I voted for rail both times it was on the ballot. Each time before election day I campaigned for it on a personal level. I had two reasons for voting for rail service in Austin. First, I had used commuter rail in California before moving to Texas and experienced the benefits it offered and saw how much people enjoyed it. Second, and more importantly, I thought of it not so much as a need for us now but as a need for our great grandchildren and their children.
Go back with me in time to the late 80’s, early 90’s. At that time I was an assistant manager in a bookstore in Hollywood. And as fun and wild as it is in Hollywood, it was even more fun and wild in Tijuana. Plus it was a dangerous city, which was an added attraction for me. Kind of like some people are attracted to unsuitable people.
To get to “T.J.” I took Amtrak from downtown Los Angeles to downtown San Diego. There, in the same station, I would buy a one-way ticket for the commuter rail for two dollars. Then get on the red line to San Ysidro, the last town in California. A very small town. I think it was the size of Austin’s downtown and surrounding business district. It had more dirt roads than paved.
I quickly liked San Diego’s commuter rail. I noticed that the people of San Diego loved their system. It was efficient. It was on time. It was cost effective. It ran all day and on weekends. At that time there were four lines that took people to all points of the compass. To the beach on the west. The hills on the east. To La Jolla on the north. And the Mexican border on the south. It worked well.
That was then. I hear that now San Diego has the “Sprinter,” which looks like a bullet train. I’m sure it is an improvement of what looked like a row of box carts I rode in.
Then commuter rail came to L.A. Some people, the naysayers, argued against it. The people of Los Angeles, they said, love their cars too much to use the rail system. They insisted that commuter rail would not work in Los Angeles. I did not agree. I had seen it work well in San Diego. In addition, I drove the city bus in Los Angeles by this time and saw how busy we were taking people, millions, to work and school. We were scheduled five minutes apart during peak time and our buses were full. I would have at least six passengers on my side of the yellow line. That was normal. People would park their cars at the many park ‘n’ rides along I-10 and hop on the freeway flyer to downtown L.A. A monthly pass cost $40. Parking in downtown cost $200 a month. You do the math.
Commuter rail worked in Los Angeles. It was a necessity. I moved to Texas before the system was up and running. But on my many visits back to see my mother I sometimes would take the line that went to Hollywood. This is the one that travels underground. It was interesting to feel like those big city folks of New York.
Back in Austin, I heard the naysayers argue that it would cost too much and serve only a few people. “HA!” I would say out loud while tilting my head slightly. If we do not need it now, we will certainly need it in the near future. Had we not built now, it would only cost more to build later and we would push that cost to our children. Imagine if we were selfish and not built commuter rail. Now fast-forward to the year 2060. I will not be alive then, but our great grandchildren will. What will traffic be like in Austin in 2060? And no commuter rail. I can hear our great grandchildren saying to us as they sit stuck in traffic for three hours, “What were you guys thinking? Why didn’t you built a good rail system for us like they have in other cities? What were you thinking?” Then I think of the generation that came before us. What if they had refused to fight in WWII? But they did fight. And because they were not selfish we can live the way we do. Our generation benefited greatly from their sacrifice.
Next week commuter rail will begin in Austin. It is not so much for us today. It is for our grandchildren. And their grandchildren. We should be proud of ourselves.