HOUSTON (KTRK) --After weeks of pressure from veterans and Houston Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, METRO voted to allow disabled vets to drive the transit agency's high occupancy transit lanes for free, a perk which most other Texas toll authorities already offer.
The 7-1 vote also comes two-and-a-half years METRO officials told abc13 that veterans deserved free use of the transit agency's toll roads.
The measure will begin as a pilot program that will make the HOT lanes available for the disabled vets during off-peak hours.
"We live on a fixed income and many of our disabled veterans, they have to ride to the VA hospital sometimes several times per week," said disabled veteran Daniel Espinosa shortly before the vote by the METRO board. "You doing this will save lives."
Espinosa was joined at the Wednesday meeting by two dozen fellow veterans, including disabled veteran Justin Markham Sr.
"We write a blank check when we sign the papers, including up to our lives," Markham said of signing on to the military. "We're not asking you to do this because we deserve this. We're just asking you to do this because it's right."
Even though passage of the measure passed overwhelmingly, there was concern about the benefit by some board members.
Some on the board were concerned too many disabled vets could use the benefit and slow down METRO's toll roads for everyone else.
"What I know is that we don't have a sustainable solution," METRO board member Lisa Castaneda said.
Others were concerned that METRO couldn't enforce the measure -- and that it might be abused by disabled vets who want to skirt the rules.
"You'll have to be honor-bound not to loan your car to somebody," board member Diann Lewter said. "A lot of the disabled tags that are on cars are terribly misused by people. If this works, use it during this period of time the way it is supposed to be used and not let your son who wants to go visit his girlfriend take the car."
METRO said that more than half of its toll road users are breaking the law already by not paying tolls.
Jackson Lee praised the vote.
"They gave unselfishly as men and women in the United States military," the Democratic congresswoman said. "I believe this is nothing but a plus. I think this is an excellent and wonderful statement for this community for a community and particularly for a state that probably has more veterans and active-duty military than any other state in the union."
It will take a few weeks to iron out the details before the free tolls go into effect, METRO officials said.
In addition, a plan to dive qualified disabled service members free access to METRORail, local buses and park & rides is scheduled to begin April 11.