Train Wreck

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

At a board meeting on September 23, 1999, DeLibero presented her "professional recommendation" to build a rail line from downtown to the Astrodome. Original construction plans called for $65 million in federal funds to help with the $300 million cost of the rail. DeLay, who at the time served as the House Majority Whip and was one of the biggest opponents of Houston's rail, made sure Metro didn't get that money.

Metro decided to move forward with the plan anyway, using local funds. About a month before groundbreaking, however, Rob Todd, the youngest person at the time to be elected to Houston City Council, filed a lawsuit to stop construction.

Todd argued that building the rail should require a public vote, considering the project completely altered the city's transportation system. A judge issued a stop-construction order until the case could be heard in court.

The New York Times summed up the problems in a February 2001 article: "For a city that prides itself on its can-do civic image, Houston is having a hard time building a commuter rail line, even one less than eight miles long..."

As the story noted: "Last week Metropolitan Transit Authority officials pulled $130 million in contracts, bluntly leaving this city, which often boasts of having put a man on the moon, grounded again on light rail."
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The judge's injunction on rail construction, the one that stemmed from the Rob Todd lawsuit, didn't last long. On March 9, 2001, an appeals court ruled that Metro could, in fact, move forward with light-rail construction without a public vote.

Four days later, after Metro officials spent the morning in court discussing Todd's lawsuit, a groundbreaking ceremony was held downtown.

The Chronicle wrote that "neither an unresolved lawsuit seeking to stop construction on the line nor a back-row heckler seemed to dampen the spirits of local politicians and [Metro] officials who came to mark the historic event by driving ceremonial gold-colored spikes into a section of silver-painted track."

At the time, Metro officials said the delays from Todd's lawsuit would make it almost impossible to complete the rail, which would run from downtown to Reliant Stadium, in time for the 2004 Super Bowl. But they would try, because the project was put on a fast track, meaning that the line would be designed and built simultaneously, almost on the fly.

An article in the Houston Business Journal listed a "video store, oil change operation, fast-food restaurant, pager vendor and a flower stand" as some of the businesses that were required to move so their facilities could be demolished.

The article added, "A 12-unit apartment building was torn down, as well as one single-family home...Also demolished were the vacant United Jewelers and Badge & Tags properties."

"They came in and gave us some flyers and a map when construction started," says Nouri. "They just started doing their own thing, didn't give a damn what we thought."

Youssef Nafaa, who owns Mi Luna in Rice Village and Mia Bella Trattoria downtown, told the Business Journal that light rail construction cost him "at least $3 million in sales."

Nafaa was part of a group of downtown business owners who started meeting to find ways to combat the Metro construction. They once put down sod on dirt piles in front of their businesses so customers could use them as putting greens.

Near Nouri's flower shop, a garbage truck crossing Main Street knocked down an electrical line that would power the rail. A Metro service man came to the flower shop, which still had electricity, and asked if he could turn off the store's power while crews worked on the line. Nouri was told, he said, the repair wouldn't take more than a couple hours.

"It took about a week," Nouri says. "We lost all our flowers and a few thousand dollars. They never tried to make it right."

In the midst of all the construction, the future of Metro and the city's transportation was being decided.

During the summer of 2003, the Metro board approved a proposal that would bring a huge expansion of Metro's service, most notably, more miles of light rail. This plan required a public vote.

In the months leading up to the November 4 referendum, a couple of political groups squared off to sway public opinion. On one side, Texans for True Mobility —DeLay's group — launched an attack against the rail. Its basic message was simple: Metro's plan "costs too much, does too little."

On the other side, Citizens for Public Transportation led a campaign to back the Metro expansion plan. In months leading up to the vote, reports came out that this group was backed financially by real estate developers and law firms that could potentially profit from the rail construction. Siemens Transportation, the company that sold Metro cars for the Main Street line, also contributed heavily to Citizens for Public Transportation.

One of the strangest developments in the back-and-forth on the debate came from the Houston Chronicle, after an internal memo was mistakenly posted on the newspaper's Web site. The memo, written by Chronicle executives, outlined suggestions for the paper to continue "our long-standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here."

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