Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lunch with Metro

Yesterday this bloggateer was invited to a gathering of similars with Gilbert Garcia and George Greanias of Metro, the metroplitan transit authority of Harris County. Present also was their media outreach chief Jerome Gray and board members Allen Watson and Christof Spieler and others. In the ongoing dynamic of evolving media, the purpose of the luncheon was to open the dialogue between Metro and us in order to make more transparent the functions of Houston's mobility coordinators.

And there was a free lunch involved, so I'm always wherever that is.

Joining me were Charles and Neil and Greg and Tory and Erik and John and a few more.

Following our lunch and conversation with Q&A we toured the maintenance facility at 1601 West Bellfort, just south of the Fannin South railway station (the southernmost terminus for the Texas-Medical-Center-to-downtown light rail line, also known as the Main Street Line and the Red Line).

Just in the past ten months (April '10 to January '11), and besides the personnel overhaul, Metro has ...

-- had a compliance review completed by Fulbright and Jaworski with no significant findings;

-- bought out former CEO Frank Wilson's contract at a discount;

-- settled the lawsuit with Lloyd Kelley;

-- reworked their real estate contract with McDade Smith to save some commission expense;

-- cancelled the contract for more rail cars with the Spanish company that builds them and received $14 million back as part of that settlement;

-- adopted a reduced capital budget (.pdf), one which slows the expansion of light rail projects in tune with their funding (as part of their transparency initiative you can even see their check register online now)

-- and has begun to demonstrate a much improved relationship with the Federal Transit Administration (of the USDOT), resulting in an extra $50 million (from $150MM to $200MM) in President Obama's budget proposal for construction of Metro's North and Southeast rail lines.

*Whew*. That's a lot of long hours and late nights for some people.

Myth-buster: Metro just celebrated its 75 millionth boarding, four years ahead of projections. Next time you hear someone say that nobody rides the train (or the buses), know that they're full of it.

Garcia wrote an op-ed last month with more detail on these organizational improvements.

While much of our Q&A centered around things like transparency and budgets and so on, I asked -- thinking that my question might be better directed to the appropriate county commissioner -- about the fate of the Danny Jackson Bark Park (see more at Yelp), which runs along the south side of Westpark between the West Loop and Newcastle ... precisely where the west end of the University Line will go. I -- and about a hundred different Houstonians at any thirty-minute interval of the day -- love this place, especially for our big dogs, who really don't get much exercise or socialization without it. And Steve Radack has cracked (scroll to the bottom) that the very reason "he" put a dog park there was so that 'Metro would lose votes if they took it back' for the railway. Well, even though Metro originally wanted to run University down Richmond -- spurring plenty of community outrage at the time -- they had purchased much of that right-of-way on Westpark from Southern Pacific in 1992. In other words, it was Metro's land for a long time before somebody thought about asking them if they could put a dog run there. And with the Uptown line coming into play, the attractiveness of increased Galleria-area ridership made everything work out well in the end.

Except for the future of a truly beloved dog park. That's still Radack's bailiwick, and maybe Metro can help him out again with something, real-estate wise.

So at this point you might be thinking "PDiddie is just a cheerleader for Metro". Well, I'm certainly a big fan of infrastructure. And a Houston that solves its ongoing and future mobility challenges is a Houston that thrives. For bidness, and for its residents. I think Metro has a real handle on how to make that happen. Tune into their board meetings online and feel free to voice your opinion, whether you agree with me or not.

Update: Big Jolly plays the victim.


Matt Bramanti said...

Yes, you are just a cheerleader for Metro if you tout the $14 million refund as an accomplishment.

Metro signed a contract it shouldn't have to buy rail cars. It spent $41 million, and it got back $14 million and no rail cars.

Give me 20 bucks, I've give you back a fiver, and then you can blog about you squeezed five bucks out of that Bramanti guy.

PDiddie said...

Matt, maybe you're not aware of the "Buy American" thing that necessitated the cancellation of the contract in the first place?

This was a big mess from the previous Metro regime that this one had to clean up. There are more messes they are working on.

Joining you in analogy-stretching: When your child makes a mess, do you drop him/her off at the adoption agency?

(Cue the "Metro is still all bad" response in three, two, one ...)

Matt Bramanti said...

Oh, I'm aware of the "Buy America" thing (and I think it's ridiculous). But ridiculous or no, it's law, and the violation of that law cost us a lot of money.

Joining you in analogy-stretching: When your child makes a mess, do you drop him/her off at the adoption agency?

No, of course not. But neither do I write a blog post trumpeting how only 1/3 of the stain on the carpet remains.

But I agree that the previous Metro administration and board was a nightmare. I'm glad they're gone, along with the guy who appointed them.

The profligacy hasn't stopped, either. Does Metro really need to be buying $500 worth of custom-made frozen raw dog food a month? How about $300 for pool table repair parts?

PDiddie said...

I'll pass along your endorsement of Mayor Parker ;)

Matt Bramanti said...

Heh, not quite. I'm still puzzled how a controller gets elected by talking about how bad the fiscal situation got while she was controller.