King: Uptown cannot keep its story straight

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UPTOWN CANNOT KEEP ITS STORY STRAIGHT

by Bill King

For over two years, the Uptown TIRZ has been promoting spending about $200 million on its bus lane project on Post Oak. About $120 million of the cost is going to be covered by property taxes the TIRZ collects, with the balance coming from state and federal highway funds allocated to our area. The TIRZ has consistently assured us that the City would not be out anything on the cost of the project.

All state and federal highway fund requests are approved by the Houston Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC). Initially the TPC approved about $80 million of funds for the project, over the vehement opposition of residents and businesses in the area. Recently, the Uptown TIRZ requested an additional $16 million from the TPC, claiming that the cost of the project had risen by about $32 million.

But when the media asked Uptown about the request for additional funding, Uptown issued a terse statement denying that the project needed more money or that it was over budget. The statement read:

The Uptown BRT Project is on budget.

The project is fully funded.

The request before the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is an effort to capture additional federal funding for the City’s utility costs associated with the project. (Emphasis added.)

This statement is completely inconsistent with what Uptown has represented to HGAC. On September 18, 2017, John Breeding, the executive director of the Uptown TIRZ, wrote a letter to HGAC. In the letter he said,

As consistent with HGAC TPC policy to accommodate project cost increases on a 50% cost share basis, Uptown would like to request $15,904,278 in funding from HGAC. This funding, if received, will be drawn down and reinvested in the project in order to reduce the overall shortfall. (Emphasis added.)

Click [here] to see the request.

The official TPC document requesting the funding states, “$15.9M of federal funding to offset 50 percent of additional construction costs . . .” (Emphasis added.)

Click [here] to see the request.

When the HGAC staff member presented the request to the September meeting of the TPC he told the members:

This is a request for additional funding to cover additional costs not anticipated by Uptown that Metro needs to incur to make that line operational – mostly communications, fare collection, that type of equipment in the corridor.

Click [here] to watch video. The Uptown discussion begins at 3:50 in Agenda Item 5.

There is no way to reconcile the statements Uptown has made to HGAC and Breeding’s statement that the project is “on budget” and “fully funded.”

Uptown’s press release also includes a very curious statement:

The request before the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is an effort to capture additional federal funding for the City’s utility costs associated with the project.

The problem with this portion of the statement is that Uptown has consistently said that the City would not be required to spend any money on this project and none of Uptown’s budget presentations has ever included any funds coming from the City. So why would it need to “capture additional federal funding for the City’s utility costs”? What costs? Has Uptown been lying to us about the City not spending any money of its own on the project?

After Uptown released its public statement it sent another statement to some TPC members which it did not release to the media. That statement repeated what is in the public statement but then goes on to offer a convoluted justification for the additional funding based on “utility enhancements” of $19,800,000, which is, of course, completely inconsistent with the first part of the statement and what Uptown has previously represented to HGAC.

Click [here] to read the expanded statement.

HGAC should run, not walk, away from this request. There are already serious ethical questions regarding companies with which board members of the Uptown TIRZ and Management District are associated receiving payouts from right-of-way acquisitions to accommodate this boondoggle. But making false statements to receive federal funding is a serious crime. And if Uptown’s statements in its press release that the project is “on budget” and “fully funded” are true, then its statements to HGAC that the additional funding is to “accommodate project cost increases” and to “reduce the overall shortfall” were false.

The article above is reprinted by permission of Bill King. Feel free to submit topical posts/essays for our consideration to bloghouston@gmail.com. As with our usual blog posts, the views expressed are those of the author.