If you’ve somehow missed the story, our fun friends down at Metro – home of the world’s most wonderful public transportation system – have spent the past couple of years working on ways to improve the shuffling of 6 million people around the Greater Houston area.
Sounds like a good plan. Back in 2011, they rolled out a doozy called “METRO Reimagining,” which led to virtually zero hype and very little in the way of improved public transportation.
The latest program, complete with “public meetings,” is called “METRO Next.” If they need to do this again in eight more years, we might as well call it “METRO Last Stop.”
Two things about “METRO Next” caught my eye, and they seem worthy enough to repeat for our readers. First, Metro is going to ask us – the voters – to approve borrowing around $3 billion in the November elections. For the sake of reference, we borrowed $2.5 billion to fix all the damage from Hurricane Harvey, so $3 billion to fix public transportation seems like a steal. Oh, if only.
The second eye grabber came when one of Metro’s public meetings included the idea of running a light rail down Washington Avenue, from downtown to Heights Boulevard.
In consecutive breaths, I uttered two things: Fantasti… What???
After we told readers about this plan, we got pretty much the same response. On social media, one of my favorite comment came from Tyler Hartson:
“Waste of money. No one rides the ones we have sans med center. The idling vehicle traffic at train intersections in my hood alone likely negates any alleged green gains sought. The train stop stations are magnets for vagrancy.”
So there’s that opinion.
Marianna Jayson said it better: “Metro can think of more ways to mess up traffic. Bad idea!”
I called some people who know people – we call them “sources” in the business – to find out why in the world Metro would ever consider adding a 2-mile strip of rail to an area where there’s no place for riders to park. Even worse, that stretch of roadway into downtown is, quite possibly, the easiest way to get into downtown Houston already.
Here’s what I found out, and what I want to make sure readers know about Metro’s plan to eventually spend somewhere north of $7 billion in public transportation improvements.
All these ideas you’re hearing, including the throw-it-on-the-wall idea of light rail to Heights Boulevard, are just people talking. The definitive plans for what Metro wants to accomplish with its borrowed $3 billion is about as clear as the windshield on one of its buses. Instead, my guess is Metro wants to strum up enough interest in the topic to get all of us to vote in favor of borrowing more money to, maybe, alleviate some of the traffic in this concrete city.
As you hear plans bandied about, just remember those plans may not be real.
If you can’t tell, I’m skeptical of Metro, and it has nothing to do with the current leadership or board. No, I’m skeptical because there are too many small problems with Metro that could have easily been fixed years – decades – ago.
Let’s start with the buses. I moved to Houston more than 12 years ago, and our editor grew up in Houston. We had a conversation and neither of us knows the last time Metro’s fleet of buses got a paint job. My guess is this happens more often than we think, but from someone who deals in marketing each day, let me offer this suggestion:
Metro’s reputation among hundreds of thousands of potential riders in Houston is not positive. People don’t talk about Metro like it’s a wonderful transportation system.
There’s a solution to that. If you sling a broom in this city, you can hit a local marketing agency, so hire one. Maybe we should spend some money on rebranding – err, “reimagining” – Metro to the people who would consider riding.
I know that seems superficial, but it’s about to get worse: The bus stops Metro has littered around this city are embarrassing. We live in Houston, where the sun beats down at temperatures that melt mice – that’s why we don’t have many around here.
Meanwhile, our bus stops are big enough to hold a few people, weeds regularly grow all around them, and if there happens to be a rain storm, because those things happen around here, you don’t have enough room to keep more than a handful of people dry.
Want to invest some money in Metro? Why don’t we create a plan to drastically improve the places where people wait for buses. I know many would say that we’d just create nicer covered areas for the homeless, but that’s a poor reason not to improve the infrastructure of our loading locations.
And last, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two weeks meandering through Metro’s website, trying to learn as much as I can about how to use our public transportation system. In the process, I’ve found we could stand to spend a lot more money making it easier to use Metro.
For instance, I tried to find a route from my office to NRG Stadium – assuming I wanted to go sit in that parking lot and melt. On the home page of Metro, a somewhat sophisticated person such as myself could not find a place where I just entered my address and entered NRG Stadium. I actually had to leave the Metro site and search for “Metro plan your trip.”
Once there, I entered my address and then searched for “landmarks,” which took me to “stadiums.” Now assume I’m from out-of-town and want to go catch the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium. So I go to Metro’s website, find their landmarks, and look for NRG.
Guess what? It’s not there. That’s because you can only find Reliant Stadium. You know when Reliant Stadium became NRG Stadium? March 19, 2014. More than five years ago, that stadium changed its name, yet Metro can’t even get that right.
I know these things sound small, but as we consider handing Metro another big check, maybe we should ask them to do the little things well, first. Rebrand yourself. Make your on- and off-boarding locations more attractive. And for goodness sakes, help out-of-towners find their way to the biggest stadium in the city.