The Lame Arguments In Favor Of The Rail Bonds

By Bill Oakey – August 21, 2014

Here’s A Little Baseball Analogy

Picture a young boy in the early 1960’s.  He is a huge baseball fan.  He has built up an impressive collection of baseball cards from those 2 cent packages of chewing gum. Now he wants to take a giant leap forward. At the age of 12, he is convinced that he is ready to test his prowess on an actual baseball field. So, he joins a Little League club.

Perhaps we can call this little guy Timmy. Timmy has a very large circle of friends. Everybody likes him a lot because of his outgoing personality and his ability to make other kids laugh. When he holds a birthday party, everybody from blocks around shows up. Now he is ready to invite them all to his first Little League Baseball game.

There is just one little problem. Timmy has never been good at outdoor sports. The reason for that is – to put it bluntly – the poor guy is just too clumsy and uncoordinated. But he won’t let that stop him. He has every intention of making up for that with an over-abundance of pride. No one is willing to warn Timmy that he might make a fool of himself.

On the big day of the game, the crowd is nearly twice as big as normal. Everybody turns out to see Timmy’s grand entrance. Because he is new, he isn’t allowed onto the field until the last inning. The score is tied 6 to 6 as Timmy steps out for his first chance to pitch. He picks up the ball and attempts a windup. It comes across even more awkwardly than his worst fears.

The crowd is still anxious, thinking he will come through. But after an embarrassing second windup, which is even worse than the first, he pitches the ball far to the left of the batter and nearly loses his balance in the process. The crowd is disappointed, but sympathetic. Timmy’s friends try to hide the sinking feeling that he will not succeed on the field. None of the ones who should have known better will admit that fact. That sad truth overwhelms everything else. When people know enough to know better, why don’t they just face reality?

The Sad March of the Good Little Soldiers

Last night at a meeting of the Central Austin Democrats, I witnessed a very similar exercise. Speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphone to make their stumbling and uninspired speeches. Like poor little Timmy, they each struggled to launch a winning pitch.  It was so sad that it was almost painful to listen.

“I wish I could say that this is a great rail proposal,” the first speaker began. “It is not a great proposal. Maybe it is not even a good proposal. But at least it’s an OK proposal.” Then came the punchline that set the tone for all of the other good little soldiers…

“We have to start somewhere.”

One by one they marched in lock-step to the stage to deliver their remarks. They could have been lip-syncing to a canned recording. The lack of any real conviction or enthusiasm was pronounced. The best that could be said of the expressed pro-rail message was that the City Council supports it. Capital Metro supports it. Some big-name local Democrats support it. Therefore, it must be the right thing to do. And gosh, won’t it be exciting to take that first trip from Riverside to Highland Mall?


These speakers offered no compelling statistics to justify the staggering $1.4 billion cost. Nor did they explain where or how Austin would come up with the remainder of the $8 to $10 billion total cost of a citywide light rail system. If the November bond proposal would double our debt capacity and raise taxes far beyond today’s already unsustainable levels, how would we ever be able to afford to expand the system? One speaker even dared to suggest that building the rail would improve affordability.

A resolution in support of the rail bonds passed by a narrow two-vote margin. Central Austin Democrats accomplished what they set out to do. In the process, they tore a gaping hole in the fabric of democracy. At a previous meeting, they allowed a single presentation from a pro-rail organization. But they never offered equal time to the other side. This shows not only a measure of distinct unfairness, but also a huge dose of insecurity on the part of the insiders who never wanted a fair discussion in the first place. What were they afraid would happen if both sides had been given the same opportunity? And is this the model of behavior that they intend to stand on for all major issues in the future?

Looking back on the people in the room, I am reminded of our hapless Little League pitcher named Timmy. When the rail bonds fail by a significant margin, the rest of us will wonder why none of the “good little soldiers” could see it coming. When people know enough to know better, why don’t they just face reality?


2 thoughts on “The Lame Arguments In Favor Of The Rail Bonds

  1. Barry Klein

    I think a few bits of data and key phrases would change the rail debates

    1. miles of centerline roads in the CapMetro service area and in the bigger area where commuter rail is proposed.

    2. miles of the sections of various INDIVIDUAL roads used CapMetro on which runs its buses when in revenue service (of course, many of the streets will be used by different buses running routes that overlap each other.)

    (People will be shocked when they compare one and two.)

    3. percent of regional VMT (Vehicles Miles of Travel) projected to be captured in the horizon year of the regional transportation plan (2040?) by transit ( maybe 4%), and percent of daily trips to be captured by transit (probably under 6%)

    4. Average annual household tax payments to CapMetro (I calculated it is $500 in Houston where I live.)

    ALSO, these terms should enter the conversation:

    1. “Opportunity cost,”….. How much bus service can you buy with the money planned for rail?

    2. Carrying capacity of a Bus program vs. Rail program… which can carry more of the masses? (ANSWER: a bus program. It’s useless to compare the crush load factor of a single bus versus a single rail car).

    3. Linked vs. Unlinked trips…… to underscore the fact that there will be a deceptive double-counting of the riders who must make needless transfers in a bus and rail system
    because CapMetro will be force-feeding bus riders to rail stations. (Europe ignores transfers and counts only linked trips.)

    In policy debates one must venture into the weeds from time to time to get an accurate picture of the topic at hand.

    Barry Klein


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