May 10, 2009
Metro's costs and critics

I have two things to say about this story regarding different cost estimates for the construction of the four remaining light rail lines.

The price tag for the city's four new light rail lines will be: A) $1.46 billion; B) $1.9 billion; C) impossible to say exactly until they're built; D) all of the above.

The correct answer is D. Confused? So are some Metro critics, who claim the transit agency is hiding the true costs of the 20-mile expansion. The Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to build four new lines by 2012.

Metro learned Friday that $150 million in federal funds has been designated for the North and Southeast lines in President Barack Obama's proposed 2010 budget.

"We've never had this much enthusiasm about rail in Houston as this, from the federal government," said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who pushed for the funds.

Jackson Lee said the city has had trouble in the past getting federal support because of lack of local agreement and momentum on light rail. Now, she said, "We have a fair amount of consensus."

Yet consensus remains elusive when it comes to the total bill facing taxpayers. Metro critic Paul Magaziner, for example, has accused the agency of "strategic misrepresentation" for not including land purchases and the possibility of cost overruns in its public pronouncements.

Metro officials told the Chronicle that they are being "open and transparent" during this planning period, but that the different price tags reflect various ways of calculating the cost of a massive construction project.

The story and its headline both refer to "critics", but the only critic mentioned is Paul Magaziner, who as far as I can tell from a Google search is a fellow who attends Metro meetings and criticizes Metro. Which is fine, every governmental agency needs people who keep watch on them, but it would be nice to know who besides one persistent critic is raising the questions on which this story is based. If it really is the case that "some Metro critics" are saying Metro is playing games with cost estimates, then we really ought to hear from more than one critic.

As far as the criticism itself goes, I have to say that for an agency that's not exactly renowned for its ability to communicate, I thought Metro gave a pretty reasonable accounting of the different numbers. It's not like there's ever been a construction project of this size for which the factors affecting the bottom line were set in stone at the beginning and never changed. And in comparison to the initial cost estimates for the Katy Freeway expansion, which as far as I can tell originated in someone's nether regions, Metro's figures look pretty darned detailed. I actually feel better about where they stand now. So, thanks for that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 10, 2009 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
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