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Houston, Tucson Voters Have Say on Light Rail Projects

Fri November 14, 2003 - West Edition

(AP) Results of Nov. 4 referenda related to light rail systems for Houston and Tucson yielded thumbs up in the first instance, and thumbs down in the latter.

In Texas, Houston voters narrowly approved the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s $7.5-billion regional transit plan that includes light rail expansion.

Tucson voters, on the other hand, rejected Propositions 200 and 201, which would have instituted higher taxes, that in turn would have been used to build light rail and improve bus service.

Houston Light Rail Squeaks Through

Backers of a successful ballot proposition that authorizes up to $640 million in revenue bonds to begin expanding Houston’s embryonic rail system called upon residents and politicians Nov. 5, the day after Election Day to hop on board.

“Now it’s the time for us to step together into the future,” Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Arthur Schechter said at an early-morning victory rally. “It’s time for the community to come together because the people have spoken.”

It was no landslide. With all precincts reporting early Wednesday, 189,443 voters, or 52 percent, favored the transit authority’s proposal to start building 22 mi. (35 km) of rail. There were 176,783 votes, or 48 percent, against.

The new tracks would expand a 7.5-mi. (12 km) line that will connect downtown to Reliant Stadium by January, just in time for the Feb. 1 Super Bowl. The transit authority already has paid $300 million for that route without any new debt.

The new lines are part of a master plan to build 73 mi. (117 km) of rail by 2025. Each phase would need voter approval if new debt is required.

The six-week campaign was marked by accusations of campaign irregularities by both sides and more than $6 million in spending, mostly by pro-rail forces. The election came 30 years after Houston’s first rail vote, which failed.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a west side Republican who fought the referendum, pledged to fight for all possible federal matching funds now that voters have given rail the go-ahead.

“My only goal has been to cut traffic congestion and improve travel time,” said Culberson, who will continue to press for freeway expansion and new toll roads.

The Houston area will cease being the largest without rail transit when the stadium line begins running. Automobiles and the freeways that carried them fueled Houston’s rapid growth over the second half of the past century, but congestion, long travel times and pollution have forced leaders to rethink the region’s transportation system.

Schechter called the result a mandate, an incorrect characterization according to Chris Begala, spokesman for anti-rail group Texans for True Mobility.

“Metro needs to take a look at it and see that about 50 percent were staunchly against it, then you’ve got the other 50 percent,” he said. “You might have a large margin of those who are transit-fatigued who said, ’We’ll take any plan. Let’s try to do something.’”

Begala added that Houstonians treated to pictures of the sleek new light rail cars might be rudely surprised in January when they realize the trains run relatively slowly and are at the mercy of traffic signals just like cars and buses.

Citizens for Public Transportation, a group formed to push the long-range plan, argued that over time the trains will prove a wise alternative to building more roads to serve a metropolitan area of more than 4.3 million.

“To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, we have taken one small step for Houston and one giant leap for Houstonians,” said prominent retail developer Ed Wulfe, a major supporter of the pro-rail faction.

The transit authority estimates construction costs for the 2025 plan will be $11.9 billion, with almost $6 billion for rail, $4.3 billion for bus service, and $1.6 billion for roads, said Shirley DeLibero, the transit authority’s chief executive. Operating costs will be $14.8 billion, with $12.4 billion for bus service, $2.1 billion for rail and $370 million for road maintenance, she said.

Lightweight passenger rail cars operate on fixed rails in right of way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way.

Light rail vehicles, sometimes called tramways or trolleys, are driven electrically with power being drawn from an overhead electric line.

Currently, 19 U.S. cities operate light rail systems. Another 13 cities are in some stage of developing light rail.

Tucson Deep Sixes Rail Initiative

By contrast to Houston, voters here emphatically rejected a proposal Nov. 4 to build a 13-mi. (20.9 km) light rail system.

The light rail proposal amounted to only one part of a transportation initiative on the ballot, but was clearly the most controversial.

Voters had been asked to embrace light rail as an alternative to worsening traffic.

The two transportation initiatives — one a funding mechanism and the other outlining a plan for spending the money — trailed by an almost 2-to-1 margin.

The first measure called for raising the city’s sales tax to 2.3 percent from 2 percent and increasing a construction sales tax to 6 percent from 2 percent — with the increases estimated to raise $1 billion over 20 years.

Both propositions needed voter approval for the plan to take effect.

John Dougherty, governmental affairs director for the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the plan, said defeat of the initiatives provided a perfect opportunity to move forward with a regional transportation solution for the Tucson area.

Dougherty said that might include a joint effort by Pinal, Pima and Santa Cruz counties focusing on the Interstates 10 and 19 corridor.

Steve Farley, a spokesman for Citizens for a Sensible Transportation Solution, which brought the initiatives to the ballot, said the Nov. 4 defeat didn’t mean the matter was over.

“The average number of times an election has to happen before getting light rail in a city is 2.7,” he said. “Oh yeah, we’re going to be back. No question about that.”

He said he felt good that opponents of the light rail plan had conceded that the other 78 percent of the plan, including improved bus service, street maintenance, an express-bus network and added police patrols, was needed.

Opponents said the transit package was too burdensome for city residents, lacked a regional scope and would be too costly for the return.

Proponents called light rail the only way to begin to entice commuters from their cars, SUVs and trucks.

With few alternatives to arterial streets as the main thoroughfares, traffic has long been a major headache here.

The two interstates that run through the area are helpful only to commuters going to certain parts of the city, and hardly at all for anyone traveling east to west.

An east-west expressway has been a dead issue for nearly two decades, and the only mass transit available now is a bus system.