Train Wreck

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

"For Metro, 1979 was a disastrous year," Chuck Fuhs, who worked at Metro from 1979 to 1985, wrote in the book Houston Freeways. "Bus service collapsed in January when the transit agency ran out of spare parts for its barely functional buses, and nearly half of Metro's routes could not be served."

Fuhs continued, "There were between 100 and 200 in-service bus breakdowns on a daily basis. It was easy to find broken-down and abandoned buses on city streets."

A plan for rail came before voters in 1983 in a $2.35 billion bond election. It was rejected in a vote that wasn't even close.

Crashes involving Metro buses are common.
Monica Fuentes
Crashes involving Metro buses are common.
In the span of about a month, two of them hit light rail trains...
Paul Knight
In the span of about a month, two of them hit light rail trains...

Over the next two decades, Houston expanded its bus fleet into the largest in the country. Metro, in early publications, touted its transformation: "In two decades, the Authority has transformed a broken bus fleet into a comprehensive transportation system on a regional scale."

During the same time, other cities focused on rail.

In the 1990s, Denver, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and St. Louis opened light-rail systems. Dallas was pushing for rail, too.

Dallas's transit agency, DART, was created in 1983 in a narrowly approved sales-tax vote similar to Houston's. A year after its creation, Dallas, unlike Houston, selected light rail as its primary mode of transportation. In 1996, the city opened about 11 miles of rail, on time and on budget.

Back in Houston, at a Metro board meeting on March 26, 1998, while Dallas was preparing to break ground on more light rail to the suburbs, about the only thing that mattered in Houston was bus service.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, one woman "complained about a bus operator's behavior." Another talked about "a head injury she incurred on a bus."

And when the board approved Item Number 23, buried somewhere near the bottom of the board agenda, it was allowed to execute a contract with New Flyer of America, Inc., to purchase 243 40-foot buses.

Houston was the biggest city in the country that didn't have a single mile of rail line.

Reza Nouri's family has owned and operated Rosewood Flowers at the corner of Fannin and Rosedale streets — the heart of the Fannin flower district — since 1990. The Main Street light rail whips by, a few steps from his store, each day, all day long.

A mention of Metro sometimes sets Nouri off.

"This is the thing I don't like about them. They think they're above the law. They don't care," Nouri said.

A recent encounter between Nouri and a Metro Police officer escalated after the cop threatened to give an electrician a ticket for working on Rosewood Flowers' security lights near the rail line. Then Nouri saw the cop's cruiser parked in the flower shop's lot.

"I told him, 'Who the fuck told you to park here? That's my goddamned property,'" Nouri says. He adds, "They know me. They don't like me."

Nouri's animosity toward Metro has been common around the flower district since the rail line came through and decimated the area. More than a few shops around the corner from Rosewood have shut down.

"That's why I'm against them 100 percent," Nouri says. "When you're losing businesses, people, it's never better."

The origins of the Main Street line can probably be traced back to the 1997 mayoral election. According to a 1997 Press article, "Why Don't They Want This Man to Be Mayor?," candidate George Greanias campaigned with two pilot projects in mind: commuter rail on the Katy Freeway and a light-rail line from downtown to the Medical Center.

Greanias only pulled about 17 percent of the vote, losing to Lee Brown, but Brown, too, pushed the light rail. It was Brown's board, after all, that hired as its president Shirley DeLibero. DeLibero, who had also worked in Boston and Washington, D.C., and served as a deputy executive in Dallas, had spent the previous eight years as executive director of New Jersey Transit. She built rail in each of those cities.

DeLibero's Houston tenure got off to a more-than-shaky start after it was reported that she had wrecked her car leaving a party but failed to report the incident.

Worse, it was discovered that ­DeLibero lied on her résumé, listing two college degrees that she didn't have.

According to an article in the Chronicle, an executive search firm reviewed DeLibero's résumé before she was hired, and its report on DeLibero said, "Shirley does not have a bachelor's level degree, but has developed comparable or greater knowledge in public transit, government relations and management."

The firm never verified the two associate's degrees DeLibero listed on her résumé, which happened to be the two degrees she lied about. When DeLibero's lying was made public, the Metro board, which had never stopped supporting her during the investigations, decided to suspend DeLibero for 30 days without pay, and then she had to get back to work.

After all, DeLibero was brought to Houston to build light rail.

In an interview with Community Transportation magazine, DeLibero said, "It was clear to me that if we were going to get a rail system built in Houston, which was [Brown's] directive, we had to go to the community and sell the concept of timesaving/clean air/economic development, etc."

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