Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Commuter Games: Pardon me, boy, is that the vote-for-gonzo choo-choo?

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

We laugh a lot during the election season -- you gotta laugh to keep from cryin' -- but normally not so much as we did at a recent press missive from Ben Bentzin, the GOP candidate for state Senate. In said statement, the Dellionaire took special care to congratulate and honor state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, for his work to create a Central Texas commuter rail district.

"Rep. Krusee's leadership ... has been instrumental in resurrecting an initiative that promises to be an intricate part of Texas' transportation system," Bentzin opined. (Do you think he means "integral"?) "For five years, this effort has suffered one setback after another, but Rep. Krusee's ability to bring all interested parties together has brought new hope to the initiative."

Bully for Krusee. For a guy as big and lumbering as Bentzin, this sure is limber -- commuter rail is but one politico's baby, and that would be Bentzin's opponent: State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. (Not that Krusee is totally extraneous here, but still ...) At least Bentzin was clever enough to realize that the sudden burst of activity on commuter rail might could just possibly have something to do with an election three weeks away, and that stealing Barrientos' thunder would be a useful thing to do.

What Really Happened

Barrientos and his friendly neighbor Jeff Wentworth passed the legislation -- SB 657 -- that authorized the Austin-San Antonio regional rail district back in 1997, as part of a flurry of bills highlighted by the keelhauling of Capital Metro. To create the district, though, Travis and Bexar counties and the cities of Austin and San Antonio had to sign on. (Other jurisdictions can join later.) Austin did its part, but the district has stalled there until last week, when Travis and Bexar counties both agreed to join -- in a flurry of high-fives and understandable crowing by Barrientos. San Antonio is supposed to join by the end of the month.

To be fair to Gonzo, he's not the only one riding the rail to re-election; on the Travis Co. ballot, where the races have become unduly dominated by transportation, the incumbents aren't shy about taking due credit. But if it's too cynical to see this as an election ploy, what has changed to make a rail district prettier now than it was two months ago or two years ago?

The pose for years has been that commuter rail is a no-brainer. However, unlike light rail -- which has been the object of extensive study and, of course, a public vote -- commuter rail has remained naught but a talking point at parties. The only actual work done on the project -- a 1999 feasibility study overseen by TxDOT -- priced out a Georgetown-San Antonio system (running along the Union Pacific tracks, i.e., along MoPac) at $475 million, with an annual operating cost of $25 million, and a daily ridership of 11,000.

This would be subsidized transportation of the kind that seems to bother the GOP on rails but not on roads. Regardless, both flavors of rail are duly included in Austin's official long-range transportation plan, overseen by Barrientos in his role as chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. That means the highway projects that have churned while rail has languished (like SH 130 and the MoPac and I-35 expansions) have all been planned as if Austin really has a multi-modal transportation system.

Rails of San Antone?

The battle, such as it has been, has been over when to build commuter rail -- as part of a light rail package, or before, or after, or instead of. Whether inter-city (commuter) rail is the sugar coating or the poison pill for inner-city (light) rail likely depends on your biases. (The Austin City Council has no problem with either.) But either way, the act of creating a regional rail district, at least according to SB 657, imposes no real obligation upon the parties involved -- the district can do a lot but only has to do a little. There's even a $5 million federal nest egg waiting to be hatched. If the legislation were faulty, we've had two sessions to fix it, and bad law hasn't stopped the rush to form a regional mobility authority to build highways (a coup for which Krusee really does deserve credit). Why the long wait?

Bentzin, of course, slaps around Barrientos and the Travis Co. Democrats, but the problem may lie further south. San Antonio and Bexar Co., where transportation isn't quite such a key voting issue and where Republicans hold far more power, have uh, not been too gung-ho about this, and Wentworth hasn't exactly broken a sweat to get rail together either. Commuter rail might be an obvious idea, but any level of Austin-San Antonio regional government seems to give people hives, especially south of the Guadalupe.

I know we'll get letters from our friends at the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council if I get too smirky about whether such a "region" actually exists or will ever exist. You can be the judge; how important is San Antonio to your life as an Austinite? Do you think commuter rail in Austin (most especially, from Williamson Co. into downtown) should depend on a San Antonio connection? For whatever reason, Barrientos does; creating an Austin-San Antonio alliance has been a goal of his for years. As the long, lazy life of the regional rail district-to-be suggests, Gonzo's wish is not exactly equivalent to prophecy.

But now, with a regional rail district, the two cities' transportation politics are starting to become joined at the hip. This will only continue. Remember, come January 2003, barring a miracle or two, much of Austin will be represented both in the state Senate (Wentworth) and in Congress (Lamar Smith) by someone who lives in San Antonio. As the Lege considers hiking the gas tax and other bravura displays of Doing Something About Traffic, and as Congress prepares to re-authorize the federal transportation bill, "regionalism" on the transportation front will inevitably emerge, even if the region itself does not. (Build it, and they will come?) Even if Bentzin bumps off Barrientos, he'll still have to live with that echo of Gonzo's legacy.

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regional rail district, commuter rail, light rail, Gonzalo Barrientos, Ben Bentzin, Jeff Wentworth, Bexar County, Travis County, San Antonio, Austin City Council, Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, transportation, SB 657, regional mobility authority, CAMPO, TxDOT, long

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