Houston Chronicle "Rail Memo" Mirror

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In November 2002, as rail was being debated as a transit option for Houston, the Houston Chronicle inadvertently posted an internal memo to their website. The memo quite clearly revealed an editorial strategy aimed at winning the public over to rail, and attacking opponents of rail. It just as clearly revealed the Chronicle as a biased advocate for, rather than objective reporter of, local public policy.

For some time, the Houston Review had the memo posted on their website. Earlier this summer, their website disappeared. An archived version of the memo is available here. In addition, we are mirroring the transcribed memo below. Finally, Tom Bazan sent graphic screen caps of the memo, which are available by clicking here and here.

Document: Houston Chronicle “Rail” Memo

A Houston odyssey: DeLay, Lanier and light rail

Next November, voters in the city and across the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area will cast a truly important vote: They will decide whether Metro should be permitted to expand our rail rail system beyond the 7-mile South Main line.

There isn’t a more critical issue on the horizon. I propose a series of editorials, editorial cartoons and Sounding Board columns leading up to the rail referendum, with this specific objective: Continuing our long standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here.

The timing, language and approach of the paper’s editorials would, of course, be the decision of the Editorial Board. But I suggest that they could be built upon and informed by a news-feature package with an equally specific focus: Telling the story of rail here by examining the long term relationship of the two key players in the local transit wars — Rep. Tom DeLay and former Mayor Bob Lanier. For better or worse, (mostly worse, I would argue) no two have had a more significant impact on transit decisions here. Our readers deserve to know how they’ve operated to fund and promote an anti-rail agenda for the past two decades. This would be vital information for voters as they come to their decision on rail. It would also be highly entertaining read.

We in Houston have our own version of the “Chinatown” story of the early 20th century Los Angeles, when the currency of power was water: Who controlled it; who received it; where it came from; and where it went at what price. Since World War II, Houston’s currency has bee concrete– millions of cubic yards poured for freeways.

DeLay and Lanier have been the two central characters in our local drama. This urban-suburban, Republican-Democrat odd couple is bound by the belief highways and poured concrete are the path to a profitable future for this area, and its converse–the belief that mass transit must be stopped in its tracks.

The broad elements of the news/features package could include:

• The story of how the Lanier-DeLay relationship began (in the early 1980’s when Lanier was chairman of the state Hiway Commission and DeLay was a young congressman)

• Lanier the land man: Through his privately held Landar Corp., Lanier has long shown his prescience in purchasing land where roads would ultimately go. Where are his holdings? Specifically , where are his holdings along the Grand Parkway? How has he benefitted by the building of roads.

• DeLay’s steady rise to power in Congress. How it come about and, more importantly, how it was funded (by the highway lobby).

• Lanier’s rise to political power. His rift with former Mayor Kathy Whitmire that turned into a determination to run her off (he did and she was never heard from again); his controversial shifting of transit funds into the city budget in the much discussed “Metro transfer.”

• Bob Lanier, public kingmaker. For almost a decade, the path to public office in Houston has wound through Lanier’s den. Mayoral and City Council hopefuls, congressional candidates, would-be Texas Texas legislators and county commissioners–all come to kiss the great man’s ring and bid for his approval. What is protocol? Who makes introductions? What is the quid-pro-quo? And, the $64 question: How has Lanier managed to promote himself as the patron saint of inner city Houston while working with DeLay to promote a relentlessly suburban/freeway/anti-rail funding agenda at all levels of government?

• Ground zero for November: The campaign led by DeLay and Lenier to defeat rail expansion. Who is doing the funding? What is the history of the San Antonio-based think tank doing the the research to discredit rail?

Any number of sidebar topics also come to mind:

• The Fort Bend mayors who are bucking DeLay and Lanier to bring commuter rail to the thousands of Fort Bend residents who work in the Medical Center.

• Laniers involvement in the lawsuit brought by former Houston Councilman Robb Todd to hold up the South Main light rail project.

• Elyse Lanier: From jewelry salesperson to Houston political insider.

• The Greater Houston Partnership and the clean-air saga. When the Environmental Protection Agency put clean-air deadlines on the Houston region in the early 1990’s, the Partnership resisted mightily. The thinking was: We have the political connections in Washington–from George Bush and Bill Archer to DeLay and Lloyd Bentson– to stall and stonewall until this all goes away. What went wrong? What was the Chronicle’s role in supporting this approach?

• A primer on highway building, Houston style: Why the Southwest Freeway turned south and west rather than continuing due west (developer Frank Sharp had a hand in this).

• Why Texas highways have frontage roads (a key to economic development) in the first place. Sam Rayburn added them to the language in President Eisenhower’s landmark legislation creating the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s. At whose bidding?

This is a story in urgent need of telling, and an editorial position of equal urgency. Voters deserve to know the history of how Houston came to be a city of freeways well before they decide about rail’s future next November. They need to know who has wielded the power to pour concrete, who still wields it and to what lengths the concrete pourers will go in order to stop rail.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX