Ideas for mobility fix take different roads
Pro-rail leader touts METRO expansion plan as rival pushes for more highways

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 needs.

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 Paul Bettencourt.

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," he said.

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 properties.

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 Transportation Alliance.

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 said.