Train Wreck

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

The stories should focus, the memo said, on the relationship between DeLay and former mayor Bob Lanier, an "odd couple [who] is bound by the belief highways and poured concrete are the path to a profitable future for this area, and its converse — the belief that mass transit must be stopped in its tracks."

"This is a story in urgent need of telling, and an editorial position of equal urgency," the memo stated. "[Readers] need to know who has wielded the power to pour concrete, who still wields it and to what lengths the concrete pourers will go in order to stop rail."

In the end, voters approved light-rail expansion.

Kay Matimas (center) and her son (left) depend on bus service to get them around.
Bryan Williams
Kay Matimas (center) and her son (left) depend on bus service to get them around.

And on New Year's Day 2004, the Main Street line opened. And unlike the doubts of even some Metro officials, it opened in time for the Super Bowl. On February 1 of that year, the day of the big game, a record number of riders — about 64,000 — boarded the light rail. With the opening of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo a few weeks after that, Metro continued to bring in record numbers of riders during its first couple of months.

Things were looking great.

"I've built many light-rail systems, and this is probably the best started corridor I've seen," DeLibero told the Press when the Main Street line was being built. "It's got the Texas Medical Center and the museums and the Astrodome and Enron Field. When people say no one's going to ride it, I just don't believe it."
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"I've heard light rail referred to as the Midas touch," says Gregory Thompson, a national transportation expert and professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University. "But you can't stick a rail line in an impoverished neighborhood and expect the neighborhood to revitalize as a consequence of that rail line going in."

Six years after the Main Street line opened, the booming real estate redevelopments that were promised by Metro supporters during the rail debate haven't materialized. Other things haven't worked out as planned either.

Ridership numbers for the rail have steadily declined since the rail line first opened to huge crowds. During the first year, about 10 million people got on board, but over the past four years, according to Metro documents, rail has averaged between 2 and 3 million people each year. Bus service has also seen a sharp decline in ridership (see "Life Lines").

Perhaps the biggest problem for the rail, however, is that its trains couldn't keep from colliding with cars.

The crashes plagued the rail even before passengers started riding it. In the fall of 2003, during rail testing, there were five wrecks. And in the first couple of months of operation, there were almost 20 more collisions.

Ken Connaughton, a Metro spokesman at the time, told USA Today, "It's not a rail problem. It's a driver problem."

Houston drivers apparently still haven't figured out how to drive, because last year, the rail hit its 250th vehicle, and, along the way, set a national record of 62 crashes in one year.

The Discovery Channel even featured the Metro rail on its show Destroyed in Seconds. Using a When Animals Attack!-type voice, the narrator of the show says, "The Metro rail that snakes through Houston, Texas, has earned an unexpected distinction: It's one of the most ­accident-prone rail systems in the United States."

A couple of the most embarrassing crashes for Metro happened earlier this year when in February and March, in two separate incidents, a Metro bus and Metro rail hit each other at the intersection in front of Metro's downtown headquarters. Metro blamed the first crash on a bus driver running a red light, but hasn't placed the blame on anyone for the second one.

"We have to look very closely to see if there's any correlation with the last crash," Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts told the Press the day of the crash. "This could be just another unfortunate accident."

Nouri says he's witnessed close to ten Metro rail accidents at the intersection by his store since the rail opened in 2004. A crash last year involved one of his customers.

The man, who was visiting Houston from Louisiana and buying flowers, had just left Nouri's shop in his van when the van turned left off Fannin in front of a moving train. The rail operator was blowing his horn, Nouri says, but couldn't stop.

When Metro police officers arrived at the scene, Nouri complained to officers about all the rail crashes. Nouri says officers told him that drivers just don't understand the traffic laws. If a car is crossing the tracks, officers told him, the rail can't stop.

Unsatisfied with the explanation, Nouri asked the officers, "So if you see some dog crossing the street, are you just going to run over the dog?"
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The 14-story Metro headquarters building in downtown, located at the intersection of Main and St. Joseph streets, is one of the crown jewels of Metro's Houston empire. The $41 million building opened in 2004, not long after the opening of the light rail that rolls past the building's entrance.

The headquarters was named the Lee P. Brown building, after the former Houston mayor who led the plans for bringing the Main Street rail to Houston.

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