Sunday, July 23, 2006

Railroad Lines and Lotteries

Two issues are tugging at my community, one of them of state- and national significance, and the other more locally-oriented, but also related to national concerns. We’re heading into the last few months before the mid-term elections in November. Voter turnout has never been more abysmal—or more embarrassing, when you consider what Iraqi voters have gone through to reach a point where national elections could be held last year, and they turned out in droves.

No one is shooting bullets at you or me on our way to the polls, but a little over half of the registered voters in Texas cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential election…and about 36% participated in the 2002 Governor’s election. Those numbers reflect just the folks who were registered to vote. Compared to a larger universe of all voting-age citizens in Texas, only 29% participated in that election.

In this year’s Gubernatorial race there are lots of horses, all of whom know that low voter turnout usually means defeat for all but the incumbent and the front-running contender. Perhaps that’s why independent candidate Kinky Friedman is floating the idea of an election lottery.

Now each race can have two winners—the candidate with the most votes, and the registered voter whose lucky registration number pops up for the $1,000,000 jackpot. Would that move you to the polls?

Mark Sanders, a spokesman for the Carol Keeton Strayhorn, a.k.a “Grannie for Governor” campaign, quipped that people ought to be inspired, not bribed, to vote.
He’s not wrong.
Maybe he’s missing the point—along with the other managers of campaigns this year: There’s not a lot of voter inspiration being offered by any of the candidates running.

The closest thing anyone’s gotten to getting a new rise out of the public are the one-liners from Kinky Friedman. You may think state government is a joke at various times, but running it is no joking matter. Making decisions that affect peoples lives and livelihood aren’t, either.

One such decision faces my hometown of Houston, where there’s ire in the air over the placement of the next stretch of track for the Metro Light Rail System. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has wisely suggested the line run from the University of Houston westward along Richmond Blvd to the Metro Transit Station at Hilcroft.

Between those two points are myriad businesses and multi-family dwellings. There are also some nice homes along that line, and one neighborhood in particular, Afton Oaks, is adamant about letting the rail line go through their few blocks of territory. They say spend the money on commuter rail to bring more people in from the suburbs. Eventually, yes, but those commuter lines must have a transportation grid to feed into, and the Richmond Line is a component of that structure.

Ridership studies conducted by Metro suggest the Richmond alignment would serve the most riders, and ridership usage is a key factor in securing Federal funding to help building the line. Afton Oaksian’s would rather have the line detour south for a mile or so, missing their turf, and then re-align with the original route.

Did you ever wonder why a road way out in the middle of the country suddenly takes a jake-leg jab to the side for a mile or so, and then throws another 90-degree turn at you, before proceeding on? Farm-to-Market roads in Texas are like that. The roads were designed to help farmers bring their crops in from the fields and get them to market. But during the negotiations for alignment, one sod-buster or another would get his hackles up and stand his ground (literally).

Farmer Sven would hook his thumbs in his Dickies overalls and say,“Sure vee need dis road to get ahr guds to market…but don’t chu build it trew my pasture, no!”

So, 50-years later, out in the middle of nowhere--these modern, two-lane asphalt ribbons with wide shoulders on each side, yellow and white striping, and plastic reflectors to help separate the lanes--a nice, long stretch of pavement is suddenly interrupted by a pair of reverse s-curves…to protect Sven’s pasture.

You generally see lots of white crosses erected near those curves, because late at night, people like Sven’s neighbor, Gerhardt’s son was coming home from the Community Center with a little too much liquor in his blood, too much speed under his car, and he missed the curve and plowed into Sven’s field without a tractor.
Kid might be alive today if the road were a straight shot.

Afton Oaks would be wise to reconsider their position on the positioning of that rail line. If you took a vote among all the folks with addresses on Richmond Avenue that would be affected by placement of the rail line, the Afton Oaksian’s might find themselves out numbered.

That is if everyone participated in the poll. If, say only 29% participated, the outcome might be different. But then again, there’s a lot of inspiration to be found when it’s your pasture the line wants to go through.

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