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It was an all-too-familiar moment in the waning administration of Mayor Lee Brown, a political crisis brought on by Hizzoner's well-documented reluctance to act decisively.
On the morning of the pivotal Metro meeting last week, the mayor still hadn't signaled to the five city appointees who control the nine-member authority board how he wanted them to choose between alternate transit proposals to go on the ballot for the upcoming November referendum. Months of maneuvering by pro-rail forces, including mayoral candidate Bill White, had gone into placating traditional rail opponents and averting a disastrous defeat at the polls. Now it appeared that on the last turn the train was about to plunge into a political gorge.
Brown's advisers were appalled. "It was such a no-brainer," says one source. "I think there was some frustration that everybody had really worked to get to a place, and the mayor was going to stop that from happening."
At stake was the future of light rail in Houston. Brown's chief administrative officer, Al Haines, transit adviser Ed Wulfe and former mayor Bob Lanier, a rail opponent, had put the finishing touches on the compromise the previous week at a luncheon at La Griglia. Coincidentally, Brown was in the restaurant at the same time for an event and was unaware of the rail negotiations.
Haines and Wulfe recognized that just as Lanier had killed a monorail system pushed by then-mayor Kathy Whitmire 13 years ago, he still had the political clout to endanger the passage of the Metro Solutions referendum. And if it failed, any light rail extension beyond the Main Street line would be dead for the foreseeable future.
The compromise was simple. Metro would continue the 25 percent annual allocation of its sales tax funds to local governments for street construction and maintenance, and put off any decision on ending the subsidy for a decade. In exchange, Lanier would sign on to a plan that would build 22 miles of rail over the same period.
The only substantive difference between the two plans before the Metro board was the indefinite continuation of road construction funding. Both plans would build the same mileage of rail over the next nine years. The big proposal envisioned 40 miles of rail constructed over 16 years, with $980 million in bonds to pay for a $1.7 billion project. The compromise would divide the rail construction into two phases, cost a little under $1 billion and require $640 million in bonds and another referendum to continue the rail extensions in 2012.
Haines and Wulfe felt they had hammered out a painless solution to get Lanier's support, but they neglected to sell the mayor on the idea. Over the weekend Lanier pressed Brown hard to accept the deal or face his active opposition. Lanier had drawn his line in the sand on the issue of the road money. Step across, he warned his successor, and he would work to defeat the referendum.
That tactic only irritated Brown, a proud man who has always been sensitive to the suggestion that he is Lanier's political creation. Brown also viewed rail as the signature of his legacy. He agreed with Metro president Shirley DeLibero and board chair Arthur Schechterthat the surest way to get it built was to approve the project in one public vote, not two. In reaction to the intensified pressure to accept the deal, the mayor dug in his heels.
Five hours before the Metro vote, Brown convened his senior staff meeting at City Hall and gave every indication he still favored the big plan.
"Every single person in the room who was talking was arguing to go ahead with the compromise," says one witness. A staffer recalled the first basketball arena referendum, defeated by a well-funded opposition headed by Gary Polland, then chair of the Harris County Republican Party. "The whole thing was get to a place where there's minimal opposition and you've got a shot at winning," says an administration source. "It's the end of the world if it doesn't pass and it's all this work for nothing."
Haines stressed that the compromise gave up nothing in the size of the rail system to be built. Jordy Tollett, a mayoral adviser and president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, weighed in with advice gleaned from years of working with Lanier: "You don't want to get on his bad side, because you're gonna lose."
City Attorney Anthony Hall, a Vietnam vet, offered a military analogy: If the referendum was to be fought over the big plan, "the hill is unobtainable."
Brown made his objections. He noted that the compromise struck with Lanier had also specified that sidekick developer Michael Stevens would also support the deal. But Stevens later refused to sign on.
"The mayor was saying we don't have the agreement we cut," recalls one participant. "Then the discussion became whether Stevens alone could kill the rail plan, or did he need Bob Lanier." Others argued that without Lanier, Stevens couldn't carry much water for the opposition.
The staff meeting adjourned without Brown's giving any clear sign that he had changed his mind. But later that morning, with only a few hours to spare, he told the city's Metro board appointees he favored the compromise.