December 05, 2007
More on the FTA's demands to Metro

Here's the fuller version of the story about the FTA telling Metro to resubmit paperwork for federal funding. It was front page above the fold in today's Chron, and it sounds more alarming than it did yesterday.

An unexpected demand for additional justification for two planned Houston light rail lines raises doubts about Metro's relationship with a federal agency it is counting on for funding, Metro President Frank Wilson said Tuesday.

A letter from Sherry Little, deputy administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, withdraws that agency's approval of preliminary engineering studies and other elements of rail lines planned for the North and Southeast corridors.

The letter, which Wilson said arrived Friday, said Metro must do additional environmental studies, including public hearings, before it can acquire land and start construction. It said Metro's October decision to build light rail in all five of its transit corridors, rather than bus rapid transit that could be converted to rail in four of them, requires the extra information and review.

Wilson said Metro already had provided almost all of the requested information and can quickly generate the rest. He said, however, that the letter's content and tone suggest that the healthy working relationship the two agencies have enjoyed may be deteriorating.

"There is a very hard edge to this letter," Wilson said. "They're acting as if light rail transit is a whole different planet" from bus rapid transit, when "the only real difference is the vehicle."


Metro is seeking federal funds to cover half the costs of the Southeast, North and University lines, but plans to pay for the Uptown and East End lines with local funds.

Wilson said the transit administration previously "gave us every indication that what we were talking about was great." He suggested that something other than procedural or technical considerations may be in play.

"I don't know what's behind the letter," Wilson said. "I don't know the motivation."

An FTA spokesman said the agency would have no comment.

Wilson said he was particularly perplexed by a sentence in Little's letter stating that Metro must demonstrate its technical capacity to build and operate a light rail line.

"Just look out my window," he said, nodding toward the Main Street rail line that his office overlooks. Wilson said the Main Street line, which opened in 2004, carries 45,000 riders daily, a volume it was not projected to reach until 2030.

The letter itself is here (PDF). Christof is quoted in the story saying that this is not a big deal, and has a comment on my earlier post saying the same thing, with the additional point that some of METRO's engineering staff were expecting this. So perhaps it's not all that alarming.

But still. One can't help but wonder where this is coming from. And one need not look far for a possible suspect.

U.S. Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, Houston Democrats who have supported Metro's plans, said they would try to help resolve the issues cited in Little's letter.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who has been a persistent critic of Metro's plans, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Culberson, of course, has a long history of obstruction with METRO and its attempts to get FTA funding for the 2012 plan. I don't know if he had anything to do with this, but it's not exactly wandering into conspiracy-theory territory to imagine the possibility that he might have. The good news is that the two lines mentioned in this letter, the North and Southeast lines, are not in Culberson's district, so his influence (if he is attempting to wield it) would be limited. Let's hope this turns out to be much ado about nothing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 05, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

I don't know if he had anything to do with this, but

... you'll insinuate it anyway?

Well played! :)

Posted by: Kevin Whited on December 5, 2007 4:06 PM

I insinuated nothing. I said directly, in simple to understand language, that based upon past history it was possible that Culberson might have had something to do with this. Are you insinuating that there's something off-base about that hypothesis?

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on December 5, 2007 6:28 PM