The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (Metro) is a much maligned public agency. The paradox of its name, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County has led to it being derided by many within its political jurisdiction because of the strong influence the mayor of Houston has over its board and chairman. Every two years the agency finds itself fighting in the legislature to keep its regional authority as a transportation agency, project funding, eminent domain authority, and board structure in place. My observation and experience is that other governmental agencies look upon Metro with disdain.
The citizens, who don’t have to utilize its services, tolerate it as if it were a wayward adolescent relative. To those who depend upon it, Metro is an imperfect necessity, which often fails to provide good customer service. To contractors and service providers, it is a frustrating bureaucratic maze. To some elected officials and their friends, Metro is a cash cow to be milked everyday. To taxpayer watchdog groups, Metro is an untrustworthy cauldron of political double talk. To the news media, it provides a guaranteed story on a slow news day.
That being said, Metro is an agency filled with dedicated public servants, who deserve to have their story told, even if it is by someone who has not always been a fan of Metro. For the record and public disclosure purposes let me tell you that I am a paid stakeholder affairs consultant to the agency. You could rightfully argue that my client-consultant relationship has changed me into an advocate for Metro. There is no amount of money Metro or anyone else can pay me that can change the facts or the truth. I am more outraged about what my research has uncovered than all the incompetence, arrogance, and political machinations I have witnessed at Metro over the years.
Here are some facts; the Metro Solutions light rail project and overall bus service operations have been ill-affected in the name of “general mobility.” The public transportation system of Harris County has been looted for the past 21 years by the city and county to the tune of $2.5 billion. Let me be explicit, 25% of public transit revenue from the one cent public transit sales tax has gone for street, drainage, and landscaping projects. This is NOT what voters established Metro to do when it was created in 1978. This has taken place while politicians in city and county government tout their tax rate cutting policies and control of government spending. In this case, there ought to be a law compelling truth in advertising. It is easy to balance your budget when you use the revenue of the area public transportation agency to do it.
The tragedy is that this money was used to promote and facilitate automobile oriented policy over mass transit. When gasoline goes back up to $4 a gallon, we again will be asking ourselves: “why is Metro so inadequate?” Go back to the 1988 referendum the voters passed. We allowed our transit agency’s reserves set aside for rail and multi modal transit to be used for police overtime and general mobility. We also allowed a bifurcated bus system to be set up. There is a level of comfort on the suburban park and ride buses that are not evident on the inner city buses. HOV and HOT lanes are a part of the system, but should not be such a large part of the capital expenditures of the system. What about commuter rail? There is a nasty intergovernmental fight brewing on over which entity will build and operate the future commuter rail network. Mind you all of this could have been done by Metro as the regional transportation agency if it was allowed to keep its $2.5 billion and seek match funding from the federal government. We have been effectively robbed of $5billion dollars for public transit. We could have built the inner city light rail network and commuter system twice over by now. You don’t believe me? Just look no further than our neighbors to the north in Dallas. More to come in Part II. For more information on Metro Solutions go to www.communities-in-motion.org.