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Houston light rail lingers in legal limbo

Houston dignitaries had cleared their schedules for Jan. 25. The ceremonial rail spikes had been purchased. Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) Chairman Robert Miller, and CEO and President Shirley DeLibero were prepared to drive the stakes into the earth, signifying the region’s first light-rail system — 20 years in the making — had begun construction.

And then it was cancelled.

Due to an impending lawsuit, Judge Tony Lindsay issued a temporary restraining order, and Miller cancelled the groundbreaking. A hearing followed, and District Judge John Devine issued an injunction, which Metro’s board has appealed.

Even though the city council approved the light-rail project in November by an 11-4 vote, City Councilman Rob Todd is suing the city and Metro, claiming that Metro is a business that must operate under a franchise agreement — not a government entity.

Under the franchise agreement, city council approval would be insufficient; Metro would need to put its request to build on city streets to a public vote. And that’s something Metro has never done since its 1978 inception.

"It would mean that anytime we put up a bus stop, if 500 people signed a petition, it would have to go to a vote," says Julie Gilbert, Metro vice president of communications and marketing.

An ordinance to build the light-rail system would require 20,000 signatures to warrant a vote.

Although Metro has asked for an expedited ruling of its appeal, a decision may or may not come before the March 12 trial date.

While Metro officials and construction workers wait, Gilbert estimates the delay is costing about $2 million each month. The engineers and designers are on staff, she says, and have been for a year.

Until the matter is settled, Metro’s board opted not to award any of the related contracts, which include $115 million for construction; $11.2 million for street improvements; $2.4 million to reimburse Reliant Energy/Entex to relocate and adjust underground facilities; and $333,500 to reimburse MCI WorldCOM to relocate conduit, manhole and cable facilities.

The board also was ready to award $118 million for light-rail vehicles and systems, but was authorized by the injunction only to proceed with final design for an amount not to exceed $6 million.

"While we firmly believe the law is on Metro’s side and we have continually followed proper procedures, neither the board nor the staff plan to do anything that does not comply with District Judge John Devine’s injunction," said Miller in a prepared statement.

But the delay could have even further-reaching ramifications: Metro had committed to a fairly aggressive construction schedule, promising the system would be ready for the 2004 Super Bowl, to be held at the Houston Astrodome. And, the city is competing to host the 2012 Olympics. Part of the city’s bid contains the planned light-rail system. The Olympic selection committee is conducting site visits over the next six months.

If allowed to proceed, the 17.5-mile route would connect downtown Houston to the Astrodome. Total capital cost had been estimated at $300 million; Federal Transit Administration approved $101 million in funding — $5.92 million of which already has been appropriated through fiscal-year 2000.

Kathi Kube

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 2/7/2001