Light Rail Debate

Former City Council Member Max Nofziger vs. Current City Council Member Daryl Slusher

Light Rail Debate
Illustration by Doug Potter

Rail Will Cost Too Much and Destroy Austin

"Wanna do something about the horrible traffic on the highways? Light rail ain't it. Wanna do something about our ever-dirtier air? Nope, light rail ain't that either."

This revealing statement appeared in The Austin Chronicle July 21, 2000. If it's in the "Chron," we know it must be true! And it is. Light rail in other cities across America has failed to reduce congestion and improve air quality. Light rail removes so few cars from the road that it can't improve air quality. And consider this: During the seven years (at least) that the initial 20 miles is being built, heavy trucks, backhoes, and bulldozers will be pumping tons of the worst pollutants into our already-dirty air. So before rail removes even one car from the road, its construction has created much worse pollution.

Why would we taxpayers want to spend billions on something that will not improve traffic or air quality when those are our community's most immediate needs? As a taxpayer, I want these concerns addressed right now, but light rail "ain't it."

What light rail will do is increase growth and development. The greatest impact of Cap Metro's plan will be to cause the redevelopment of 52 miles of the heart of Austin. The light rail tracks are the signal to developers that here is the place to do their projects. In fact, the City Council will probably offer "Smart Growth" incentives to the developers to further encourage their building along the route. Rail is the means by which the city implements Smart Growth, which means "densification" -- i.e., more people crammed into less space, building up several stories instead of out. Redevelopment along South Congress means that all of those beautiful, unique, funky shops will be replaced by multistoried buildings with retail on the ground floor, offices or apartments above. Who will be able to afford the rents on these new, non-funky, expensive buildings? Starbucks, Gap, Wendy's, etc; the chains are the only ones who can afford those high rents. Light rail is the means by which the national corporate chains will come into South Congress.

The impact on neighborhoods will be just as devastating. Increasing property values will drive up housing costs that are already going through the roof. We will soon see dramatic increases in water and electric rates as new capacity will be required to keep up with rapid growth. Cost-of-living increases will force many people to sell their homes and leave the communities where they've lived for decades, or even generations.

East Austin will be hit especially hard by gentrification. Already homes are selling for over $200,000 in the Holly Street neighborhood, which is advertised as "the new Clarksville." Folks on the Eastside are threatened by massive displacement as hordes of high-techers pay amazing amounts for a small house, demolish it, and build a mini-mansion so they can live close to work in their "digital downtown." The same impact will be felt in South Austin neighborhoods. The sense of community that residents have enjoyed for decades will be destroyed.

Light rail is an enormously expensive project. It would be, by far, the largest public works project ever attempted in the city of Austin. The South Texas Nuclear Project, with its construction delays and cost overruns, turned out to cost over a billion. The convention center and the new airport together were less than $1 billion. Do I trust Capital Metro to complete a project of this magnitude -- $3-5 billion over 25 years -- on time and on budget? NO WAY! NOT EVEN CLOSE! In this climate of escalating costs and worker shortages, the city is proving it can't handle even small projects without incurring substantial overruns. The little footbridge over Town Lake had to be scaled back when costs came in over budget. The Waller Creek Improvement Project costs have ballooned from $25 million, approved by the voters in 1997 or '98, to $35 million even before it's begun. And, of course, the controversial Criminal Justice Center, imposed on a downtown neighborhood two years late and 50% over budget. The same people responsible for these relatively small projects sit on the Capital Metro board. Their track record managing these projects does not fill me with confidence that they can handle the largest public works project in the history of Austin. Light rail has every chance of turning into the biggest, messiest, most expensive boondoggle ever -- even worse than the nuke!

Proponents of rail shriek that if we don't build rail now, we'll turn into Houston. "There is no alternative," they wail. This is not only absurd and hysterical, it is completely untrue. This is Austin, "City of Ideas." We don't have to become like Houston, or Dallas, or Portland, or San Jose. We should be like Austin. We can come up with real solutions to traffic problems that are quicker, cleaner, and a whole lot cheaper than this rail plan. And they will actually enhance neighborhoods and small businesses instead of destroying them. A plan that would provide increased convenience and save time and money for transit users. In fact, the High Performance Transit Plan created by former Cap Metro chairman Steve Bayer and former mayor Lee Cooke has won the support of many inner-city neighborhood leaders, environmentalists, and transit users. Check it out on the Web at www.austinhpt.com. With this plan, we can build America's best transit system in two years, 1/30th the cost of light rail -- cheaper, quicker, cleaner, and providing better service to the taxpayers.

I began my public service in Austin 21 years ago when I first ran for City Council. The big issue of that 1979 campaign was the STNP. I ran to warn people that it would be a big mistake to continue our involvement in that risky project. Since that time, including nine years as a City Council member, I've made thousands of public policy decisions, big and small. Some were very difficult decisions -- real judgment calls.

In looking at the specifics of this light rail proposal, it was not a difficult decision to oppose this project, even though I had supported the light rail "concept" in the past. When you move from the concept to the concrete, it's readily apparent that this plan is lacking. Who would have guessed that for so much money we would gain so little? Who would have thought that rail would go down the middle of some of the most congested streets in the city? Who would have thought that the Cap Metro board would produce a plan so devastating to neighborhoods and small businesses? If you've been supporting the concept of light rail, it's time to look at the reality of a web of overhead wires on South Congress obscuring the city's most impressive view of the capitol. It's time to consider the massive displacement of East Austin citizens. It's time to ponder the loss of South Congress' funky shops, one of the last remnants of the "true Austin" where you can still get a feel for what Austin was like in the 1970s. It's time to "get real" on the impact of light rail. What will it do to our city to overlay a $5 billion public works project on an already superheated economy?

In summary, light rail will: cost at least $3-5 billion, take at least 25 years to build, take out two to three lanes of traffic on some of our busiest streets, ruin neighborhoods and destroy small businesses, increase density and encourage development in neighborhoods, which will equate to more congestion and air pollution, use so many tax dollars that real solutions can't be funded without new taxes, destroy the last remnants of the true Austin, be the largest public works project ever attempted in Austin, and will be managed by Capital Metro! Light rail will not reduce traffic congestion or improve air quality. We can do much, much better for a whole lot less. end story

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