December 06, 2007
FTA says Metro screwed up

Responding to the earlier story about its letter demanding more data from Metro before matching funds can be made available for the North and Southeast lines, the Federal Transit Administration says METRO knew this was coming and shouldn't act so surprised by it.

Before Metro's board voted in October to rework its plan for new rapid transit lines, the agency's president was warned by the Federal Transit Administration that such a change could result in delays and force a return to the drawing board, federal officials said Wednesday.

That message was repeated with far greater detail when Metropolitan Transit Authority President Frank Wilson met with FTA officials in Washington on Nov. 14, FTA Associate Administrator Wes Irvin said.

"There was no blindsiding from this agency to Houston Metro," Irvin said.


If Metro can satisfy the FTA's requests within two months, which Wilson called "the most optimistic" scenario, he said there would be no construction delays. Metro has projected it would complete all five lines by late 2012.

"If we have to take the more draconian read on how much work we've got to do ... we are probably looking at a year -- and that will definitely delay our construction."

Irvin estimated the paperwork could be completed within six months if Metro moves quickly to provide the necessary data and "if they start working together with us and Frank starts being forthright with information."

The FTA insists its deputy administrator, Sherry Little, clearly outlined to Wilson during a phone call several days before the board's October vote that a decision to change its transit plan could force new engineering and environmental studies as well as affect Houston's selection as one of three cities in a federal pilot program.

"During that conversation, our deputy administrator was very clear that we don't want to influence this decision one way or the other ... but now there will be probably some real impact to our processes," Irvin said.


Though Wilson suggested that the agencies' relationship appeared to be deteriorating, Irvin stressed FTA would work closely with Metro:

"What I want to make very clear ... is we are an advocate for this project but we have to do our due diligence and play our processes out to the point we are being fair and consistent around the country."

Clearly, there was a failure to communicate in here. It's entirely plausible that METRO could have downplayed what they were told, or that they somehow didn't think some of this would apply to them. Christof's comment from before, that some members of the engineering staff were expecting this, now cuts against what Wilson said in yesterday's article - if the engineers knew what to expect, he should have as well. It would be nice to know what METRO's response is to this parry, but whatever it is, the bottom line appears to be that construction will start a few months later than we first thought, perhaps pushing the groundbreaking to 2009. To say the least, that's annoying as hell. I still applaud the decision to go back to all light rail as was originally promised, and I'd have still advocated that had I known in October what the effect of that change would likely be. I'd guess that most people who want these lines built as light rail would feel the same way. But it would have been nice to have had the full story at the time. If what the FTA is saying is correct, then shame on METRO. Its constituents deserve better than that from them.

One other matter:

Metro is receiving little sympathy from Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who has crossed swords with the agency over the possible location of its controversial University light-rail line.

"FTA is simply following the law," Culberson said. "Common sense tells you that if you apply for a loan to buy a Chevrolet, when the bank approves the loan, you can't turn around and use the money to buy a Rolls-Royce."

Culberson, who some observers had suggested was behind the FTA letter, denied asking the federal agency to pull its approval once Metro changed the plan. The lines in question, he noted, are not in his district, but in those of Houston Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Gene Green

Good to hear. May he continue to remain uninvolved.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 06, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Two disagreements here:

--How much METRO needs to resubmit. It's clear that they needed to resubmit something, but FTA is asking METRO to submit more than METRO had hoped they would have to submit.

--How this affects the federal status of the programs. The FTA seems to be taking a hard line here, saying that the change has officially taken away approval and that METRO will need to re-apply to re-enter preliminary engineering and be re-accepted into the PPP pilot program. METRO was hoping that would officially retain this status even as the changes were being figured out. But the FTA is clearly saying that METRO's can regain PR and PPP status, and other cities have done that with much more significant changes, so in the end this might just be semantics.

METRO's public statements are tending to overemphasize the disagreements. That can't be an accident; METRO could just as well say "this is no big deal." I suspect that METRO is trying to remind everyone ( especially the congressional delegation) not to take for granted that the federal funding will come through.

In terms of delay, it's the end of construction that matters, not the start. If METRO hits 2012, they'll still be in the referendum timeline. Five years out, that's still reasonable. But I know people really want to see some construction rather than just planning.

Posted by: Christof Spieler on December 6, 2007 10:34 AM

christof, the details of the disagreement and the effect on construction timelines is less important to longtime residents of the METRO taxing area than the fact that this issue suggests the probability that Frank Wilson is just another slippery METRO boss like the ones before him, and that METRO is again acting as if the rules don't apply to them.

recent arrivals in the area are oblivious to this larger context when considering actions taken by Wilson and the board, but it is just this kind of double-talk from METRO officials that spark intense protest every time the agency goes to the public with planned projects.

do you think this little glitch will cost significant tax $$ to fix? why shouldn't taxpayers be disgusted?

Posted by: IHB2 on December 6, 2007 2:22 PM

Looks to me like METRO tried to keep their place in line while they changed what needed to be changed. While IHB2 may find that nefarious, I find it a good thing that METRO is angling for every advantage.

Posted by: RedScare on December 6, 2007 5:16 PM