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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 will.

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 high.

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 congestion.

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 (1991-2001).

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 projections.

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 communities.

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.