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David Wolff

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.

When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.

But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.

What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.

Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.

[…]

The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.

Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.

There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.

The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.

First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.

“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.

Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.

Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.

Treating all fares the same

Good idea.

A six-month test starting in February will gauge the effects of letting cash-paying rail riders switch to buses for free.

The vast majority of riders use a Q card, day pass or some other form of Metro payment. Transfers with those items are free, provided subsequent trips are along the system and not just a reverse of the current trip. That prevents a rider from making a round trip on one fare, officials said.

About 10 percent of riders use cash, and about 4 percent use cash and transfer, according to Metro. The cash trips don’t include a free transfer because Metro eliminated a way to track transfers when it moved to the Q card in 2008.

[…]

A lack of convenient transfers is especially cumbersome for rail users who don’t use Q cards. Riders who pay with cash or a credit card receive a paper ticket. During the pilot, those tickets will be good for bus trips within three hours after the ticket was purchased.

As part of the pilot program, bus drivers will have day pass cards to give to riders, which they can load with money on board the bus.

“Fundamentally, I think this solves our biggest problem,” said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

The details are a bit unclear in this story, but the basic idea is that if you transfer from a rail line to a bus on the same trip you don’t have to pay a second fare, regardless of how you paid for your initial trip. This is how it should be, and how it was before the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro team undid it. This is one of many things Metro is doing to boost ridership, with rail expansion and bus route reimagining being high on the list. Honestly, just the fact that Metro is doing a better job engaging with the community – you know, the people that actually ride the buses and trains – is a big step forward. I hope it translates into better numbers, but whatever it does, this needed to happen.

Metro settles with Higgins

And the last bit of “old Metro” business gets put to rest.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board [Thursday] agreed to settle a lawsuit by the agency’s former chief counsel in which she accused Metro of firing her for trying to prevent the allegedly unlawful destruction of documents.

Metro has agreed to pay Pauline Higgins up to $100,000 to cover her legal fees. The agency will pay no damages.

See here for the background and Hair Balls for more. Statements from Ms. Higgins and Metro are beneath the fold. Far as I know this is the last bit if Wolff/Wilson business to deal with, so it should be all “new Metro” from here on out. I know I’m glad to get to this point, and I’m sure everyone at Metro is, too.

(more…)

In which I become a bit player in a Metro lawsuit

So I got an email on Friday from Chron reporter Mike Snyder, asking me if I had done an interview with former Metro Chair David Wolff. Apparently, there were some new documents filed in the lawsuit against Metro by its former chief counsel Pauline Higgins that referenced some comments Wolff made about Higgins in that interview. Except that the documents referred to an interview Wolff gave to “a Houston Chronicle reporter, Charles Cuff, for the purpose of discrediting and spreading false information about Higgins.” Snyder, knowing that there was no such person but assuming they meant me, asked me about it. I confirmed his assumption and sent him the relevant links. What was amusing to me is that if you found that latter page, as I presume the attorney working on Higgins’ case must have, you might have noticed that it contained my (correctly spelled) name three times, and also included a note that “The reader is responsible for this content, which is not edited by the Chronicle.” Doesn’t sound like something done by a reporter to me, but what do I know? Anyway, it’s not a big deal, but I got a chuckle out of it.

How Metro nearly cost itself $900 million

It’s an impressive feat, for some sense of the word.

In the first months of the procurement process, documents show, [former Metro CEO Frank] Wilson intended to use local rather than federal funds to buy the light-rail vehicles, possibly in the hope that this would avert the need to comply with federal requirements.

“FJW (Wilson) stated … since Metro is purchasing the vehicles there will be no FTA involvement,” Metro official John Coulter said in an e-mail to a colleague, Navin Sagar, on June 29, 2007.

The use of local funds to buy the cars, however, wouldn’t have exempted the purchase from Buy America rules because Metro intended to use the vehicles on the federally funded North and Southeast rail lines.

Nevertheless, Metro’s initial request for proposals didn’t include a Buy America provision, and Metro told bidders they wouldn’t have to follow federal rules other than those in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On Dec. 4, 2007, in the first of at least four similar warnings or advisories, the FTA told Metro it must follow Buy America rules and federal procurement guidelines.

Yet Metro continued with the procurement based on the original request for proposals without Buy America language. Of the six firms that submitted initial technical proposals, Metro invited five to submit pricing offers.

It’s kind of amazing that no one on the inside ever blew the whistle on this. Must have been some seriously heavy discipline in there, which goes a long way towards explaining why morale was reportedly so low.

It’s hard to understand why Wilson thought he could do this when he was repeatedly told by the FTA that he couldn’t. He’s not talking, and I rather doubt he will. What is clear is that the board didn’t challenge him on this – David Wolff has been a staunch defender of Wilson’s, and he’s unlikely to change that tune. I’ll say again, it’s a measure of the respect the FTA must have for George Greanias and Gilbert Garcia, as well as a measure of their belief in the merits of the projects in question, that the agency wasn’t completely disqualified from getting the New Starts grants at all. It sure is hard to see how CAF changes the FTA’s mind about requiring Metro to cancel their contract. I hope that sometime after CAF sues Metro over the loss of their contract that Metro cancels any further buyout payments to Wilson. Let him sue to recover them, maybe being deposed will finally get him to explain his motives here.

Pauline Higgins sues Metro

Pauline Higgins, the former chief counsel for Metro who was fired in the wake of the document shredding scandal, has now sued the agency for wrongful termination.

“This case involves cut-throat politics and cronyism at Metro,” Pauline Higgins said in the lawsuit filed in state district court. It seeks her reinstatement, unspecified damages and legal fees under the Texas Whistleblower Act.

[…]

Her lawsuit claims Higgins lost her job because Metro’s president and chief executive officer, Frank Wilson, resisted her efforts to bring the agency into compliance with state laws regarding document retention and to correct other problems, such as hiring third-party contractors without contracts or allowing them to work after their contracts had lapsed.

Prior to her arrival, the suit says, Metro’s legal department was “disorganized and dysfunctional,” and its employees “often came to work and left at their leisure.”

After she was fired, the suit states, Metro officials, including former Chairman David Wolff, sought to discredit Higgins in their public statements.

Wolff alleged that it was Higgins that was responsible for the shredding. In a Rick Casey column, Metro CEO Frank Wilson also attacked Higgins:

Far from firing Higgins because she pressed them to get their document and e-mail retention policies in order, [Wolff and Wilson] said, they had asked Higgins to develop a policy months ago. They claimed she only recently produced one, and that it was not in good enough shape to take to the board.

But that’s not why they fired her.

They fired her, they said, because she was a horrible manager of her department.

“A trickle, then a flood of people came to me,” Wilson said. “They were agitated, in tears.”

He said Higgins had bullied them to the point that “they had feelings of zero worth.”

You can hear more of what Wolff said in my interview with him. This case ought to be very interesting, that’s all I can say. I just hope that someday, Metro can go back to being a transit agency again.

UPDATE: Houston Politics has a copy of the suit.

Firing Frank

Mayor Annise Parker has said she wants the new Metro board to fire Frank Wilson, the agency’s CEO. So why hasn’t that happened yet? There are a couple of complicating factors.

Among them are uncertainty about the outcome of two investigations of allegations involving Wilson and the cost of buying out his contract — estimated at $1.6 million by Parker’s Metro transition team. The transit agency could avoid this expense if it fired Wilson for cause, defined in Wilson’s contract as “willful malfeasance, gross negligence or the conviction of a felony crime or any crime involving moral turpitude.”

If investigations by the Harris County District Attorney or a consultant find evidence that Wilson misused Metro funds or improperly ordered documents destroyed, the board will have no choice but to fire Wilson, board member Jackie Freeman said.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said he expects to get a report in the next few days from UHY Advisors, the consultant Metro hired to investigate whether Wilson improperly used Metro funds in connection with a personal relationship with his chief of staff, Joanne Wright.

It’s worth it to see if you can fire him for free instead of having to pay $1.6 million to buy out his contract, right? Of course, nobody knows how long the DA will take to investigate the document shredding charges, but at least you’ll have a report about whether or not he was canoodling on the company’s dime soon enough.

The bigger question is what happens if both UHY and the DA clear Wilson of all allegations. You can make a case, as former Metro Chair David Wolff has, the Wilson has accomplished a great deal in his time as CEO. But it’s clear that the transition team holds Wilson responsible for Metro’s poor relationships with many stakeholders as it moves forward with light rail construction, and that these issues make building the lines more difficult and contentious than it needs to be. They also threaten any prospect Metro has of leading a broader regional transportation plan. Can those problems be worked out by the new board if Wilson stays in place? If not, is the $1.6 million buyout a bigger price to pay than waiting two years till his contract expires? Those are the questions they have to answer.

David Wolff’s farewell message

Outgoing Metro chair David Wolff takes to the op-ed pages to present a more positive view of his agency and his tenure.

While much had been accomplished by previous hard working boards, we inherited an aging bus fleet, a very confusing fare system that had not been adjusted during a time when inflation had increased costs by 40 percent, an inefficient route structure (11 percent of our vehicle miles were carrying only 3 percent of our passengers), and a new light-rail line besieged by accidents because motorists weren’t accustomed to it.

We also faced financial constraints because Metro’s previous administration had been forced to use $325 million of local funds to build the Main Street line since (rather unbelievably) two Republican congressmen had prohibited METRO from obtaining any federal funds.

Despite these and other challenges, an objective review of Metro’s progress during this board’s tenure would conclude that we accomplished a great deal (I like to say that we moved Metro “from last to first” at the FTA) and have positioned the organization for a bright future.

Here are some facts:

First, contrary to critics, our tenure wasn’t just about building new light rail lines. We made our bus system more user-friendly and sensible, very much appreciating the needs of people who depend on Metro as their primary mode of transportation.

Indeed, during the past five fiscal years we’ve spent $518 million improving bus service.

He goes on to list a bunch of ways in which bus service has improved, and later tots up the accomplishments for light rail as well. Much of what he says here was covered in the interview I did with him a couple of weeks ago, so if you never got around to listening to that interview, you can get the gist of it here. I generally agree that Metro has done a lot of good things over the past six years, and that they don’t get nearly the credit they should for them – though let’s be honest, a big part of that is the result of their own fault, due mostly to their well-documented communications problems – but I feel compelled to point out one place where Wolff is clearly overselling:

A new nonstop service from the Downtown Transit Center to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 30 minutes for $15.

That is a new service Metro has created. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be doing so well, at least according to the transition team. If you read the report of the Basic Services Committee and scroll down to slide #10, you’ll see what I mean. Reading through that, I’d say there’s a stronger case to be made for eliminating that service than for trying to make it work, but for now at least the recommendation is the latter, and perhaps they’ll prove to be correct. But I would call that a nice idea that doesn’t seem to have panned out rather than a success.

One more thing:

FTA has granted Metro’s entry into preliminary engineering on the University Line, which should ultimately lead to another $700 million in federal funding.

For all the talk about what Metro can and can’t afford to do, until such time as Mayor Parker instructs Metro to not apply for these funds, I consider the University line to still be on the agenda. Slide 12 of the transition team report on light rail says the following:

The University Line is in FEIS phase of federal process, with multiple steps to full funding commitment, which is not guaranteed and dependent on congressional transportation reauthorization. METRO best case estimate for completion is 2014.

(Note: FEIS = Final Environmental Impact Statement) It’s not clear to me if they mean that the best case scenario for completion of the FEIS phase and securing funding is 2014, or for finishing construction. I suspect it’s the latter, but in either event, we’re a ways away from this particular go/no-go decision. The FEIS was filed in January, two and a half years after the draft EIS. These things don’t move very quickly.

Metro approves study of Fort Bend commuter rail line

In the last act for several Metro board members, we get a step forward on another commuter rail line.

Moving to extend Metro’s reach into Fort Bend County, the agency’s board agreed Thursday to spend up to $500,000 on environmental studies for a commuter rail line connecting southwestern suburbs with central Houston.

During the last meeting for chairman David Wolff and three other Houston appointees, the Metropolitan Transit Authority board authorized its staff to finalize the alignment, begin public meetings and environmental review and take other steps to advance the 8.2-mile, $250 million project in the U.S. 90A corridor.

U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, whose district includes much of the corridor, has agreed to seek federal funding for the project, Metro officials said. Service could begin within three to five years, they said, enabling Fort Bend County residents to board a single Metro train that would bring them to jobs in the Texas Medical Center.

Despite all the talk about maybe having to slow some things down, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the advancement of commuter rail plans. First Galveston, then Hempstead, and now Fort Bend. I think those are all the corridors that have been actively bandied about lately, though there are certainly other possibilities; west on I-10 and north on I-45 come to mind. I hope the new Board is able to pick this ball up and keep running with it.

A key advantage of Metro’s plan, Wolff said, is that it would use trains Metro already owns on tracks that would parallel Union Pacific freight tracks in the same corridor, tying into the existing Main Street light rail line to create a seamless experience for passengers.

The commuter line would begin at Fannin South, the southern end of the Main Street line, and continue to the Fort Bend County Line at Beltway 8.

“The commuter rail has to tie into light rail in order to be attractive to the consumer,” Wolff said.

Now where have I heard that before? This is an advantage for the Fort Bend line, one that the Hempstead line at least does not share. It would of course be best to be able to continue on from the FB line into Greenway Plaza or the Galleria, but being able to get to the Medical Center and downtown is a good start. Continuing this line into Fort Bend, for which various options already exist, is vital as well, but that would require Fort Bend County giving Metro permission to operate there. As it happens, when I spoke to David Wolff, he told me that Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert was on board with the idea. We’ll see how it goes from here now that Metro has taken this step.

Parker reaffirms commitment to light rail

This is what I want to see.

[Mayor Annise] Parker’s letter regarding this week’s Metro board meeting was sent on the eve of her trip to Washington, where she said she would reassure U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that her administration wants to see five new light-rail lines built in Houston.

“I just want them to know that in spite of what might seem to be some turmoil at Metro, and despite what’s clearly going to happen with a new management team and a new board at Metro, is that Houston remains firmly committed to light rail,” Parker said.

The mayor said she intends to announce her five new appointees, including a new chairman, after she returns from Washington on Thursday — the same day as Metro’s March board meeting. Parker has said Wilson also should be replaced.

Her letter asks the board to defer action on any items that would obligate Metro to substantial financial commitments or assign any of its operating authority to a third-party vendor. Parker said she expects her appointees to be confirmed by City Council prior to the board’s April meeting.

It’s a good start, and if one assumes that a large part of the concern over Metro’s finances is that they’ve counted too much on federal dollars that haven’t been appropriated yet, it goes a long way towards offering reassurance that the two U lines will get built. I have faith in Mayor Parker and I don’t doubt her desire to see these lines built, but it’s always nice to hear the words.

Metro asks consultant to investigate Wilson allegations

We’ll see if there’s anything to the hype.

A consultant with expertise in identifying business fraud will investigate allegations that Metro’s chief executive used public funds in an inappropriate relationship with his assistant, the agency announced today.

David Wolff, the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board chairman, asked Jeff Harfenist, a managing director of UHY Advisors, to conduct the inquiry, Metro said in a statement.

The investigation stems from comments made during a March 10 civil court hearing by Michael West, who represents attorney and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley in an open-records lawsuit against Metro.

Well, at least Kelley will get something for his trouble, even if he couldn’t find a witness. I have no idea what this may turn up – again, despite the lack of evidence, it is entirely possible that Kelley is right, and it is entirely possible that he is full of it – but Harfenist seems to have solid credentials, so we’ll see. Hair Balls has more.

More on Metro’s finances

The Chron takes a closer look at Metro’s finances and the recently expressed doubts about their ability to pay for the University and Uptown lines.

Mayor Annise Parker said last week that she wasn’t convinced the Metropolitan Transit Authority would have the money to build its planned Uptown and University rail lines.

Parker said she hopes Metro can build the two lines, which together would constitute about 15 of the 30 miles of rail included in the second phase of the “Metro Solutions” mobility program.

But Parker, who was scheduled to be briefed this weekend by transition teams that she said have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances, said Metro officials have misled the public by talking as if funding for those two lines were assured. Three other lines are under construction.

“It’s tenuous,” Parker said Thursday after a speech to the Greater East End Chamber of Commerce that included an enthusiastic endorsement of rail transit in Houston.

Some of the doubts expressed by Parker and others who have studied the issue focus on how Metro would repay the $2.6 billion in bonds it intends to issue through 2014 to help finance the rail system. Metro chief executive Frank Wilson said the bonds would be backed by a combination of sales tax revenues, fare revenues and federal grants.

Parker noted that revenues from Metro’s 1 percent local sales tax are declining. Figures presented to the Metro board in February show sales tax receipts for the 10 months ending in January plummeted by $34 million from the same period a year earlier.

“We’re in a very different sales tax climate,” Parker said. “Some analysts say the sales taxes are going to continue to decline. There are a lot of moving parts.”

If sales tax revenues do continue to decline, we’re going to have much bigger problems than just Metro. Be that as it may, it’s still hard to judge the concerns without seeing the transition team’s report. If it mostly hangs on the question of whether Metro will get the federal funds it anticipates for the University line, then yes, not getting those funds, or not getting as much of them as requested, would be a big deal. Metro did very well in getting the funds it received for the North and Southeast lines, and the University line will have stronger ridership numbers than either of them, so you’d think they’d be in decent shape, but anything can happen with appropriations, so who knows? I don’t know what else there is to say about this.

At a higher level, what I want to know is what the commitment is to getting these lines built. I have faith in Mayor Parker, and I do believe she wants to see this happen. What I want to see is an affirmation that we’ll find a way to make it happen. The people voted in 2003 to build five light rail lines. We all remember how upset the strongest supporters of the 2003 referendum got when Metro announced that due to cost concerns they would be building bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of light rail for some of the routes. If the current funding model doesn’t work, then what we need is a promise to figure out a way to make it work. We’ve come too far to turn back now, and the transit system that we’re building is too important to Houston’s future mobility to leave incomplete.

Parker expresses doubt about University and Uptown lines

This is not the sort of thing I want to see.

Mayor Annise Parker cast doubt Wednesday on whether the Metropolitan Transit Authority has the money to pay for two planned light-rail lines that proponents say are critical to the success of the agency’s plans.

Parker said members of her transition team have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances and she now feels comfortable only with the funding plans of three rail lines: the East End, North and Southeast. Construction on those lines is under way.

Parker’s goal is to make sure those three lines are built “very, very rapidly,” she said. The other two, the Uptown and University lines, “are lines that I want to see built, but until we can finalize all the numbers, and some of them are still moving, I’m not going to commit to whether that is possible.”

The difference between building the two U lines and not building them is the difference between having a fully functional rail transit system and having a few light rail lines. Among other things, the various commuter rail lines that are being talked about will be far less useful if you can’t continue riding rail into places like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria. The University line is the linchpin, as David Crossley put it, and not having it would leave a gaping hole.

Having said all that, it’s a little early to panic. The University line is an excellent bet to receive federal funds, which will help a lot. If you listened to my interview with John Breeding of the Uptown Management District, he believed the Uptown Line was at least five years away, perhaps more like ten, and it’s likely that the financial picture will be quite different by then. And of course there’s the matter of the 2003 referendum, in which the voters approved building these lines. You’d think there will be some pressure to finish the job.

Responding to Parker’s comments, [Metro Board Chair David] Wolff said he believed the agency’s funding plan is feasible, although he was happy to discuss the matter further with the mayor.

Metro confirmed this week that it intends to issue $2.6 billion in bonds in the next few years, about four times the amount of debt approved by voters in 2003, to finance its rail plans. The agency said voter approval of the bonds is not necessary.

Wolff said Metro will be able to pay down the bonds it will have to issue for the University and Uptown lines and remains confident that the remaining puzzle piece — an additional $700 million in federal funding — will be approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

The bond question was the subject of a story from yesterday in which we get the usual treatment of someone who is not a rail supporter trying to tell the rest of us what the referendum really said. I’ll simply note here that that point was not addressed by Mayor Parker and leave it at that until we see what the transition team has to say.

Interview with David Wolff

David Wolff has been the Chair of the Metro Board since 2004. He will be stepping down as soon as Mayor Parker names a replacement for him. With all that’s been going on regarding Metro in the news lately, I thought this would be a good time to talk to Wolff about his tenure and where Metro stands today. Here’s our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

It’s a bit long, but I think it’s well worth listening to. Frankly, we could have gone on for another hour or so, but I think we covered a lot of ground. Please let me know what you think. As Rick Casey notes, Metro is responding quite aggressively to the document-shredding allegations; you’ll hear some of that from Wolff in this conversation. I agree with him that we ought to eventually get an objective picture of just what did happen, and when we do, we can refer back to some of the things that were said here and elsewhere for comparison.

Criminal probe of Metro document shredding begins

I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has begun a criminal investigation into allegations that the Metropolitan Transit Authority improperly destroyed public documents, a prosecutor confirmed Friday.

The statement by Terese Buess, the head of the district attorney’s public integrity division, came during a hearing that ended with a new civil court order against Metro not to destroy any further documents, and with the prospect of forensic examinations of the transit agency’s computers.

Mayor Annise Parker and David Wolff, Metro’s board chairman, had asked the district attorney last week to investigate allegations that the agency destroyed some of the documents sought by Houston attorney and former City Controller Lloyd Kelley in a January open records request.

State District Judge Al Bennett said the district attorney’s investigators would have the first opportunity to inspect Metro computer equipment to try to identify or recover any deleted data. Kelley’s lawyers may conduct a similar review afterward, Bennett said.

The criminal investigation, Bennett said, should take priority, and “I am not going to allow the civil litigation to get in the way of that.”

Houston Politics has a Metro employee training video on the subject of document retention. There’s a whole lot going on here. We still don’t know what exactly Lloyd Kelley is after. As the story says later, and as you’ll see in this space next week, Metro is putting the responsibility for the shredding on Pauline Higgins, their former general counsel; she in turn claims she was fired after blowing the whistle on Metro over the shredding. Mayor Parker’s transition team has not issued its report about Metro yet. Wolff is still the Chair until Parker names a replacement for him. We are in for some interesting times.

Please don’t shred the documents

This isn’t good.

At a crucial moment in the development of its light rail system, Metro confronted accusations Wednesday that it shredded documents sought in an open-records request, then fired two attorneys who objected to its handling of the request.

State District Judge Robert Shaffer signed a temporary restraining order forbidding the Metropolitan Transit Authority from destroying records requested by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

In January, the Houston lawyer had requested travel records, e-mail and other documents involving several top Metro officials, Board Chairman David Wolff and an executive of an agency rail contractor.

In a hastily called news conference, Metro President Frank Wilson said one of the agency’s lawyers shredded some documents on Monday. When he discovered this, Wilson said, he ordered an investigation of what was shredded and the circumstances.

Wilson said he didn’t know whether the shredded documents included any sought by Kelley, but said he was confident Metro will produce the records Kelley wants.

“I’m not sure there was anything sinister about it,” Wilson said. “It may be very innocent and very coincidental.”

That’s usually not the way it is, and even if it does turn out to be the case, the timing is still lousy. Does Metro have a document retention policy in place, and if so was it followed? If it doesn’t have such a policy, now would be a good time to put together a team to create one. Just please make sure the process to create it is done openly, and allows for plenty of input from the public.

To its credit, Metro’s response is appropriate.

Faced with a lawsuit, an increasingly critical mayor and lingering questions about document shredding and high-level firings, Metro board chairman David Wolff took steps Thursday to prop up public confidence in his embattled agency.

Wolff released documents that he said was fully responsive to a January open records request by former City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

He joined Mayor Annise Parker in asking Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos to investigate the shredding of as-yet unidentified documents Monday by a Metro employee.

“It is very important to maintain public confidence in Metro, and that’s why I’ve urged the mayor to involve the DA’s office beginning today, if possible,” Wolff said.

Lykos, through a spokeswoman, declined to say whether she would comply with the request.

The best outcome is for the DA to investigate and determine that nothing sinister happened. Let’s hope that is the case. Martha and Hair Balls have more.

Mayor and Metro spar over fares

Soon-to-be-former Metro Chair David Wolff has sent a letter to Mayor Parker in response to her recent comments about possibly reducing fares as a way of increasing ridership.

Eliminating fares on Metro buses and trains, as Mayor Annise Parker recently suggested, would cripple the agency’s light-rail expansion plans and force reductions in service to people who depend on public transportation, board chairman David Wolff said [Thursday].

At the close of the monthly board meeting, Wolff read aloud his Feb. 11 letter to Parker responding to her comments in a Houston Chronicle article published three days earlier. Parker’s suggestion that the Metropolitan Transit Authority should explore the idea of eliminating fares to increase ridership, Wolff said, was “not thoroughly thought out.”

Parker responded that Wolff seems to have missed her point that Metro should “think outside the box” and refocus on its mission of serving the public rather than on boosting the share of its revenues that come from fares. Wolff, she said, has presided over an agency “that in my opinion, has been stuck in neutral for six years.”

The mayor said she expects to get reports in the next few weeks from committees she appointed to study Metro, and she intends to replace Wolff and perhaps other board members soon after that.

You can see a copy of the letter here. There’s no love lost between Wolff and the Mayor, that’s for sure. I look forward to seeing what Mayor Parker’s transition team has to say, and who she has in mind to replace Wolff and other board members.

Expanding Metro

Soon-to-be-former Metro Chair David Wolff riffs off of a Chron editorial that lamented the lack of connectivity between Metro and some new bus routes in Harris County and makes the case for expanding Metro’s service area.

The first steps toward this expansion of service have already begun. Forward-thinking leaders such as Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia have worked with us to provide Park & Ride service to areas outside Metro’s present boundaries through an innovative approach involving interlocal agreements. Commuters outside the Metro service area in Baytown and Pasadena now travel daily into Houston using the same fare cards, rate schedules and service features as commuters from Cypress and Missouri City. Metro will soon be offering a Park & Ride option to the south on Texas 288 through an interlocal agreement with the transit provider for Brazoria County. Ongoing discussions with officials from Fort Bend County for Park & Ride service are also under way. The emphasis has been on showing these communities what we can do for them before asking them to join our full-service area and tax base.

Metro has little influence over how area jurisdictions receive or spend transit dollars. Nevertheless, the logic for a seamless regional approach — avoiding Balkanized service such as that found in the San Francisco Bay Area inefficiently “served” by no fewer than 13 disparate transit agencies — is inherently compelling. Sufficient common ground must be found among our area’s governmental entities as Metro constructs its five new light-rail lines. We must begin contemplating how to utilize the walking distance “delivery system” that the light rail system will create by 2013 as the framework to which commuter rail from outlying areas can be connected.

Certainly, the goal should be for all forms of mass transit in the region to connect to each other, and for things like fares and schedules to be unified and coordinated. Wolff cites DART as an example of another transit authority working on this. As it happens, the DMN has a story about how that is going.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit is considering ways to bring new cities aboard without requiring them to pay a full cent of sales tax, which has been a core membership requirement since the agency’s founding more than a quarter-century ago.

That full-penny requirement, which in recent years has meant more than $200 million a year in sales tax contributions from Dallas alone, has been the biggest obstacle to the agency’s growth. One fast-growing suburb after another has chosen to stay out of DART rather than surrender all of its discretionary sales tax revenue to pay for bus and rail service.

DART president Gary Thomas said preliminary discussions have begun among his board members and leaders in cities that border the agency’s 13 member cities.

“When we started DART in 1983, it didn’t make sense for some of these outlying cities to be part of a regional system,” Thomas said. “The revenues in those cities were not sufficient, and neither was the likely ridership. But here as we find ourselves with a lot of first-ring suburbs as part of the agency … and we have gone way beyond that.”

The situation is largely the same here. The challenge will be figuring out how to make it work across all the different boundaries and governmental entities. The natural impulse is to defend one’s own turf, but the more that happens, the less cooperation there will be. This isn’t going to be easy, that’s for sure.

A few words with David Wolff

The Chron talks to David Wolff, the soon-to-be-former Chair of Metro, about the state of the agency.

Q: Why has it taken six years to build new light rail lines when the Main Street line was built so quickly?

A: Metro pretty much depleted its treasury because it paid $325 million out of its own funds to build the Main Street line — which, incidentally, took three years. If you get federal dollars it’s a completely different ballgame. You have to go through all sorts of procedures, hearings, preliminary engineering. That’s why it takes so much longer.

Q: Does Metro have enough money to build the new light rail lines?

A: We are planning and believe we have the financing and capability to build all five. And we intend to do other things besides light rail. We intend to expand our bus system. We intend to continue building Park & Rides. We’re going to be converting our High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to High Occupancy Toll lanes (for solo drivers willing to pay).

Q: If Metro needed more money, where could it get more?

A: For Metro to have restored to it the funding that the taxpayers originally voted in 1978, which is the full one-cent sales tax. No other transit authority in the country has its sales tax diverted (by one quarter) to build roads, and this is something I believe should never have happened.

Q: How much more a year would Metro get if it had the full one-cent sales tax, and didn’t have to divert 25 percent of that back to its member municipalities for roadwork?

A: Over $100 million a year.

This conversation happened before the Culberson intervention. Wolff has been talking about the sales tax diversion for a little while now. I personally think the idea has merit, but it certainly won’t happen any time soon, not while the city is strapped for cash. I’m wondering if the next Metro chair will feel the same way. If not, it may be another six years before the point comes up again.

Culberson sticks his nose in

Last week, when we heard that the Federal Transit Authority had notified Metro that they would be cleared to begin preliminary engineering of the University Line project if no member of the local Congressional delegation objected by today, I figured there was only one Congressman who mattered. Sure enough, right on cue, here he comes.

[U.S. Rep. John Culberson filed a formal objection with the Federal Transit Authority late Tuesday.] The Houston Republican, a persistent critic of the transit agency, contends Metro is in a “precarious financial condition.” He also criticized some of Metro’s financial projections, because they assume future voters will agree to $620 million more in bonds, and approve a major change in how Metro divvies up its 1-cent sales tax revenue.

[…]

Metro officials dismissed his letter, saying it contained errors and that Culberson used an outdated financial forecast.

“He would have you believe we can’t afford University. Not true,” said Metro President Frank Wilson. “This is a clever excising of information.”

Metro Chairman David Wolff charged that Culberson’s action was politically motivated.

“He is just pandering to a hard-right constituency that just cannot accept the idea that the majority of people in Houston want light rail and they want it built,” Wolff said. “It’s just part of his delaying tactics and it’s unfortunate.”

Fortunately, the FTA is not required to bow to Culberson’s demands. They can still make up their own minds, and given how long this process has dragged out, I hope they will not let this get delayed any further.

Mayoral candidate Annise Parker seized on Culberson’s letter to reiterate a campaign theme that Metro needs to display more “accountability.” Houston’s mayor effectively controls the Metro board by appointing five of its nine members.

“I share his concerns that Metro is over-estimating their revenue and under-estimating their expenses for these lines,” Parker said. “There are assumptions, and I’ve been clear and consistent through months of the campaign that I didn’t trust their numbers.”

I part ways with Controller Parker on this. I don’t trust Culberson, and while I’m sure there are valid questions about the finances, he’s not doing this out of genuine concern for the agency. This has always been about killing the University line, nothing more and nothing less. Please don’t egg him on.

Metro and the sales tax

Metro chair David Wolff would like to see the portion of the sales tax revenue that gets diverted from its coffers to Harris County and the smaller cities go back to Metro.

Wolff believes METRO can build significantly more if it has access to all of the 1 cent sales tax that was approved by voters when METRO was first established in 1978.

Along the way, 1/4 of this sales tax was diverted to the city, county, and multi-cities for the building of roads. I do not feel this was proper. This money was voted by people of this area for transit, and I think that one of the things that we have to work with the Mayor and the County Commissioners Court over the next five years – this agreement was just renewed in 2009 but expires in 2014 – is restoring to METRO this full one cent sales tax.

Wolff added that this loss of 1/4 of the 1 cent sales tax comes out to approximately $100 million lost annually. He says that this could support about $1.4 billion in bonding capacity “with a 7% constant.” When matched by federal funds, this would equate to about $2.8 billion in new capital, which is slightly more than METRO is spending on the five new light rail lines it is building. “So,” he said, “Metro could double what it’s doing if we’re able to negotiate and work with elected officials to restore our funding over the next five years.”

I’m certainly open to this idea, though I don’t believe either of the Mayoral candidates are inclined to favor it. Nonetheless, I hope it will be on the table when the current agreement expires.

Wolff speaks about Metro

Here’s Metro board chair David Wolff giving a state of the system address in the op-ed pages. I suppose it’s a counter, if not a response to Bill King’s piece from two weeks ago; it offers a defense of the current fare structure, at least. For all the complaining I’ve done lately about the slow pace of getting the new lines built, we are making progress and we can start to visualize what we’ll soon have, and from there what we can have next. I’ll feel better once the last two lines are nailed down and construction has started, but for now it’s good to be reminded that we’ve come a long way.

One point to add:

One of the most gratifying learning experiences for me has been sensing the enthusiasm and commitment to public transportation improvements among our younger generation. I have yet to meet any Houstonian under 40 who questions the priority of mass transit. They “get it.” They have experienced other cities — New York, San Francisco, London, etc. — and know that we cannot have a metropolitan area heading toward 6 million people (and perhaps more) in their lifetime without excellent public transit.

I’m pretty sure at least one of the usual suspects of the Metro Haters Club is still on the low side of 40, but I do think we’ve seen a shift in attitude over the past few years. Nobody argues with any credibility any more that light rail can’t work in Houston. They may carp about “at grade” rail, or complain about other things at the margins, but the success of the Main Street line stands on its own. That gives me hope that when we finally do start talking about the next expansion the argument will be primarily over where it should be, and not whether we should do it at all.

A solution in search of a problem

We were out of town over the weekend, so I managed to miss this Bill King op-ed about the “need” to elevate the Main Street line on Fannin in the Medical Center area. Having now read it, I have three things to say.

Generally it only takes one trip through the Texas Medical Center (TMC) on Fannin for a person to swear off the route permanently. It is a driver’s nightmare with dozens of indecipherable signs and lights giving directions. There have been several train-pedestrian and train-auto accidents in the area. And the traffic … well, let’s not even go there.

Many have questioned the wisdom of a multibillion-dollar investment that crams a new modal system into the same horizontal plane already crowded with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Most of the great, iconic transit systems, such as the New York subway, Washington’s Metro or Chicago’s “L,” are grade separated from street traffic. Even Dallas’ DART is largely grade separated.

The problem with grade separating our rail system is, of course, the increased cost. Estimates range from twice to five times as expensive. When we built the Main Street line, we did so without any federal funds. As a result, Metro took a number of shortcuts to contain the cost. One of those shortcuts was the contorted maze through the TMC.

[…]

The line could begin a gentle incline around Hermann Park and continue above the street level to the south side of Brays Bayou. The rail line could be tied into the elevated walkways between the buildings on either side of Fannin, providing easy, ADA-compliant access. Elevating the rail line both relieves the congestion on Fannin and insulates its circuits from the surrounding infrastructure.

1. Has Bill King forgotten just how congested that stretch of Fannin was before the rail line was built? Because I haven’t. It was a mess, and it took forever to drive through. Among other things, there are bunch of traffic lights on Fannin between Dryden and MacGregor, many of which are not at intersections but at the entrance to parking garages. Those lights are all still there and would continue to impede traffic in the event that the rail line magically disappeared. And it would still be confusing to drive through, especially if you’re headed for one of those garages – I speak from the experience of turning into a garage other than the one I intended to, more than once.

2. King is completely disingenuous about the cost. For one thing, as Metro President David Wolff points out in a letter to the editor, Metro would be competing for federal dollars to do this against its other light rail lines, including those that are in the final stages of getting funding. For another, despite the approving murmurs King’s op-ed got from the anti-rail crowd at blogHouston, doing this would surely garner opposition from those who want to see more rail being built, as it would be a poor use of limited funds, and it wouldn’t make the idea of rail any more popular among the antis; if anything, this would be used as ammunition by them for their argument that rail is “too expensive”. There’s just no value proposition here.

3. Finally, perhaps King hasn’t noticed the large number of people who now park in lots well away from the Medical Center and take the train in. I work a block away from the Smithlands station, and I see people in scrubs coming out of that lot and getting on the train (or getting out of the train and going into the lot) all day long. Every one of those people represents a car that is no longer being driven on Fannin. The rail line does more to relieve traffic congestion there than anything we’ve ever done, and when there are more lines connecting to it, thus making more of the city accessible without getting into a car, that will do even more.