Houston's Light Rail Expansion on Chopping Block

METRO's light rail expansion could be in jeopardy if House Republicans have their way. A proposal to cut a federal urban transit program could come to a vote in the house by the middle of February. But as Wendy Siegle reports — METRO officials aren't worried.
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to dump the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program. The program doles out $2 billion dollars a year to mass transit projects across the country. The House Republican Study Committee has proposed to ax the program to trim the overall federal budget.

Paul Magaziner is a vocal opponent of METRO’s light rail system.

“Like it or not, the 112th Congress will decide the fate of METRO. The jury is out. Cease and desist until you know what Congress and the FTA will choose to do and be able to approve.”

METRO is currently waiting on at least $900 million dollars from the FTA’s “New Starts” program for use on the Southeast and North rail lines. The authority has already begun work on the lines under the assumption it will be reimbursed through the federal grants. But Magaziner says METRO should halt all rail construction until it has every penny in the bank to fund the program in its entirety. Here’s METRO president and CEO George Greanias.

“I understand that we’re all wondering what the new Congress is going to do and there’s certainly a lot of statements being made about what the proper course for the country is. I don’t see many businesses in this country, I don’t see many folks just sort of shutting down and saying, ‘We’ll wait for a year or two while the Congress decides which way their going to jump.’”

Greanias says he’s confident METRO will receive the much-needed funds from the FTA. He says the FTA sent METRO a $50 million dollar advance on the grant last month and also issued pre-approval letters allowing the authority to commence work on the lines without delay. Greanias says calls to stop Houston’s light rail expansion are imprudent.

“To simply shut the program down would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars and you’d have nothing to show for it.”

Plus, he says, construction is already underway. Roads have been torn up so the project can’t just be abandoned. The METRO board more than doubled this year’s budget for the light rail program, increasing it from $143 million dollars to $345 million.

Board member Christof Spieler says canceling the program due to speculation on the political future of Congress would go against the will of the voters, who voted in favor of the light rail program in 2003.