Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.
The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.
"It effectively kills the light rail program," said George Smalley, Metro's vice president for communications and marketing.
The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency's eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.
The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn't conform to the referendum.
"If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk," Smalley said.
State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.
The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn't complied with the referendum. He said he hadn't talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.
At issue is whether it's lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.
The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.
Pickett said he is open to changing the language.
"If ... they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn't have a problem," he said. "It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that." The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.
The bill in question is SB1263. Here's the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins "This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more." You could mention that you oppose this amendment that's been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett's office.
By the way, there's a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that's often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it's doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who's behind it. Way to go, y'all.
The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.
The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.
With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.
Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency's hands.
"I've got my eye on it," said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn't survive in its current form.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency's eminent domain powers "would prevent the common good."
"I'll get after it with all my might," he said. "I'm a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system."