METRO promise broken: Disabled vets still being tolled on METRO HOV lanes

Thursday, November 12, 2015
No tolls for disabled veterans?
Ted Oberg went looking for answers

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Two years ago, CEO of Houston METRO Tom Lambert said he thought disabled veterans deserved a toll-free ride on the transit agency's high-occupancy toll lanes.

Indeed, state law allows for disabled vets to ride toll-free and county toll roads in both Harris and Fort Bend have done it for years.

See Ted Oberg's original 2013 investigation here.

But, now, two years later, there have been no changes at METRO.

It mystifies Chris Meyer, who served bravely in Iraq. His Disabled Veteran license plate is a daily reminder of what Meyer and thousands of his colleagues left behind fighting for us far away.

Now, back home, away from the fighting, when Meyer is on the beltway or the Hardy or the Fort Bend toll roads, his tolls are waived. Meyer, studying to become a lawyer, drives back and forth regularly to meet VA doctors.

It's a small thank you from those agencies and from Texas drivers and taxpayers.

But METRO, which controls high occupancy lanes on area freeways, does not and never has.

"I do not think it's unreasonable to offer some kind of discount program," Meyer told Ted Oberg Investigates.

In rush hours, HOV lanes are reserved for cars with two or more people.

Outside of rush hour, single drivers can use them if they pay tolls.

When disabled veteran Frank Haynie complained to abc13 about the issue two years ago, METRO's Lambert said, "We're going to tee that up for a policy change."

"Do disabled veterans deserve a break?," abc13 pressed.

"I think so," Lambert said at the time.

Fast forward two years. Nothing has happened.

Ted Oberg Investigates asked Lambert just weeks ago: "What questions have you asked your staff specifically about disabled vets?"

Lambert's answer: "I don't know that I've asked them any specific question."

METRO has never had the policy discussion about free tolls for disabled vets and doesn't appear to be 'teeing it up' any time soon.

The transit agency points to a decision from the federal government that indicates the feds would have to review METRO's HOT lane changes to make sure it wouldn't impact traffic.

"We're still obligated to make sure they are free flowing," Lambert now says, pointing to that decision.

Lambert also told abc13 he thought disabled vets wanted free access to the HOT lanes 24 hours a day - even when single rider, toll paying use is prohibited. He's never had that discussion with his staff either.

Ted Oberg Investigates looked at county records that show disabled vets make up a mere sliver of traffic on area toll roads: just 1.2 percent.

METRO was not aware of that statistic.

They are now. But METRO is not any closer to allowing disabled vets the toll free privilege they have on other area toll roads.

Update: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the U.S. Representative for much of inner-city Houston including METRO's headquarters, called abc13 after this report aired saying METRO's stance was unacceptable.

"I will be attacking this head-on," she said late Wednesday.

Watch here for additional information.