The Train Ride Gets Bumpy

Metro's coalition shows some early cracks

Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Arthur Schechter had just introduced a "historic" draft regional mobility plan, diplomatically subtitled "buses and more," to the agency board meeting last week. As subordinates began detailing the long-awaited proposal that will likely go before voters in some form next November, Metro President and CEO Shirley DeLibero interrupted the proceeding.

"Can I just let the board members know that as we speak there is rail on the Katy," DeLibero triumphantly declared. She's the brassy transit industry veteran from New Jersey who had come to Houston with the boast she would stamp her tracks across one of the country's last remaining freeway fiefdoms.

Behind her, minutes-old digital shots of a mammoth flatbed truck rolling down the Katy Freeway flashed on a big screen. Strapped atop its trailer was the "more" part of the Metro transit equation: the first of 18 light rail cars destined to haul commuters when the Main Street line opens next January.

The 95-foot-long, blunt-nosed, high-tech vehicle looked a bit like a beached white whale as it lumbered toward the shelter of a Metro maintenance barn just before a raucous spring thunderstorm burst over the city.

After more than two decades of debate and political fighting, the commuter train finally arrived in Houston, both as a physical reality and an issue certain to dominate the fall election for mayor. For the four mayoral hopefuls who will share the ballot with the transit referendum, supporting or opposing the plan could determine whether they survive for an inevitable runoff.

That's part of chairman Schechter's strategy to win voter approval. He'd like to force the contenders into staking out positions on the plan, reasoning that opposition is a politically untenable stance in a city reeling from traffic gridlock.

"I don't see how a mayoral candidate can fail to take a position on the plan, and it can't be ignored," says Schechter. "It could make or break a candidacy. I think what's clear is the public wants immediate [transit] relief, but is willing to pay and understands the need for longer-term solutions."

Schechter says that through inaction Houston is getting cheated out of its fair share of federal mass-transit dollars that have gone to Dallas and other cities with major commuter rail programs. Unless citizens unite behind a long-term plan, factions will be creating "a circular firing squad" where everyone loses in the end.

The chairman also banks on polls commissioned by the pro-Metro political action committee called Citizens for Public Transit. They show increasing public support for a comprehensive plan that mixes rail, buses and road projects. The surveys found that voters listed traffic and mobility as the most important issue by a two-to-one margin over economy/lack of jobs.

The Metro pep rally for the plan emphasized the broad community support for the initiative, but a patchwork coalition of figures from both pro- and antirail camps began to fracture almost as soon as the meeting ended.

Unveiling the draft plan posed an immediate problem for the candidate who has made his highest campaign priority solving the city's traffic crunch. Businessman Bill White had earlier issued his own 43-point transit plan, which included a carefully worded commitment to provide the public with the detailed finances of any transit improvement package.

According to White, any plan is nothing more than a wish list if it does not "specify a conservative cost estimate for recommended improvements and identify recommended sources of revenue."

Schechter, DeLibero and Metro chief financial officer Francis Britton had met with White's accountants, who are trying to come up with their own independent financial data for future mobility plans. Metro officials had committed to providing multiyear financial projections prior to the public release of the draft plan, but then failed to do so.

The issue is touchy for White because such documentation is key to getting the support of former mayor Bob Lanier and other rail critics for an extension of the Main Street line, and one source says "blood pressures soared" around town when Metro failed to provide them.

"My feeling reaches over to dismay," says Lanier, who claims that Metro officials promised him financial projections and did not produce.

"They just lied to me," comments Lanier, who characterized the draft plan offered last week as "a financial black box." "They tell you how it's going to end up 25 years from now without telling you how they get there or what any of the components look like."

Lanier launched a "road warrior" campaign that captured City Hall in 1991, defeating predecessor Kathy Whitmire's attempts to build a monorail system. Although he has worked with White and committed to some extension of the Main Street line, Lanier says the plan outlined last week is unacceptable.

"I support a rail plan, but not this one," says the former mayor. "I think that consensus is in the public interest, but this thumbs its nose at that consensus." Lanier was also angered by the plan's provision to end expenditures for road and street improvements in 2009 and use the money for rail construction.

"It's in the interest of the city to work out a compromise on rail that is affordable, that goes into neighborhoods and is supported by real live data that people can see and understand," says Lanier.

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