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March 22, 2010

The bad Metro bet

metro-map-2012-revised Following on this post from last week, there were a couple of good pieces from over weekend on the cascading boondoggle that is Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority.

In this post, the always-insightful Tory Gattis comments on Randal O'Toole's Wall Street Journal op-ed from over the weekend in which O'Toole focuses on the short-sighted nature of huge investment in light rail systems. At a time of fast technological innovation, why should a community place a substantial amount of its chips on an increasingly obsolescent form of mass transit such as light rail?

Meanwhile, Bill King followed his fine blog post from last week with this devastating Sunday Chronicle op-ed in which he disassembles each of the primary myths that Metro supporters use when defending the light rail system. In particular, King explains why the 2003 referendum is not a reasonable justification for what Metro is proposing now with regard to its light rail system:

The 2003 referendum had three elements: (1) a $1.2 billion LRT system; (2) a roughly 50 percent increase in bus service; and (3) initiating a plan for commuter rail.

Metro has completely abandoned the bus expansion: We have fewer buses and bus riders today than we did in 2003. It also has done absolutely nothing to further the development of any commuter rail lines and has instead gotten in the way of other groups like Harris County when they have tried to initiate some action. The voters in 2003 did not approve just a light rail plan; they approved a comprehensive, multimodal system. Metro, for its own reasons, has abandoned what the voters approved in favor of its own grandiose vision.

Additionally, it should be noted that the voters specifically restricted Metro to borrowing $640 million to build the light rail system. Metro now plans to subvert that limitation by entering into a sale/lease-back arrangement with a separate subsidiary and actually borrow more than four times what the voters approved. Metro is always quick to invoke the moral authority of the 2003 referendum but casually ignores its inconvenient restrictions.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle editorial board continues to live in a rather odd state of denial with regard to Metro. In this vacuous op-ed, the Chron attempts to put a cheery face on Mayor Parker's appointment of several new members to the Metro board (one is actually a regular Metro rider -- how about that?!) and her negotiations with federal officials regarding funding of further light rail lines.

Without any financial analysis whatsoever, the Chron asserts that Mayor Parker is moving forward with a full build-out of light rail in a fiscally responsible manner. But even a cursory review of the data proves just the opposite.

As Peter Gordon has long maintained, citizens should require their leaders to answer the following basic questions before allowing them to obligate citizens to funding boondoggles such as light rail: 1) At what cost?, 2) Compared to what? and 3) How do you know?

The Chronicle editorial board is taking a pass on asking Metro's leaders those questions. Thankfully, Bill King and Tory Gattis are not.

Posted by Tom at March 22, 2010 12:01 AM |

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