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Joshua Sanders: Required Referendum Does Not Need To Be A Bump In The Road For A New Metro

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

Joshua Sanders

The METRO Board should not risk its newfound goodwill by raiding its member entities’ General Mobility Program (GMP) funds after the end of September 2014. Instead, METRO should move forward with a required referendum that offers voters the clear choice to extend the General Mobility Program at its historic level of .25 of the 1-cent METRO sales tax for a shorter extension to fulfill its obligations from the 2003 referendum.

The 2003 METRO Solutions Plan election extended the General Mobility Program from 2003 through September 2014, extending a partnership with the County, the City of Houston and smaller member cities that has been in place since a coalition of these same entities helped establish METRO, its service area and the penny sales tax. This coalition has been held together by balancing the funding from the penny sales tax between the General Mobility Funds for roads and streets at 25%, and the rest of METRO’s budget for buses and related transit services including light rail at %75. Although the General Mobility Program was not officially set at 25% until 1988, mobility investment from METRO to its member entities has always been at the core of the partnership that created METRO in 1978.

The New METRO Leadership has done well to overcome the recent controversies that have delayed the implementation of the 2003 METRO Solutions plan approved by voters in 2003. The new 2012 Business Plan and Budget lays out a five-year plan with the stated goal of being a better community partner. It would have been even better if it introduced real metrics for judging success like ridership and future debt level expectations, which are currently $1.1 billion plus perhaps another $539 million for pension liabilities. But the 2012 Business Plan did introduce a new level of transparency on how much more light rail expansion is going to cost than originally estimated in 2003. METRO looks to “boldly accelerate” spending on light rail to complete 3 of the 4 lines approved in 2003 for a little over $2.1 billion, or $1.4 billion more than estimated for same three lines in 2003. The North, Southeast and East lines are slated to be completed by the end of 2016, 8 years, 7 years, and 5 years late, respectively.

Unfortunately, the bus service expansion promised in 2003 of increasing capacity by 50% will not be delivered under the 2012 Business plan. In fact, bus service and routes have significantly decreased from their 2003 levels to help make room for the accelerated commitment to light rail transit funding.

Despite this profligate spending plan, some argue that the General Mobility Program should be capped or cancelled to support more rapid bus and rail expansion. We are now being told that METRO needs more money to complete the goals that were outlined in the 2003 referendum. We believe Metro needs the discipline of the GMP and the chance for the public to access the performance of light rail after completion and operation of the current expansion. The primary reason the 2003 referendum was set to expire next year was due to METRO’s outlined promise in the METRO Solutions Plan to complete the components of the referendum by this time. By completing the goals of the 2003 referendum in 2012, the member entities and the taxpayers would have had adequate information on the true capital costs, operating costs, and ridership numbers to justify the investment in the transit plan. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and won’t happen for another couple years.

Destroying the long standing coalition of community partners that created METRO by changing the General Mobility Program in the required referendum runs the risk of the METRO Board losing its discretion. It would be one thing to come to the taxpayers and member entities with results to justify their request for more funding, but METRO is asking its member entities to forget their part of the bargain and is now trying to remove needed funding for roads and mobility.

The General Mobility Program is not a diversion from transit as some like to characterize it. Since when did roads stop becoming part of the transit and mobility equation? Those same roads are responsible for moving the other %95 of the people, goods, and services in the region that don’t utilize transit. Roads and infrastructure I might add that METRO buses run on every day.

With the State of Texas and the Federal government having an ever decreasing ability to fund road and infrastructure projects, it is important to also look at the GMP as a great source of local transportation funding. Not many other cities in Texas, rather the US, have discretion over a funding source for transportation and mobility projects that comes directly out of their tax base. This funding helps not only maintain existing roads and infrastructure in the City of Houston through the Rebuild Houston plan, but it goes to build new capacity in Harris County where 92% of the growth in our region was accounted for during the last census.

Houstonians for Responsible Growth urge the New METRO to not make the voters choose between a situation where METRO gets more money either way. What do we mean by that statement? METRO has the ability to choose the ballot language and details of the proposed referendum. If a proposal is put on the ballot that its member entities have not reached a consensus on, the likelihood of passing the referendum decreases and the General Mobility Program agreement runs the risk of ending with METRO keeping all the funding from the 1 cent sales tax. It turns into a situation of “heads METRO wins, tails you lose.” Either situation impacts the member entities’ budgets, and those entities may have to seek new revenues sources to pay for existing debt and future infrastructure projects.

METRO’s new image may not be strong enough with voters to win support for a capped General Mobility Program, and an ugly referendum fight could hurt the other important City of Houston bond priorities on the ballot. That is why it is important that METRO find a compromise solution with its member entities to avoid this public fight.

METRO would do best to extend the General Mobility Program program in its current form until completion of the 3 lines under construction are done. As stated above, this would give the member entities and the taxpayers the ability to judge for themselves whether or not METRO’s investment justifies the cost and is in line with what the voters approved. New METRO would come out a winner by proving their newfound fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. By admitting to the public that mistakes were made and even government’s plans need to be adjusted, they would go a long way to rebuilding a solid foundation of trust with the public.

Joshua Sanders is the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

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  1. Temple Houston says:

    So the Houstonians for Responsible Growth group thinks it is equitable for some of these small cities to get as much as $16 for every $1 in sales tax they contribute toward METRO’s funding? Does this group really believe that Sunnyside should subsidize street and sidewalk construction and maintenance in Piney Point Village? At the very least, these small cities should have their GMP funds for each year capped at the amount they contributed the previous year. Where is this vaunted “coalition” when Culberson the Barbarian mounts another attack on public transit in the Houston area? I have voted in every METRO election since it was formed and I don’t believe it was the intention of the voters to pay for maintenance of residential streets in wealthy enclaves and suburbs. Public transportation to suburbs is a justified expense of METRO, but road maintenance for low traffic streets? Forget it.

  2. Ross says:

    Keep in mind that many of the smaller cities in Harris County don’t collect much sales tax because they have very few businesses. It’s not particularly useful to say that one of the Memorial Villages gets 16 for 1 on this when their citizens spend most of their sales taxes in the City of Houston.