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Parker task force announces METRO findings

Mayor reevaluates agency

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Mayor Annise Parker’s METRO task force, which she appointed to review the transit agency’s operations, has released its findings, according to Parker also announced her five nominations to the nine-member METRO board of directors on Thursday.

The task force was divided into five committees: Regional Coordination, Light Rail Punchlist, Funding Structure, Basic Services, and Small Business Enterprises. The committees provided PowerPoint presentations on their findings.

The Regional Coordination Committee found that regional transit is becoming fragmented, with Harris County, Fort Bend County, and others forming their own transit districts. It also found that other local transit agencies do not trust METRO to lead a regional transit system due to poor communication and a tarnished work history. Recently, METRO, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and the City of Galveston have been struggling over which agency should implement commuter rail in the region. The Gulf Coast Rail District just received $715,000 in stimulus funds to study the Hempstead commuter rail line. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett threw his support behind the Gulf Coast Rail District, saying that METRO is too Houston-centric and should focus its energy on light rail.

The Light Rail Punchlist Committee found that light rail will play a vital role in Houston’s transportation system but that some uncertainties remain, and that some stakeholders are unsatisfied with the agency’s communication and decision making processes. Once the light rail expansion is completed, it said that the bus network will be restructured to feed the light rail system.

The Funding Structure Committee said that that the East End, North, and Southeast lines will be fully funded, but that there are concerns about the Uptown and University lines. According to the Examiner, Parker expressed concerns that METRO does not yet have the money to build either of those lines. However, the mayor recently flew to Washington, DC to express her support for the light rail expansion.

The Basic Services Committee reported that METRO has cut its least productive bus routes in an effort to improve its ratio of revenue to costs, although that came at the expense of public service. Ridership has also decreased as a result of fare increases, federal changes, and rising unemployment. One option for increasing service, the committee said, was eliminating bus fares as Mayor Parker suggested last month, although that idea has been publicly denounced by outgoing METRO chair David Wolff. The committee also found that the expanded bus service planned after 2014 will depend on METRO getting its full one-cent sales tax. One-quarter of the tax was diverted into a region-wide general mobility fund.

Finally, the Small Business Enterprises Committee found that the small business program has good intentions and has experienced some successes, but that it has not communicated those successes well and that it lacks sufficient accountability. It also reported that there have been some irregularities regarding the Requests for Proposals that have discouraged small business owners from participating.

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