Tuesday, the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) held a blogger luncheon with senior Metro people (Chairman, CEO, board members, managers) at the Rail Operations Center south of Reliant. It was an informative event with a lot of good two-way Q&A. And it included an impressive tour of the facility, which, btw, is not air conditioned in the main maintenance bay. Let's just say it was the right time of year for a tour and I'm really glad I don't work there in the summer. The facility is doing its job though: Metro claims to have the highest operational uptime for rail cars in the country.
Sometimes in my push for increasing commuter bus services and cutting back rail, I fail to give credit to a lot of good work that is going on at the "New Metro":
a few issues for our collective consideration:
- They really are a lot more open and transparent, and are really trying to do the right things.
- There's been a lot to clean-up, and they've done a good job (although CEO Grenias says it will take another 2-3 years to completely turn around the organization).
- They've also done a good job continuing to reach out and create collaborative agreements to provide commuter bus services outside of their service area (like Baytown and Pearland).
- They've fixed the poorly performing Airport Direct service, price and route-wise.
- They shifted to a cash basis for the General Mobility Program instead of increasing debt.
- They fixed their broken relationship with the FTA.
There was a lot of good talk about improving express commuter bus services to TMC, Greenway, and, most importantly, Uptown. I pitched them on expanded HOV/HOT lanes (like the 610 Loop) and laptop trays and wifi on the commuter buses, which are under consideration. They have a very high percentage of downtown commuters - 30-40% - and claim a pretty high number for TMC - 20-30% - but that includes people who park in Smithlands and ride the rail, which I don't consider a true commuter solution (it's not doing anything to reduce freeway congestion).
Ultimately, they're trapped by the voter referendum and the federal money process to keep pursuing a rail plan (and line prioritization) that really doesn't make a lot of sense given the new fiscal reality since the referendum was passed. It will make even less sense if the Republican House guts rail funding. But at least they're taking steps to "firewall" the rail plan financially so it doesn't end up stealing from critical local and commuter bus operations. I may not agree with the overall strategic direction of the agency, but they do have good people doing good work within the constraints of the game they're forced to play.
This post originally appeared at houstonstrategies.com