Train Wreck

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

Higgins also sued Wilson and Metro.

"This lawsuit involves cut-throat politics and cronyism at Metro," the lawsuit states. "Wilson himself rejected the document retention policy that Higgins designed to bring Metro into compliance with state law. Wilson asked [a former Metro attorney] to handle document requests, despite the fact that Metro had been breaking state law under [the attorney's] previous tenure as general counsel."

The lawsuit continues, "By refusing to let Metro, and individual employees at Metro, engage in unsupervised record destruction, Higgins was preventing criminal activity and protecting both Metro and individuals from potential civil and criminal liability. Wilson apparently did not share this view..."

Frank Wilson was hired by Metro after a huge plan to expand light rail was approved.
Courtesy of Metro
Frank Wilson was hired by Metro after a huge plan to expand light rail was approved.
Light rail construction is slowly moving across the city's east side.
Bryan Williams
Light rail construction is slowly moving across the city's east side.

Metro has refused to comment on the Higgins lawsuit, saying that it doesn't talk about pending litigation.

On top of these lawsuits, Wilson and Metro began to come under heavy scrutiny from the Federal Transit Administration. The first case was launched after KHOU reported, using documents that Magaziner had obtained, that Metro had lied to the feds when it was applying for federal funding.

The report revealed that Metro used out-of-date sales tax figures to make it look like it could pay for the light-rail projects it had proposed. Metro placed a video on its Web site that called the report inaccurate.

But it was enough for the feds. In response to the KHOU report, the FTA said it wouldn't approve federal funding on the light rails until, according to KHOU, "it can become confident the transit authority can afford to finish the jobs while still maintaining current service."

On top of that, the FTA was already investigating Metro about business that it was doing with a foreign company. Federal "Buy American" guidelines require a certain percentage of federal dollars to be spent in the United States. After Metro applied for the funding, saying it would comply with federal rules, Wilson and Wright traveled to Spain — in 2008 — to meet with a rail car vendor.

Wilson and Metro then asked the feds for an exception to purchase and build light-rail cars in Spain. The FTA refused the exception, but apparently, Wilson decided to move on the Spanish cars anyway. A letter from the FTA's chief counsel to Wilson stated, "Based on this information...I hereby initiate this review to determine whether or not Metro is complying with Buy American requirements. FTA's investigation procedures place the burden of proof on Metro..."

The investigation would be another hold-up to the federal funding that Metro desperately needed.

On March 19, Mayor Parker held a press conference at City Hall to announce the names of her appointees to the Metro board. Parker had just gotten back from Washington, D.C., where she had met with ­LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation.

Parker said the feds were feeling a little uneasy about handing over $900 million, considering all "the turmoil on this end."

"The Secretary of Transportation made it clear," the mayor said, "any changes would help any current uncertainties."

Wilson, perhaps along with the federal funding, was all but gone.

The special meeting was called by the Metro board on May 7, a Friday afternoon. The board met in the drab-colored conference room where Wilson had presided over Metro meetings for six years.

On that Friday, however, Wilson sat silently for a few minutes next to the new board chairman, Gilbert Garcia, before the board and Wilson went behind closed doors. When they came back, Wilson had resigned.

"I guess it was two days ago, someone asked me about legacy. They said, 'What do you think your legacy is?'" Wilson said after his resignation was announced. "It's not the projects. As much hope and promise as there is in the future of Metro Solutions and 30 miles of new rail, it's really not that. A legacy here is 3,000 employees we call Metro employees."

Then he walked out the door.

The last action the board took on Wilson's behalf was agreeing to pay any legal bills Wilson racks up while defending himself in pending lawsuits.

George Greanias, the former mayoral candidate who wanted to build light rail in Houston in the late 1990s, was named the interim president. He has no experience in the transit industry.

Along with new Board Chairman Garcia, Greanias has said that Metro's main goal right now is not to push new rail through Houston's neighborhoods, but to restore public trust in Metro, to operate with more transparency than the previous administration.

He also says that Metro will do whatever it takes to get the $900 million in federal funding and continue with the rail projects. Greanias has his hands full.

The 7.5 miles of rail along Main Street, which were in the ground before Wilson came to Houston, remain the only transit rails in town.

Life Lines

Metro bus service remains crucial to a diminishing number of riders.

On a hot afternoon in May, Kay Matimas and her son waited at a Metro bus stop along Harrisburg Avenue, not far from Eastwood Park, on the city's east side. Matimas relies on the bus as her main mode of transportation, and she's done so for about ten years.

She takes the bus to the grocery store and church and whatever other errands she has to run each day. Her son, who is mentally retarded, always travels with her.

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