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Metro and the FTA

I didn’t see this KHOU story, in which a regular Metro critic claims that the agency deliberately gave outdated sales tax revenue information to the Federal Transit Administration in order to get $900 million in federal money for the North and Southeast lines, until I saw this Houston Politics post in which the Mayor and Metro respond to the charges.

James Moncur, who headed a transition committee that examined Metro’s finances for Mayor Annise Parker, told me today he discussed the sales tax projections when he met with FTA officials in February. The officials knew very well that they had received 2008 numbers, Moncur said, and didn’t believe Metro was trying to mislead them.

The mayor agreed, saying in a statement that “the FTA assured transition team members that it conducts its own analysis.”

Metro chief executive Frank Wilson told me that in July 2009, Metro officials and the FTA’s consultant jointly developed updated sales tax projections that were provided to the agency the following month. These figures, Wilson said, were lower than those developed in 2008.

For the past few months, Wilson said, Metro has consulted regularly with the FTA by phone and repeatedly offered to provide updated information, an offer he said the agency declined.

“FTA is currently reviewing updated information provided by Houston Metro,” agency spokesman Paul Griffo said in response to my questions about the KHOU story. “Our review is limited to ensuring that there is a dedicated source of funding that will meet Houston’s local commitment to the North and Southeast light rail lines, while continuing to maintain and operate the existing system.”

I realize that one should never underestimate the capacity of large organizations to screw up (and if you think this is limited to government agencies, you’ve clearly never worked for a big company), but I find it a little hard to believe that at no point since the original numbers were submitted in 2008 did the change in economic climate and the effect it may have on those numbers ever come up. In fact, one could interpret FTA spokesman Paul Griffo’s response to KHOU, “FTA will not commit taxpayer dollars to a project based on outdated data”, as basically being “What kind of idiots do you take us for?” Anything’s possible I suppose, but if Metro is trying to hide lower sales tax revenues from the Feds, they’re doing a poor job of it since the cash flow numbers they posted from their December meeting clearly shows a dip in 2010 and 2011. Again, I just don’t see how they could even hope to get away with a deception like this. But I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. Anyway, Metro’s official response is in a video on their website, so go see that for yourself.

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