Another possible feature of the Census data, of which I had not been previously aware, could be characterized as Metro redistricting.
The city of Houston could lose its majority control of the Metro board if the 2010 Census shows that population in the part of Metro’s service area outside the city limits has grown enough to trigger a provision in state law that calls for adding two seats to the Metro board.
Houston’s mayor has effectively controlled Metro since its 1978 creation through the authority to appoint five of its nine board members. Mayor Annise Parker demonstrated this power nine months ago when she replaced all five of the city’s appointees. The new board then installed as chief executive officer a former Houston city controller, George Greanias, who was the point man on transportation issues for Parker’s transition team.
No one is yet projecting that the demographic change will come to pass when the Census Bureau releases population figures for cities, counties and metropolitan areas in a few months. But recent county population trends suggest it’s possible.
The population of the county’s unincorporated areas has grown at nearly four times the rate of the cities over the past decade, according to a recent county study.
State law requires that 75 percent of county residents outside Houston must live within Metro’s service area before the transit board would expand to 11 members with six non-Houston seats. Numbers gathered from Metro and census estimates indicate that the percentage is already above 70.
Some local transportation experts say an expanded board is not likely to cause fundamental policy changes at Metro. But to Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, it could be a game-changer.
“If we got a new board over there that’s interested in things other than electric trains, we might be able to do a heck of a lot more mobility,” Radack said. “I believe Metro money should be spent on transportation.”
Radack suggested that a new board with greater non-city representation might not support plans to spend billions of dollars on five new light rail lines. Harris County spends its share of so-called general mobility payments from Metro on road projects, and the four commissioners decide how to spend that money.
Where to start with this? Metro has, of course, spent a ton of money on park and ride service to the suburbs. Maybe Radack doesn’t consider anything that isn’t a toll road to be “transportation”, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I’m always amused by the way that light rail critics like Radack and Bill King always manage to ignore the results of the 2003 referendum as they plot to get their hands on the funds for it. Just an inconvenience to be brushed aside, I guess.
Unfortunately for Radack and his grand plans, the Metro board has generally acted in unison, as noted in the story. And for the time being at least, the Board also includes people like former West U City Council Member Burt Ballanfant, who is both a strong light rail supporter and an inside-the-Loop guy. So even if the Census requires a change to the membership of the Board, it’s unlikely it will change direction.
Having said this, I wouldn’t mind seeing a change to Metro’s board if it were accompanied by a change to Metro’s service area, to see if places like Fort Bend County might reconsider joining in. Given the logistical issues involved in building a rail line to Fort Bend, it might make more sense to have them on the inside, if they want that. If something like that were to happen, then of course the Board structure would need to change as well. I’m just thinking out loud here, but between that and all of the other commuter rail talk that we’ve seen recently, it’s worth considering whether the structure we have in place is adequate. Yes, I know we have the Gulf Coast Rail District driving the metaphorical train on this, but you’re still going to need someone to build and operate any future commuter rail lines, and you’re going to need a way to properly fund that service. I don’t know what the optimal solution is here, I’m just suggesting we think about it.