Metro caused its own funding problem

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Lucas Wall has written an eye-opening look at why MetroRail’s federal funding request was denied by the Federal Transit Administration. It basically boils down to Metro not wanting to play by the FTA’s rules.

For some reason Metro decided to be “innovative” and Metro expected the FTA to jump on board, too:

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority applied for federal financing of the Northline and Southeast rail segments in August, it asked the FTA to pay for 100 percent of those lines in exchange for Metro footing the entire bill to construct light rail routes later in the Harrisburg and Westpark corridors.

“We did not expect to receive a negative response to it,” said David Wolff, Metro board chairman. “We thought it was innovative, and it has been done before in other parts of the country.”

Federal law requires a transit agency to pay for at least 20 percent of a project with local money, though the match usually is more like 50 percent. In its application, Metro asked the FTA to consider the next four rail lines together so that by 2012, when they were all done, Metro and the federal government would end up splitting the cost. Not using federal money on the subsequent two lines would allow Metro to skip the lengthy federal “New Starts” application and review process.

And, how did all this innovative thinking on Metro’s part play out?

“They knew it would not be accepted when they submitted it,” said U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

Paul Griffo, FTA spokesman, said the agency informed Metro last fall “that’s not going to work and they needed to submit a conventional New Starts application.”

Culberson said Metro didn’t run the plan by him before it was submitted in August. He called the request “highly improper, inappropriate and utterly impossible for the federal government to do.”

Metro President Frank Wilson decides to pour on the charm:

“We don’t see it as inappropriate,” Wilson said. “This was the only way to meet the startup date for all the lines and use federal money to do it.”

That’s pretty cheeky. Metro is asking for federal funding but didn’t want to follow the funding guidelines, and it appears the guidelines are based on a federal law. Metro wanted to be innovative because it has a schedule to keep and it can’t keep that schedule without millions upon millions of federal (taxpayer) dollars. There’s some seriously wacky thinking going on in that quote. How much do we pay these guys, anyway?

But there was one more little hiccup in the MetroRail request that failed muster — the data:

Another factor cited in Metro’s exclusion from the funding report is that it used unreliable data and incorrect cost estimates that have made it impossible to rate the project until those deficiencies are remedied.

And Wilson, continuing on his charm offensive, responded thusly:

Wilson called the statement that Metro has not used reliable figures “a poor choice of words. This is information they didn’t understand.”

Ah, yes. The FTA just doesn’t understand. But isn’t it Metro’s job to make sure the information it sends in an application is correct, reliable and understandable?

Rep. John Culberson summed up the problem nicely:

“It really is a shame Metro continues to be its own worst enemy and create problems that could easily be avoided by obeying the law and following the same rules that every other transit agency in the country has to follow,” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a member of the House transportation appropriations subcommittee and a light rail skeptic.

(Lucas couldn’t help himself, could he?)

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.