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Southeast line

I got those “can’t get my rail cars built on time” blues

Actually, I don’t, but Metro does.

The company building 39 new Metro railcars has yet to deliver an acceptable vehicle almost six months after the original due date, potentially delaying full service for rail lines scheduled to open later this year.

The first car hasn’t passed a required water leak test and exceeds the maximum weight specified in the builder’s contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. In a Dec. 30 letter to CAF USA, the American subsidiary of the Spanish train-building giant, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert demanded that the company explain how it will deliver all the cars by the Sept. 25 deadline.

“It is imperative that CAF demonstrate to Metro that it is seriously willing and able to meet its obligations,” Lambert wrote. Metro is withholding a $12.8 million payment until an acceptable rail car is delivered, he wrote.

In a reply, CAF’s worldwide CEO, Jose Maria Baztarrica, assured Lambert that U.S. representatives of the company would come to Houston to “fix all the various issues.”

Continued delay would leave Metro officials with options for opening the lines on time, but possibly not on a full schedule. Fewer railcars ready to hit the street could mean that trains operated less frequently or failed to cover the entire route.

“We can work through it, and we will,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, stressing the important factor is that CAF deliver high-quality vehicles. “We have to be prepared that the cars are delayed and now we need to have a plan going forward of what we’re going to do.”

The railcar manufacturer is now promising swift action to get this resolved.

“If they are having a problem, then to me it is a big problem, even if it is a minor fix,” said Andres Arizkorreta, CEO of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, commonly known as CAF. “These are things we must do.”


Arizkorreta flew to Houston on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he assured Metro officials the water leak would be fixed within 10 days by installing a gasket

Remedying the leak, which was minor, is necessary before the car can enter service by undergoing weeks of on-track testing, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“The best thing we can do now is get this one at the test track,” Lambert said. “The sooner we do that, the sooner we can build the others.”

Additional cars might come at a brisker pace. Manufacture of the cars will accelerate as CAF U.S.A. expands its Elmira, N.Y., plant, Arizkorreta assured Metro.

Officials said they were pleased with the quick corrections.

“I am convinced this is moving in the right direction,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

About 100 workers will be hired specifically to handle Houston railcar building, roughly doubling the staff now handling the order. CAF agreed in writing Thursday to give Metro a revised delivery schedule by Feb. 15.

That all sounds good, but the weight issue remains a problem. It’s not clear how that will be fixed. I’m going to be optimistic and say that this will mostly get worked out before the Southeast and Harrisburg lines open, but we’ll know more in a month. I hope it doesn’t cause any operational problems, or force reduced frequencies when the new lines open. Metro had already set its schedule back by a year after nearly blowing its Full Funding Grant Agreement due to the shenanigans of previous CEO Frank Wilson, who was trying to circumvent the FTA’s Buy American requirements. It’s possible that in the absence of those requirements, or at least in the absence of Metro trying to get around them and getting caught at it, that we’d be farther along now. Nothing can be done about any of that now, so let’s keep CAF’s feet to the fire and hope they have good news in February.

End of year B-Cycle report

B-Cycle has been in Houston for nine months, having launched in early April. So far, it’s done pretty well.

The B-Cycle system’s 29th station was christened earlier this month in front of Clayton Homes. Officials said they hoped to provide new customers for bike-sharing and new opportunities for low-income families.

“The more you use the bikes, the more excited you become,” said Tory Gunsolley, president of the Houston Housing Authority.

In many U.S. cities, bike-sharing has become popular mainly among people who choose to bike for recreation. Critics say bike-sharing hasn’t reached low-income neighborhoods, however.

Houston’s build-out didn’t push into poorer neighborhoods, but it didn’t start in wealthy enclaves either. From three downtown stations, the system pushed south and west into Midtown, Montrose and the Museum District. It subsequently spread to the Heights, Eado and the Northside.

Houston will put B-Cycle kiosks where it can, when it can, as corporate partnerships and funding allow, said Houston Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian. She said having stations at the University of Houston, Rice University and Texas Southern University will be the next important steps.

“We want to double and triple this program and I know that we can do that,” Spanjian said.

Connecting the bikes with communities that need transportation is part of the strategy, Gunsolley and Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. The bikes could be an asset for people who need to travel a few blocks and don’t want to wait for a bus or ask someone for a ride.


Use of a kiosk near Project Row Houses, a Third Ward arts group, has been brisk, said Assata Richards, community liaison for the group.

“They use it to go to the grocery store, they use it to get around the neighborhood,” Richards said.

Looks to me like the Project Row kiosk is a short ride away from the planned Southeast Line station at Elgin and Scott. That will be an excellent location for future kiosk, since it will make the Southeast Line more accessible to these folks. If the Universities Line ever gets built, a kiosk by the TSU station, at the west end of campus, would serve a similar purpose, just on a much farther out timeline. You know me, I’m all about linking bikes to transit. Two connected networks are better than two separate networks. There’s already a kiosk near the Dynamo Stadium light rail stop, which is the nearest neighbor to the Runnels location, so it’s already networked.

Ridership of Houston’s bike-sharing system, Texas’ first, continues to grow. After a quick expansion from three to 27 kiosks in less than a year, ridership jumped. Use peaked in July with 7,225 checkouts but fell to 4,053 the following month before rebounding slightly.

“The heat in August had an impact on the leisure riders primarily and the cold and wet weather in late November had a similar impact,” Rub said in an email.

I have not used my B-Cycle membership as much as I would have liked. My plan was mostly to use it during lunchtime to expand my dining options and also possibly for certain types of errands. I have done those things, just not very often. One obstacle that I haven’t figured out how to overcome is the helmet. I don’t like riding without one, so I have to plan to bring my helmet with me to the office if I plan to ride later. That has its own logistical issues, as I’m sure you can imagine. I do want to ride more as the weather warms up, so I need to get that sorted out.

On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

This story is about the opening of the North Line, but it’s also about where Metro goes from here.

The opening of the lines won’t spell the end of the construction. To complete the final mile of the East Line, Metro must build an underpass at Harrisburg and 66th Street at the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad tracks. The agency struggled to accommodate neighborhood concerns and figure out what it could afford, leading to delays. The final mile will open in December 2015 at the earliest.

The fate of the planned University Line, between the University of Houston and the Westpark Tollway, is even less certain. Metro officials haven’t detailed how they plan to pay for its construction.

Earlier this year at Metro’s behest, city officials designated Richmond as a transit corridor, limiting new development that encroaches on the ability to add a rail line without committing officials to any decision or affecting current buildings.

On Thursday, Metro board members extended the contract for design of the University Line for another year, to Dec. 21, 2014. The extension did not increase the fee to engineering firm AECOM, though the contract has been amended and the fee increased 10 times.

Since 2006, the design contract for the University Line has grown from $17.2 million to $50.8 million, of which $3.7 million remains unpaid.

The added time gives Metro a chance to adjust the designs if necessary, interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

Some Metro board members suggested the agency might be throwing good money after bad.

“We know that line can’t be built, or by the time we have it built, all that work will be obsolete,” board member Jim Robinson said.

Board member Dwight Jefferson said Metro should build what officials said they would when they spent money to study the route.

“If we can save it, that’s what we need to be looking to do,” Jefferson said.

Light rail continues to face vocal opposition from property owners along Richmond, especially west of Shepherd Drive. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who represents the western area segment of the route, has consistently opposed federal money for the project.


Washington has its own set of challenges funding transit projects. Still, [Federal Transit Administrator Peter] Rogoff said federal officials will consider helping Houston when it’s ready for its next light rail line. Technically, the University Line application is already filed with federal transit officials.

“We are sort of awaiting clear direction (from Metro),” Rogoff said. “They have seemingly taken a bit of a timeout.”

The North Line extension had a successful opening on Saturday despite the lousy weather. The political situation, by which I mean Rep. Culberson and his fanatical opposition to rail on Richmond, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The need for the Universities Line hasn’t changed, either – if anything, it’s more urgent now. We can’t wait for Culberson to retire or lose or get redistricted out of this part of town. What can we do in the meantime to move the ball forward?

One possibility is to start building the portion of the line that isn’t in Culberson’s district. That would run from the Eastwood Transit Center to Shepherd. That would provide connectivity to the Main Street and Southeast lines as well we better access to UH and the Third Ward. The Richmond portion of that truncated line falls within Rep. Ted Poe’s district, and as we know, Rep. Poe supports construction of the Universities Line because his constituents support it. With Rep. Poe behind this, one would hope that getting federal funds would be possible. On the other hand, chopping the line in half like this may well invalidate all of the previous filings and approvals Metro now has for this project, and might require Metro to start from scratch and do them all again. Given that ridership would surely be a lot lower for this partial route, there would be no guarantee that it would even qualify for FTA funds. It’s worth exploring, but only worth pursuing if it doesn’t represent a step backward.

Another possibility is to commit to building the whole thing, but only seek federal funding for the eastern half of the line, unless something changes to make funding the western half of the line feasible. That would of course require a large amount of local funding. To my mind, that local funding should come from Metro, the city of Houston, and Harris County. How likely that is I couldn’t say; when I bring it up to other people, the reaction I usually get is to be asked if I also believe in the tooth fairy. It might not be fiscally possible even if you accept the premise that Harris County could be persuaded to play ball. The FTA might not think this is such a hot idea, either, and even if they did Culberson could fight against it even though he’s made a point of saying that he has never opposed funding for rail construction that wasn’t in his district. I’m just throwing out ideas here, I don’t claim to have all the details worked out.

Look, I recognize that these ideas may be completely unrealistic. There may not be anything that can be done under current conditions. But the need is there, whether a plausible path forward exists or not. We need to be talking about this, with the understanding that this really matters and we need to figure it out one way or another. The Universities Line, when it is finally built, will do a lot to enhance mobility in a part of town that desperately needs the help. It will facilitate travel in neighborhoods that are already dense and heavily congested and getting more so every day as one new highrise after another gets developed. It will provide a critical link between east and west, and when the Uptown Line is completed it will make traveling to the Galleria and its environs a lot less nightmarish. Maybe once we start this conversation we’ll also remember that there are other routes on the drawing board that ought to be back in the conversation, like the Inner Katy line and the US90 commuter line. Again, the need is there, and it won’t go away if we don’t do anything about it. So what are we going to do about it?

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

Metro officials on Thursday scaled back plans for an iconic downtown Houston transit hub where three rail lines will cross after board members grew frustrated with what they called inexcusable delays and cost overruns.

“This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

Faced with a proposal to modify a design after investing time and money, board members instead chose the cheaper option of spending $1.05 million to build a basic canopy. That’s still $450,000 more than they budgeted for the hub, located between Capitol and Rusk along Main.

The block will be a major crossing of the Main Street Line, which opened in 2004, and the East and Southeast lines slated to open in late 2014. Because of its status as the transfer point from the rail lines, Metro officials wanted to brand the stop with a larger canopy and features that drew attention to the rail line as a special downtown asset.

“This is the kind of thing where if you look at successful transit systems, they are not bare-bones systems,” board member Christof Spieler said.

Metro officials solicited teams to propose iconic designs and assembled a jury to choose a preferred plan. The panel made its recommendation on schedule in February 2012, but Metro did not ratify the winner until September 2013, 18 months later than planned.

Interim CEO Tom Lambert said officials still were piecing together exactly how the station planning got off course. By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.

“There was not enough time,” he said. “We cannot have a station without any cover.”

Clearly, someone dropped the ball, and no one noticed it lying there on the ground until it was too late. Not having it – having it replaced by a more mundane canopy – won’t break anything, but Spieler is right that successful transit systems have character to them. If you’ve ever used New York’s subway system, especially at certain stations, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s still possible to salvage something out of this – the firm that submitted the winning design is still committed to it and has been trying to rejig it to lower the cost – but that may require someone with deep pockets to step in and clean up the mess. Let’s hope Metro figures out what happened and makes sure it doesn’t happen again. The Highwayman and Swamplot have more.

Metro gets more money

Good news.

Southeast Line

Congress has appropriated $189 million for two of our light-rail lines – the North/Red Line extension and the Southeast/Purple Line.

Each line will receive $94.5 million. The funds are part of the $900 million Full Funding Grant Agreements signed by federal officials in November 2011.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia called this appropriation vital. “This is another key development in our progress towards building light rail for Houston. We want to extend thanks to our Congressional delegation and the many people who have supported efforts to improve the METRO transit system,” he said.

We expect to begin receiving this latest appropriation within the next 30 days. We’ll be spending the money to complete the 5.3-mile extension of the North/Red Line, which is an extension of our current Main Street Line. We’ll also be using the funds to build the Southeast/Purple Line, a 6.6 mile-line traveling through historic African-American communities, connecting to Texas Southern University and the University of Houston.

“Congress is giving us a critical tool with this funding, and we are taking every step we can to make sure these dollars are well spent,” said Tom Lambert, METRO interim president & CEO.

The North/Red Line is scheduled to open in December, and the Southeast/Purple Line and the East End/Green Line are expected to open in 2014. The locally-funded East End/Green Line is 3.3. miles, running from downtown to Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Here’s more on the full funding grant agreement they received from the FTA in 2011. Metro received a similar amount of money in 2012. Nice to know Congress isn’t so dysfunctional yet that simple stuff like this gets derailed, no pun intended.

On a tangential note, The Highwayman ponders the question of how much a ride on a Metro bus or train should cost.

Two concepts seem to bog down any debate about buses and trains.

1. Transit doesn’t pay for itself.

2. The fare system is terrible, so we should just make it free and then more people will ride it.

As a story in Monday’s paper pointed out, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning to make all buses and trains free for Labor Day weekend. The agency hopes to lure some riders to try the bus, and it hopes some of them will stay. Many transit agencies do the same thing. So does Netflix. It’s a marketing tool, and the reason I used AOL CDs as drink coasters in college.

It also opens up discussion of the two points noted above, which seem stuck in already-drawn conclusions.

Both premises miss the point of what transit is about and compare it to things it really isn’t. Public transit agencies are not businesses, they are governmental entities. Even in the best of cases, like New York and San Francisco, the systems do not pay for themselves.

Neither do roads, libraries, parks or other amenities that some people think make a community more livable.

Based on 2011 federal data, fares pay for 19 percent of Metro’s operating budget. That’s higher than any other major public transit system in Texas, but far lower than more robust transit systems on the coasts. We score about as well as Phoenix, which like Houston isn’t exactly a transit town yet.

On the other hand, Metro can’t just give it away, though some people argue that fare evasion on light rail is so rampant that the rides might as well be free. Federal officials want to see local officials make some effort to help pay for the system.

I discussed the matter of eliminating fares here; short answer, I think making transit free would cause it to be stigmatized by certain elements as a form of welfare, and that would ultimately be very bad for the concept of mass transit. I don’t have a problem with Metro doing the occasional free-ride promotion, but I think its plans to redesign and extend the bus system will be much more successful at boosting ridership; the addition of the three new rail lines will help, too. I carpool with my wife downtown these days, but I wind up taking the bus home about once a week because she needs the car after work for various errands. It’s convenient and fairly quick, and having that option prevents us from doing stupid and wasteful things like driving (and parking) two cars downtown. I commuted by bus, ferry, and subway for four years of high school in New York, so this idea isn’t strange to me. I think many people are reluctant to be without their car under any circumstances, and that’s an obstacle to be overcome if we want more transit usage in Houston. A lot of younger folks are not getting drivers licenses these days, at least not as early as folks my age did, so perhaps there will be a generational effect to help boost Metro a bit. I wouldn’t expect to see much of that anytime soon, however.

Please try to avoid getting hit by the new light rail trains

Seriously, watch where you’re driving when you drive along or past the new rail lines. The train is bigger than you and your car, and if you pick a fight with it you will lose.

Metro is working to make sure drivers and pedestrians get that message. Starting next year, Houston will have 15 new miles of operating light rail tracks.

“It’s a change in mindset for Houston. It’s an absolute change in mindset.”

That’s Metro Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

“This is bigger than just the East End, it’s bigger than the North Line, it’s bigger than the Southeast Line. This means all of Houston, because at some point or the other, we’re all going to cross those tracks.”

O’Brien-Molina says the big thing drivers need to remember is that the trains hardly make any noise, so if you’re driving along a street like Fulton, Harrisburg, or Scott, a train could appear at any time.

That means drivers need to be especially careful when they make left turns. There are also new lights and signs, and crosswalks for pedestrians to get to rail stops.

“We’ve already educated 14,000 children and asked them to bring that message home. We’ve prepared packets to show kids exactly how this works, what the lines are going to look like.”

I sure hope it works, because that first year after the Main Street line opened was ridiculous. Many of the problems occurred in the stretch of Fannin where cars did have to drive onto the light rail right of way to make a left turn. I’ve done that in recent years, after many changes were made to make it less confusing, but it was still a bit unclear, and a bit nerve-wracking. Be that as it may, the vast majority of the accidents were caused by driver error – running red lights, making illegal left turns, and just plain not checking their six to make sure there wasn’t a train right behind them that they were about to turn into. There wasn’t much of an awareness campaign back in 2003, at least not one that I remember, so whatever is being done now will be an improvement. I hope the message sinks in.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.


A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

A streetcar for the East End?

It could happen.

As the once solidly industrial East End transforms with a 4-month-old soccer stadium, a light rail line under construction and the imminent sale of a 136-acre plot that could signal coming lofts and boutiques, boosters are studying the possibility of reviving the streetcar in Houston after an absence of more than 70 years.


Streetcars, which generally are single cars driven by electricity on rails embedded in roads they share with automobiles, are not on a fast track locally. There is no money yet to build even the 4-mile loop – which could cost $10 million a mile – envisioned as the first phase of the project being studied for the East End. Even if there were startup funds, there is no plan to sustain it, since fares alone do not support a system.

Greater East End leaders say the area is fertile ground for the rebirth of the streetcar. Its proximity to an estimated 150,000 downtown jobs makes it a potential commuter hot spot. Streetcar line installation costs could be held in check by the use of remnant track on Commerce and other streets in the neighborhood and the possibility of excavating a long-filled tunnel at Preston and Dowling for a low-cost underpass beneath a freight rail line. Streetcars, Greater East End leaders say, would be particularly useful in solving the East End’s so-called “last mile” problem, in which developers are wary of building too far from the light rail line out of a fear that residents and businesses will not buy in because of the prospect of a long walk in summer heat.

Even with federal funding and future income from a recently created city tax rebate zone in the neighborhood, the East End needs some of those developers to make bets on the neighborhood to increase the property tax collections that will have to be part of the financing package, said Patrick Ezzell, the district’s planning and infrastructure director. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. A streetcar line may attract development, but the district needs development first to raise the tax revenue to launch the line.

“Developers have loved it in other cities,” Ezzell said. “Whether that would translate to Houston, we don’t know.”

I’ve embedded a picture of the proposed line, about which you can find more on page 21 of the East End Mobility Study. This line would run along the southern end of that massive redevelopment opportunity site and connect it to the Dynamo Stadium light rail stop, as it should. Note also the price tag of approximately $40 million for the whole thing, which certainly makes it reasonable to think about even if there’s no funding source at this time. You should browse through that mobility study because there’s a whole lot more to what the planners have in mind than just this, but a line like this makes a lot of sense for the neighborhood that a lot of people would like this to be.

What would you do with 136 acres near downtown?

Something urban, mixed-use, and transit-oriented, one hopes.

A rare opportunity lies in 136 acres just east of downtown Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou-front parcel, a longtime industrial and office complex, went on the market earlier this summer – a move bayou enthusiasts, East End residents and real estate developers had been anticipating for years.

Some of them say the expansive property – even larger than the former AstroWorld site off the South Loop – offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a multiuse development incorporating the cultural influences of downtown, the East End and other surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Architect and urban planner Peter Brown envisions a “town center” where a mix of housing types, offices, shops and cultural attractions encircle a central green space.

Those most familiar with the area cite a lengthy wish list, from groceries to book stores to new recreational facilities. City Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents that part of town, would like to see “shops, rooftops and various other amenities for our East End community.”

And he is hardly alone in taking note of the nearly mile-long stretch of bayou frontage. That combination of proximity to water, combined with skyline views, ups the ante.

“People are drawn to cities that offer urban vitality in a natural setting – New York and its harbor, Chicago and its lakefront, Denver and its mountains, Austin and Lady Bird Lake,” said Guy Hagstette, project manager of Buffalo Bayou Park and ex-director of Discovery Green.

I can’t tell exactly where this is, as no street information is given in the story, but give the description, the photo above, and the suggestion made later in the article by Christof Spieler of a streetcar connection to the EaDo/Stadium light rail station, I can sort of guess; I’d say it’s more or less north of that station, looking at the East Line rail map. It’s clear that a development like this, when it happens, will have a transformative effect on the area. Whether that’s good or bad will depend entirely on what ultimately gets built. The Chron solicited a lot of good feedback from a variety of people – former CM Peter Brown had so much to say they wrote a separate article to capture it all – but in the end I don’t know how much effect anything but what the people who buy the land want to do with it will have. We better hope they get it right.

Couple things to add. One, don’t underestimate the value of abutting the Buffalo Bayou. It’s a great natural resource, and many of Houston’s best neighborhoods are built around bayous. If my estimate of where this is and my reading of this Houston Bikeways map is correct, there’s already a bike trail along the bayou in place for the future residents, employees, and shoppers of this location. That would be a nice, convenient way to get into downtown without having to pay to park. Similarly, a streetcar connection to the Harrisburg and Southeast light rail lines would be an excellent addition and would make the development much more transit-accessible. A short streetcar line could be put in for a fairly small amount of money – the 3-mile-long line that Fort Worth eventually decided not to install had a price tag of $88 million. A line from this development to the EaDo/Stadium station would be not nearly that long and would probably only require one car. It could be paid for by the city, Metro, and the developer – I can’t think of a better use of a 380 agreement than that.

Finally, something I’ve said before but cannot be said too often is that Houston has a lot of empty spaces and underpopulated areas in it that can and really should be pushed for development as residential or mixed-used properties. Many of them can use existing infrastructure, though improvements will need to be made. Many already have access or proximity to transit, which would allow for denser development. There are a lot of places that can be developed that are close in to downtown or other employment hubs like the Medical Center or Greenspoint. The city has advantages that the increasingly far-flung reaches of unincorporated Harris County do not, and it really needs to prioritize making affordable housing available inside its boundaries for people who would prefer to live closer in, and to make it an attractive alternative to those who might not have thought about it otherwise. Population is power, and if the city isn’t growing it’s going to be losing out. There’s plenty going on for the high-end buyer and that’s good, but it’s a small piece of the market. The KBR site is a great opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. The city needs to find ways to get as many of those other opportunities going as it can.

FTA writes another check for light rail construction

Keep ’em coming.

I still hope we get to have all this some day

The expansion of Houston Metro got another boost from the federal government with the allocation of $188 million in additional construction funding for the North and Southeast light rail lines.

Congressman Gene Green, the Houston Democrat who is dean of the metropolitan area’s House delegation, said the money is part of Houston Metro’s full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

“I’ve been a long time supporter of light rail in these areas because it will greatly increase people’s transportation options and incentivize economic development along the routes,” said Green, a career legislator who served in the Texas legislature before election to Congress.

“I am glad to see these projects moving forward.”

Metro had signed the full funding grant agreement with the FTA last November, and had received some funds for the North and Southeast lines last June. I don’t recall if that was an advance on the FFGA or if was separate; I suspect the former but the details are fuzzy to me at this point. Either way, there’s still a lot more of those funds to come. Rep. Green has definitely been a strong advocate for Metro and these lines, which run through parts of his district. I’ve begun work on my candidates interviews for the fall, and he happened to be first in line, so you can hear him talk a bit about this when I run his interview on Monday. Those of you who live in CD07 and would like to see your rail lines built while you’re still young enough to use them, I hope someday you’ll have a member of Congress like Gene Green who’ll work with you to get it. KUHF has more.

Metro and UH make nice


Construction of a light-rail line that would cross University of Houston property can continue now that UH and Metro officials settled differences that threatened to delay the project.

UH announced in a statement Tuesday that university officials have agreed to allow the Metropolitan Transit Authority to start the next phase of construction of the southeast line along Wheeler Avenue. In exchange, Metro will address concerns involving access to UH’s facilities.

The Metro board has agreed to pay $1.5 million to take the steps included in the agreement, according to spokesman Jerome Gray.

“We have worked diligently together to reach an agreement,” UH President Renu Khator said in a statement. “We have come to a resolution that both the university and Metro are happy with and that is in the best interests of the community.”

See here and here for some background. Details are still a bit sketchy, but the Examiner has a little more.

According to the agreement, Metro will be able to do the initial infrastructure work for installation of the light-rail along Wheeler Avenue from Calhoun/Martin Luther King Jr. to a point east of the Scott Street intersection.

A use agreement on the UH property along Scott where most of the needed land is located is still pending, however.

“We have worked diligently together to reach an agreement,” said UH President Renu Khator. “We have come to a resolution that both the university and Metro are happy with and that is in the best interests of the community. We look forward to completion of the Metro line and to the continuation of our partnership.”

Metro has agreed to provide an alternative access road to ease traffic problems caused by the construction of the rail along Wheeler, Richard Bonnin, UH executive director of media relations, said. Additionally, he said, access issues caused by construction of the line near the university’s Child Care Center and Department of Public Safety are being addressed by the transit agency.

I’m just glad they got this done. One less thing to worry about.

Meanwhile, on a not really related but still important note, Metro is having a special board meeting today to pick a referendum for the ballot.

The METRO Board of Directors will meet at 9 A.M. on Friday, August 3, 2012 to select a referendum proposal regarding METRO’s General Mobility Program. The Board has been listening to public input for the past several months at meetings throughout the METRO service area. Based on that input, Board Members have presented six possible referendum proposals and will now select one to be presented to voters in November. After voting on a referendum proposal the board will reconvene on August 17, 2012 to approve the ballot language and call for an election.

WHEN: 9 A.M. on FRIDAY, AUGUST 3, 2012
WHERE: Board Room, 1900 Main, Houston 77002 (Downtown Transit Ctr.)

For more about METRO’s 2012 General Mobility Program (GMP) Referendum Web page, click here.

The Chron story fills in some more details. Obviously, this is a big deal. I have no idea which way the Board is leaning, but I’ll say again that I favor Christof Spieler’s proposal, as a starting point if nothing else. Houston Tomorrow agrees with that assessment, and has sent this letter to the Metro board to express its support for the Spieler proposal. I hope it can build up a little momentum going into today’s meeting. Be that as it may, be there if you can. A joint statement from Houston Tomorrow and the CTC in favor of the Spieler proposal is beneath the fold.


UH prof writes letter in support of resolution with Metro

After I published about UH holding up construction on the Southeast Line over concerns about the route, I was forwarded a letter sent by UH English professor Irving Rothman to UH President Renu Khator asking her to get this issue resolved. Here’s the letter.

When I first arrived in Houston with my family in 1967, there was no easy transportation from my home in Meyerland to the university campus. I would take a bus to the Medical Center and then transfer to a second bus that transported me to Bellaire, Texas, where my wife would meet me in our car. Today, the situation has considerably improved. The 68 bus can take me directly from my corner bus stop to the university in one hour, a trip that takes about 25 minutes by car.

In the past, I have had students who could not attend class because their cars had broken down and they were far from bus stops. One student, during the gas crisis, with her mother out of work, did not have enough money to buy gas for transportation to the campus and sent me an e-mail apologizing for her absence. Rapid rail at relatively low cost per ride would offer more options for travel.

For the University of Houston to withhold the sale of minor parcels of land is shortsighted when one considers the greater advantages of Metro rail travel.


I hope that the University can immediately reconcile its differences with Metro, as reported in the Bellaire Examiner, and provide the needed parcels of land required for the completion of the system. We are an urban institution serving a diverse student body with faculty who also seek convenient transportation.

We’ll see what happens. If you’re connected with UH, what have you heard about this? Leave a comment or drop me a note. Thanks.

UH versus Metro over Southeast Line route

Not sure what’s up with this.

Half a year after receiving a long-delayed $450 million federal funding grant for its Southeast line, Metro appears to have run into almost as big an obstacle to progress on that light-rail alignment much closer to home – the University of Houston.

“I can confirm for you that UH did ask Metro to move the lines off campus,” Richard Bonnin, executive director of UH Media Relations, said recently.

The Metro’s route, as submitted to the Department of Transportation, shows the Southeast line running on university property along Wheeler Street, then turning north along UH property on Scott Street. Transit agency records show that design requires 4.48 acres of university land, or roughly 11 percent of all acquisitions needed for the Southeast alignment.

To date, with construction well under way, Metro has been unable to buy any of that property, despite having obtained all land necessary for the rest of the route. That construction at two locations approaching the UH campus – one on Wheeler, one on Scott – came to a standstill about two months ago has caused concern among Metro builders.

“If this (UH land acquisition) takes much longer to bring to fruition, it will start to impact the overall schedule,” Doug Reehl, program director for Houston Rapid Transit, told the Metro board on March 22.

He added, “ideally” the impasse can be resolved within the next couple months, but “mitigating that time impact after four months will be very difficult.”

To date there has been no movement.

I can understand why UH might have some concerns about the on-campus property that Metro wants to use for this line. What I don’t understand is why this dispute is just coming up now. The basic outline of the Southeast Line route has been known since 2006. As the story notes, Metro formally submitted a route proposal to the feds as part of its Supplemental Environmental Impact Study in April of 2008; that routs is largely unchanged today. Groundbreaking on the Southeast Line was July of 2009. Construction was restarted after the Buy America fiasco in January, 2011. When exactly did it begin to occur to UH that they may have some concerns about this route?

I get that UH is in a different place now than they were in, say, 2009, with their new stadium plans and all, and that they have reason to be concerned about the effect on their available parking space. But the whole point of having this rail line go where it’s going to to help reduce the need for parking, especially for athletic events. Nothing is stopping UH from building a parking garage to supplement its surface parking, either. Be all that as it may, I’m not happy that this far-too-long-delayed project could be thrown back even more by late intransigence from another public institution. Even if Metro were willing to accommodate UH on this, would that incur further federal studies or records requests or whatever else? We’re too far along to get bogged down by that. Let’s get this settled and get it moving along already. Swamplot has more.

Houston Central Station

This is pretty cool.

[Last Tuesday], the Houston Downtown Management District hosted a competition featuring designs from five award-winning architectural firms.

The challenge: to design an iconic new Central Station – Main on Main Street between Capitol and Rusk. The station would also be the transfer point for three light-rail lines.

The five invited firms from around the country – including one Houston firm – were asked to consider into their design such factors as: openness, views of adjacent buildings, clarity of circulation, feasibility of construction and maintenance, even how the roof would look from a bird’s eye view.

But the most important requirement was to design a station that would become a landmark for downtown Houston.

About 350 community leaders, architects, design students and residents showed up to hear a 15-minute presentation by each architectural firm. The firms were: SHoP Architects; Lewis, Tsurumaki, Lewis Architects; Neil M. Denari Architects; Interloop-Architecture (Houston); and Snohetta, based in Norway and New York.

Each design was assigned a number at random, which did not represent a ranking. Before the formal presentations started, the crowd walked around displays and picked their favorites. Held on the 11th floor, the event overlooked the intersection where the new rail station would be built.

“We wanted this to be an iconic station…where three lines cross each other – East End, Southeast and the North extension of the Red Line, ” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown District, adding that the competition was a joint project with METRO and Houston Rapid Transit (HRT), a joint venture building our light-rail lines.

You can see more pictures of the entries here and a fuller writeup about them at the Offcite blog. Metro is seeking public feedback on these submissions, so check them out and leave your comments. You can also see competition entries on exhibit in the first floor lobbies of the METRO Administration Building, 1900 Main Street, and Chase Bank Building, 712 Main Street, Downtown, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. through February 10. Swamplot has more.

Council approves B-Cycle, and other bike news

One other item that Council approved on its last day of business for the year was to clear the way for the city to start up bike sharing with B-cycle. As you know, I’ve been following this along, and am delighted to see this milestone. I look forward to the official launch, hopefully some time soon.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago there was a story about TxDOT closing the White Oak Bayou Hike and Bike Trail between Ella and 34th streets while there is construction on the service road for 610 North at East TC Jester. The closure was scheduled for two years, without an alternate route that bicyclists thought was adequate. Fortunately, after meeting with bike activists, TxDOT made some changes to accommodate riders a little better. I’ve been meaning to get over there and take some pictures but just haven’t had the chance. Anyone here have experience with what’s going on at this location?

Finally, Metro announced that the Columbia Tap Trail, which had been affected by the Southeast Line construction, has been reopened. Metro had maintained a detour for this trail while construction was ongoing, but it’s good to have it back. May there be many more bits of good bike news in the new year.

Metro signs Full Funding Grant Agreement

Full speed ahead.

The head of the Federal Transit Administration on Monday signed $900 million in grant agreements to help pay for two Houston light-rail lines under construction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The grants, the first federal funds ever provided for rail in Houston, were formally approved in a ceremony attended by the FTA chief, Peter Rogoff, Mayor Annise Parker, Metro officials, local members of Congress and others. They will pay half the costs of the North and Southeast lines, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will extend Houston’s light-rail network by 12 miles.

Local officials have been trying to secure the federal funds since voters approved a plan to expand Metro’s rail network in 2003.

It took a hell of a long time, and it nearly got derailed thanks to the previous Metro regime and its Buy America foolishness, but it got done. And remember, some people said it would never happen.

Here’s Metro’s press release:

METRO Inks Houston’s First Ever Full Funding Grants for Light Rail

Houston’s light-rail expansion is now cleared to receive $900 million dollars as part of two federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).  A special signing ceremony for the grants was held [Monday] morning at a rail expansion construction site overlooking downtown. The observation at 800 Burnett St. brought METRO officials together with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and a host of elected officials to sign long-awaited FFGAs for the North and Southeast rail lines.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the New METRO’s Board of Directors says, “The rail expansion team, METRO Board members, past and present and our entire staff, past and present, should be proud of accomplishing an enormous task. We’ve never lost sight of the prize and finally it is Houston’s. We thank all the community patriots for all their help in making this day happen. This is a major investment in the region that will not only create jobs but boost economic development.”

METRO President & CEO George Greanias says “The $900 million federal grants more than double the local dollars being used to construct the 5.3 mile North (Red) extension* and the 6.6 mile Southeast (Purple)* lines and mark the first time rail projects here have received FFGAs. This is a great example of how we can leverage our local dollars to improve mobility in the region.”

The total construction cost for the two lines is $1.6 billion dollars. Each line is receiving a $450 million dollar FFGA. The federal government has already set aside $484.5 million dollars for the two projects as part of the FFGAs. Of that amount, METRO has received $84.5 million dollars. The transit agency expects to continue receiving the federal funding over the next few years.

More than 30 percent of commuters heading into the downtown area and the Texas Medical Center ride METRO. The rail expansion approved by Houston voters in 2003 includes the North (Red) Line and extends the current Main St. Line starting at UHD to the Northline Transit Center, Houston Community College and Northline Commons Mall. The Southeast (Purple) Line connects downtown with local universities including Texas Southern University and the University of Houston central campus. The two federally funded lines and a third, locally funding East End (Green) Line currently under construction, are all expected to be completed by 2014.

For PDFs of work being performed see: METRORail North Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF) METRORail Southeast Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF)

The Harrisburg line is also under construction, but it is using only local funds. Still out there waiting their turn are the Universities line, the Uptown line, which will also be built with local funds but is entirely dependent on the completion of the Universities line to be feasible, and the Inner Katy Line, which was on the 2003 referendum but was not officially part of the 2012 Solutions plan. The Universities line received a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Universities line last July, and now awaits final design approval, which had been hung up to a degree by the other Metro projects in the queue ahead of it and now is waiting for Congress to get its act together and pass an adequate transportation bill so there will be more New Starts funds to grant. An Inner Katy line will likely be part of a larger next phase project – Metro Solutions 2020 or some such – that may be packaged together for another vote. I’m mostly speculating here, but such a line makes all kinds of sense and is already supported by the neighborhood. What it needs now is a funding source.

That’s something farther out to look forward to. For now, we have the North and Southeast lines and their historic funding agreement. It’s a good day for Metro and for Houston. The Metro blog and Dallas Transportation have more.

Signing date for Full Funding Grant Agreement announced

From the Metro blog:

On Monday, Nov. 28, METRO will be joined by federal officials, along with members of Houston’s congressional delegation, to sign the long-awaited Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) for the North and Southwest light-rail lines.

President & CEO George Greanias announced the signing date [Wednesday] at the Greater Houston Partnership’s luncheon.

This is the first time rail projects in Houston have received FFGAs. These are matching federal funds that help us leverage local dollars to complete the construction of the North Line (extension of the Main St. Red Line) and the Southeast Line (Purple Line).

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And they said it couldn’t be done. Well, some people said it wouldn’t be done, anyway. Here’s one of those people, who’s been saying it for a long time:

Local attorney and light-rail critic Bill King said it’s foolish to bank on that money, given the tenuous status of the federal budget, especially New Starts funding.

“With what’s going on in Washington, can you see that they’re going to come down here and say, ‘Here’s $1 billion to go build light rail in Houston?’ ” King said. “That seems so fanciful to me, and I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.”

And you would have lost that bet if you’d made it, Bill. You were wrong, and on November 28, we’ll get to see the FTA and a bunch of other people prove it. In the meantime, you can see video of Greanias’ speech here, and the accompanying presentation, which includes some cool time-lapse photography and video of the rail line expansions, here.

Construction pains

I feel for the people and businesses that are being affected by Metro’s light rail construction. I wish that these large construction projects could be done without that kind of disruption, but it happens, and it sucks. What amazed me in reading this story was what some of those folks had to say about it:

Despite his troubles, Townley supports the rail project.

“Metro has not lied to me,” he said. “The fact that (construction) is killing me doesn’t change the fact that it’s for the greater good.”

Greanias and other Metro officials have met with various business owners. The agency is discussing whether to adjust the assistance fund guidelines, but no decision will be made before the November board meeting.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said Metro is sensitive to business owners and is trying to finish the rail lines as quickly as possible.

Sochia Muschia told the board Thursday that her family’s Cuz-N-Laws Wholesale restaurant supply business at 3510 Leeland has applied twice for the $25,000 award but doesn’t qualify because its pre-construction revenue exceeded the allowed maximum.

“People at Metro have been very kind, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has nearly destroyed us,” she said.

It’s easy to joke about the exuberance of the “New Metro”‘s branding campaign, but this is what it’s all about. They’ve been honest brokers with the community, and that makes a big difference even if the financial support they’ve been able to give has fallen short. Think about how this story might have been written a couple of years ago. Quite the difference, no?

Metro officially back on track with the FTA

The “Buy America” nightmare is now history for Metro.

In September 2010, the FTA announced that the process Metro had used to award a rail car contract to CAF USA, the U.S. subsidiary of a Spanish company, violated federal law and “Buy America” requirements that were designed to protect U.S. jobs.

To requalify for federal funds on the two lines, the FTA said Metro had to cancel its contract with CAF USA and solicit new proposals for rail cars. Metro complied.

Last week the FTA notified four congressional committees – House Transportation and Infrastructure; Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and House and Senate Appropriations – of its plan to execute two grant agreements that could bring Metro a total of $900 million over five years.


FTA spokesman Paul Griffo confirmed that the agency sent notice to Congress on Sept. 7. The next day, President Barack Obama mentioned Houston public transit construction in his nationally televised jobs speech.

Hallelujah. Even before this delay, the process of getting the full funding grant agreement had been excruciatingly slow, but at least there has been some progress lately, and actual track has been laid for the Southeast line. Going back through the archives, the first wind of trouble came in May of 2010, about a week before then-CEO Frank Wilson took a powder. The “New Metro” and new CEO George Greanias received a second chance from the FTA in September of 2010; the prediction that this would tack on a year to the production schedule has proven eerily accurate. Metro settled with CAF in December, and had funds appropriated to them in the President’s budget in January. It’s true that the rest of the funding will depend on the whims of Congress, and that there’s still the opportunity for the transportation bill in Congress to get screwed up by the radicals in the Republican Party, but that’s no reason to be a party pooper:

Bill King, a Houston attorney and light-rail critic, said the rail funding was not guaranteed even if the FTA signs the agreement.

“The real issue is always whether Congress will fund it or not,” King said.

Yes, as noted, Congressional Republicans could always screw things up. But why fixate on that? An asteroid could collide with the earth and wipe us all out like the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Era. Global warming could accelerate and put the entire city under eight feet of water by the end of the decade. Terrorists could start blowing up light rail lines. Rick Perry could be elected President and prove that the Mayans were right all along. There’s no end to the doomsday scenarios, so what’s the point in worrying about them? There’s plenty of things you can control to worry about.

Laying track

This has been a long time coming.

For the first time in 10 years, workers this morning poured concrete for a new section of Metro light-rail track.

The 80-foot section of steel rail will be part of the 6.6-mile Southeast Line. The line, scheduled for completion in 2014, will extend from Smith Street downtown to the Palm Center in southeast Houston at Griggs and Beekman Roads.

It’s taken way too long to get to this point, but at least we’re here. For now, let’s be happy with reaching this stage of the journey, however later than we originally thought we’d reach it. Write On Metro has more.

UPDATE: A later version of the story contains this:

Metro officials said they are expecting approval soon of a $900 million federal grant delayed last year by the agency’s violation of a federal Buy American requirement in procuring light-rail cars from a Spanish company. The agency’s confidence is sufficient to include money from the grant in next year’s budget, and to prepare to sell rail-construction bonds for the first time in more than two years.

Metro President and CEO George Greanias said Wednesday he couldn’t provide details about the timing of the federal grant, known as a Full Funding Grant Agreement under the New Starts program.


At Metro’s July 28 board meeting, just before Greanias began a one-week suspension for visiting sexually explicit websites on his personal computer through the Metro Internet system, he and other agency officials spoke with guarded optimism about the grant.

“They are now in the process of being reviewed by the executive team at the Federal Transit Administration,” he told the board. “That is the last step before they go out the door. I’m not about to predict what day of the week they’ll go out, but I think it’s going to be in the near future.”

Also at the July 28 meeting, the board approved a bond sale of up to about $463 million for rail construction. Greanias said those bonds likely will be sold in September.

Talk about things that are long overdue. Keep your fingers crossed.

Metro gets more light rail funds

From the US Department of Transit:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced $1.58 billion for 27 transit projects nationwide that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution.

“Investing in a modern transportation network is a key part of President Obama’s strategy to win the future by out-building and out-competing the rest of the world,” Secretary LaHood said. “America’s long-term economic success requires investing now in transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and goods more safely, efficiently and quickly than ever before.”

“Our investments in expanding America’s transit networks will not only improve reliable transportation access for communities across the country, they will support construction jobs and economic development,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “And, a more efficient and reliable transit network means new opportunities for Americans to keep more of their paychecks in their wallets and spend less at the gas pump.”

Twenty-seven transit projects across America are on a path to receive funding under the New Starts program, through which Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides federal support for major capital construction projects such as subways, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.

Among those projects, all of which you can see here, are Metro’s North Line and Southeast Line, each of which are slated to get $75 million each. Note that this is happening even though the Full Funding Agreement is still pending with the FTA, though as I heard Metro CEO George Greanias say at a Livable Houston presentation in May, you’d think that after giving Metro all this money up till now they’re probably not going to reject the FFA at this point. This announcement comes as Metro gets ready to start laying actual tracks for the Southeast Line, too. Great to see such progress being made. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”


Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

Yet another threat to light rail expansion


The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.


Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities – not just Houston but cities across the country – that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing – and not everyone realizes it.”

Actually, I have no trouble believing that the Republican Congress will act in bad faith on this. They don’t care. I didn’t include John Cornyn’s crocodile tears quote about how they’d just love to honor their commitments if only they had the money for it, but you can expect that to be the prevailing attitude.

Having said that, there is some evidence that the issue is overstated. The RSC’s proposal isn’t universally accepted by Republicans, and there are Republicans in Congress that support high speed rail, which is a different kettle of fish but which might translate to support for other forms of rail as well. And of course, the Senate gets a say, the President has a veto pen, and the Democratic phrase of the moment is infrastructure, by which they mean “jobs”. So I’m not going to panic just yet. But as with everything else lately, we’ll have to do it the hard way if we want to get anything done.

In the meantime, the Metro board has voted to increase the capital budget for rail this year, having completed several requirements for doing so, and pointed out that suspending work until it has all of the promised federal funds in hand presents risks and carries costs of its own.

If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.

“If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we’re stopped today, we’d be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we’d be walking away from everything we invested already, we’d be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University,” Greanias said. “That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, ‘We’ll move forward prudently, managing the risk.’ ”


Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.

“The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, ‘Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,’ ” said Metro board member Christof Spieler. “Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access.”

They say they have a Plan B to scale things back in the event of a worst-case, RSC-approved budget. Let’s hope they never have to use it.

Metro restarts some light rail construction

As if to punctuate Gilbert Garcia’s op-ed, the news for Metro at the start of 2011 is good.

Last month, the Federal Transit Administration sent the first $50 million of the grant money for use on the North and Southeast lines. Last week, the FTA issued pre-clearance letters Metro needed before it could proceed with more than $12 million worth of projects for which it is relying on federal reimbursements. Ultimately, the FTA will pay about half the cost of the North and Southeast lines.

“This is just further evidence that we’re on track and the relationship with the FTA is progressing,” said Metro board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, one of five board members appointed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker last year to try to rescue the jeopardized federal grant money.

The pre-clearance letters are a bureaucratic step, but they also put construction crews to work almost immediately to get the orange cones off streets Metro left scarred when it put the brakes on rail construction last year.

A subsequent press release from Metro spells out where these construction crews will be:

Construction activity for the North Line includes the start of communications duct banks, concrete pavement, sidewalks and asphalt paving on Fulton Street from Cavalcade to IH – 610, and from Boundary to Collingsworth. In addition, construction can begin on the new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad and the retrofit of the Main Street Bridge at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Work on the Southeast Line includes the start of communications duct banks, concrete pavement, sidewalks and asphalt paving on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd from Winnetka to just north of Griggs Road and on Scott Street from Polk to Coyle.

Also as part of the North Line project, new construction activity will occur at METRO’s Rail Operations Center at Fannin South, including installation of tracks for rail vehicles in the maintenance yard, construction of an expanded parking lot for maintenance vehicles and expansion of the building.

Next up, hopefully, is the FTA’s blessing on the new plan for buying rail cars, which would begin this month if allowed. The current timeline, which has these routes opening in late 2014, will be much more secure if that happens.

Metro to try mediation with CAF

Whatever works.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to negotiate the cancellation of a $331 million contract with a Spanish rail car manufacturer through mediation, local transit bosses said Wednesday.

That is why, despite the agency’s announced intention to cancel the contract, no action [was] proposed on [Thursday’s] agenda, explained Metro President George Greanias and board Chairman Gilbert Garcia.

They said they hope to begin mediation next month and begin soliciting new bids in January to provide 105 light rail cars.


The Metro board will deal with the rail car contract on a future agenda. Regardless of whether mediation succeeds, Greanias and Garcia explained, the contract with Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, or CAF, will be canceled.

“We are going to terminate this contract,” Greanias said. “We’re just trying to do it in the most businesslike, efficient manner we can.”

And if they can avoid litigation and minimize the cost of doing so, all the better.

Now for the bad news:

[Metro’s] president, George Greanias, announced that the light rail expansion budget for this year has been cut by close to 70 percent, from $458 million to $143 million.

That means more than a hundred construction, engineering, small business and community outreach contracts are being reduced or suspended.

The changes stem from Metro’s financial woes and the Federal Transit Administration’s announcement in September that Metro had violated Buy American rules, delaying its federal funding even further.

“These are difficult and regrettable decisions,” Greanias said. “We’ve taken the agency down to the foundation to start from a totally financially sound base.”

But, he added, “It’s going to be a very difficult path as we move forward.”

Utility work will continue on the North and Southeast lines until the end of this year, and utility and road work go on as planned in “select areas” on the East End line. The rest is going the way of the buffalo. At least for now.

Because Greanias and Metro’s board chairman, Gilbert Garcia, stressed that the light rail plans aren’t completely shutting down. That would be more expensive — costing about $200 million, according to Greanias — than suspending the operation until the federal funding picture becomes more clear.

This was expected, but it’s still lousy to see happen. All we can do is hope that the FTA funding that we’ve been counting on all along comes through sooner rather than later.

Add another year to the construction schedule

Metro may have dodged a bullet with the FTA, but they’re still going to feel the effect of the federal agency’s decision in the Buy America case.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority today retracted its acting president’s statement that the agency could complete construction of three rail lines by October 2013, saying a delay of up to a year is expected.

“Following additional consultation with project managers, it is now clear that meeting the October 2013 completion date is not feasible,” Metro said in a statement.

George Greanias, Metro’s acting president and CEO, had said Wednesday that he was sticking to Metro’s original schedule calling for completion of the lines by that date.

Again, considering that the FTA could have completely disqualified Metro from getting the $900 million in New Starts grants, which would have left the 2012 Solutions plan dead in the water, this seems like a relatively light punishment. What’s not clear to me at this time is how this affects when the FTA will allow Metro to get that money. The letter from Peter Rogoff says the following:

Assuming that METRO provides us with written affirmation of your intention to terminate the existing contracts with CAF and re-procure LRVs, and a detailed plan explaining how you intend to achieve full compliance with all Federal requirements, FTA is prepared to take a number of steps designed to keep METRO’s expansion projects moving forward and keep workers on the job. FTA will be prepared to restart consideration of METRO’s pending requests for Letters of No Prejudice (LONPs) through which work on the North and Southeast projects that is separate from the railcar procurement can be initiated with the potential for Federal reimbursement. At present, there is more than $50 million in funding already appropriated that can be granted to METRO for engineering and design work on these two projects. Finally, FTA will be prepared to resume its financial analysis and our negotiations for Full Funding Grant Agreements, pending your development of a sound and viable plan for a new LRV procurement.

What this says to me is that Metro doesn’t have to go all the way through the re-bid and purchase process of the LRVs to get back on track with the FTA. Metro just has to say, in writing, that they will cancel the CAF contract and begin rebidding, and to write out a plan to fix the other things the FTA flagged, to get back in their good graces. That strikes me as something that need not take an excessive amount of time. How far along Metro needs to be in the re-procurement process to get the FFGAs going again, and whether the FTA will start over from scratch with them or will more or less pick up where they left off are unanswered questions at this time. I’ve posed them to Metro, and they’ve promised to get back to me on them, so we’ll see.

FTA gives Metro a second chance

That sound you hear is a bullet whizzing past Metro’s ear

Metro violated federal laws in making a deal with a Spanish company to purchase 103 rail cars, and must re-bid the purchase in order to qualify for a $900 million grant, the nation’s top transit official said today.

Peter Rogoff, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, delivered the news in a meeting with Mayor Annise Parker and top Metro officials.

The FTA’s letter to the Metropolitan Transit Authority called the procurement process “alarming and disturbing,” saying it violated both federal procurement laws and “Buy America” provisions intended to protect the national economy.

Metro began soliciting proposals for the rail cars several years ago, and starting the process from scratch would be time-consuming and costly.

The FTA’s letter said the federal agency wanted to work with Metro to continue construction during this process, but didn’t specify how.

You can find all of the documents related to this case here or here. Specifically, here’s the FTA press release, the report of the investigation, the letter from the FTA chief counsel, and the letter from FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. For the most part, what you need to know is in that last letter. Basically, for all the bad things the FTA determined Metro did, they still believe that that the North and Southeast Corridor projects have merit, and that they are prepared to work with Metro to keep these projects moving forward if Metro cancels the contract with CAF and re-bids it according to Buy America rules. To say this could have been a hell of a lot worse for Metro is to understate. The FTA must have a lot of faith in George Greanias and his ability to not be Frank Wilson for them to have declined to cut Metro off at the knees. I think we can finally close that chapter and say that the New Metro is fully up and running.

UPDATE: Here’s Metro’s statement:

Today at a press conference hosted by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, METRO’s leaders commented on the findings of the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) “Buy America” investigation and review of plans to purchase 103 new light rail vehicles.

Mayor Parker first acknowledged Houston’s need for a first class transit system and expressed confidence that the FTA supports METRO’s rail-expansion program. “There is a path forward. It is steep and rocky, but we can do it,” Mayor Parker said.

METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia echoed comments by Mayor Parker that the NEW METRO was committed to resolving issues left over from the previous administration, including the FTA investigation. “We knew there would be challenges and we are attacking them one at a time,” Garcia said. “We are changing the culture at METRO to rebuild trust.”

Acting President & CEO George Greanias said that today’s FTA findings provide several positive outcomes, while acknowledging the challenges ahead. “First, the FTA made clear that they support METRO’s rail expansion program. Also, they laid out a plan to make funds available to keep the program moving forward. And, they provided a roadmap for how to move forward, including a re-procurement of the rail car contract. It will be a steep climb but we can accomplish it,” Greanias said.

Congress Member Sheila Jackson Lee, who also attended today’s press conference, expressed strong support among Houston’s Congressional delegation to see that METRO ultimately receives the $150 million in the President’s FY 2011 proposed budget for rail expansion.

Greanias underscored that construction currently underway on three light-rail lines will continue – the North, Southeast and East End lines. He acknowledged previously that METRO has slowed some work activity on the North and Southeast lines while awaiting funding commitments from the FTA. He also said future construction slowdowns are possible in light of cash constraints. He said a new procurement to purchase rail cars was not directly linked to construction and that it could take up to 20 months to complete and have initial vehicles begin arriving for testing.

“We treat what the FTA says very seriously,” Greanias added. “The NEW METRO is committed to building a strong working relationship with the FTA and to build trust.”

Finally, Chairman Garcia thanked members of Houston’s Congressional delegation who attended a meeting this morning with the FTA, including Congress Members Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Gene Green and John Culberson. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison also sent a representative. “We are truly appreciative of all their hard work on our behalf,” Garcia said.

Metro’s cash crunch

From last week, a story about how times are tough at Metro.

Facing a $49 million budget shortfall this fiscal year, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has begun to slow construction on two light rail lines and may embrace more drastic measures in the coming months as uncertainty grows over a $800 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

Senior Metro officials emphasized that they did not anticipate any cuts to services due to the financial pressures and expressed confidence the FTA grant needed to pay for an estimated 30 miles of additional rail in Houston is forthcoming. But they nevertheless have begun to weigh the impact of continued delays on construction plans that anticipated completion in 2013.

“There’s going to be some tough choices that we’ll be making here, no doubt,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

So far, officials said, the work that has been put off has been minimal on the North line, which is expected to run from north Houston to the Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park. Metro has delayed road reconstruction work on Fulton Street and has put off awarding a contract for the expansion and construction of a rail facility on Fannin at the south end of the line near Reliant Park and the 610 Loop.

All things considered, this could be worse. I directed some questions at Metro about this and another story (more on that in a minute), and one of the things I got back was this statement from Metro’s Raequel Roberts:

It’s important to clarify the financial report given in [this] board meeting.

In actuality, METRO does not have a cash shortfall.

METRO began FY 2010 with $136 million in its fund balance and had originally projected ending the year with $68 million. Current projections show that balance coming in at $87 million, which is a $49 million reduction from the beginning balance.

This represents far more than the 15 percent of its operating budget that METRO keeps in its fund – or “rainy day” – balance.

Of critical note to our customers, this means there will be no service reduction or fare increase.

In other words, this isn’t any different than what the city of Houston has done the past two years, and what the state will almost surely do next year. Obviously, you can’t keep this up forever, but the whole reason to have a reserve fund is to cushion the bump during hard times. According to Metro’s Chief Financial Officer Louise Richman, with whom I had the chance to speak earlier this week, sales tax collections were higher than what they had projected for this year, so the trends are in the right direction. In addition, the work that Metro had been doing on the North and Southeast lines that they will be suspending is work that is supposed to be paid for by the FTA funds they’re waiting for. Metro was basically fronting itself the cash to get started on this work in anticipation of getting the funds later, but as it is taking longer than expected they’ll have to wait. Put all that together, and assuming the FTA funds come through in a still somewhat timely fashion, and things look a lot better.

Of course, there was also an Examiner story from last week about Metro’s investment portfolio, which could affect its ability to get those funds:

The decline in unrestricted cash could spell problems for Metro beyond the obvious ones.

As a condition of receiving funding as part the Federal Transit Authority’s New Starts program, which includes the already-under-construction North and Southeast lines, an applicant must receive at least a “medium” accumulated rating based on five categories.

One of the categories, “current operating financial condition” requires a liquidity ratio (cash, accounts receivable and nonrestricted investment portfolio vs. current liabilities) of at least 1-to-1 to avoid receiving a “low” rating for that category.

Based on the June 2010 unaudited report, Metro’s rating for 2009 appeared to be about 0.79-to-1, having fallen from 1.55-to-1 in 2007 to 1.03-to-1 in 2008, according to Metro financial reports for those years.

The main reason why I contacted Metro to ask about this stuff was because I didn’t see a comment from them in the story. There’s an updated version now in which CFO Richman discusses the cash balance, and the liquidity ratio is corrected to be 0.86 to 1 instead of 0.79, but the main question I had was whether or not this particular metric meant disqualification for the New Start funds, and they said no, it does not. CFO Richman also reiterated what Metro CEO George Greanias said in that updated story, that the “quick ratio” isn’t the only metric used, and she went into some more detail about how liquidity can be determined. I was not in a position to be able to take notes while she was speaking to me, and I’m not quite able to reconstruct it all from my memory, but the gist of it was that they strive to make conservative calculations that still leave them above the 1-to-1 mark, that they make these calculations both with and without certain federal funds and required expenditures, and that they feel confident that they are still meeting the FTA guidelines. The bottom line for me was that I asked if what was reported in this Examiner story was a cause for concern regarding the FTA funds they’re waiting for, and they said no, it was not. So there you have it.

Another setback for DART

More bad news from Dallas.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit can’t afford to build light-rail service to D/FW International Airport by 2013 as it has long said it would, the agency’s chief financial officer said Tuesday.

The news comes as a sharp reversal, but CFO David Leininger said the only way the project can be built in the near future will be if new revenues can be found, either through a new tax or, more likely but still uncertain, a federal grant that would cover the approximately $275 million cost of the final leg of the Orange Line.

“We are not abandoning these projects by any means, but there simply isn’t room for them in your current plan,” he told board members.


Irving has counted on the line to anchor more than $4 billion in planned developments near rail stations. That includes a $385 million convention and entertainment complex in the Las Colinas Urban Center. The city is shouldering the lion’s share of those construction costs.

That’s on top of the previous announcements about projects being delayed or discontinued. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that the pool of federal grant money that gave Metro funding for the North and Southeast lines is all used up. Metro got the last two available grants for that. Until there are more funds like that available from the federal government, projects like that and like the University line will at the very least experience some uncertainty. It’s high time Congress took action on this. Alternately, as the DMN editorializes, the Lege can provide funds for regional transportation projects. This is worth doing, and if DART can’t do it by itself, it should get help.

Metro responds to FTA letter about “Buy America”

As we know, Metro had received a letter from the FTA that challenged its compliance with the FTA’s “Buy America” requirement due to Metro’s agreement to buy two prototype light rail cars that would be built in Spain. Metro has now responded to that letter and produced some rather compelling evidence that their actions did not put them out of compliance with “Buy America”.

A year-old voicemail retained by one of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s outside attorneys may hold the key to preserving the first federal light-rail funds in Houston history.

The April 17, 2009, message from Scott Biehl, then the Federal Transit Administration’s acting chief counsel, to Metro attorney Ed Gill responded to Gill’s inquiry about whether “Buy America” rules would permit the assembly of two prototype rail cars in Spain if the cars were purchased with local, not federal, funds.

“Ed, you nailed it,” Biehl said in the message, which was included in Metro’s formal response Friday to the FTA’s Buy America investigation. “The answer is we don’t care.”

Based on this message and the advice of its lawyers, Metro believed the arrangement would pass muster under Buy America rules, which require that assembly of all rolling stock for federally funded projects take place in the United States, Metro chief counsel Paula Alexander said in the response letter.

Metro sent the eight-page letter, along with a binder containing 32 supporting exhibits, to the FTA on Friday.

You can listen to the voice mail at the story link, and you can read Metro’s response letter, along with a letter from Chair Gilbert Garcia proclaiming their sincere desire to do right by “Buy America” here. Based on that voice mail, it’s easy to see why Metro thought they were on solid ground. Which is good, because up till this point it was looking like they had simply assumed their workaround was sufficient. Barring anything unusual, it looks like Metro has cleared this obstacle.

It’s still not over till it’s over, of course.

The FTA said in a statement that it had received Metro’s letter, but it noted that procurement of the two prototype rail cars wasn’t the only issue under review. The most important issue, spokesman Paul Griffo said, was overall compliance with Buy America rules, beyond the rail cars, in the entire federally funded portion of the project.

Alexander wrote that all Metro contractors subject to Buy America requirements had submitted certificates of compliance.

There could still be something lurking here, but this sounds pro forma to me. Unless the agency decides that the voice mail evidence isn’t good enough, I feel reasonably confident that Metro is in good shape for the grants.

Wilson resigns

He’s out.

Frank J. Wilson relinquished the leadership of the Metropolitan Transit Authority on Friday, leaving Metro’s reconstituted board and an acting chief executive with the task of completing the light rail system Wilson was hired to build six years ago.

Wilson, 61, signed a deal to terminate his employment as president and chief executive officer in exchange for payments totaling $456,000, plus extensive pension and insurance benefits.

The board emerged from more than two hours of discussions in closed session to announce the deal. It authorized chairman Gilbert Garcia to negotiate a contract with George Greanias, a former city councilman and city controller, as acting chief executive.

Greanias, 62, who will start work Monday, said he hopes to be considered for the permanent position. He has been out of public life, working as a business consultant, since an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1997.

This was a long time in coming, and is probably for the best. I think Wilson deserves praise for all he did to get rail as far as it’s come in Houston. It’s easy to forget just how hostile the environment has been at times, especially in the days when Tom DeLay was still in Congress. Given that, it’s almost a miracle we’ve got the one line we have, and may have the others we’re on the verge of building. But if the $900 million in FTA grants really are endangered, well, Wilson’s legacy won’t be nearly as positive.

In recent weeks, however, new questions have emerged about the anticipated federal grant for the North and Southeast lines as the Federal Transit Administration announced an investigation of Metro’s compliance with “Buy America” rules.

Parker said this issue jeopardized the grant, a characterization disputed Friday by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who attended the board meeting.

“The federal grant is not in jeopardy because we have a good team in Washington” working to secure it, Jackson Lee said.

Hair Balls had a similar report.

[Metro board Chair Gilbert] Garcia said there was no pressure from the FTA for Wilson to resign, that it wasn’t talked about during last week’s meetings in Washington, D.C., so the change in leadership shouldn’t help with any of the FTA’s hesitation.

But Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who spoke at today’s meeting, said Metro will receive the federal funding. Lee spoke with Ray LaHood, the federal transportation secretary, this morning, and, according to Lee, LaHood told her that the administration is committed to paying for Houston’s new light rail.

Still, Metro has been saying it was set to get its full funding agreement from the feds for more than a year, so we wouldn’t trust anything until that agreement is finalized.

We already knew about LaHood being “committed” to Houston rail. I hope this really does mean that the grants are on their way, but I’ll feel much better when it’s all in black and white. Here’s a statement from Mayor Annise Parker about Wilson’s resignation.

It is a new day for openness and transparency at METRO. Now that a new board and chief executive officer are in place, I am committed to working hand-in-hand with the new leadership and the FTA to achieve the next phase of light rail in Houston. I commend board chair Gilbert Garcia and the other board members for their leadership. I am confident they will continue to act in the best interests of the citizens in METRO’s service area.

The Mayor now has her Board in place, and will soon have a new Metro CEO. Let’s see what the new crew can do.

Was it worth it for two prototypes?

I’m really at a loss to understand how the previous Metro board could have put $900 million at risk to make it easier for their manufacturer to build two prototype light rail cars.

Eight days after federal officials rejected the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s request for a waiver from federal requirements that it assemble its light rail cars in the U.S., the transit agency signed a deal for two Spanish-assembled pilot vehicles.

The contract could violate a provision of the “Buy America” rule, which Mayor Annise Parker said earlier this week threatens a $900 million federal grant that the agency needs to continue building out its light rail system.

Parker accused Metro of either misleading the Federal Transit Administration, or of basing its decision on flawed assumptions.

A review of Metro records indicates that the transit agency’s officials proceeded with the contract — despite the waiver denial — because they believed they had a remedy: Purchasing the two cars produced in Spain with local funds through a separate contract.

A year later, a letter from the FTA to Metro announcing an investigation of its compliance with Buy America rules showed that strategy was flawed.

I suppose I can understand the thinking that “it’s only two prototypes, the 100+ others are all compliant, what’s the big deal?”, but when someone else makes the rules, it’s best not to fool around. The FTA hasn’t specifically ruled on the usage of local funds, and the new Metro board still has a week to make their official response, so nothing is certain yet. One possibility, I suppose, is to renegotiate the deal so that those two cars, or two replacements for them, are now built in the US. I don’t know how much that might cost, but I’ll bet it’s less than $900 million. I just hope that, or something else, is acceptable to the FTA. The Metro board is meeting now, so maybe we’ll know more about this, and about the fate of Frank Wilson, who will royally deserve his firing if the FTA pulls the rug out, soon enough.

More on Wilson’s departure

More evidence that Metro CEO Frank Wilson is about to be history: The Metro board has a replacement in mind.

The board is expected to name George Greanias, a former city councilman and controller who co-chaired Mayor Annise Parker’s Metro transition committee, as interim chief executive, the sources said. A national search would be undertaken for a permanent replacement, they said.

The sources cautioned that arrangements for Wilson’s separation from Metro were not final. “Decisions get made at board meetings,” one source said.

True enough, but stuff like this usually doesn’t get leaked by accident, either. I wouldn’t bet against this happening.

Assuming it does, Greanias will have a very short period of time in which to defuse the latest threat Metro faces, to the $900 million in FTA grant money.

Concerns also have emerged about whether Metro, under Wilson’s leadership, has taken actions that might jeopardize a $900 million federal grant the agency is awaiting for two of the three rail lines under construction now. The agency’s website outlines plans to complete these three lines, plus two others in earlier stages of development, by 2012.

In late April, the Federal Transit Administration launched an investigation of Metro’s compliance with “Buy America” rules in its purchase of rail cars from a Spanish company. Metro, which must demonstrate compliance with the rules to receive the federal funds, is preparing a reply due by May 14.

I sure hope they have a good reply to make. Lisa Falkenberg’s column today is making me nervous. Good luck with that, George.