Ideas for mobility fix take different
Pro-rail leader touts METRO expansion plan
as rival pushes for more highways
By LUCAS WALL
Houston Chronicle - 10/06/03
Both are developers by trade and active in numerous projects
to better the city, but the two men leading campaigns for
and against Metro 's transit-expansion referendum have vastly
different perspectives on how to address the region's mobility
Ed Wulfe heads Citizens for Public Transportation, the political
action committee fighting for approval of the Metropolitan
Transit Authority 2025 plan. In his view, expanding light
rail is critically important to handle future growth and allow
an explosion of urban development.
"We have so much invested in our urban core inside Loop
610: billions and billions of dollars in office buildings,
hotels, universities, residences," he said. "We
have to protect them. We can't strangle that."
Michael Stevens concurs on that point. While most of his
business holdings are apartment complexes in the suburbs,
Stevens served as adviser to former Mayor Bob Lanier on housing
and inner-city development and said he shares Wulfe's desire
to see the city center prosper. Stevens strongly disagrees,
however, that adding more light rail will help. He chairs
Texans for True Mobility, which recently launched a campaign
to kill the Nov. 4 transit referendum.
Texans for True Mobility is advocating for increased highway
spending as an alternative to Metro 's $4.6 billion expansion
plan. (A five-year, $774 million extension of Metro 's "general
mobility" fund, which helps pay for city and county streets,
is part of that plan.) Stevens contends that the majority
of area residents and businesses use highways, the Houston
region is too decentralized for a rail system to work, and
the transit authority's 22-year plan will not reduce traffic
congestion or shorten travel times.
"Where there is congestion, you should find ways to
reduce it," he said. "You reduce it by expanding
the highway system to move more people."
Wulfe, 69, and Stevens, 54, have assembled large coalitions
to fund the dissemination of their messages. Wulfe's group
includes the Greater Houston Partnership (the region's chamber
of commerce), former mayor and longtime rail skeptic Lanier,
a host of community groups and urban advocates, plus consulting
and engineering firms that expect to benefit from Metro projects.
Co-chairing Stevens' effort is John Butler, a member of Metro
's original board of directors and a former Texas highway
commissioner. Texans for True Mobility includes Republican
politicians, including U.S. Rep. John Culberson and state
Sen. Jon Lindsay, both of Houston, and Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector
The central issue at stake Nov. 4 is a $640 million bond
issue to accelerate construction of the next 22 miles of light
rail, expanding the 7 1/2-mile Main Street line scheduled
to start operating Jan. 1. Voters are also being asked to
endorse a rail-system blueprint of 73 total miles in addition
to 44 new bus routes and the widening of HOV lanes.
Despite their opposite views on rail, similarities between
the two key players in this debate abound. In addition to
their work as owners of real estate development firms, both
are well-known civic activists who have considered running
for mayor. Wulfe, a Republican, and Stevens, an independent,
have track records of bipartisan achievements.
Wulfe, a Houston resident since 1955, is president and founder
of Wulfe & Co. He has almost 40 years of experience developing
commercial and retail properties. Two of his better-known
redevelopments are Meyerland Plaza and Gulfgate Mall.
He's served since 1998 as chairman of the Main Street Coalition,
a collection of property owners, businesses and institutions
along the light rail line. Mayor Lee Brown, a Democrat, tapped
Wulfe to assist with his transition into office six years
ago, and he put Wulfe in charge of Main Street revitalization.
Some rail opponents believe Wulfe is acting selfishly because
one of Metro 's proposed rail lines would go through Gulfgate
Mall in southeast Houston.
Wulfe dismisses such criticism, pointing out that the rail
extension to Gulfgate Mall was added to Metro 's plans after
an outcry from the Hispanic community. "The people in
the East End have gravitated to the importance of Gulfgate,"
Stevens, who helped Wulfe finance Gulfgate Mall as Lanier's
redevelopment adviser, faces criticism as well. Some rail
supporters contend it is Stevens who is acting selfishly,
hoping voters kill the light rail proposal so the inner city
withers, creating more demand for his suburban apartment complexes.
Such claims are "absolutely absurd," Stevens retorts,
pointing out the time he spent working with Lanier to reinvigorate
the city. Stevens has a laundry list of Inner Loop projects
he helped make reality, including the three new sports stadiums,
the Rice Hotel lofts, Midtown and Fourth Ward homes, the Bayou
Place entertainment complex, and the downtown convention center
expansion and hotel project. Stevens said he also has millions
invested in property along the Main Street light rail line,
though he declined to identify the parcels.
The native Houstonian is chairman of Michael Stevens Interests,
the real estate development and management company he founded
in 1981. His firm manages more than 5,000 apartments at 26
He is chairman of the Governor's Business Council transportation
task force, serves on the Gulf Coast Regional Mobility Partners
executive committee and is Houston chairman of the Texas Urban
With close ties to rail foes U.S. House Majority Leader Tom
DeLay, R-Sugar Land, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and
Houston mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez, Stevens is the
most influential force among those who want Metro 's referendum
defeated. Stevens wants to kill Metro 's proposal, then push
for funding to implement the "100 percent solution"
plan being drafted by the Houston-Galveston Area Council.
That plan's goal is to identify transportation improvements
to cut traffic congestion in half by 2025.
A draft of the plan calls for 5,500 additional highway lane
miles in the eight-county metropolitan area. It's estimated
the region will need an additional $11.2 billion beyond current
funding levels to pay for that road construction, not counting
costs to acquire right of way.
While the capital cost of Metro 's expansion plan is $4.6
billion, Stevens argues the true cost is much higher once
annual operating and maintenance expenses are included.
"Seven or eight billion dollars (for transit) sounds
wonderful, except we don't have any more money anyplace else
(for highways)," he said.
Stevens contends that only 7 percent of existing jobs in
the metropolitan area are downtown, so building a light rail
system designed to feed people into the city center makes
no sense. Instead, he said, highways must be built to accommodate
the diverse demands of commuters.
"We can't solve congestion if we spend our money on
things that cost too much and do too little," Stevens