Election 2000

Chronicle Election Coverage

Light Rail Never?

It was one of only a handful of real races on the local ballot, and surely the most closely watched of all. Of course, when the fate of the free world depends on a few apartment buildings in Fort Lauderdale, a 2,004-vote margin of defeat doesn't seem all that close.

And so Light Rail Now! slowly and painfully became Light Rail Never. At least that's what Capital Metro board chair Lee Walker thinks. "Sadly, I think it's binary," he said before packing it in around midnight. "Win by one vote, we build; lose by one vote, the Legislature ..." He left that thought unfinished.

"There's a prodigious amount of money at stake," Walker continued, referring to Cap Met's $120 million savings account and one-cent sales tax levy, both earmarked for more than a decade for a future rail transit system. "And that money will disappear into ... I don't know what, but I guess roads. I don't think we get a second bite of the apple on this one."

This was an even bigger bummer for Walker, Cap Metro, and the various light rail advocates because, earlier in the evening, rail looked like it was going to eke out a narrow victory. When the early vote totals were reported at the start of the night, rail was down by only 4,710 votes out of more than 110,000 cast, or just over 4%.

Considering that "progressive" causes and candidates normally get their asses tanned in early voting, that was good news. "We're going to get our trains," opined a more-than-cautiously optimistic Beverly Griffith, who sits on the Cap Metro board, early in the night. "Now we just have to build them for 25 years." A more frazzled Cap Met General Manager Karen Rae was "both exhausted and exhilarated ... but we definitely like the trends." And Walker noted that "it's gut-wrenching right now, [but] I can only imagine how [leading light rail foe] Gerald Daugherty feels."

So what the hell happened? As Dana DeBeauvoir pedaled furiously to get final county results out before last call, nobody knew exactly which boxes had been counted and which were still out, which in a town-vs.-country matchup like the rail referendum is of paramount importance. Nobody, that is, except for über-consultant David Butts and company, huddled in one table in the corner, and the rail-hostile county Republican brain trust, huddled at a different table in a different room, working their voodoo.

Even Butts, normally considered infallible in such matters, got it all cattywampus, telling the rail posse that they had it in the bag -- well, not in those words, but by smiling in a most encouraging manner. That was in midevening, when partial results showed the referendum ahead by 700 votes, its only lead of the night.

As it happened, the first boxes through the Palmer loading dock -- including the 21 precincts where, as an experiment, the county picked up partial returns at 3pm -- were largely from the light rail strongholds in the Birkenstock Belt. Those 21 partials were enough to close the race to within 1%, but in terms of trends, that's as good as it got for Capital Metro. As the boxes from the farther reaches of the Northwest and Southwest started to be totaled up, it became clear that after years and years of talking, thinking, and fantasizing, light rail had finally derailed.

Before the evening got much later, Cap Met PR man Ted Burton -- on leave from the transit authority to advocate for rail -- started looking for people to do TV stand-ups with a sheet of "we're gonna lose" talking points. The lucky recipient turned out to be Council Member Daryl Slusher, who returned from the Democrats' party at the Hyatt when the rail tide turned to find himself delivering the concession speech. (The pro-rail party across the street at Threadgill's likewise got drained of its energy pretty quickly, as all the prime movers ended up in the chilly bowels of Palmer Auditorium.)

And were the rail foes gracious in their victory? Well, when Travis County GOP chair Alan Sager was informed that rail conceded, he said, and we quote: "Awwwwwww ... Fuck 'em." The official faces of No-Rail -- Jim Skaggs and Daugherty -- were a little more sanguine, but they nonetheless saw Cap Met's defeat as a clearer mandate than a less-than-1% margin might suggest.

"I hope that this has raised the concern of citizens about our transportation situation, and that concern will remain," Skaggs said before the fat lady officially sung, though he was confident of victory all night. "There's now a mandate on our leaders to truly do something about infrastructure."

What a multibillion-dollar rail investment was, if not an investment in infrastructure, Skaggs did not say, though the No-Rail position was quite clear that roads were the only option. "And I predict if they don't do it, the leaders will get thrown out if they keep neglecting the needs of citizens."

But remember, 49.6% of your fellow citizens think their needs have already been neglected here in a region that has in the last decade invested many, many millions in roads, and authorized many millions more (including this year's city of Austin, Travis County, and Williamson County transportation bond packages -- all the Proposition Ones -- which passed by landslide margins).

Clearly, this investment has not solved our problem, and though Daugherty and Skaggs and the Lege might all disagree, spending yet more money is not what you'd call a sure-fire cure for Austin's mobility woes. So it would truly be a shame if Austin's decade-long march toward transit ended with this kind of a whimper. As one disillusioned rail supporter noted before turning in for the night, "I hope Gerald Daugherty bakes in rush hour traffic till the end of his days."

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