Train Wreck

In the fall of last year, Metro's president and CEO Frank Wilson traveled to Orlando, Florida, for the annual convention of the American Public Transportation Association. It was a good week to be in Orlando.

The weather was sunny and clear during Wilson's five-day stay, with temperatures leveling out in the mid-80s, perfect if Wilson had wanted to shoot a round of golf on the course outside the Grande Lakes resort. Metro was putting him up there in a $350-a-night hotel room.

But there was more important business at hand. On Monday afternoon in Orlando, Ray LaHood, the newly appointed federal Secretary of Transportation, delivered a keynote speech.

"We're making meaningful investments in programs and projects that are going to change the way we live, work and travel," LaHood said. "For the better."

LaHood touted transportation officials in Atlanta for building bus canopies with solar-paneled roofs. Chicago, Denver and Dubuque, Iowa, got mentions for creating "energy-­efficient, transit-oriented neighborhoods." Miami received LaHood's praise for building a ground transportation hub that connected the airport with "commuter rail, transit and intercity buses, and airport shuttles."

There was little mention of Metro or Frank Wilson.

But, by Wilson's account, it had been a pretty good year.

In March of 2009, for instance, Metro signed a $1.46 billion contract with Parsons Transportation Group to design, build and operate four new lines of light rail from downtown to different parts of the city. It was a real accomplishment, especially considering negotiations with another company had fallen apart at the last minute, after a year of work, because, according to Metro, the two sides were hundreds of millions of dollars apart.

A few months after the big Parsons contract was signed, Metro was awarded federal money for the first time. It was just $150 million, but a big step in getting $900 million from the federal government, key to Metro being able to pay for Wilson's rail expansion plan.

About a month before the Orlando conference, Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts told the Houston Press that the federal full-funding agreement — the $900 million — would come through by the end of 2009.

Despite these apparent victories, the roar from detractors was getting louder and louder.

For years, Metro had been the target of attacks from residents and politicians. Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, for example, secretly financed a private group that ran anti-rail advertisements, and even City Council members filed lawsuits against the agency.

Then, in a highly publicized mayoral election, Annise Parker campaigned by painting Metro as a rogue group that operated without transparency. She called for her opponent Gene Locke, whose law firm had billed Metro for close to $12 million in a couple years, to disclose his business ties with Metro. She eventually won the endorsement of a Metro employee union.

When Parker was eventually elected in December of 2009, she publicly called for Wilson's firing.

"[Metro has] left a lot of anger and bruised feelings," Parker told the Houston Chronicle. "Metro could have done a much better job of openness, transparency, accountability."

But Gilbert Garcia, the Metro board chairman appointed by Parker, insisted Wilson would stay at Metro because he was doing a good job.

"We want to stay focused on our mission; we have to stay focused on providing excellent transportation day in and day out," Garcia says. "We want to make sure we earn the public's trust, and we need to secure the federal finances to accomplish our mission."

Only things got worse, because in the months that followed, Metro would become involved in criminal investigations by the Harris Country District Attorney's Office and the FBI. A state district judge issued a restraining order barring Metro from destroying public records.

Wilson himself would become the target of two lawsuits for leading ­document-shredding sessions, then firing Pauline Higgins, one of Metro's top attorneys, as part of an alleged cover-up.

The lawsuit filed on Higgins's behalf states, "Wilson obtains, at taxpayer expense, the loyalty of a few fellow employees, so that he may circumvent checks and balances... Those who resist Wilson's maneuvers and insist on proper procedures and compliance with the law suffer retaliation."

In the midst of all the allegations and controversy at Metro, the Federal Transit Administration put Metro's federal funding on hold.

But back then, in Orlando, things were just beginning to boil; the latest set of troubles hadn't gone public. On Saturday, October 3, 2009, Wilson spent the day with Joanne Wright, his chief of staff. (Wright would later become the target of investigations, accused of being Wilson's girlfriend. Wilson allegedly spent taxpayer money on her illegally.) The pair had lunch and dinner together that day, dropping about $150 of Metro money on the meals.

In Orlando, things had seemed all right.

Metro was created as an independent, quasi-public agency in 1979. Using a voter-approved sales tax for operating revenue, it replaced the city-run HouTran, a fleet of about 475 yellow and white buses that had advertisements plastered on their sides for things like The Houston Post, Fannin Bank and the Y94 radio station.

A 1979 article in Texas Monthly about different transit agencies in Texas referred to the Houston system as "the pits."

"For Metro, 1979 was a disastrous year," Chuck Fuhs, who worked at Metro from 1979 to 1985, wrote in the book Houston Freeways. "Bus service collapsed in January when the transit agency ran out of spare parts for its barely functional buses, and nearly half of Metro's routes could not be served."

Fuhs continued, "There were between 100 and 200 in-service bus breakdowns on a daily basis. It was easy to find broken-down and abandoned buses on city streets."

A plan for rail came before voters in 1983 in a $2.35 billion bond election. It was rejected in a vote that wasn't even close.

Over the next two decades, Houston expanded its bus fleet into the largest in the country. Metro, in early publications, touted its transformation: "In two decades, the Authority has transformed a broken bus fleet into a comprehensive transportation system on a regional scale."

During the same time, other cities focused on rail.

In the 1990s, Denver, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and St. Louis opened light-rail systems. Dallas was pushing for rail, too.

Dallas's transit agency, DART, was created in 1983 in a narrowly approved sales-tax vote similar to Houston's. A year after its creation, Dallas, unlike Houston, selected light rail as its primary mode of transportation. In 1996, the city opened about 11 miles of rail, on time and on budget.

Back in Houston, at a Metro board meeting on March 26, 1998, while Dallas was preparing to break ground on more light rail to the suburbs, about the only thing that mattered in Houston was bus service.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, one woman "complained about a bus operator's behavior." Another talked about "a head injury she incurred on a bus."

And when the board approved Item Number 23, buried somewhere near the bottom of the board agenda, it was allowed to execute a contract with New Flyer of America, Inc., to purchase 243 40-foot buses.

Houston was the biggest city in the country that didn't have a single mile of rail line.

Reza Nouri's family has owned and operated Rosewood Flowers at the corner of Fannin and Rosedale streets — the heart of the Fannin flower district — since 1990. The Main Street light rail whips by, a few steps from his store, each day, all day long.

A mention of Metro sometimes sets Nouri off.

"This is the thing I don't like about them. They think they're above the law. They don't care," Nouri said.

A recent encounter between Nouri and a Metro Police officer escalated after the cop threatened to give an electrician a ticket for working on Rosewood Flowers' security lights near the rail line. Then Nouri saw the cop's cruiser parked in the flower shop's lot.

"I told him, 'Who the fuck told you to park here? That's my goddamned property,'" Nouri says. He adds, "They know me. They don't like me."

Nouri's animosity toward Metro has been common around the flower district since the rail line came through and decimated the area. More than a few shops around the corner from Rosewood have shut down.

"That's why I'm against them 100 percent," Nouri says. "When you're losing businesses, people, it's never better."

The origins of the Main Street line can probably be traced back to the 1997 mayoral election. According to a 1997 Press article, "Why Don't They Want This Man to Be Mayor?," candidate George Greanias campaigned with two pilot projects in mind: commuter rail on the Katy Freeway and a light-rail line from downtown to the Medical Center.

Greanias only pulled about 17 percent of the vote, losing to Lee Brown, but Brown, too, pushed the light rail. It was Brown's board, after all, that hired as its president Shirley DeLibero. DeLibero, who had also worked in Boston and Washington, D.C., and served as a deputy executive in Dallas, had spent the previous eight years as executive director of New Jersey Transit. She built rail in each of those cities.

DeLibero's Houston tenure got off to a more-than-shaky start after it was reported that she had wrecked her car leaving a party but failed to report the incident.

Worse, it was discovered that ­DeLibero lied on her résumé, listing two college degrees that she didn't have.

According to an article in the Chronicle, an executive search firm reviewed DeLibero's résumé before she was hired, and its report on DeLibero said, "Shirley does not have a bachelor's level degree, but has developed comparable or greater knowledge in public transit, government relations and management."

The firm never verified the two associate's degrees DeLibero listed on her résumé, which happened to be the two degrees she lied about. When DeLibero's lying was made public, the Metro board, which had never stopped supporting her during the investigations, decided to suspend DeLibero for 30 days without pay, and then she had to get back to work.

After all, DeLibero was brought to Houston to build light rail.

In an interview with Community Transportation magazine, DeLibero said, "It was clear to me that if we were going to get a rail system built in Houston, which was [Brown's] directive, we had to go to the community and sell the concept of timesaving/clean air/economic development, etc."

At a board meeting on September 23, 1999, DeLibero presented her "professional recommendation" to build a rail line from downtown to the Astrodome. Original construction plans called for $65 million in federal funds to help with the $300 million cost of the rail. DeLay, who at the time served as the House Majority Whip and was one of the biggest opponents of Houston's rail, made sure Metro didn't get that money.

Metro decided to move forward with the plan anyway, using local funds. About a month before groundbreaking, however, Rob Todd, the youngest person at the time to be elected to Houston City Council, filed a lawsuit to stop construction.

Todd argued that building the rail should require a public vote, considering the project completely altered the city's transportation system. A judge issued a stop-construction order until the case could be heard in court.

The New York Times summed up the problems in a February 2001 article: "For a city that prides itself on its can-do civic image, Houston is having a hard time building a commuter rail line, even one less than eight miles long..."

As the story noted: "Last week Metropolitan Transit Authority officials pulled $130 million in contracts, bluntly leaving this city, which often boasts of having put a man on the moon, grounded again on light rail."

The judge's injunction on rail construction, the one that stemmed from the Rob Todd lawsuit, didn't last long. On March 9, 2001, an appeals court ruled that Metro could, in fact, move forward with light-rail construction without a public vote.

Four days later, after Metro officials spent the morning in court discussing Todd's lawsuit, a groundbreaking ceremony was held downtown.

The Chronicle wrote that "neither an unresolved lawsuit seeking to stop construction on the line nor a back-row heckler seemed to dampen the spirits of local politicians and [Metro] officials who came to mark the historic event by driving ceremonial gold-colored spikes into a section of silver-painted track."

At the time, Metro officials said the delays from Todd's lawsuit would make it almost impossible to complete the rail, which would run from downtown to Reliant Stadium, in time for the 2004 Super Bowl. But they would try, because the project was put on a fast track, meaning that the line would be designed and built simultaneously, almost on the fly.

An article in the Houston Business Journal listed a "video store, oil change operation, fast-food restaurant, pager vendor and a flower stand" as some of the businesses that were required to move so their facilities could be demolished.

The article added, "A 12-unit apartment building was torn down, as well as one single-family home...Also demolished were the vacant United Jewelers and Badge & Tags properties."

"They came in and gave us some flyers and a map when construction started," says Nouri. "They just started doing their own thing, didn't give a damn what we thought."

Youssef Nafaa, who owns Mi Luna in Rice Village and Mia Bella Trattoria downtown, told the Business Journal that light rail construction cost him "at least $3 million in sales."

Nafaa was part of a group of downtown business owners who started meeting to find ways to combat the Metro construction. They once put down sod on dirt piles in front of their businesses so customers could use them as putting greens.

Near Nouri's flower shop, a garbage truck crossing Main Street knocked down an electrical line that would power the rail. A Metro service man came to the flower shop, which still had electricity, and asked if he could turn off the store's power while crews worked on the line. Nouri was told, he said, the repair wouldn't take more than a couple hours.

"It took about a week," Nouri says. "We lost all our flowers and a few thousand dollars. They never tried to make it right."

In the midst of all the construction, the future of Metro and the city's transportation was being decided.

During the summer of 2003, the Metro board approved a proposal that would bring a huge expansion of Metro's service, most notably, more miles of light rail. This plan required a public vote.

In the months leading up to the November 4 referendum, a couple of political groups squared off to sway public opinion. On one side, Texans for True Mobility —DeLay's group — launched an attack against the rail. Its basic message was simple: Metro's plan "costs too much, does too little."

On the other side, Citizens for Public Transportation led a campaign to back the Metro expansion plan. In months leading up to the vote, reports came out that this group was backed financially by real estate developers and law firms that could potentially profit from the rail construction. Siemens Transportation, the company that sold Metro cars for the Main Street line, also contributed heavily to Citizens for Public Transportation.

One of the strangest developments in the back-and-forth on the debate came from the Houston Chronicle, after an internal memo was mistakenly posted on the newspaper's Web site. The memo, written by Chronicle executives, outlined suggestions for the paper to continue "our long-standing efforts to make rail a permanent part of the transit mix here."

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.

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."

"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?"

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.

But Brown was long gone by the time his building opened, because in 2003, when Houston voters approved the big referendum to expand the rail, they also elected Bill White. After White appointed his new members to the Metro board, the agency needed a new president to replace the outgoing DeLibero.

Frank Wilson was hired.

Like DeLibero, Wilson came from New Jersey, where, for almost a decade, he served as the head of the New Jersey Department of Transportation. And like DeLibero, Wilson came to Houston with a shaky start. Just a few months after he arrived, an investigative commission in New Jersey released a report titled "The Making of a Procurement Disaster," which largely questioned Wilson's management integrity.

The transportation department under Wilson's leadership, the report stated, "unfolded against a backdrop of events and circumstances that evidence the taint of multiple conflicts of interest."

"One extraordinary and untoward event that occurred during Wilson's watch as NJDOT Commissioner was his acceptance of a job offer from an engineering company that [had done] considerable business with the State of New Jersey..."

Wilson was working for that firm, based in California, when he accepted the job at Metro. (Wilson later hired an executive from that company to work as a $2,400-a-day consultant to help Metro build light rail.)

But that baggage didn't matter when Wilson arrived at Metro, because he was brought to Metro, like DeLibero, to do one thing: get the new rail lines built in a town that was still wary of public transportation, and still very wary of light rail.

"Wilson was just a gunslinger who doesn't like to follow the rules," says Paul Magaziner, a Houston businessman who has become one of the biggest Metro watchdogs in the city. "They knew it when they hired him. That's why they hired him."

Over the last several years, Magaziner has basically transformed his Richmond Avenue printing business into a Metro war room. Few people in Houston have collected as many documents and information on the agency.

His crusade against Metro started after Wilson arrived and released his plan for rail expansion, which included four new lines, with an estimated cost of $2 billion. Like the Main Street line's goal of opening before the 2004 Super Bowl, Metro said it wanted the new lines built by 2012, leading many to believe that the city was using light rail as an attempt to draw the 2012 Olympics to Houston.

A huge part of Wilson's plan included $900 million in funding from the federal government. The money was key for cash-strapped Metro's ability to pay for the projects, but would also open the agency to more federal scrutiny. Metro struggled from the start.

Magaziner often spoke at Metro board meetings about the agency's inability to finance the big rail plans.

Sometimes Magaziner simply sums up Metro with, "They're broke," or more often, "They're fucked."

On January 27, 2010, Houston attorney Lloyd Kelley, who had previously served on Houston City Council and as the City Controller, filed an information request with Metro under the Texas Public Information Act.

Kelley asked for, among other things, expense reports from Wilson and Wright when they traveled. He also wanted e-mails that were sent between the two.

Kelley made news in 2008 when, as part of a lawsuit against the Harris County Sheriff's Office, he requested e-mails from District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal. In the e-mails from Rosenthal's county computer, Kelley found pornographic and racist material, as well as embarrassing romantic e-mails between the district attorney and a female co-worker.

Rosenthal resigned a couple weeks after the e-mails surfaced.

In the Metro case, Kelley alleged that Wilson had a relationship with Wright and that when the couple traveled together on Metro business, Wilson illegally spent taxpayer money on her.

Metro eventually sent Kelley the documents he suggested, but Kelley wasn't satisfied; he believed that Metro hadn't sent everything that was available, or, worse still, someone had destroyed the documents he requested. So, he filed a lawsuit against Wilson.

"Let's see the truth of the backup documents," Kelley's attorney, Michael West, told the Press. "I have no reason to trust them."

A criticism of Metro for years has been that the agency is unwilling to cough up public information, even to city officials. Roger Allen, a nationally recognized transportation consultant who has testified in several cases involving Metro crashes, has worked on cases with Metro where attorneys have requested documents that could be used to study crashes, and, eventually, make Metro safer. Getting the information was never easy.

"It frustrates me because I can't do my job, because of Metro hiding documents," Allen says. "It's like Metro says, 'Yeah, we got the documents, but you got to find it.'"

Turns out, Metro officials were shredding documents, but Metro contended that doing so wasn't illegal. At one press conference, Metro board Chairman David Wolff said, "The shredding had nothing to do with the Kelley documents."

But a judge issued a restraining order, stopping Metro from destroying any more documents before Kelley's lawsuit could be heard in court. It's scheduled for trial at the end of May.

In the midst of the Kelley lawsuit, Pauline Higgins, a top attorney with Metro who had been hired to "clean up" Metro's legal department, was fired. Oddly, Metro broke from protocol and publicly discussed the firing, contending that Higgins was terminated because, basically, she was a bad boss. Also, Metro said that Higgins used company time to plan a charity golf tournament.

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..."

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.

"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


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