June 17, 2005
Metro supporters feel betrayed

The people who originally supported Metro's light rail plan the most strongly are not very happy with the new plan.

Two days after Metro's revised transit plan was announced, criticism was bubbling up in the minority communities whose votes for light rail tipped the scales in a close election.

"It's clearly a slap in the face," the Rev. William Lawson said of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's decision to begin with a guided busway system in his southeast Houston neighborhood and three others. Metro says these will be upgraded to light rail when ridership increases.

Four routes were designated for light rail in the November 2003 referendum that authorized the original plan.

The new plan, announced Monday, calls for only one immediate light rail route, from the University of Houston to near the Galleria.

"The largest percentage of Metro riders are people from the southeast quadrant," Lawson said, "and they needed the votes of those people to get the issue passed."


Minister Robert Muhammad, head of Nation of Islam's southwest region, who endorsed the 2003 Metro plan, said the change of plans "may be the straw that broke the camel's back politically. We can't trust anything that they say."

The referendum passed with 52 percent of the vote.

About 74 percent of low-income blacks and 80 percent of middle-income blacks voted for the Metro light rail plan.

So did 57 percent of Hispanics, compared with 45 percent of middle-income whites and 42 percent of upper-income whites.

It would not be at all difficult to spin a plausible conspiracy theory out of this, especially given (as Kevin noted in the comments here) that John Culberson has flipflopped on his support and now wants a re-vote. Culberson and DeLay tell Metro it can have their blessings to go forward if it'll agree to changes to its original plan which its biggest supporters won't like, then once that agreement is in hand they tell Metro it has to win another referendum because the original one didn't cover what's in the new plan. Brilliant, really, when you think about it. Of course, that would imply that such stalwart servants of the people's wishes as those two were being duplicitous, which as we know just simply cannot be.

Anyway. Politicians representing the now-overlooked areas are waiting to hear more.

"This is not helping Metro's credibility problem," said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, whose district includes the Metropolitan Transit Authority's North, Southeast and Harrisburg corridors.

All three were to have light rail but are now scheduled for Bus Rapid Transit, with train-like buses riding on a future rail right-of-way until ridership increases enough to justify switching to rail. A new corridor, from the University of Houston to Greenway Plaza and the Galleria area, will get light rail from the start.

"None of us had an idea that there was a preference for one route over another," Green said. "We were told the North route was furthest along in planning and everything else."

A second Democratic congressman from Houston, Al Green, said he will reserve comment on the plan until he understands it more fully, but he added, "People are concerned that there may be some plan that is going to develop that would not be consistent with what they perceived it to be when they were casting their votes."

Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson will travel to Washington next week to brief the area's congressional delegation about the changes.


State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said it appears that "the west side of town won out over the right side of town.

"It's disappointing, but it's clear this is not the end of the discussion," he said.

Coleman is scheduled to talk to White, Wilson and Councilwoman Ada Edwards this afternoon, but said he wished that discussion had taken place before the plan was made public.

"I'm disappointed that people don't understand that you have to work a deal with everybody, regardless of the sticks people carry," Coleman said. "I hope that we can get some clarity on what the plan is."

Several area legislators, including U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, and Commissioner El Franco Lee are all on the same page, according to Coleman.

We'll see what happens after these folks get briefed. If they're still unhappy, things could get ugly for Metro. This could be a test of how good a salesman Mayor White is.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 17, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I actually think the revised plan would win a referendum, so I don't think the Rs are necessarily being duplicitous (at least not Culberson -- and I don't think DeLay wants no part of it one way or the other). Mayor White would run a good campaign for it -- he might even tie it to his re-election campaign -- and I think he would win over his political base to the thing.

I think he would have to make the case as, we can have this plan that's flawed and won't be funded, or we can have my improved plan that Rs will fund; please support my improved plan. "No rail" wouldn't be a choice, in my view, unless you consider it the de facto choice of a no vote (because FTA is unlikely to fund the METRO solutions plan fully).

I do think it's good public policy to obtain public approval of such massive investments, and to have some detail (i.e. specific proposals) in the referendum. That's just a matter of trying to hold METRO to account for what it does.

Posted by: kevin whited on June 17, 2005 10:33 AM

Not being from Houston I don't understand the geography of this. But I'm curious. Is there any ethnic or racial issues involved in the selection of which neighborhoods get light rail vs bus? Looks like the blacks and Hispanics supported light rail much more than the white population. So what are the ethnic compositions of the regions that are getting light rail vs those that get buses?

Posted by: Kent on June 17, 2005 12:41 PM

I'm still annoyed that none of the plans does anything for people who live west of the Galleria area, and certainly nothing for people west of the Beltway. In case people haven't noticed, this area is growing and a lot of people out here work downtown. Will it take Houston growing so far to the west that it swallows up Katy to get some attention to those of us near the Beltway?

Posted by: Sue on June 17, 2005 1:15 PM

The Mayor and Metro just have to make it clear it wasn't a choice between rail and BRT, but BRT or nothing, because the federal funding wasn't going to happen. Metro chairman Wolff quote says it all:

"Some people feel we have compromised some lines, but my understanding is that if you never had it in the first place, you never gave it up," Wolff said.

Posted by: Tory on June 17, 2005 1:41 PM

Sue - You live out 290, right? There's a commuter rail plan that would service your area.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 17, 2005 3:24 PM

Tory: That David Wolff quote might not be the best one to use to win back minority support. It has a certain elitist sound to it:


Sure Metro officials may have found out they didn't have FTA support for those lines, but Metro officials (as is their wont) weren't open and up front with that information. Until now.

Posted by: Anne on June 17, 2005 3:26 PM

No, we're west of the Beltway, just south of I-10.

Posted by: Sue on June 21, 2005 8:08 AM