We Think It Can, We Think It Can ...

Capital Metro may have finally found a rail plan everybody can … tolerate

We Think It Can, We Think It Can ...
Illustration By Doug Potter

Having been dissed and let down by the Big Strong Engine (of Union Pacific) and the Shiny New Engine (that broke down at the ballot box in 2000), it's now up to Capital Metro's Little Blue Engine (well, we'll pretend it's blue) to pull the agency's All Systems Go! transit vision (and political future) over the mountain for the good boys and girls in the (capital) city below. And there may be other toys on that train. "Your vote for the urban commuter line is the first step in providing more transportation choices for Austin residents," calls out the pro-rail forces at their New Ways to Connect Web site (www.newwaystoconnect.com). "The Urban Commuter Line is the first step in a larger comprehensive transportation plan designed to accommodate the growth of the Greater Austin community."

You realize, of course, that this is some righteous messaging, especially when compared with the highlight-of-nobody's-résumé 2000 pro-rail campaign. If you're into rail and would like to see more of it, "first step" means "Pass this, and you'll get future extensions and new lines." If you're not into rail and don't trust Capital Metro, "first step" means "We're not building one more foot of track without coming back for another vote, or two, or four." Whether or not pro-rail campaign Chair Kirk Watson and the political professionals at the service of the Right Track PAC (its real name) meant it this way, it certainly helps explain the broad coalition lining up to cheer on the Little Engine That Could.

It's impossible to say before Nov. 2 whether Cap Metro's all-things-to-all-people All Systems Go! effort really will motivate 50.1% of the electorate to finally give the transit authority a chance to be, well, a transit authority rather than just a bus company. After all, the pro-rail campaign in 2000 was also broad-based, and (compared to the Right Track PAC's most recent filings) much better funded, as its vanquishers Gerald Daugherty and Jim Skaggs love to point out. But at this juncture, it appears the 2004 plan is poised to profit from not just the "support" but the actual sweat of its backers – like the Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin, and Downtown Austin Alliance on one side, and Liveable City, the Sierra Club, and the Texas Bicycle Coalition on the other – as they rally their troops to deliver at the ballot box.

Like the rail system itself, the rail campaign this time is proving to be a lot cheaper and smaller than the 2000 fiesta, where both sides (mostly the pro-rail side) spent $1.5 million, not counting "public education" expenditures by Cap Metro itself. This time, the anti-rail side doesn't even have a registered PAC, and the Right Track PAC is, according to the last financial reports, still well below $250,000 in total contributions, with new money coming in at a trickle. (You can contribute on the Web site. No limits apply.) Of that, it's spent about half. Cap Metro itself will spend substantially more on "public education" efforts to get the All Systems Go! vision before the public in the run-up to the election – without, of course, "express advocacy" for a pro-rail vote. There's also a distinct Eastside effort – helmed by a PAC called Adelante Metro – promoting the ASG plan's positives for East Austin, and countering the renewed (and eternal) opposition of El Concilio to Cap Metro and its rail plans.

Perhaps because he's a decorous elected official now and/or no longer needs them as whipping boys, The Honorable Gerald Daugherty has taken a notably quieter and even conciliatory stance toward rail and Cap Metro. But his trusty sidekick Skaggs has been making at least a few rounds, reminding his audiences that "costs too much, does too little" is a relative, not absolute, rubric. For the cost-per-passenger he anticipates for Capital Metro's system – between $7,000 and $15,000, he says – you could shuttle folks from Leander to the Convention Center on helicopters. Skaggs also suggests that even Capital Metro has made no claim that the rail line will reduce congestion, improve air quality, or decrease its riders' commuter time – although, of course, the All Systems Go! ad campaign from this summer (the one with Willie Nelson and other musicians) hit on exactly those themes, though not with specifics.

On the other side, we find Mike Dahmus of the city Urban Transportation Commission, who is "spending all the 48 cents of political capital I have" (to quote from his blog) to become the most audible voice of the pro-transit, anti-ASG constituency – people who supported light rail in 2000, support it now, and think Cap Metro is selling out under pressure from people like Skaggs and Dahmus' bête noire, state Rep. Mike Krusee. "No urban area in this country has succeeded with a starter rail line which required nearly every passenger to transfer to shuttle buses at the work end of the journey," he writes. "I want rail, but I want rail that people will actually ride (which the 2000 LRT proposal would have been) so that public perception of the system will be positive ... rather than negative."

It's no secret that rail backers, for months now – long before Cap Metro actually set an election and the Right Track PAC was formed – have been polling their cabooses off, and that both the plan and the campaign are informed by the results thereof. While the fast, cheap, and not-in-your-face approach seems to have worked to keep most rail skeptics less than thoroughly inflamed, the opponents who lie beyond either edge of the broad pro-rail base showed in 2000 that – particularly in a high-turnout November election – they know how to resonate with average voters who think the Little Engine is pulling a lot of symbolic and ideological freight that they don't like. Even without a robust anti-rail campaign, nobody expects the Little Engine That Could to cross the mountain without a lot of hard work.

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regional planning, Cap Metro, All Systems Go!, Right Track PAC, Gerald Daugherty, Jim Skaggs, Adelante Metro, Mike Dahmus, Mike Krusee

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