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Whither the University Line?

Is the University Line in doubt? Some people think so.

Over the last decade, METRO spent $71 million of your dollars to build a rail line. But the agency recently took that project off the table for at least another decade and no work has been done.

So where did all that money go?

Ten years ago, METRO promised to build a light rail line starting out on Hillcroft through Montrose, downtown, out past TSU, UH and stopping just east of 45.

Ten years later, nothing’s been built on the University Line and nothing will be built until at least 2025 if METRO gets its way.

“It think this is a sad day for Houston,” said David Robinson with the Neartown Houston Association.

Robinson lives along the route in Neartown. He patiently waited, even supported METRO’s plan to wait. But now he feels duped.

“We don’t understand how we were sold out,” Robinson said.

[…]

“We’re trying to close the gap,” METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

METRO says they simply don’t have the money to do this now and won’t for more than a decade. But METRO’s already spent $71 million on the project, even as recently as last year.

“We believe that every dollar of taxpayer money, whether it comes from the fare box, tax money or federal money, we need to spend it as wisely as possible,” METRO CEO George Grenias said.

In fact, if METRO hadn’t spent the money on studies and land and lawyers and meetings and newspaper ads, they could’ve taken $71 million bills and laid them down along the route, paving it from curb to curb and then some with your money.

“It’s an enormous amount of money,” Garcia said.

The agency spent $14 million studying on environmental studies that will soon be out of date. METRO spent another $2.5 million on land appraisals, and they’re no good anymore. So that’s $16.5 million gone. And METRO spent $54 million studying possible routes and picking the final one, only some of which may be useful in 10 years, but who knows.

“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” Grenias said.

I have appointments to do interviews with Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia and with Houston Tomorrow‘s David Crossley to discuss the upcoming Metro referendum, and I can assure you that the subject of the University Line will be thoroughly covered. But aren’t we overlooking something in this story? Metro cannot build the University Line without federal funding, which has not been appropriated yet. The money that it has spent so far on environmental studies and whatnot is money that it is required to spend in order to qualify for FTA grant money. In 2010, Metro received a Record of Decision from the FTA, which is the final approval of those environmental studies and which allows Metro to move forward with utility work and the like. This is the last step needed to be able to receive federal funding, but as we all know, resistance from Congress has made that extra difficult, and recent maneuvering by sworn University Line opponent John Culberson threatens that funding for the foreseeable future. Why is there no mention of this in the story?

I get that people are frustrated and tired of waiting for this. I am, too. I understand that critics of the upcoming referendum believe that anything but a complete removal of the GMP payments will leave Metro with insufficient funds to build the University, Uptown, and other planned light rail lines. I’m not sure I agree with that view, but it’s a valid concern. Metro’s ability to receive federal funds for the University Line are also contingent on its ability to handle its debt load, which Metro CEO George Greanias called a “heavy lift” when he first came on board. There are a lot of moving parts here, and Metro is responsible for its past decisions as well as its current ones and the effect they may have on the promises they made a decade ago. There’s a lot more to this than what the story covers. For a related discussion of the Metro referendum, see Nancy Sims.

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9 Comments

  1. Greg Wythe says:

    I’ll be listening to those interviews with great interest to see what each outcome means for the fate of rail through Gulfton. I can see the possibility of that without the University Line, but I think that it’s obvious that it would make a great deal more sense with it than without it. Waiting until 2025 to even re-open the book on planning for it doesn’t seem like a strong position for me to contemplate a “Yes” vote right now.

  2. Ross says:

    Greg, why do you think that it’s reasonable to spend sales tax money that comes from the far northern reaches of the County on a rail line no one there will ever ride? Shouldn’t some of the Metro money go to making those folks mobility better?

  3. Jay says:

    Thats the same damn arguement people have been using since God knows when. How can you tell me no one will ride it? How many times does this city have to prove that it needs/wants light rail yet car lovers feel they are the only ones entitled to an opinion? I want efficent transportation, not more damn buses on the road stuck in traffic with other cars. I don’t see how rail opponents don’t understand that! You build from the inward outward towards the burbs, not the other way around which would be foolish. Metro hasn’t been perfect but they aren’t idiots. They have a great plan for rail along Richmond which I agree with. The people complaining are the minority in this coty by a widening margin. We are tired of the bs, we want rail!

  4. Thomas says:

    I live inside the loop, and my gas taxes went to pay for a $2.1 billion expansion of the Katy Freeway that I never use.

  5. Ross says:

    Jay, Metro IS run by idiots, and I include Greanias in that description. I lost all respect for him because he lacks judgement, and proved it publicly. It doesn’t really matter what you want. County residents pay a significant portion of the Metro sales taxes in the commercial areas Houston has annexed, like FM 1960, Willowbrook, Deerbrook, etc. Nearly 100% of the taxes paid to Metro in those areas comes from people who do not live within the city limits of Houston. If you are going to collect taxes from those people, they damn sure deserve something in return. I don’t begrudge them some road work that makes getting to and from the park and rides easier.

    Thomas, your gas taxes are meant to go to roads, not rail. You do get benefits from the gas taxes you pay, even if you never get on the Katy. The County residents main benefit from Metro taxes they pay is road work and park and rides. If that money is diverted to the wildly unpopular rail projects that only benefit City residents, you can bet that the Legislature will do something everyone regrets.

  6. strangefriend says:

    No, Ross, Metro was supposed to build rail, & if Republican Congressmen want to block federal funds, then that means Metro needs all its’ funds to build rail. Diverting money to roadwork was a bad idea when Bob Lanier did it, & it’s a bad idea now. If Dallas can have a rail system, so can Houston.
    Once the University Line is built, then Metro can build lines going out to the suburbs. Vote NO on the proposal.

  7. Thomas says:

    “Thomas, your gas taxes are meant to go to roads, not rail. You do get benefits from the gas taxes you pay, even if you never get on the Katy.”

    Ross, I am completely aware of that. My point was that, as some of my taxes have gone to pay for something that does not benefit me directly, the same can be said for the people in the county who pay METRO sales taxes. We don’t necessarily get to choose where our tax dollars (be they gas taxes or METRO’s penny) are spent.

    I agree that the county residents benefit from road work and the P&R/HOV system (and I have never advocated that those types of infrastructure be de-funded). I do not agree that rail is “wildly unpopular,” nor do I agree that it *only* benefits inner-city dwellers. Suburban workers might use on weekdays; their families might use it on weekends, etc. Just like I might use the Katy Freeway to go to San Antonio once every great while.

  8. Ross says:

    Use the rail on weekends? Where are the parking lots? Do you really think someone is going to drive into town from Spring to take rail to the Galleria? That’s not going to happen, especially on weekends. in general, you can get to your destination and park far more easily than you can find a space somewhere near the rail, then take rail. The exception is certain events at Reliant, which just doesn’t have enough parking.

    Same thing during the week. Where are the workers from the burbs going to park to catch the train. Of course, knowing Metro’s incompetence, they will terminate all of the park and rides from the North somewhere up on Main, and make everyone take the train the rest of the way.

  9. Thomas says:

    Lots of strawmen there, Ross. But you’ve obviously never used the rail with your family on the weekends to access Hermann Park, the Museum District, etc. I have. Parking adjacent to the rail is plentiful (especially in Midtown) if you know where to look. And weekday workers use it for lunch, to access their physicians, etc.

    Anyway, your mind is made up (as is mine), so further discussion is probably pointless. Take care.

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