Dog Bites Train

The Main Train and selling pets to labs have nothing in common. Until it comes to referenda, that is.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack is crazy about dogs, especially Maltese. But he hates commuter rail, particularly Metro's plan to build a 7.5-mile line down the Main Street corridor.

Following his heart, the animal-loving commissioner tried to place a nonbinding proposal on the ballot last year to let voters sound off on whether the county should sell impounded animals to medical labs. That effort foundered when County Attorney Michael Fleming issued an opinion that the county had no statutory authority to conduct such a vote.

Fast-forward to last week, as an angry Radack fumed over Metro's plan to conduct a referendum next November on a mobility plan that buried its rail proposal in a transit grab bag that has something for everyone.

Radack believes the $300 million rail line is a boondoggle that does nothing to solve the real transit crisis on the overcrowded West Loop and area freeways. He started ruminating: If the dogs couldn't get their day on the ballot, why should Metro?

The commissioner took his question to Fleming, a Radack ally, and set in motion a process that may result in killing the planned transit vote next fall. Oddly, some of the key Metro personnel promoting the election don't seem at all unhappy that the vote might never happen.

Past Metro rail referenda have been state-of-the-art exercises in ballot doctoring, reflecting a longtime local political axiom: Car-loving Houstonians cotton to commuter rail like kids used to gag on milk of magnesia. To get the voters to swallow their transit medicine, goes this reasoning, the offering has to be so sweetened and disguised with additives that the rail element is almost impossible to taste.

The successful 1988 transit proposal crafted by then-Metro chair Bob Lanier on behalf of then-mayor Kathy Whitmire was a masterpiece of ambiguity. It included a billion-dollar monorail proposal but didn't even mention the politically poisonous word rail. Instead, it promised plenty of spending on roads and buses. Later, after winning election as mayor, Lanier cavalierly killed monorail without bothering to return to the voters, a clear indication how seriously he took the referendum results.

This time around the rail comes wrapped deep inside a five-point regional transit plan that features more money for improvements to the bus system, roads, streets and the Katy Freeway. It even throws in Metro's sale of land in the Westpark corridor to the County Toll Road Authority for a pay-as-you-drive transit way that would take pressure off the Southwest Freeway. And way down at the end of the list, almost like an afterthought, is that teeny-weeny little $300 million rail line from the Astrodome to downtown, with 50 percent funding by the federal government.

Lanier derisively calls this latest version of rail "The Twain Twack" but views it as a project so inconsequential he can't even bring himself to oppose it. In 1999 the only elected official who seems ready to take up Lanier's mothballed mantle as the Road Warrior is Radack.

Like a mantra, Metro chair Robert Miller loves to repeat over and over that the rail proposal constitutes only 3.5 percent of Metro's proposed $4.3 billion in capital improvements over the next decade, an outlay dwarfed by the $1 billion budgeted for buses and $1.5 billion for street improvements. After hearing all the drumrolls for the plan, you'd never guess that little train is the sole reason for having a referendum at all.

Mayor Lee Brown promised Lanier and Congressman Tom DeLay, who controls the spigot on federal transit funds for Houston, that he wouldn't embark on a rail program without getting voter approval. Of course, following hallowed Metro tradition, Brown didn't promise that the voters would be crystal-clear on what they were approving.

While opposition to the rail line has been minimal thus far, some Harris County leaders fumed over Miller's formula to include the Westpark Toll Road land sale as one of the sweeteners designed to get traditionally antirail voters to approve the Main Train.

The Westpark land purchase has been discussed for several years and is in the final stages of negotiation, with a Labor Day deadline for inking an agreement. County Judge Robert Eckels and others oppose including it in the referendum package and worry what might happen if rail drags the whole plan down to defeat.

"We're using our money for it — not Metro's money," says Eckels of the land sale. "In fact, that's what's freeing up Metro money to be used for the proposed rail project. We've already had our referendum on toll roads, so I don't see any linkage between that and the rail referendum." Eckels stresses that he has no objection to putting the other nonrail elements of the Metro plan on the ballot.

"What they are trying to do is put whipped cream on a sour pie and make it palatable," growls commissioner Radack. He turned to County Attorney Fleming with his canine-inspired question about the legality of the transit vote.

Fleming expects to issue opinions this week on two questions posed by Radack. The first is whether it is legal for Metro to combine a number of projects, including the Westpark land deal, on what is essentially a rail referendum. The second issue is whether the transit agency can conduct a referendum that is not legally binding on its future actions. As a nonbinding vote, it amounts to a very expensive public-opinion poll.

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