December 18, 2007
Looking forward to 2008: Christof Spieler

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called "Looking Forward to 2008". This entry was written by Christof Spieler.)

In the world of transportation, 2008 will be familiar to anyone who experienced 2007. There will be light rail controversies, real or imagined. The Katy Freeway will still be under construction. The Heights and the Near North Side will continue to fight TxDOT on I-45. METRO will roll out the Q Card - again. And lots of people will think that they know a better way to operate Downtown traffic lights.

But the most important moment in Houston transportation in 2008 will likely be at the ballot box. And of all the races that matter - the President, the Senate and the House, the state legislature - perhaps the most important for our location transportation picture will be the county judge.

The county doesn't get a lot of attention around here. But it's a huge player. For every $3 a Houston resident sends to the city, they send $2 to the county (2006 tax rates: 0.645 city, 0.40239 county). That money buys a lot. The county's yearly transportation budget - the Toll Road Authority, public infrastructure, and commissioners' road spending - is somewhere around $800 million. The city's budget is only $70 million; METRO's current round of light rail expansion averages out to $150 million a year; even TxDOT, at around $800 million a year in the Houston region, doesn't spend more than the county.

Yet the county doesn't get nearly the public attention that the city, METRO, or the state do. Why?

The first reason is that the county's elected officials essentially hold their jobs for life. Each of the four county commissioners (who, along with the County Judge, form the county's governing body) represents over 950,000 people. That's more people than live in Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, Delaware, or Montana, so 12 U.S. senators - along with every member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Texas Legislature - represent fewer people than a Harris County commissioner. That means it's very hard to vote a commissioner out of office: unlike a Houston district council member, a commissioner can afford to alienate a civic club or two.

The second reason is that the county commissioners run their own personal fiefdoms. 20% of the county's budget goes directly to the commissioners, for them to spend more or less as they please. Each commissioner has their own road department and their own parks department. Even beyond that part of the budget, the commissioners tend to determine what happens in their districts. Thus, there are no public debates for the media to cover.

The third - and perhaps the most important - reason is that the people who lose most under the county's regime are those who pay the least attention. Over half the county's population is within the city of Houston, and since the county is funded by property taxes, the share of the county's tax revenues that come from city residents is greater than that. Yet the city doesn't get half the county's spending. Some county functions - like the courts and the jail - do in fact benefit everyone in the county. But others don't. The Harris County sheriff's department conducts neighborhood patrols, funded by those taxes. But they patrol only outside city limits. Harris County spends $26 million a year on libraries - but none of those are in the city. City residents pay city taxes to fund police, libraries, and parks while their county taxes are going to fund police, library, and parks for others who do not pay city taxes. But when Houston residents complain about high taxes and inadequate services, they tend to complain to the city, not the county.

Back to transportation: the county's transportation funding, like its parks and its libraries, is spent mostly outside of city limits. It also goes in support of specific agendas. Commissioner Steve Radack, for example, believes that the main purpose of road funding is to promote suburban development:

Without an infusion of bond money, Radack said he may delay building or widening major thoroughfares that would provide access to pasture land where subdivisions could be built, creating more taxpayers to pay for county services, Radack said.

"The more people you have in Harris County paying taxes lessens the burden on those already here," he said.

To put it another way, in Precinct Three, road money is going not to help the taxpayers who live there already get around, but rather to benefit those who haven't moved here yet. The county could be spending significant money on transit, sidewalks, livable centers, or dealing with congestion on urban arterials like Westheimer, but it's not, and those priorities are helping determine how Houston grows. Anytime we spend transportation money, we are engaging in urban planning. The county, as one of the biggest transportation agencies in the area, does a lot of planning. And thus who we elect to county government does a lot to shape our city and our region.

In 2008, two county commissioners - Radack and El Franco Lee - will be up for re-election. It's not clear whether either will be seriously challenged: there is a perennial candidate who has filed in Precinct 3, but that's it so far, and the filing deadline is two weeks away. We will also see the most contested county judge race in a long time. Ed Emmett, who was appointed as the county's chief executive when Robert Eckels quit almost immediately after being re-elected, will face Charles Bacarisse in the Republican primary. The two represent the two wings of the party: Emmett is low key, pro-growth, and pro-business. Bacarisse, by contrast, is ideological and confrontational: he's campaigning on ending illegal immigration, fighting METRO, and cutting government. Whoever comes out of that primary will face David Mincberg, who hopes to take advantage of changing demographics to retake the county for the Democrats, which might (or might not) mean better cooperation between the city and the county.

Whoever wins these county races will have an extraordinary budget - and thus an extraordinary amount of power - to shape how Houston grows. The fact that the county does not get the attention that the city, METRO, or even TxDOT do simply means that power can be exercised quietly, and that the policies that guide its spending go undebated. That will change only when the taxpayers and voters start asking more questions and demanding better. Will 2008 be the year that happens?

Christof Spieler is an engineer with Matrix Structural, and is on the board of the Citizens Transportation Coalition. He blogs about (mostly) transportation issues at Intermodality.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 18, 2007 to Looking Forward to 2008