Oct. 25, 2003, 7:16PM
Metro wants too much for too little
By MICHAEL STEVENS and JOHN R. BUTLER JR.
With early voting already under way -- and with Election
Day on Nov. 4th fast approaching -- Houstonians have started
to make a fundamental choice about the manner in which we
solve our transportation problems. Few decisions we make this
year will be more important, because few decisions will have
the long-lasting impact on our economy and our quality of
life that our vote on the Metropolitan Transit Authority plan
As always, the best vote to cast is an informed vote -- and
after Metro has spent months and millions of dollars to present
their side of the case, many knowledgeable and concerned citizens
have joined this policy debate to ensure that voters are able
to consider both sides of the argument.
After all, we are talking about a plan to build an additional
73 miles of rail at a cost of well over $8 billion for construction,
operations and interest through 2025 -- so the stakes are
And after reviewing Metro's plan in full detail -- after
reviewing the proposed light rail routes, the bus component,
the costs involved, and the projected impact -- we, along
with many other citizens, have reluctantly concluded that
Metro's plan costs too much and does too little to relieve
For example, Metro's own data says that the entire rail system
will carry less than 1 percent of the traffic in the Metro
service area when completed. One percent. We believe any discussion
involving transportation must begin and end with one goal
in mind: cost-effective congestion relief. And yet, according
to Metro's own numbers, this plan does not begin to achieve
that fundamental goal.
Consider these other fundamental failures in Metro's plan:
· Only 7 percent of the region's employees work downtown,
yet Metro has mistakenly focused nearly the entire rail system
on downtown with minimal extensions outside of 610, where
most people live and congestion is the worst.
· Metro's plan fails to connect home to work for the
overwhelming majority of residents. Commuter rail can connect
the suburbs to downtown far cheaper and provide a much faster
commute without impacting existing traffic by using existing
rail right of way.
· Metro's plan fails to reduce travel times. Not only
does light rail move commuters at six times the cost per person
as compared to the car, it also takes twice the time from
trip origin to destination.
In fact, every single city that has embarked on a transportation
solution utilizing light rail as the main component has actually
seen traffic congestion increase. Because it runs on the street,
light rail stops traffic and removes existing lanes of roadway.
Moreover, the system Metro is proposing cannot run in more
than three inches of water (typical in Houston storms).
The issue of public safety must be broached when considering
light rail because light rail has proven to be by far the
most dangerous form of pubic transit. For example, in Los
Angeles, more than 50 people have been killed along a 22-mile
stretch of their Blue Line in the first 10 years of its operation
Finally, and most troubling, there is overwhelming proof
that Metro is not financially capable of embarking on its
proposed $8 billion rail plan. For example, Metro has overstated
its sales tax revenue projections by $3 billion, as compared
to the projections of the Harris County tax assessor collector.
According to Metro's own economist, it is $2 billion off on
its sales tax revenue projections. Additionally, the Federal
Transit Administration recently informed Metro it was off
at least tens of millions of dollars on its federal grant
As too many Houstonians eventually discovered with Enron,
Metro's numbers simply don't add up.
So the key question facing voters is: Can't we do better
for $8 billion? More to the point: Can we afford to waste
$8 billion on this rail project -- losing money that will
not be available for projects that will relieve congestion?
We can do better, and we do have choices. We support solutions
that call for the creation of super streets and express streets
by building underpasses at all intersections on major thoroughfares
such as Wertheimer.
We also support expanding the bus system -- and the rail
system -- if they are proven to reduce congestion, synchronizing
our traffic lights and other intelligent transportation solutions
as long as they are cost-effective and reduce congestion.
Finally, we support adding more roads because Houston's highway
system ranks dead last in the state of Texas in road miles
per capita and currently has 65 percent less road miles per
capita than does Austin and San Antonio.
In sum, there is no urgency to this rail plan because most
of it is being constructed on existing city streets, a decision
that can be made by us at any time in the future without penalty.
We must work together toward a better plan that includes multiple
layers of more cost-effective transportation solutions.
When one takes a look at this plan, it does not take long
to figure out that it is a bad plan that costs too much and
does not relieve congestion. Recently, the Baptist Ministers
Association, which is made up of more than 300 predominantly
African-American churches, and the Latino PAC overwhelmingly
voted to oppose Metro's plan. They both are concerned about
Metro running out of money and cutting bus service to their
There are far better alternatives than this Metro plan, and
we all need to work together to achieve them. We urge you
to vote no so that together we can create a cost-effective
solution to relieve congestion.
Stevens, a Houston real estate developer, is also chairman
of the Transportation Task Force of the Governor's Business
Council. He is also on the executive committee of the Gulf
Coast Regional Mobility Partners and serves on the Greater
Houston Partnership Transportation and Infrastructure Advisory
Committee. Butler is senior chairman of J.R. Butler and Co.,
a consulting, petroleum engineering firm in Houston.