Trainspotting

Here's how Metro wants to sell us on light rail

The plan was, if not perfect, pretty damn well thought out.

Build yourself a little rail line through the picturesque parts of Hermann Park and downtown. Get it up and running. Then, when it comes time to go to the voters for permission to build a real light rail system, you've got your ad campaign ready-made.

You can see the TV commercials: photogenic riders from every ethnic and socioeconomic level happily blurbing about just how great it is to ride that Metro rail. "I just wish there were more of it!" would be the shout from someone who fit whatever demographic was deemed necessary at the moment.

Alas, the perfect plan was not to be. The initial rail line is indeed being built, much to the annoyance of anyone trying to drive downtown. But the vote on expanding the system is coming before the line is finished.

Whether that's because Metro planners are seeing a shrinking federal mass-transit budget and a hostile Tom DeLay, or whether it's Mayor Lee Brown pushing hard for one last bit of legacy, is ultimately irrelevant.

The fact remains that Metro has had to toss its well-thought-out strategy for selling a light rail system.

So what's Plan B? Here are ten ways Metro hopes to finally sell Houstonians on light rail.

Rail Plan? What Rail Plan?

First off, get the terminology right. This isn't a rail plan you'll be voting on, it's -- as you'll be told over and over again -- a mobility plan.

This mobility plan might indeed have some rail in it, but that's only a small part of this wonderful kaleidoscope of mobility Metro is offering: improved bus service, more Park & Ride lots, money for roads in suburban communities. Oh, and some rail, too.

And if rail happens to constitute three-quarters of the cost of the $3.8 billion plan -- and it does -- you don't go to great pains to point that out.

"You don't sell a line, or a specific plan or a bond, you sell a concept," says Rice University's Bob Stein, who has done polling for Metro on light rail issues. "You sell a concept and emphasize that City Council will be consulted frequently as things go on; you sell a concept and say you should have rail as a component of that concept."

"People are so desperate for any solution," says political analyst Nancy Sims. "So you talk about mobility, and that rail is an element in that overall plan even if it won't solve all the traffic problems by itself."

Of course, Metro could improve bus service and Park & Rides and a lot of other things without going to the voters. It's the rail plan that is the main reason the agency needs to sell $640 million worth of bonds. So pitching this as an overall mobility plan rather than a straight-up light rail vote is like selling Reliant Stadium on the basis that it could occasionally host a concert by the Dave Matthews Band: It somewhat ignores the main point.

But people who are antsy about rail still want to see something done about traffic. So expect lots of TV and print ads with packed freeways, with statistics from some study saying how many millions and millions of dollars in worker productivity are lost each year owing to road congestion. (Apparently this assumes that if the freeways were clear, commuters in Kingwood or Sugar Land wouldn't sleep later; they'd still get up at 5:30 a.m. in order to be super-duper-productive workers.)

Who couldn't support mobility? Hell, it sounds like something the old folks are looking for when they take some of those laxatives or arthritis drugs that are always being advertised on the nightly news. And if those elderly voters who are anti-rail can be convinced that this new plan would help make them regular or allow more play with their happy grandkids, Metro's halfway home.

Inferiority Complexes "R" Us

Houston's nothing but a backwater one-horse hick town, you'll be surprised to learn. The "hick town" part isn't necessarily surprising -- any city that sells out rodeo concerts by Brooks & Dunn is going to have to struggle with that label -- but you may be surprised by just who it is putting you down.

With astonishing if not depressing regularity, the powers that be in Houston launch PR campaigns designed to tell us all what a world-class city we live in. At times it seems the only reason the Port of Houston exists is to provide allegedly mind-boggling statistics about how we move more container cargo than Biloxi and Pensacola combined. And we have museums and theater and everything else, so people should just stop bad-mouthing us.

This is all, it turns out, a sad lie. And the powers that be knew it even as they were pumping us up. For Houston will never be a world-class city, it turns out, until it has a light rail system.

New York and Chicago have them. So do Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Phoenix. And now, even that hated city to the north, Dallas.

"Rail has gotten closer and closer to Houston," says Sims. "Dallas has it. Anyone who travels now sees the positive aspects of rail when they go to a city."

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