Austin @ Large: Hate Males, Not Rails

Please don't make me write this column again in four years

Austin At Large
I thought about writing this week's column about some, you know, nonelection topic – Rainey Street, perhaps, or historic zoning, or toll roads, or what's going to happen to the Huntsman site, or to the Bank of America building Downtown. But who am I kidding? Nobody cares. I don't even care. Not until Nov. 3 ... or whenever the election is actually over.

Come that blessed day, I will get some answers to a few nagging questions. Like: Becky "Armendariz!" Klein. What's up with that? Did the GOP really think she was going to win? If they really wanted to bump off Lloyd Doggett, why didn't they get involved in the Democratic primary when he was actually vulnerable? (Oh, grow up. Such things happen all the time.) Is this the best they could do? If they really wanted to win, why has she been so, uh, lame? (Perhaps she's "male-hating!") And if they're just going through the motions, why waste $700,000?

Or Courtney Baxter. Oh, honey, no. Take that drama to your mama. It only took one "male-hating" crack to make me think far more than I really want to about your relationship with your husband. I'm sure others agree. But y'know, is it really seemly for you to be calling his opponent less-than-femme, or whatever you were trying to do, when he owes his seat to a concerted (and successful) effort to drive every white Democratic woman out of the Texas House? Who's got the gender issues here?

But really, I care less about the male-haters than the rail-haters, who come in both liberal and conservative varieties. Since I now have an unwelcome second chance to make this pitch, let me stick to words of one syllable: Please vote for the god-damn rail plan, folks! Don't make me write this column again in four years.

Move It or Lose It

It's really simple, kids: Yes, this is the best Capital Metro can do. Back in 2000, when I had been covering the rail beat for only nine years, I agreed with A-Train backers that only bona fide urban light rail transit, built around a central spine that connected all of Austin's actual high-traffic destinations, would be of substantial help as we grappled with our long-term transportation crisis. I still think that's true in the abstract, but people in The Abstract don't vote, and their wishes are ill-heeded in the Legislature.

I suspect that, tacitly if not openly, most people who supported light rail in 2000 prefer that plan to the commuter rail system now on offer. But that's not enough. Much is made by the anti-rail left wing of the narrowness of the 2000 defeat, but this ignores that we had a big economic bust in the interim that took a lot of wind out of rail's sails, and it would take a rather huge political earthquake to bring light rail back from the dead. I have little doubt that, if we were being asked to vote on the A-Train again this time, it would lose by a substantially greater margin, since all the issues that played so well against it – the cost, the disruption, the threat to Austin weirdness – are now even more acute. Remember, the safe-as-milk, quiet-as-a-mouse All Systems Go! plan, and subsequent campaign, have been carefully calibrated in response to surveys and focus groups and polls taken, oh, every 15 minutes or so.

I doubt that we will ever get a third chance. (Which means I need not worry about writing this column again in four years, but never mind.) If this rail plan – the polar opposite of the 2000 rail plan – goes down in defeat, then Capital Metro will, either of its own volition or by fiat, effectively see its sales tax rolled back to three-quarters of a cent or even less, giving it just enough money to run its current scope of bus service and maybe throw a little money at street repair. We will not consider rail in Austin again for at least a generation; it will join single-member districts on the ash heap of local political history. To argue, as some have, that we should nix the All Systems Go! plan in hopes that a better one will come around next time is, I think, shockingly naive.

Railing at Rail

So no, I don't think this plan does very much, but what it does is, to me, worth $60 million, which is chump change for a major infrastructure investment. Simply bringing on line the chain of now-underdeveloped big properties along the route, from Leander all the way down to Saltillo, is worth $60 million, even if they don't emerge as the kind of pure transit-oriented development that is so prominent in The Abstract. Given where we are, and will likely be for some time, in our journey through the political landscape, it's hard to see how it hurts to run passenger rail down the Red Line. I've heard much griping in the city vs. suburbs vein, and much attendant demonizing of Williamson County, but this, to me, misses the point of Envision Central Texas, let alone the realities under which we live today.

It is funny, though, to see conservatives, grasping for straws to cover their nakedness, bitch about Cap Metro "subsidizing sprawl" with an investment that wouldn't buy two miles of concrete. They live in a different part of The Abstract, where roads are better than rail in all circumstances, for deep philosophical reasons. I would have a lot more respect for the likes of Jim Skaggs – or for his late-in-the-game assist from Mike Levy – if they simply admitted that their opposition to rail is ideological. It has become clear over the course of this campaign that there is no rail system in the entire world that Jim Skaggs will support. Throwing around a bunch of "objective" anti-rail arguments – even if they were sound and valid, which many of them have not been – is simply wasting everybody's time, taking shots at an enemy who's still stuck in the mud back in The Abstract. We know All Systems Go! will not magically relieve traffic congestion. We should do it anyway, for other reasons – to set a precedent for changes in land use, to make the most out of assets Cap Metro already owns, for God's sake, and to take at least one tiny little baby step toward the choice-driven multimodal system we know we need. This is also a subjective, perhaps even ideological stance. But it's also, I think, the clearly expressed will of the people.

Levy's entry into the fray has apparently allowed him to make nice with the Statesman, or they with him, since he's given an otherwise humdrum contest the "conflict" the mainstream press needs to function. I don't think it's going to make a big difference, but it probably will depress rail's margins enough to make the losing side – which I think will be the anti-rail side – spend the next four years or more carping about Cap Metro's lack of a sufficient mandate. Whether I write this column, or another, again in four years, I'm pretty sure this isn't going to be over on Nov. 3. end story

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Election 2004, Capital Metro, commuter rail, light rail, "All Systems Go!", Envision Central Texas, Jim Skaggs, Mike Levy

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