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The following volley of letters to the 'Austin Chronicle' on Austin's light rail transit (LRT) proposal provide some interesting arguments on behalf of LRT. The original anti-rail letter is included so readers will understand what provoked the debate.

Letters about Light Rail in the Austin Chronicle
 
 
Light Rail: The New Nuke?  (June 2, 2000)
 
Editor,
 
I looked through some old files today and found a copy of The Rag. Dated November 12, 1973, the headline was: "Vote Against the Nuke on Saturday."
 
The Rag, a little university-area newspaper, was the only media voice against the Nuke. The Rag simply took the high ground and told the truth when running articles that condemned nuclear power. The truth was there for all to see.
 
Mayor Roy Butler, along with most of the City Council, was a loud cheerleader. City manager and city government was for it. Austin's heavy hitters were for it. The media favored it, though time on radio stations and KTBC television was donated for debates. The Statesman ran article after article promoting nuclear power. We had to have it, the Statesman told us. Rumors said a Houston contractor would get the contract to build it and had donated large amounts of money to promote it. And even some of the local unions came out for it.
 
Only the voters were against the nuke. We had voted it down previous to this election, but the issue was brought back again and again, until we were worn down.
 
Today, we have a new nuke; it's called rail. The game is the same with a few new players. Mayor Watson is a loud cheerleader. City government, and the city council are for it. Big players are for it. The Statesman can't get enough; Sunday's edition carried yet another editorial praising it. The new players, a group of monied techies, just came out for it. They held meetings and the Statesman carried their speeches. The Chronicle likes it, and seems to like the techies. In the latest issue of the Chronicle, Robert Bryce said the techies had already bought billboards and radio time ["Naked City," May 26]. Is that what the contest over rail is coming down to -- a media blitz featuring thousands of dollars spent on radio jingles and clever billboard and newspaper ads, something to wear the voters down?
 
One might think, if these people cared about Austin they would be spending money on open forums, town hall meetings where all sides could be heard. Radio and television programs featuring all viewpoints of this issue are sorely needed. What harm can be done by having all sides heard?
 
Regards,
 
Robert P. Gerstenberg
 

Light Rail Solution  (June 9, 2000)
 
Dear Editor:
 
In last week's letters, Robert P. Gerstenberg complains that the current light rail proposal for Austin is nothing but "the new nuke" being forced on a fearful public by big dollars and heavy hitters in a closed and secret forum ["Postmarks," June 2]. These claims may make for a good scare and easy reading, but the straw man that he builds and then proceeds to knock down is just that: empty straw. There have been numerous open forums for the public to attend and be heard. I have attended several. All one has to do is keep an eye on the local news media or visit Cap Met's website to find out about these numerous forums. As to the claim that big money big hitters are foisting rail on an unsuspecting public, I would advise Mr. Gerstenberg to do a little research. He will find grassroots organizations forming that support light rail in Austin. No big money movers and shakers; just concerned citizens who know that light rail can be a crucial part of our region's overall mobility solution.
 
Phil Hallmark

Rail will lighten load  (June 16, 2000)
 
Dear Editor:
 
In his letter "Light Rail: The New Nuke?" ["Postmarks," June 2] Mr. Gerstenberg seems to suggest that the proposed light rail system is a broad conspiracy intended to irreparably harm Austin. While I can't speak for the Mayor, city government, or Austin American-Statesman, I can represent the "monied-techies" and say that we are extremely concerned about the traffic crisis emerging in Austin and believe that it is critical to take action before it's too late.
 
The facts tell us that the traffic problem has only begun to accelerate. Austin's population was up to 40% from 1990 to 1998. Our labor force grew 1.6 times faster than that. Traffic increases 2.5 times faster than highway capacity to handle it. The number of registered vehicles was up 54% during that same period. Commute times doubled, and we have compromised our clean air and greenery to smog and sprawl. All of this and Austin's economic engine is just warming up.
 
If we do nothing, we will end up following in the exact footsteps that the Silicon Valley, Atlanta, Houston, and other cities took on their way to traffic gridlock, skyrocketing housing, and a heavily compromised environment. Our only choice is to do something. In our estimation, the only realistic decision is to pursue a "transportation architecture" that includes improved highways, light rail, HOV; if we want to positively impact our city during the next 20 years. Light rail is not a panacea; it is just a part of the answer, but it's absolutely the right start in the right direction. Our other choice is to bet on a roads-only strategy that will destroy thousands of homes and businesses as they cement a loop around the city and plow an east-west corridor through the center. This will take decades to complete; and likely increase our taxes to pay for the 5-10 billion to finish it after they raid Cap Metro's cookie jar for the first billion. This doesn't sound like the option I want to live through.
 
Separately, as it relates to the "techies'" involvement in this process, Mr. Gerstenberg's letter is proof that we are achieving our objective. It's likely that this November's vote on light rail will be one of the most important issues that Austin will vote on in a generation. The volume level on the debate needed to be raised, and our intent is to drive awareness up so that all sides can participate and be heard. When this vote is all done and over, Austin will hopefully have had a thoughtful-enough dialogue to want to live with the results.
 
As for this group of "techies," we believe that the A-Train is the right answer for the times, and whole-heartedly endorse it.
 
Ross Garber
 

Break Fossil-Fuel Chains  (June 16, 2000)
 
Dear Editor,
 
Regarding Mr. Gerstenberg's assertion that light rail is "the new nuke," most who voted for nuclear power thought they were doing the right thing, believing that nuclear power would be a safe, cost-effective, and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
 
The main issues in the current light rail debate seem to be the same: Is light rail (1) safe, (2) cost-effective, and (3) cleaner than automobile use?
 
(1) We must assume that any new rail system will be as safe as possible.
 
(2) Given that most cars emit between one and two times their own weight in ozone-depleting carbon dioxide per year, it seems that rail has much potential to be cleaner.
 
(3) According to the Web site offered by Mr. Severin, www.publicpurpose.com, "U.S. Dept. of Transportation data indicates that the costs per new rider of ... new U.S. light rail ... systems exceeds the cost of leasing a car in perpetuity." While this seems a persuasive argument against the costs of building rail, there is faulty logic here: First, this doesn't take into account insuring, fueling, maintaining, or parking those cars. Second, a healthy rail system will constantly be gaining more new riders, and those riders will be paying a fare. So while the initial investment in rail can be high, the costs will be offset by increased use and reduced roadway congestion.
 
To reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we must make significant changes to our behavior. These changes will require patience, sacrifice and money. This will pay off in the long run by increasing everyone's quality of life for generations.
 
Maybe light rail will work in Austin, maybe it won't; but we must decide if we are willing to make sacrifices for the future. If we are not, Austin may end up as yet another spoiled paradise.
 
Sincerely,
 
Chris Berens
 
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