Mobility response team's fuzzy math

March 3, 2009 9:13:22 PM PST
There's evidence that Houston's City Hall grossly exaggerated the work of the mayor's prized traffic-fighting SWAT team. We're back and so are our hidden cameras.Check out the busted fire hydrant on MacGregor. It's not exactly a flood. Cars can pass just fine. But someone thinks that nearly half the city's mobility force is needed here to direct traffic until the water is shut off.

Wanna watch five traffic pros in action? They set up their traffic cones, but where you put them is kind of important.

"They should pull back to nearest intersection to keep people from traveling down that street, so that they don't exacerbate the problem," said Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Vicki King.

Makes sense. Detour folks at the intersection.

But these trained mobility experts have instead blocked the street, so cars are forced to make U-turns on MacGregor. That could cause an accident.

"That's traffic 101," said King.

Thought so.

Three MRTs just stand there and watch the water gushing. They talk on the phone and help hold up a tree. But no one is helping direct the cars that suddenly come up on the MacGregor blockade.

"They should know better," said King. "There's no question."

Our undercover van will show you the cones seem to be doing all the work. So what traffic school did this bunch go to?

We could make a U-turn, but what's a METRO bus going to do. Remember, there are five MRT's on the scene. But the bus driver has to stop his bus and get out and walk over to one of them to ask for help.

"It's unacceptable," said King.

But aren't these members of the mayor's mobility swat team, the ones doing such a good job last year that the mayor hired twelve more of them?

City Hall claimed the MRTs handled 20,000 mobility incidents in their first 10 months. Wow. That's 2,000 a month. Sounds like City Hall math.

We saw an MRT team work card. They gave someone directions to the Galleria and three of them counted that as a traffic incident. Turns out 6,100 traffic incidents in a year really were just someone giving directions.

"We don't dispatch these guys to give directions," said Houston City Controller Annise Parker.

How about this for city hall math? A trio of MRTs posted at four different locations at the very same fire. That would sound like one incident, right? Not for the MRTs. They count that as four incidents.

They go to get the uniform shop. They count that as another incident.

"Unfortunately, if some people want to try to inflate those numbers, it's difficult for us unless you catch them in the act," said King.

There's an afternoon accident on the Loop. Traffic seems just fine down on the feeder road. But there's an MRT controlling the light, anyway and another one at the corner.

"I'm giving him signals because he can't see from right here. The traffic flowing on the feeder road," said one MRT with whom we spoke.

That makes sense, but why are we paying two mobility officers to just sit in a van parked down the street?

Want to see a one sided conversation?

"I know what they are doing," we said to the people in the MRT's van. "But what are you two guys doing?"

King agreed. "That's not acceptable to your viewers, it's not acceptable to the police department and it's darn sure not going to be acceptable to the taxpayers," she said.

It turns out the city hired more MRTs months before they actually had bought the vehicles for them to use. How about that for planning?

"This is a failure of training. It's a failure of leadership. It's a failure of supervision," said Parker. "And it ends up as a waste of taxpayer dollars."

But it can get real hot just sitting there with so much to do. In July, HPD made an emergency purchase of tinted windows so the MRTs could have a place to "cool down."

We showed you an MRT not lifting a finger to help an elderly woman try to cross a busy street next to an emergency scene.

"That's basic human courtesy. That person obviously doesn't know their job, shouldn't be a city employee," said Parker.

"You're doing a good thing here," said King. "We've taken our lumps and let me tell you. We have learned from this and these guys are on notice that the city expects better."

Parker added, "It's a great idea in theory and it probably could be a very good idea in practice, but it's a disaster."

One supervisor has been reassigned and the whole MRT unit faces an internal affairs investigation because of the video we've been showing you.

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