One way or another, this argument will be settled on Tuesday. What happens after that is still anyone’s guess.
The referendum on Tuesday’s ballot asks whether to continue spending some public transit sales tax money on streets and bridges. Opponents have campaigned against it by recasting the question: Should transit money be spent on roads or rail?
“You cannot do rail expansion if this thing passes,” said David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that studies urban issues to inform discussions of growth and the leading voice against the Metro proposition. “We’re not going to do rail expansion ever again.”
Mayor Annise Parker and the chairman she appointed to the Metro board, Gilbert Garcia, insist that passage of the proposition makes rail expansion more likely. One of the stated purposes of the referendum is to allow Metro to pay down debt, freeing up borrowing capacity that could be used on future rail lines. Referendum opponents are wrong when they say its passage will delay rail, Parker said Wednesday.
“Either they believe that the magic tooth fairy in Washington will shower us with federal transit dollars in the midst of a still very difficult budget cycle, or we’re going to have to pay for that next line that we build ourselves,” she said. “If we want to pay for that line ourselves, once again, we’re not creditworthy unless we pay down our debt. So, how is this going to slow down rail?”
Crossley’s answer to that, which you can hear in the interview I did with him, would be that with the full penny of Metro’s sales tax going to the agency it would be able to afford to do a lot more of the work on the University Line by itself. It’s still not enough for all of it, however, and part of Crossley’s solution depends on the city doing some of the road and utility work. The city’s plan for transit corridors already includes whatever preparations are needed for transit in those corridors, but there’s always a question of timing and priority, as well as how constrained the city might be financially if it lost GMP funds. It’s really not clear to me how this would play out under either scenario.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Crossley and other rail supporters have stepped up their campaign, raising what Crossley estimated is $16,000. He has spent it on 280,000 robocalls and on yard signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts.
In a KUHF/KHOU poll late last month, 43 percent of respondents said they favored the referendum to 28 percent against. The question read to respondents stated that the additional money Metro picks up if the proposition passes will go toward buses, shelters and paying off debt “and not on rail,” though the referendum does not specifically state that. Further clouding the results was that 27 percent were undecided.
“The voters are confused,” said Rice University political science professor Robert Stein, who helped administer the poll. “What’s on the ballot doesn’t tell voters enough to figure out what to do.”
One single poll can only tell you so much. I’ve had a pretty good feeling about the bond issues from the beginning, before that KHOU poll suggested they were winning. With the Metro referendum, regardless of what the poll says, I feel it could go either way. From what I’ve seen in email and on Facebook, the Crossley message has been getting through. I just don’t know whether it’s too little, too late, or not.