October 2, 2003

Congressman asks for probe into METRO's finances

By Kevin Quinn
ABC13 Eyewitness News
(10/02/03 - HOUSTON — Eyewitness News has learned that a US Congressman has asked for a federal investigation into METRO's finances.

Eyewitness News was first to report early this week that documents obtained from the federal government indicate that METRO may see a $116 million shortfall through 2009.

Congressman John Culberson says he's asked the US Attorney's office to investigate METRO. He wants to know if a violation of federal law has taken place. His Houston transportation advisor tells us METRO is trying to make the public believe it's more economically viable than it really is.

"I don't know why the numbers are off," said Culberson advisor Edd Hendee. "I can just tell you the federal government is very sure of what they're going to write them a check for."

Hendee is the person Congressman Culberson asked to go to Washington to investigate METRO's funding projections. Hendee's efforts led to the revelation by the Federal Transit Administration that METRO would see a $116 million shortfall over the next six years, that the federal government won't give METRO all the money it's anticipating.

"Has METRO misrepresented their position? I will tell you they have not accurately presented their position and I have been a party to that verification," said Hendee.

METRO says its numbers are accurate, that critics are comparing apples to oranges, though they can't specify how because their chief financial officer is out of town. A spokesperson for METRO declined comment on camera, saying there's been no misrepresentation on METRO's part. Their figures are based on historical performance.

"The taxpayers have to foot the bill. There's no other source," said University of Houston economist Stephen Craig.

Craig is watching the METRO situation closely, worrying how a lack of funding for METRO might play out.

"The taxpayers are going to pay," he said. "We're either going to pay 35 years of interest if they borrow it on the back end or we're going to lose our roads real early and pay property taxes right from the get-go"

To be fair, we should note that the congressman and his liaison are against passage of METRO's $640 light rail bond next month. METRO has said repeatedly that allegations questioning its finances are strategically timed ploys to create doubt in the minds of voters about METRO's financial health.

(Copyright © 2003, KTRK-TV)