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Do Your Part to Reduce Houston's Ozone



Houston skylineStep outside, and take a deep breath.

You have just inhaled the nation's second most polluted air when it comes to ozone.  And if Houston doesn't clean up its ozone level, it stands to let millions of dollars in federal funding slip away, according to a report today on KUHF-FM.

But improving our city's ozone level isn't something that is solely the mandate of manufacturing firms or government officials. Every one of us needs to do our part. That's the message from the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC), which has launched a clean air awareness program, during ozone season from March 1 to Nov. 1.

H-GAC is asking individuals to commit to one clean-air action to reduce Houston's ozone footprint.

Suggested actions include:


  • Drive the speed limit.
  • Turn off lights when not needed.
  • Upgrade home heating and cooling system.
  • Take your lunch to work or school.
  • Avoid drive-through lanes.
  • Don't use gas engines such as lawnmowers until after 6 p.m.
  • Combine errands on one trip.

H-GAC has an on-line pledge to fill out - and when you do, you're eligible to win prizes - from a bicycle to a free week of yoga.

Of course, here at METRO, we encourage you to ride the bus, train or vanpool to help cut back on ozone output. We offer a $35 a month incentive to eligible vanpoolers.  Our "Guaranteed Ride Home" will pay for a taxi when emergencies require you to leave work before your vanpool's normal departure time.

METROMatch will also use its extensive database to match commuters in an eight-county region who live and work near each other.

KUHF's report features a Katy resident who turned to vanpooling when gas hit $4 a gallon last year. Veronica Baxter-Lamb not only helped the region's air quality, she felt the difference in her pocketbook.

"I went from spending maybe $400 a month on gas to only spending about $100 a month on the monthly bill for the vanpool," she told KUHF. Click here to listen to the report.

H-GAC is sponsoring its sixth annual Fresh Air Friday  - an outdoor picnic and concert at Jones Plaza in the center of the theater district - to promote more ways to keep Houston clean. METRO will be there, too.

Building Transit in "Final Frontier"



Frank J. Wilson in front of busFrank J. Wilson, METRO's president & CEO, has worked on both coasts - but it's the Gulf Coast he calls the final frontier for transit - the land that transit forgot.

In the nation's fourth largest city with three downtowns and where more than 2,000 people are moving every year, building transit is a challenge - but one METRO is ready to tackle.

"Can we build fast enough to influence where they go, or are we going to have to catch up to the location decisions they make? One's easy to serve. The other is really difficult to serve," Wilson told Mass Transit, a monthly industry publication.

In a wide-ranging cover story of the March issue, Wilson discussed with Mass Transit the success of our one rail line, what we're doing to prevent rail accidents, our fleet replacement plan, hybrid buses, Signature bus and an innovative way to buy trains.

On Main Street rail line's success:

"Before there was a rail line on Main Street, Houston didn't understand what rail was. And the first year after it was here, it was a curse that was sent here by the transit gods," said Wilson.

"And now it's irreplaceable in five short years. There's no here who's going to say we should roll it up and give Main Street back to the automobile," he continued.

It succeeded because of the locations the 7.5 mile line connects - the financial district, downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

"There is no other place that connects all that...Now people use this as a horizontal elevator. It's like a cable car but flat - on and off, on and off, on and off," said Wilson.

On off-the-rack procurement:

Traditionally, transit agencies give train manufacturers a long list of specifications. But when METRO set out to buy its new light-rail vehicles, it told the METRO's new train coming in 2012prospective vendors there was a short list: no specs.

Wilson asked the vendors to select the car they felt the most comfortable with and pitch that. There had to be at least 10 vehicles running and METRO would send its staff to evaluate them.

"It was their car on their terms at their price. I'm just selecting the one that looked best price-wise," said Wilson. "We're not dictating the terms. We're accepting the terms from the marketplace...Just give me your best offer on your best car. I'll either accept it or reject it," said Wilson.

It was an unconventional way to buy trains - but one that shaved time and money from the standard process. On the left is a photo of the CAF USA train we expect to have in 2012.

Click here to read the complete article.

Transcript of Today's Web Chat with Andy Skabowski


Andy Skabowski answering questions in Web chatToday, we conducted our monthly Web chat, Transit Talk, with Andy Skabowski, associate vice president of operations.

The hour flew by with lots of good questions from you. Skabowski typed his own answers - he was the fastest two-finger typist I've seen. He's pictured on the left.

Here's the transcript.


 (12:01:56 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Any word on the double deckers?
A : We are still evaluating the use of double decker buses on specific Park and Ride routes. This evaluation will continue as we explore the possible use of double deckers.


(12:02:10 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I got dibs on first ride on front seats on the upper deck! (Cedric gets the second?)
A : Cedric asked for the seat months ago




(12:03:05 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : The bicycle community wants to use mass transit for part of its travel. If the entire fleet of buses does not have racks, we cannot depend on them for a timely commute.
A : As we continue our fleet replacement plan, we will move to having our entire bus fleet bicycle-ready.



(12:03:34 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Also, will the new rail cars allow bicycles at all times of service.?
A : At present, bikes are allowed on trains during off-peak hours due to high passenger loads during peak hours.



(12:05:50 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Andy, with the changes in maintenance, will there be accountability on a technician level ?
A : We address mechanic accountability and completeness of repair every day and will continue that. We are also working with the first level supervision staff to review work


(12:07:13 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why is it that when a bus is broken down or is in an accident downtown, that word is NOT relayed to people standing at the bus stops in downtown?
A : The timing involved with getting the word out to bus stops in most cases is longer than the actual event. That being said, we always attempt to improve our communications with both the operators and patrons.



(12:07:37 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why does the rail not go to UH Central campus but goes  to the rinky dink downtown campus?

A: Hold on to your hat, and read up on METRO Solutions.


 (12:10:50 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : My next question has to do with fleet longevity. Recently, METRO  has been retiring buses before they hit the age of 12, or very shortly thereafter. Some of the GM New Look Rehabs (the original 33xx, 34xx, and 36xx buses) of the 80s lasted 20+ years with the last being retired by the influx of the Hungarian Ikarus models of the early 90s. The RTS lasted until 2001 after 20 years of unmatched quality of service and even the infamous Grumman rebuilds limped into their 18th year in 1997. Meanwhile, the New Flyer minis, a number of the Neoplan Transit Artics, and the older (1400 series) Neoplan Suburban Artics suffered or are suffering oddly early deaths. A number of Stewart and Stevenson buses from the early 90s were retired along with the RTS in 2001. A number of 10-11 year old Ikarus buses were also stored at this time. Is fleet longevity no longer a priority at Metro? Can we expect a replacement cycle of 12-13 years from now on?
A : Buses can be retired based on two criteria. One is age (12 years) and the other is miles. As buses get past that age, they become more costly to maintain. If I could buy a GMC bus I would, but the bus is no longer manufactured.



 (12:11:10 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Are the Neoplan 3700s finally retired?
A : All but five and the last five are due out the door by month's end.

 (12:12:25 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Do buses have GPS tracking?
A : All METRO buses are equipped with GPS tracking devices that allow for a buses location to be broadcast at TranStar.




(12:13:51 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : If I see people get on the rail without paying, do I have to pay to get on the rail?
A : Patrons are expected to tap or pay before getting on the train. MPD officers randomly check the platform for fare evasion and you can get ticketed.


(12:14:40 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Perhaps they were before your time at Metro, but the GMC RTS-04 series (1901-2188) was without a doubt the most durable, efficient, and dare I say beautiful bus to ever be rostered by the agency. Given your background in the industry, do any of the current fleet measure up to the raw strength and reliability of these venerable beasts? Personally, I think the 4000s could do it (though 4124 broke down on me yesterday) as they seem to be the most "solid" of the NFI D40LF fleet.
A : I ran GMC buses while at New York City Transi, as well Philadelphia Transit. The GMC RTS bus was the best bus ever built



(12:15:07 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : When and where do the buses fill up for gas?
A : Buses are fueled with diesel daily at the bus operating facility.




 (12:15:56 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Are customer services reps able to track buses?
A : Customer Service reps can if needed call TranStar to track a bus for emergency situations only.


 (12:18:45 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : What is the big issue with the artic concept? Does it cost more per mile than a regular bus? Odd we are getting rid of the concept after 25 years of service in the area. And the S-70's have TWO articulations per rail car!
A : Artic buses cost two to three times more per mile for maintenance than a standard 45-foot commuter style bus. As of 15 yrs ago, 45 foot- buses were not available, and the only options for a transit property were either 40- foot or 60- foot artics.




(12:19:57 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Is that a yes or a no, Andy? And what about the homeless getting on the rail?
A : Yes, you have to pay ,and MPD actively works to address fare evasion on our trains.




(12:20:35 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Are the METRO police real police?
A : Yes, they are a  certified transit police agency and one of  the few accredited ones in the country.  (See comment below for more explanation by Chief Tom Lambert).







(12:22:22 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Unlike many on the blog, I hope that you all do away with the failed Articulated bus concept. Three times these buses have been ordered and twice they have suffered early retirements. Many of the old 1400 series Crown Articulated buses never saw their 12th year of service and the 44/45xx series Neoplan artics are nearing the end. Bus 4559 had such a worn bellows you it could double as a sun roof. The only artics that held up well were the 1400 series Neoplan buses retired in 2006/07 (a little too soon in my opinion). Is Metro looking to replace the current fleet of Articulated buses with more articulated, 40ft. buses, or perhaps Double Decker coaches?
A : Presently for Park and Ride service, we are looking at 45-foot commuter style buses. For local service, we are purchasing 40-foot transit buses, and we are presently considering the possible use of double decker buses in the future.



(12:25:04 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Will the new rail be elevated? How fast can a light rail travel?
A : Plans and final designs for the new light rail alignments are still under development.







(12:26:42 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why is METRO Houston's service so bad compared to other cities' mass transport systems?
A : Houston METRO's service performance levels are measured by industry standards, and our service levels and perfomance are equal to, if not better, than other major cities.





(12:27:25 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Who determines that needed repairs are properly performed on buses?
A : Needed repairs are promptly performed on buses and managed by local maintenance management


(12:27:55 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : METRO will not purchase articulated buses in the future?
A : As of now,  METRO will not purchase articulated buses in the future.



 (12:28:22 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Is there a website available that discusses future rail expansions? What sort of master plan is in effect for rail? Suburb service availability, etc?
A : Please go to our Web site and look for the METRO Solutions tab. http://www.ridemetro.og/




 (12:29:57 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why do METRO buses do not have restrooms like normal coach buses?
A : Restrooms can be found on over the road charter buses that typically travel more than an hour or so while in use. Since the trip length on our Park and Rides is below an hour, the interior is maximized for seats, and no restroom in included.



 (12:30:58 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Who makes the buses for METRO?  
A : The new buses being procured are either manufactured by Motor Coach Industries or Orion Bus.



 (12:31:48 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Will bus routes terminate at the intermodal transit centers?
A : The Intermodal Transit Center is still under design but to answer your question,  yes, bus routes will terminate there.


 (12:33:24 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : During the preview of the double decker bus here, I noticed that its height was almost prohibitive on many if not almost all local streets. .Usage on a P & R would seem impossible due to height restrictions available on HOV lanes that have overpasses.. Is this the major restriction to their purchase?
A : Height restrictions due to low overpasses, trees and structures is a restriction to the use of double deckers, and is part of the evaluation presently occurring to consider their use in Houston.




(12:34:17 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why does METRO keep raising its prices, how are people expected to continue to ride the bus?
A : METRO has not raised fares in 14 years, despite increasing and improving service levels.


 (12:35:17 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : How many bus hubs are located around Houston?
A : If you mean Bus Operating Facilities (BOF's), METRO has six BOF's in the Houston area.


 (12:36:21 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Why do Park and Ride drivers only drive a route for a certain time frame, and then a new driver takes over the route?
A : Operator job picks occur a number of times a year (service changes) based on seniority, causing you to see different operators.



(12:36:25 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : What size are the tires on a metro bus?
A : 22 inches


 (12:37:43 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I noticed a lot of METRO buses (especially local routes) with broken or defective destination signs. Are there any plans in the future to try to repair or fix these signs?
A : Changes have been made recently to improve the state of repair of our destination signs. You should already start to see a marked improvement.


 (12:39:47 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Articulated buses are much easier to operate. However, maintenance is costly. Using this thought, is it better to have newer buses and is it more cost effective to replace at a shorter lifespan?
A : Our fleet plan replaces 1/12 of our fleet annually. This allows for a level purchase plan. Federal dollars used to purchase buses require their use for 12 yrs. Buses are designed for that life span.




(12:40:27 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Does METRO plan to expand service into the 1960 area?
A : We are reviewing a number of service areas that include 1960.


(12:41:28 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : When will construction commence on the proposed north, southeast, and uptown lines
A : We are close to getting FTA approvals. After that point we will be better able to define exact start dates on the various lines.



 (12:42:57 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : The talk lately about the new rail cars is they will hav esix doors and all-level seating. Will this affect the seating capacity of each train?
A : Six doors allow for better entry and egress into the train,especially in large crowds with a minimal effect on seating.



(12:44:23 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : As I recall, the operator's compartment was designed with comfort and ease of reach of all equipment. Can a configuration be produced that allows this same ease of operation on the Orions and future coaches?
A : The Orions have been designed with improved ergonomics over previous bus designs. The movement of the Press it screen was done to improve line of sight for the operator.


(12:45:12 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : What is the reasoning behind having more #25 Sharpstown buses than #25 Mission Bend buses?
A : Passenger loads and demands are consistently reviewed and routes modified based on those demands.



(12:45:46 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Do longer Park and Ride routes have the "hybrid buses" due to the distance they drive on a daily basis? i.e. the kingwood route
A : Newer commuter-style, MCI hybrids are used in Park and Ride service.


(12:46:18 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : What are the possible headways for the proposed rail lines?
A : Check the blog later and we will answer that. I am the rubber tire guy.



(12:46:47 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Does METRO plan to convert the HOV lanes into bi-directional toll lanes?
A : This, along with other ideas, are presently under consideration.




(12:48:50 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : What are the chances that we can see a marked increase in the number of buses on major routes instead of less buses doing more trips per day? Does this not increase the wear on units and contribute to their early demise?
A : Better bus fleet utilization allows for a transit property to better use its assets which are capital expenses. All Maintanance management plans are based on both a 12 yr bus life and the miles run by that bus.




(12:49:22 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : A recent blog post talked about the expansion of existing Park and Rides, Such as Townsen Park and Ride. Does anyone know when we can expect the new parking spaces (It's crowded!)
A :We will find the answer to that question and post it on the blog later.



(12:50:08 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I ride the 33 bus quite often. The "Stop Requested" sign is almost always lit on the new buses running this route. Is Metro aware of this flaw with these new buses?
A : I am not aware of it but will look into it and provide the blog an answer. Thank you for pointing this out




(12:51:26 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Will you also look into or forward a message to the person/people in charge that the 2 - Bellaire Sunday schedule is nearly impossible to run. I and others have called in on this issue numerous times to no avail. How often do you all check into these issues?
A : Service Supervision evaluates this and other routes daily. That being said the 2 Bellaire is a very busy route on a very busy street. I will pass this concern on and see what we can do.




(12:53:36 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Is METRO still conforming to guidelines regarding emissions standards? I noticed that the emissions stickers are missing from buses per the "Shirley days."
A : All METRO buses meet the required EPA emission regulations. New equipment purchases exceed these requirements since they are utilize hybrid technologies as part of METRO's green initiatives.


 (12:55:17 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : Can you tell me more about the Orion VII buses? How much fuel are they saving, and how much less pollutants do they emit compared to the regular, non-hybrid buses?
A : Experience is showing us a 15 to 20 % fuel economy savings. Emissions reductions are 75% lower NOx, 90% lower Particulates (black smoke)




 (12:56:06 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : About how much water is used to wash the buses each day? Do you reuse the water to help the environment?
A : Not sure on how much is used daily but a large majority of it recycled and reused.


 (12:56:50 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I really think it is time to review the 53 - Briar Forest Sunday schedule to modify the running time.
A : I will pass this on and welcome any suggestions.


(12:57:30 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I noticed on the newer buses that you have an electronic sign that reads "Stop" and lights up every time the bus applies its brakes. Will this be added to all of the buses?
A : These signs will be added to buses over the next couple of years as part of a planned maintenance functions.







(12:59:38 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : . I've seen bus drivers talk on their cell phones while on duty. What is Metro's policy on that?
A : We do not allow them to have their cell phone on them while driving nor use it. If you see a Operator do this please take the bus number and time down and report it to customer service.



(1:00:08 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Q : I have been gone for a time.. When would it be possible to see and check out the Orion buses? Give it the ol' hands on experience?
A : Willie, you know how to reach me.


(1:02:29 PM) Andy Skabowski:

Goodbye, and thanks for chatting with us. As always, I love to talk about buses.





Web Chat Today at Noon


Web chat logoA reminder: Join us from noon to 1 p.m. to chat live with Andy Skabowski, associate vice president of operations.

Here's your chance to ask one of our top experts about operations and maintenance issues at METRO.

If you can't stay for the whole hour, drop in, ask a question and leave. You still have time to pre-submit questions on this blog before noon.  

Hope to see you soon.

Ray LaHood Visits Shovel-Ready Transit Projects


White, Wolff, LaHood & Jackson LeeUS Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called today for all political parties to work together to build America's infrastructure, including light-rail projects in Houston.

"If we really want to get something done, work together," he urged at a news conference at the UH-Downtown business building, where METRO's future North Line rail corridor will run. "Set aside party differences and work together."

LaHood was in Houston on a whirlwind, all-day tour of various Houston shovel-ready construction projects. The tour included a visit to Texas Southern University, a high school of engineering students - and a ride on a METRO train down Main Street.

He was here at the invitation of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection.

LaHood said that of the $750 billion economic stimulus package that was recently passed by Congress, about $40 billion to $50 billion will go to transportation.

"That helps us jumpstart the economy and signal to America that light rail is very important to the transportation system" of the nation, said LaHood. "We're trying to get this money out the door and get it spent in a way that reflects the values of our department."LaHood at news conference

Before the news conference started, Mayor Bill White, METRO Chairman David Wolff and LaHood chatted in the lobby of the UH-Downtown building, a warm retreat from the light rain and chilly temperatures outside where the conference was held.

White told LaHood that METRO's light-rail projects were ready to go, urging that some of the federal dollars from the stimulus package be directed here.

Jackson Lee"Yes, sir. Got it," replied LaHood.

Jackson Lee called today's tour a "visual" for LaHood so he could better understand how transit is a "vibrant energizer of this community."

"New transportation and infrastructure projects in Houston will create new jobs and revitalize our distressed communities. The federal stimulus money is not only important, but essential for the people of Houston in order to rebuild and recover from these difficult economic times that we face," she said.










Don't Even Think About Jaywalking the Track



Pedestrian fencing at Downtown Transit stationIf you ride the train regularly, you probably have noticed that METRO has added more pedestrian fencing alongside the rail at most of our stations along Main Street.

The project was completed last month. METRO has installed wire cable that threads through pedestrian poles at the following stations: Fannin South, TMC Transit Center, Dryden, Memorial Hermann, HCC/Ensemble, McGowan, Downtown Transit and Main St. Square.

That's about 85 percent of the Red Line, said Melvyn Henry, METRO's rail safety manager. "The stations that were problem areas - we attacked those first," said Henry. "The remainder is soon to come. We plan to do the entire line as soon as we get some funding for it."

The pedestrian fencing is designed to deter people from jaywalking across the tracks.

"You wouldn't think people would do it but they do. In fact, before we put the ones here in front of 1900 Main, you could stand in the lobby and see it all day long. It was just amazing," said Henry.

Pedestrians in a hurry want to shave a few seconds off their walk to  their destination. But when a 50-ton train is churning down the tracks - no matter how slowly - it's not smart to step in front of it.

Hopefully, this new fencing will encourage people to cross the tracks at the crosswalks.

Next Web Chat Features Operations Expert

Web chat logoJoin us for our next Web chat on Tuesday, March 17, from noon to 1 p.m.

It will be hosted by Andy Skabowski, METRO's associate vice president of operations. Skabowski has worked in transit since 1989 and has experience in all facets of bus maintenance and engineering in both the public and private sectors. A nationally recognized engineer, he has developed maintenance protocols and practices which have been adopted nationwide. He's also a skilled business executive who has developed and managed budgets, negotiated contracts and managed large-scale purchases of vehicles. 

A former regional director of maintenance at Coach USA, Skabowski later ran multiple garage maintenance functions at New Jersey Transit. At the age of 28, he became a superintendent at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. He worked in fleet support engineering at New York City Transit Authority.  Skabowski holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the New York Institute of Technology.  


Here's your chance to ask our operations guru about anything from buses to brakes.  Wonder why certain buses are scheduled certain times? Or maybe you'd like to know how green METRO is with its fleet - and what our green future looks like. Want to know where our latest Orion hybrids are running these days?  Andy Skabowski, METRO associate vp of operations

Log in and go straight to our operations expert for answers. If you can't make the lunch time chat, we invite you to submit your questions here on this blog. We'll answer live questions first - and do our best to get to your pre-submitted ones during our chat.



METRO's Oldest Employee Says: Enjoy What You Do

Simon Lichenstein wearing his FedoraSimon Lichenstein has been working full-time for the past 68 years - almost 22 of those years here at METRO.

Next Tuesday, the 88-year-old auditor will retire.

Lichenstein, who comes to work daily wearing his trademark Fedora, says the secret to such a long career is enjoying what you do.

"You have to be extremely interested in what you're doing," said Lichenstein, adding he's never bored on the job. "When I came here, I was on the verge of being 67 years old, and I just figured, that's what you do - you worked. And like what you work. Don't think it's drudgery."

Bobby Moon, manager of audit-contracts, has been Lichenstein's boss during his entire career and says he doesn't cut any slack for the octogenarian.

"I expect him to put out just as much as anybody else," says Moon. "He's very predictable, he's pretty consistent. He's got his routine. He's good."

Moon once worked for Lichenstein when both worked as contract auditors for the Defense Contract Audit Agency, part of the Department of Defense.

Later, Moon started working at METRO. When Moon was promoted to manager, he thought of hiring Lichenstein.

"At that time, I said, ‘I've got to train my new staff, and who better to train my new staff than the guy who trained me?' That was a smart decision. He helped me develop my staff, and that has been a big part of my success here," said Moon.

Lichenstein's work here - as with all our auditors - is very specialized. "It's specific for government contracts. We adhere to federal acquisition requirements. It's pretty complicated," explained Moon. "You don't get this type of training in other areas."

What does Lichenstein enjoy most about his career?

"Working on the computer. That involves learning different software and being able to use it," said Lichenstein. "When I first came here, METRO had one portable computer for 15 employees, and you had to sign out for 15 minutes or so."

Lichenstein arises daily at precisely 4:07 a.m. and reports to work by 6:45 a.m. Breakfast is cereal and toast, lunch is purchased and dinner is salad and soup. Eight hours of sleep are de rigueur.

The eclectic reader subscribes to 20 newspapers and magazines - everything from the Wall Street Journal to the National Enquirer.

The lifelong bachelor credits his longevity to good genes, a balanced diet and an active social life. Every year he goes on a cruise with friends. This year he plans on traveling to Istanbul and Sochi, Russia - the site of the 2014 Olympic games.


METRO Responds to Chronicle Column


Raequel RobertsA week ago, Houston Chronicle reporter Rosanna Ruiz wrote a column about her experiment riding the bus at her editor's suggestion. Click here to read it.

Here's a response by Raequel Roberts, METRO's associate vice president of marketing/media and corporate communication, which was published in the Chronicle on March 7. She is pictured here in a photo taken today by Ernest Chou, senior community relations rep at METRO.

"Houston METRO encourages everyone to ride METRO, including Houston Chronicle reporters who occasionally cover METRO.

"To neophytes, riding transit does require some homework and can take some time to master. We have a project underway to straighten out routes that have evolved over the years into zigzag patterns. Any visitor to New York City finds venturing into the subway system a bit daunting, but a day or two of experience leaves many singing the praises of the system.  It's a maturation we often observe with first time riders to METRORail.

"We are glad the reporter noticed METRO's buses are clean. With more than 150,000 riders each day, that's a lot of traffic through one's front door. 

"We were, however, perplexed by her statement that one must input intersections, not addresses, to use our Trip Planner. The trip planner works with addresses, as it does with landmarks. We recently added Google Transit to our site as an added form of assistance.

"On the matter of fares and our operators: Operators monitor fares to look for abuses of the system, but their primary responsibility is to drive buses safely and adhere to schedules. One of the goals of METRO's new METRO Q® Fare Card was to cut down on disputes between operators and customers. We want to keep operators just as safe as our passengers.

"Buses lurching and creaking? Well, they're buses, not limousines. It's too bad the reporter didn't board one of our new hybrid buses. These buses are so quiet, METRO's Orion hybrid buswe've actually had passengers fall asleep and miss their stops. We're putting more and more of these on the streets each day. 

"And, on the matter of travel time in a car vs. bus. In day-to-day street driving, no, a bus probably can't beat a car to your destination. People ride mass transit for many reasons. Some, because they have no car, some because they realize riding a bus is cheaper than driving a car, others because they believe it is the environmentally right thing to do. And then there are times when METRO is quicker, as anyone sitting on a freeway at rush hour can attest to, when our Park & Ride buses zoom past them on the HOV.

"METRO isn't perfect - we've fixed a clogged drain that caused leaking on the bus the reporter rode - but we provide a valuable, clean and safe service for one of the lowest fares in the nation."


Public Transit Users Save Thousands Annually


Exterior of hybrid busToday's bleak economic news of the highest unemployment rate in 24 years with more than 600,000 jobs shed last month is enough to trigger belt-tightening in anyone's household budget.

Using public transit - even if only one or two days a week - will save you money.

If you ride public transit and keep your car in the garage, you can save an average of $8,498 every year, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). That figure is based on March 5, 2009, gas prices.

Here's more good news. Commuters who take public transit to work can now get an increase in the monthly transit benefit offered by their employer. The benefit increases to $230 from $120, part of the economic stimulus package passed by Congress.

Public transit riders save $708 a month, based on the cost of parking and the March 5 gas price of $1.933 as reported by AAA.

Where can you save the most money by using public transit?

Boston takes the top spot with monthly savings of $1,036, followed by New York ($1,032 monthly savings), San Francisco ($960 monthly savings), Chicago ($875 monthly savings) and Philadelphia ($861 monthly savings).

Dallas came in at No. 17 with $681 monthly savings.

To calculate your trip savings in Houston, click our Commute Calculator.

New Trains to be Nation's First Low-Floor Model

Esterior of CAF trainYesterday's board approval of our contract to build four-light rail lines includes the purchase of 29 rail cars from CAF USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Spain-based CAF Group, a $7.5 billion company with 34 projects in 20 countries.

 These sleek trains feature one level inside, from front to back, with no steps.

"This is a 100 %, low-floor model. And this is the first time it will be in the United States," said Jitendra S. Tomar, vice president of marketing and business development at CAF USA Inc. "Other cars, you have 70 percent low floor. This one is all one level. You have better mobility from one end to the other."

Scott Grogan, senior director of rail operations, said the 100 percent low-floor feature sets this model apart.

Low-floor trains like this are currently operating in Seville and Malaga, Spain; Edinburg, Scotland; and Antalya, Turkey.

The new trains will also have six doors per side - two double doors and two single doors. METRO's current Siemens trains have four doors.

The new cars will be the same width as the Siemens but slightly longer - 102.5 feet compared to 96 feet for our current cars. Interior of CAF train

"With six doors, it's going to expedite boarding and deboarding," said Scott Grogan, METRO's senior director of rail operations.

"Currently, on the Main Street line, we have a capacity issue. What this new vehicle will allow - when you have 200 people waiting on the platform - it will allow quicker boarding and deboarding."

Inside, the layout of the seats can be changed. They can all flip up for standing room only stadium crowds, for example.

Several of you asked if METRO's Siemens train can be hooked up to a CAF USA train. Yes, but only to use one to tow the other. However, the two cannot be hooked up together to run service.

"They have two separate operating parameters. It's like a Mac communicating to a PC - totally different operating parameters on the software side," explained Grogan.

METRO plans to keep its 18 Siemens trains and may eventually use them on a commuter rail line. 

Several of you have asked if the new trains will be able to accommodate bike racks. "That's being looked into," said Grogan.

The CAF USA trains come with the industry standard of a 30-year lifetime. However, what makes this deal unique is the way the contract is structured.

"The risk elevation is more on the private side. In this case, the onus is on the private side, so risk allocation is shared by all of us. It's good for the taxpayers  - and METRO has the least risk," said CAF's Tomar. "It's not a public-private partnership. It's beyond that. This is a unique approach, and I commend METRO for this approach."

Typically, trains come with a two-year warranty. In this case, the system must function fault-free for five years.

Interior of CAF train "With this process, CAF USA will be responsible for any fleet defects in a five-year window. They will have to redesign or fix whatever the failure is and alleviate that. That's unique," said Grogan.

Our initial "Notice to Proceed" - a notice we give to the train manufacturer indicating we are ready to order - calls for 29 cars. Ten will be used for the East End line, and 19 for the Main Street line.

METRO expects delivery of the trains in April 2012.




METRO Approves Parsons Contract to Build Rail Lines


New rail car METRO is orderingIn a historic vote today, the METRO board approved a $1.46 billion contract with Parsons Transportation Group to build four light-rail lines in Houston.

"Today is obviously a very significant milestone," said David S. Wolff, METRO's chairman of the board. "Our objective is to improve transit in Houston, beginning with the 2003 referendum. We have now finalized a new contract with Parsons...We are doing our very best to bring first-class transit to this city."

Wolff called the contract "extremely innovative" and said it keeps METRO on budget for building four light-rail lines: North, East End, Southeast and Uptown.

The four lines will total 19.95 miles of light-rail at an average cost of $73 million per mile. At left, is a photo of the new rail cars METRO is ordering from CAF USA.

The initial phase of the contract calls for spending $632 million and is expected to create 25,000 jobs. Overall, 60,000 jobs will be created by the time the nearly 20 miles of rail are completed.

"This is a tremendous economic engine that creates jobs," said Frank J. Wilson, METRO's president and CEO.

The $632 million in the initial phase of the contract includes spending on the following:  


  • $90 million in utility work on the North and Southeast Corridors.
  • $390 million in total costs for the East End, including an overpass at Harrisburg for light rail
  • Construction of a Service and Inspection Facility
  • 29 rail cars from CAF USA at a cost of $3.15 million/car. The Main St. Line will get 19 cars; East End, 10 cars.
  • $3 million for final alignment and station configuration on the Uptown Corridor

The contract also specifies that 35 percent of eligible program contracts be directed to local small businesses. That amounts to $335 million of work.

Parsons will be responsible for designing, building, operating and maintaining the four new light-rail lines. Rail map

The contract builds in many innovative features to protect METRO, including:


  • The ability to contract out work where the price is disputed.
  • Advancing the work in phases, known as "multiple notices to proceed."

     "It was important to get this capability and still be able to hold the price," explained Wilson in his presentation to the board. "We can change the contract and amend it to reflect the needs of the financial marketplace."


  • Off ramps for cause/convenience, so if the worse-case scenario happens with Parsons, METRO can end the contract by paying a modest de-mobilization fee with no profit for Parsons.
  • Incentives ($50 million) to meet certain goals and penalties ($40 million) if those goals aren't met.

"We think that's a good way to keep them focused and get the kind of product we want," said Wilson.






A Trolley that Runs on Used Veggie Oil


Street scene of Leesburg, Virg.Imagine riding public transit in a vehicle that runs on discarded vegetable oil.

That's what riders are doing in Leesburg, Virginia, according to The Washington Post.  The Town Trolley of Leesburg runs on cooking oil thrown out by local restaurants - a milestone town officials celebrated a few weeks ago as a green initiative.

The man behind the innovative idea is John Larson, a program manager for an information technology contractor,  who runs New Life Energy, a start-up that helps local government agencies and nonprofits discover renewable sources of energy.

Larson convinced town officials to convert the free trolley to using veggie oil by emphasizing the environmental benefits. Vegetable oil burns cleaner than diesel or gas and doesn't produce pollutants.

Virginia Regional Transit, which operates the trolley, paid $10,000 to convert the trolley. Larson charges $2.65 a gallon for the vegetable oil, which he collects and cleans. The trolley engine still needs some diesel to operate until the engine reaches 160 degrees. Then the diesel tank automatically shuts off, and another tank with vegetable oil is activated.

Read more here.

New Orion Hybrid Buses in Service



Orion VII hybrid busSome of our bus aficionados have already noticed and commented about our newest hybrid-electric buses we have recently launched into service.

Made by Daimler Buses, the Orion VII Hybrid Transit bus is equipped with a generator and motor in the back and a power control system mounted on the roof top. It is designed to improve thermal conditions and reliability, according to Daimler.  

Daimler Buses is the world leader in deploying hybrid buses  with 1,300 units already delivered and 1,500 on order. Its clients include three of four of the world's largest fleets.

Here at METRO, we have ordered 56 Orion VII buses. With buses making their METRO debut on the road in early January .

Since then, more Orions have been integrated into our fleet, and more will be coming into service soon, as they must first be modified to meet our specific requirements, explained Bill Peterson, senior operations management analyst.

The narrow seat backs in the Orion VII buses should also give slightly more hip-to-knee room compared to a 40-foot bus with the older-model seats.

Once inside, passengers should hear less noise, according to Daimler.
"Maintenance people have conducted comparative tests to verify this," said Peterson.

The European design and all-glass side windows give the hybrid buses a sleek appearance, while drivers sit in an enhanced compartment.

The Orion Diesel-Electric Hybrid bus was first developed in 1996. Two years later, these buses began daily revenue service. Today, the largest hybrid fleets are in New York, Toronto and San Francisco.

METRO's Orions VII hybrid buses are just one more way we are going green, producing lower levels of exhaust emissions and consuming less fuel.

METRO Wins ADDY Awards

Sydney Scardino, copywriter and Rob Fritsche, sr copywriter/produer with ADDY awardsFor actors, winning an Oscar is the pinnacle of their career.

For marketing and advertising guys, it's the ADDY award.

Last Saturday, the American Advertising Association Houston conducted its local awards ceremony - and METRO garnered six local awards. The local competition is the first of three tiers on the way to capturing the coveted national ADDY. Above are two of our staffers who worked on the projects that captured tthe gold: Sydney V. Scardino, copywriter, and Rob Fritsche, senior copywriter/producer.

The ADDY recognizes and rewards creative excellence in advertising. The annual award conferred by the American Advertising Federation is the world's biggest advertising competition with more than 60,000 entries every year.

METRO walked away with a Gold ADDY for a Spanish-language radio spot on METRO police; a Gold ADDY for a direct marketing T-shirt for our employee community fund drive; and four citations of excellence.Airport Direct print ad for student newspaper

The citations of excellence were for our 2007 Annual Report, a radio commercial on a "Go West" route promotion, a radio spot promoting riding METRORail to a Texans game and a series of student ads on Airport Direct.

"It just confirms that METRO's in-house talent can provide quality marketing and advertising as well as, if not better, than anybody in town and save the authority lots of money in marketing costs," said Fritsche. 

Fritsche came up with the award-winning slogan, "Weathering the Storm Together" on the community fund drive T-shirt, while Casey Johnson, graphic designer, created the winning design of the T-shirt.

Scardino wrote the radio spot on METRO police, which we then translated to Spanish; Fritsche produced the spot.

Raequel Roberts, associate vice president of marketing, media, and corporate communications, wrote the 2007 Annual Report, and Casey designed it.

Click the link below to hear the radio spots.


METRO's Share of Economic Stimulus Package


President Barack Obabma signing economic stimulus billMETRO's portion of the federal economic stimulus package is expected to be $92 million.

METRO has identified a list of priority projects that may be advanced to spend that money. We are working with the Houston-Galveston Area Council to finalize the list of qualified projects. 

Frank J. Wilson, METRO's president & CEO, said last Thursday after METRO's board meeting that the agency also expects to get an undetermined amount of discretionary funds from the Federal Transit Administration. METRO will have to compete against other projects across the country for these additional FTA funds.

In December 2008, METRO submitted five "Letters of No Prejudice" (LONPs) to the FTA, requesting permission to proceed with early construction activities on the North and Southeast rail lines. The LONPs guarantee that the FTA will reimburse METRO for monies spent on these activities, if and when Full Funding Grant Agreements are approved.

In January 2009, the FTA approved the first LONP for the procurement of rail vehicles. The second LONP for the advanced design work is expected to be approved this week.

Click here to find out preliminary numbers from the FTA on how money will be distributed for transit projects. There are also helpful links related to transit and the stimulus package. Click here to register for regular FTA updates on the AARA.

If you want the administration's official Web site created to track stimulus spending, click However, there's not much solid information up right now.



Most Riders Satisfied with METRO


Happy bus ridersThe first customer satisfaction survey in a decade shows that overall, most of our riders are completely or mostly satisfied with METRO.

The survey was presented to METRO's board of directors today.

Representative sampling of 827 interviews were conducted last fall with passengers who were interviewed on board buses on weekday local routes, local weekend routes, Park & Ride routes and at the rail stations.   

"The overall satisfaction score - the fact that 94 percent of our riders are satisfied with METRO - was a happy validation of a lot of hard work that is going on," said Darla Bell, manager of strategic analysis.

The top seven factors METRO scored highest on were: ease of use, driver's knowledge of route, knowing where to go if rider has a complaint, driver's driving skills, courtesy of driver, agency doing a good job of telling riders about route/schedule changes, and METRO being a good value for the money.

Satisfaction was measured in 13 service areas, including our Web site, transit centers and transfers. Happy train riders

The survey, conducted in both English and Spanish, concluded that:


  • 94 percent of riders are completely (40%) or mostly (54%) satisfied with METRO overall.
  • 98 percent of riders would recommend METRO to a friend.
  • 96 percent of riders say our service has improved over the past year.
  • 95 percent of riders say they can rely on METRO to get them where they want to go.

"This customer satisfaction survey will form a baseline for annual surveys so we can keep getting report cards," said Bell.

Survey results will be given to top management in all our departments, and we hope to use this information to improve our service.


METRO Extends Hours for Rodeo Crowd


Kids running with calf in calf scrambleIt's almost time to don boots, spurs and cowboy hats and have fun enjoying the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo where you can see everything from calf scrambles to champion llamas and bulls.

The rodeo will be held from March 3 to 22 at Reliant Park. METRO will be extending its existing Park & Ride service to make it easier for you to get there.  We will also offer these extended hours during the rodeo's cook-off event on Feb. 27 and 28.

The service will run from the West Loop Park & Ride lot, located at 4675 S. Braeswood @ the South Loop at these hours:   

Weekdays: 5 p.m. to midnight

Weekends: 11 a.m. to midnight

The fare is $4, round trip.

If it's more convenient to drive to our Fannin South Park & Ride lot at Fannin and West Belfort ($8 event parking), you can then catch the rail and ride the Red Line to Reliant Park station, within easy walking distance of the stadium. The one-way train fare is $1.25.

So whether you're going to the rodeo to chow down on pit-smoked barbeque or tap your toes to country stars Clay Walker or Rascal Flatts, METRO gives you two easy options to get there.

Billions Set Aside for Public Transit Projects


Workers constructing rail lineWhen President Obama signs the economic stimulus package tomorrow, it will release $787 billion in federal funding to cities and states already scrambling for their share of the money.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last week provides $8.4 billion for investments in public transportation projects. Of that $8.4 billion, $6.9 billion will be given to public transit systems through the Federal Transit Administration's current formulas and processes, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  The balance of $1.5 billion will be set aside for grants for major new projects and for modernizing the urban rail system in this country.

That's good news for all transit agencies.

"Setting the course for years to come, this legislation will begin to craft a greater Intermodal transportation system that our nation desperately needs," said William W. Millar, APTA president, in a statement.

Here at METRO, we have asked for $410 million to jumpstart work on the North and Southeast lines - two of the five light-rail lines we expect to complete by 2012. Eleven days ago, Frank J. Wilson, METRO's president & CEO, three METRO board members - along with locally elected officials -  met with federal leaders, including Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), who promised to work with Houston officials and the FTA to push the project along.

In the House version of the bill, METRO stands to gain as much as $180 million over the next 12 months to launch construction on the North and Southeast lines. While there were no guarantees, Oberstar called this "a project in very good standing."

Transit projects mentioned in the economic stimulus bill include:


  • $8 billion for high-speed rail corridors.
  • $1.3 billion for Amtrak.
  • $1.5 billion for a new, intermodal discretionary program that can be used for public transportation, highways, bridges, freight rail and ports.

Separately, APTA reports, an additional $150 million for rail and transit security grants is provided in the bill.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials says it has identified 5,000 "shovel-ready" projects nationwide.

Meanwhile, state officials are poring through the 1,000-page federal bill, to see if they qualify for immediate funds or not.



METRO Matters: Booking METROLift Trips on the Web


METRO Matters logoMETRO schedules about 5,000 trips every day for people with disabilities.

And we have just made it easier for people with disabilities to book their trips by going on-line.

Our latest edition of METRO Matters features Art Jackson, director of transportation programs, who explains how this works, along with all the other features of our METROLift service.

Click the link below to watch a preview.

Starting next week, you can watch it on Comcast's Channel 17 and on

HCCTV/Channel 19.

Here are show times for Channel 17:


Mon.    2/16/09           8:20 p.m.

Wed.   2/18/09           9:45 p.m.

Fri.      2/20/09           7:45 p.m.

Sun.    2/22/09           1:15 p.m.

Tues.   2/24/09           6:45 p.m.

Thu.     2/26/09           7:30 p.m.

Sat.     2/28/09           12:30 p.m.

Mon.    3/2/09             12:30 p.m.

Wed.   3/4/09             9:30 p.m.

Fri.      3/6/09             8:30 p.m.

Sat.     3/7/09             7:30 p.m.

Sun.    3/8/09             10:45 p.m.