The Metro Train Wreck

Posted 03/16/2010 by Bill King

The Metro Train Wreck

There could hardly be a more fitting image for the close of the current Metro administration than the recent photographs for a wrecked Metro buses in front of Metro's headquarters after having been broad-sided by Metro's Main Street light rail. The last six years are likely to be remembered as the most ruinous time for public transportation in Houston's history as Metro has pursued a single-minded obsession to build its version of an at-grade rail system regardless of the cost, both in financial terms and in the degradation of the bus system on which over 100,000 Houstonians rely daily. Fortunately, Mayor Parker has ordered top-to-bottom review of the agency. Here is what that review is likely to find.

Decline in Ridership. Since 2004, Houston population has grown by over 10% from just over 2 million to 2.25 million. At the same time gas prices rose 47% from $1.81 per gallon to $2.67 per gallon. These two factors should have virtually guaranteed an increase in transit. However, exactly the opposite has occurred as bus boardings dropped almost 24% from 88 million in 2004 to 67 million in 2009. Instead of increasing bus service by 50% as it promised the voters in the 2003 referendum, Metro has slashed bus routes and increased fares by over 50%. Today Metro actually operates 225 fewer buses than it did in 2003. An outside performance audit in 2008 found that on-time performance fell by 29% from 2004 to 2008.

Financial Disaster. Since 2003, Metro's sales tax revenues have increased by 43%, rising from $357 million to $512 million. At the
same time, its fare revenue increased by 41% from $42 million to $60 million by charging an ever dwindling ridership more. Yet, Metro is in the worst financial shape in recent history. At year end 2003 Metro's current assets exceeded its current liabilities by $125 million. The budget just adopted by the Metro board projects that it will have current accounts deficit of $165 million by the end of this fiscal year, a stunning loss of nearly $300 million in just five years. Over the same period, Metro's debt has swelled by nearly 50% from $546 million to $816 million.

Less Federal Dollars. When the current administration was put in place one of the promised benefits was to be its prowess in obtaining federal funding. We have been repeatedly warned not to interfere or criticize Metro's policies because it might reduce our chance for federal funding. However, during the last six years, grants from federal and state transit assistance programs have steadily declined. In 2004, Metro received $140 million in grants. By 2008, that number had dropped to $90 million, a 35% decrease. Based on the average grants received in 2001-2003, Houston has lost nearly $100 million in grants since Wilson arrived.

LRT Stalled. Even if you are one of those that think that building an at-grade rail system that will make congestion worse is a good idea, the Wilson administration has been a disaster. After spending six years and more than $200 million on planning the LRT, we still do not have any assurance that we will ever receive the funding necessary to build any of the lines. Metro, of course, to continue to promise that we are on the verge of seeing the federal dollars pour in. However, Metro told me in April 2008 that it would have full funding agreements on the North and Southeast by the end of 2008 and the University line by 2009. As of now we have neither.

In the meantime, the cost of the LRT has risen from the $1.2 billion originally estimated to something well in excess of $3 billion. Metro is seeking to borrow $2.6 billion to build the LRT, over four times what it promised the voters would be the limit in the 2003 referendum. Originally, Metro assured voters that it could build the LRT without tapping the mobility payments that are so critical to the Houston and the other member cities. Metro's projections now show that it can only afford the LRT if those payments are terminated in 2014.

Fractured Trust. The worst sin, however, has been the dissembling manner in which Metro has been administered over the last six years. There are countless examples from stonewalling reporter's request for information to Metro's recent attempt to get Attorney General to exempt from open records status its traffic studies showing the nightmare the LRT will create at many intersections. Of course, there is no better example than the recent reports of documents being shredded and the firing of Metro lawyers reminiscent of the Nixon-Archibald Cox episode.

In 2003, after a spirited public debate, this community approved, by a narrow margin, a consensus plan to enhance public transportation with a multi-modal approach. Part of that bargain was a limited experiment with a light rail system. The voters specifically limited the resources that Metro could devote to the light rail for fear that the cost might undermine the solid, dependable bus service that existed at that time. Metro's leadership has shredded that contract with the voters in favor of its own grandiose vision of transit that has little to do actually solving Houston's mobility problems. In the meantime, traffic congestion continues to get worse and working families that rely on public transportation to get their jobs everyday find riding Metro a more difficult and more expensive proposition.

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