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More on Metro’s finances

The Chron takes a closer look at Metro’s finances and the recently expressed doubts about their ability to pay for the University and Uptown lines.

Mayor Annise Parker said last week that she wasn’t convinced the Metropolitan Transit Authority would have the money to build its planned Uptown and University rail lines.

Parker said she hopes Metro can build the two lines, which together would constitute about 15 of the 30 miles of rail included in the second phase of the “Metro Solutions” mobility program.

But Parker, who was scheduled to be briefed this weekend by transition teams that she said have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances, said Metro officials have misled the public by talking as if funding for those two lines were assured. Three other lines are under construction.

“It’s tenuous,” Parker said Thursday after a speech to the Greater East End Chamber of Commerce that included an enthusiastic endorsement of rail transit in Houston.

Some of the doubts expressed by Parker and others who have studied the issue focus on how Metro would repay the $2.6 billion in bonds it intends to issue through 2014 to help finance the rail system. Metro chief executive Frank Wilson said the bonds would be backed by a combination of sales tax revenues, fare revenues and federal grants.

Parker noted that revenues from Metro’s 1 percent local sales tax are declining. Figures presented to the Metro board in February show sales tax receipts for the 10 months ending in January plummeted by $34 million from the same period a year earlier.

“We’re in a very different sales tax climate,” Parker said. “Some analysts say the sales taxes are going to continue to decline. There are a lot of moving parts.”

If sales tax revenues do continue to decline, we’re going to have much bigger problems than just Metro. Be that as it may, it’s still hard to judge the concerns without seeing the transition team’s report. If it mostly hangs on the question of whether Metro will get the federal funds it anticipates for the University line, then yes, not getting those funds, or not getting as much of them as requested, would be a big deal. Metro did very well in getting the funds it received for the North and Southeast lines, and the University line will have stronger ridership numbers than either of them, so you’d think they’d be in decent shape, but anything can happen with appropriations, so who knows? I don’t know what else there is to say about this.

At a higher level, what I want to know is what the commitment is to getting these lines built. I have faith in Mayor Parker, and I do believe she wants to see this happen. What I want to see is an affirmation that we’ll find a way to make it happen. The people voted in 2003 to build five light rail lines. We all remember how upset the strongest supporters of the 2003 referendum got when Metro announced that due to cost concerns they would be building bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of light rail for some of the routes. If the current funding model doesn’t work, then what we need is a promise to figure out a way to make it work. We’ve come too far to turn back now, and the transit system that we’re building is too important to Houston’s future mobility to leave incomplete.

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