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."
And so the snide belittling of our fair city will begin. Yes, we have a port that has tons of statistics -- but do we have rail like they have in actual big cities? Sure, we as a city buy more Brooks & Dunn tickets per capita than Los Angeles and San Francisco -- but do we sport shiny trains that make you think you're on "The Tube" in London or "The Goddamn IRT" in Manhattan?
All we've done so far is make a good start toward world-classness, apparently. We cannot take the final step to that hallowed ground unless we get rail. Then we'll finally be there -- until, at least, the next stadium has to be built.
Meet the Opposition: They're Geeks!
The political landscape surrounding the rail referendum is still taking shape. At this point some major players have yet to stake out a position. Former mayor Bob Lanier, whose den is lined with the pelts of countless failed rail referendums, is at the very least sitting this one out (and may even support the plan in ads), but suburban developer Michael Stevens has yet to announce whether he will mount a fully funded opposition campaign.
Metro has one giant item on its wish list: let the opposition be personified by Barry Klein.
Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, is a tireless and worthy advocate against tax increases and what he sees as government boondoggles, but he is a man who was born to be marginalized. He's charismatic, if you go for those slightly obsessive schlumpy types constantly urging you to read 1,456-page treatises on urban mass transit. He's fully able to fund his own ad campaign, if you're talking about cranking out flyers at Kinko's. He's the perfect man to get out the anti-rail message, if you're looking for someone who has cried wolf against every project ever proposed in the city.
Don't get us wrong -- we like Klein. He's sincere and largely sticks to the facts when making his case. It's just that if he becomes the face of the opposition, folks at Metro will be mighty happy.
Klein isn't daunted. "Metro has a very weak case if we can spend any money making arguments against it," he says. "If we get some free media coverage to our arguments and even a small amount of money, it will help a lot."
The other major player in the opposition camp is Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, who brings all the movie-star wattage that any tax assessor-collector could.
Right now, he's thinking he can battle the glamour of big-city light rail with a somewhat homespun (if not geeky) analogy that involves two of the four candidates running for mayor this fall.
"I really like this Three Bears-porridge thing," he enthuses. "The Sylvester Turner camp says the rail proposal is too small, Michael Berry says it's too big, and we're Mama's porridge -- we say there's not enough money to do either plan."
Has there ever been a world-class city built on the foundation of Mama's porridge? (Well, Quaker Oats is headquartered in Chicago -- but Chicago has rail!)
If no well-funded opposition declares itself, if the opponents are led by Klein, Bettencourt and the right-wing shouters on KSEV-AM, then we're one step closer to what Metro calls world-class.
That's a Fascinating Mayor's Race, Isn't It?
At Metro, they're partying like it's (not) 1999. That's because the last time Houston voted down one of these big-ticket projects (the first basketball arena referendum in 1999), things were very different.
Lee Brown had only token opposition in the mayor's race that year, and so turnout was low and attention was heavily focused on the arena vote. The people who went to the polls were the die-hard anything-new-is-bad crowd who would vote down an orphanage because those kids' parents should be taking care of them, not the gummint.
This time around, a slew of mayoral candidates is soaking up money and attention, and turnout should be high in the rail-supporting minority communities because the slate includes Hispanic Orlando Sanchez and African-American Sylvester Turner.
"This is the kind of election you want to be in if you're Metro," says Stein. "Unlike 1999, there's going to be a lot of money spent on the mayoral race. There won't be any clear airwaves to get [an anti-rail] message out Raising money won't be easy -- it's not a great economy and you've got four mayoral candidates and council races and the controller's race."
(The bad economy should work in the opponents' favor, though -- TV ads are cheaper and more available than they normally would be.)
Of the four major mayoral candidates, Bill White and Turner are rail supporters, although Turner has criticized Metro's plan for being too small. Turner may also be wary of White getting too much credit for his role helping to broker the current compromise plan. Berry opposes rail, and Sanchez is taking his time deciding what position to adopt (or, in his view, he is, in a statesmanlike manner, giving thorough study to the details to see whether it merits his support, and any political calculations be damned).
If Sanchez even lukewarmly supports Metro's plan (with the usual precautions about not letting them go over budget), then that might take the issue more or less off the table in the race. If he comes out against it, he and Berry will find themselves fighting to get a bigger slice of the hard-core 25 percent or so of the voters who are virulently anti-rail.
Metro, obviously, would prefer the first option. Let the four candidates duke it out in a wildly competitive race, let the personal attacks and negative campaigning run free, let Sanchez pull in the Hispanics, Turner the blacks and White the Democrats.
A bitter mayoral race focused intently on dirty attacks and irrelevancies -- that would be democracy in action as far as Metro is concerned.
You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money
There is, of course, a downside to the upside that a competitive mayoral race presents. While it keeps attention and funds away from opponents, it can also make it harder for Metro to raise what it thinks is the necessary bankroll.
There's one obvious way that Metro hopes to sell rail: spend a hell of a lot of money promoting it. The pro-rail political action committee hopes to spend up to $5 million telling us just how great mobility can be.
The common wisdom seems to be that rail supporters need to outspend opponents by at least four to one, and that some form of organized opposition will emerge, meaning the pro-rail folks need to raise at least $4 million.
"This plan could well generate a lot of positive comments, but the question is whether there will be enough enthusiasm among the big donors," says political consultant Joe Householder. "Do they give enough money to fund Metro's needs? Do they open up their wallets a lot, or just give a token?"
Because Metro didn't adopt its final compromise plan until mid-August, it's still too early to tell how well the fund-raising will go.
It won't be a cakewalk. This year will see the most expensive mayor's race ever in Houston, with the four main candidates expected to spend close to $10 million. That doesn't leave a whole lot remaining in petty cash for when the rail guys come around with their hands out.
But $640 million in bonds, and the construction those bonds will fund, creates a lot of reasons for donors to open their checkbooks. Even if they don't hit the $5 million mark, the pro-rail contingent should have more than enough cash on hand to easily outspend the opponents.
The trouble is, that's almost always the case. And extravagant spending hasn't helped the rail guys too much. But they are betting that this year -- when traffic woes are the No. 1 concern of Houstonians -- a well-funded, sophisticated ad campaign promising some kind of plan will fall on receptive ears.
Initial polling looks favorable -- Stein sees the plan eventually passing with anywhere from the low- to mid-50s of the vote -- but initial polling always tends to look favorable on rail plans. Studies by groups like the American Public Transportation Association show a pattern of early leads melting away as Election Day approaches.
"Early polling numbers may not be too indicative of what's going to happen," says political consultant Craig Varoga. "It needs a healthy majority in the beginning in order to maintain it throughout the election."
The compromise plan Metro adopted has helped its chances by placating suburban cities and foes such as Lanier, analysts say. "This thing was DOA four months ago," Varoga says.
Don't expect a lot of little-guy donations on the books of the pro-rail PAC. This won't be any Howard Dean Internet grassroots campaign. The big boys will write the big checks, and reap the big benefits if things turn out like they hope.
But if you're really desperate to see rail make Houston a top-notch town, we're sure the PAC won't turn away your $20 check. Instead of a huge consulting contract, though, you might have to settle for a place of honor on whatever fund-raising lists the PAC sells your name to.
Our In-House Light Rail Newsletter
As they always have, Metro's light rail warriors go into battle knowing at least one thing: They have the power of the Houston Chronicle behind them.
The Chron has been a tireless promoter of rail. Propose a system, and they're for it. Check the archives for the words "rail" and "world class" (an admittedly unscientific experiment) and you get 132 hits dating back to 1985.
Here's one of the latest, from a June story fretting that the Main Street rail line might not be ready for the Super Bowl: "Shedding the title of the only major U.S. metropolitan area without a rail transit system is part of efforts to improve the city's glamour and make Houston, as Mayor Lee Brown frequently proclaims, 'world class.' " That wasn't quoting or paraphrasing anybody, by the way, that was sheer factual reportage.
The Chron may have stubbed its toe a bit for this upcoming election, however. In November a member of the paper's editorial board mistakenly posted an internal memo on the Chron Web site. For a few hours the entire world could see how one staffer hoped to link pro-rail editorials with "a news-feature package with an equally specific focus." Story ideas included an irrelevant, if not utterly bizarre, look at Elyse Lanier's path "from jewelry saleswoman to Houston political insider."
Anti-rail troops howled, crowing that finally hard proof was in hand on the Chron's chronic bias in favor of rail. The memo was read countless times on KSEV-AM, and it was reprinted on conservative Web sites. Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen said the memo was merely one of many story pitches he got and would not influence the paper's undying efforts to provide comprehensive and fair and informative and zzzzzzzzzzz.
In the end, though, the only people who will remember the memo are the people who never believe a word the Chron prints about rail anyway. (Unless it's stories about Metro projects being over budget and busting deadline.)
We can only wonder if the paper will repeat its series from a while back, when it sent reporters to various U.S. cities to write about how wonderful rail was in those locales. There's only so much one needs to know, for instance, about the terrific-ness of light rail in Portland, unless you need to get somewhere in Portland that day.
But whether they go to such lengths or not, it's safe to say the pro-rail folks will get plenty of space to tell their story, and that the editorial pages will wax thunderously in favor.
No New Taxes! (Just Don't Look Too Closely)
A big, big selling point for Metro will be the claim that all this wonderful rail comes without any tax hike. It's painless!
"If you tried to do this with a tax increase, it would be quite a bit tougher," says Sims, the political analyst. "The economy's so tight that no one wants anything that has an increase attached."
The trouble is, nothing gets the opponents' blood boiling more than the no-new-taxes claim. Metro, they say, is wildly overestimating future sales tax revenue in the projections it's using, Bettencourt says.
"It's a de facto tax increase," the tax assessor-collector says, tax assessor-collector-ingly. The city of Houston will no longer get millions in road-repair money from Metro, he points out, forcing it to use its own funds. If Metro's sales tax projections are wrong, he says, the agency will have to stop giving that money to the suburbs in its service area. Keeping that money was crucial in getting support in those cities.
"If you run out of money because your projections are wrong, you still have to honor your obligations to the bond covenants, and so your pledges to the smaller cities will be the next thing to go," Bettencourt says.
To which Metro replies: No new taxes! No new taxes! And anyone who wants to get into some dreary accounting debate over sales tax projections, join the nerds over there! We'll be busy over here riding sleek rail cars and not paying any taxes!
"It helps Metro to be able to argue, 'We can finance this without it costing more in your life,' " Householder says. "If you're against it you can argue, 'They're using funny-money dollar figures and it will result eventually in a tax increase.' It's complicated and it can cut both ways. It depends on which side is more skilled about using the issue."
Opponents could put up ads of newspaper headlines shouting about Metro mismanagement, but it's still tougher to make a case when there is no direct tax increase to point to. "I can pin a tax increase on it if I had the money to advertise it," says Barry Klein, forlornly.
Metro insists its numbers are reasonable, and using rosy financial scenarios to cover the costs of big projects (or, if you're the U.S. government, gigantic budget deficits) is hardly groundbreaking.
So expect to hear often about how all this newfangled rail won't cost you a penny even as it makes the Katy Freeway a joy to drive. And keep a hand on your wallet.
Piss Off, West Side
Another reason Metro likes the 2003 election landscape is that it plays to the strengths of the pro-rail side: Houston voters will be going to the polls anyway for the heated mayor's race, while suburban voters don't have much else to get them off their duffs.
And that's good for Metro, because not only are the Republicans who dominate the west side unlikely to support rail, they don't even get much specific help in the rail plan being proposed.
"We can't even get on the HOV lanes from here," says Dee Srinivasan, mayor of Hedwig Village.
The mayors of the 14 suburbs -- and Houston -- are generally supporting the plan because Metro has agreed to keep giving them road-repair money until 2014. That money, which will average about $100 million a year, had been scheduled to be cut off in 2009.
People on the west side won't be near a rail line and they won't be using the buses. And given their historic antipathy to rail, having the election on a day that will minimize their influence is a sly move on the agency's part.
"The strongest opponents are generally the westside Republicans and Clear Lake City," says pollster Stein. "Generally you can break out the opponents by race and ethnicity and distance from the city." In the 2001 rail vote that was considered a gimme for rail supporters -- passing it would have stopped construction already under way on the Main Street line -- 73 percent of Montrose voters rejected the proposition, while only 54 percent of those in Memorial and Westchester did so.
A lot of those westsiders live in Houston, of course, but many live in places like Hedwig Village, Piney Point, and cities like Bellaire and West University Place.
Instead the big turnout will be inside the Loop, where voters tend to support rail. "They see rail and think it will give Houston a more urbane environment, and that's what they want," says Varoga. The biggest rail majorities in that 2001 vote came from neighborhoods like the Heights, the Museum District and the River Oaks area.
Stein says he doesn't have specific polling numbers on Inner Loop residents but believes they'll be strong supporters this time also. "The yuppie type of voter tends to be more Democratic and Independent, and some don't even drive cars," he says. "A lot have moved here from other cities that already have rail, and they support it."
And all those westside and suburban voters who oppose visionary leadership because they're stuck with their selfish anti-tax ways? No rail for you. And hey, if you can't make it to the polls November 4, Metro will understand. No hard feelings.
Mayor Brown? Never Heard of Him
Outgoing Mayor Lee Brown has been relentless in his push for a light rail system. Given Brown's notorious inability to put together three public sentences without inducing narcolepsy, this hasn't exactly been a boon to rail planners.
Brown leaves office after six years with a rather mixed record. His supporters point to new arenas and stadiums; his detractors harp on a prevalent feeling of ineptitude and ennui that has enveloped City Hall.
If you like Lee Brown, you like rail and you don't need him to tell you so. If you're tepid or worse about Brown, having his name attached to the project is no great selling point.
"Metro is going to focus on the urban voter, and the opposition on the suburban voter, and the opponents are going to be calling [rail] Lee Brown's last big boondoggle," says political consultant Varoga. "They're going to be saying. 'This is Lee Brown's billion-dollar plan that won't benefit you at all.' It's a message that could work."
Metro won't say as much, but don't expect a lot of ads with a smiling Brown mumbling his way through some rail spiel.
"The danger on both sides is if this turns into a proxy battle between Lee Brown and Tom DeLay," Varoga says. "The swing voters are skeptical about both these figures."
Brown will work to increase turnout among his fans, such as they are.
Which is a shame for the rest of Houston. Now we will be deprived of one last chance to see Brown flash that off-kilter, they-told-me-to-smile-at-this-point grin. Gone will be the office pools on which cliché he mentions more in any given speech -- Houston's "can-do spirit" or its status as a "world-class city." (Bonus points awarded if he includes port statistics.) Unavailable will be the city's best drug to fight insomnia.
"There's a Lot of Rubbernecking..."
We're not saying this one will happen, but you never know. All we know is that we're trying to figure out the best way to stay off the roads the Monday before Election Day.
We're not saying that Metro would send roving bands of employees out into the afternoon rush hour to get into fender benders or to sit on the shoulder of the West Loop looking under a raised hood. Just because every Houstonian knows that any little slight hiccup in traffic flow grows exponentially as drivers slow down in order to be properly fascinated by someone changing a flat, it doesn't mean Metro would do anything to have freeway nightmares fresh in voters' minds the evening before Election Day.
If there's an 18-wheeler stalled in the fast lane on I-45, right near a billboard saying, "Vote yes for a rail line RIGHT HERE," we won't be suspicious.
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If someone inadvertently bumps a fellow driver right next to a site for a proposed new Park & Ride lot, we'll call it coincidence.
If a full-figured blonde's engine troubles cause the Katy to be even more horrific than usual, we'll chalk it up to bad luck.
All we know is that we're staying off the roads. Until the traffic dies down.
Or until Metro sees its ten-point plan come to fruition and Houston finally starts on that long, strange trip to being world-class.