Oct. 21, 2003, 7:33PM
Choose the '100% Solution' over Metro's
By CONGRESSMAN JOHN CULBERSON
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.