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Opponents of rail plan appear to be gaining momentum

By LUCAS WALL
© Houston Chronicle - 10/08/03 11:55PM

With proponents of light rail falling short of their fund-raising goal and opponents bombarding voters with anti-Metro advertising, the campaign dynamic might be shifting toward those who favor more highways, observers of the ongoing shootout say.

Voters will rule on a $4.6 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority expansion proposal next month that includes a $640 million bond issue to accelerate construction of the next 22 miles of light rail.

Texans for True Mobility wants voters to kill Metro's plan, arguing in a four-page color ad arriving in mailboxes this week that "congestion is our real problem, and Metro's plan does not address congestion."

Citizens for Public Transportation, the committee pushing for approval of the mass transit proposal, has yet to start its advertising. In campaign finance statements filed earlier this week and in prior months, it reported raising a total of $772,057 as of Sept. 25. That's about half of the goal its leader, developer Ed Wulfe, has set.

Paul Mabry, the committee's spokesman, said fund raising has been difficult because of constant wrangling over what the plan should include and persistent attacks by rail foes such as U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt.

But, Mabry said, now that the plan's details are settled and the election is nearing, he expects the pace of donations will pick up.

"There's been extraordinary circumstances surrounding this campaign," he said. "For prudent reasons, people have wanted to wait to fulfill their pledges until they saw what the final plan was going to be."

The plan voters will decide Nov. 4 includes money for 40 miles of light rail, 44 new bus routes, more HOV lanes and local street construction, all by 2025 and without a tax increase.

Metro says it has spent $1.5 million in taxpayer money to "educate" voters about the referendum. It has run ads promoting the benefits of light rail and other elements of its plan, but is prohibited by law from advocating for approval.

Texans for True Mobility has not filed campaign finance disclosures, contending that its political action committee had not raised or spent money by the Sept. 25 deadline. Instead, its nonprofit educational foundation has been collecting donations and paying for the first ad blitz.

The organization refused Wednesday a request by the Houston Chronicle to voluntarily release its contributions and expenditures to date.

"Clearly this is an educational, privately funded entity whose members are free to contribute and have like-minded opinions on the way government should be run and not be open to any vilification," said spokesman Chris Begala. "The First Amendment and the Supreme Court guarantee our right to have privacy."

Groups that use so-called "soft money" -- funds not subject to public disclosure -- are controversial but permitted so long as they don't urge a vote for or against a candidate or ballot measure.

Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist, said that while academics and journalists decry the practice, most voters don't pay attention.

"What matters in this election is who can deliver their message, get it out and be convincing," Stein said.

Though last month's Chronicle/KHOU-Channel 11 poll showed 2-to-1 support among decided voters for Metro's plan, Stein said the intense opposition that's blooming probably will narrow that gap. Stein conducted the poll with Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy.

"This could be a close race, a very close race," Stein said.

Murray concurred.

"Studies of referendums show that all you have to do to get a `no' vote is raise doubt about what's being proposed and so there's a higher burden or standard that the proponents generally have to meet," Murray said. "So the fact that there is a well-funded opposition would generally bode ill for passing this deal."

But, he added, "almost everyone in the community is interested in traffic and mobility issues and most already have strong opinions about rail."