David to Goliath-Light: Drop Dead!

The newly formed Save South Congress Association aims to put the brakes on light rail's return.

Rob Lippincott
Rob Lippincott (Photo By John Anderson)

Rob Lippincott, owner of Güero's restaurant on South Congress, has helped organize the newly formed Save South Congress Association, described in its press release as "a new political action organization." On Nov. 7, the SSCA held a press conference and meeting at Güero's, the date chosen to mark the first anniversary of "the victory over light rail" and "a celebration of democracy and a government 'of, by, and for' the people." Members of SSCA, which Lippincott says currently include a couple of dozen business owners and some local residents, declared they will work to prevent any reconsideration of the "reckless folly" of light rail. "If we must defeat it again," Lippincott added, "we are prepared to defend our community, one of the best places in Austin."

Lippincott told "Naked City" that while Cap Metro has promoted light rail primarily as a way to relieve traffic, South Congress merchants believe that in reality it is a stealth redevelopment program. "It won't work without high-density development," Lippincott said. "They want to run these small businesses out of the neighborhood and replace them with three- and four-story buildings, shop fronts with apartments above." While he and other property owners might well survive such an outcome -- or even prosper from it -- they believe the transition would inevitably ruin many of the small tenant businesses that give South Congress its unique character.

Asked about the group's suspicions, Cap Metro spokesman Ted Burton said densities along South Congress are "comparable to or higher than those in Portland and St. Louis, cities where light rail is already working." Should Austin voters eventually approve some form of light rail, he added, the agency would work to mitigate any effects construction might have on neighboring businesses. "We don't want to see people go out of business on South Congress."

Lippincott says the merchants object both to what he called the "slow rail" aspects of current proposals and their common South Congress-to-Ben White alignment. "In my opinion," Lippincott said, "one way it might actually work is high-speed rail down existing railroad right-of-ways -- then it wouldn't disrupt business. An expanded bus system from the stations, especially the Dillos, which have been really successful, could service South Congress area." He said the existing Union-Pacific right-of-way a few blocks west of Congress would be ideal for such a commuter rail system.

In fact, the U-P line is now under consideration, Burton says, precisely because it was suggested by South Austin business people. "It's a challenge, because that is an active line," he said. "But the Rapid Transit Project people are looking at it, to see if it's feasible." He added that John Almond, the RTP's new director, is in the process of arranging meetings with groups around town to discuss various possibilities. Almond plans to meet with the South Congress merchants in the next few weeks to address these and other issues.

Lippincott says the SSCA isn't persuaded that Cap Metro deserves another chance to pursue light rail. The agency, he adds, has not made sufficient effort to do what it already can do: service the town, especially the poorer Eastside, with buses. "Let's crank up the buses way better," he said. "If they're full, run two of 'em." In sum, says Lippincott, the SSCA objects to having to fund Cap Metro's continuing campaign for a voter-defeated light-rail plan and now an opposition campaign against it. "Cap Metro shouldn't be allowed another 'do-over' of last year's vote," he said, "because if we had lost, we sure wouldn't get a do-over. In this deal, Goliath gets public funding to defeat David."

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