Metro On the Defensive About Updated Transit Plan

Two weeks after a surprise roll-out of an updated transit plan, Metro officials are defending their move, saying the new proposal covers more area, costs less and has a better chance of getting federal funding than the old one. Some city leaders aren't so sure.

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Metro is backing-off the use of light rail in some corridors and is instead proposing the use of high-tech buses, a system known at Bus Rapid Transit. Metro president and CEO Frank Wilson defended the use of BRT at a specially-called session of city council. "We're talking about the same service. Travel speed and a dedicated guideway is the same whether it's a rail or a bus vehicle," says Wilson. "The capacity is the same, the vehicle itself almost identical. Low floors, wide doors, spacious interiors which promote people from boarding and (getting off) rather rapidly."

But councilmembers like Adrian Garcia say going from an elaborate light rail system to using enhanced buses is more of a stretch than voters bargained for when they approved the original plan in 2003. "I don't care how you put it and how aesthetically it looks. It's a bus, it's not light rail. That's not what my voters supported," says Garcia.

Metro would spend about $600 million on 21 miles of BRT service and $700 million on 9 miles of new light rail service, the majority of the $2 billion plan. Half of the money would come from the federal government, which has agreed in principle to share the cost of the modified plan. US Representative Gene Green isn't happy with the way Metro announced the changes, but says what's done is done. He says now is the time to come together and formulate a plan that works for everyone.

Metro officials say their old light rail plan wasn't getting good reviews from the Federal Transit Administration and would likely have failed to get any federal dollars at all. Mayor Bill White says concerns that the new plan isn't what voters approved in 2003 are unfounded. "The referendum itself was on the issuance of bonds and then it described a plan and it had language in the referendum that there could be changes in the future on the particular plans, both on the configuration of routes and on the modality," says White.

Robin Holzer is the chair of the Citizens Transportation Coalition and says she has a problem with the way the new plan was devised. She says it may be the right plan for the city, but the lack of public input makes for bad public policy.

Critics also say the revised plan leaves out corridors that were in the original plan. Metro officials say the new proposal actually includes more service area. If approved, the latest phase of transit plan could be complete by 2012.

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