package, but this was probably my most embarrassing moment as a journalist.
August 15, 1997: You'd never know this guy was gonna get canned in about two months, would you? Maybe Justin Augustine was thinking of his eventual severance package, but this was probably my most embarrassing moment as a journalist.

So when the nationwide traveling show of light rail opponents, people like St. Louis-based Wendell Cox, ream rail in Portland (and everywhere else) with a greasy fistful of not-always-meaningful statistics, I say "So what? They think their money has been well spent." San Diego, Dallas, and St. Louis can't build new rail fast enough. Denver's new rail extension drew fire because it couldn't hold all the people who wanted to ride it. If Austin's new mainstream is happy with "I'll take the A-Train!" then I doubt we're going to be sorry we built it when it's done.

The only cities I know where more than a few people think light rail was a mistake are Los Angeles and Miami, the two most transit-unfriendly cities in America and neither a bit like Austin. On both coasts, construction problems (streets collapsing into the rail tunnels, among other gaffes) drove up the cost and timeline, which in L.A.'s case were already pretty mind-boggling. But people across the city, state, and nation were so eager to see transit work in Los Angeles that the project became self-propelling. Yet here, nobody would hesitate to pull Cap Met's plug at the first sign of trouble.

As well, Los Angeles' chronically dysfunctional MTA has racked up enough mistakes and misdeeds to make Capital Metro's record of shame look trivial. It has now been paralyzed by a strike, and was earlier soundly whipped in a civil-rights lawsuit, because it spent too much money and energy on light rail and let the bus system go fallow. Alarmists say the same thing will happen here, but Capital Metro is so closely watched that hell would break loose if it didn't devote at least adequate resources to plain vanilla bus service. (It should probably devote more to bus service than it does now, which is already more than the half-cent in sales tax that detractors think the authority should survive on.)

Now, cities that don't have light rail present a different landscape. Cincinnati stomped out the idea before it began to smolder. San Antonio laughed in the transit agency's face, as it was told to do by GOP right-wing financier Dr. James Leininger and his Texas Public Policy Foundation. And the Orange County Transit Authority, when it rolled out its light rail plans for the southern L.A. suburbs, was brought before the bar for its trouble by a curious California institution known as the civil grand jury. (Imagine if Texas Monthly founder and civic gadfly Mike Levy had the powers of subpoena and indictment, and you get the idea of how the civil grand jury works.)

These are all places that are defined by their right wing, for whom light rail has become the fluoridated water of the 21st century. Groups like the TPPF have canned anti-light rail messages and messengers (like Cox), who are dispatched to any community flirting with wickedness. Their prescribed path to salvation usually involves privatizing large portions of the existing bus system, building roads that the community already knows it can't afford, and exalting the suburban model even though many people no longer want to live there, as the spike in center-city housing prices throughout the nation makes pretty damn clear.

Even communities that have succumbed to sin have anti-rail lobbies, like Portland's Cascade Policy Institute, that are no stronger now, surrounded by the damnation, than they were before light rail was built. Regardless of the facts on the ground, one cannot be a card-carrying conservative and support light rail, because taxes have to pay for it, and taxes are all kinds of bad, and the concept of a transit system -- whether bus or rail -- as a public utility and a public good, like the schools and streets, does not compute.

April 9,1999: After Karen Rae had been in Austin for six months, we figured she was ready to stand in the rain with a really tall guy. This was when Cap Met kicked off its AIM process to see if Austin really wanted Cap Met to pursue light rail. You know the answer.
April 9,1999: After Karen Rae had been in Austin for six months, we figured she was ready to stand in the rain with a really tall guy. This was when Cap Met kicked off its "AIM" process to see if Austin really wanted Cap Met to pursue light rail. You know the answer.

The electoral augurs often say that people in Northwest and Southwest Austin who'll never ride the train will never vote for it. I'm not sure that's true, but I think the reality is far worse. People who don't blink when AISD raises its tax rate by 12 cents think a full cent of sales tax for Capital Metro is onerous, because they think public transportation is a frill. Let's just say that this is thinking unbecoming of what, by 2025, will be one of the biggest metro areas on the continent.

Unfortunately, there are about 181 regular visitors to Austin (well, let's say 150 out of the 181) who would rather not see Austin adjust to becoming a metropolis of global importance, and who have the power to do something about it. It seems inevitable that, if light rail fails, the Legislature will take about three hours crafting, debating, and passing a measure that busts Capital Metro back down to a half-cent (if we're lucky) of sales tax, a move that could very well leave us with a Third World bus system.

One of the late entrants into the mosh pit, on the anti side, is the Austin High-Performance Transit deal helmed by former mayor Lee Cooke and former Cap Met board chair Steve Bayer. In principle, little if any of their plan -- which envisions a fare-free bus system, supported by vanpools and other on-demand service, that goes everywhere -- is truly incompatible with light rail. So, I ask, why not vote for rail? Well, they say, then there won't be enough money to pay for everything. But, I reply, if light rail fails, there won't be enough money to pay for anything. Well, they say, that's not really a danger, because the Lege will leave us alone if we don't pass light rail.

Try as I might, I cannot wrap my head around that scenario, even though in many ways I sympathize with Bayer and Cooke and their approach to Austin transit. It might be different if we had a good backstop in the state Senate, but Gonzalo Barrientos is, let's just say, not the man he once was in the eyes of his colleagues, and I have no trouble believing that a bill targeted at the transit authority in his district could be passed over his objections, rare as that is in the Senate. Nor am I sure that he would even object, as long as he had some say as to the destination of Capital Metro's purloined funds.

But I do agree that the anti-rail lobby led by Gerald Daugherty vastly overestimates the ease with which Cap Met's money can be easily plucked up and dropped on its favorite road projects, some of which don't even exist in theory, or at least in the metro area's official long-range transportation plan. If Cap Metro were to willingly roll back its tax in the wake of a rail defeat, which it probably would, that extra half-cent is totally free money for the Lege to toss back into the Austin political sandbox, and when it comes down to it Gerald Daugherty doesn't really have that much local stroke. Redirecting Cap Met's rail money to roads is, in my view, a foolish idea. But even more foolish is redirecting that money to the winds of political will.

Unsolicited Opinions

To summarize, some unsolicited opinions:

  • Anyone who votes for (against) rail because it can (can't) clear today's traffic jams off I-35 is a sucker. Transportation investments are like fruit trees. You plant them for your grandchildren. Austin is a big city. Big cities have traffic. Deal with it the old-fashioned way. Find alternate routes. Shop elsewhere. Work at home. Move closer to your job. Take charge.
    July 21, 2000: We used to have what the pros call fixed-guideway transit, and the streetcars shaped old Austin. Light rail would further transform the way Austin looks and grows. This package was our last wonky, theoretical treatment before the welter of the campaign took over.
    July 21, 2000: We used to have what the pros call "fixed-guideway transit," and the streetcars shaped old Austin. Light rail would further transform the way Austin looks and grows. This package was our last wonky, theoretical treatment before the welter of the campaign took over.

  • Anyone who votes for (against) light rail just like Dallas (San Antonio) did must have missed the part of the new-Austinite-orientation that explained why we were special and different. Every light rail system works, or occasionally doesn't work, because of the mix of people, places, and trends unique to its city. I'm not surprised that rail backers think Austin's unique mix works in light rail's favor.

  • Anyone who thinks light rail is too expensive needs to look at the sticker price of a new highway and a gallon of gasoline. Austin Tomorrow will be girded by toll roads, rather than free roads, because the Texas Dept. of Transportation can no longer strew its money -- which is still plenty ample -- across the state along with the bluebonnet seeds. This will never change. Even if the Lege takes all of Cap Met's money and its underwear too, it is too late to build a Crosstown Expressway.

  • Anyone who thinks light rail will singlehandedly destroy the neighborhood needs to have some faith in the 'hood. Neighborhoods are not still-lifes, but organic systems that, if they have integrity, are anything but fragile. My own Eastside neighborhood has endured I-35, Brackenridge, the Erwin Center, prostitution, and crack cocaine, and people still live there and like it. If light rail ruins Crestview or Wooten or the Eastside barrios, it would be because those neighborhoods are already on their deathbeds. Are they?

  • Anyone who thinks light rail will wipe out Austin's funky little businesses needs to remember where the unfunky big businesses are -- out on the highway along the city limit line. Retail died in the city because the urban core was unfriendly to the car, as well it should be. Besides, if South Congress becomes glossy (oh, and like it isn't now? Be honest), there are plenty of other streets in South Austin that would love to have that secondhand store.

  • Anyone who thinks light rail sounds the death knell for the True Austin needs to sojourn in an American city that has not changed over the past 20 years, and then explain where all the people went. It's pretty easy to find the True New Orleans or the True Buffalo. Which may explain why Austin's transit authority is led by transplants from Buffalo who succeeded transplants from New Orleans.

  • Anyone who, however, thinks light rail will guarantee the livability of Austin Tomorrow needs to remember that Buffalo also has light rail.

  • And most of all, anyone who thinks light rail will do anything, good or bad, all by itself might as well wait around the kitchen for the toaster do something all by itself. Whether you spend your money on rail or roads or rickshaws, you need to plan your city to grow and thrive on that framework, or else your money has been wasted. This is what happened to Atlanta, which built what it called the Perimeter Road and then forgot what "perimeter" means, and now is so sprawled and smogged out that fixing it required razing its political structure down to the ground.

    Given these opinions, is it surprising that I still consider myself a light rail skeptic? I am not at all convinced of the need for 54 miles of rail, though I think the central loop of the system (from Howard Lane to downtown to the Eastside and then back past Mueller and Highland Mall to Lamar) is a no-brainer and should be built without delay.

    We don't have a better way of moving more people around that loop, in those central-city corridors, unless we resurrect Robert Moses to tear down wide swathes of the urban core, laugh about it, and build bigger roads. And even if we did that, the U and the Capitol and downtown are not going to move. Besides, most of Cap Met's tax revenue comes from Austin citizens who will all benefit from making those corridors better to look at, more lucrative to the tax base, and easier to use.

    As for the rest: I talked about Leander earlier. I think rail to the airport is a faintly ridiculous idea, because airports generate far less traffic than do even second-tier shopping centers. And to create a transit corridor in Southeast Austin where there is none now, the city needs to get on the stick today to start planning and partnering with developers and buying land. It ain't happening. As for beyond the river, I urge Southsiders to decide what it is they really want, and then present that as a proposal to Capital Metro and to the regional transportation planners. You can't say that light rail is too disruptive but that a less disruptive system constitutes second-class service.

    A move like that can happen after November 7 if and only if light rail passes. Despite the carping, it's actually a good thing that Capital Metro's planning process is so far behind its electoral schedule. We can pass light rail and then really, truly, fix it and tailor it to meet our needs, and to be part of a true multimodal transportation system, and do the legwork on other fronts that will take advantage of the investment. That's why I've worked hard to really truly understand and explain light rail. It's a difficult and complicated business, and right now, it's easier to complain and vote no. But it was the easy way out that led us to where we are today. Let's get out of here.

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