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A more suburban Metro?

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Bill King says:

    Kuff,

    With all due respect, you are the one that is ignoring the 2003 referendum which (1) represented the entire cost of the LRT was $1.8 billion, not $4 billion; (2) limited bond debt to build the LRT to $600 million; (3) said no LRT construction would begin until federal funding was secured; and (4) promised rail lines to the suburbs.

    What Metro has proposed is nothing like what was discussed or promised in 2003. I was in the room when the compromise was worked out and the current plan is not even vaguely what was discussed.

    Also, current polling indicates that if the current plan were put on the ballot today it would be overwhelmingly defeated. So if you really want to claim a public mandate, let’s have a vote on this new plan and now that we know what the real cost is going to be. I will be happy to live with the results.

  2. I’m sorry, Bill, but that’s the same tripe that you rail opponents have been saying from the beginning. Only you have the One True Interpretation of the referendum’s meaning, and you want to keep voting on it till you get the result you want. It’s total BS.

    Let me put it to you this way: If you are correct about Metro’s actions in building out the rail lines being so damned unpopular, then why is it that the only people bitching about it are the same ones who tried to defeat it in the first place? Where are the disillusioned former supporters complaining about how they’ve been betrayed, and how they used to support light rail but not any more?

    You lost. Get over it.

  3. Greg Wythe says:

    Re: Bill’s point #2, I’m surprised at the number of time that lie is trotted out. Together with the “Richmond/University” argument, they’re both very telling indicators of the veracity of the argument being put forth.

    That point was addressed in the interview Kuff did with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler. It was also addressed in King’s criticism from early last year.

    If it were true, then where is the lawsuit on that very matter? It would seem like a pretty easy case to make, if so.

  4. Bill King says:

    Kuff,

    You have not answered one substantive issue with respect to Metro’s violation of the 2003 referendum. Would you care to do so.

    Also, I was there. You were not.

  5. […] in January there was a Chron story that pointed out a state law that would require the Metro board to add two […]

  6. […] the past decade, the city itself has not. This has a number of consequences, including some you might not think about, and it really deserves more attention. There’s still a lot of underutilized space in the […]

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