Although transit needs are regional, the closest thing to a regional provider, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, is limited by statute to Harris County. And large parts of the county are excluded because their residents voted in 1978 to do without Metro’s services and its 1-cent sales tax.
Asked if Metro should be expanded or a regional agency created, [Fort Bend County Commissioner James] Patterson and other elected officials in the Houston area were doubtful. Even Metro was cool to the idea.
The larger the area that such an agency would cover, Patterson said, the more likely that some residents will not receive the services they pay tax for.
Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said the board would need broadening if Metro’s scope were expanded. A good model, he said, is Caltrain, in which three San Francisco Bay counties contract with Amtrak for commuter rail.
But a regional approach has advantages, Wilson said, including coordination of transit modes and routes.
“With an integrated system, you wouldn’t have competing organizations vying for precious federal funding, and the customer would find it easier and simpler to use,” Wilson said. “You wouldn’t have to pay five fares. You pay one fare and ride all over the region.”
But fares do not cover transit costs, and the issue of paying the rest remains. Metro residents have paid its 1-cent sales tax for 30 years, but many cities outside its boundaries are at the statutory maximum sales tax. And nobody wants to raise property taxes.
Considering all that, Patterson said, a Houston regional transit agency may be an idea whose time has not yet come.
“I’m not saying it isn’t needed. I just don’t see it happening.”
At this time, no, it’s not going to happen. But I believe the demand for such a thing will grow. The proposed commuter rail lines, which realistically cannot be done without some kind of regional authority, will be a catalyst, as likely will the continued high price of gasoline. The main hurdles as I see them are how the board is structured – that is, ensuring all stakeholders get a fair representative shake – and figuring out a revenue source, which for some places may mean dedicating a penny of their sales taxes to the regional authority, since they cannot raise that tax. I don’t believe either of these things is insurmountable, but I also don’t think we’re close to being at a point where the will exists to make them happen. Maybe in a few years, maybe when some obstacles get in the way of the commuter rail plan, I don’t know. But I do think it will happen eventually, and not too far in the future.