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Endorsement watch: Bell for King

As the headline notes, this came as a surprise to many.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Former Congressman Chris Bell publicly backed fiscal conservative Bill King in the Houston mayoral runoff Tuesday, a move that could bolster King’s efforts to make inroads with progressive voters.

Bell’s endorsement came as a surprise to many political insiders expecting the progressive former mayoral candidate to support King’s rival, Democrat Sylvester Turner.

Bell cited King’s focus on pension reform, public safety, road repair and flooding as reasons for his endorsement, as well as the businessman’s thoughtful approach to policy issues.

“It might come as a surprise to some because of my political persuasion, but it really shouldn’t,” Bell said alongside King in Meyerland. “Truth be told, we agree much more than we disagree. As far as the major principles of his campaign, we’re in complete agreement.”

If you say so, Chris. From my perspective, the main area of overlap between the two campaigns was an enthusiasm for bashing Adrian Garcia. On a number of issues I can think of, from HERO to the revenue cap to ReBuild Houston to (yes) pensions, there seemed to be little in common. It’s easier for me to see agreement between Steve Costello and Sylvester Turner than it is for me to see concurrence between Bell and King. Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder, I don’t know. But really, on a broader level, it’s that Bell positioned himself quite purposefully to Sylvester Turner’s left, with his greater purity on LGBT equality being a main point of differentiation. Though he missed out on getting the Houston GLBT Political Caucus’ endorsement – amid a fair amount of grumbling about Turner buying the recommendation via a slew of last-minute memberships – Bell had a lot of support in the LGBT community; a couple of his fervent supporters courted my vote at the West Gray Multi-Service Center by reminding me of an old Turner legislative vote against same sex foster parenting. This is why it’s hard to believe his claims about there being so much in common between him and King, and why this announcement was met with such an explosion of outrage and cries of betrayal. It’s not a partisan matter so much as it is a strong suspicion that either the prior assertions about being the real champion of equality were lies or that this endorsement had to come with a prize. If Chris Bell honestly believes that Bill King will be the best Mayor, that’s his right and his choice. But no one should be surprised by the reaction to it.

Does this help King? Well, he needs to get some Anglo Dem support to win, and that was Bell’s base. Of course, speaking as someone in that demographic, I’ve seen very little evidence that any of his erstwhile supporters were impressed by this. Quite the reverse, as noted above. I guess it can’t hurt, I just wouldn’t expect it to do much.

In the meantime, various organizations have been issuing new and updated endorsements for the runoffs. A few highlights:

– As previously noted, the HCDP endorsed all Democratic candidates with Republican opponents. That means Sylvester Turner for Mayor, Chris Brown for Controller, Georgia Provost, David Robinson, Amanda Edwards, Sharon Moses, Richard Nguyen, and Mike Laster for Council, and Rhonda Skillern-Jones and Jose Leal for HISD Trustee.

– The Houston GLBT Political Caucus added Georgia Provost and Karla Cisneros to their list of endorsed candidates. Turner, Brown, Edwards, and the incumbents were already on there. They did not take action on Moses and Leal.

– The Meyerland Democrats made their first endorsements in a city election: Turner, Brown, Provost, Robinson, Edwards, Nguyen, and Laster.

– Controller candidate Chris Brown sent out another email touting endorsements, this time from five previous Controllers – Ronald Green, Annise Parker, Sylvia Garcia, George Greanias, and Kathy Whitmire. As you know, I’m glad to see Green support him.

– As noted here, the Harris County GOP Executive Committee endorsed Willie Davis in AL2, though it wasn’t exactly unanimous.

– The Log Cabin Republicans transferred their endorsements to Bill King and Mike Knox, and reiterated their support for David Robinson, Jack Christie, and Steve Le. Guess being staunchly anti-HERO has its drawbacks.

– A group called the Texas Conservative View endorsed the candidates you’d expect them to – King, Frazer, Knox, Davis, Roy Morales, Christie, Steve Le, Jim Bigham – and one I didn’t, Jason Cisneroz. All of them were repeats from November except for Morales; they had previously endorsed Jonathan Hansen.

– Finally, the Houston Association of Realtors gave Bill King an endorsement that does mean something and makes sense, along with Amanda Edwards.

I think that catches me up. I’m sure there will be more to come – in particular, the Chron has a few races to revisit. They need to pick a finalist between Brown and Frazer, and make a new choice in AL1 and AL5. I’ll let you know when they do.

UPDATE: The line I deleted above about “being staunchly anti-HERO” was a reference to Willie Davis not getting the LCR endorsement in At Large #2. It made sense in my head when I wrote it, but I can see now that I didn’t make that clear at all. And given that the LCRs endorsed David Robinson in November, it doesn’t make sense even when I clarify who I intended that to be about. So, I take it back. Sorry for the confusion.

Where are the women?

I have several things to say about this.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The slate running to replace Mayor Annise Parker features a globetrotting sailor, a triathlete grandfather, a millionaire minister and no women.

Despite the most-crowded pack of mayoral contenders in decades, no female candidates are expected to announce bids this spring, a reality that all but guarantees women will have fewer positions of power at City Hall next year than they had during the last six.

“You are sending a message,” said Kathryn McNeil, a longtime fundraiser who helped elect Parker. “My niece is now 16. For the last six years, she’s seen a strong woman running the city. There’s no question in her mind that a woman could be mayor.”

Though more than 10 candidates likely will appear on November’s ballot, few women even seriously considered the race, which some call a reminder of how much more work Houston’s women must do to achieve political equality.

Some say it creates a less compassionate and less personal, even if equally qualified, field of candidates. It also affects the strength of the democratic process, limiting the diversity of the candidates that voters can choose from when they imagine whom they would like as their next mayor.

“Regardless of who actually wins the race, not having a viable woman candidate can be a disservice for everyone,” said Dee Dee Grays, the incoming president of Women Professionals in Government in Houston.

For the record, in the eleven city elections post-Kathy Whitmire (i.e., since 1993), there has been at least one female Mayoral candidate not named Annise Parker in eight of them:

2013 – Charyl Drab, Keryl Douglas, Victoria Lane
2011 – Amanda Ulman
2009 – Amanda Ulman
2007 – Amanda Ulman
2005 – Gladys House
2003 – Veronique Gregory
2001 – None
1999 – None
1997 – Helen Huey, Gracie Saenz
1995 – Elizabeth Spates
1993 – None

Now, most of these were fringe candidacies – only term-limited Council members Helen Huey and Gracie Saenz in 1997 could have been considered viable, and they were both crushed in the wake of the Lee Brown/Rob Mosbacher/George Greanias campaigns. But for what it’s worth, history does suggest there will be at least one female name on the ballot this year.

Research shows that women nationally need to be recruited to run for office much more than men. That especially is true for executive positions, such as governor or mayor.

Amber Mostyn, the former chair of Annie’s List, a statewide organization that recruits and backs Democratic female candidates, said there is a need for local versions of the organization that would encourage qualified women to make bids for mayor.

“You’ll see men throwing their hat in the ring when they’ve never done the job before and say, ‘I’ll figure it out,’ ” said Mostyn, a Houston lawyer and prominent donor. “Women are very reluctant to do that.”

I’m well aware of the research regarding the recruitment of female candidates. It’s definitely an issue, though I wonder if it will turn out to be a generational one. Perhaps today’s girls and younger women won’t need the same kind of encouragement that their elders currently require. Be that as it may, if there was ever a bad year for that dynamic in the Mayor’s race, it’s this year. I mean, nearly the entire field, not to mention Adrian Garcia, has been known to be planning to run for a long time now. With that many candidates already at the starting line, and presumably working to collect commitments and financial support and campaign advisers, it would undoubtedly be that much harder to make a case for someone else to gear up now and thrown her hat in the ring. As I’ve said many times already, there’s only so much room for viable candidates in this race.

Cindy Clifford, a public relations executive and City Hall lobbyist, said the key to electing a female mayor is to first focus on recruiting women for lower-level elected office and to serve on boards and commissions. That requires a commitment by the city’s leaders to tapping individual women and showing them that they have support.

“If we’re not doing it, no one’s going to come and look for us,” Clifford said. “I always think the cream rises once they’re in the process.”

Council members Brenda Stardig and Ellen Cohen could be joined next year by several top-tier female candidates in council elections this fall, but some worry that the political “pipeline” of female candidates is thin, with few who conceivably could have run for mayor this year. One, Laura Murillo, the head of Houston’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, did publicly explore a mayoral bid last summer before deciding against it.

I would point out that one of the top tier candidates for Mayor this year is someone whose entire political career has been in the Legislature, and that the three main candidates currently running for Mayor in San Antonio include two former legislators and one former County Commissioner. One doesn’t have to be a city officeholder to be a viable Mayoral candidate, is what I’m saying. Hell, none of the three Mayors before Annise Parker had been elected to anything before running for the top job, let alone running for Council. The size of the “pipeline” is as much a matter of framing as anything else. Note also that several women who were once elected to city offices now hold office elsewhere – I’m thinking specifically of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, Rep. Carol Alvarado, and HISD Trustee Wanda Adams. Pipelines can flow in both directions.

As for the four open Council slots, the seat most likely to be won by a female candidate as things stand right now is At Large #4, where two of the three announced candidates so far are women. Jenifer Pool is running in At Large #1, but if I were forced to make a prediction about it now, I’d say that a Lane Lewis/Chris Oliver runoff is the single most likely outcome. Two of the three candidates that I know of in District H are male – Roland Chavez and Jason Cisneroz – and the third candidate, former HISD Trustee Diana Davila, is ethically challenged. One’s commitment to diversity does not include supporting someone one doesn’t trust. I have no idea at this time who may be running in District G, which is the other term-limited seat. Beyond those races, any additional women will have to get there by knocking off an incumbent.

One last thing: There may not be room for another viable candidate for Mayor, but that isn’t the case for City Controller. There are three known candidates at this time, with two more thinking about it, all men. A Controller campaign would take less time and money, and would therefore likely be fairly ripe for recruitment, especially given that a female candidate in that race would have immediate prominence. As Mayor Parker, and for that matter former Mayor Whitmire, can attest, that office can be a pretty good stepping stone. Just a thought.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that HCC Trustee Sandie Mullins is planning to run in District G. That not only adds another female candidate for Council, it also indicates that an HCC seat will be open this fall.

Metro names Lambert its next CEO

For the second time in a row, the Metro board will make its interim CEO its permanent CEO.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board on Thursday voted unanimously to open negotiations with Tom Lambert for the permanent president and CEO position.

Lambert, who has led the agency on an interim basis since December 2012, served as Metro’s police chief for more than 28 years and more recently as an executive vice president. He was named interim CEO after George Greanias abruptly resigned.

Lambert, a 35-year Metro employee, initially said he would not be a candidate for the permanent job, and Metro hired a search firm to help it find a new leader. Over time, however, board members grew impressed with the job Lambert was doing and decided he should be considered for the permanent position.

“The chief has done a dynamite job, and his team has done a dynamite job, there is no doubt,” board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, referring to Lambert, during a December meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

As an earlier story notes, the Metro board hadn’t done much of anything to advance the search for an external candidate, so I guess they are indeed happy with Lambert. I think he’s done a decent job as well, though he does have some big challenges ahead, from reimagining bus routes to dealing with railcar shortages, and hopefully to restart the conversation about more rail lines in the future. I wish him the best of luck with these tasks. The Metro blog has more.

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.

Metro moving forward with advertising

This has been in the works for a long time.

Depending on what Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decide regarding a new revenue plan, your light rail trip could end at the Taco Bell Station, or some similarly named stop.

Officials in early 2013 are expected to receive more information on a revenue plan exploring potential corporate partnerships and advertising. Board members, at a meeting in November, stressed they are considering options carefully, knowing any talk of adding ads to the sides of buses will raise concerns.

“The only reason why we are considering this is because there are potential benefits to our riders and the public,” board member Christof Spieler said during a recent committee meeting.

Allowing advertising could generate up to about $10 million a year for the agency, which has a roughly $300 million operating budget.

Limiting ads to corporate sponsorships, such as renaming routes or lines, and minimal branding might bring in about half that sum, according to analysts with the consulting firm IMG Worldwide.

Critics of advertising proliferation in Houston worry that if Metro opens the door to some advertising, it will set back anti-billboard efforts.

“This is a city where you form your impressions through a windshield,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, a group focused on eliminating what it considers visual blight in the city.

“Houston has a great tradition of keeping the city free of billboards and of visual clutter,” said Ray Hankamer, a Scenic Houston board member. “This is the camel getting its nose under the tent.”

Like I said, this has been in the pipe for a long time. Last discussion of it that I’m aware of was in October of 2010, with a story from earlier that year referring to 2005. It came up before then in November of 2008. I have been a proponent of this all along, first suggesting that Metro put ads in its light rail cars in 2007. I respect Scenic Houston and I support their work, but I disagree with them on this. I don’t see it as being anything like billboards, which had been permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. Putting signs on the sides of buses, or on bus shelters, isn’t going to change your view. The “naming rights” concept is new and I’ll admit to having a bit of unease about it, but in a world where every stadium, arena, and concert venue is named for this corporation or that utility, it’s hard to get too worked up about in. As I’ve browsed my archives on this, it seems like the reluctance to go forward has been one part resistance from City Council, and one part disinterest from outgoing CEO George Greanias. Neither Council members nor the interim Metro CEO were quoted in this story, so we’ll have to see what those potential obstacles look like this time around. For the record, I hope Metro goes forward with it. It makes good sense, and if they’re serious about building the University Line, then every extra dollar matters.

Greanias officially resigns, interim Metro CEO named

George Greanias may have stepped down as CEO of Metro, but he’ll still be around for awhile, as Metro searches for his successor.

George Greanias

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday accepted Greanias’ resignation, named an interim replacement and approved a six-month, $117,500 contract with Greanias – equivalent to half his annual salary – to consult for Metro.

“Don’t think you’re getting away scot-free,” board member Carrin Patman told Greanias after a 90-minute closed session. “We have a job for you.”

Greanias’ consulting duties will focus on leadership transition, increasing bus and light rail ridership and improving the MetroLift service for disabled passengers. These are key areas where Greanias can be an invaluable asset, said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia.

“Who better than someone who has been here that knows all the parts, all the intricacies,” Garcia said.

To replace Greanias, the board appointed Tom Lambert, Metro’s executive vice president and the agency’s former police chief, as interim CEO. Lambert, a 32-year Metro veteran, told the board he is not interested in the position permanently.

He said Greanias leaves the agency after 30 months in much better shape than he found it. Lambert said his goal for his time at the helm is to keep the staff directed on its long-term goals of improving bus and train service.

“I think the real issue is how can we take the system today and make it even better tomorrow,” Lambert said.

Greanias didn’t give any specific reason for leaving – he did deny that a difference of opinion over the Metro referendum was a factor – he just said he was ready to do something else. Easy enough to understand – he inherited a mess and turned it around, which has to have been exhausting as well as satisfying. The next CEO will be more in run-and-maintain mode, though he or she will have to figure out how to expand bus service and getting the new rail lines going while still working towards building the University line. It’ll be a challenge of a different kind, but a challenge nevertheless. The Board has a big task ahead of it in finding the right person for that job.

Greanias to step down from Metro

Bummer.

George Greanias

George Greanias, appointed to lead the Metropolitan Transit Authority in September 2010 after political squabbling and inefficiencies led to widespread criticism of the bus and train system, is resigning, a Metro spokeswoman confirmed Friday.

Greanias has stated his intent to resign from his position as president and chief executive officer, but a formal letter isn’t expected until Monday, said spokeswoman Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

Metro’s board of directors will discuss Greanias’ departure Thursday. A closed session scheduled at the end of the board’s monthly meeting includes “consideration of the resignation of the president and CEO,” as well as consideration of a transition and consulting agreement with Greanias and appointment of an interim chief executive.

[…]

Greanias took over an agency mired in problems related to the expansion of light rail. Greanias, who had no transit agency experience, was tasked with turning the agency around. His first step, he said in a recent speech to the Greater Houston Partnership, was to change Metro’s internal culture.

“When I got there, the employees were afraid to raise their hands and make decisions,” he said.

Frank Wilson, Greanias’ predecessor, agreed to leave after months of rancor over the validity of the agency’s rail efforts, and after scandals about money mismanagement and alleged document shredding worsened Metro’s image.

[Mayor Annise] Parker campaigned in 2009 on a platform to clean up Metro. She appointed five new members to the nine-member board, and the new board hired Greanias, who had deep ties to the city and once ran for mayor.

Greanias did a great job at Metro, and accomplished pretty much everything he set out to do. He was an excellent hire by the Board, which has also done some fine work in the time they’ve been there. No question that Metro is in a much better position now than it was when Greanias took over as CEO, and whoever is hired to replace him will have some large shoes to fill. Best of luck with whatever comes next, George Greanias.

Sumners for Controller?

Yeah, I don’t know about that.

County tax assessor-collector Don Sumners, who lost his bid for re-election in the May GOP primary, said Wednesday he is considering running for city controller next year.

“The part that has to be decided is whether I can actually win. I’m not a spring chicken,” said Sumners, 73.

Controller Ronald Green did not draw an opponent for re-election in 2011. He is eligible to run for a third and final two-year term in 2013.

For whatever the reason, incumbent City Controllers have been unopposed for re-election in recent cycles. The last sitting Controller to have an opponent was Lloyd Kelley, who was ousted by Sylvia Garcia in 1997. Since then – Garcia in 1999 and 2001; Annise Parker in 2005 and 2007; Green in 2011 – Controllers have gotten free rides after their initial elections. Sumners ran for Controller once before, in 1993, drawing less than 10% of the vote as one of three unsuccessful challengers to George Greanias. Green had some bad press earlier this year, but he can’t hold a candle to Sumners on that score. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, this is a heavily Democratic city. I’ll have more on this on Monday, but as was the case in 2008 the city of Houston voted over 60% for President Obama. Obviously, the electorate is very different in an odd-numbered year, but the point is that someone like Sumners has a much lower ceiling than Ronald Green has. So let’s just say I don’t think Green will lose any sleep over this.

Buses and trains, not buses or trains

I have a lot of emotion about this, but I’m still working through how to express it.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials say the agency is on firmer financial footing than it has been in years. They plan to add shelters at 100 bus stops in the next year, replace aging buses with larger and smaller vehicles in some cases and rethink how the Houston area is served by bus.

The refocus is a shift for the agency, as rail has dominated the political discussion since a 2003 vote for transit improvements that included five light rail lines, three of which are under construction now.

“What got focused on and what got done was the rail component,” said George Greanias, Metro’s president and CEO. “That has not always worked to the benefit of the system. … We’ve not focused as much as we should on buses.”

Metro board members and local officials, notably Houston Mayor Annise Parker, lauded the chance to correct years of underinvestment in the bus system.

“They began paring back on the bus system, dropping off the lower ridership routes, rerouting the buses, saving money, saving money so they could do rail,” Parker said Wednesday.

[…]

Around the same time Metro placed the referendum in front of voters, officials also created a strategic planning committee. One of the committee’s main tasks will be to determine how Metro’s 1,300-square-mile area can best be served by buses, including how to tie them to the rail lines, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it is steel wheels or rubber wheels, it is all transit and it needs to work for the rider,” Spieler said. “What I would like to see is a better job of putting the whole network together.”

Some of that paring back of the bus system was necessary and correct. The main advantage to buses as transit is their lack of infrastructure, which thus enables routes to be redrawn at will and as needed to cope with shifting populations. Metro did a good job of identifying low-performing bus routes, but it hasn’t done nearly enough to improve the bus system and attract new riders to it. Part of their thinking behind this referendum and the “no incremental sales tax revenue on rail” deal, as expressed by Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia in the interview he and Spieler did with me, is that by working to get Metro’s overall numbers up they can build more public approval of the system as a whole, which will benefit future rail expansion. It feels a bit like a bank shot, but the bus system does have unaddressed needs, and as I said before taking care of those needs will remove a key pillar of the anti-rail contingent’s argument against more rail. I still think a big part of the problem here is that those who are the most vociferously anti-rail are not equivalently pro-bus, or pro-transit in general. The focus in this region has always been on roads uber alles, and getting any change in that focus has been hard fought and very incremental. Still, I continue to believe that there is a lot of potential for moving the region’s transportation and mobility forward if the stakeholders can agree to work together for once. Metro needs to maintain its commitment to fulfilling the 2003 referendum and building the University Line, and we all need to tell our elected officials, loudly and often, that we expect them to work with Metro to make that happen. Nothing about this referendum should change that.

Whither the University Line?

Is the University Line in doubt? Some people think so.

Over the last decade, METRO spent $71 million of your dollars to build a rail line. But the agency recently took that project off the table for at least another decade and no work has been done.

So where did all that money go?

Ten years ago, METRO promised to build a light rail line starting out on Hillcroft through Montrose, downtown, out past TSU, UH and stopping just east of 45.

Ten years later, nothing’s been built on the University Line and nothing will be built until at least 2025 if METRO gets its way.

“It think this is a sad day for Houston,” said David Robinson with the Neartown Houston Association.

Robinson lives along the route in Neartown. He patiently waited, even supported METRO’s plan to wait. But now he feels duped.

“We don’t understand how we were sold out,” Robinson said.

[…]

“We’re trying to close the gap,” METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

METRO says they simply don’t have the money to do this now and won’t for more than a decade. But METRO’s already spent $71 million on the project, even as recently as last year.

“We believe that every dollar of taxpayer money, whether it comes from the fare box, tax money or federal money, we need to spend it as wisely as possible,” METRO CEO George Grenias said.

In fact, if METRO hadn’t spent the money on studies and land and lawyers and meetings and newspaper ads, they could’ve taken $71 million bills and laid them down along the route, paving it from curb to curb and then some with your money.

“It’s an enormous amount of money,” Garcia said.

The agency spent $14 million studying on environmental studies that will soon be out of date. METRO spent another $2.5 million on land appraisals, and they’re no good anymore. So that’s $16.5 million gone. And METRO spent $54 million studying possible routes and picking the final one, only some of which may be useful in 10 years, but who knows.

“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” Grenias said.

I have appointments to do interviews with Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia and with Houston Tomorrow‘s David Crossley to discuss the upcoming Metro referendum, and I can assure you that the subject of the University Line will be thoroughly covered. But aren’t we overlooking something in this story? Metro cannot build the University Line without federal funding, which has not been appropriated yet. The money that it has spent so far on environmental studies and whatnot is money that it is required to spend in order to qualify for FTA grant money. In 2010, Metro received a Record of Decision from the FTA, which is the final approval of those environmental studies and which allows Metro to move forward with utility work and the like. This is the last step needed to be able to receive federal funding, but as we all know, resistance from Congress has made that extra difficult, and recent maneuvering by sworn University Line opponent John Culberson threatens that funding for the foreseeable future. Why is there no mention of this in the story?

I get that people are frustrated and tired of waiting for this. I am, too. I understand that critics of the upcoming referendum believe that anything but a complete removal of the GMP payments will leave Metro with insufficient funds to build the University, Uptown, and other planned light rail lines. I’m not sure I agree with that view, but it’s a valid concern. Metro’s ability to receive federal funds for the University Line are also contingent on its ability to handle its debt load, which Metro CEO George Greanias called a “heavy lift” when he first came on board. There are a lot of moving parts here, and Metro is responsible for its past decisions as well as its current ones and the effect they may have on the promises they made a decade ago. There’s a lot more to this than what the story covers. For a related discussion of the Metro referendum, see Nancy Sims.

Metro signs Full Funding Grant Agreement

Full speed ahead.

The head of the Federal Transit Administration on Monday signed $900 million in grant agreements to help pay for two Houston light-rail lines under construction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The grants, the first federal funds ever provided for rail in Houston, were formally approved in a ceremony attended by the FTA chief, Peter Rogoff, Mayor Annise Parker, Metro officials, local members of Congress and others. They will pay half the costs of the North and Southeast lines, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will extend Houston’s light-rail network by 12 miles.

Local officials have been trying to secure the federal funds since voters approved a plan to expand Metro’s rail network in 2003.

It took a hell of a long time, and it nearly got derailed thanks to the previous Metro regime and its Buy America foolishness, but it got done. And remember, some people said it would never happen.

Here’s Metro’s press release:

METRO Inks Houston’s First Ever Full Funding Grants for Light Rail

Houston’s light-rail expansion is now cleared to receive $900 million dollars as part of two federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).  A special signing ceremony for the grants was held [Monday] morning at a rail expansion construction site overlooking downtown. The observation at 800 Burnett St. brought METRO officials together with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and a host of elected officials to sign long-awaited FFGAs for the North and Southeast rail lines.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the New METRO’s Board of Directors says, “The rail expansion team, METRO Board members, past and present and our entire staff, past and present, should be proud of accomplishing an enormous task. We’ve never lost sight of the prize and finally it is Houston’s. We thank all the community patriots for all their help in making this day happen. This is a major investment in the region that will not only create jobs but boost economic development.”

METRO President & CEO George Greanias says “The $900 million federal grants more than double the local dollars being used to construct the 5.3 mile North (Red) extension* and the 6.6 mile Southeast (Purple)* lines and mark the first time rail projects here have received FFGAs. This is a great example of how we can leverage our local dollars to improve mobility in the region.”

The total construction cost for the two lines is $1.6 billion dollars. Each line is receiving a $450 million dollar FFGA. The federal government has already set aside $484.5 million dollars for the two projects as part of the FFGAs. Of that amount, METRO has received $84.5 million dollars. The transit agency expects to continue receiving the federal funding over the next few years.

More than 30 percent of commuters heading into the downtown area and the Texas Medical Center ride METRO. The rail expansion approved by Houston voters in 2003 includes the North (Red) Line and extends the current Main St. Line starting at UHD to the Northline Transit Center, Houston Community College and Northline Commons Mall. The Southeast (Purple) Line connects downtown with local universities including Texas Southern University and the University of Houston central campus. The two federally funded lines and a third, locally funding East End (Green) Line currently under construction, are all expected to be completed by 2014.

For PDFs of work being performed see: METRORail North Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF) METRORail Southeast Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF)

The Harrisburg line is also under construction, but it is using only local funds. Still out there waiting their turn are the Universities line, the Uptown line, which will also be built with local funds but is entirely dependent on the completion of the Universities line to be feasible, and the Inner Katy Line, which was on the 2003 referendum but was not officially part of the 2012 Solutions plan. The Universities line received a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Universities line last July, and now awaits final design approval, which had been hung up to a degree by the other Metro projects in the queue ahead of it and now is waiting for Congress to get its act together and pass an adequate transportation bill so there will be more New Starts funds to grant. An Inner Katy line will likely be part of a larger next phase project – Metro Solutions 2020 or some such – that may be packaged together for another vote. I’m mostly speculating here, but such a line makes all kinds of sense and is already supported by the neighborhood. What it needs now is a funding source.

That’s something farther out to look forward to. For now, we have the North and Southeast lines and their historic funding agreement. It’s a good day for Metro and for Houston. The Metro blog and Dallas Transportation have more.

Runoff overview: District A

I don’t remember there being a Chron overview story for the District A regular election, but now that it’s in overtime we get an overview story about the race between CM Brenda Stardig and challenger Helen Brown. Better late than never, right?

Just a few thoughts about the article. First, it’s a little silly to call this runoff a “referendum” on Mayor Parker. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we just had a referendum on the Mayor, and she passed, if just barely. A 5000-vote (if that much) Council runoff in a single district four weeks later isn’t going to tell us anything we didn’t already know. I’ve no doubt the Mayor is an issue in this race, perhaps the key issue, but let’s keep some perspective here.

Some of the other issues in this race are a bit curious.

Brown supports the repeal of Proposition 1, the voter-approved initiative that called for the creation of a monthly drainage fee. Stardig voted in favor of the ordinance that Council passed to implement it. Brown calls for the removal of George Greanias as Metro CEO because of his viewing of pornography at work. Like Parker, Stardig favors leaving that decision to the Metro board “until it impacts the actual function of the business.” Stardig favored the city’s approximately $20 million investment in infrastructure and land to get the Dynamo to build a $60 million soccer stadium downtown that the city and county will own. Brown argues that is an improper public investment in a private business.

I’m pretty sure Council can’t pass an ordinance that overturns a charter amendment that has been adopted by referendum – we do have to respect the will of the voters, right? – but I suppose they could vote to put a repeal referendum on the ballot. That is, if the Mayor gives them a repeal referendum to put on the ballot, which needless to say isn’t going to happen. Or there will be another petiton drive, for which the vote to put it on the ballot is a formality. Greanias isn’t going anywhere unless the Mayor wants him to, and she has shown no inclination of that. As for Dynamo Stadium, last I checked it was about six months from being completed. This Council did vote twice on aspects of the deal – both unanimous, for what it’s worth – but the vote to make the land available for the stadium was taken in 2008, which is to say before Stardig’s time on Council. And ironically, it was Annise Parker who ran an ad that disparaged the deal during the 2009 election. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

Not that there’s anything wrong with examining past issues. I certainly asked plenty of questions about what had gone on before when doing my Council interviews, and knowing how someone would have acted tells you a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future. Long as everyone has a realistic expectation about what a single Council member can do about some of these past issues, I guess.

Finally, I’ll say again that if this election turns out to be little more than a Republican primary, I don’t see how Stardig wins. She’s clearly lost a lot of favor among the activists. She needs the electorate to be bigger than that, which means she needs to convince some Democrats and independents to come out and vote for her. How she does that I don’t know – maybe point out Brown’s history lessons and hope for the best – but with early voting for the runoff set to begin this Wednesday the 30th, she better figure it out quickly.

Signing date for Full Funding Grant Agreement announced

From the Metro blog:

On Monday, Nov. 28, METRO will be joined by federal officials, along with members of Houston’s congressional delegation, to sign the long-awaited Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) for the North and Southwest light-rail lines.

President & CEO George Greanias announced the signing date [Wednesday] at the Greater Houston Partnership’s luncheon.

This is the first time rail projects in Houston have received FFGAs. These are matching federal funds that help us leverage local dollars to complete the construction of the North Line (extension of the Main St. Red Line) and the Southeast Line (Purple Line).

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And they said it couldn’t be done. Well, some people said it wouldn’t be done, anyway. Here’s one of those people, who’s been saying it for a long time:

Local attorney and light-rail critic Bill King said it’s foolish to bank on that money, given the tenuous status of the federal budget, especially New Starts funding.

“With what’s going on in Washington, can you see that they’re going to come down here and say, ‘Here’s $1 billion to go build light rail in Houston?’ ” King said. “That seems so fanciful to me, and I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.”

And you would have lost that bet if you’d made it, Bill. You were wrong, and on November 28, we’ll get to see the FTA and a bunch of other people prove it. In the meantime, you can see video of Greanias’ speech here, and the accompanying presentation, which includes some cool time-lapse photography and video of the rail line expansions, here.

Construction pains

I feel for the people and businesses that are being affected by Metro’s light rail construction. I wish that these large construction projects could be done without that kind of disruption, but it happens, and it sucks. What amazed me in reading this story was what some of those folks had to say about it:

Despite his troubles, Townley supports the rail project.

“Metro has not lied to me,” he said. “The fact that (construction) is killing me doesn’t change the fact that it’s for the greater good.”

Greanias and other Metro officials have met with various business owners. The agency is discussing whether to adjust the assistance fund guidelines, but no decision will be made before the November board meeting.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said Metro is sensitive to business owners and is trying to finish the rail lines as quickly as possible.

Sochia Muschia told the board Thursday that her family’s Cuz-N-Laws Wholesale restaurant supply business at 3510 Leeland has applied twice for the $25,000 award but doesn’t qualify because its pre-construction revenue exceeded the allowed maximum.

“People at Metro have been very kind, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has nearly destroyed us,” she said.

It’s easy to joke about the exuberance of the “New Metro”‘s branding campaign, but this is what it’s all about. They’ve been honest brokers with the community, and that makes a big difference even if the financial support they’ve been able to give has fallen short. Think about how this story might have been written a couple of years ago. Quite the difference, no?

On spending and jobs

What exactly was the point of this story?

About 600 workers already are on the job building the North, Southeast and East End lines, according Metro.

“This is an opportunity for Metro to create thousands of jobs in Houston for local contractors, construction workers, and engineers,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a recent blog post on her re-election campaign website.

In addition to direct hires for construction, Metro says light-rail projects will create other jobs as workers spend money, a process economists call a “multiplier effect.” Citing research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Metro President and Chief Executive Officer George Greanias said the agency’s $900 million in federal grants, nearing approval in Washington, is expected to create 18,000 jobs over six years ending in 2014.

“According to the bureau, for every $1 million you spend, you will create 20 jobs over the life of the project,” Greanias said.

But Barton Smith, University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said the multiplier effect doesn’t apply to local tax funds, which will pay for all of the East End line and part of the other two.

“We have to recognize the tax money you and I are spending to cover the cost of (locally funded) projects is money that won’t be spent on other things in Houston,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that any public investment ought to be judged on its own merits and not whether it’s a job creator.”

Where to even begin? First, Dr. Smith is specifically talking about local tax funds, but Metro is talking about federal grant money, which whatever else you may have to say about it didn’t have to be spent in Houston. Second, even if we were talking about local tax funds, not all such spending is equal from a job creation perspective. To cite a ridiculous example, we could take the money Metro is spending on the Harrisburg line, as that one is not receiving any New Start grant money, and use it instead to purchase artwork from the Menil Collection so they could be hung at City Hall. I’m pretty sure building the Harrisburg line would do more for employment than that would. Finally, since we are talking about spending money on new infrastructure, the benefit goes on past the time when the money is being spent on construction. That’s dicier to calculate, and less important when your focus is getting people back to work now, but it’s still an important consideration.

It’s also a consideration that Dr. Smith mentions subsequently in the story. My quibble isn’t with him, it’s with the bizarre way this article is framed. But there is another consideration that neither Dr. Smith nor the story’s author mentions:

Also, Smith said, this is a good time to do public-sector investment that’s needed because there’s a ready labor supply and construction costs are low.

One reason why construction costs are low is that interest rates are at historically low levels. It may never be this cheap to borrow money again. That makes the case for federal infrastructure spending stronger than for local infrastructure spending, since the federal government is not bound by artificial accounting deadlines for “balancing” its budget, but if you have any need for building new stuff or repairing old stuff, now is the time. And if you do it by floating debt instead of dipping into general revenue, you avoid the made-up conflict that was the basis for this story. See how easy that was?

Metro officially back on track with the FTA

The “Buy America” nightmare is now history for Metro.

In September 2010, the FTA announced that the process Metro had used to award a rail car contract to CAF USA, the U.S. subsidiary of a Spanish company, violated federal law and “Buy America” requirements that were designed to protect U.S. jobs.

To requalify for federal funds on the two lines, the FTA said Metro had to cancel its contract with CAF USA and solicit new proposals for rail cars. Metro complied.

Last week the FTA notified four congressional committees – House Transportation and Infrastructure; Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and House and Senate Appropriations – of its plan to execute two grant agreements that could bring Metro a total of $900 million over five years.

[…]

FTA spokesman Paul Griffo confirmed that the agency sent notice to Congress on Sept. 7. The next day, President Barack Obama mentioned Houston public transit construction in his nationally televised jobs speech.

Hallelujah. Even before this delay, the process of getting the full funding grant agreement had been excruciatingly slow, but at least there has been some progress lately, and actual track has been laid for the Southeast line. Going back through the archives, the first wind of trouble came in May of 2010, about a week before then-CEO Frank Wilson took a powder. The “New Metro” and new CEO George Greanias received a second chance from the FTA in September of 2010; the prediction that this would tack on a year to the production schedule has proven eerily accurate. Metro settled with CAF in December, and had funds appropriated to them in the President’s budget in January. It’s true that the rest of the funding will depend on the whims of Congress, and that there’s still the opportunity for the transportation bill in Congress to get screwed up by the radicals in the Republican Party, but that’s no reason to be a party pooper:

Bill King, a Houston attorney and light-rail critic, said the rail funding was not guaranteed even if the FTA signs the agreement.

“The real issue is always whether Congress will fund it or not,” King said.

Yes, as noted, Congressional Republicans could always screw things up. But why fixate on that? An asteroid could collide with the earth and wipe us all out like the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Era. Global warming could accelerate and put the entire city under eight feet of water by the end of the decade. Terrorists could start blowing up light rail lines. Rick Perry could be elected President and prove that the Mayans were right all along. There’s no end to the doomsday scenarios, so what’s the point in worrying about them? There’s plenty of things you can control to worry about.

Greanias’ return

Metro CEO George Greanias is back on the job after serving a week’s suspension for viewing adult websites on his laptop while connected to Metro’s WiFi network.

Since the surprising announcement 10 days ago, Greanias has been publicly silent, spending time with family members out of town. The Houston Chronicle’s attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.

While Metro has made much of its greater transparency under a new administration, Carol Limperos, a Houston leadership coach who has worked with executives for 25 years, said someone in Greanias’ position needs to be transparent emotionally as he walks in the door at 1900 Main.

“He’s got to be transparent in terms of how he’s feeling, how he’s relating to people, how he sees his actions impacting his work and his workplace,” said Limperos, president of the Limperos Group consulting firm. Limperos is not working with Greanias or Metro.

Limperos said Greanias needs to ask employees if they can accept his apology and then he must give them some latitude, she said.

“He’s got to acknowledge the potential need for more explanation and make a statement that says something like, ‘I’m willing to take the time to talk to you individually if you want more information,'” she said.

Here’s Greanias’ statement about his suspension and return, which he put out on Monday. I imagine this will be awkward for awhile. I can’t say I’ve ever been in the position of having to deal with a coworker who had done something like this, so I don’t know how other folks might react to him. I can say that at least there hasn’t been a story since the initial news broke, which is clearly good news for Greanias. There have been no new revelations, no changes to the original news, no backtracks or retractions, which is good both in terms of limiting the scope of the issue and of depriving the story of any further oxygen. It’s also good for him that no one who can be described as a friend of Metro has spoken out against Greanias. I don’t know if he’ll survive the long term or not, but so far the short term looks okay for him.

Greanias’ suspension

I’m as shocked by this as you are.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s efforts to rebuild public confidence suffered a setback Thursday with the announcement that President and CEO George Greanias, the public face of the “new Metro,” has been suspended for visiting sexually explicit websites using the agency’s Internet access.

Some observers said Greanias, who has led Metro since last September, has been so good for the agency that the embarrassing bombshell should not prevent his continued leadership. Others said the damage to his reputation and Metro’s will be too great for him to continue effectively.

Metro suspended Greanias for one week without pay effective immediately, a punishment that Chairman Gilbert Garcia said was harsher than typically would be assessed for a violation of Metro’s electronic communications policies. The suspension will cost Greanias about $4,500, Garcia said.

An investigation revealed that while on his personal computer at Metro headquarters, 1900 Main St., Greanias visited more than a dozen “adult-oriented sites of a sexual nature” using wireless Internet access provided by the agency, Metro said in a news release.

I’m going to guess that since he was on his personal laptop, Greanias didn’t realize that where he was surfing would be visible on the corporate network. You may scoff at that, but after 20 years in the IT business, I’ve learned to never underestimate people’s ability to not know how their computers work. Having said that, one would think that keeping the naughty stuff out of the office regardless would be common sense.

I feel terrible about this for George Greanias and for Metro. Greanias has done an outstanding job as Metro CEO, and has done more to rehabilitate that agency’s image than any ten people. I’ve had the chance to meet him a few times since he took over, and I’ve been very impressed by him, not just as a CEO but as a person. I hope, I really do, that people will chalk this up as a personal mistake that won’t affect his ability to keep doing great work as Metro CEO. David Vitter is still a Senator. Hugh Grant is still a movie star. It would be a tragedy if his talents were to be discarded. The good news there is that so far this seems to be everything. Metro did some more checking and found that he didn’t violate email policies, so that should help him. If this is all there is – if there are no further revelations of wrongdoing, or announcements that what had been previously declared to be true about who did what actually isn’t true, then I think this story will die from lack of oxygen, I hope that’s what happens. Robert Miller, who thinks Greanias will survive this incident, and Marc Campos, who doesn’t, have more.

Airport Direct on the way out

You can’t say they didn’t try.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials have decided to eliminate express bus service to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Canceling the airport service was one of a dozen suggested route changes that were discussed at a public hearing Tuesday. Metro officials concluded after the hearing that they should proceed with plans to end the service, a decision that doesn’t require board approval, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

The service is expected to stop late next month, Gray said. The local Route 102 bus, which also provides service from downtown to Bush Airport, will continue to operate.

Metro president and chief executive officer George Greanias said the agency had worked hard to make the service succeed, including lowering the fare in January from $15 to $4.50 for a one-way trip.

“Our concern for Airport Direct stemmed strictly from the costs of the service versus revenues we could realistically achieve, not its desirability or our personal wish that it succeed,” Greanias said in a prepared statement.

Metro doesn’t have the cash flow to keep trying to make this work. They gave it a shot, and under other circumstances they might have been able to keep tinkering with it, but this was clearly the responsible thing to do.

Which isn’t to say that there couldn’t be some way to make a service like this be either self-sufficient or only in need of a modest subsidy.

Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the conversations with Metro had provided a good beginning for new ideas about transportation service to Houston’s airports.

“I think that what needs to happen now is go back and get all the interested parties to retool, think a little bit outside the box and think how we can put together a good, solid express not only to Bush but also to Hobby,” he said.

Ortale said some meetings are planned in the next two weeks to discuss a future airport bus service.

As long as there’s limited exposure for any public funding, I’m okay with taking another crack at it. It really does seem like there ought to be a way.

City asks Metro for Harrisburg underpass

From the Inbox:

Houston Mayor and METRO Seek Common Ground on East End Line

Resolution of Harrisburg/Hughes Streets Over/Under Question Becomes a Milestone

The city of Houston has concluded there is “strong sentiment” within the East End community for an underpass at Harrisburg/Hughes St. and has requested METRO’s Board of Directors vote in support of a plan to create a grade separated betterment for light rail and vehicular traffic. This “All-Under Option,” according to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, is intended to “promote pedestrian and vehicular safety in the area and encourage community development, and enhance overall mobility in the East End.” The city has committed $20.6 million in financial support for the project.

Although the underpass route is influenced by numerous considerations, the decision of whether or not to support the request will ultimately rest with the METRO Board of Directors. METRO Chairman, Gilbert Garcia, hopes to bring the complex matter up for vote by the directors this Thursday.

“We appreciate Mayor Parker’s efforts to build consensus in this lingering community debate. I congratulate the Mayor, Council members, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, and Melissa Noriega, as well as community representatives, the Mayor’s staff and METRO’s staff for working together on this issue.” said Garcia.

METRO President & CEO George Greanias said the “all under option” will take longer to build, possibly two years longer, and the extra cost of $20-23 million does not cover a pedestrian tunnel. “Despite the hurdles ahead, this request is a good example of community partnerships. We look forward to working with the city in seeing this project to completion.” said Greanias.

Of the $20.6 million in financial assistance being offered by the city:

  • $10.0 million – CIP funds previously committed to this issue
  • $4.9 million – Postponement of the Fulton Paving and Drainage Project (Dist. H)
  • $3.2 million – Postponement of the Telephone Road Reconstruction (Dist. I)
  • $2.5 million – Harrisburg TIRZ funds

METRO’s original design for the crossing accommodated light-rail only. The city of Houston, after extensive dialog with the community, commissioned a study on the feasibility of constructing an underpass. The betterment will require collaboration with Houston Belt and Terminal (HBT) Railroad, and creation of a new and temporary terminus at Altic.  Offsetting the higher cost, however, is an added value to railroad operations – the new design, according to the city, will ease flooding impairments. In return for METRO’s support, the city of Houston has offered to make funds available in a timely fashion, as well as collaborate to seek more funds and support METRO in negotiations for necessary concessions from HBT. The matter will go before the full METRO Board of Directors, at its regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 28th.

See here and here for some background. This sounds like the better way to go, and I’m glad to see it happen. Swamplot has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said the need for detailed design work means the underpass likely won’t be complete until 2016, two years after the scheduled completion date for the East End, North and Southeast lines. However, trains will run from downtown to the station nearest the underpass by 2014, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

To help pay Metro’s share of the cost, Greanias said the agency would look to Harris County as well as railroads that benefit from the grade separation. The East End line is not federally funded.

[…]

Council member Sue Lovell, chairwoman of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, said the decision to build the underpass represents the city’s and Metro’s shared response to a community request.

“Metro could have just built the overpass, but they decided to listen to the community,” said Lovell, who initially opposed the underpass. “They presented to the community that it would cost more, and the community overwhelmingly said they wanted to have the underpass.”

Also, she said, a bigger variety of businesses can be built along an underpass than in the shadow of a viaduct.

“The advantages to economic development in the long run for the neighborhoods more than make up what they may sacrifice right now in the CIP,” she said.

Marilu de la Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society and a member of the East End Chamber’s rail committee, said the underpass decision showed the community’s power.

“Finally we got everyone involved,” she said. “They started listening to us and they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.”

No question about that. There was a lot of opposition to the overpass in the community, and a lot of grumbling at that time about Metro ignoring the feedback they were getting. This change of direction says as much about Metro as it does about the power and persistence of the residents.

Metro gets more light rail funds

From the US Department of Transit:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced $1.58 billion for 27 transit projects nationwide that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution.

“Investing in a modern transportation network is a key part of President Obama’s strategy to win the future by out-building and out-competing the rest of the world,” Secretary LaHood said. “America’s long-term economic success requires investing now in transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and goods more safely, efficiently and quickly than ever before.”

“Our investments in expanding America’s transit networks will not only improve reliable transportation access for communities across the country, they will support construction jobs and economic development,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “And, a more efficient and reliable transit network means new opportunities for Americans to keep more of their paychecks in their wallets and spend less at the gas pump.”

Twenty-seven transit projects across America are on a path to receive funding under the New Starts program, through which Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides federal support for major capital construction projects such as subways, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.

Among those projects, all of which you can see here, are Metro’s North Line and Southeast Line, each of which are slated to get $75 million each. Note that this is happening even though the Full Funding Agreement is still pending with the FTA, though as I heard Metro CEO George Greanias say at a Livable Houston presentation in May, you’d think that after giving Metro all this money up till now they’re probably not going to reject the FFA at this point. This announcement comes as Metro gets ready to start laying actual tracks for the Southeast Line, too. Great to see such progress being made. Via Houston Tomorrow.

No Metro redistricting for now

Back in January there was a Chron story that pointed out a state law that would require the Metro board to add two more members if the non-Houston population of Metro’s service area made up 75% or more of the total. Metro did a study to see what the Census data said, and it concluded that the threshold had not been met.

Preliminary 2010 census data suggested that more than 70 percent of Harris County’s non-Houston residents lived within Metro’s service area.

If the non-Houston population were to hit 75 percent, Metro would have to add two new seats to the Metro board, according to the Texas Transportation Code.

The state code says that, if the 75-percent threshold is reached, Harris County Commissioners Court appoints another board member and the board itself names an 11th member, who becomes the chairman.

According to [UH political science professor Richard] Murray’s report, 67 percent of Harris County residents who live outside Houston are in Metro’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Murray, as we know, has been busy working with HISD, HCC, and Harris County on their redistricting plans, so it’s safe to say he’s familiar with this data. Nonetheless, the Metro board at the request of one of its members voted to have AG Greg Abbott review the results, just in case. Most likely, this will be the end of it until the next Census. Dr. Murray’s report is here, and Metro’s blog has more.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Metro still trying to figure out Airport Direct

Good news: Ridership on Metro’s Airport Direct service is way up. Bad news: Thanks to the reduced fare, revenue is down.

Launched in 2008, Airport Direct has always lost money. The service costs about $1.9 million a year to operate, and even at $15 per ride, fares brought in only about $450,000 annually.

Under the $15 fare, peak monthly revenue was about $47,000 in October, with 3,716 boardings. (One person making a round trip equals two boardings.)

May’s 8,892 boardings at the $4.50 fare brought in about $30,500.

I calculated before that Metro needed something like 945 passengers per day to break even on this. 8,892 boardings in May equates to 287 boardings per day, less than a third of what they require. That’s for Month 6 of their six-month experiment on this. It’s a useful service, and I hope they can find a way to make it work, but it’s hard for me to see how they get there from here.

UPDATE: The Chron says that Metro needs to keep trying to figure it out.

We believe it’s essential that Houston have dependable, affordable public transport linking IAH and downtown. Given the prohibitively high cost of building a light rail line to the airport, some form of bus service is the only option.

Just as the downtown convention center hotel was a key element in boosting the marketability of the George R. Brown Convention Center, so the shuttle bolsters a wide range of commerce throughout Houston.

As a service to the community, the shuttle shouldn’t be expected to totally pay for itself with user fares. But we agree with Greanias that the current cost to Metro is unsustainable. Rather than cancel the service, there are other ways to spread the burden.

The newly created public corporation Houston First, which manages the George R. Brown, the convention center hotel and other city venues, should consider partially subsidizing the airport shuttle. Metro could raise the cost of a ride to cover a larger share of expenses. Even at double the current $4.50, the shuttle would still be far cheaper than taxis or commercial services.

The current 30-minute pick-up cycle could be extended to once an hour, reducing the overall cost of program operations. A share of the hotel-motel occupancy tax might be earmarked by the city for the airport shuttle budget.

I think these suggestions have some merit, but unless the service can be made self-supporting, it’s a question of who will pay to subsidize it. It’s not clear to me that anyone is interested in doing that.

Bye-bye, intermodal center

In the process of writing off some bad assets in what one hopes is the last ritual cleansing of the Frank Wilson era, Metro says good-bye to something we hadn’t heard of in awhile.

Metro has given up on what it calls an intermodal terminal just north of downtown at Main and Burnett streets on the planned North rail line despite having spent $41 million on it.

“We’re not going to put the public’s money into monuments. We’re going to put it into transit services,” Metro President and CEO George Greanias said.

The design for the terminal included bus bays, a kiss-and-ride area, light rail, commuter rail and possibly a Metro RideStore, restrooms, food service, newsstands and gift shops.

Greanias said there will be a light rail stop at Main and Burnett, but it has not been determined whether the station will serve other modes of transit. He added that the now-shelved design called for a facility that would have cost far too much to maintain and operate.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years after Christof, then still in his pre-Board days, noted that the intermodal center “has been shelved (for now, at least)”. The last bit of news about it since then came two months later, when Swamplot found a picture of the proposed design, which as I look at it today reminds me of a curvier and less-pointy version of the new Dynamo stadium. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. In any event, those of us who remember the intermodal center now bid it adieu.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”

[…]

Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

Yet another threat to light rail expansion

Great.

The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities – not just Houston but cities across the country – that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing – and not everyone realizes it.”

Actually, I have no trouble believing that the Republican Congress will act in bad faith on this. They don’t care. I didn’t include John Cornyn’s crocodile tears quote about how they’d just love to honor their commitments if only they had the money for it, but you can expect that to be the prevailing attitude.

Having said that, there is some evidence that the issue is overstated. The RSC’s proposal isn’t universally accepted by Republicans, and there are Republicans in Congress that support high speed rail, which is a different kettle of fish but which might translate to support for other forms of rail as well. And of course, the Senate gets a say, the President has a veto pen, and the Democratic phrase of the moment is infrastructure, by which they mean “jobs”. So I’m not going to panic just yet. But as with everything else lately, we’ll have to do it the hard way if we want to get anything done.

In the meantime, the Metro board has voted to increase the capital budget for rail this year, having completed several requirements for doing so, and pointed out that suspending work until it has all of the promised federal funds in hand presents risks and carries costs of its own.

If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.

“If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we’re stopped today, we’d be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we’d be walking away from everything we invested already, we’d be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University,” Greanias said. “That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, ‘We’ll move forward prudently, managing the risk.’ ”

[…]

Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.

“The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, ‘Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,’ ” said Metro board member Christof Spieler. “Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access.”

They say they have a Plan B to scale things back in the event of a worst-case, RSC-approved budget. Let’s hope they never have to use it.

Metro reaches settlement with CAF

Fresh from the inbox:

The Metropolitan Transit Authority announced today that it has reached a settlement with CAF USA, Inc. (a subsidiary of the Spanish Firm Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, S.A.) over two disputed contracts for the construction of light rail cars for its North and Southeast Corridor lines. Under the agreement, the contracts are canceled and CAF will forego any additional payments for unpaid work and lost profits. In addition, CAF will refund $14 million to METRO. The agreement was ratified by the METRO board this morning.

“This is $14 million more for public transportation than we had yesterday,” said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “More importantly, it’s another step forward from old legacy issues to the safe, reliable and affordable public transit and mobility services that our customers and taxpayers deserve.”

The full press release is here. Given that I was afraid Metro would ultimately owe money to CAF, this is outstanding news. Cross off one more thing from their to-be-cleaned-up list. The rebidding process is set to open in January, so that will be the next step forward.

UPDATE: A copy of the settlement agreement is here.

UPDATE: The Chron story is here. Of interest:

The agreement is the latest of several steps Metro has taken in recent weeks that signal its intent to revive its stalled rail expansion plans in 2011.

In Friday’s meeting, the board also approved boosting rail project spending over the next nine months from $143 million to $345 million. The spending increase will accelerate construction on three lines and restart design work on a fourth.

Very good to hear.

Moving on at Metro

Frank Wilson is gone at Metro, and others are following him out the door.

“A number of the senior appointees that Frank Wilson brought in are no longer here,” said George Greanias, Wilson’s successor, but he did not describe it as a purge. The positions of the five people who have left were abolished, and they were not offered other positions within the agency, Greanias said, saving the agency $500,000.

Greanias said he hopes that restructuring the organization, which he described as “a six-cylinder engine that was operating on two cylinders,” will help it do a better job providing customer service and building a better transit system.

CFO Louise Richman left Dec. 3. Other participants in the management exodus include Tom Hickey, associate vice president; Dick White, acting vice president of infrastructure and service development; Joanne Wright, chief of staff; and Rich Lobron, director of strategic technologies. George Smalley, vice president of communications and marketing, leaves at the end of the month.

“I think it’s very significant. This is what he (Greanias) knows how to do,” said board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. Greanias had been a business consultant. “He has come in and looked at the organization and has been willing to reshuffle the deck.”

Metro needed changes, and they’ve gotten them. Most of what has been happening over there has been positive, and I expect that to continue.

In other Metro news, they got some dough from the FTA; basically, they got reimbursed for work done with money fronted by Metro on the North and Southeast lines that would have been covered by the $900 million New Starts grant and was done before the funds were rescinded thanks to Frank Wilson’s Buy America shenanigans. The board is also considering changes to the Q card program, specifically bringing back day passes, which a lot of people have been requesting. Finally, I’ll have some Metro-related news to bring you next week, and no it has nothing to do with this.

Metro tries again with Airport Direct service

Metro will lower the fare and add more downtown stops for its Airport Direct service in an attempt to make it stop losing so much money.

The 52-passenger bus currently averages two riders per trip from its passenger plaza at 815 Pierce to Terminal C at the airport each half hour. The one-way fare is $15.

“It hemorrhages money,” Metro President and CEO George Greanias said. “We think it’s a valuable service. We need to reconfigure it in a way that’s more cost-effective.”

On Jan. 23, the fare will drop to $4.50. Metro plans to close the passenger plaza and instead send the bus to the George R. Brown Convention Center and the downtown Hilton, Doubletree, Hyatt, Marriott, Four Seasons and Crowne Plaza hotels.

The fare reduction and rerouting is a six-month experiment. Metro officials are projecting that the ridership increases and savings from closing down the Pierce plaza will save $350,000 over eight months.

The Press reported on this a few days earlier. Doing the same calculations I did before, Metro would need about 1157 passengers per day on the Airport Direct buses to break even, which is a ten-fold increase from what they’re getting now. That doesn’t adjust for the savings they project from closing the passenger plaza; factoring that in means they’ll need about 945 passengers per day, or a bit more than eight times as many as now. I’ve no idea if this is doable, but the changes they’re making seem reasonable enough, so a six-month experiment is worth trying. I wish them luck.

Metro to try mediation with CAF

Whatever works.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to negotiate the cancellation of a $331 million contract with a Spanish rail car manufacturer through mediation, local transit bosses said Wednesday.

That is why, despite the agency’s announced intention to cancel the contract, no action [was] proposed on [Thursday’s] agenda, explained Metro President George Greanias and board Chairman Gilbert Garcia.

They said they hope to begin mediation next month and begin soliciting new bids in January to provide 105 light rail cars.

[…]

The Metro board will deal with the rail car contract on a future agenda. Regardless of whether mediation succeeds, Greanias and Garcia explained, the contract with Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, or CAF, will be canceled.

“We are going to terminate this contract,” Greanias said. “We’re just trying to do it in the most businesslike, efficient manner we can.”

And if they can avoid litigation and minimize the cost of doing so, all the better.

Now for the bad news:

[Metro’s] president, George Greanias, announced that the light rail expansion budget for this year has been cut by close to 70 percent, from $458 million to $143 million.

That means more than a hundred construction, engineering, small business and community outreach contracts are being reduced or suspended.

The changes stem from Metro’s financial woes and the Federal Transit Administration’s announcement in September that Metro had violated Buy American rules, delaying its federal funding even further.

“These are difficult and regrettable decisions,” Greanias said. “We’ve taken the agency down to the foundation to start from a totally financially sound base.”

But, he added, “It’s going to be a very difficult path as we move forward.”

Utility work will continue on the North and Southeast lines until the end of this year, and utility and road work go on as planned in “select areas” on the East End line. The rest is going the way of the buffalo. At least for now.

Because Greanias and Metro’s board chairman, Gilbert Garcia, stressed that the light rail plans aren’t completely shutting down. That would be more expensive — costing about $200 million, according to Greanias — than suspending the operation until the federal funding picture becomes more clear.

This was expected, but it’s still lousy to see happen. All we can do is hope that the FTA funding that we’ve been counting on all along comes through sooner rather than later.

Metro’s Airport Direct service

The good news is that the people who use Metro’s Airport Direct service from downtown to IAH really like it. The bad news is that not nearly enough people use it.

The scarcity of passengers on the Airport Direct service has prompted Metropolitan Transit Authority leaders to consider changes such as limiting the service to peak hours, reducing trip frequency and picking up passengers at multiple downtown locations, officials said.

“We think this is a service that is valuable,” said George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer. “We just need to figure out a more cost-effective way to do it.”

Airport Direct, launched in August 2008, costs Metro $1.9 million a year and yields about $452,000 in fare revenue, for a net cost of just under $1.5 million, according to figures provided by the transit agency. Fare for the service is $15 each way, or $10 with a Continental Airlines boarding pass or other proof of travel.

The buses depart daily every half-hour from 815 Pierce to the airport’s terminal C and back — a total of 60 daily, one-way trips. The first bus leaves downtown at 5:30 a.m. and the last leaves the airport at 8:40 p.m.

In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, an average of 114 riders per day, or 1.9 per departure, used the service. The buses seat 52.

Doing the math, if 114 people take it daily and that generated $452K in fares, then the average fare is $10.86; in other words, nearly everyone gets the discount. Assuming that same average fare, Metro would need 479 riders per day to cover the $1.9 million annual cost. That’s eight riders per bus, which ought to be achievable. Even if everyone paid the lower $10 fare, only 520 riders per day – less than nine per bus – is needed to cover the nut. I don’t know how much of getting that is marketing and how much is tweaking the service, perhaps so that it has more points of departure, but it really ought to be doable.

Metro takes a step forward on advertising

For its 2011 fiscal year budget, Metro is taking a tentative step forward on allowing ads to be placed on its buses.

Metro is considering placing ads on buses to generate revenue (page 37). George Greanias, president and chief executive officer, told me that this idea is merely being explored and no revenue from this source is projected in the budget.

Metro already places free, public service messages, such as for the Houston Zoo, on some of its trains.

I’ve discussed this before, and I am firmly of the opinion that Metro should sell ads on its buses and light rail cars and any other place it can. I’d support them lobbying the city to amend its existing ordinance against placing ads on city-owned rights of way so that ads on bus shelters would be allowed. As someone who grew up in a place where these kinds of ads were ubiquitous, I really don’t see the problem. Maybe it won’t be much money, but it will be more than zero. Hair Balls has more.

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.