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In January 2001, Houston Metro's 7.5-mile-long, $300 million Main St. light rail transit (LRT) project was put on hold under two temporary injunctions in response to a lawsuit by rightwing anti-rail forces, led by Houston City Councilman Rob Todd and backed by the far-right San Antonio-based Texas Justice Foundation (TJF). (TJF, a vehicle for pursuing litigation favorable to far-right causes, is funded by utlraright San Antonio multimillionaire James Leininger, who also bankrolls the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a self-styled "think tank" which specializes in fighting light rail projects in Texas.)
But sometimes the good guys win one. On Thursday, 9 March 2001, a Texas appellate
court in Houston gave the high sign to the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro)
and its plans to build the LRT line along Main St. from downtown Houston to Reliant Park.
In a unanimous, 3-0 decision, the First Court of Appeals lifted the injunction against
Metro which had been issued by State District Judge John Devine on 2 Feb. Devine
had granted the injunction in the course of considering a lawsuit filed by Houston City
Councilman Rob Todd, who wants a "referendum" on the rail project (but is apparently
quite content to let all other major transportation projects in the city proceed without
special voter approval). Houston Metro cites a county attorney's ruling that such a vote
would be illegal since no debt is being proposed to pay for construction of the line.
Houston Mayor Lee Brown said he was delighted by the speedy appeals court decision,
calling it "very good news". And Shirley DeLibero, Metro's chief executive officer and
president, said: "I'm just happy. I'm ready to build."
Metro Chairman Robert D. Miller said the Metro board was preparing "to move forward
with the rail contracts that were put on hold" when the project was halted by the
injunctions. Metro officials estimate that, so far, the 6-week delay caused by the Road
Warriors' lawsuit has added an additional $3 million to the cost of the project.
At a news conference at Metro headquarters, Brown and Miller criticized City
Councilman Rob Todd for suing to block work on the project. DeLibero noted the $3
million cost to taxpayers that the delay has caused. The lawsuit, filed by Todd and
Houston rail opponent Allen Vogel, led to a restraining order on 18 Jan. by State District
Judge Tony Lindsay, barring Metro from altering Houston streets for the $300 million
project. Then, after Lindsay recused herself when her impartiality was challenged, a
temporary injunction was issued 2 Feb. by State District Judge John Devine.
Costing about $40 million per mile to install, Houston Metro's LRT project is targeted for
the Main St. corridor, where passenger volumes are among the highest in the city.
Currently, numerous Metro bus routes serve the corridor including services to Downtown
and Texas Medical Center – seven local routes and two express routes.
Opening day LRT ridership is forecast to
range between 20,300 - 22,200. Forecast year 2020 ridership is estimated to be
approximately 40,000 boardings per day on the Downtown to Astrodome LRT route,
or 10 to 13 million annual boardings. Travel demand is expected to grow along
with development occurring and anticipated within the corridor.
Reflecting the forecast of heavy ridership,
planners currently expect LRT service will run every 6 minutes in peak times and 12
minutes during off-peak times. Due to heavy volumes at the Texas Medical Center
during their peak hours, 3-minute headways, with turnbacks at Hermann Park, are
anticipated. LRT service is expected to displace some 1,200 daily bus trips on Main
Street and Fannin – a massive reduction in traffic by itself.
Todd's lawsuit – and the basis for the injunctions – contended that rail opponents, who
gathered about 1,100 signatures on a referendum petition, had satisfied the City
Charter's requirements to bring the matter to a vote. Central to that contention was the
claim that the transit authority, a governmental agency, was actually a "business" and
therefore covered by the Houston City Charter. Metro and the city argued that the
authority is a government agency created by the state, and that therefore more than
20,000 signatures were needed, and the appeals court agreed.
Miller also charged that Todd had broken a promise to stop fighting the project if Metro
would seek approval for it from the Houston City Council. On 21 Nov. 2000, the council
voted 11-4 to give Metro permission to build the line on segments of Main, Fannin, and
San Jacinto streets. "We upheld our end of the bargain" Miller told the Houston
Chronicle. "He [Todd] didn't like the fact that City Council voted 11 to 4 against him, so
he filed another lawsuit."
A brief statement from Todd's office said: "We are currently studying our options and
reviewing the court's opinion. Whatever decision is made will be in the best interest of
City Attorney Anthony Hall and Metro attorney Jonathan Day said the 23-page appeals
court opinion, written by Justice Margaret Mirabal and joined by Chief Justice Michael
Schneider and Justice Sam Nuchia, left little grounds for a successful appeal.
According to the Houston Chronicle, the decision concluded that Devine had "erred in
application of the law to the undisputed facts." it also cancelled his injunction and sent
the case back to Devine's court to deal with in a way consistent with the opinion.
Day told the Chronicle that although the case has not been finally disposed of, he saw
no risk to Metro or the city in proceeding with the project. "The ruling is definitive" Day
emphasized. "it's essentially a final judgment, although it isn't characterized that way."
Hall told the Chronicle that the section of the ruling that overturns Devine's injunction
cannot be appealed, and the court's finding that the facts of the case are "undisputed"
leaves little of substance for a lower court to consider in a trial.
But, besides the extra $3 million Todd and his Road Warrior cohorts have cost
taxpayers, more damage has been done. DeLibero and Miller said that in view of the
delays, it is unlikely that the LRT line can be completed in time for the 2004 Super Bowl
as originally planned. Brown told the Houston Chronicle that the football game will be
held in Houston anyway, but he added that an effective transit system is crucial to the
city's hopes of attracting the 2012 Olympic Games. Miller repeated the promise often
made by Metro that "any extensions of this line will go to the voters."
Ed Wulfe, chairman of Houston's Main Street Coalition, and Robert Eury, president of
Central Houston and executive director of the Downtown District, said the ruling now
clears the way for development along the planned route.