Oct. 4, 2003, 10:14AM
Rail foes demand inquiry
Dueling sides swap barbs over funding
ByBy DAN FELDSTEIN
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
With exactly one month until the Metropolitan Transit Authority's
rail referendum, total warfare has begun.
When U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, found that Metro's
predicted flow of certain federal funds was 20 percent higher
than his own, his first move wasn't to ask Metro to explain,
but to seek a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney
On Friday, three Houston Democratic congressmen stood together,
calling Culberson's behavior "outrageous" and "silly."
Minutes later at a dueling news conference, rail opponent
Paul Bettencourt, the Harris County tax assessor-collector,
stood before the cameras and said, "Metro needs to show
me the money!"
And for its part, Metro has yet to fully explain its projections,
although transit authority President Shirley DeLibero promised
details would be forthcoming, on Monday.
While the pro- and anti-rail forces will argue over many
points of Metro's light rail plans, this one involves how
much cash Metro will really have on hand for the next six
If Metro overestimates its income from such sources as sales
tax and federal grants, and goes forward with an expensive
rail system, it will have to shortchange its bus service and
street work, critics like Harris County Judge Robert Eckels
If Metro cuts back on street work, leaving local cities with
the onerous task, property taxes might have to rise to cover
the cost, they say.
In a telephone interview Friday, Culberson was asked why
he wrote a letter to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District
of Texas before asking Metro itself for an explanation of
its higher funding estimates.
"That was a private inquiry that I was not going to
publicize," he said, but a television reporter "asked
me the right question" and thus he spoke publicly about
Culberson made his first remarks Thursday evening. By 12:30
a.m. Friday, the anti-rail campaign issued a news release
with the headline, "Cong. Culberson calls for federal
investigation into Metro's finances."
The source of federal money at issue is called "formula
funds" and comes from the Federal Transit Administration.
Each transit agency in the country gets a piece, based on
population, density and other factors.
The total pot of money and annual inflation factors are calculated
in a massive transportation bill passed every six years. The
bill for the next six years has been controversial, as usual,
and sits unapproved in Washington.
In the version put forward by President Bush, the inflation
factor would be 2 percent per year. Using this number, based
on what Metro got in 2003, staffers on an appropriations subcommittee
told Culberson that Metro could expect $565 million from 2003-2009.
Culberson said FTA officials verified the math.
But figures from Metro indicate an expected $681 million.
Metro officials said several factors may explain the difference.
Metro used an 8 percent inflation factor, which it said was
the historical average increase under the last transportation
Culberson insisted that 2 percent was iron-clad and the president
wouldn't budge, while DeLibero said that had never happened
before -- Congress always increases transportation funding
from what the president wants to make constituents happy.
At present, said U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Beaumont, Bush's
bill is worth $247 billion, the Senate version is $311 billion
and the House version is $375 billion.
"We know it will be in excess of $300 billion,"
But the inflation factor may not explain the entire $116
million difference between Metro and Culberson. Metro officials
said that their numbers were for expenditures, not appropriations.
A transit authority does not have to spend the money in the
year it is appropriated, and thus Metro's first few years
of predictions may include money that is already promised
However, Metro officials couldn't say for sure, saying their
top financial officer was on vacation. While DeLibero promised
a full accounting Monday, rail opponents charged that Metro
simply didn't have a good explanation. As the days passed
this week, Metro looked flat-footed.
Lampson joined U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, and U.S.
Rep. Chris Bell, D-Houston at a pro-rail news conference.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, in Washington, issued
a statement in support of Metro.
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also issued a statement
saying she would work to make sure that federal funds were
available if Harris County voters choose rail.
Bell said that by demanding criminal inquiries to grab headlines,
rail opponents were being "irresponsible, malicious and
dishonest by design."
"Based on history," Lampson said, "Metro has
made good projections ... Let's be serious."
Metro will hold its referendum Nov. 4, asking voters to approve
a $640 million bond issue for 22 miles of light rail by 2012.
The authority also pledges $774 million for road projects
from 2009 to 2014 and a 50 percent increase in bus routes
Opponents believe the rail plans are too expensive and do
too little to relieve congestion. Pro-rail forces say Houston
cannot build enough freeway lanes to relieve congestion and
other alternatives are necessary.
Culberson said that if exaggerating financial estimates before
a public bond referendum were not illegal, it ought to be.
"It's quite obvious they are desperate," said Ed
Wulfe, a real estate developer leading the pro-rail campaign.
"They are behind in the polls, and they are grasping
at anything they can."
Rail opponents, who previously said Metro's sales tax projections
were also too rosy, said they were just trying to bring the
financing facts to light.
"In my mind, they (Metro) have no credibility on this
issue," Bettencourt said.