Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Arthur Schechter had just introduced a "historic" draft regional mobility plan, diplomatically subtitled "buses and more," to the agency board meeting last week. As subordinates began detailing the long-awaited proposal that will likely go before voters in some form next November, Metro President and CEO Shirley DeLibero interrupted the proceeding.
"Can I just let the board members know that as we speak there is rail on the Katy," DeLibero triumphantly declared. She's the brassy transit industry veteran from New Jersey who had come to Houston with the boast she would stamp her tracks across one of the country's last remaining freeway fiefdoms.
Behind her, minutes-old digital shots of a mammoth flatbed truck rolling down the Katy Freeway flashed on a big screen. Strapped atop its trailer was the "more" part of the Metro transit equation: the first of 18 light rail cars destined to haul commuters when the Main Street line opens next January.
The 95-foot-long, blunt-nosed, high-tech vehicle looked a bit like a beached white whale as it lumbered toward the shelter of a Metro maintenance barn just before a raucous spring thunderstorm burst over the city.
After more than two decades of debate and political fighting, the commuter train finally arrived in Houston, both as a physical reality and an issue certain to dominate the fall election for mayor. For the four mayoral hopefuls who will share the ballot with the transit referendum, supporting or opposing the plan could determine whether they survive for an inevitable runoff.
That's part of chairman Schechter's strategy to win voter approval. He'd like to force the contenders into staking out positions on the plan, reasoning that opposition is a politically untenable stance in a city reeling from traffic gridlock.
"I don't see how a mayoral candidate can fail to take a position on the plan, and it can't be ignored," says Schechter. "It could make or break a candidacy. I think what's clear is the public wants immediate [transit] relief, but is willing to pay and understands the need for longer-term solutions."
Schechter says that through inaction Houston is getting cheated out of its fair share of federal mass-transit dollars that have gone to Dallas and other cities with major commuter rail programs. Unless citizens unite behind a long-term plan, factions will be creating "a circular firing squad" where everyone loses in the end.
The chairman also banks on polls commissioned by the pro-Metro political action committee called Citizens for Public Transit. They show increasing public support for a comprehensive plan that mixes rail, buses and road projects. The surveys found that voters listed traffic and mobility as the most important issue by a two-to-one margin over economy/lack of jobs.
The Metro pep rally for the plan emphasized the broad community support for the initiative, but a patchwork coalition of figures from both pro- and antirail camps began to fracture almost as soon as the meeting ended.
Unveiling the draft plan posed an immediate problem for the candidate who has made his highest campaign priority solving the city's traffic crunch. Businessman Bill White had earlier issued his own 43-point transit plan, which included a carefully worded commitment to provide the public with the detailed finances of any transit improvement package.
According to White, any plan is nothing more than a wish list if it does not "specify a conservative cost estimate for recommended improvements and identify recommended sources of revenue."
Schechter, DeLibero and Metro chief financial officer Francis Britton had met with White's accountants, who are trying to come up with their own independent financial data for future mobility plans. Metro officials had committed to providing multiyear financial projections prior to the public release of the draft plan, but then failed to do so.
The issue is touchy for White because such documentation is key to getting the support of former mayor Bob Lanier and other rail critics for an extension of the Main Street line, and one source says "blood pressures soared" around town when Metro failed to provide them.
"My feeling reaches over to dismay," says Lanier, who claims that Metro officials promised him financial projections and did not produce.
"They just lied to me," comments Lanier, who characterized the draft plan offered last week as "a financial black box." "They tell you how it's going to end up 25 years from now without telling you how they get there or what any of the components look like."
Lanier launched a "road warrior" campaign that captured City Hall in 1991, defeating predecessor Kathy Whitmire's attempts to build a monorail system. Although he has worked with White and committed to some extension of the Main Street line, Lanier says the plan outlined last week is unacceptable.
"I support a rail plan, but not this one," says the former mayor. "I think that consensus is in the public interest, but this thumbs its nose at that consensus." Lanier was also angered by the plan's provision to end expenditures for road and street improvements in 2009 and use the money for rail construction.
"It's in the interest of the city to work out a compromise on rail that is affordable, that goes into neighborhoods and is supported by real live data that people can see and understand," says Lanier.
Although he initially worked closely with Schechter on the transit plan, Lanier now says the Metro chair has "just become an advocate for Shirley, and the problem is Shirley's leaving town after the first of the year." "Shirley would like this as a notch on her gun, or crown, or whatever," he adds.
White still hopes Metro will produce a final plan he can embrace, but "the repair needs to be to get detailed numbers out to as many people as possible."
Another political sticking point is the Metro plan's schedule for extending the Main Street rail. A source says Metro officials have told the board that construction of the 41 miles of additional light rail will not begin before 2009, a time schedule that would have little impact on solving Houston's short-term traffic congestion. In fact, if the next mayor of Houston served the maximum three terms, he would be leaving office just as construction began on the rail extensions.
"That will be two mayors down the ride," says Lanier. "I don't see that this particular operation has generated enough excellence in the field to justify binding not just the next mayor but the mayor after that."
"We need to begin sooner," agrees White.
Schechter seemed stung by the criticism, insisting that Metro had provided the financial details underpinning the plan. He admits that agency officials have not produced the requested financial projections requested by Lanier and White.
"Frankly, I don't know why those projections haven't been completed," says Schechter. "They're incorrect in trying to create an image that we're trying to hide anything," insists the chairman.
"I love Bob Lanier, but he now refers to me as being a 'nice person,' which I translate to 'being stupid,' " says Schechter. "I would hope he's not adding 'dishonest' to that, because that would really piss me off."
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After stewing for a while, Schechter called The Insider back later in the day to say he had just met with Metro officials and that those elusive financial projections would be on their way shortly to Lanier, White and the Houston Press.
Schechter couldn't resist adding that "Lanier might want to reconsider his criticism in light of the fact that he's gotten the figures, even if by his reckoning they are two or three days late."
(When The Insider got his copy, one of the first things that jumped out in the cover letter was "We have not incorporated into the cash flow yet the draft Metro Solution's Plan as details are still being developed." According to Metro's Britton, details will become available sometime between now and July, when the Metro board approves the final plan.)
Somehow you get the feeling this is only the first volley of what's sure to be an extended exchange of fire between Schechter and Lanier before voters get the final say on the plan next fall.