San Antonio conservatives and a professional road warrior try to hijack a DART rail election

Wolff says the policy foundation painted DART in Dallas as a failure that would be repeated in San Antonio. Suburban voters balked at the new sales tax and the $1.5 billion price tag, defeating the proposal by 3-to-1 margin. "Anytime you have new taxes and a vocal opposition, you're in for a tough election," Wolff says.

In Dallas, the issue before voters is whether DART will be authorized to float long-term bonds to hasten construction projects and expand the 20-mile line to Carrollton, South Oak Cliff, Rowlett, and DFW International Airport. The vote does nothing to affect sales taxes.

Despite the rather limited nature of the election, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has come out on the attack with a position paper and a set of invitation-only briefings for public officials at the Prestonwood Country Club. Vance Miller, head of a wealthy real estate family, hosted the meetings, which drew about 100 people. Miller made news two years ago for claiming in court he was too poor to repay $26 million that he owed federal taxpayers from the 1980s S&L bailout. He settled that dispute last year for an undisclosed sum.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation position paper attempts to paint DART as a failure. For instance, it says DART overestimated light rail ridership by 455 percent. According to a response prepared by the pro-DART campaign, DART's original ridership projection for the 20-mile light rail starter system was about 33,000 passengers per weekday. Current weekday ridership is 38,000.

Similarly, the group asserts that light rail hasn't reduced traffic congestion in Dallas. What that fails to take into account, the pro-DART side says, is that the region is growing by 88,000 residents annually.

Carol Reed, the consultant leading the pro-DART campaign, says she isn't going to get dragged into such issues as who's funding the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

"Most of their arguments are based on old questions," she says. "We have already made a decision in Dallas to build light rail. There was a survey in the newspaper that the approval rating is up in the 80s. What we're voting on now is whether you want it in your neighborhood faster."

Reed says that is the basic message of the pro-rail campaign, which she expects will be funded with about $500,000 donated from business and DART proponents. She says she expects Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and the mayors of DART's suburban cities to be out front in the month-long campaign.

In San Antonio, Wolff says, the Texas Public Policy Foundation took control of the debate with "distortions and half-truths."

"You can't count on them sticking to the facts," he said, adding that talk radio picked up and amplified the foundation's message, which gets duly reported in the mainstream press as it attempts to present opponents' views. He said the lack of new taxes makes the Dallas election an easier road for rail proponents, but the foundation can upset the cart. "They should take them very seriously," he says.

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