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Closing arguments for the Metro referendum

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.

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2 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    Crossley never addressed the patent unfairness of sucking tax dollars out of the far reaches of the County to pay for projects that provide no benefit outside the narrow corridors of the rail lines. He fails to see that good general mobility is an integral part of the overall transit picture.

  2. jon boyd says:

    Ross has raised the issue of fairness in assessing transportation cost and benefit. I don’t know understand what kind of fairness he intends, but let’s look at how public funding of transportation works.

    The federal government, in partnership with state governments and funding, has funded and completed the US Highway system and the Interstate System.

    Streetcar systems proliferated in American cities in the late nineteenth century. Houston started rail service with mule-driven cars. The service expanded 1890-1920 with the electrification of these streetcars, some of these extending to the Montrose area, the Heights, Magnolia Park, and the Fifth Ward. Private for profit companies financed and operated these lines. The only government assistance they received were franchise rights to use local streets. The City of Houston assessed these companies anytime they paved a street where the rail service operated. Rarely were these profitable operations, and ownership changed hands frequently.

    Eventually everyone understood that operating streetcars and rapid transit was unprofitable. A few cities like New York and Chicago took over their transit systems. Most others, like Houston, allowed them to wither on the vine. Federal and state governments did nothing for transit. They were too busy planning their highways and farm roads.

    It would be about four decades before the birth of the Federal Transit Administration in 1964, marking the first federal support of urban transit. Even as the federal government started capitalizing roads four decades earlier, transit is still at a funding disadvantage. When FTA funds a local transit project, if your transit agency is really lucky, it will fund up to fifty percent of the project.

    The system is much kinder to roads. The FHWA, the highway side of the US Department of Transportation, will contribute up to eighty percent of a road project. Most FTA funding comes through competitive grants. The federal government allocates formula funding to the states from the highway trust fund. Almost all of this gets used for roads in Texas. If you drive exclusively on local streets in Houston, you are paying 37.5 cents per gallon to the Highway Trust Fund and Texas Fund 6, but none of this money will be used to repair Kirby or Richmond, much less be used for transit. They will use it to build highways and arterials to the suburbs, giving folks access to our local streets that they don’t pay for.

    The State of Texas does not fund urban transit. Harris County, although it collects most of its taxes within the City of Houston, prefers to spend it to the benefit of the unincorporated areas, and does not contribute a penny to urban transit.

    The General Mobility Program is just one of many government programs that redistribute public money from urban dwellers to suburban road users.

    Is this what you mean by fair?

    On the other hand, Metro’s Park and Ride buses on the HOV lanes carry more riders than most commuter systems sround the country. However, it’s a system that’s effective at taking people downtown – and, thanks to the Main Street line, to the Medical Center. With a build out of the light rail from the last referendum and increasing bus service in the urban core, commuters would effectively have access to job centers like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria area. That would connect the Park and Ride system to the four largest job centers in the region.

    Therefore, a robust urban transit system does have a regional benefit.

    For all of these reasons, I voted NO on the Metro referendum.

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