Turns out that crazy non-standard Metro funding plan could have been accepted by the Federal Transportation Administration if some mysterious someone hadn't removed a provision in an appropriations bill to make the FTA accept it.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, offered a rider to the Senate version of the appropriations bill that would have forced the FTA to accept the Metropolitan Transit Authority's nontraditional financing proposal. House staff members said they inadvertently inserted similar language in the House version, but it was deleted during frenzied conference-committee negotiations days before Thanksgiving. A similar rider for a San Francisco light rail project was not deleted and is now law.
The deletion has infuriated rail proponents, especially in light of the success of San Francisco, represented by U.S. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Metro and its supporters contend that completion of the next four light rail lines will be postponed.
"It's an affront to the citizens of Houston," said Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, who has promoted development along the 7 1/2-mile light rail line that opened last year. "Somebody is putting their personal agenda ahead of what the people want."
Hutchison's amendment would have authorized 100 percent federal funding for the Northline and Southeast extensions in exchange for Metro funding two later rail lines solely with local tax dollars. While DeLay and Culberson say they had nothing to do with the deletion of the amendment in the final version, they say they opposed Hutchison's rider, which by authorizing full federal funding, exempted Metro from federal law requiring at least a 20 percent local contribution on each rail segment. The typical local share is more like 50 percent.
"Culberson is the only Texas member of the transportation appropriations subcommittee," said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, a grass-roots organization that promotes more public transit in Houston. "The committee conferees would defer to the Texas delegation on this matter, especially the representative from Houston."
DeLay and Culberson both repeated their pledge last week not to block MetroRail funding once the FTA recommends it. Metro hopes to get its FTA rating no later than July so it will be eligible for money in the fiscal 2006 appropriations bill.
This is the best part of the story:
Other lawmakers question why Culberson would vehemently oppose flexibility for financing, and why he'd vote for a bill giving such flexibility to San Francisco but not Houston.
"We have been providing these light rail funds to cities that are half our size," said Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.
"It seems like we as a delegation ought to quit fighting old battles and get together."
Green said Metro is not asking for anything unprecedented. San Francisco for years has obtained a waiver for its Third Street light rail line, the first section of which is under construction solely with local funds.
Lame excuse time:
Culberson said he doesn't know why the San Francisco waiver went through while the Houston waiver got spiked.
"Just because San Francisco was able to sneak illegal and inappropriate legislative language into the final omnibus bill doesn't make it right for Houston," he said. "We shouldn't change the law to let one guy rob the bank."