The METRO Money Train

October 2003
By John Biundo

Listening to the constant spin from the central planners at Houston Metro, or their in-house publicity squad at the Chronicle, the message is quite clear: light rail is finally coming to the would-be-worldclass Bayou City as the result of a virtuous groundswell of civic-mindedness. And the well-funded political action committee created to push rail expansion on the November ballot? Nothing less than a virtual orgasm of good citizenship.

Pardon our cynicism, but whenever we hear this much hype about “the good of the city,” we can’t help thinking someone’s boots are under the wrong bed.

The PAC in question, Citizens for Public Transportation, first filed disclosure reports in December 2002, a full ten months before Metro’s rail expansion ballot measure was even announced. We at the Houston Review were curious as to just who some of those magnanimous “citizens” might be. We should have been shocked to learn that more than $75,000 of the PAC’s funds, as of the last published report, came from commercial firms bearing lucrative contracts with Metro – firms that stand to gain substantially if the November ballot measure passes. We should have been disappointed to learn that much of the other funds came from real estate investors who would like very much to see inner-loop property values rise as a result of light rail. We should have been mildly nauseated to see Arthur “Butch” Schecter’s name and three grand listed among dozens of firms that currently have or seek contracts with the agency he chairs.

Given Metro’s continued pattern of disdain for public consent and Enron-style financial practices, these findings are not as surprising as they should be.

While the Chronicle continues to shriek about the nefarious motives of the “anti-rail forces,” it might not hurt to take a look at the dense financial spider web lurking behind the animatronic civic smiles of the pro-rail forces.

Records indicate that industrial giant Siemens “donated” a staggering $50,000 to the pro-rail campaign fund on August 25, 2003. A Siemens Transportation Systems subsidiary just happens to be the winner of the lucrative contract to supply rail cars for Metro’s light rail system on Main Street. According to the Sacramento Business Journal, the Siemens contract for Metro’s Main Street pilot line is worth over $120 million. Metro will presumably use the same style rail cars on any expansion of its system, thus virtually guaranteeing that Siemens will be awarded further contracts if the referendum passes.

Also contributing to the pro-rail committee is Philadelphia based STV Incorporated, which donated $25,000 on July 26, 2003. According to the company’s website “STV is managing all aspects of the METRORail project including project management, design management and construction management.”

Natex Architects donated $1000 to the rail campaign on August 8, 2003. According the Houston-based firm’s website Natex designed several of the station platforms for the Main Street light rail project.

Binkley and Barfield Consulting donated $1000 on August 25, 2003. The company’s website reports involvement in projects including “METRO roadway reconstruction and light rail projects.”

LKC Consulting Services Inc. donated $3,000 on January 3, 2003. According to their website the company conducted a financial analysis for the Main Street light rail proposal and an assessment study for Metro’s new 14-story administration building. The site also reports that LKC is “assisting SR Beard & Associates with the development of Metro's 2025 System Plan.”

Another message is made clear: if you want a piece of one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the city’s history, you’d better be ready to kick in with a briefcase full of good citizenship.

Bear in mind that the bulk of Metro’s pro-rail referendum advertising – estimated at well over a million dollars - is being paid for through the taxpayer-funded Metro Solutions “education” campaign, not a dime of which has been disclosed to the public. Metro’s “education” campaign is nothing more than political advocacy by another name. So if you haven’t had time to write your $3,000 check to support the pro-rail campaign, don’t worry! If you’re a taxpayer, you’re already a supporter. We anxiously await a shrill Chronicle editorial calling for a criminal investigation of Metro’s use of public funds for political advertising, as restricted by Chapters 255 and 273 of the Texas Election Code.

The chart below represents a mere sampling of the PAC’s donor base. The disclosure filings for “Citizens for Public Transportation” would make a fine substitute for the Yellow Pages engineering section. More records can be found by visiting the Texas Ethics Commission, http://www.ethics.state.tx.us/php/cesearch.html.

Siemens Transportation Systems $50,000 on 8/25/03 Supplier of light rail cars. $120 million contract for Main Street line.
STV Incorporated $25,000 on 7/26/03 and $3,000 on 1/3/03 “All-aspect” project manager for MetroRail.
Carter and Burgess Inc. $950 in kind on 7/29/03 and $3,000 on 1/3/03 Civil engineer for Main Street line.
SR Beard and Associates $10,000 on 1/3/03 and $10,000 on 6/30/03 Transportation consultant on Metro Solutions 2025 project.
LKC Consulting Services Inc. $3,000 on 1/3/03 Assistant consultant on Metro Solutions 2025 project, financial analyst on Main Street project, assessment analyst on Metro Administration Building project.
Binkley and Barfield Consulting $1,000 on 8/25/03 Light rail consultant for Metro.
Natex Architects $1,000 on 8/8/03
Architect for several light rail stations on Main Street project.
Wilbur Smith & Associates $5,000 on 8/15/03 Metro contract for computerized traffic signal systems.
Epsilon Engineering $5,000 on 8/21/03 La Porte based firm specializing in signal construction.
Wedge Group Inc. $3,000 on 3/18/03 Employer of candidate Bill White, run by Lebanese Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares, includes substantial real estate holdings.
Crescent Real Estate $3,000 on 1/03/03 Several area office buildings and hotels.
Ed Wulfe $1,500 on 5/06/03 Re-developer of Gulfgate Mall, which was given a rail stop after Wulfe declared support for referendum.
Main/Lamar Partnership $3,000 on 1/03/03 Real Estate
Onstead Interests $3,000 on 1/03/03 Real Estate; Main St. holdings.