As we know, Metro is preparing for a referendum this fall on the status of the general mobility fund, which is one fourth of the sales tax revenue Metro collects and which goes to Metro member cities for road projects. Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia has suggested freezing the payments after 2014, with any future revenue increases going back to Metro for transit work.
Freezing the payments would give Metro flexibility to invest more money in transit improvements, Garcia said.
“We’re looking to extend it on a fixed amount,” Garcia said. “We know they (the cities) need the funds and they go to good projects. The number one priority is to meet the needs of the community.”
Some transit supporters say Garcia’s proposal is a step in the right direction but would still consume funds needed to complete the light rail system. The coalition of multi-city mayors, however, wants the payments to continue in full.
“The 14 of us are not interested in capping our payments, and we will fight it,” said coalition chairman and Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen. “The whole problem with it is that people think Metro subsidizes us. It’s the reverse, we’re subsidizing Metro. We don’t intend to give them any more than what we’re giving today.”
Dan Barnum, a board member of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, suggested that Metro reduce the mobility payments to 10 percent. Expanding mass transit, he said, is essential if Houston is to remain competitive.
“I appreciate the difficult position they’re in, but it (the mobility payments) still takes a significant amount of money from valuable, needed projects and basically puts off completion of the light rail system,” Barnum said. “What we want is Metro tax dollars for transit and I think that’s what we should be doing.”
I am more sympathetic to Barnum’s position than I am to Owen’s, but I can live with Garcia’s compromise. If we’re going to have a public debate about the need for Metro to continue making these payments to the general mobility fund, we ought to have as much information as possible about the money involved. Owen claims that the small cities are subsidizing Metro. I presume by that he means that the 14 smaller cities contribute a larger share of sales tax revenue than they get back in general mobility funds. That’s an objective claim that ought to be easy enough to verify, and I call on Metro to provide those figures. Similarly, we should know what exactly the smaller cities are using their share of the mobility funds for. I have heard claims over the years that some of these cities get more mobility funds than they have road-related need for, and as such they are used as general revenue for them. I call on the 14 small cities to provide some accounting for how they use these funds. Let’s get all the cards on the table and come to an informed decision about the best and fairest way forward for everyone.