Train Wreck

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

"If we get a bus driver we know, and he knows my son, it's okay," Matimas said. "But sometimes we don't recognize the driver, he doesn't know us and he doesn't know how to treat my son."

A lot of riders might not know the bus drivers as well as they think.

In 2006, the Houston Press published a lengthy investigation about the way Metro handles its bus routes. In 1997, Metro privatized some routes, handing out contracts to Cincinnati-based First Transit. According to the Press article, the move allowed Metro, among other things, to conduct "no oversight of First Transit's operations. Metro neither oversees background checks on First Transit drivers nor ensures that they are properly trained."

Furthermore, Metro was "rejecting the safety recommendations of its own investigators" and "taking no responsibility for accidents incurred by First Transit."

In one case profiled by the Press, a First Transit driver rear-ended an SUV on US 290, causing the truck to burst into flames. A nine-year-old girl died in the fire.

The bus driver who caused the wreck had taken only one written driving test for his bus job and failed it. He later said in a court deposition that he wasn't disciplined or reprimanded by First Transit. In fact, he was later promoted to a supervisor's position.

"Things are not getting better," says Roger Allen, a nationally recognized transportation consultant who has testified in several cases involving Metro crashes.

Allen even has a family friend who was hit by a Metro bus while she was walking across the street near the University of Houston.

"They were in the crosswalk; they had the right of way," Allen says.

Because of the accident, the woman racked up about $300,000 in medical bills, which Metro didn't have to cover because state law limits the amount that can be paid out in a settlement.

"She ended up getting divorced after the accident because of all the medical problems she had," Allen says. "Metro said, 'Here's what we'll give you; that's it. It doesn't matter that we ruined your life.'"

In the meantime, as rail was supplanting buses as the main priority for Metro, the bus system was cutting service to people who relied on it the most.

In the spring of 2009, the Press obtained documents from the Federal Transit Administration indicating that Metro violated federal civil rights laws. Tom Bazan, an opponent of light rail, told the Press he had filed numerous civil rights complaints about the dwindling level of bus service to low-income areas in favor of pouring "precious resources" into light rail.

In a preliminary report from the Federal Transit Administration about the civil rights violations, other complaints included bus drivers not stopping for riders in minority neighborhoods and "particular concerns for the safety and welfare of women and children."

Bus ridership numbers also dropped dramatically, according to Metro documents, from about 80 million in 2005 to just a little more than 17 million during the last year.

For Matimas and her son — they don't ride the rail — that information is bad news.

"Perfect for me would be a bus that gets here on time and we can ride safe," Matimas said. "This is the only way we have." Paul Knight

paul.knight@houstonpress.com

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