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The agency spent $14 million studying on environmental studies that will soon be out of date.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.