Train Wreck

How Metro and its president Frank Wilson got so far off track.

In the fall of last year, Metro's president and CEO Frank Wilson traveled to Orlando, Florida, for the annual convention of the American Public Transportation Association. It was a good week to be in Orlando.

The weather was sunny and clear during Wilson's five-day stay, with temperatures leveling out in the mid-80s, perfect if Wilson had wanted to shoot a round of golf on the course outside the Grande Lakes resort. Metro was putting him up there in a $350-a-night hotel room.

But there was more important business at hand. On Monday afternoon in Orlando, Ray LaHood, the newly appointed federal Secretary of Transportation, delivered a keynote speech.

"We're making meaningful investments in programs and projects that are going to change the way we live, work and travel," LaHood said. "For the better."

LaHood touted transportation officials in Atlanta for building bus canopies with solar-paneled roofs. Chicago, Denver and Dubuque, Iowa, got mentions for creating "energy-­efficient, transit-oriented neighborhoods." Miami received LaHood's praise for building a ground transportation hub that connected the airport with "commuter rail, transit and intercity buses, and airport shuttles."

There was little mention of Metro or Frank Wilson.

But, by Wilson's account, it had been a pretty good year.

In March of 2009, for instance, Metro signed a $1.46 billion contract with Parsons Transportation Group to design, build and operate four new lines of light rail from downtown to different parts of the city. It was a real accomplishment, especially considering negotiations with another company had fallen apart at the last minute, after a year of work, because, according to Metro, the two sides were hundreds of millions of dollars apart.

A few months after the big Parsons contract was signed, Metro was awarded federal money for the first time. It was just $150 million, but a big step in getting $900 million from the federal government, key to Metro being able to pay for Wilson's rail expansion plan.

About a month before the Orlando conference, Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts told the Houston Press that the federal full-funding agreement — the $900 million — would come through by the end of 2009.

Despite these apparent victories, the roar from detractors was getting louder and louder.

For years, Metro had been the target of attacks from residents and politicians. Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, for example, secretly financed a private group that ran anti-rail advertisements, and even City Council members filed lawsuits against the agency.

Then, in a highly publicized mayoral election, Annise Parker campaigned by painting Metro as a rogue group that operated without transparency. She called for her opponent Gene Locke, whose law firm had billed Metro for close to $12 million in a couple years, to disclose his business ties with Metro. She eventually won the endorsement of a Metro employee union.

When Parker was eventually elected in December of 2009, she publicly called for Wilson's firing.

"[Metro has] left a lot of anger and bruised feelings," Parker told the Houston Chronicle. "Metro could have done a much better job of openness, transparency, accountability."

But Gilbert Garcia, the Metro board chairman appointed by Parker, insisted Wilson would stay at Metro because he was doing a good job.

"We want to stay focused on our mission; we have to stay focused on providing excellent transportation day in and day out," Garcia says. "We want to make sure we earn the public's trust, and we need to secure the federal finances to accomplish our mission."

Only things got worse, because in the months that followed, Metro would become involved in criminal investigations by the Harris Country District Attorney's Office and the FBI. A state district judge issued a restraining order barring Metro from destroying public records.

Wilson himself would become the target of two lawsuits for leading ­document-shredding sessions, then firing Pauline Higgins, one of Metro's top attorneys, as part of an alleged cover-up.

The lawsuit filed on Higgins's behalf states, "Wilson obtains, at taxpayer expense, the loyalty of a few fellow employees, so that he may circumvent checks and balances... Those who resist Wilson's maneuvers and insist on proper procedures and compliance with the law suffer retaliation."

In the midst of all the allegations and controversy at Metro, the Federal Transit Administration put Metro's federal funding on hold.

But back then, in Orlando, things were just beginning to boil; the latest set of troubles hadn't gone public. On Saturday, October 3, 2009, Wilson spent the day with Joanne Wright, his chief of staff. (Wright would later become the target of investigations, accused of being Wilson's girlfriend. Wilson allegedly spent taxpayer money on her illegally.) The pair had lunch and dinner together that day, dropping about $150 of Metro money on the meals.

In Orlando, things had seemed all right.
_____________________

Metro was created as an independent, quasi-public agency in 1979. Using a voter-approved sales tax for operating revenue, it replaced the city-run HouTran, a fleet of about 475 yellow and white buses that had advertisements plastered on their sides for things like The Houston Post, Fannin Bank and the Y94 radio station.

A 1979 article in Texas Monthly about different transit agencies in Texas referred to the Houston system as "the pits."

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