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.