The new Metro board was confirmed by City Council last week, they were sworn in yesterday, and while we don’t yet know exactly what direction they’re going to take, we know what their marching orders are.
Mayor Annise Parker says she is willing to consider allowing the Metropolitan Transit Authority to retain funds that pay for city transportation projects once Metro’s new leadership has restored public confidence in the agency.
Since 1987, Metro has made mobility payments totaling more than $1.6 billion — 25 percent of its 1-cent sales tax — to Houston, Harris County and other cities in the Metro service area. The payments are to continue through Sept. 30, 2014, under terms of the 2003 referendum authorizing Metro to build five new light-rail lines.
Any discussion of asking voters to permit Metro to retain this money would have to include Harris County and the 14 other cities in Metro’s service area that receive the payments, Parker said. Each entity also has its own agreement with Metro on how the funds are paid.
“If, at some point, it becomes necessary for Metro to make a claim on these dollars, then we’ll absolutely have the discussion, but I’m not interested in unilateral disarmament,” the mayor said, adding that this discussion won’t happen until the new board members have re-established Metro’s “reputation for credibility.”
The transition team report on regional coordination goes into the credibility and trust issue in some detail, if you haven’t read that already. Philosophically speaking, I’d like to see Metro get that quarter of a cent back. I think a transit agency should be funding transit, not street repair in Hunters Creek or wherever. I expect that the other entities in Metro’s service area will be reluctant to give up their share of those funds, however, no matter how well Metro does at rebuilding trust. Still, I look forward to that conversation.
The 2003 referendum limited tax-based debt for the rail system to $640 million, and the agency said recently it intends to issue $2.6 billion in bonds for rail construction. Metro officials say they can support the balance of the debt with sources other than sales taxes, but some local officials and Metro critics are skeptical of this.
Parker said Metro might have to ask voters to increase the debt limit.
I believe “some local officials” refers to John Culberson; there may be others, I don’t know. It’s still the case as far as I can tell that the only people truly pushing the idea that Metro can’t issue those bonds without there being another referendum are those who don’t want to see light rail get built. Which doesn’t mean they’re not right, but it does mean I have no particular reason to take their word for it. I wish the Mayor had elaborated a bit more about that in her comment, but I suspect she’s just saying it can’t be ruled out. We’ll just have to see what the new Board does and go from there.