Some good news on the rail front: Metro has jumped through the latest hoop by voting to change the ballot language in a way that satisfies Rep. John Culberson, and the Federal Transit Administration has accepted the change. Assuming that there's no grief from the Secretary of State regarding deadlines, everything should be a go for November.
Culberson said the change was good news.
"A complete and accurate ballot is critical because the ballot is the contract between Metro and the voters," he said.
After Monday's vote, Culberson said he is satisfied with the new ballot but not with the rail plan itself. He said he will help Metro win federal matching funds for rail if voters approve the plan, but until Election Day, he is urging them to reject it.
Culberson also accused Metro of trying, before the change, to mislead voters into thinking a "yes" vote would authorize only 22 new miles of rail.
"Until today," he said, " we did not know that by voting yes we were giving legal approval to the full 73-mile system."
Metro officials have frequently stated that the $640 million bond issue on the referendum ballot would pay for 22 miles of new rail lines, but they have also said repeatedly that they hope to eventually build out the entire system. A second bond referendum would be needed to approve further expansion.
That said, Rob has a valid point about the rhetoric getting overheated on a debate that isn't exactly life-and-death. Whatever my opinion of John Culberson as a legislator, I know fully well that I'm not going to convince anyone to heed my words by engaging in name-calling. My bad.
There are still potential problems for Metro:
[Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchisonsaid she will not attempt to remove the Culberson amendment from the [2004 transportation appropriations] bill, which is pending in the Senate, because the issue has been resolved.
"If the people of Houston and the surrounding communities vote in support of light rail, it will be my highest priority to get the full federal share for the system," Hutchison said in a statement released by her office.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said the Culberson amendment remains problematic because it subjects Metro to extra federal rules that no other transit agency must follow. She sent a letter Monday to Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta asking for a reconsideration of the FTA's original decision because [FTA chief counsel William] Sears hadn't seen the 22-page proposition Metro adopted, which includes a list of rail segments.
Metro needs federal matching funds to build the next 22 miles of light rail lines through 2012. It is asking voters to approve $640 million in bonds to accelerate construction.
[Note: I misread the KBH quote. Thanks to Rob for the catch.]
On the local front, all of the major Mayoral candidates have finalized their positions on the Metro vote. Sylvester Turner, who criticized Metro for backing off its more aggressive plan, has said he will support the referendum, while Orlando Sanchez, realizing that with Michael Berry out of the race there are anti-rail votes to be had, has finally decided that he's against it after all.
"I want more, but I don't want to cut off my head and get nothing," Turner said of his decision to support the referendum.
"We need a 100 percent plan, not a 1 percent solution plan," Sanchez said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.
The reference was to a road-oriented plan being developed by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which it calls a 100 percent solution and which Sanchez supports.
Sanchez's two main opponents, businessman Bill White and state Rep. Sylvester Turner, support the Metro referendum and criticized Sanchez.
White labeled Sanchez's position as short-sighted, saying Houston needs to expand light rail as soon as possible.
Turner called Sanchez's plan "an unrealistic proposal to pave our way out of problems."
UPDATE: I suppose this was going to happen sooner or later - the opposition has gotten off the ground. They have their work cut out for them, but they have room to get traction:
There is a partisan difference in how voters view Metro's transit plan, a recent Houston Chronicle/KHOU-Channel 11 poll found, with Republicans the most skeptical, but still slightly in favor. The survey found 56 percent of Democrats questioned support Metro's referendum while 12 percent oppose it. Republicans, on the other hand, had only 37 percent support for transit expansion with 33 percent opposed. Among independents, 48 percent said they supported Metro's proposition while 16 percent were opposed. Roughly one-third of voters in each category were undecided.
Rail opponents point out this poll was conducted before today's launch of their campaign against the referendum and they expect the numbers will shift when anti-Metro advertisements start airing and voters better understand the facts.