The Little Engine That Did

Capital Metro rides the train out of the political doghouse

On an election night that confirmed – locally, statewide, and nationally – the depth of the partisan divide in modern politics, the exception that proved the rule rode in on a train. From the first early-voting returns in heavily Republican Williamson County, all the way through the arrival of heavily Democratic Central and East Austin boxes, Capital Metro's commuter-rail referendum led handily. The ballot measure's final 62% victory freed Austin's transit authority from seven years of political purgatory and opened the door (at least a crack) to an actual multi-modal transportation system in Central Texas.

Both of those outcomes featured prominently in the talking points of giddy Cap Metro and rail-campaign leaders Tuesday night. "People are ready for transportation choices," said former Mayor Kirk Watson, leader of the pro-rail "New Ways to Connect" effort led by the Right Track PAC. "They're tired of only having one solution" – roads – "to our transportation issues." Watson also surmised that citizens were "pleased to know exactly what they're getting; Capital Metro did a good job over the last two years bringing in the public, listening, and asking questions. The agency deserves credit for building credibility in a way that helped this time around."

After 2000's defeat of a much more extensive light-rail proposal by less than 1% of the vote, Cap Metro proceeded with the utmost care in retooling a smaller-scale, minimum-cost system – using track owned by the agency to run commuter service from Leander through Northwest and East Austin to the Convention Center. Indeed, the modest proposal at first seemed too modest to many urban-core transit advocates, but any lack of support or motivation from the central city was more than offset by strong suburban backing for rail, helped along by Cap Metro's new best friend, state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, chair of the House Transportation Committee. "This is a really big deal," Capital Metro Chair Lee Walker noted, "because it's the first time our regional neighborhood has come together, on any issue" at the ballot box. "We should be proud to be part of this history-making effort." (Walker's Cap Metro board colleague, Council Member Daryl Slusher, gave more explicit props to Krusee, calling the rep "an honorable man" and dubbing the win "a true bipartisan effort." He also name-checked veteran rail advocates Lyndon Henry and Dave Dobbs, who've been fighting to bring transit to Austin for nearly all of the agency's 19-year history.)

Krusee, of course, was a player in earlier efforts – dating back to 1997 – to rein in and nearly cripple Capital Metro, and Walker made clear the agency's view that this week's victory finally lets it out of the political doghouse. "This is a tremendous affirmation to the Capital Metro family," he said. "Whether you're a driver, or on staff, or a maintenance worker, you're part of a wonderful team. ... It's time to let it roll. We need to make this happen, and we will, with a quality that justifies the confidence the citizens have placed in Capital Metro."

A similar message came from Cap Metro board member John Treviño; according to Walker, "ain't nobody who cares as passionately and who has worked as hard" as the former mayor pro tem, who led a strong effort to build support for rail in Hispanic East Austin. "Four years ago, we came this close" – about an inch, between thumb and forefinger – "to celebrating," Treviño said. "And the citizens gave us an opportunity to do some adjustments, to get some direction, and to come back ... with a new beginning. Future generations of Austinites will look back and appreciate the confidence we had in ourselves. I wish God will give me the years to see and taste what this becomes."

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Capital Metro, commuter rail, New Ways to Connect, Right Track PAC, Kirk Watson, Lee Walker, Daryl Slusher, Mike Krusee, Lyndon Henry, Dave Dobbs, John Treviño

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