Is this any way to run a railroad referendum?

Bill Schadewald
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 station.

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 of voters.

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 rail.

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 rail system.

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 federal law.

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.

All aboard!