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Light rail expansion on the line

Houston Chronicle
by Stewart M. Powell and Chris Moran

WASHINGTON — Republican conservatives on Capitol Hill are threatening to chuck a federal mass transit program that promises at least $900 million for Houston Metro — a move that could dramatically curtail plans to expand light rail with the Southeast and North lines.

The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.

Officials’ assessments of the potential threat to Houston Metro appear to depend on their proximity to Capitol Hill. George Greanias, Metro’s CEO and president, sees talk of spending cuts as little more than speculation.

“No one has come to us and said we need to rethink what we’re doing,” says Greanias.

The Metro board has underscored its faith in continued federal investments with a recent decision to ramp up spending on rail expansion from $143 million to $345 million this year.

Even so, with Republican budget-cutters ascendant in Congress, uncertainty has prompted Metro officials to map out Plan B.

If cutbacks occur …

The Metro board has just hired the C2 Group, a lobbying firm adept at pitching mass transit to members of Congress. If Republican cutbacks prevail, Metro has plans to buy only 29 of 105 planned rail cars and to abandon the North and Southeast lines, completing only a half-mile stretch of the Southeast line linking the East End and Main Street lines.

“I certainly know the popularity of Metro in Houston and the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure,“ says Sen. John Cornyn, R-San Antonio, a member of the Senate Budget Committee. “But at the same time, we have to say there’s no money left. Everybody is going to have to suffer a little pain to get the country back on a sound financial footing.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities - not just Houston but cities across the country - that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing - and not everyone realizes it.”

Proposed cuts

The conservative blitzkrieg apparently has caught locals by surprise. Not a single mayor or local official from across the country has called to lobby or complain, says Brian Straessle, spokesman for the conservative caucus that has mapped $60 billion in proposed cuts from mass transit, high speed rail and Amtrak as part of $2.5 trillion in proposed federal savings over the next decade.

“It’s certainly something in a Republican-driven Congress that could easily happen,” says former Harris County tax assessor Paul Bettencourt, a Metro critic.

Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which includes Republicans and Democrats, has already called for limiting spending on mass transit and highways to money raised by a 15-cent hike in federal per-gallon gasoline taxes as part of $4 trillion in savings over the next decade.

Lawmakers react

Houston-area Democrats on Capitol Hill are viewing the potential budget cuts with concern. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, a veteran insider first elected in 1992, sees the administration’s decision last month to invest $50 million in the North and Southeast corridor projects as giving momentum to Houston Metro.

“I would hope that my Republican colleagues would agree that light rail transit is a valuable investment in the Houston-area, and that stopping mid-project when millions in taxpayer dollars have already been invested does more harm than good,” Green said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has appealed to Obama in a personal letter, urging him to “carefully examine” funding for Houston’s light rail projects that transport employees of 26 Fortune 500 companies and 3,000 other Houston firms engaged in business in 200 countries worldwide. “These projects exemplify urban mobility, jobs, economic prosperity, energy independence and sustainable growth for our city,” Jackson Lee wrote the president.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee that includes 22 Texas Republicans, has insisted that “everything” has to be on the table to drive the spending down, saying “The only way to tackle our deficit is to cut excessive spending wherever we find it.”

Reporter Brad Olson contributed to this report.

To view original story http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7405294.html

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