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Houston Tomorrow versus Metro

David Crossley:

On November 6, you will be asked to vote on whether to stop expansion of light rail transit service in Houston.

If you think that’s a terrible idea, you must vote No.

If you do, you will be going up against some very powerful people and institutions.

But that’s what voters do, isn’t it? Be the deciders?

You’d be saying you’re opposed to elected officials and developers replacing 1,200 square miles of Houston farms and wilderness with sprawl.

But you’d be for a thriving, livable Houston region that people from around the world would want to live in to work, learn, and play in a healthy, happy, prosperous environment.

In the end, we citizens will decide this.

No Means More Transit. Vote No For More Transit.

They’re not alone in opposing the referendum.

Houston Tomorrow, along with the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Better Houston are starting a social media-driven campaign to get people to vote No to the METRO referendum. A no vote, they say, would allow METRO to keep all of its sales tax money and use it however they want.

METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia says it’s true that right now there’s no money for light rail. But he says the referendum will allow METRO to pay its current debt, which would allow them to borrow money for an additional light rail line.

“If we did not have this referendum and it did not pass, it would just be even longer before we could take on another rail project because we would need to do these two items — increase the ridership and pay down the debt to have greater capacity.”

I agree with what Chairman Garcia says. I’m going to vote for Metro’s referendum.

I do agree that this isn’t the best possible deal Metro could have gotten. Garcia’s original proposal to freeze the GMP payments at 2014 levels would have been better, but it got no support on the Board. The Houston Tomorrow story about the Board’s vote for the revised plan shows what Metro did in fact get.

The Metro Board on Aug. 3 had approved a rough draft for a referendum asking voters directly to approve allowing Metro to keep all of its sale tax revenue.

Board member Christof Spieler said he voted against the referendum language because it does not give enough money to transit, but admitted “this is probably the best deal we can get in the political climate of 2012.”

Not the best possible deal, but the best deal possible. The question you have to ask is whether this deal is better than the alternative of voting it down and thus ending the GMP. If it were to actually happen that the GMP would expire and Metro would get the full penny of sales tax, then clearly the answer is No. But what are the odds that will be the case? Chairman Garcia said after the original referendum that merely re-apportioned the GMP among member entities was proposed that the Board would create a new GMP, thus ensuring that the member entities would continue to get those funds in some form. From the KUHF story:

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who appoints five of METRO’s nine board members, says even if people vote against the referendum, METRO will likely continue sharing its sales tax revenue in a less formal way.

“If the referendum fails, the METRO board can decide anything they want to do with that money and I would fully expect them to commit, going forward, to continuing the general mobility payments in some form. It is naive and, frankly, foolish to simply assume that if it were voted down suddenly 100 percent of that money is spent exclusively on building rail in Houston.”

If that happens, David Crossley wonders why METRO is holding the referendum in the first place.

“They could just say to the voters here’s mud in your eye, just forget it, we don’t agree with your vote and we’re going to do what we want. But if the voters firmly say no, it’s a little hard for me to see how METRO says never mind that vote.”

Metro is required to have the vote, as Crossley knows. If the GMP as is ends, then the money goes to Metro, and the Board is presumably free to do with it as it sees fit. All of the member entities will be interested in spending some of that money on road-related projects. Maybe it’ll be ad hoc, maybe it’ll be some designated portion of the budget, who knows? Maybe that would turn out to be better for transit than Metro eventually getting about 82% of the sales tax revenue, as would be the case under the revised GMP, but it’s far from guaranteed. The bird in hand here is worth quite a bit. The contention that if the voters reject this deal it means they must have wanted more money to go to Metro is a bit of a stretch, too. All we can say for sure it that they didn’t like this particular deal. Maybe they would have preferred to keep the GMP exactly as it is now. Maybe enough people will have voted No because they don’t like Metro and didn’t pay any attention to the details. I wish I felt confident that the public would vote to give Metro more money, but as I said before, I don’t. Given that, I think this is a decent deal.

OK, but what about the restriction that Metro can only use the new funds for non-rail projects? For one thing, that’s only applicable to the extra funds Metro would be getting from revenue growth above what it would gotten under the current setup. Every other dollar Metro gets in it would still be free to use as it saw fit. Having more money available from one source to spend on bus service may well enable it to spend a bit less from the other, which could then be used on rail. But even if it doesn’t do that, the fact remains that Metro does need to spend more on bus service. It has taken money from bus service to spend on rail. Reversing that would allow Metro to fulfill the promise of improved bus service that was also in the 2003 referendum while taking a key talking point away from its critics. Chairman Garcia notes that by increasing overall system ridership via better bus service, that increases public support for Metro as it works towards getting the University and Uptown lines built. All of these are good things.

Finally, one cannot overlook crass political calculations. It was easy to see a path to defeating the original referendum, as the only entity that was likely to be happy with it was the city of Houston. Harris County, the small cities, and transit advocates were all unhappy with it, and I believe that would have been a big enough coalition to defeat the measure. I was prepared to vote against it. Here, it’s just transit advocates that are unhappy. It’s far from clear to me that they can muster up enough support to defeat this version of the referendum, especially if there’s a concerted effort in favor of it. One could argue that instead of working to defeat the referendum, it would be better to work on Metro to spend the extra money it will get, and the extra money it will have from its unrestricted sources as debt service gets addressed, in a way that transit advocates think is best. I’m sure they’ll be doing that anyway after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, but my way would probably be less awkward.

Basically, I don’t see the upside to voting against this referendum. I see the case for it, but not the case against it. I wish the referendum would have been better, but that fight is over. This is what we have to work with, and it’s good enough for me.

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12 Comments

  1. Greg Wythe says:

    I’m struggling with this one, too. But the calculation I see is “METRO possibly keeping all of their money” vs “The Lege doing something far worse re: GMP … and possibly more” or “the Bellaire’s of the world pull out of METRO”. The Lege option seems to be the most likely. And I don’t see wonderful odds for METRO there. But I’m curious to hear what the CTC/Houston Tomorrow answer to that is.

    Lacking a good understanding of what the world would look like with a No vote, the fact that METRO could still fund light rail from debt and federal money doesn’t immediately seem like a deal breaker if you’re interested in seeing METRO expand that service.

  2. Darrin Hall says:

    Chairman Garcia is a good friend and he bent over backwards to work with all parties to reach a compromise. However, it is hard to vote for any compromise that gives the county or the smaller cities more revenue than is generated within their boundaries.

    As such, I am inclined to vote no.

  3. Ross says:

    Darrin, that would be OK if it wasn’t for the fact that most of the commercial areas in the County are inside the Houston City limits. Take FM1960 in Spring for instance. The entire commercial part of that street is in the City, but most of the patrons live in the County. The taxes they pay appear to be from Houston, but really aren’t. The same logic applies to the Memorial Villages and other incorporated entities.

    Keep in mind that the total tax collected would not change if the Houston City limits were different, just the allocation. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell where the tax money is collected die to a lack of publicly available information.

  4. Temple Houston says:

    I’d have to say that the the situation with respect to the Memorial Villages (plus Bellaire, WUP and Southside Place) is very different from the commercial strip annexations in the 1960 area. In fact the assertion is invalid with respect to these municipal “enclaves”: these enclaves were formed more than 50 years ago and before the city annexed around them. Either way, it does sound like way too much whining from the people who want the benefits of living in the city without paying for them. It is very tiresome. It’s also probably time the city took a long look at its annexation policies with respect to north Harris County. It may be that annexation is the only way to stop the city from losing control of METRO’s board due to population growth in the unincorporated areas. At the same time, we have to be careful about actions that will get the Lege involved, which a “No” vote would probably cause. The last thing we want is for the yahoos who dominate the Lege to start meddling with METRO and destroy the regional transit system that is slowly being put together. I mean, look what an outstanding job they are doing with the education system.

  5. Ross says:

    The residents of the Villages, and to some extent the other incorporated entities, spend most of their money in Houston, because there just aren’t that many commercial establishments in the cities. So, I would say my assertion is just as valid for those areas as it is for the County residents.

  6. Steven says:

    Part of the reason why those in smaller cities or unincorporated county locations buy inside the city limits is due to restrictions placed on businesses, another reason being business owners want higher traffic locations to set up. Perhaps if Metro would spend such monies on the geographic areas it was collected, it would make that a moot point.

  7. Ross says:

    Steven, that’s not really the case. Those businesses are inside the Houston city limits because Houston no longer annexes residential property, but goes after commercial property like there’s no tomorrow. This is understandable, since businesses don’t vote and don’t consume too many services. It’s probably easier to set up a business in the County, because the County doesn’t have nearly as many rules as the City dies.

    The overall point i am trying to make is that there is no easy way to distribute the money Metro collects in sales taxes, since there’s no reliable method of determining who the money came from. If Houston had not been as aggressive in annexing commercial property, then it wouldn’t be much of an issue. As it is, the funds need to be allocated over the entire service area, so that everyone benefits.

  8. Steven says:

    Ross, but we know WHERE the money came from. I contend that while there is no perfect method of distribution of those funds, wouldn’t it make sense to rely on the facts that we know such as the location of the taxation? I do not agree with those that would claim any taxes gathered in Houston to be spent in any part of Houston, merely that some geographic area be a fairer criterion for disbursement. Since the people buying items that are taxed clearly are using the roads, streets, bridges, etc to get to the stores, political geography (Harris County, Houston, Bellaire, etc) need not take precedence over actual geography. :)

  9. Sue Lovell says:

    How about honoring the vote of the 2003 referendum that supported the University Line. Richmond Ave is terrible..To drive on Richmond is to invite damage to your car and there are a lot of properties that are vacant. A transit corridor was promised and now there are no plans to address how that will impact a community that has been planning it’s future based on that corridor being built. Imagine how it would impact the East End to stop construction on the Harrisburg line. How will it effect the ridership on the lines being built ..the University line was to connect the other major employment centers to the Main Street line…and last but not least how do you change your mind and make a decision that so dramatically impacts a neighborhood and community without having discussions with them…

  10. Darrin Hall says:

    Ross,

    So you are saying residents in the unincorporated parts of the county are travelling inside the city to take advantage of services or businesses? You just made my point.

    Plus, those are not city residents shuttling in and out of those massive park and rides.

  11. Ross says:

    No, I am saying that since the City annexed only the commercial parts of much of the County, the residents of the unincorporated areas have no choice but to shop in the City. Take a look at a map of Houston at http://mycity.houstontx.gov/public/ and zoom in on the 1960 area. Every reasonably sized commercial property up there has been annexed, but almost none of the housing. All of the Metro tax collected there counts as Houston, even though only a small fraction of it comes from residents of the City of Houston.

    It would be really nice to see how much sales tax is collected by entity by zip code. We could then tell just how fair the allocations are.

  12. [...] It feels a bit like a bank shot, but the bus system does have unaddressed needs, and as I said before taking care of those needs will remove a key pillar of the anti-rail contingent’s argument [...]

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