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Ad blitz will precede METRO referendum
Anti-rail group plans to mount an aggressive campaign

By RAD SALLEE
© Houston Chronicle - 10/03/03

Coming soon to local prime time: Traffic noises followed by a hard-hitting advertisement against the Metropolitan Transit Authority's proposed rail transit extensions.

The 30-second spots, which will start running Monday and continue through Oct. 12, are just the opening number in pro and con media campaigns leading to the Nov. 4 referendum on the agency's 25-year Metro Solutions plan.

The ad ends with "Metro 's plan costs far too much, does far too little" - the theme that Texans for True Mobility hopes will resonate with voters. The well-funded group includes high-profile Republicans, such as U.S. Rep. John Culberson and state Sen. Jon Lindsay, both of Houston. Developer Michael Stevens and John Butler, a member of Metro 's original board of directors, are chairing the campaign.

The spots will appear on the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News networks, as well as CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, said Chris Begala, political consultant for the group.

"We've bought the four major networks pretty heavy," Begala said. "We bought Jay Leno on Channel 2 and Nightline on Channel 13."

The group is drafting other anti-Metro rail ads, he said. "So far we are at about $178,000 . . . including TV," a figure that only covers the first week. But more will be purchased, he said.

"It will be an aggressive well-funded campaign. People feel strongly about informing the public what a bad deal this is."

Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton declined to respond to the ad, noting the transit agency is barred by law from political campaigning. Metro has been running a $1.5 million "educational" campaign about its transportation plan.

Paul Mabry, spokesman for Citizens for Public Transportation, the committee promoting the Metro Solutions plan, urged voters to read the ballot.

Mabry said the Nov. 4 ballot proposal, if approved, would authorize Metro to issue $640 million in bonds - not $8 billion as the ads suggest - to build light rail over 10 years, adding an estimated 22 miles to the 7.5-mile line from downtown to Reliant Park. Metro would come back to voters after 2009 to finance the next extension.

Voters would also be authorizing - but not voting to fund - an eventual 80 miles of light and commuter rail at an estimated $5.9 billion, along with more buses and more roads, Mabry said.

"It's sleight of hand, trying to get voters to think they're voting on $8 billion and just for rail," he said.

Begala said the $8 billion figure cited in the ad includes about $5 billion in capital costs, $2 billion for operation and maintenance, and another billion for debt interest and contingencies.

Begala added, "The ballot says 72 additional miles of rail. If you vote yes, you're voting for 72.8 miles of rail, end of story. Once again, they're hiding the ball."

Mabry disputed the ad's statement that the proposed rail system would not relieve congestion.

Critics have argued that the system would carry only 1 percent of local trips, but Mabry said those numbers reflect round-the-clock travel throughout the eight-county metropolitan area. The rail and bus system will carry a larger share of trips during rush hour in the area it serves, he said.

"If you apply the same standard to the Katy Freeway, which will cost about $2 billion to widen, it would carry about the same percentage of traffic," he said.

The ad also says rail proposals were defeated in Austin, Fort Worth and San Antonio and that Dallas' light rail system has "run out of money" and is "asking taxpayers for an $18 million bailout." Voters in Austin and San Antonio did recently reject rail.

Fort Worth voters in the early 1980s voted not to join a proposed regional transit system including Dallas and Collin counties, but no referendum has been held there on a local rail plan. Begala said the ad refers to a City Council decision not to pursue rail.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit spokesman Morgan Lyons said the agency has applied for $14 million in federal maintenance funds, but he denied this is a bailout.

DART's sales tax revenues are down, he said, reflecting layoffs in the telecommunications industry. But DART rail ridership was up 26 percent through August 2003 compared with 2002, in part because the system has been extended.

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THE FIRST 30-SECOND SPOT

  • Scene: Headlines over shots of traffic, sounds of horns honking
  • Text: Houston can't afford Metro 's light rail plan.
  • Even experts say spending billions on light rail won't relieve congestion.

    San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin all rejected light rail. Dallas tried it. It did not relieve their congestion, and now they've run out of money and have asked taxpayers for an $18 million bailout.

    Metro wants to spend $8 billion on light rail but move less than 1 percent of our traffic - $8 billion and no congestion relief.

    Metro 's plan costs far too much, does far too little.