in Houston, Texas

As Metro pushes referendum for more money, some promises from last public vote still unfulfilled

Thursday, Aug 02, 2012, 08:19AM CST
By Mike Cronin
bus

Houston-area residents don’t have the public transit system they voted for in 2003.

Nor do they have the transit system Metro officials back then promised would exist by the end of this year.

Transit authority administrators told taxpayers that they would expand the region’s bus service and, by Dec. 31, build four light-rail lines with $640 million worth of bonds, plus sales tax proceeds from the region and federal grants.

Yet bus ridership and routes have dipped. Three rail lines are under construction, which officials now say will be finished in 2014. The fourth is in the design phase, but Metro officials don’t know how it will be funded.

With a referendum on Metro’s revenue structure planned for the November ballot, voters and public transit officials alike are considering the terrain today -- and how that compares to what planners envisioned a decade ago.

Critics charge that current realities are the result of unwise spending of the public’s money. Metro supporters respond that the recession forced the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Houston to adapt to the existing economic landscape.

“It’s irresponsible to look at what Metro has and has not done and not take into account the economy of the last five years,” said Carol Lewis, who was on Metro’s board in 2003 and was the agency’s planning director for about 15 years prior to joining Texas Southern University in Houston in 1992.

Carol LewisCarol Lewis

People of sound minds wouldn’t have suggested that Metro should’ve added bus lines without regard to the decline in projected sales-tax revenue,” said Lewis, an associate professor and director TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

Lewis also described the 2003 plan as just that -- “a plan, not a commitment.”

But those contentions don’t wash with Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit organization that opposes restrictive land-use policies such as zoning.

“Yes, sales-tax revenue decreased (due to the recession),” Sanders said. “But Metro still had bond capacity to do what it wanted to do.”

Instead, he said, Metro officials underestimated the real costs of construction. He cited the Harrisburg Street underpass on the East End Line as an example. Metro CEO and President George Greanias said last year that would add between $20 million and $23 million to construction costs, and extend the building timeline up to two years. City of Houston officials committed $20.6 million to that project.

Houston Metro Promises

(To see the above graphic as a stand alone, or to print it out click here)

Promise: Increase bus service by 50 percent

The worst affront to Metro critics such as Sanders and Houston-area civic leader Bill King is Metro’s failure to expand bus service. The voters in 2003 backed a long-term plan that called for ultimately expanding bus service by 50 percent by 2025.

“That’s what people actually use,” Sanders said of the buses.

Bill KingBill King

“That, to me, is the most egregious thing,” said King, who as mayor of Kemah in 2003 served on the Greater Houston Partnership transportation infrastructure committee that provided input on Metro’s plan. King is a regular columnist for the Houston Chronicle.

Data provided by Metro spokesman Jerome Gray show a decrease in both the number of routes and riders.

Routes fell to 120 this year from 130 in 2003, Gray said in an e-mail. The number of people taking the bus plummeted to about 77,000 this year from about 91,000 in 2003, a decrease of 15 percent.

Officials eliminated some bus routes on Main Street after the Red Line segment from University of Houston-Downtown through the Texas Medical Center to Reliant Park opened in 2004, Gray said. “Also, ridership declines are impacted by the recession, and we also had a fare increase in 2008 that contributed to a ridership decline.”

Taking a ride on Metro’s buses or trains typically costs $1.25 per trip. Reduced fares also are available.

Options exist to enhance Metro’s bus service, even in the face of the challenges posed by the recession, said Dominic Mazoch, a Houstonian who rides Metro’s bus and light-rail system.

“They could provide more night and weekend service if they used smaller vehicles,” said Mazoch, 55, a paramedic.

Daphne Scarbrough, a Houston business owner who unsuccessfully sued the agency in 2007, is not as hopeful.

“What I learned is that a Metro referendum means you vote for one thing and you get another,” Scarbrough said. “They promised rapid bus transit. Instead, they decreased bus service and took away bus routes.”

Promise: Finish certain rail segments by 2012

The 2003 referendum stated that sections comprising 21.5 miles of the following rail lines would be completed by the end of this year:

George GreaniasGeorge Greanias

To date, the Transit Authority has laid six miles of track comprising segments of the North, Southeast, and East End lines, Metro officials said. (See detailed maps here.)

By 2014, Metro will have completed the rest of those three lines, a total of 15.2 miles, on top of the 7.5-mile Main Street Line, which began operating in January 2004, Gray said. That line was not part of the 2003 referendum.

The University Line remains in the design phase. It is now planned to extend from Wheeler Station to the Eastwood Transit Center. That change lengthened the line to 11.3 miles from 6.3 miles.

Metro officials emphasize all their efforts are part of a longer-term plan, while acknowledging they’re running two years behind.

“For all the trials and tribulations” Metro has faced in recent years,  “three (light-rail) lines are half finished and will open in 2014,” Greanias said. “We’ve done a reasonably decent job to show our commitment.”

Promise: Ask voters to reconsider sales-tax split

Metro sales tax

In 2003, Metro said that money to build the first four segments of light rail would come from the $640 million in bonds approved by voters. Funding also would come from sales tax revenues from Harris and portions of nearby counties and 14 smaller cities. Another $640 million would come from federal matching grant funds, and to fulfill the entire plan the agency said it would need additional spending authority from the voters in 2009 or later.

The agency has spent $467 million in bond funds plus $341 million in federal grants on construction of the North Line, an extension of the Main Street Line, and the Southeast Line, which will wind from downtown around the University of Houston to MLK Boulevard, Sue Bailey, Metro’s chief financial officer said. The remainder of the bond funding, $173 million, and another federal grant award of $900 million, are dedicated to those two lines.

Metro is funding the East End line with sales tax revenues.

Officials don’t yet know how the agency will fund the University Line, the final segment originally promised to be complete this year. That’s one reason Metro is returning to voters this fall. Metro officials are considering asking for a greater share of sales tax proceeds, additional borrowing authority, or some combination for transit projects.

John CulbersonJohn Culberson

Republican Congressman John Culberson doesn’t think voters should give it to them.

Metro’s record is so abysmal, Culberson said, that its piece of the sales-tax revenue pie actually should be reduced to half of every dollar collected.

“At an absolute minimum, they should keep the current split of 75 (percent) to 25 (percent). But I don’t think they’ve proven they’re entitled to 75 percent. Metro hasn’t earned 75 percent.”

Culberson is so outraged by what he sees as Metro’s glacial pace of progress, fiscal mismanagement, lack of transparency and absence of accountability that in June he wrote language into a federal transportation bill that requires a financial audit of Metro to examine how much money the agency actually has for future construction. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill on June 29. It now awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.

The congressman said he has been unable, despite repeated requests, to obtain the amount of non-federal dollars spent by Metro since 2003. (Metro posts budget and financial reports on its website.) A consistent critic of the agency, Culberson also once called for a U.S. attorney’s investigation of Metro.

“The amount of money Metro has squandered is abominable,” said Culberson, whose 7th District includes part of Houston. He added that Metro officials have spent almost $1 billion (of Federal Transit Administration dollars) since 2003 -- with little to show for it. “It’s infuriating.”

Greanias concedes bus passengers have declined and that light-rail line construction is running a couple years late. The agency, he says, was hammered by the economy.

“No one anticipated the deepest recession in history since the Great Depression,” Greanias said. “Business and government alike suffered from the economic downturn.”

Houston Metro fare collections

Since the onset of the recession through the end of fiscal year 2011, Metro collected about $199 million less than University of Houston Economics Professor Emeritus Barton Smith projected the agency would in sales tax revenues.

In June 2008, Smith estimated Metro would collect $1.74 billion over that three-year period. Instead, receipts totaled about $1.54 billion -- closer what Metro budgeted for in those years: $1.46 billion.

The proceeds at the fare box have also been off, though not nearly as dramatically.

The agency collected about $457.4 million in revenue from bus and rail fares from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2011, according to Metro data. That fell about $6.8 million short of what Metro officials budgeted for that same period.

A Federal Transit Administration review conducted this year, which looked at compliance with federal regulations and spending of federal transit funds in the last three fiscal years, found “no deficiencies” and concluded that “Metro is to be commended for its fine performance.”

Gilbert Garcia: ‘We prefer to look forward, not back’

Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia says he and his colleagues have moved beyond the troubles that plagued the agency under former CEO Frank Wilson.

Metro officials conceded last year that they had thrown $168 million down a fiscal hole. That was the amount of assets that the agency wrote off in part to account for a bungled rail car deal that contributed to delays. The agency under Wilson was accused of document shredding, and Wilson was accused of an improper relationship with a transit authority employee. Neither allegation was proven.

Wilson resigned in May 2010.

The administration led by Greanias is careful not to criticize the decisions of its predecessors. In several interviews with Metro officials over the last few weeks, not one brought up the rail cars as a factor in the agency’s delays. But when asked by a reporter, they conceded it probably added about six months to the overall rail timeline.

Gilbert GarciaGilbert Garcia

“We prefer to look forward, not back,” Garcia said, citing Metro’s two Texas Comptroller awards for online financial transparency. “We don’t want to judge the old regime. We’re a new Metro that arrived two years ago.”

Greanias said those who want to attack the Metro administrators who held posts prior to his team’s arrival “are talking to ghosts.”

“What’s the value of looking back and trying to understand the assumptions they made for the projections they provided?” Greanias said during a conversation about the financial and economic assumptions his predecessors made prior to the 2003 referendum. “I can’t explain what they did. It’s a question of where to put your energies.”

Metro officials say they’ve adapted their plans.

Even though Metro’s light-rail line to Houston’s Galleria mall and surrounding neighborhood won’t be completed this year, “it doesn’t mean it won’t be,” Lewis said.

“People are working very hard to make sure it gets done in the next cycle,” Lewis said. “Like any plan, you have to recalibrate it depending on the actual conditions and look at ridership and financing.”

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of bus by flickr user houstontranstar, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
77027
Wednesday, 08/08/2012 - 03:30PM

It seems unfortunate not to mention Houstonians for Responsible Growth is funded by the real estate development community.

And I take issue with the idea that Culberson's rider is up for a vote in the Senate. I understand the appropriations process to first involve some Conference committee before it comes before the Congress for a vote. Is this incorrect?

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