Mayor White revises mobility plan approved by voters (updated!)

Mayor White came out with a big press blitz today regarding METRO that heaped praise on Representatives Tom DeLay (R) and John Culberson (R) among others.

Within hours, Rep. Culberson sent out an email (not posted to any website) heaping praise on Mayor White. (UPDATE: See below for more on that email)

The big celebration (besides themselves)?

Mayor White, his friends at METRO, and those alleged federal opponents of light rail in Congress have decided to substitute their own $2 billion light rail/bus rapid transit plan for the actual plans approved by voters in an earlier referendum:

Mayor Bill White said today that Houston's congressional delegation is willing to help obtain $1 billion in federal transit funds over the next 10 years, including dollars for commuter rail, light rail, fixed-guideway bus lines and other facilities.

The announcement appeared to signal the end of a logjam in Metro's efforts to obtain federal rail funding. White said two key players in the funding process, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, had agreed in conversations during the past two weeks to help Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority get the needed money.

The plan White and Metro unveiled includes some elements that go beyond what voters approved in the November 2003 Metro Solutions referendum, but other aspects were scaled back to reduce costs.

Bus rapid transit, which uses buses running on their own guideways, would be substituted for light rail in the initial phases of the North, Southeast and Harrisburg corridors and in a corridor through the Uptown-Galleria area from the Northwest Transit Center to the vicinity of Westpark and S. Rice.

Rails would be laid in these bus corridors, and light rail stations would be built to serve for bus boarding, but to save money initially the electric power system would not be included, and buses costing about $1 million each would be substituted for rail cars costing about $3.5 million each, said Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson.

There also would be nine miles of light rail, including an east-west line from the University of Houston Central Campus, crossing the existing MetroRail line near Wheeler Street and continuing to Greenway Plaza and the Uptown-Galleria area. The existing MetroRail line would be extended from its northern terminal at the University of Houston-Downtown to an "intermodal" (bus and rail) facility to be built near Burnett Street.

In addition, White and Wilson said, the money would pay for 28 miles of commuter rail over the decade, including MetroRail extensions out U.S. 90A to Fort Bend County, plus the beginning of lines out U.S. 290 and toward Galveston.

Since taking on the expense of the train, METRO has had to assume debt for the first time in its history and has had to cut public safety expenditures as well as bus service (contrary to promises made in the referendum approved by voters). So how will METRO pay for its half of all of these new world-class services, when it can't even pay for the 7 mile line it already has?

The federal money likely would require a 1-to-1 local match, which [METRO President and CEO Frank Wilson] said would come from bonds paid off with sales tax and other revenues.

Well, I feel better already after that assurance.

And apparently so, too, does our local member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Culberson:

Today's announcement that Metro's rail plan is being revised shows that Houston Mayor Bill White is a good steward of our tax dollars and that he has applied common sense and honesty to repair the problems with Metro's rail plan in the same way that he repaired the problems he inherited with the city's pension plan.

I am very pleased with Mayor White's focus on giving taxpayers the best value for their dollars and on providing all of us with honest, accurate and transparent information on revenue projections, design and construction costs, ridership numbers and a realistic assessment of the fierce competition Metro faces from other transit systems around the country in a time of record budget deficits.

My good name is my most valuable possession, so I am especially grateful to Mayor White, Metro Chairman David Wolff and Metro President Frank Wilson for publicly acknowledging that I provided voters with accurate federal formula revenue estimates for Metro prior to the November 4, 2003, rail election, and that the revenue estimates provided by Metro at that time were inflated.

So, Rep. Culberson is now a proponent of a $2 billion rail/rapid transit bus plan NEVER approved by voters, and all it took to get him on board was saying his numbers in the past were better than METRO's? Who knew he was such a pushover? That will probably come as a surprise to many of his fiscally conservative constituents.

Incidentally, the Congressman is mistaken in asserting that Mayor White has repaired the city's pension plan, which isn't repaired at all (but largely papered over). Further, Mayor White's method of winning concessions on the pension plan -- a referendum in which voters effectively reneged on promises made by a prior administration to city employees -- is probably not something to praise. Although the former administration did overpromise municipal employees and breaking that promise was arguably a matter of fiscal sanity/necessity, surely good conservatives do not want to be in the habit of praising the breaking of promises so cavalierly.

And what about those bus rapid transit cars? That's a better idea than rail, right?

Perhaps, except in California, we have seen instances in which transit favored by affluent commuters has been boosted at the expense of the poor who rely on more traditional bus service, a circumstance that has resulted in legal action against transit authorities. Since METRO bus service to the poor has already been cut (contrary to what was promised in the referendum on rail) to help support the train (presumably), one can imagine similar legal action taking place here if rapid bus transit and light rail come to service the relatively affluent at the expense of the poor.

And there's not much doubt that the White/Culberson $2 billion rail/bus rapid transit plan never approved by voters is designed partly with the affluent in mind. Tory Gattis, an eminently sensible local blogger on mobility matters and a seeming proponent of this revised plan, says as much:

The Westpark line (still light rail) will now continue straight through to the UH central campus (probably down Wheeler if I had to guess). This makes far more sense than the previous plan, which would have required two seperate out-of-the-way transfers to make the same trip. It's also smart to keep this line rail for two reasons: they have a dedicated corridor (mostly), so it's out of traffic, and it's through neighborhoods where high-value, high-density new urbanist real estate development is likely to occur (and those developers will only commit to rail, not BRT that might go away).

It's smart if one favors government ordering the lives of the subjects, I suppose. But another view might very well be that spending billions of dollars from the public purse ought to be more geared towards improving the mobility of large numbers of Houstonians, should improve (not hurt!) the mobility of low-income Houstonians, and should have the support of a majority of the electorate. It's not clear this revised plan meets those criteria.

Comments are encouraged on this one. There's a lot of material.

RELATED COVERAGE: KHOU-11, KTRK-13, KUHF-88.7.

UPDATE (06-14-2005): The Chronicle has posted new coverage today. Rad Sallee updates yesterday's reporting (linked above). Joe Stinebaker covers the bus rapid transit angle. Washington bureau reporter Bennett Roth cites unnamed "political analysts" and "observers" who opine on Representatives Culberson and DeLay. Roth also cites the opinion of Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, with no mention of the fact that Stein's wife works for Mayor White; that's sloppy journalism. Finally, there's a Q&A column about the plan that reads much like a Metro press release.

ANNE ADDS (06-14-2005): In his press release, Rep. Culberson says:

My good name is my most valuable possession, so I am especially grateful to Mayor White, Metro Chairman David Wolff and Metro President Frank Wilson for publicly acknowledging that I provided voters with accurate federal formula revenue estimates for Metro prior to the November 4, 2003, rail election, and that the revenue estimates provided by Metro at that time were inflated.

Where have Mayor White, David Wolff or Frank Wilson publicly acknowledged that Rep. Culberson provided voters with accurate revenue estimates? Here's Metro's press release and there's nothing there about Rep. Culberson's accurate numbers. A check of local media stories doesn't show any of those three giving credit to Rep. Culberson, although the very end of yesterday's Chron story says this:

White said he was skeptical, as Culberson had been, about some of Metro's past revenue projections.

Uh huh. Right.

I'd link to the mayor's press release where he acknowledges Rep. Culberson was right, but there isn't a press release posted on the mayor's site.

Someone's good name is being used here, but it's not in the way Rep. Culberson intended, I am guessing.

UPDATE 2 (06-14-2005): Rep. Culberson has posted a version of the email sent to constituents to his website. A key paragraph has now been changed. Here is the one in last night's email:

It is very important to reiterate that Metro is in charge of its own destiny. We can help ensure that Metro competes with other cities on a level playing field, but in the end, it is entirely up to Metro to prove to the FTA that this new transit plan meets federal guidelines that require sufficient ridership to justify the costs of design, construction and operation of these transit lines. Without FTA approval, Congress is powerless to fund this new transit plan.

Here is the version on the Congressman's website:

It is very important to reiterate that Metro is in charge of its own destiny. This plan was developed entirely by Metro and Mayor White, and I have not endorsed it. Leader DeLay and I are fulfilling our obligation to the people of Houston to ensure that Metro competes with other cities on a level playing field. In the end, it is entirely up to Metro to prove to the FTA that this new transit plan meets federal guidelines that require sufficient ridership to justify the costs of design, construction and operation of these transit lines. Without FTA approval, Congress is powerless to fund this new transit plan.

That reads to me like Mayor White either overplayed Rep. Culberson's support of this plan -- or Rep. Culberson came to the realization (with the help of vocal constituents?) that the original version lended itself to that interpretation -- and it was changed. In any case, Mayor White certainly gave the impression that his plan had the full support of the Congressional delegation. Our mayor is one smooth political operator.

Posted by Kevin Whited @ 06/13/05 10:12 PM | Print |

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