You may remember that back in August, Dallas voters -- well, a small fraction of Dallas voters -- approved the largest municipal bond ballot in history (or at least close to it, though not adjusted for inflation) by a margin of about 3 to 1. This $2.7 billion wad o' debt will help Dallas Area Rapid Transit speed up the buildout of its Phase 2 rail system.
While Cedar Park and Pflugerville turn up their noses at Capital Metro, suburban cities Garland, Carrolton, and Richardson have gone ga-ga for rail links that won't open for years. Moreover, the Trinity Railway Express -- the long-awaited commuter rail link between Big D and Cowtown -- is heading toward completion, as both the Dallas and Fort Worth sections link up at D/FW Airport. And you've probably heard about the nearly $1 billion in investment along the existing DART line, much of which runs through depressed Oak Cliff.
These obvious signs of transit appreciation in Bush country are hard to explain away, especially since DART had, not too many years ago, a reputation that makes Cap Metro look angelic. Some rabid rail foes have suggested, apparently seriously, that the "success" of rail in Dallas is a sham product of a liberal cabal, organized by Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, that's padding the numbers so that other cities can say "Hey, if it works in Dallas ..."
The news is not quite so rosy in Houston, where Metro is sorta where Cap Met was back in 1997. Since Houston, unlike Austin, had not been saddled with a bracketed bill by the Legislature "enabling" a referendum, the Metro board was free to okay rail on its own, and its project was well-ranked by the Federal Transit Administration.
Houston's "air" is a bona fide health hazard, so federal funds in the Bayou City have to go to projects that measurably improve air quality. On top of the extensive busway and HOV system Metro has already built, light rail seemed a cinch, even though the current Metro leadership is drawing fire. (Agency GM Shirley DeLibero, who started her career as a bus mechanic in Pittsburgh, was recently suspended for failing to report her assistant's wreck of her Metro car, and for lying on her resumé after rejecting an applicant for lying on hers.)
Then appeared the Bug Man from Sugar Land, Tom DeLay, de facto speaker of the U.S. House, who specifically stripped any funds for Houston light rail from the latest transportation-spending bill. Such pork-barreling in reverse happens all the time, but when U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett tried a while back to insert language forcing SH 130 to be built east of Lake Long, DeLay was unsparing in his criticism of Doggett's "anti-democratic" tactics. Ah, Washington.
Problem is that DeLay doesn't quite understand that Bushies with money (that is, Houston's powerbrokers) actually like rail, which is why it's so boffo in Dallas. Right now, there's a push for a rail referendum in Houston -- even though Metro already plans on breaking ground in January -- and it wouldn't be surprising if the pressure for light rail grows more intense as the Legislature convenes. (Also expected is a third attempt by state Sen. Jon Lindsay, the former Harris County judge, to strip the City of Houston of its majority control of the Metro board.) But instead of being a brake on Metro, such a vote may be a chance for Houston's movers and shakers to stick it to DeLay.