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If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

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One Comment

  1. PDiddie says:

    That is a very important observation about Bill White and Metro. White did not have too many obvious failures during his tenure but that was certainly one.

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