Ed Emmett opines against Prop B

He’s the first prominent local politician that I’m aware of to take this position.

Ed Emmett

Promoted by a group called Fair for Houston, the petition is seeking to have cities’ and counties’ voting strength (within organizations such as the H-GAC board of directors and Transportation Policy Council) be proportional to their populations. In theory that sounds logical, but such an approach fails to recognize the purpose of regional councils of government. It would change H-GAC from a collaborative, future oriented council of peers into a politicized feeding frenzy where the biggest players pursue their self-interests at the expense of future growth areas.

Since its formation in 1966, H-GAC has played a key role in allowing our thirteen- county region to grow in a manner that has resulted in one of the nation’s most dynamic and diverse metropolitan areas. That result came about through cooperation, not the wrangling of politics. Transportation projects, for example, are vital for regional and even statewide and national mobility and commerce. If Houston had been able to control the growth process for their own self-interest, projects in Montgomery, Fort Bend and other surrounding counties would have been delayed or even stifled, leaving residents and newcomers with fewer, less attractive alternatives for living and working.

H-GAC has no taxing authority and does not pass laws or ordinances. It has always been a forum for area governments to come together as peers and plan for the future and, in some cases, provide input to state and federal agencies. To politicize H-GAC would be a big mistake that would ultimately harm the entire region, including Houston and Harris County.

The part of H-GAC that decides which transportation projects get approved is the Transportation Policy Council. Each metropolitan area in the country is required to have a metropolitan planning organization to develop a transportation plan for the area. That is the role of the Transportation Policy Council. If Proposition B passes and H-GAC refuses to change its voting procedure, the City of Houston will be required to withdraw from the Transportation Policy Council. Proponents of Proposition B say that Houston could then form its own metropolitan planning organization, but that is not possible unless the governor agrees to such a plan. So, absent participation in the Transportation Policy Council, the City of Houston will not be eligible for most federal or state transportation improvement funds, and those funds will go to other cities around the state.

What will approval of Proposition B bring to Houston? Traffic congestion will increase for everyone. Freight transportation moving to and from Port Houston, area industries and retailers will be hampered. Interstate commerce moving through the region will be slowed or diverted. Outdated highways will be less safe and evacuation routes less efficient. Flooding of highways and adjacent neighborhoods will continue to get worse.

There’s a lot here, so let me start by saying you should listen to my interview with the campaign manager and comms manager for the Yes On Prop B campaign, which is the continuation of Fair For Houston. We discussed this question and their assertion is that existing federal law covers this situation. I Am Not A Lawyer and cannot adjudicate this conflict, but I will note that so far no professional newsgathering organization has reported that the city of Houston could face this kind of obstacle if Prop B passes and the negotiations with H-GAC fail – in their endorsement of Prop B, the Chron editorial board did not bring this point up, which suggests that either it’s not a material obstacle or they were negligent in their duties to vet the matter before offering such a judgment. I will also note that Emmett did not cite a statute or a chapter in the statutes to bolster his assertion. He may be right – as I said, I Am Not A Lawyer – but just saying this doesn’t make it so.

I would also recommend you listen to my interview with CM Sallie Alcorn, who sits on the Transportation Policy Council and is set to be the next Chair of the H-GAC Board. She says she is “agnostic” on Prop B but understands the reasons for this effort, and she talks about the collaboration and relationships with representatives from the other counties. It’s important to remember, and this is something she discusses, Prop B isn’t about imposing a new governance on H-GAC, it’s requiring the city to enter into negotiations with H-GAC about its governance, with the goal of coming to a new agreement that everyone can live with. Emmett’s op-ed takes the view that such negotiations are doomed to fail. I don’t see why that’s true. I also don’t see why the city of Houston must accept an arrangement that it believes is not fair.

While Emmett is correct that the I-45 project was a catalyst for the Fair For Houston petition drive that led to Prop B, he did not mention the other big item on the city’s list of complaints, the screw job that H-GAC gave the city in allocating $488 million in Harvey relief funds. Whatever one thinks of the I-45 project – and let’s be very clear, the city of Houston and its residents are on the pointy end of this project and it is very much our right to demand that our interests and needs be taken into consideration by TxDOT – this was an unfathomable repudiation of Houston by H-GAC, especially coming on the heels of the disrespect Houston and Harris County have gotten from the General Land Office. I don’t know how one can fail to address this in an op-ed arguing against Prop B.

Emmett’s prediction for what will happen if Prop B passes is based on the view that the required negotiations over H-GAC’s governance will fail and Houston will have to withdraw from H-GAC and this will cause chaos and a loss of federal funding. I don’t see why that has to be the case. When seeking to make a change, there’s always a risk that the change could leave you worse off than you’d have been otherwise. But that ignores the upside of taking that risk, which is that you will end up better off, and it ignores the risk that doing nothing will lead to worse outcomes in the future. I believe the current setup is not working for Houston, I believe that if we were creating H-GAC today there’s no way that Houston would agree to a governance structure that so limited its voting power, and I believe that it’s worth the effort to try to negotiate something better. I respect Ed Emmett, but I’m not moved by his argument.

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