Oct. 21, 2003, 7:33PM

Choose the '100% Solution' over Metro's


METRO is asking voters to approve the single largest construction project in Houston's history on Nov. 4, and every day raises new questions about its ability to pay for it. As the only Texan on the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, my job requires me to be involved whenever the Metropolitan Transit Authority calls an election to build rail, or whenever the Texas Department of Transportation or Harris County proposes a highway project, because I am responsible for helping them obtain federal funding.

As a taxpayer, I am opposed to the rail plan. However, I have repeatedly pledged to Metro and to the Chronicle that I will support federal funding for the plan if it is approved. My personal position is that Houstonians can do far better than this massive 73-mile rail plan that was hastily approved and, by Metro's own admission, "might not reduce congestion." I am working with County Judge Robert Eckels and the Houston-Galveston Area Council to develop a "100 Percent Solution" for all of our traffic problems.

The 100 Percent Solution will include many elements: commuter rail lines out to the suburbs where our population growth is highest; more toll roads such as the new Katy Toll Road to take the strain off of our highways, opening up more lanes on key thoroughfares in the area, adding new roads to the system, as well as diverting truck traffic from the Port of Houston around the city and shifting their freight loads onto trains. Every element of the 100 Percent Solution will be judged against the basic criteria: Does it reduce congestion; and does it improve travel time? The 100 Percent Solution is almost ready, and we have the right leadership in Harris County, Austin and Washington, D.C., to develop and implement as much of it as we can afford. But first, we must oppose Metro's plan because Metro will consume nearly half of all transportation dollars in Harris County to carry only 1 percent of the traffic. We won't have enough money left over for the 100 Percent Solution.

In any referendum election, the first place we need absolute honesty is the ballot language. The ballot is the contract between the voters and the government. I know from my experience in Austin that there are no state or federal minimum guidelines for ballot language. The only restriction under Texas law is that the ballot language cannot "mislead" the voters. So I worked with Metro in June and July to develop acceptable guidelines for its November ballot language. Metro actually wrote the first draft of my new minimum federal ballot requirements on June 26. They watched these new requirements pass the subcommittee, the full committee, survive an amendment to strike them and eventually pass the House.

The Metro board consciously decided to ignore these requirements and approve vague ballot language that did not even spell out how many miles of rail it was proposing to build. It knowingly created its "last-minute" ballot problem. On Aug. 19, the Chronicle reported that the final rail plan for the Nov. 4 ballot was "cut" by "almost half" to "22 miles" in order to "appease foes." The impression given to voters was that the referendum would be on 22 miles of rail at a cost of $640 million in bonds, when in fact, Metro was really asking voters to give their blessing to a 73-mile rail system that will ultimately cost $7.8 billion. Metro finally agreed to abide by these requirements and list the 73 miles on the ballot.

I was recently asked by Eckels to verify Metro's federal formula projections over the life of the next transportation reauthorization bill (six years). I took Metro's estimates to the Federal Transit Administration and asked it to figure out exactly how much formula money Metro should expect to receive. FTA ran the numbers, and I discovered that Metro was overestimating their projections by $116 million. The numbers FTA used were based on President Bush's reauthorization proposal, which assumes a 2 percent growth rate every year. Since the only conceivable way to arrive at Metro's estimates would be to assume a massive federal gas tax increase, and Bush has threatened to veto any bill with a gas tax increase, Metro's numbers are obviously unrealistic. Even more troubling is the fact that Metro has not even asked the loan officer at the bank, the FTA, what level of funding to expect from the bank. FTA's revenue estimates mean that Metro would not be able to build the rail it is asking us to approve, would not be able to maintain its existing bus service without dramatic cuts, would not be able to pay back the $640 million in bonds or would not be able to protect the 25 percent of the penny sales tax that goes to the cities without a tax increase.

Metro's only sources of revenue to pay for this rail plan are their one-cent sales tax, federal funding, fare box money and whatever modest interest it earns on its investments. Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt and University of Houston economist Barton Smith have already concluded that Metro's sales tax revenue projections are too high. Now with its federal formula funding projections being called into question, I encourage every voter to take a long, hard look at what Metro is selling and ask whether or not we can really afford it.

The more closely I examine Metro's proposal, the clearer it becomes that my duty to protect the integrity of the public treasury requires me to oppose this particular rail plan. I know from my experience in the Texas Legislature and in Congress that there is often a direct relationship between how bad a law is and how big a hurry the authors are in to get it passed. Usually, the faster the law is being rushed into effect, and the less you get to read in advance, and the harder it is to get information from the authors, the worse the law will be on closer inspection. The same is true of Metro's 73-mile rail plan.

Culberson, a Houston Republican, represents Texas' 7th U.S. Congressional District, which is west Houston.