Christof Spieler: Deciding the future of Houston’s transit

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Christof Spieler

We as a region are facing a huge decision about our future. If we don’t increase transit use by offering more people the option of high-quality transit, we will be stuck in gridlock. But among all the money we spend on transportation, we have only one dedicated transit funding source, and we are spending a quarter of it on roads in what is known as the “General Mobility” program. Over the past 30 years, METRO – our transit agency – has spent more on roads than it has on building transit infrastructure. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population – and the demand — continues to grow.

We know this: when Houstonians are offered high quality transit they use it. Our park-and-ride system – buses that run as often as every 5 minutes during rush hour from suburban park-and-ride lots down HOV lanes directly to Downtown – carry 30,000 boardings every weekday. Half of Downtown employees who live in the areas served by the system use it. With 37,000 boardings a day, our light rail line carries more people per mile than any other in the U.S. besides Boston; Dallas has 10 times as much track as we do, but carries less than than twice as many people. Even outside rush hour, trains are standing room only. Bus service on Westheimer, where bus service runs frequently all day, every day, carries about 15,000 boardings. These riders have found out that high quality transit – transit that is frequent, reliable, and goes where people want to go – makes their lives better.

But most Houstonians do not have the option of using high quality transit. Greenway Plaza, Uptown, and Greenspoint, which are not served by rail and are not connected to the HOV lanes that keep park and ride buses out of traffic, have less than a third of the transit ridership that Downtown and the Texas Medical Center do. If we build the infrastructure to offer those areas better service, many of those employees will use transit like employees in Downtown do. Corridors like Kirby and Washington Avenue, where density is growing, don’t have the frequent bus service that Westheimer does; therefore the new residents moving in are all getting in their cars to go to their jobs. With better service, many of them would be on the bus.

We have a plan to connect more people to high quality transit, approved by the voters in 2003: light rail lines that link Greenway Plaza and Uptown to the park-and-ride system and to the other major employment centers; new park-and-rides; expanded local bus service; links to the airports; and commuter rail.

Unfortunately, good transit infrastructure costs money, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives. The HOV lane park and ride system cost $1 billion to build, and the current 3-line light rail expansion costs $2.1 billion, (including $435 million in upgraded roadways and utilities). Even expanding local bus service on city streets costs a lot of money: METRO’s biggest expense year in and year out is operating or maintaining bus facilities. But the alternatives to good transit are even more expensive: the Katy Freeway widening, originally estimated to cost $1 billion, came in at $2.8 billion dollars, and it bulldozed over 1,000 homes and businesses. Widening 290 is estimated at to cost $4.6 billion.

Roads and transit alike are funded primarily by the general taxpayers, not just the users of those facilities. The state and federal government collect gas tax, and toll roads collect tolls, but the majority of transportation funding comes from income tax, property tax, and sales tax. TxDOT has calculated that the gas tax collected on the fuel burned on a typical Texas highway covers well under half of the cost of building and maintaining that highway. And the gas tax doesn’t pay for arterials or local streets. The rest of the cost – half of the cost of that highway and all of the cost of that street – comes from the taxpayers as a whole, regardless of whether they taxpayers drive, walk, bike, or take transit.

METRO’s “General Mobility” funding for roads started as a political deal, but only the roadway part of that deal has been upheld. In 1988, voters committed to spending 25% of METRO’s sales tax on General Mobility for twelve years; in 1999, the METRO board extended that program for another 10 years, and in 2003, voters reauthorized it through 2014. Both the 1988 and 2003 votes were part of a package that included rail expansion. Those rail expansion promises have not been kept. The 1988 rail system was never built, and, of the 4 lines that the 2003 ballot called for to be opened by 2012, only 3 are under construction, projected to open by 2014. But though we have not kept our rail construction commitments, we have spent every bit of the money promised — and more — on roads. From 1988 to 2014, METRO will actually have spent 27%, not 25%, on roads through General Mobility. In addition, METRO spent another $1.2 billion to rebuild major streets in Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center.

Of the billions of public money the Houston region spends every year on transportation, only a small part is available for transit. While most tax revenues received by state or local governments are – in theory – “flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads; in reality, the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. Many of the Federal and local funds are–in theory–“flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads, but in reality the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. The only dedicated funding source we have for transit in this region is METRO’s 1 cent sales tax. Spending a quarter of this on roads is not “balance”, it’s part of a larger imbalance.

But over the years, METRO’s member jurisdictions have become dependent on General Mobility. Some have gotten very good deals. Piney Point Village, a city of 3,150 surrounded by Houston on every side, has gotten $16.49 for every $1.00 it has contributed in sales tax, while the city of Houston has gotten $0.20 for each of its dollars contributed. Hedwig Village, a neighbor of Piney Point Village, has gotten $10,016 per capita from 1999 to 2014 while Houston has gotten $810. In addition to hefty General Mobility payments, both villages get local bus service, METROlift, and the benefits of reduced congestion on the Katy Freeway due to Park-and-Ride buses. It’s no wonder that the property tax rates in these villages are only a third of the property tax rates in Houston. General Mobility has become a massive subsidy for these small cities. But even Houston and Harris County, which have not gotten these special deals, have come to rely on this METRO money for their capital infrastructure budgets. General Mobility has never been promised or authorized past 2014, but everyone is counting on it.

Unfortunately, funds are tight, and we know METRO does not have enough sales tax revenue to continue both General Mobility and transit expansion. After the 2003 referendum, METRO – just like cities, counties, and school districts around the country – was hit with unprecedented increases in construction costs as the global economy boomed. Then in 2008 the economy crashed, dramatically reducing the sales tax revenue we use to fund transit. By 2010, sales tax revenue was 16% below projections, and while it’s rising again now, we don’t expect it to get back to the pre-2008 projections for 20 years or more.

METRO is being open and transparent about the decision we face. The 2003 referendum required that we call a vote by this year to answer the question of whether general mobility payments will continue. Simply the fact that the voters will be able to decide this issue is unusual in the world of transportation; you won’t find highway expansions on the ballot, and nobody has ever required that the City of Houston or Harris County get specific taxpayer approval for every road they plan to widen. But METRO is going beyond just letting the voters decide at the ballot by giving the public a chance to have input on what goes on the ballot. We’re going beyond that. We have already held two public meetings – one of which ran for nearly 4 hours – to get input, on what should be on the ballot and we’ll be scheduling more public meetings before adopting ballot language in August.

Since Annise Parker appointed 5 new board members in 2010, we’ve put METRO’s financial house in order, securing $900 million in federal funding for new rail lines, cutting costs, and paying down debt, all while continuing to replace 100 aging buses a year and budgeting to keep our facilities in a state of good repair. We are also being unprecedently transparent: every check we issue is posted online; we’ve issued a 200-page budget book that details what we spend and why; and video of every board meeting and every committee meeting is posted online.

METRO is working together with local stakeholders to solve this problem locally, not leave it to Austin or Washington. We’ve heard from many people telling us that all of METRO’s sales tax should go to transit. We’ve heard from others, especially representatives of the smaller cities, who say that 25% — or more – should continue to go to roads. We’ve also heard suggestions for compromise, including a proposal from board chair Gilbert Garcia to freeze General Mobility at the dollar amount it will reach in 2014, with the growth in sales tax revenue above that amount going to transit. Based on all that input, we will put a clear, simple proposition on the ballot, and it will be for the voters to decide. I have already heard people stand before the board and tell us that, if they did not agree with the wording of the proposition on the ballot, or if the voters decided didn’t vote the right way, they would go to the Texas legislature to invalidate the result. That’s simply unacceptable. This is our region’s money, not the Texas legislature’s or Congress’.

We need to be clear about what’s at stake here: we are making a decision about the future of our region. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston; the outcome will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit. This is not some abstract discussion about funding formulas; it is a decision about what options Houstonians will have to get to work, school, and all the other places they need to go in their day-to-day lives for decades to come. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it
local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population continues to grow. The next new light rail line – the one the voters voted to open by 2012 – would not start construction until 2028 or 2030. The impacts of such a delay on our region’s economy, our mobility, and the quality of our day-to-day lives are huge. If General Mobility were to expire with the current contracts in 2014, we could see significant bus expansion by 2015 and start more rail by 2018. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston. The outcome of this year’s General Mobility referendum will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit.

Christof Spieler is a licensed professional engineer who has written and spoken extensively on transit and urban planning. He was appointed to Metro’s Board of Directors by Mayor Parker in 2010.

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7 Responses to Christof Spieler: Deciding the future of Houston’s transit

  1. Ross says:

    Of course, the GMP money makes it possible for people to actually get to the transit facilities. And, there is no compelling reason to waste yet more money on rail. Rail is useless, inflexible, and servers a minuscule portion of the population. Roads and buses are more flexible, cheaper, and far more effective.

  2. Jb says:

    buses are empty outside of rush hour and all go downtown. not every one needs to go downtown. a hub and spoke system would work better but outside of rush hour our traffic isn’t that bad. More buses less rail and more population density inside the loop . light rail to the suburbs is a waste of money. Nobody here will walk 1/2 a mile to a bus or train stop.

  3. Robert Nagle says:

    I take the bus everyday — during rush hour and offpeak hours. They are almost always crowded. On Sunday night I was on west Houston in Westheimer, and the bus I got on was the most crowded bus I have ever been on. Jb said that “Nobody here will walk 1/2 a mile to a bus or train stop.” Does JB think that’s a good thing? Or a horrifying thing? I personally believe that most people would not regard a 1/2 mile walk as burdensome — as long as the mass transit option comes often and reliably. The biggest obstacle for users of mass transit is the heat and the prospect of waiting in it for 15-25 minutes — not the amount of the walk. If the person were going to a point with regular and frequent pickups, 1/2 mile would be no problem at all.

    For Ross: Roads and buses have a hidden cost, which is smog and CO2 emissions. Did you know buses still use diesel? I don’t deny that it’s easier to add/modify bus paths and schedules, but the current and proposed rail lines are on heavily traveled lines; plus, because they serve as a dropoff point for buses, they allow bus lines to either go more frequently on their route or to service areas further from downtown.

    My concern about mass transit is different: Diesel has known carcinogens. If bus passengers have to wait for their bus, they inevitably breathe a lot more of the polluted air which pass by. On a typical day at work, when I wait for the bus, about 20-30 buses pass right by me. In effect, car drivers are protected from the noxious fumes because they are always inside their car. Users of mass transit who wait on traffic-clogged roads for their bus are breathing the awful exhaust fumes of car drivers. Why should a city allow users of buses to take such a chance with their health while giving a free pass to those who are contributing to overall pollution?

    There are other studies which show a relationship between proximity to major roads and highways and incidents of autism. If people who live inside the city in order to take advantage of the mass transit system have to pay the price for other people’s pollution, how is this fair?

  4. Ross says:

    Metro stupidly gave up on CNG buses some time ago. There’s no reason they couldn’t go back to using them.

    Car drivers protected from exhaust? My car isn’t hermetically sealed and doesn’t use a HEPA filter, so I’m guessing I breathe pretty much the same air as the pedestrians.

    Trains generate smog and CO2 emissions, they are just off somewhere else, polluting a distant backyard. Of course, that assumes CO2 is a pollutant, which it isn’t.

  5. Christof Spieler says:


    We are exploring natural gas buses now; we’re actually operating a handful on behalf of the Downtown District on the Greenlink route. Natural gas technology has come a long way since METRO tried it last time. Meanwhile, our new diesel hybrid buses (which we’re buying at a rate of 100 a year) also have dramatically lower emissions than the older buses they’re replacing.

  6. BFGConsultingHouston says:

    As I began to read Christof Spieler’s essay, I began to formulate my responses to his statements, and then I had to stop.
    I realized that I was in opposition to virtually every statement he made!

    Let me respond to just a very few that I find especially troublesome :
    “high quality transit”?-Light rail is not it.
    “we will be stuck in gridlock.”-will be? Christof, we already are.When was the last time you drove one of our freeways at rush hour?and BTW, light rail will do nothing to solve that.
    “METRO – our transit agency – has spent more on roads than it has on building transit infrastructure.”- Umm, Christof, roads ARE transit infrastructure.
    “If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail…”- Christof, try leaving out everything but Commuter Rail served by an excellent bus system, and there will be plenty of funding.Austin, Texas has built 32 miles of Commuter Rail at a cost of only $5 million p/mile, while light rail is costing Houston over $150 million p/mile.
    $145 million p/mile in savings will buy an awful lot of buses and Commuter Rail.

    And folks, that is from just the first paragraph of Mr. Spieler’s lengthy essay.

    G.F. Brown
    BFG Consulting
    Houston, Texas

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