WASHINGTON - For the first time in his long-running dispute with Houston Metro, Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, has managed to insert language into a $51.6 billion spending package that could block federal funding to expand the light rail system along Richmond and Post Oak.
Culberson, vowing to win passage of committee-approved restrictions by the entire House and Senate, told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday the restrictions would "protect the quality of life" of constituents along Richmond Avenue and prevent Houston Metro from expanding beyond what it can afford.
Metro chief Gilbert Garcia ducked a public fight with Culberson, a member of powerful House Appropriations Committee. Garcia hailed the legislation's inclusion of $200 million for Metro next year and said he hoped to work with Culberson to address the lawmaker's ongoing concerns.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said he didn't expect the measure to survive the Democrat-controlled Senate, adding that some of the restrictions Culberson sought had been worked out in 2006 in bipartisan negotiations.
Culberson, a long-time critic of Metro, said voters had not approved a Richmond Avenue line in the 2003 referendum and property owners along the route overwhelmingly oppose the route now.
Added to that, Houston Metro "cannot afford to build" the additional two lines, Culberson insisted.
"Metro is under water financially right now and is about to drown," Culberson said. "Why hand them a couple more bricks?"
Culberson's language in the $51.6 billion spending package for 2013 for the department of transportation and the department of housing and urban development also requires the transportation department's watchdog Inspector General to conduct "a detailed financial audit and stress test" of Houston Metro.
Houston Metro has "demonstrated a pattern of deceiving the public about the scale and costs of the rail plan and their ability to pay for it," Culberson said. "I am very concerned that Metro is building more than they can afford at the expense of the excellent bus service it has operated for years."
Garcia said he was pleased Congress' had continued funding for Houston Metro expansion but was "very disappointed" Culberson was calling for "yet another Metro audit."
The organization has undertaken a series of financial reforms over the past two years, Garcia said, and cleared its latest three year review by the Federal Transit Administration with a perfect score.
Garcia said there would be no immediate impact from proposed legislative restrictions on future federal spending for proposed lines.
"We intend to continue the regular (planning) process as we would," Garcia said. "But the higher priority for us regardless of the recent action (in Congress) is completing the three lines with $900 million in federal support and then completing the next referendum on the ballot which we have in November."
If the Culberson restrictions adopted by the House Appropriations Committee survive a vote by the full House and the Senate, "we'll just have to focus on it at that time," Garcia said. "We're just hopeful that people in Washington, D.C., will recognize they should respect the will of local voters on local matters such as the Houston Metro system."