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Rising Gas Prices Result in Largest Savings in Three Years

METRO bus against skylineBoard a bus and save money, especially with the price of gas hovering near $4 a gallon.

Riding public transit saves an average of $10,116 a year or$843 a month, according to the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) Transit Savings Report.

This is the largest savings APTA has computed in almost three years.  Calculations are based on the average national gas price of $3.81 on April 13, 2011, as reported by AAA, and the national unreserved monthly parking rate.

Gas prices have climbed almost 80 cents since the beginning of the year - and have risen 30 cents a month in the past two months.

Of the top 20 cities with the highest ridership, New York commuters see the biggest savings of $14,561 a year, with Boston following with an annual savings of $13,368. San Francisco enjoys the third biggest savings at $13,268.

Want to compare the cost of your daily drive to work vs. your cost of riding METRO? Check out our Commute Calculator.  I just calculated my cost to ride to work - $235.44 a month, and that includes $20 a month to park in a glass-littered lot. Taking METRO would save me $185.44 a month (except that employees ride free, so I'd actually save $235.44 a month).

If you're not accustomed to riding METRO and worry about the lack of freedom in case you need your car mid-day, try riding only one or two days a week. You'll still pocket a good chunk of change.

Read more here.

TripAdvisor Offers Reality Feature

Screen shot of new TripAdvisor appFor all of you iPad2, iPhone and iPod users, there's another new app perfect for when you are traveling.

TripAdvisor, the Newton, Mass. company, said it has launched an "augmented reality feature" for those mobile smart devices.

While you are out and about your travel destination, you can access reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions superimposed over what you see through the camera lens of your phone.

Click here to read more.  This picture is from the TripAdvisor blog.

If you're staying local for a while, it still would be fun to try it out here. The next time you're riding the rail, try the app and read reviews of the dozens of restaurants along the Red Line.  Remember to show your METRO Q® Fare Card and get a discount or freebie if the business is part of our Q Star program.

More Bikes on Buses

Bike on bus rack attached to front of busA beautiful day like today is ideal for combining a bike ride with a bus ride to get to your destination. And more of our commuters are doing just that.

In March, we recorded our highest count of bikes on buses to date - 10,155 bikes on buses.  That's an 11 percent increase from the same month a year ago and 28 percent more than the previous month.

The two routes that saw the most bikes on buses were Route 82 - Westheimer West Oaks and Route 46 - Gessner  Crosstown.

Route 82 had 554 bikes and Route 45 had 476 bikes.

We began installing bike racks on buses in April 2007 and completed installation seven months later.

If you've ever snapped your bike on a bike rack in front of the bus, tell us what your experience was like.  We'd love to hear from you.


Missouri City to Get New Park & Ride Lot

Cars at a METRO Park & Ride lotFor all those who commute to the Texas Medical Center, here's good news:  We are planning to build a new Park & Ride lot in Missouri City, home to hundreds of Medical Center employees.

The Texas Medical Center, the world's largest medical center, is the 12th largest business district in the U.S. with 93,500 employees and 162 buildings. It's about the size of Chicago inside the "Loop."

The new Park & Ride would help meet the commuting needs of these employees and would supplement the current Park & Ride lot located at Fondren and Beltway 8, south of Main Street - the area where Missouri City's population has surged the most.

Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of service design and development, said that we are in the process of conducting a site assessment. This process will allow us to evaluate several potential locations and identify the best site for the future P & R.

We do not know when the new Park & Ride lot will be open, but in the meantime, we are working with our project partners to identify a temporary site to operate the service, said Slaughter.

Click here to read KUHF's storyon this - and how this will affect commuter rail from Missouri City.

Join METRO on Fresh Air Friday
Fresh Air Friday logo 

Join METRO as we celebrate Fresh Air Friday today at Jones Plaza at 615 Louisiana.

Guest speakers include METRO President & CEO George Greanias and Mayor Annise Parker.

We'll be hosting a hybrid bus and STAR commuter van display, along with an information table with brochures about our services.

Learn about clean air programs, clean-engine technology  and commuter alternatives. If you drive to work, today is a good day to explore commute solutions.

Make a commitment to take action. Once you declare your action, you'll be entered to win prizes that will be announced today at Fresh Air Friday.

We'll be there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.



Laying a Hero on Wheels to Rest

Logo of "Heroes on Wheels"Kenneth Roberson was a hero three times over.

Featured on this blog as one of our Heroes on Wheels, he took extraordinary action while on the job, going above and beyond the call of duty to help passengers.  He calleKenneth Roberson behind the wheel on a busd himself a policeman without a badge.

He suffered a stroke on Jan. 6, 2010, and three months later in an update here, said he would be back on the road. "I have a faith in God and a determination to get back to help people."

Roberson took a medical retirement last November. He died in his sleep on April 1. He was 50.

In his eight years at METRO, Roberson was a union steward at Hiram Clarke, one of our bus operating facilities.

Viewing will be 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on April 9 at New Community Baptist Church. The funeral will follow at 11 a.m.


Building A Community of Respect

Today's post was written by guest blogger, Margaret  O'Brien-Molina, METRO's senior media relations specialist.

Anti-Defamation League gives diversity award to METRO officials.METRO has, once again, been recognized as a "Community of Respect" partner,  and the significance to our ridership cannot be underestimated, said Martin Cominsky, regional director of the Southwest region of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). .

Cominsky recently presented an etched glass trophy to senior leadership at 1900 Main, commemorating the organization's efforts to respect diversity.

In this photo, left to right are: The Anti-Defamation League's Martin Cominsky, Roland Manzano, acting vp of human resources, Helen Cavazos, vp and chief diversity officer, George Greanias, president & CEO, and Jodi Bernstein, senior association regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"METRO is part of the community, and in providing services, you show respect in a very literal way," observed Cominsky, who also noted the 30-plus languages spoken within the ranks of our employees. He  complimented the work done over the past year to observe the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, and the assistance to minority groups, especially Hispanics, in job searches through Houston Community College and other sources.

The ADL-led initiative encourages organizations to reaffirm their involvement as "Community of Respect" partners in the coming year. The first step involves signing a "Community of Respect  Renewal and Resolution" form.  

Three major activities are also required, and the development and execution of these activities commit METRO to a continuous dialogue about diversity & inclusion initiatives with all employees.  Close-up of crystal, etched 2010 award

 "It's wonderful to be recognized again, but we do this not so much for the recognition, it's just part of what we do as an organization," said Helen Cavazos, METRO vice president and chief diversity officer. "We want to be designated by ADL as a partner, and this is how we get there."


NCAA Games Break Ridership Record

Basketball fans buying a wristband on a rail platformThe thousands of fans who embraced the madness at this weekend's NCAA games helped METRO break ridership records.

Yesterday, we recorded 52,000 boardings - the highest Monday ridership since the Red Line opened in January 2004. The Butler vs  UConn  battle attracted more fans who rode METRO than the football fans who attended the Houston Texans vs Tennessee Titans game on November 23, 2009 -  276 more riders.

During the four-day NCAA tournament,  METRO moved an estimated 148,000 riders to and from the events  at Reliant Stadium, Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center. On game days, the Red Line registered more than 93,000 boardings, representing the highest two-day Saturday and Monday total in our history.

Along with the crowds on the platform, hundreds of METRO employees in yellow vests volunteered as "ambassadors," helping out-of-town visitors navigate their way or buy tickets.

"As one of the ambassadors along the system assisting riders, I was very proud of the METRO employees and the service we all provided," said George Greanias, president & CEO. "I was also delighted to see the great interaction between Houstonians and out-of-town visitors. This was a great event for Houston."

The NCAA plans to return to the Bayou City in 2016 - and METRO will once again partner with the Final Four.


Getting Record Crowds to the Final Four

Basketball logoMETRO is prepared to move tonight's expected record crowds for the NCAA championship game tonight and adding service where needed.

Post-game, we will have 40 extra buses lined up at Reliant Stadium, ready to take fans to downtown at three stops:  Downtown Transit Center (Main & St.Joseph),  Bell rail staion and Main Street Square.  

We are selling roundtrip wristbands at the Main Street Square station for $2.50. We'll be there till 9 p.m. You can also buy wristbands at an Explorer Bus in front of Macy's downtown. One-way wrist bands for $1.25 are for sale at Reliant Stadium.

Wristbands  are also available for purchase at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Fannin South rail station and three area downtown hotels - Embasssy Suites, Double Tree and Magnolia Hotel.

We are also giving our bus drivers maps to hand out to visitors so they can better manage their connections.

METRO staff, including George Greanias, president & CEO, and board members, will be stationed at the rail platforms to assist customers.

Additional shuttle buses within the Texas Medical Center are running every five minutes until 7 p.m.


METRO Ready for March Madness Fans

Basketball decal plastered on train stationWelcome to all the basketball fans who are in town for the Final Four.

At dawn's light, our marketing team plastered basketball decals at our stations and left hundreds of miniature foam basketballs on seats to welcome our riders.

We are expecting 15 to 20 percent more riders than normal - about 12,000 to 15,000 more - so please be patient as you board the train and/or one of our shuttle buses.

The games will be at Reliant Stadium, and you can take the southbound train the Reliant station. The parties will be at Discovery Green across from the George R. Brown Convention Center. Simply take the train to Main Street Square, go to Dallas St., then walk five blocks east (in the same direction as the traffic) to Discovery Green.

We will be operating normal train service today, Saturday and Sunday. The last northbound train is at 1:40 a.m. and the last southbound train is at 2:20 a.m.

On Monday, April 4, we will have rail shuttle buses pre-game, going from the Texas Medical Center to Smith Lands, southbound only. The shuttles will run every five minutes from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Post-game, we'll have buses at Reliant to support rail. The last train will be at 1:40 a.m. northbound and 2:20 a.m. southbound.

Click here for details on ticket prices and Park & Ride shuttles to Discovery Green.




An Interview with METRO CEO George Greanias

George Greanias standing at his waist-high desk where he conducts meetings standing upGeorge Greanias, our president and CEO, tells Transit Intelligence that his past experiences - from college professor to lawyer to playwright - are all helping him run METRO.

He even wrote a book on how to deal with boards of directors.

When asked how he feels about having little professional transit experience, Greanias replied, "A non-transit professional who understands organizations and how to bring out the best in them is in many respects what the organization needs at this point in time."

He calls his management style collaborative and believes in the collective wisdom of effectively run teams.

 And he confirmed that he conducts most of his meetings standing around waist-high tables. "It's much harder to fall asleep if you're standing up, unless you're a horse," he quipped.  

Click here to read the entire Q & A interview. Greanias is pictured here standing at his desk. 

Ambassadors to Help Basketball Fans

Man playing basketballThe countdown to the NCAA Final Four is on....and starting on Friday, you'll see more than just METRO police monitoring the platform.  You'll also see dozens of METRO employees, decked in neon yellow safety vests with a giant "Welcome" button and wearing an official, white NCAA baseball cap.

Hundreds of employees have signed up as "ambassadors" and will be stationed at all the stations along the Red Line, ready to answer questions from the thousands of out-of-town visitors expected at the annual collegiate basketball tournament.

Yesterday, the first training session was held at 1900 Main - and more are being conducted today.

We'll be there to help guide patrons to the right train, explain that we have shuttle buses from four Park & Ride lots to the Big Dance events on Discovery Green, and tell how you can buy colored wristbands at Reliant to ride the rail.

Final Four Friday will feature team practices from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free to come watch the Final Four teams in their final practice before the national semifinal games. Fans attending will be randomly selected to win national semifinal and championship game tickets throughout the day.  Click here for more NCAA info.

Ambassadors will be stationed on rail platforms and other strategic locations until the end of service on Monday.



A Train Built Just to Collect Garbage

NYT rail cars with garbage binsThe nation's biggest rapid transit system - the New York City Subway - carries about five million riders every day over 229 miles.

All those riders generate a lot of trash, and to handle the clean-up, The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has customized three rail cars to collect the 90 tons of garbage every day. Three uncovered flatbed cars are linked together. Inside each car are rows of miniature metal dumpsters on wheels. Two passenger cars were gutted and converted to a crew room for the maintenance workers.

Click here to read the story in the New York Daily News.

Here in Houston, we have a ban on eating or drinking on the train. That cuts down a bit on trash.

But next weekend, we're expecting ridership to surge with the start of the Final Four college basketball tournament - and we're prepared. Trains are normally cleaned twice a day and on an as-needed basis while in service. During the NCAA games this weekend, we'll have cleaners during the day at the end of the line (Fannin South) to pick up trash on the rail cars.

Normal METRORail service will be in effect this weekend with the last northbound train at 1:40 a.m. , and the last southbound train is at 2:20 a.m.




Keeping Your Cool: The Secret to 30 Years of Safe Driving

Issac Spencer, honored for 30 years of safe driving When Isaac Spencer Jr. was born 57 years ago, he was named after his father. Little did he know then that he would take after his father in more than just name.

The senior Spencer drove a bus for METRO for half a century with a nearly flawless attendance record.

The son started at METRO 31 years ago, and this year achieved 30 consecutive years of a flawless safety record. That means he drove three decades with no preventable accidents, no safety infractions and an impressive attendance record.

"It's very difficult to achieve this," said Robert McElyea, acting vice president of safety. "It's bragging rights: ‘I've been a safe operator for 30 years.' That's something to be proud of. The bottom line is that safety benefits our employees, our patrons and the Houston community."

Our safety award program recognizes full-time and part-time bus and rail operators, as well as mechanics. Click here to see a list of all our winners.

Spencer says after three decades on the job, he still finds carrying passengers on METRO interesting.

"I enjoy interacting with passengers. That makes your day. You look forward to the next day because you will find somebody with a different attitude, different problem," says Spencer.

An operator with seniority, Spencer gets to choose his shift and his schedule - and he enjoys mixing it up as a driver on the "extra board," which means he substitutes for drivers who are ill or on vacation. That way, every day is different.

"Lots of things are changing out there. You might go down one street and see a building and then four to five months later, and the building is gone," observes Spencer.

Spencer credits his prestigious safety record to learning to be calm and easy-going on the road.

"Stress - you just have to go with it. You have to adjust," says Spencer, adding that over the years, staying calm became second nature. "Take your time; try not to be in any rush. Keep your eyes moving. You're going to have obstacles thrown at you from all directions. Be patient, and go with it."

Spencer did exactly that in the early 1990s when a passenger started screaming after her baby stopped breathing. Spencer pulled the bus over, called dispatch and ran back to give the baby mouth-to-mouth resuscitation - a technique he says he picked up by watching television.

"It was cool. I did what I had to do," recalls Spencer. Isaac Spencer, recipient of 30-year safety award

Spencer says he wasn't always this serene behind the wheel. His first day on the job was nerve-wracking. "It's a whole different feeling when you're hauling passengers. You've got people's lives in your hands," he says.

Superintendent Robert Augustine, who started at METRO as a bus driver, recalls all the drivers who would try to go around his bus and then make a right turn in front of it.

"It's just amazing that an operator can go for 25 years without a preventable accident. A lot of operators work hard to earn that," said Augustine.

Spencer says it's more difficult now for younger operators to earn a 30-year safety award.  The increased traffic clogging our roads makes it more stressful, safety standards are more rigorous and Houston drivers seem more impatient.

When he's ready to relax, Spencer hits the road again. But instead of a 40-foot bus, he climbs on his Kawasaki Ninja ZX-11 and becomes a street lord, riding long distances to Waco, Austin and Dallas with the Street Lords Motorcycle Club.  



A Top Award for Three Decades of Driving Safety


Francisca Cardenas, bus driver who won 30-year safety awardEvery day before she slides behind the wheel, METRO bus operator Francisca Cardenas prays.

She's been doing that for 33 years, ever since she started at METRO at the age of 22.

Apparently, her prayers - along with good driving skills - have worked.  Cardenas was one of two bus operators from the agency's 1,573 operators - who was awarded the top 2011 Safety Award for safe driving. 

The top award recognizes 30 cumulative years of safe driving. That means no preventable accidents, no serious safety infractions and a solid attendance record. Click here to see a list of all of our 2011 safety award winners - including train operators and mechanics.

Cardenas, who started driving a METRO bus when the agency was called HouTran, says she's amazed she garnered the coveted 30-year safety award.

"I've had so many close calls. I've been hit, but it wasn't my fault," says Cardenas. "My mother always taught me to pray before leaving the facility, and I still do that today. And they say, ‘Watch your mirrors, your following distance.' Don't sacrifice safety for the schedule. Safety comes first."

Cardenas had never planned to make driving a bus her lifelong career. She had been hired to drive a school bus and had earned her commercial driver's license when her dad landed in the hospital, and the young Cardenas met a woman bus driver.

Esther Nunez was HouTran's first female Hispanic driver, and she convinced Cardenas that working at the transit agency was a good job with benefits. Her dad advised her to apply since his daughter had already decided against college.

Cardenas, who drives the 20 Long Point now, says she dislikes Houston's growing traffic - but she enjoys meeting new people every day.

"The majority is good, but I do run into a few bad apples," she says.

And how does she defuse the tension?

"Just with kindness. I don't know their situation. Maybe they're going through a hard time. I had one lady who cursed me out. She was upset at her day and took it out on me. A month later, she returned and apologized. Sometimes I get passengers who lash out. I don't say anything. Then when they walk off, I say, ‘Have a nice day, and God bless you.'"

Cardenas, the mother of a 28-year-old son, says every day is different. "I never know what to expect, but I know something's going to happen. I have to be on guard at all times."

Cardenas' award comes with a generous gift card - which will come in handy when she retires in June and embarks on a cross-country trip to California.

Fat Passengers Trigger New Bus Safety Rules

Close-up of three people in socks stepping on scalesAmericans are getting fatter, and the government agency responsible for bus safety wants to rewrite the rules to keep our buses safer.

Right now, the assumed average weight per bus passenger is 150 pounds. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) wants to raise that to 175 pounds, according to an article in today's USA Today.

That means fewer riders would be able to board a city transit bus. The FTA is also proposing that bus manufacturers add a quarter of a square foot of floor space per passenger.

"With no small number of bus passengers tipping the scale at 200 pounds or more, this is much more realistic," Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University in Chicago.

Current federal guidelines were written in the early 1960s and based on what Americans weighed then. Today, the average weight for men 20 years and older is 194.7 pounds and 164.7 pounds for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


I Speak...38 Languages


Close-up of "I Speak" language card














As the nation's fourth largest city, Houston brims with diversity.

In fact, more than 90 languages are spoken here, according to GuestLife Houston, a publication of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Houston.  

Here at METRO, we're committed to helping our customers get where they need to go - no matter what language they speak.  Last Friday, we distributed laminated placemat-sized cards to all our RideStore employees and our Customer Care Center reps.

From Arabic to Czech, Hmong to Yiddish, the placard says in 38 languages: "Mark this box if you read or speak English."

If customers with limited English proficiency come to our RideStore, they need only point to the language they recognize - and we will either call one of our multi-lingual employees or call a translation service.

We have 210 multi-lingual employees in our data base, representing 30 languages. They have all volunteered to help translate when needed.

"This is part of METRO's language assistance program," said Karen Kauffman, senior director of compliance.  "We work with all departments within the company to make sure we're providing communication to English proficient-limited customers in the area. These cards area just one of the many resources we provide to assist our customers. This is important to ensure that the diverse population of Houston is able to use our services."

If a customer speaks a language not represented in our data base, we will call Language Line Services, a company that offers 24/7 over-the-phone translations. "Primarily METROLift and the Customer Care Center use them," said Kauffman. METRO police soon will be carrying pocket-sized "I Speak" cards to help patrons.

The "I Speak" cards will also help us comply with Title 6, a federal requirement that we provide language assistance at no cost to the customer.  The Federal Transit Administration audits transit agencies periodically to ensure compliance. "I Speak" placard listing 38 languages

"When the new census data come out, we'll have a more updated demographic understanding of what languages are spoken in what areas. Then we can better target our marketing campaign to those languages," said Kauffman.

So whether your mother tongue is Chamorro (spoken in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) or Ilocano (the third most-spoken language of the Philippines), we're ready to answer your questions and help you ride METRO.

Construction Begins on US 290 Diamond Lanes

Traffic on US 290 and HuffmeisterFor those of you who commute on US 290 every day, relief is coming if you are one of the hundreds entering and exiting the high-occupancy vehicle lane (HOV).

Construction is scheduled to begin tomorrow at 9 a.m. on new diamond lanes on US 290 east and westbound from Eldridge Parkway to Skinner Road. The diamond lanes will provide improved access for cars with multiple passengers entering and exiting the barrier-separated HOV lane. A diamond lane will also connect our Cypress Park & Ride lot to the HOV lane.

A joint project of TxDOT and METRO, the work will include restriping the inside shoulder lane to reflect its new designation as a diamond lane. A 700-foot section of the US 290 eastbound mainlane pavement will be widened to accommodate the proper travel lane width due to an existing overhead sign structure.

Rozco Contracting Inc. will work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Tomorrow, crews will begin installing temporary traffic control/concrete barriers to help the construction crews work safely.

After completion, the diamond lanes will operate 24/7 and be open to motorists with two or more passengers. It is expected to open to the public in mid-June.

METRO is providing $514,000 for this project, and TxDOT is overseeing construction.

 Click here to read more about the US 290 improvements. 


Ride METRORail, Get a Zoo Discount

METRORail with giraffe zoo wrapBeautiful, sunny days like today make you want to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

When  the kids get out of school today and start spring break, you may be thinking of heading to the Houston Zoo this weekend.

Avoid the heavy traffic expected during spring break and take METRORail. You can disembark at the Hermann Park/Rice University Station (at Fannin and Sunset) or the Memorial Hermann Hospital/Houston Zoo Station (on Fannin between Cambridge and Ross Sterling).  From there, it's a brief walk to the zoo's Medical Center gate entrance on Cambridge St.

Show your METRORail ticket or your METRO Q® Fare Card, and you'll get a $2 off an adult admission and $1 off a child's admission.  

Rail tickets are $1.25 one way, or $2.50 round trip. Children ages 5 and under ride free.

You can park at any downtown parking lot and catch the rail on Main Street, or board the train at the Fannin South Park & Ride lot at 1604 West Bellfort.

Driving? Then Don't Text

Driver textingMost of us who drive are guilty of at least talking on a cell phone while on the road - and some of us even text and e-mail while behind the wheel.

 Although 30 states have already made texting illegal while driving, Texas isn't one of those - yet. Now, some Texas lawmakers want to make texting and e-mailing while driving illegal

Joel Cooper, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute testified before the House Transportation Committee, calling text messaging the perfect storm.

"It's both a cognitive task, you have to think about it, you have to look down at your device, and manipulate it with your hands. So because of that, it's not really surprising that the data are suggesting that text messaging is dangerous," he said.

One bill introduced would ban only texting while driving; another would ban talking and texting on mobile phone while driving. Read more here.