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Houston can’t wait for expanded light rail

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Houston can’t wait for expanded light rail

By Ken Kemnagum Okorie

Special to USAfricaonline.com, The Black Business Journal, BBJonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston

On Wednesday, March 4, 2009 Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority approved a $1.46 billion contract that will expand the light rail system by four more lines. Metro chairman David Wolff hailed the timing as “perfect” because of the expected 60,000 new jobs that will be created.  This development could not come soon enough for Houston.

Focusing on the job creation aspect of the contract, a Houston Chronicle copyright article on Friday described it as a rude reminder of just how important those jobs will be, especially with worsening unemployment. Under the economic hard time as has enveloped the American and global economies, the temptation to zoom narrowly and deeply into the immediate economic features of light rail may have appeal, even be popular.

Critics of Metro have been vocal in condemning its handling of the latest rail contract.   The airwaves are saturated with complaints that details of the light rail expansion were held back until the last minute.  Board voting was actually delayed one day in the face of intense criticism.  Some even hold the view that Houston has no business accepting funds from economic stimulus package that President Obama recently signed into law.

Light rail holds too significance to the Bayou City of the 21st century to be considered only so casually, disjointedly and often from partisan political prism.

What is important here is that the contract brings to active life an expansion of light rail in this city.  It is worth celebrating given that organized partisan opposition to light rail has been the Achilles heel of mass transit in Houston.

In 2002 The Washington Post dismissed Houston’s bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, saying that the city lacks the international appeal that would enable it to compete favorably on behalf of the United States.  While that may have seemed like a harsh indictment that offended many, the characterization had serious merit.  I offered a response in an article in this paper which focused on the reality that a dominant small town mentality still robs our the Fourth largest city in the US, of any chance of being taken seriously as a either Big, modern or sophisticated.  An entrenched wildcatter mindset and sub-culture is so entrenched that it abhors and obstructs any attempt to take this city out of the 1900s.  Consequently, Houston has kept lagging further and further behind as a serious modern metropolis, hardly favored as stop for entertainment, the arts, business, culture by tourists.  The list of destinations systematically promoted by the travel and tourism industry tells the full story.

If my words sound harsh, they are precisely so intended.  Last Fall I returned to Denver the first time after 22 years of law school in Mile High City.  I was awed by the transformation of a rejuvenated downtown climaxed by the sophistry of an eatery, entertainment and shopping district to which remote corners of the city are now linked by rail transit.  As volunteer observer in Cleveland, Ohio during last November elections, I experienced the convenience of rail connection between a city periphery airport and the distant ends of the town in record time.  Denver and Cleveland are just examples.  Following is a list of American cities, big and small, which had some form of rail transit (commuter rail, rapid transit, light rail, streetcar, subway, trolley, monorail, tramway, tube, underground, etc.) as of January 2007: Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo Camden, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver Galveston, Harrisburg, Hoboken, Houston, Kenosha, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, Newark, New Orleans, New York City, Oceanside, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Syracuse, Tacoma, Tampa, Washington D.C.

Houston reluctantly and tokenly joined the list in 2004 with a 7-mile stretch from Downtown to the Astrodome via the Medical Center.  It was literally an imposition on city leaders by former Mayor Lee P. Brown.

The positive impact on residents’ quality of life and impression left on visitors by effective rail transit cannot be understated.  At the international level, rail transit is one of the features that differentiate countries that have broken loose from underdevelopment from those still shackled by it. (visit http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~wyatt/rail-transit-list.html). Modern civilization does not take seriously municipal centers that are so self-centered they refuse to see where the rest of the world is going.

A sophisticated ear on Houston’s morning drive on radio is seriously surprised by a feature howling reminificent of wild hogs and must wonder what corner of the rural back range these were released from!   The lead news on

Every Houston TV station features incident from the local crime beat as daily lead news item.  Next to that is a preoccupation with some mundane local gossip totally lacking in anything of import or consequence to our world. Despite being the hub of the global oil and gas industry and having a glamorized landscape, Houston remains the classic small town where the embedded rich use their economic and political influence to keep off any attempt to awaken the city much less bring it into vogue.  The world is awash with examples of small metropolises that have outstripped our big elephant in attraction and consequence Houston.

Anyone reading this and thinking that I am out to mock or belittle Houston has it all wrong.  I have called Houston home since 1982 and have no plan to change.  That’s was the reason I carried my Texas license tag on my car throughout 3 years of law school, and left the day following my graduation.  To the contrary, I feel particular personal stake to Houston as my home it is my concern how the world perceive us.

The point is that Houston is simply not making the best of its unique opportunities and attributes.  Yes, we have Johnson Space Center, The Medical Center that ranks best in the world, and, yes, we also have the Astrodome.  And speaking of the Astrodome, you notice that our City and County seem uncertain or unconvinced what to do with this unique international landmark!  Most cities and nations have done intensely more with far less remarkable structures.  Visit the Baltimore Inner Harbor, the Denver Downtown Mall and similar places where municipalities have invested intensely to create truly exciting and successful tourism attractors.  The Astrodome is ideal for a well designed and outfitted hotel, shopping and entertainment complex that would compares very favorable with some of the globally known ultramodern centers.  Our concern about the cost to cool and maintain it cannot ignore the fact that no construction that has tried to imitate it has turned out as grand.  The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1653, but India finds its maintenance a national treasure a priority.

Having called Houston home for 20 years, I too was disappointed at the less than enviable assessment of Houston by The Washington Post.  But as someone who has also traveled the world, I cannot deny that the assessment has merit.  Which is not to say that Houston cannot host the Olympics, but that we present an appearance that inhibits any capacity we may have.

My point is that Houston has quibbled and fought too long over having rail transit.  The contract signed this week should put an end to that crippling argument and let the rails start rolling.  Houston will be a better city for it. For that matter, it is my opinion that Houston has no choice if it must transit from the inconsequential big oil town to the sophisticated, endearing major urban player in the 21st century  
Okorie, an attorney and director of The Small Business Legal Clinic, is a member of the editorial board of USAfrica The Newspaper and USAfricaonline.com. Responses are welcome and will be published. He also wrote exclusively for USAfrica: Is Obasanjo endangering Nigeria’s democracy? and the Saga in Anambra, Obasanjo and Nigeria’s federalism

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