Metro Responds To Our "Train Wreck" Article; We Respond To Their Response

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Metro ain't happy with us
Last week's cover story didn't go over too well at Metro; maybe that's not too surprising since it was entitled "Train Wreck: How Metro and it's president Frank Wilson got so far off track."

George Smalley, the agency's head of communications and marketing, responded with a letter listing what he called "the omission of facts" in the article.

The letter came in too late to be included in this week's issue, but we figured we'd put it up here for everyone to take a look at.

The writer of the article, Paul Knight, has also responded to Metro's response.

Check the jump to take a look at both.
First, the Metro letter:

It never ceases to amaze how the omission of facts in an article can be almost as egregious as getting the facts wrong in the first place.

This fact was perfectly borne out by your recent story Train Wreck.

Fact No. 1? The reporter never bothered to check his facts with METRO.

This might have gone a long way toward making this story, if not balanced, than at least closer to accurate.

Case in point. The reporter makes repeated assumptions about the safety of riding METRO. A photo cutline in the story said crashes involving METRO buses are common. In fact, the number of crashes have gone done steadily since 2004 - some 26 percent.

In 2009, METRO experienced 840 crashes. That's less than 1 crash for every 100,000 miles driven.

A similar fact omitted from the story: Light rail crashes are down 53 percent for the same time frame.

The reporter's assertions about ridership on the METRO system are also flat wrong. For example, the reporter states "over the past four years, according to Metro documents, rail has averaged between 2 and 3 million people each year."

In fact, the lowest 12-month annual METRORail ridership total was more than 10 million boardings during FY2005.

He also stated, "Bus ridership numbers also dropped dramatically, according to Metro documents, from about 80 million in 2005 to just a little more than 17 million during the last year."

In fact, the actual FY2009 bus ridership total was more than 300 percent higher than the 17 million boardings reported in the Houston Press story.

Have we seen a drop in ridership in the past year? Yes. Have we been upfront about the reasons? Yes. Lower gas prices, one of the coldest winters on record, a severe recession and, honestly, a fare increase - the first in 14 years. But at $1.25, METRO is still one of the cheapest fares in the country.

The reporter interviewed a business owner along the light-rail line who claimed METRO cut his power for one week following a non-METRO related accident that damaged the rail electrical supply line.

In fact, power to the owner's shop was cut for a few hours to make it safe for METRO personnel to make repairs to the line.

He also rehashes an old Press article that erroneously states METRO exercises no oversight of the contractor that operates one of its bus facilities.

In fact, the contractor, First Transit, is held to the same standards as METRO - for maintenance and service. We have a supervisor working full time at First Transit.

While the reporter made several references to allegations made about former METRO President Frank J. Wilson he never mentioned the fact that an external investigation by UHY Advisors' found no evidence of improper spending by Wilson.

"Their findings speak for themselves," Chairman Gilbert Garcia, CFA, said at the time. "UHY found no evidence of improper spending or reimbursements or any other prohibitive actions related to our (former) CEO Mr. Frank Wilson. The inquiry was thorough and it was complete."

While it's true the District Attorney's office is conducting an investigation of METRO - an investigation METRO welcomes - the FBI is not investigating the agency as stated by the reporter. In fact, an FBI IT computer expert was helping the DA's office.

The reporter referenced a preliminary report from the Federal Transit Administration examining METRO's adherence to civil rights laws.

He conveniently left out the fact that in the in fall of 2009 the FTA ruled METRO's program complete and in compliance with requirements related to Title VI.

"Amongst the many actions taken, Houston METRO has developed a limited English proficiency program, analyzed service and fare changes to ensure reductions would not be disproportionately borne by predominantly minority communities," wrote Cheryl L. Hershey, director of the FTA Office of Civil Rights, in a September 22, 2009 letter.

In fact, the FTA now refers to our program as an industry model.

Finally, we did assign blame for the March 2010 bus/light-rail accident -- weeks before this story was published.

The operator ran the red light and has been terminated. That's a fact.

But, to paraphrase a newspaper adage, why let the facts stand in the way of a sensational story?

George Smalley
Vice President Communications & Marketing
Houston METRO
Reporter Paul Knight's response:

The top of the Metro response says, "The reporter never bothered to check his facts with Metro." That's not true. Much of the information in the article came from reporting I did long before the feature was published, for Hair Balls. I got a response from Metro on those items.

For example, Metro's response mentions a Civil Rights investigation by the FTA. I did a series of blogs last year about that investigation, and used the documents/reporting for this feature.

Metro mentions a photo cutline that says, "Crashes involving Metro buses are common." Metro cites statistics that prove crashes have dropped since 2004 for both the buses and rail.

The cutline doesn't say that crashes have increased during that time, just that they are common. In the article, I use the example of two bus/rail collisions in the course of two months.

As far as rail crashes, the story mainly talks about the high number of rail/car collisions in the months after the Main Street rail opened.

The ridership numbers I used for the feature, for bus and rail service, are wrong. As Metro points out, the lowest number of yearly boardings on the rail, since it opened, was more than 10 million during the 2005 fiscal year.

Bus ridership has declined, but not by as many riders cited in "Train Wreck."

I don't think it's fair, however, to say that those numbers contribute to a "sensational story." They were quoted in two paragraphs of the entire feature.

Metro says it cut power to Reza Nouri's Rosewood Flowers for only a couple hours to make repairs to the rail line, which runs right in front of his store. The article quoted Nouri saying that it took about a week for his shop to regain electricity.

In a follow-up conversation, Nouri said again that he didn't have power for close to a week. When Metro finished its repairs, other stores near his regained electricity, he said, but Rosewood did not.

We asked Metro earlier today for any documentation that Nouri's shop only lost electricity for a few hours. We will update this post when we hear something.

Metro's response says that Todd Spivak's 2006 article, "Run Over By Metro," "erroneously states Metro exercises no oversight of the contractor that operates one of its bus facilities."

The quoted material from Spivak's story that deals with oversight says, "Metro neither oversees background checks on First Transit drivers nor ensures that they are properly trained."

Metro does not say if the Metro supervisor "working full time at First Transit" oversees background checks and training of First Transit drivers.

"Train Wreck" does not mention the UHY Advisors report that found no evidence of improper spending by Wilson. That report, however, was funded by Metro. I wrote a blog item questioning the veracity of the UHY report.

Metro says that "the FBI is not investigating the agency..." It's been reported that the FBI is involved with the investigation. Metro itself says that the FBI is helping the District Attorney's office.

The story does not talk about Metro's compliance with FTA civil rights guidelines. The feature, in the side story "Life Lines," references complaints from bus riders, which were part of a preliminary report from the FTA. As Metro points out, the agency was later found compliant with the civil rights laws, which is not mentioned in the story.

On the last point, "Train Wreck" incorrectly stated that Metro hadn't assigned blame for a second bus/rail collision in front of Metro headquarters. Metro concluded the bus driver ran a red light, and the driver was fired.

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