Metro chief: Derailing plans now could cost $2 billion
Answering criticisms that he is taking a big risk doing work on new light rail lines without federal cash in hand, the head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority said Monday that canceling plans to build lines expected to receive federal subsidies could cost the agency more than $2 billion.
The agency has started work on five new rail lines. Metro expects the Federal Transit Administration to contribute about $1.6 billion to the cost of the North, Southeast and University lines.
If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.
"If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we're stopped today, we'd be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we'd be walking away from everything we invested already, we'd be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University," Greanias said. "That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, 'We'll move forward prudently, managing the risk.' "
Conservative federal lawmakers have proposed cutting mass transit funding nationally as part of a broad plan to cut $2.5 trillion in spending over the next decade.
Critic: Suspend work
Metro critic Paul Magaziner asked Metro at a board meeting Monday to stop rail work until it has the Federal Transit Administration's guarantee that the federal money is coming. That guarantee is not likely to come until the middle of the year, Greanias said.
Magaziner said that to proceed without the guarantee is illegal. The resolution that put the bond measure on the November 2003 ballot that gained voter approval for rail expansion has a clause the prohibits Metro from building any new rail line segment "without first obtaining approval of the segment for federal capital assistance."
Metro officials say they have such approval. First, the FTA has already delivered the first $50 million. Second, in late December the FTA issued pre-clearance letters Metro needed before launching into an additional $12 million in work on which it is relying on federal reimbursement.
Scaling back plans
In a worst-case scenario in which Congress cuts national transit spending, Metro officials say they still can scale back to more modest plans.
Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.
"The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, 'Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,' " said Metro board member Christof Spieler. "Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access."
Local Advertising by PaperG