February 10, 2005
More on Metro's rejection by the FTA

Yesterday, I suggested that the Federal Transportation Administration's rejection of Metro's application for federal matching funds might have had Tom DeLay and John Culberson's involvement. Today's story doesn't exactly disprove that hypothesis.

"It really is a shame Metro continues to be its own worst enemy and create problems that could easily be avoided by obeying the law and following the same rules that every other transit agency in the country has to follow," said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a member of the House transportation appropriations subcommittee and a light rail skeptic.

"They want to be given special consideration allowing themselves to cut in line and ask for utterly inappropriate amounts of money or changes in law that they are not entitled to."

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority applied for federal financing of the Northline and Southeast rail segments in August, it asked the FTA to pay for 100 percent of those lines in exchange for Metro footing the entire bill to construct light rail routes later in the Harrisburg and Westpark corridors.

"We did not expect to receive a negative response to it," said David Wolff, Metro board chairman. "We thought it was innovative, and it has been done before in other parts of the country."

Federal law requires a transit agency to pay for at least 20 percent of a project with local money, though the match usually is more like 50 percent. In its application, Metro asked the FTA to consider the next four rail lines together so that by 2012, when they were all done, Metro and the federal government would end up splitting the cost. Not using federal money on the subsequent two lines would allow Metro to skip the lengthy federal "New Starts" application and review process.

"They knew it would not be accepted when they submitted it," said U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

Paul Griffo, FTA spokesman, said the agency informed Metro last fall "that's not going to work and they needed to submit a conventional New Starts application."

Culberson said Metro didn't run the plan by him before it was submitted in August. He called the request "highly improper, inappropriate and utterly impossible for the federal government to do." He cited Metro's need to resubmit its financial plan in November as a significant reason the transit authority didn't receive a project rating from the FTA in time to make Tuesday's budget report.

Metro officials wanted the FTA to match them project for project rather than dollar for dollar on each line, as is generally done with urban rail construction nationwide. Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said other cities, including San Francisco, have been allowed to use the nontraditional approach to get a system built faster.

"We don't see it as inappropriate," Wilson said. "This was the only way to meet the startup date for all the lines and use federal money to do it."

I don't see what's so bizarre about the request, especially if other cities really have done something like it before. I suppose the FTA could fear that Metro might take the money for the first two projects and then never build the next two, I don't know. And of course it's entirely possible that Metro was told explicitly and emphatically that their idea would be rejected and went ahead with it anyway. They're a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies do dumb things all the time.

But please, spare me the lecture from Culberson and DeLay. For one thing, if these two big powerful majority-party mukka-muks really cared about getting Houston the transit dollars it deserved, they maybe could have used some of their power and influence to try to persuade the FTA that Metro's proposal was fine as it was. Alternately, if they knew in August that it was going to be turned away and needed to be resubmitted in November, they could have said something publicly prior to November to generate some pressure on Metro to get it right. Saying "I told you so" after the fact, no matter how satisfying and maybe even deserving it may be, simply isn't constructive.

It does score points, though. And maybe it serves a purpose. Too bad it's not a helpful one.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 10, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

I submitted this ViewPoint to the Chronicle yesterday but they didn't publish it. Maybe y'all will enjoy it:

"U.S. Rep. John Culberson's true allegiance to his road-building campaign supporters once again outshines any interest he has feigned in truly addressing Houston's mobility needs. In Thursday's article, "Metro's application criticized," Rep. Culberson chastises Metro for not "obeying the law and following the same rules" as other transportation agencies as Metro works to expand Houston's much-needed transit system.

Ironically, Culberson championed don't-be-constrained-by-current-law creative funding for the Katy Freeway expansion. When TXDOT proposed to use Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) funds to cut delays caused by federal highway funding policies – a practice then illegal under state law – Culberson called it innovation. Just last Thursday, Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson boasted to Greater Houston Partnership transportation conference participants that this “innovative” partnership between TXDOT and HCTRA, which will shave 4-6 years off the Katy Freeway expansion project, required “vision” and “strong guidance” to implement. Apparently, Rep. Culberson believes vision is a good thing for highways but not for rail.

As I write, TXDOT’s legislative affairs team is lobbying both in Austin and Washington for more money for rail – both commuter and freight – and for changes to law that will get new Texas rail infrastructure built faster. Cmr. Williamson, at the January meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, publicly asked for help getting Houston’s Congressional delegation to understand that “solving the rail problem is solving the transportation problem.”

Expanding Metro's light rail system is key to creating a more effective and versatile transportation system for Houston. Can Rep Culberson find the vision to support Metro's attempt to getting new rail lines in service sooner just as he has championed finding a way to speed up construction of the Katy Freeway? Can he use his considerable political influence to sway the Federal Transit Administration to fund a project his constituents voted for? Our mobility future depends on it. Now is the time for Houstonians to let their leaders know that they need to get on board and make rail happen."

I expect more dirt on the role our Congressional delegation played in Metro's disappointment. Consider that the same House committee that squashed Metro's request approved the same arrangement for San Francisco. Consider that it can't be about the money since that same committee gave the Chicagoland area $177 MILLION for light rail and commuter rail but is only giving Houston $8.5 MILLION. Culberson is the only Texan on that house committee. Who's not bringing home the bacon?


Posted by: Robin Holzer on February 11, 2005 3:33 PM

Last summer, METRO publically thanked ML DeLay for helping get federal money for them.

Recently, John Culberson and Sen. KBH announced that they were able to get federal money for METRO.

Just because the money is not for the pro-rail lemmings, it still counts.

How much federal pork has "Queen" Sheila brought to Houston for METRO?

Posted by: Tom Bazan on February 11, 2005 5:10 PM