LAST WEEK, KHOU-11’S MARK GREENBLATT reported some disturbing news about a METRO application for federal funding for its rail lines. METRO, according to Greenblatt, submitted overly optimistic economic projections to the transit organization, when more recent, less optimistic predictions were available. As noted in our blog post, Greenblatt’s report featured UH economics professor Barton Smith, who questioned METRO’s use of more optimistic economic figures. Professor Smith, of course, is rightly regarded as the area’s economist of record, who has supplied authoritative statistics and projections about area economic growth over the years to media and government organizations (including METRO).
Greenblatt, however, followed up with a communication from the FTA that seemed to substantiate his report’s original contention that METRO has used overly optimistic numbers in its applications for federal transit funding:
The FTA does not develop sales tax projections. Rather, it reviews and analyzes the projections submitted by project sponsors. The FTA first signaled its concern with Houston’s aggressive tax revenue assumptions and insisted on revisions back in May of 2009. FTA is now analyzing even more updated revenue projections submitted by Houston. In the interest of protecting the taxpayer, the FTA will not approve full funding grant agreements for the North and Southeast Corridor light rail projects until we are confident that Houston Metro can afford to build and operate these two new lines while maintaining its existing system.
Federal Transit Administration
Today, Lisa Falkenberg revised and extended Mike Snyder’s previous efforts on the new KHOU media-criticism beat with a column that strongly suggested that Professor Smith now thinks Greenblatt’s original report is inaccurate and quoted him out of context. If true, that would be a damning revelation that would certainly merit an update of our original post, not to mention a scolding.
To try and sort all this out, we put in our own call to Professor Smith, who told me that he thought both journalists had probably given the impression that he was more involved in the METRO federal funding process than is the case. He told me that he does provide his economics projections to METRO, but that he has no input how the organization uses those numbers after the fact, and is certainly not involved in the federal procurement process. He did tell me that obviously he gave Greenblatt his quote on camera, and stands by it so far as it goes. He further added that it now appears that METRO used projections that were more optimistic than his June 2009 projections, but less optimistic than his June 2008 projections.
We went on to have an interesting conversation about Greenblatt’s original report, and the fact that it was really two-pronged: a factual news inquiry about METRO and the federal procurement process, along with highly critical comments from businessman Paul Magaziner and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe. With regard to the latter, Professor Smith told me that while they were certainly welcome to their opinions, he did not think his economic data necessarily supported their assertions about METRO’s intent. He further added that he thought the report might have been stronger if he had been involved in some back and forth with the critics on the interpretation of his economics projections, although he understood that Greenblatt might have been operating under length constraints.
Professor Smith stressed that he thought both Greenblatt and Falkenberg had treated him fairly, and that he had told both of them he wished they would work together to get the facts out, and to promote a more intelligent conversation about transit.
Frankly, we agree with Professor Smith.
Whether or not one agrees with the critics Greenblatt quoted in his original reporting, there seems to be no disputing that METRO submitted overly optimistic economic projections to the FTA, something that the FTA has confirmed to Greenblatt. The public, local government, AND the federal government deserve the most accurate numbers METRO can put together, in the most transparent manner possible. Perhaps Greenblatt erred in giving critics too much airtime to speculate about METRO’s intent, but it is somewhat shocking to see both Mike Snyder and Lisa Falkenberg engaging in media criticism over KHOU’s editorial choices when, instead, the Chronicle might be cultivating their own sources within the FTA and METRO and emulating the award-winning Greenblatt’s efforts to be a watchdog of the public treasury and a promoter of transparent government.
BLOGVERSATION: Harris County Almanac.