A Rail Issue

METRO responds to our cover story, at length.

A Rail Issue

METRO responds: It never ceases to amaze how the omission of facts in an article can be almost as egregious as getting the facts wrong in the first place ["Train Wreck," by Paul Knight, May 27].

This fact was perfectly borne out by your recent story "Train Wreck."

Fact No. 1? The reporter never bothered to check his facts with METRO.

This might have gone a long way toward making this story, if not balanced, then at least closer to accurate.

Case in point. The reporter makes repeated assumptions about the safety of riding METRO. A photo cutline in the story said crashes involving METRO buses are common.

In fact, the number of crashes have gone down steadily since 2004 — some 26 percent. In 2009, METRO experienced 840 crashes. That's less than 1 crash for every 100,000 miles driven.

A similar fact omitted from the story: Light-rail crashes are down 53 percent for the same time frame.

The reporter's assertions about ridership on the METRO system are also flat wrong. For example, the reporter states, "Over the past four years, according to Metro documents, rail has averaged between 2 and 3 million people each year."

In fact, the lowest 12-month annual METRORail ridership total was more than 10 million boardings during FY2005.

He also stated, "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."

In fact, the actual FY2009 bus ridership total was more than 300 percent higher than the 17 million boardings reported in the Houston Press story.

Have we seen a drop in ridership in the past year? Yes. Have we been upfront about the reasons? Yes. Lower gas prices, one of the coldest winters on record, a severe recession and, honestly, a fare increase — the first in 14 years. But at $1.25, METRO is still one of the cheapest fares in the country.

The reporter interviewed a business owner along the light-rail line who claimed METRO cut his power for one week following a non-METRO-related accident that damaged the rail electrical supply line.

In fact, power to the owner's shop was cut for a few hours to make it safe for METRO personnel to make repairs to the line.

He also rehashes an old Press article that erroneously states METRO exercises no oversight of the contractor that operates one of its bus facilities.

In fact, the contractor, First Transit, is held to the same standards as METRO — for maintenance and service. We have a supervisor working full time at First Transit.

While the reporter made several references to allegations made about former METRO President Frank J. Wilson, he never mentioned the fact that an external investigation by UHY Advisors found no evidence of improper spending by Wilson.

"Their findings speak for themselves," Chairman Gilbert Garcia, CFA, said at the time. "UHY found no evidence of improper spending or reimbursements or any other prohibitive actions related to our (former) CEO Mr. Frank Wilson. The inquiry was thorough and it was complete."

While it's true the District Attorney's office is conducting an investigation of METRO — an investigation METRO welcomes — the FBI is not investigating the agency as stated by the reporter. In fact, an FBI IT computer expert was helping the DA's office.

The reporter referenced a preliminary report from the Federal Transit Administration examining METRO's adherence to civil rights laws.

He conveniently left out the fact that in the fall of 2009, the FTA ruled METRO's program complete and in compliance with requirements related to Title VI.

"Amongst the many actions taken, Houston METRO has developed a limited English proficiency program, analyzed service and fare changes to ensure reductions would not be disproportionately borne by predominantly minority communities," wrote Cheryl L. Hershey, director of the FTA Office of Civil Rights, in a September 22, 2009 letter.

In fact, the FTA now refers to our program as an industry model.

Finally, we did assign blame for the March 2010 bus/light-rail accident — weeks before this story was published.

The operator ran the red light and has been terminated. That's a fact.

But, to paraphrase a ­newspaper ­adage, why let the facts stand in the way of a sensational story?

George Smalley
Vice President
Communications & Marketing
Houston METRO

Editor's note: Much of the information in the article came from reporting Paul Knight did long before the feature was published, for the Hair Balls blog. He got a response from Metro on those items.

The photo cutline mentioned did not say crashes had increased; it said they were ­common.

Reza Nouri continues to maintain that he did not have power for a week, while nearby businesses had their power restored when Metro finished its repairs.

The UHY Advisors report that found no evidence of improper spending by Wilson was funded by Metro. Knight previously wrote a blog item questioning the veracity of the UHY report.

As for the ridership numbers, those cited in the story were incorrect. And the story incorrectly stated that Metro hadn't assigned blame for a second bus/rail collision in front of Metro headquarters. Metro concluded the bus driver ran a red light, and the driver was fired. We regret the errors.

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