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Ridesharing with a Little Help from iPhone


Screen shot of Carticipate with founder Steffen Frost's profileA new application on iPhone matches drivers with riders in a twist on old-fashioned hitchhiking.

Think of it as computerized hitchhiking.

Carticipate, a free ride-sharing application became available for the iPhone in October. It's already had more than 10,000 downloads, said Steffen Frost, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Carticipate.

Calling itself an experiment in social transportation, Carticipate says it's the first and only rideshare application on a location aware mobile platform - in other words, a cell phone.

Carticipate says on its Web site that drivers can simply indicate destination and time of departure and post their ride. The company will match drivers up with other "carticipants" going the same way.

Meanwhile, in Kinsale, Ireland, a company called Avego is using a different application to coordinate drivers and riders. Drivers who want to share their car will download the application on their iPhone, then record their route of choice, reports the NYT.

Drivers place the iPhone on their dashboard. It records the trip, and sends the route to Avego's network. That route is then stored on Avego's system where it adds the route to a menu of paths and pick-up points,  then offers the ride to interested commuters.

Avego says it will charge 30 cents a mile with 85 percent going to the driver to help recoup costs and 15 percent to Avego. Riders do not need an iPhone to participate and can search for a ride by logging on the Avego Web site or texting. METRO's Star van

Would that work here in the United States? Americans historically enjoy driving alone, mainly because many engage in so-called "trip chaining" - when you run errands to and from work. About 75 percent of American workers drive alone to work, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

Here at METRO, we offer ridesharing through Star, our vanpool program.  Eligible riders can also receive a $35 month incentive to share a ride. We also have a free matching program, METROMatch, that will search our extensive eight-county data base to help you find a ride from home to work.  

Click here to see our Vanpool Finder, which will tell you if there are existing vanpools you could join.


Cheer for the Holidays: Easing the Parking Problems


Aerial view of crowded parking lotThis is the season for shopping and good will - and circling around and around, stalking shoppers to grab their parking space if you're at the mall.

For commuters who use our Park & Ride lots at Kingsland and South Point, you are familiar with the pain of trying to find a parking space. In fact, dozens of you have been parking illegally - on medians, on the side of the road, in parking aisles.

Here's some good news to celebrate this holiday season: METRO has added 130 spaces at our Kingsland Park & Ride and 120 spaces at our South Point Park & Ride.

"We really hit the ground running on this one," said Vince Obregon, associate vice president of infrastructure service development.

Obregon, our go-to guy for the design and construction of our Park & Ride lots, said METRO has been monitoring the situation and started implementing a solution to the overcrowded lots on Nov. 1. 

"We re-engineered the parking spaces and driving aisles at Kingsland, and by doing that, we were able to reconfigure the geometric parking spaces to 130 extra spaces," said Obregon, "We took out an aisle. This was the most responsive way to get some parking relief out there."

At South Point, which serves the Texas Medical Center, more than 150 cars were parked illegally, according to an October report. METRO has a long-term operating agreement to operate that lot, which is owned by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot).

TxDOT had some vacant land to the west of South Point Park & Ride, so METRO used that to create more spaces.

"We simply knocked down some curb and put down some all-weather, crushed limestone material to park on. This is going to be a temporary scenario. We are Close-up of car side mirrorcurrently negotiating with TxDOT to do a full build-out of the remaining property,' said Obregon.

The completed build-out will offer more than 300 new spaces when completed by the end of 2009.

The two parking projects cost $300,000. "For a cost per space, it was very economical," said Obregon. "The cost benefit is very high."

The construction of both projects was completed in six to eight weeks.

"We were able to respond quickly," said Frank J. Wilson, METRO's president and chief executive officer at yesterday's board meeting. "Even with fuel prices going down and even with our prices going up, there's still latent demand for transit."



Train Accidents Decline in Pilot Program

Assistant Police Chief Tim KellyIn the past 30 days, there have been no car/rail accidents caused by cars turning left downtown in front of a train.

That safety record is the result of a pilot program that ends this week and is a result of three factors, says Assistant Police Chief Tim Kelly of MPD.

"Education - the media attention to this effort helped to educate the driving public. Engineering - the signal timing changes implemented by the city of Houston. Enforcement - the dedicated police officers at six downtown intersections," explained Kelly. "It is a combination of these three, and no one factor can be attributed solely to this accident reduction."

Earlier, we wrote about how the city has worked closely with MPD to adjust the timing of traffic signals along the Red Line. The six test locations along Main Street are: St. Joseph, Franklin, Texas, Prairie, Preston and Congress.

The re-signaling has meant that METRORail gets a green light first, a few seconds before drivers get a green light to proceed. This permits the train to travel ahead of regular traffic at these intersections. Westbound and eastbound traffic has not been affected.

So far, this three-pronged approach is working.

By the end of this week, the police officers who have been deployed at the six downtown intersections will be reassigned, but "there will be continue to be dedicated police enforcement along Main Street to reinforce the positive changes we have made," said Kelly.

The new signal timing will stay in place. The city and METRO will work closely together to determine if more traffic lights need to be adjusted to benefit the rest of the Red Line.

"All in all, this has been a very successful joint effort between the city and METRO to enhance public safety along the Red Line corridor," said Kelly.

Renting Cars by the Hours



Now the powerhouse of rental cars had jumped into the market of car rentals by the hour.

 The Hertz Corp., which bills itself as "the world's largest general use car rental brand," is launching a service, "Connect by Hertz." Customers who pay an annual fee will be able to rent cars by the hour, minus some of the hidden contract fees.

The service is strikingly similar to Zipcar, which has about 5,500 cars in 13 cities, including 1,400 cars in the New York area. Hertz will have rent-by-the-hour cars available in New York and Park Ridge, N.J., where Hertz headquarters is located. It will also be available in London and Paris.

Trying to appeal to young drivers, Hertz will be renting the Toyota Prius and the Mini Cooper among its first 35 cars that will be parked at 10 lots in midtown Manhattan.

"There's a market for car-sharing, and it's larger than has been developed to date," said Mike Senackerib, the Hertz senior vice president of marketing, to the NYT. Hertz said it is starting in New York because of the many residents who don't own cars but may need a car only for a few hours.

The company said it expects to expand the service next year to 20 cities in the United States and 20 cities abroad.

The new service by Hertz will offer some extra luxuries: a button to call customer service, Bluetooth, iPod docking stations, a GPS system and E-Zpass.

Zipcar says it's not worried about the competition from the 800-pound gorilla. "We're certainly sitting up and noticing what other competitors are doing," Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith told the NYT. "But this is Hertz car sharing 1.0, and we're at Zipcar 8.0."



A Free Ride to Safety


Man striking womanAn innovative program in Louisville, KY, is helping victims of domestic violence.

Dubbed Ride to Safety, the program gives free rides to all women who need one.

"All a woman needs to do is step on a TARC bus and say, ‘I need a ride to safety.' Her travel is free, and the bus operator will radio to TARC's Central Command Center to let the dispatcher know that there is a ‘ride to safety' request," said J. Barry Barker, executive director of the Transit Authority of River City (TARC) to Passenger Transport, an industry publication of the American Public Transportation Association.

Once the transit agency receives that call, it sends out a special truck to meet the bus enroute and pick up the woman passenger. It then drives her to the closest shelter for battered women.

The masterminds behind the program were the Center for Women and Families of Louisville, KY, and the Transit Authority of River City.

The Center for Women and Families conducts regular domestic violence training for all new transit agency drivers. For current staff, a one-time training was conducted.

One of the myths dispelled for bus drivers is that not all victims will appear frightened. Many have become so accustomed to violence that they are quite calm. By the time they board the bus and ask for a ride to safety, they may have been contemplating this step for year.

While officials said they were initially concerned that bus drivers might be subjecting themselves to more violence by participating in this program, the agency says drivers have been supportive.

Since the program started in early 2007, the Center for Women and Families reports that about 3 percent of its walk-in clients have used the ride-to-safety program.

"I think the beauty of the program is that it's so simple," said Corissa Philips, the Center's director of communications, to Passenger Transport. "It has two ingredients: a shelter facility and a transit authority."

Domestic violence is not just an issue in Kentucky. Nationwide, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. About 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year.

In Texas, there were 187, 811 incidents of family violence in 2005, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  There were 12,356 adults living in domestic violence shelters in 2006.



China's Electric Car Beats Competition


China's hybrid carA Chinese battery company which has reinvented itself as a car manufacturer is skipping ahead of the competition by about two years with its new electric car.

BYD Co. of Shenzhen, China, began selling the world's first mass-produced, plug-in hybrid car, the F3 DM, reports American Public Media's Marketplace show today. Click here to listen to the story.

Resembling a Corolla, the F3 DM goes longer between charges and charges faster than the cars General Motors and the Japanese are developing now.

The Chinese car can run 62 miles using only batteries. The battery can be charged in seven hours at a power point, or it can be rapidly charged at 50 percent power at a specialist station in 10 minutes, according to the company. It also has a gas engine as a secondary power source, says

So how reliable is a Chinese hybrid car? BYD was impressive enough for Warren Buffet, who invested $230 million in the company earlier this year, endorsing the firm's innovative battery technology.

BYD still makes rechargeable batteries for cell phones and laptops.

Right now, you can only buy the F3 DM in China. Next year, you can buy it in Scandinavia. BYD said it hopes to export the hybrid to the U.S. in 2011. The car costs about $22,000 USD.

Toyota said in August it plans to start testing plug-ins which would be rechargeable from household power points, while GM said it plans to sell the Volt plug-in late 2010.

The pricey cost of hybrids and lack of charging stations in China have kept demand down, but the Chinese government is encouraging domestic automakers' foray into alternative energy. It has stated it wants 60,000 hybrids on the roads in 10 cities by 2012. The government reportedly is considering a plan to eliminate sales tax on vehicles with engines less than 1.6 liters.

The Shenzhen local government and China Construction Bank signed contracts to buy 50 hybrids from BYD today, reports Bloomberg.

I'm Certified - What's Next?

Cynthia DUdley, METRO's small business devel. & assistance officerAbout 55 small business owners filed into our board room this morning to learn tips on how to do business with a giant agency like METRO.

With construction already underway on one of our five light-rail lines and plans to complete these lines by 2012, small businesses will have plenty of opportunity to do business with us. Our goal is to award 35 percent of our contracts to Small Business Enterprises/Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (SBE/DBE), exceeding the federal mandate.

"The purpose of the seminar was to inform the certified small businesses on how to actually do business with METRO after they become certified - the ins and outs of the procurement process as well as the benefits of procurement," said Cynthia Dudley, METRO's small business development and assistance officer, pictured above. 

Nadeem Ainuddin, METRO's senior contract specialist in procurement, had the audience laughing as he encouraged them to "bug" him and call him with questions, telling them that he, too, was once an entrepreneur and understood their issues.

At the seminar, the business owners learned the benefits of being certified:


  • Can be listed in METRO's directory as a program participant
  • Can list the cost of bonds as a line item in the bid and be reimbursed by METRO
  • Can invoice METRO every 15 calendar days.
  • Can invoice METRO for mobilization costs and be paid within 15 calendar days
  • Can register for college-level and specific industry technical courses, seminars and workshops. METRO may pay a portion of the cost of the courses Shurronda Murray, METRO's small biz project specialist who certifies small businesses

Not yet certified? Click here to learn more. Shurronda Murray, METRO's small business project specialist, pictured on the right, is the one who certifies small businesses.

Business owners also learned tips on getting in the door at METRO, including the following:


  • Aggressively and professionally market your company.
  • Register at for automatic e-mail notices of new solicitations, updates and contract awards.
  • Attend METRO pre-bid and pre-proposal conferences.
  • Complete bid proposals as instructed, including all requested documents.

Dudley said METRO started offering these "I'm Certified - What's Next?" seminars on a monthly basis when our fiscal year started in October because we were getting so many questions from newly- certified business owners.

Business owners at today's METRO seminar"A lot of these businesses want to see you and hear you talk," said Dudley.

Evaluation forms were distributed immediately following the event, and Dudley read one: "The staff was engaged and very helpful."

That's exactly what METRO wants to hear.

"These events are well-received," said Dudley. "It motivates the small businesses to want to do business with METRO because they know we care. And we want them to succeed."



METRO Matters: Keeping Kids Safe During Construction

Logo of METRO Matters TV show Construction is underway on the East End line - one of five light-rail lines we are building.

And during this construction, we want to make sure we keep kids safe.

We have been conducting an innovative school safety program at the HISD schools that uses everything from songs to cartoon characters to teach students about rail safety.

Mike Martinez, METRO's manager of stakeholder affairs of corporate programs, explains more on our latest edition of METRO Matters.

Click below to see the show.

Or watch it on Comcast's Channel 17 at the following times:


Sat.  12/13/08  3:45 p.m.

Mon. 12/15/08  8:20 p.m.

Wed. 12/17/08  8:30 p.m.

Fri.    12/19/08  8:30 p.m.

Sat.   12/20/08  3:00 p.m.

Tue.   12/23/08  6:30 p.m.

Thur.  12/25/08 7:30 p.m.

Sat.    12/27/08 9:00 p.m.

Wed.  12/31/08 8:30 p.m.


Two Small, Texas Towns Rank as Best Commutes


Recreation at Ft. HoodIf small town living appeals to you, it's important to note that not all small towns have easy commutes.

In fact, a recent analysis by shows that small towns just on the perimeters of big cities often come with the worst drive times. compiled its data using information released yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau, which ranks cities, towns and Census-designated locations by the average amount of time it takes for residents to get to work.

Using data from towns with populations between 20,000 and64,999 from the bureau's AmericanCommunity Survey conducted between 2005 and 2007, respondents were asked how many minutes it took to get to work the previous week.Recreation in Plainville

The results? Many of the worst commutes occur around large cities. LintonHall, Vir., population of 21,118 tops the list as the worst small-town commute. 

Seventy-eight percent of its residents drive alone to work, and they take an average of 46.3 minutes to there. The town is located 35 miles from Washington, D.C.

Linton Hall residents endure a commute that's seven minutes longer than commutes of New Yorkers and 17 minutes longer than drive times of Los Angeles residents.

Second-worst small-town commute: Brentwood, Ca., with 43.2 minutes of drive time and 79 percent of its residents saying they drive alone to work. Third place: Fort Washington, Md., at 42.5 minutes.

On the flip side, two small Texas towns were ranked among the best small-town commutes.

Fort Hood, population 33,524, clocked in at 11.5 minutes for drive time with 57 percent of its residents driving to work alone. Plainview,population 21,092, with 77 percent of its west Texas residents driving to work alone, had a commute of 11.4 minutes. Horse photo depicts recreation at Fort Hood, while photo on right is recreation in Plainville.

Many cities with the shortest commutes also were the most walkable cities. College towns tend to be walkable cities. For example, 45 percent of all workers reported walking to their jobs in State College, Pa., the home of Penn State, where the average commute is 13 minutes.

Most people will have to stick to their long commutes and hang on to their distant jobs during this recession, since new jobs are not materializing in the small towns bordering big cities, says Forbes.


A Softer, More Pleasant Volume on the Train

Passengers boarding METRO trainThe human ear is amazing.

We can hear our fingers brush against our cheek, and we can hear the roar of a jet engine, which is 1 trillion times as loud as the least audible sound.

For those of you who ride our train, the announcements inside the train may have been too loud. For me, the volume was annoying. I couldn't talk on my cell phone without stopping when an announcement blared out the next stop. I agreed with the Web chat participant who complained months ago about the volume of our train announcements.

Well, good news. Have you noticed the softer announcements?

In response to comments from some of our customers, we started adjusting the volume of announcements inside the train (not the platform - those announcements are controlled by Houston TranStar).

Our inside train announcements were at 76 decibels. A decibel (dB) measures the intensity of a sound. A whisper is 15 dB, normal conversation is 60 dB, a car horn is 110 dB and a rock concert, 120 dB.

We lowered the volume to 65 dB, said Stephen Land, superintendent of rail vehicle maintenance. "That was a little too low. When the train was packed, you could barely hear," said Land.

Three days later, we adjusted the volume up to 72 dB.

The trains are equipped with a noise-sensing microphone. The louder the ambient noise - the noise from passengers talking, for example - the more the volume of the announcement increases, explained Land.

Next, we turned off the noise-sensing component. "So we will maintain the volume at 72 dB at all times now," said Land. 

So far, there have been no complaints. I personally love the lower volume. Noise is irritating and fatiguing. Now, it's much more pleasant to ride the train.

Of course, this morning, the quiet was interrupted with a passenger who was rapping out loud to no one in particular about the inequities of society. On public transit, you can't really escape noise unless you zone out on an iPod....but at least the programmed announcements are at a more pleasant level now.

"Just keep giving me feedback, and we'll work together to make our customers happy," said Land.

Next time you ride the train, pay attention to the volume of the announcements, and let us know if you like it.



Public Ridership Surges Despite Lower Gas Prices

Man pumping gas in carHouston drivers enjoyed regular unleaded gas prices averaging $1.64 a gallon last weekend, a decline of five cents from the week before, according to AAA Texas.

But despite falling gas prices, Americans continue to ride public transit at record levels, says the American Public Transportation Association, a nonprofit trade group.

More than 2.8 billion trips were taken on public transit in the third quarter of 2008. That's an increase of 6.5 percent over the same period, year before. This is the biggest quarterly hike in public transportation ridership in 25 years.

"The record increase in public transportation trips demonstrates the exceptional value of public transportation in today's economy," said William W. Millar, APTA president. "The fact that public transit ridership surged while gas prices and highway traffic declined, shows a growing demand for more bus and rail services."Hybrid bus downtown

If you're driving your car in and around Houston's spaghetti bowl of freeways during drive time, I'm sure it doesn't feel like freeway driving decreased in the third quarter. But it has nationwide.

Vehicle miles of travel (VMT) on the nation's highways declined in the third quarter of this year by 4.6 percent from the same period in 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Last year, 10.3 billion trips were taken on public transit in this country - the highest number of trips in half a century. Public transit rose in the first quarter by 3.4 percent. In the second quarter, it climbed by 5.2 percent while gas prices also climbed to more than $4 a gallon.

The third quarter showed a continued increase of 6.5 percent, confirming the trend of more Americans turning to public transit to get around.

Light rail saw the highest percentage of ridership increase among all modes of public transit with an 8.5 percent increase in the third quarter.

Baltimore light railBaltimore (19.6 percent), Minneapolis (18.3 percent) and Sacramento (16.5 percent) saw the biggest increases. Dallas recorded a 15 percent increase in light-rail ridership.

The second largest ridership increase was in buses at 7.2 percent. Bus transit in all sizes of communities saw an increase. The top three increases at large bus agencies occurred in Orange County, CA (23.9 percent); Phoenix (15.2 percent); and San Diego (14.4 percent).

Commuter rail grew by 6.3 percent. Albuquerque (35.8 percent); Pompano Beach, FL (32.9 percent); and New Haven (32.2 percent) saw the largest increase.

Heavy rail (subways and elevated trains) ridership grew by 5.2 percent with Los Angeles topping the list at 14.1 percent.

Read more ridership stats here.

"To sum it up, public transportation is good for the economy, good for the environment and good for energy independence," said Millar.





Heated Bus Shelters


Chicago bus shelterWhile today's chilly temperatures in Houston feel like winter to us, other parts of the country are really shivering.

But some bus commuters in Chicago will get to wait for their bus in heated comfort.

Kraft Foods has arranged with JCDecaux North America, the company that builds and maintains Chicago's bus shelters to pipe warm air from the roofs into the shelters, according to The New York Times. JCDecaux owns these bus shelters.

The hot air began on Tuesday and will continue through the next three weeks. It's not an altruistic move. It's a marketing technique to promote the Stove Top brand of stuffing produced by Kraft Foods.

Called "experiential marketing," the technique is intended to convince consumers to experience products or brands. Kraft said it is trying to recreate that warm feeling consumers get when they eat stuffing.

"This is an opportunity to expand into a multisensory experience," Ellen Thompson, brand manager for Stove Top told the NYT.

The 10 heated shelters are located in downtown Chicago, including Michigan Avenue and State Street. Posters will be on the shelters that say: "Cold, provided by winter. Warmth, provided by Stove Top."

Kraft also plans to give samples of a new variety of Stove Top at half of the heated shelters.

Of course, experts say the biggest risk of this type of marketing is that consumers will consider it annoying.

Today, the temperature in Chicago was 18 degrees F. and mostly cloudy. If the temperatures stay low in Chicago, Kraft is hoping the warm air will keep commuters toasty - and feeling good about its brand. The campaign is costing Kraft more than $100,000, says the NYT.

Do you think it's OK to advertise at bus shelters?






Heroes on Wheels

Heroes on Wheels logoThe men and women who drive our buses more than 500 square miles every day see and hear all sorts of things - including emergencies.

And sometimes they commit extraordinary acts while on the job - things that are truly above and beyond the call of duty.

We want to honor these drivers who do heroic acts. We are calling them "Heroes on Wheels."  Periodically, we will feature a hero on this blog and on our home page of our Web site.

Today, meet Aaron White.

On Oct. 7, White had just finished a shift on the 283 - Kuykendahl Park & Ride route and walked into a Subway sandwich shop on Main and Preston Streets.

Within seconds, a customer seated at one of the tables tumbled onto the floor, victim of a heart attack. White, 45, immediately started administering CPR. About four and a half minutes later, the man was breathing again. Then a paramedic crew arrived. Aaron White, bus driver who saved a life

White, a 16 year-veteran at METRO, is also a full-time firefighter.

"It was his lucky day," says White. "I felt good knowing that I saved somebody's life. I don't consider myself a hero. I was just doing what I was trained to do in life. It's a wonderful feeling when I save somebody's life, or when I save someone's home when it's on fire."

White, who works out of our Fallbrook facility, says his naturally calm demeanor helps him cope with the stresses bus operators encounter daily.

 "I learned one thing in the Army: Take control of a situation and always have a calm head. You'll be better and go a long way," says White. "I apply that skill here at METRO and at the fire department."

When he's not saving lives, the six-foot tall White is on the road again - but this time astride his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle, riding to the Hill Country.





Small Businesses Get Their Share of METRO Contracts


Now that we're in an official recession, many small businesses may be wondering how they will survive.

METRO wants all small businesses to know that it is committed to making sure small businesses and disadvantaged businesses get their fair share of contract work.

Here's how committed we are:

In fiscal year 2008, $75.4 million out of $213 million of eligible contracts were awarded to small and disadvantaged businesses that qualified under METRO's  Small/Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program. That's 35.3 percent of the total  contract money awarded. A breakdown by ethnicity shows the following percentage of money committed:

Asian - 14.90 percent of money committed to small business,or 5.2 percent of total contract money

Black - 19.80 percent of money committed or 7 percent of total contract money

Caucasian - 34.70 percent of money committed, or 12.3percent of total contract money

Hispanic - 29.60 percent of money committed, or 10.4 percentof total contract money

Native American - 1 percent of money committed, or 0.4percent of total contract money

"As a public agency, METRO recognizes that small businesses need opportunities to obtain a fair proportion of our procurement business," says Deborah Richard, vice president of administration. "As a result, we have developed METRO's Small Business/Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Policy, to ensure that all segments of the business community, regardless of size, have the opportunity to participate fully and fairly in our procurement and contracting activities."

More than 90 percent of the small business contractors we did business with for preliminary engineering and advanced design services for the four light-rail lines were local businesses in FY07 and FY08. The total amount received by local small business contractors for this work was $25,076,504. The four light-rail lines are: East End, Southeast, North and Uptown. METRO's fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30. 

Every year, from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2008,we have increased the dollar amount of our contracts to SBE/DBEs.  In FY04, $22.4 million program eligible contracts went to SBE/DBEs; FY05, $23.5 million; FY06, $49.6 million; FY07, $47.7 million; and FY08,$75.4 million.

METRO has also been exceeding the minimum federal requirements for participation of disadvantaged business enterprises. The minimum federal requirement is 10 percent, while METRO's annual goal for DBE is21 percent, says Richard.

To be qualified to do business with METRO, a small business must become certified by METRO or must be certified by one of the reciprocal agencies whose certification METRO accepts. That includes certification by the city of Houston, the TexasUnified Certification Program or the Small BusinessAdministration's 8(a) Program.

Click here to find out how to do business with METRO.  Click here to find out how to become certified. 

State Auditor Says METRO's Financial Systems Fine

METRO train in front of downtown buildingA state audit report that examined METRO's finances for 10 months found that the transit agency is engaging in sound financial policies and has adequate processes in place to manage METRO's planned, long-term expansion for rail.

The audit, which began January 2008 and concluded October 2008, included METRO's General Mobility Program, financial reporting, ridership reports and performance audit reports. Under the General Mobility Program, METRO provides about $100 million every year to the region for new roads and infrastructure. The report was released yesterday.

Other major findings include:


  • Financial and performance reports for FY2007 were internally consistent and supported by the agency's information systems.


  • METRO complied with policies and procedures for travel expenses, General Mobility Program expenditures and long-term expansion.  


  • METRO consistently implemented recommendations from internal and external audits and reviews.

METRO worked closely with auditors and provided them with all available materials, said Frank J. Wilson, METRO president and CEO.

"We believe the preponderance of the findings were fair and accurate," said Wilson in a news release. "But there were some items that needed clarification, which are noted in our responses contained in the audit."

For example, the report states that "The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) noted that the plans for two federally funded light-rail corridors call for total borrowing that exceeds the Transit Authority's current debt capacity. The FTA determined that the Transit Authority had demonstrated its technical ability and capacity to develop and manage a third federally-funded light-rail corridor, but it noted that the schedule for that corridor project was optimistic when compared to the other two corridor projects."

Management at METRO vigorously disputes that.

In METRO's formal response, the agency pointed out the "FTA's statement incorrectly assumes that METRO borrows $4.6 billion. We and our financial advisors met with FTA on Sept. 11, 2008, to correct this error. The $4.6 billion figure is, in fact, the total debt service (principal and interest) over the 30-year life of the bonds - not the principal amount borrowed."Commuters standing in train

METRO pointed out that "the net annual cash flow available for debt service on the METRO Solutions Phase 2 more than sufficient to cover the debt service obligations in every year through the payoff of the bonds." The debt service is not just for the North and Southeast Corridors.

"Including all METRO obligations through 2030 (operating costs, debt service and METRO Solutions  capital), METRO will end up with over $2.3 billion in cash reserves in 2030," wrote METRO in its formal response.

METRO said it is unaware of any issues that the FTA has with the agency's ability to build the lines with existing debt capacity.

In fact, the FTA recently praised METRO's light-rail program, calling it "innovative" in its use of public-private partnerships. The FTA also complimented METRO on its streamlined procedures.

New Ways of Spending Money on Infrastructure

Cars in traffic on freewayThe way we fund this nation's transportation network is fundamentally broken, and we need new ways to decide how money gets spent.

That's the premise of a recent New York Times column by David Leonhardt -and also reflects the sentiments of Mary Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

On her blog, The Fast Lane, Peters asks readers if they agree that we need to find a new way forward to finance transit projects.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill that allocates $18 billion for new construction projects, and President-elect Barack Obama has indicated he will sign a version of that bill, asking for billions of more dollars to create jobs and help fix this nation's infrastructure at the same time.

Leonhardt points out that infrastructure spending has increased 50 percent over the past decade, after adjusting for inflation. Right now, government agencies spend about $400 billion a year on infrastructure, reports Leonhardt. Still, even though it's at a 27-year-high, it's far below spending levels of the 1950s, 60s and 70s when the Interstate Highway System was being constructed.

So why is our infrastructure in such shabby condition? Transit experts blame a mindless approach to distributing money. Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution  says we send a blank check and hope for the best. Close-up of car in traffic

"We need an extreme makeover," he told the NYT.

Peters pointed out another flaw. "The United States is one of the few countries in the world to make the majority of its transportation investments without first conducting any kind of economic analysis to determine whether those investments will have any practical benefits for commuters or shippers. The results are telling," she told the NYT.

Leonhardt says government agencies need to link a project's economic and environmental benefits to its request for funding. Click here to read more of his suggested solutions.



The Man Who Adopted 55 METRO Stops/Shelters


CEO Frank Wilson presenting John Branch certificate of appreciationWhile most folks are asleep at night, John Branch drives his pick-up truck around his neighborhood of Independence Heights, patrolling METRO bus stops and shelters.

The 49-year-old entrepreneur has made it his mission to banish crime in his neighborhood between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Branch has officially adopted 55 METRO bus stops/shelters since June of this year - and unofficially one transit center.

Last Thursday at the METRO board meeting, CEO and President Frank J. Wilson honored Branch with a certificate of appreciation, saying, "This individual has outdone himself."

The METRO Adopt-a-Stop/Adopt-a-Shelter program works with volunteers who help fight vandalism and crime. By helping keep the area clean, the chance for criminal activity declines. METRO has about 1,200 bus shelters and 10,000 bus stops in the Houston area.

To Branch, his late-night solo drives were a no-brainer.

"There was a problem we were having with prostitution and drug dealing and people sleeping there," says Branch.

Branch has customized his Yukon truck with stroke lights in the flashers and a beacon light in the back of the truck, which shines through the window. His nocturnal outings have made a difference in a neighborhood of mostly senior citizens.

"They know when they see me, they best keep walking," says Branch, of drug dealers and prostitutes. "I had people when I cut the lights on, they take off."

Branch, a single father with grown children, gets by with only three or four hours of sleep at night. During the day, he runs his remodeling business, Mr. John, the Remodification Specialist.

Why does he spend his nights on the streets cleaning trash at METRO bus stops and chasing away criminal activity? John Branch in front of a METRO bus shelter he adopted

"I'm proud of the historical significance of the area," says Branch. "The seniors in the neighborhood taught me the value. It's a legacy - for my children and their children. Somebody's got to take a stand, and I want to show pride in my neighborhood."

As president of the Independence Heights War on Drugs Civic Club, Branch said he had tried to launch a citizens' patrol but lacked sufficient members to do so.

Then he found out about METRO's Adopt-a-Stop/Adopt-a-Shelter program and thought it was the perfect partnership.

"My main thing is to make sure there's no illegal activity going on," says Branch. "METRO has people who go around and clean the shelters. Sometimes they beat me, and sometimes I beat them. If the trash can is overflowing - there are five or six stops that need to be cleaned - I will go home and get a trailer and sacks and rake."

Branch says he's not afraid to drive up to the scene of potential crime.

"I'm not by myself. The Lord is with me," he says. "As long as I feel I'm doing his will, he'll protect me."

Branch, who was featured on Fox 26 News recently, says he's not through adopting. His goal is to adopt 100 METRO bus stops/shelters. To get there, he says he'll have to patrol outside his neighborhood.

"Come in, join in," invites Branch. "You can still adopt with me."




When Public Transit's Cash Cow Runs Dry


Cars bumper-to-bumper on freewayAmericans are driving fewer miles this year than last year - and that means the Highway Trust Fund, fueled by the gasoline tax, took in billions of fewer dollars in Fiscal Year 2008. We drove 90 billion miles less in a period of 11 months in FY08 compared to the year before, reported the U.S. Department of Transportation last week.

The Highway Trust Fund is used to build bridges, repair highways and expand transit systems. Between October 2007 and September 2008, the Highway Trust Fund collected $31 billion in revenue. That's $3 billion less than the year before. Meanwhile, transportation spending increased by $2 billion.

Clearly, we need to come up with creative solutions.

Martin Capper, CEO of Mark IV IVHS Inc., is suggesting we implement a mileage-based fee. Last week, he told delegates to the 15th World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in New York that a mileage-based fee is technically feasible and a fair way to fund the nation's infrastructure needs.

"With key transportation leaders seeking an annual increase in infrastructure spending as great as $50 billion per year, we must look at alternatives to the motor fuel tax, especially in the long term when fuel tax revenue will decline because of fuel economy, alternative fuels and a long-term increase in oil prices," said Capper, as reported by Keep Texas Moving.

To generate $50 billion annually with fuel taxes, the government would need to increase the current federal motor tax. Right now, that's 28 cents per gallon. A two-cent-per-mile user fee would raise $50 billion, based on activity in the top 100 metropolitan areas. Car getting fuel at gas station

In Michigan, lawmakers are considering a bill that would funnel the growth in property tax revenue from new transit lines and use it for their construction and operation.

"That way, the municipalities that want the economic development that transit brings can pay for it by devoting some of their property taxes from the new development into transit," according to the blog at More Riders Magazine.

Click here to read the entire bill. 

Mary Peters at METRO news confernce, HoustonU.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters is calling for a new approach and is urging Congress to make bold, broad changes in the way our nation's infrastructure is funded.

"We can keep trying to patch our broken transportation policies, or we can embrace the kinds of changes needed to keep American commuters moving, shippers hauling and the economy moving," said Peters in a news release.   

Click here to read about the short-term and long-term fixes Peters says need to be done.  

Submit Your Picture Perfect Ride

Manwith sunglasses in front of METRO posterYou don't have to be the CEO of a company to appear in an annual report.  

Submit pictures of your ride on METRORail or a METRO bus, and your picture could be included in our next annual report.

You, our riders, see the city every day - the people and places that make our region great. Share your photos of where you go on METRO and what you see while riding.

Check our Web site on Monday for an image release form. Then e-mail the form and pictures to No photo credits will be given. Woman on rail with another woman watching scene

Whether you're sitting at the train station enroute to the zoo, or riding the bus to work, snap a few photos and share your unique perspective on public transit.

So aim, focus and press the shutter release. We'd love to see your work....and your ride.




Electric Cars Becoming Another Green Option



Zenn electric carSoon Houstonians may be running neighborhood errands in a small car that powers up rather than gases up.

The city's first electric car dealership near Minute Maid Park is opened for business, selling the Zenn car - which stands for "zero emission, no noise."

The Houston Chronicle reports today that the dealer doesn't harbor false hopes of selling a lot of these Zenns. After all, they can‘t go faster than 25 mph or be driven on roads that post speeds limits higher than 35 mph. But Rick Ehrlich, the dealer, says it's a real car "that can carry two people nearly anyplace in the city for less than two cents per mile, while creating no air pollution."

Meanwhile, Tesla Motors in the Silicon Valley set out to build an electric car five year ago. It's shipped 70 electric roadsters, but it's late, has bugs and cost $109,000 more than originally planned, reports Newsweek.

Slammed by the economic meltdown, Tesla has laid off 20 percent of its staff and borrowed money to stay in business. Still, the ousted cofounder Martin Eberhard raves about his electric car. Resembling a Lotus Elise, the two-seater can go 200 miles on a charge and accelerate from zero to 60 mph in about four seconds, outgunning a Porsche 911.

"It's a phenomenal car. I take people for rides, and they have just big smiles on their face," Eberhard told Newsweek.

Telsa says it has 1,200 orders and is making about 10 roadsters a week. By next year, it expects to produce 30 cars a week and making a profit.

Even the government is looking into the green effects of electric vehicles. The Military Times reports the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force plan to buy thousands of battery-powered, 35-mile-an-hour electric cars and light trucks for on-base transport - all in an effort to save fuel and promote alternative-energy options.

By next month, the first of the cars - Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) will be at Fort Belvoir, Vir. Army officials say each electric car would use an average of about $400 in electricity every year, compared with approximately $2,400 in fuel costs to run a gas-powered car. Plus, the 4,000 electric cars the Army is ordering over the next three years will save 11.5 million gallons of fuel a year.

Would you buy an electric car? Would you sacrifice speed for a greener environment and smaller carbon footprint?