Is this any way to run a railroad referendum?
Houston Business Journal
If Metro's proposal to extend the existing light rail system
wins approval from voters at the polls in November, here's
hoping the eventual construction process isn't as haphazard
as the preliminary planning procedure.
Events of the past week indicate that the rail referendum
might be heading down the track with a questionable crew of
conductors at the fiscal controls.
While Houston transit officials have been hyping "Metro
Solutions" in a costly, full-fledged -- and some would
say illegal -- advertising campaign for weeks, threats from
a federal congressman almost derailed the project at the starting
In July, U.S. Rep. John Culberson introduced legislation
that would prohibit government funding for any light rail
segment in Houston not specifically approved by the majority
He reiterated his position earlier this month by challenging
the language on the ballot for Metro's $640 million bond referendum.
Culberson argued -- rightfully -- that the ballot was unclear
because it did not include a list of specific segments to
be built using the funds.
He also accused Metro officials -- once again rightfully
-- of misleading voters into thinking that a "yes"
vote would apply only to 22 miles instead of 73 miles of new
Faced with Culberson's ultimatum, Metro honchos hastily revised
the referendum to include a list of seven segments earmarked
for development with the $640 million in bonds.
The new wording additionally makes it clear that another
referendum will be required for any future extension of the
The last-minute revisions were approved in helter-skelter
fashion by the Metro board to narrowly beat the Texas deadline
for changing a ballot 45 days prior to an election.
Metro Chairman Arthur Schecter reportedly acquiesced to "avoid
further controversy" after claiming the changes were
neither appropriate nor necessary under current state and
A variation on this same ploy was previously used successfully
by Metro to avoid voter participation on the first seven-mile
leg of light rail now under development.
The transit board extracted a ruling from the Harris County
Attorney's office proclaiming that a public vote might actually
be illegal because the rogue rail line was being paid for
with existing Metro money.
So the decision to spend almost $300 million (and possibly
more since the final figure on the first segment has yet to
be tallied) was mandated in a closed meeting by a group of
less than a dozen people with arguably loco motives.
That particular legal maneuver also incurred the wrath of
Culberson and Congressional colleague Tom DeLay. The two Texas
Republicans promised to personally cut government money off
at the pass.
In the wake of last week's ballot-change fiasco, Culberson
grudgingly agreed to help Metro secure federal funding if
the referendum is passed. At the same time, he advised voters
to give light rail a wide berth by rejecting it at the polls.
So the great train trip gets off to an auspicious start.
The little engine that could lurches forward in steamy clouds
of obfuscation, with hazy prospects for federal funding.
And the primary fuel being used by Metro to get voters to
go along for the ride is an unproved premise that 2 million
newcomers to Houston will materialize and fulfill the transit
agency's grandiose ridership projections.