Highwaymen

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

In less than a month, Dallas voters with time on their hands will flock to the polls by the dozens to consider whether DART should be allowed to sell bonds to speed expansion of its light rail system. If that question has not exactly been foremost on your mind this summer, the same can't be said for a San Antonio-based conservative group and a hired gun from Illinois who have traveled here to tell unenlightened Dallasites why light rail is bad.

Which leads to another question: Why do they care?

The San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation and transportation consultant Wendell Cox want to discuss issues such as costs, development along the lines, public subsidies of fares, and other things they say are problems that fly in the face of general public satisfaction with DART's 3-year-old starter rail line.

What Cox and the foundation don't want to talk about is who's paying them to diss DART light rail before the August 13 election.

"It's irrelevant," Cox says, speaking by telephone from his home in the St. Louis area. "All I'm interested in is the facts. I don't discuss funding sources."

Although it's unclear who is behind his work in Dallas, Cox has collected checks in the past from the highway lobby to support his research, which is uniformly critical of passenger rail. Cox wrote at least two reports--one downplaying the Amtrak rail system's impact on traffic congestion in 1995, and one praising the interstate highway system in 1996--paid for by the American Highway Users Alliance. Founded in the 1930s by General Motors Corp., the lobbying group's membership is a who's who of the trucking, auto, cement and asphalt, heavy construction, and petroleum industries.

Beyond that, Cox's company, Wendell Cox Consultancy, has conducted seminars for the American Bus Association, which represents long-distance and contract bus companies.

Taylor Bowlden, the highway alliance's head of government affairs, confirmed his group paid Cox for the two studies. But he said Cox is not currently working for the group, nor is his organization behind the Texas Public Policy Foundation's anti-DART light rail campaign.

If highway interests aren't paying Cox, they're passing up a good public relations investment. In the 15 years since he left his job as a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, he has conducted scores of studies and seminars and penned dozens of op-ed pieces in favor of any type of conveyance that uses roads, including city buses, while he has consistently panned rail.

In a report Cox authored this month for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, he suggested that Atlanta solve its congestion problems not with more rail lines, but with a new grid of freeways no more than one mile apart. He suggested that some of the roads be built underground, or be double-decked, with some decks reserved exclusively for trucks. Answering critics who said the plan would raze the city and turn it into a mini-Los Angeles, Cox said, "Nobody gets caught in traffic in Los Angeles if they know what they're doing." The plan was so boldly pro-freeway, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial called it a "regressive hallucination" by an "untrained transportation expert who makes his living writing propaganda for pro-road causes."

Cox indicates no formal training in transportation planning on his on-line résumé, in which he lists as accomplishments the electoral defeat of rail proposals in Seattle, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, and Denver. He can add to the list San Antonio, where he and the Texas Public Policy Foundation were instrumental this spring in defeating a plan to build a rail system with a new quarter-cent sales tax levy.

Formed by hospital-bed magnate James Leininger, the foundation is a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation that is not required to file the source of its funding in its reports to the IRS. Leininger, who last year donated an unprecedented $3.2 million to conservative candidates in state campaigns, in the past has been more interested in issues such as school vouchers and abortion.

The foundation's president, James Judson, did not return several telephone calls from the Dallas Observer. During the spring campaign in San Antonio, he refused to reveal to San Antonio reporters who was behind his group's campaign against rail.

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning Austin group that has been critical of Leininger's conservative politics and methods, said she intends to report his foundation to the Texas Ethics Commission for its activities in San Antonio. Tax-exempt nonprofits are restricted from engaging in political activity, she says, and the state election code requires that groups participating in elections must file reports as political action committees and name the sources of their funds. Judson told the San Antonio Express-News that his group wanted to keep its donor list secret for fear of "retribution from government officials."

Although some prominent conservatives, such as Paul Weyrich, favor rail transit, nationwide a number of libertarian and conservative organizations have taken an anti-rail position, espousing ideological arguments in favor of roads and traditional suburban development with little government planning. Governing Magazine last month called them "the boys of sprawl."

"We could never tell what the policy foundation's motives were," says Nelson Wolff, a former San Antonio mayor and head of that city's pro-rail campaign. "I do not know if they sincerely believe rail transit isn't appropriate, or if they have some other motives. That's why it's so important to disclose who's paying for the message."

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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