Tracking the Money

The light rail juggernaut continues to rumble down the tracks. The latest contributor and expense filings by the pro- and anti-light rail camps show that with three and a half weeks left until election day, the pro-rail contingent has nearly $250,000 in the bank, while rail opponents have just over $51,000.

So far, pro-rail groups have outspent opponents by a margin of nearly 10 to 1. Get Austin Moving and Get Around Austin have spent $527,870 promoting light rail, while Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars, the only anti-rail group that has filed expenditure reports, has spent $54,474.

The advantage in fundraising, combined with what supporters insist are favorable polls, bodes well for the passage of Cap Metro's light rail proposal, which is expected to cover 52 miles at a cost of $1.9 billion. David Butts, a veteran political consultant who is working for Get Austin Moving (www.austinatrain.com), refused to discuss the poll numbers his group is seeing. And while he predicted victory, he added, "I expect it to be a close race."

Jim Skaggs, the chairman of ROAD (www.roadaustin.com), said he's not discouraged by the latest fundraising numbers. "I'm not concerned about it. In the last 20 years, 80% of these elections have been won by our side [light rail opponents]. And usually, the spending is 12 to 1. So I'm encouraged."

The biggest supporter of light rail is Austin Ventures co-founder Jeffrey Garvey, who has given the pro-rail groups a total of $70,000 over the past five months. Other recent contributions include $5,000 from Entrecorp, the lobby firm owned by former speaker of the Texas House Ben Barnes, and $2,000 from former UT regent Lowell Lebermann, who is now acting as campaign treasurer for Get Austin Moving. The group's biggest expense was a $100,000 payment on Sept. 8 to Rindy, Miller, Bates to produce and purchase TV time for a pro-rail commercial featuring cyclist Lance Armstrong.

The primary funder of the anti-rail group is Bill Walters, owner of Walters Southwest, a commercial real estate development firm. "Light rail makes absolutely no sense. It's entirely too expensive," said Walters, who gave ROAD $10,000.

While rail advocates have more money, their best assets may be organization and experience. Get Austin Moving is being managed by Barbara Rush, a veteran of several local campaigns, including Kirk Watson's last mayoral campaign. The group also has Butts, media man Dean Rindy, and pollster Jeff Smith. In addition, the group has been paying Austin Choices for Transportation, a pro-rail group affiliated with Texas Campaign for the Environment and Clean Water Action, to do door-to-door canvassing.

By comparison, anti-rail forces are understaffed. ROAD executive director Kathy Pillmore has managed only one local campaign, that of Rick Wheeler, who made an unsuccessful bid for City Council in 1995. ROAD's other paid staff member is former council member Max Nofziger, who has been paid $3,000 for consulting work.

Skaggs said ROAD expects to raise additional funds before the election. But for now the advantage is with the pro-rail contingent. And they know where their cash will be going. "You will certainly see more TV," said Rush.

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