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Christof Spieler

Metro unveils draft bus re-imagining

Here’s your proposed new bus system.

Transit planners kicked off a major shift in Houston bus service Thursday, betting that the benefit of faster service on key routes will outweigh riders’ concerns about adjusting to new schedules and service patterns.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday released a draft of its “reimagining” plan, intended as a sweeping upgrade to the region’s bus system. The map, which officials say will change over the next few months based on public suggestions, focuses on distributing service more efficiently.

Some officials said the plan, if approved in about four months, could help increase ridership by 20 percent or more after two years.

Metro buses, still operating on a system largely developed in the 1980s, are essentially delivering the best service for Houston in 1990, said Geoff Carlton, a consultant on the reimagining plan.

“New job centers exist that maybe didn’t a while ago and we need to respond to serving them,” Carlton said.

Often, bus routes are redundant, especially downtown, wasting resources. Some buses also take circuitous routes to cover neighborhoods where few people ride.

The changes involve about the same about of service, but make service on some major lines much more frequent by developing a grid pattern. Popular north-south and east-west routes that pass by major job centers like Greenway Plaza, southwest Houston and the Uptown area will have buses arriving every every 15 minutes or less.

Less-popular but important routes will have service every 30 minutes or less, while low-use routes in less dense areas of Houston will have service every hour or less.

With the changes, which also re-route buses to avoid some delays like freight rail crossings, 93 percent of current riders will be able to catch a ride at the same bus stop they use now, according to the analysis used to create the map.

The full Chron story is here. See TransitSystemReimagining.com for all the details, and see here for a copy of the presentation that was given to the board. As it happens, I’m in that seven percent of riders who will not be keeping his old bus stop; the current #40 bus that among other things ran down Bayland in the Heights is no more. I’ll have some other reasonable options, and as someone who generally only rides once a week it’s not a big deal. The #40 was not heavily used – the closest replacement to it, the new #17, is one of the “every hour or less” routes – and the overall gain in the system looks to be vast. Certainly, the new routes, which operate as a grid and which operate much more frequently out west where they’re really needed, are sensible and easy to understand. My first impression is positive, and I think it will go over well and will be well received. There will be plenty of opportunities to give your feedback to Metro, and I’m sure all of our friendly neighborhood light rail critics who have been just begging Metro for years to Do Something about bus service will be right there giving their honest appraisals and cheering them on. Anything less on their part would just be tacky, after all. What do you think about the new routes?

Riding that crowded train

Metro ponders its options for dealing with potential delays in the delivery of new railcars.

Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.

Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.

Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.

“If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast,” said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, “that means leaving passengers behind.”

Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don’t know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.

The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December – five months late – and still hasn’t passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.

Metro’s board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency’s 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.

To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.

See here for the background. Assuming that the two that Metro thinks are likely to show up on time do so, then eight cars will need to be diverted. If “at least two” turns out to mean “more than two”, so much the better. On the other hand, any unexpected maintenance will be that much more disruptive. I don’t see how Metro has much choice for how to deal with this in the short term, so it’s really just a question of how short the short term is. A month, maybe two months, to get enough cars in so that the Main Street line doesn’t need to be cannibalized any more, that’s probably not a big deal. Longer than that, especially if the deadlines are fuzzy and promises get broken along the way, that’s a problem. Other than be prepared to sue for damages if it comes to that, I don’t know what else Metro can do about it right now.

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

Metro officials on Thursday scaled back plans for an iconic downtown Houston transit hub where three rail lines will cross after board members grew frustrated with what they called inexcusable delays and cost overruns.

“This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

Faced with a proposal to modify a design after investing time and money, board members instead chose the cheaper option of spending $1.05 million to build a basic canopy. That’s still $450,000 more than they budgeted for the hub, located between Capitol and Rusk along Main.

The block will be a major crossing of the Main Street Line, which opened in 2004, and the East and Southeast lines slated to open in late 2014. Because of its status as the transfer point from the rail lines, Metro officials wanted to brand the stop with a larger canopy and features that drew attention to the rail line as a special downtown asset.

“This is the kind of thing where if you look at successful transit systems, they are not bare-bones systems,” board member Christof Spieler said.

Metro officials solicited teams to propose iconic designs and assembled a jury to choose a preferred plan. The panel made its recommendation on schedule in February 2012, but Metro did not ratify the winner until September 2013, 18 months later than planned.

Interim CEO Tom Lambert said officials still were piecing together exactly how the station planning got off course. By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.

“There was not enough time,” he said. “We cannot have a station without any cover.”

Clearly, someone dropped the ball, and no one noticed it lying there on the ground until it was too late. Not having it – having it replaced by a more mundane canopy – won’t break anything, but Spieler is right that successful transit systems have character to them. If you’ve ever used New York’s subway system, especially at certain stations, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s still possible to salvage something out of this – the firm that submitted the winning design is still committed to it and has been trying to rejig it to lower the cost – but that may require someone with deep pockets to step in and clean up the mess. Let’s hope Metro figures out what happened and makes sure it doesn’t happen again. The Highwayman and Swamplot have more.

More riders, fewer routes

Metro keeps moving towards its re-imagined bus service, which is aimed at increasing ridership.

Currently, Metro operates on a philosophy that half its resources should go toward high-performing routes and half to making sure everyone has convenient access to a bus stop.

By re-directing most of those resources, the same number of buses can provide more frequent service on fewer routes, which advocates say could make more people want to ride.

“It is not just about people who are riding today,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “It is about people who are not riding today.”

Increasing the number of buses on key routes and running faster service in fewer places could increase ridership as much as 25 percent, consultant Geoff Carleton told a Metro committee Tuesday. Refocusing 90 percent of resources on ridership areas, would leave fewer than 2 percent of current riders without a bus stop within a half-mile of where they live, he said.

The new figures, Carleton said, show Metro will see greater ridership gains for less sacrifice than estimated when discussions started in September. By adjusting some bus lines and, essentially, redrawing all the routes, planners found they could cover more area than initially thought, while keeping bus service close enough to where more riders live.

“People are willing to walk farther for faster, more frequent service,” Carleton said.

Transit officials have been receptive to more focus on ridership, but most prefer a 70-30 or 75-25 division between ridership and coverage. By putting 70 to 75 percent of its resources toward routes where ridership is likely to grow, Metro estimates increased ridership of 12-to-15 percent. That plan would leave fewer than .05 percent of Metro’s tens of thousands of daily riders without access to buses within a half-mile of their homes.

Not clear from the story if Metro is going for the 90% plan or the 70 to 75% plan. It may still be under discussion at this time. I don’t know what the sweet spot is for maximizing ridership and minimizing loss of coverage, but achieving a 25% gain in ridership in return for inconveniencing (or worse) two percent of existing riders seems like a reasonable trade. Assuming one isn’t in that two percent, of course. How Metro handles that – you can already imagine the local news stories about sympathetic people who now have to walk a mile to their bus stop – will be at least as big a determining factor in the success of this project as the ridership numbers themselves.

Spieler warned that many riders will be in for a surprise, even if their bus access stays relatively the same. They may retain bus service, he said, but more frequent buses on fewer routes means adjustments to daily schedules will have to be made.

“People are used to what they have right now,” he said. “Change is hard and we expect to get a roomful of people when we roll out the changes.”

As long as no one promises that if they like their bus route they can keep it, I guess. I carpool into downtown nowadays with my wife, but I wind up taking the bus once or twice a week because she needs to run an errand or because one of us needs to leave or arrive at a different time or whatever. The bus I take is the #40 and it runs pretty frequently – I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait more than ten or fifteen minutes for a bus, and it’s usually much less than that. I’m rooting for it to not change much, but we’ll see.

The Uptown plan is as much about HOV as it is BRT

Maybe more.

Most discussion of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone’s plan, which goes before City Council this week, has been about a proposal to annex Memorial Park into the zone and spend $100 million restoring the drought-stricken park. The centerpiece of the zone’s plan, however, is a $187.5 million vision to widen and rebuild Post Oak Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes in the middle, build 7,500 feet of elevated bus lanes on the West Loop, and finance a transit center and parking garage at Westpark and the West Loop.

“We’re doing a lot to improve streets in the Uptown area to help make it more convenient for people to get around, but getting to the Uptown area, we’ve done about all we can with the automobile,” said John Breeding, director of the Uptown zone. “What we need to do is find some way to grow our transportation supply, and that is by bringing in transit.”

Breeding stressed that Post Oak’s existing six lanes and protected left turn lanes would be preserved.

More than 65 percent of Uptown workers live to the southwest and northwest in areas served by HOV lanes and Metro’s park and ride service, Breeding said, but just 10 of 300 daily park and ride buses visit the Galleria; most go downtown.

“We are badly underserved right now,” said Kendall Miller, an Uptown zone board member. “We have some local routes that kind of go through us, we have some van pools that are organized by the big companies. It’s very ad lib.”

About 37 percent of all downtown workers take a Metro vehicle to work, Breeding said, and 62 percent of them make more than $80,000 a year, showing people choose transit for many reasons and that everyone from oil executives to retail clerks would use the buses if they served Uptown.

[…]

Metro board member Christof Spieler said about half the people who live in areas served by park and rides use the service, adding that Metro has long wanted to add Uptown to that list.

“It’s never been possible because, in order to get from the Northwest Transit Center or the Southwest Freeway to Uptown, those buses would have wound up stuck in same traffic with everyone else,” he said. “I really think this is a game-changer for transit in one of our most important job centers.”

City Councilman Oliver Pennington, who represents the area, said Greater Houston Partnership data show there are almost 200,000 jobs in his district, 91 percent of which are filled by workers living elsewhere, creating “a terrific traffic nightmare.” The proposed transit plan would make the area more competitive and more livable, he said.

“I’m a firm believer that we need some things to show what a great city we are. I think it will not only serve the people, but it will show the world that Houston is doing things for its citizens. We need some physical evidence of the kind of life that we enjoy here.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think this is the first mention I’ve seen of elevated bus lanes for the West Loop, which would enable the park and ride buses to avoid the traffic of the Loop and thus be more attractive to potential riders. It certainly makes sense to expand the park and ride network into Uptown, and I do think it will be heavily used once that happens. Having the support of CM Pennington makes approval of the TIRZ expansion very likely, though I’m sure there will be some lively discussion given the Memorial Park concerns that have been raised.

Expansion of the TIRZ is still a necessary condition for any of this to go forward. Funding for this plan is dependent in part on a grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council, which has not yet approved said funding but could take the matter up once soon.

The proposals could come for consideration before the regional group’s Transportation Policy Council – the body responsible for allocating the federal grants – on May 24 or June 28, said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s transportation director.

“The council allocated around $400 million in grants at its April 26 meeting. The projects in question were not slated for action, but money was held back so these projects can be considered,” Clark said.

Before the proposals go for a TPC vote, an H-GAC advisory committee will consult with the Texas Department of Transportation about one phase of the plan that would involve linking bus service on Post Oak to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center, Clark said.

Current ideas include creating a grade-separated bus way above the main lanes of Loop 610 that would be connected to a Post Oak transit line, he said.

“Because this (the connection between Post Oak and the Northwest Transit Center) is so integral to the overall plan and its anticipated benefits, the Technical Advisory Committee wants to do further study,” Clark said.

Again, I feel confident that this will go through, but it’s fine if H-GAC wants to take its time and think about it some.

One other point to stress about all this is that by extending Metro’s park and ride network into Uptown, which includes the BRT lanes on Post Oak, we are also building for even more expansion and connections in the future. The Westpark transit center would obviously be of use when the University line finally gets built. If there is ever a commuter rail line along US 290, the Northwest transit center, which is the northern endpoint of this project, would be the gateway from it into Uptown. Adding a node to a network has value beyond the node itself. This plan has a lot to offer for Uptown, but it’s potentially very good for the big picture as well.

Biking to transit

KUHF has an update.

Metro’s Strategic Planning Committee got an update on the “Bike and Ride” Access Study. Metro says it wants to make it easier for Houstonians to combine bike and bus travel.

Metro officials say between 10,000 and 15,000 people every month bring their bikes aboard when they use the bus. Every bus has a rack on front that can hold two bikes.

Initial results of a survey by Metro and the Houston-Galveston Area Council show many more riders would like to bring their bike on a bus or train, but they don’t know how transit fits into their travel choices.

Metro board member Christof Spieler says the goal of the study is to find ways to hook up bike trails with transit centers.

“And what those bike trails end up being, is they end up being ways to extend our light rail system. If you live in the Heights you might not have a light rail station, but you’ll have a bike trail that will lead you directly to a light rail station.”

I’ve discussed the bikes on trains issue before, and as noted in my first link remain hopeful that as the new light rail lines are completed and new rail cars are purchased that Metro will extend the hours in which you are allowed to bring your bike onto a train to include rush hour. The figures monthly bike boardings on Metro buses is in line with what Metro had previously reported. It’s a non-trivial amount, but there is surely room for that number to grow. More train service, more bike-on-train hours, and better bus service should help with that. I don’t know if anyone has articulated a goal for bike-to-transit usage – 20,000 combined bike-on-bus/train boardings per month? Thirty thousand? Fifty thousand? – but we should have one, and we should have a strategy for how to reach that goal. I hope that subject comes up as Metro and H-GAC evaluate the results of the survey, which you can still take.

The day pass is back

From Metro:

The METRO Board of Directors [Thursday] took the first step to bring back the “day pass.” The Board voted to commit $175,000 to adapt METRO’s Q Card system so a $3.00 extended “day pass” feature can be accommodated later this year. The action allows METRO to modify an existing contract with ACS/Xerox so software can be adjusted to accept this fare payment option.

The action, at [Thursday]’s monthly METRO Board meeting, follows requests from the riding public and is a necessary step in reintroducing the popular fare which was discontinued in 2008 when the METRO Q Card was introduced.

METRO board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, “This is great news for our current patrons and an incentive for new ridership. We were constrained by the software that is used in our fare collection system and will be able to get past that with this action. We’ve been pushing for this as a board and will be delighted to offer the option to riders again soon.”

The extended “day pass” is expected to be reintroduced later this year when the software has been modified and the changes implemented in METRO’s revenue collection system.

See here for some background. This is a good move, and should help them with their stated goal of increased ridership. Passes work with both buses and the light rail, so if you rode the bus to work you can take the train to lunch at no extra cost. While this is obviously intended to give a discount to frequent riders as well as to encourage more ridership, it might wind up costing a bit less than originally estimated because not everyone who buys a day pass may actually use it often enough to achieve that discount. You’d need to take at least three trips to make your day pass pay for itself. Last year, I was in the San Jose/Sunnyvale (*) area for some training at Symantec, and used the light rail system there to travel between my hotel and the Symantec campus. I bought a day pass each day, which equaled the cost of three rides, partly because it was easier to make one purchase and meant one fewer receipt to keep track of, and partly because I might have wanted to go out in the evening. In the end, I never did go out after returning to my hotel after class – though the train stopped right in front of the Symantec campus, it was about a mile from my hotel, and one round-trip walk between the hotel and the station was enough for me. It’s entirely plausible to me that some number of people will buy Metro day passes intending to take extra trips during their day, then not actually taking them.

Not addressed by this press release is whether Metro will bring back some of the other volume discounts it used to offer, such as weekly and monthly passes. I sent an inquiry to Metro about this, and the response I got was that there were no plans to do that at this time. If this is something you would like to see them bring back, or at least consider bringing back in some form, I recommend you contact Metro via whatever means appeals to you and let them know about it.

(*) Note: That’s Sunnyvale, not Sunnydale. BIG difference.

Metro’s bus strategy

We know that the 2012 Metro referendum was intended to help Metro boost ridership by improving and expanding its bus service. Metro Board member Christof Spieler explains what that means.

First, in many cases, transit doesn’t go to the right places. Over time, Houston’s population has shifted as the urban core has redeveloped, older suburbs have changed, and new areas have appeared. But the local bus system, with routes that trace their origins to Houston’s streetcar network of the 1920s, has not changed. Nor has it adapted to a city that now has multiple job centers: It connects well to downtown and the Texas Medical Center, but not as well to Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

Second, our bus system discourages new riders. Where routes are frequent and clear, as on West­heimer, buses are packed. But buses on most routes are infrequent, so you need to plan your life around their schedules. They’re complicated, jumping from one street to another and branching to multiple destinations rather than following straightforward, predictable paths. They’re also hard to understand: Nothing at a typical bus stop tells you which destinations a route serves, which direction a bus is going, or how frequent the buses are.

The system works well for people who make the same trip at the same time every day. For everyone else, it can be intimidating. As a frequent bus rider, I understand why people who want to use public transportation can’t figure out how to use the local bus system.

So, we are starting with a blank sheet to create a more effective bus system. Rather than follow past practices of just tweaking today’s routes, we’re going to look at where people live and where people work, and then design the system that serves them best.

The first step is defining what our goals are. This isn’t simple. It appears obvious that we want to move as many people as possible and serve as many places as possible. But those are actually contradictory goals. To cover as much area as possible, we would need to reduce the bus frequency in the areas with the highest number of potential riders. This dramatically reduces ridership. These are not easy policy trade-offs, but we need to acknowledge them and make thoughtful decisions.

We can’t make those decisions without involving the public. We’ll talk with the community to learn what their priorities are, then develop a network to address those priorities. A task force representing neighborhoods, employment centers, educational institutions, health care facilities, local governments and other stakeholders will drive the process. At every step, we’ll have opportunities for public participation – including surveys and online forums.

This is all very sensible, and if you get a chance to hear Christof talk about this stuff in person as I have, I guarantee you’ll come away a believer. I’d like to see some metrics established along the way so we’ll know what Metro’s goals are for ridership and how they’re doing with them. If you get the chance, try to attend one or more of the upcoming engagement sessions, since this affects you whether you ride buses or just benefit from the lower traffic that would result from more people riding them.

On a related note, the Chron approves of Uptown’s plan for a BRT line.

Without traffic solutions, Uptown’s new offices and residences will undermine the area’s livability. So it makes perfect sense that Uptown Houston is taking matters into its own hands, and we’re pleased that Metro is on board – viewing the plan as a partner rather than a competitor.

The $177.5 million project will create an exclusive right-of-way for large buses that will act more like light rail, without the rail, running from the planned Westpark Transit Center near U.S. 59 up to the Northwest Transit Center at Interstate 10, traveling along feeder roads and an expanded Post Oak Boulevard. These paths could even eventually be upgraded to rail.

Linking the system with the Metro transit centers will provide some much needed transportation options for Uptown commuters, who are distinctly underserved by Metro’s park-and-ride system. Uptown has 15 percent of Houston’s Class A office space, but only three percent of Metro’s daily park-and-ride buses.

See here for the background. I hope Uptown makes some accommodation for bicycles on the BRT vehicles, and in general as part of a balanced solution for dealing with all that traffic. And as the Chron notes, I hope the completion of this line serves as a catalyst and a pressure point for getting the University Line going.

The return of the day pass

Remember the day pass? One fare, and you could ride the bus and/or light rail all day? Metro is thinking about bringing it back.

After a five-year hiatus, the daypass may soon return as an option for Metro bus and train riders.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is studying what it would take to reinstitute single-day passes, either on popular Q cards or as stand-alone tickets for all of its buses and trains.

Any change in fares or creation of a daypass would need more study, Metro officials said, as well as approval of the agency’s board. Members of a board committee said Wednesday they’d like to bring the passes back.

Metro discontinued use of daypasses in 2008 to simplify fares. Many riders lamented the loss.

[…]

The plans discussed Wednesday assumed a daypass would cost twice as much as a single-ride fare.

For riders, daypasses could save costs and encourage more transit use, officials said. Someone who rides park and ride already pays twice the base fare, $2 to $4.50, depending on where the ride originates. So using a bus or the light rail line at lunchtime or to go to a meeting would be essentially free, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

The passes would be available via the automated ticket machines at rail stops and other places that sell bus tickets. The Q card used by 70 percent of bus riders also could potentially be charged as a daypass.

Additional opportunities to sell passes also were discussed, including on buses and at hotels, where tourists could be encouraged to hop on board.

It’s unfortunate that the Intermodality archives appear to have been removed, because I know Christof Spieler was a critic of Metro’s decision to discontinue the day pass. I’d have liked to review his reasoning from back then, but alas. One of Metro’s stated goals these days, articulated as a reason for pushing the referendum on last year’s ballot, is to increase ridership. I believe this will facilitate that, and the upfront cost for redoing the fare system is relatively small ($1.7 million) and would hopefully be at least partially recouped by higher ridership. Ad revenues would more than pay for this, too. I’m not seeing any strong reason not to do this, so I hope Metro will move forward with it.

Metro moving forward with advertising

This has been in the works for a long time.

Depending on what Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decide regarding a new revenue plan, your light rail trip could end at the Taco Bell Station, or some similarly named stop.

Officials in early 2013 are expected to receive more information on a revenue plan exploring potential corporate partnerships and advertising. Board members, at a meeting in November, stressed they are considering options carefully, knowing any talk of adding ads to the sides of buses will raise concerns.

“The only reason why we are considering this is because there are potential benefits to our riders and the public,” board member Christof Spieler said during a recent committee meeting.

Allowing advertising could generate up to about $10 million a year for the agency, which has a roughly $300 million operating budget.

Limiting ads to corporate sponsorships, such as renaming routes or lines, and minimal branding might bring in about half that sum, according to analysts with the consulting firm IMG Worldwide.

Critics of advertising proliferation in Houston worry that if Metro opens the door to some advertising, it will set back anti-billboard efforts.

“This is a city where you form your impressions through a windshield,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, a group focused on eliminating what it considers visual blight in the city.

“Houston has a great tradition of keeping the city free of billboards and of visual clutter,” said Ray Hankamer, a Scenic Houston board member. “This is the camel getting its nose under the tent.”

Like I said, this has been in the pipe for a long time. Last discussion of it that I’m aware of was in October of 2010, with a story from earlier that year referring to 2005. It came up before then in November of 2008. I have been a proponent of this all along, first suggesting that Metro put ads in its light rail cars in 2007. I respect Scenic Houston and I support their work, but I disagree with them on this. I don’t see it as being anything like billboards, which had been permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. Putting signs on the sides of buses, or on bus shelters, isn’t going to change your view. The “naming rights” concept is new and I’ll admit to having a bit of unease about it, but in a world where every stadium, arena, and concert venue is named for this corporation or that utility, it’s hard to get too worked up about in. As I’ve browsed my archives on this, it seems like the reluctance to go forward has been one part resistance from City Council, and one part disinterest from outgoing CEO George Greanias. Neither Council members nor the interim Metro CEO were quoted in this story, so we’ll have to see what those potential obstacles look like this time around. For the record, I hope Metro goes forward with it. It makes good sense, and if they’re serious about building the University Line, then every extra dollar matters.

Buses and trains, not buses or trains

I have a lot of emotion about this, but I’m still working through how to express it.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials say the agency is on firmer financial footing than it has been in years. They plan to add shelters at 100 bus stops in the next year, replace aging buses with larger and smaller vehicles in some cases and rethink how the Houston area is served by bus.

The refocus is a shift for the agency, as rail has dominated the political discussion since a 2003 vote for transit improvements that included five light rail lines, three of which are under construction now.

“What got focused on and what got done was the rail component,” said George Greanias, Metro’s president and CEO. “That has not always worked to the benefit of the system. … We’ve not focused as much as we should on buses.”

Metro board members and local officials, notably Houston Mayor Annise Parker, lauded the chance to correct years of underinvestment in the bus system.

“They began paring back on the bus system, dropping off the lower ridership routes, rerouting the buses, saving money, saving money so they could do rail,” Parker said Wednesday.

[…]

Around the same time Metro placed the referendum in front of voters, officials also created a strategic planning committee. One of the committee’s main tasks will be to determine how Metro’s 1,300-square-mile area can best be served by buses, including how to tie them to the rail lines, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it is steel wheels or rubber wheels, it is all transit and it needs to work for the rider,” Spieler said. “What I would like to see is a better job of putting the whole network together.”

Some of that paring back of the bus system was necessary and correct. The main advantage to buses as transit is their lack of infrastructure, which thus enables routes to be redrawn at will and as needed to cope with shifting populations. Metro did a good job of identifying low-performing bus routes, but it hasn’t done nearly enough to improve the bus system and attract new riders to it. Part of their thinking behind this referendum and the “no incremental sales tax revenue on rail” deal, as expressed by Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia in the interview he and Spieler did with me, is that by working to get Metro’s overall numbers up they can build more public approval of the system as a whole, which will benefit future rail expansion. It feels a bit like a bank shot, but the bus system does have unaddressed needs, and as I said before taking care of those needs will remove a key pillar of the anti-rail contingent’s argument against more rail. I still think a big part of the problem here is that those who are the most vociferously anti-rail are not equivalently pro-bus, or pro-transit in general. The focus in this region has always been on roads uber alles, and getting any change in that focus has been hard fought and very incremental. Still, I continue to believe that there is a lot of potential for moving the region’s transportation and mobility forward if the stakeholders can agree to work together for once. Metro needs to maintain its commitment to fulfilling the 2003 referendum and building the University Line, and we all need to tell our elected officials, loudly and often, that we expect them to work with Metro to make that happen. Nothing about this referendum should change that.

All the interviews for 2012

As we begin early voting for the November election, here are all the interviews I conducted for candidates who are on the ballot as well as for the referenda. These include interviews that were done for the primary as well as the ones done after the primary. I hope you found them useful.

Senate: Paul SadlerWebMP3

CD02: Jim DoughertyWebMP3

CD07: James CargasWebMP3

CD10 – Tawana CadienWebMP3

CD14: Nick LampsonWebMP3

CD20: Joaquin CastroWebMP3

CD21: Candace DuvalWebMP3

CD23: Pete GallegoWebMP3

CD27: Rose Meza HarrisonWebMP3

CD29: Rep. Gene GreenWebMP3

CD33: Marc VeaseyWebMP3

CD36: Max MartinWebMP3

SBOE6: Traci JensenWebMP3

SD10: Sen. Wendy DavisWebMP3

SD25: John CourageWebMP3

HD23: Rep. Craig EilandWebMP3

HD26: Vy NguyenWebMP3

HD127: Cody PogueWebMP3

HD131: Rep. Alma AllenWebMP3

HD134: Ann JohnsonWebMP3

HD137: Gene WuWebMP3

HD144: Mary Ann PerezWebMP3

HD146: Rep. Borris MilesWebMP3

HD147: Rep. Garnet ColemanWebMP3

HD150: Brad NealWebMP3

Harris County Sheriff: Sheriff Adrian GarciaWebMP3

Harris County District Attorney: Mike AndersonWebMP3

Harris County Attorney: Vince RyanWebMP3

Harris County Tax Assessor: Ann Harris BennettWebMP3

HCDE Position 3, At Large: Diane TrautmanWebMP3

HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1: Erica LeeWebMP3

Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Sean HammerleWebMP3

Constable, Precinct 1: Alan RosenWebMP3

HISD Bond Referendum: Interview with Terry GrierMP3

City of Houston Bond and Charter Referenda: Interview with Mayor Annise ParkerMP3

HCC Bond Referendum: Interview with Richard SchechterMP3

Metro Referendum: Interviews with David Crossley, Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler, Sue Lovell, and County Commissioner Steve Radack

Interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler

Continuing the discussion of the Metro referendum, today’s interview is with Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia, and Board Member Christof Spieler. Garcia originally proposed a referendum that would continue the GMP but freeze revenues for the member entities at 2014 levels, with Metro getting all of the revenue increases above that. After an alternate measure was put forth by the Board that would have reallocated GMP funds in a way that primarily benefited Houston and caused loud complaints from the county and the smaller cities, he brokered a deal to adopt the current ballot language, with the proviso that Metro would get half of the sales tax revenue increase but could not use it on light rail construction. Spieler is a longtime transit advocate who was appointed to the Board along with Garcia by Mayor Parker. He was the only Board member to vote against the substitute ballot language. Here’s the interview:

Garcia Spieler MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

UPDATE: In the interview, Spieler refers to a board meeting “this Friday”. The interview was conducted on September 19, so the meeting in question has already occurred. My apologies for the confusion.

Houston Tomorrow versus Metro

David Crossley:

On November 6, you will be asked to vote on whether to stop expansion of light rail transit service in Houston.

If you think that’s a terrible idea, you must vote No.

If you do, you will be going up against some very powerful people and institutions.

But that’s what voters do, isn’t it? Be the deciders?

You’d be saying you’re opposed to elected officials and developers replacing 1,200 square miles of Houston farms and wilderness with sprawl.

But you’d be for a thriving, livable Houston region that people from around the world would want to live in to work, learn, and play in a healthy, happy, prosperous environment.

In the end, we citizens will decide this.

No Means More Transit. Vote No For More Transit.

They’re not alone in opposing the referendum.

Houston Tomorrow, along with the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Better Houston are starting a social media-driven campaign to get people to vote No to the METRO referendum. A no vote, they say, would allow METRO to keep all of its sales tax money and use it however they want.

METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia says it’s true that right now there’s no money for light rail. But he says the referendum will allow METRO to pay its current debt, which would allow them to borrow money for an additional light rail line.

“If we did not have this referendum and it did not pass, it would just be even longer before we could take on another rail project because we would need to do these two items — increase the ridership and pay down the debt to have greater capacity.”

I agree with what Chairman Garcia says. I’m going to vote for Metro’s referendum.

I do agree that this isn’t the best possible deal Metro could have gotten. Garcia’s original proposal to freeze the GMP payments at 2014 levels would have been better, but it got no support on the Board. The Houston Tomorrow story about the Board’s vote for the revised plan shows what Metro did in fact get.

The Metro Board on Aug. 3 had approved a rough draft for a referendum asking voters directly to approve allowing Metro to keep all of its sale tax revenue.

Board member Christof Spieler said he voted against the referendum language because it does not give enough money to transit, but admitted “this is probably the best deal we can get in the political climate of 2012.”

Not the best possible deal, but the best deal possible. The question you have to ask is whether this deal is better than the alternative of voting it down and thus ending the GMP. If it were to actually happen that the GMP would expire and Metro would get the full penny of sales tax, then clearly the answer is No. But what are the odds that will be the case? Chairman Garcia said after the original referendum that merely re-apportioned the GMP among member entities was proposed that the Board would create a new GMP, thus ensuring that the member entities would continue to get those funds in some form. From the KUHF story:

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who appoints five of METRO’s nine board members, says even if people vote against the referendum, METRO will likely continue sharing its sales tax revenue in a less formal way.

“If the referendum fails, the METRO board can decide anything they want to do with that money and I would fully expect them to commit, going forward, to continuing the general mobility payments in some form. It is naive and, frankly, foolish to simply assume that if it were voted down suddenly 100 percent of that money is spent exclusively on building rail in Houston.”

If that happens, David Crossley wonders why METRO is holding the referendum in the first place.

“They could just say to the voters here’s mud in your eye, just forget it, we don’t agree with your vote and we’re going to do what we want. But if the voters firmly say no, it’s a little hard for me to see how METRO says never mind that vote.”

Metro is required to have the vote, as Crossley knows. If the GMP as is ends, then the money goes to Metro, and the Board is presumably free to do with it as it sees fit. All of the member entities will be interested in spending some of that money on road-related projects. Maybe it’ll be ad hoc, maybe it’ll be some designated portion of the budget, who knows? Maybe that would turn out to be better for transit than Metro eventually getting about 82% of the sales tax revenue, as would be the case under the revised GMP, but it’s far from guaranteed. The bird in hand here is worth quite a bit. The contention that if the voters reject this deal it means they must have wanted more money to go to Metro is a bit of a stretch, too. All we can say for sure it that they didn’t like this particular deal. Maybe they would have preferred to keep the GMP exactly as it is now. Maybe enough people will have voted No because they don’t like Metro and didn’t pay any attention to the details. I wish I felt confident that the public would vote to give Metro more money, but as I said before, I don’t. Given that, I think this is a decent deal.

OK, but what about the restriction that Metro can only use the new funds for non-rail projects? For one thing, that’s only applicable to the extra funds Metro would be getting from revenue growth above what it would gotten under the current setup. Every other dollar Metro gets in it would still be free to use as it saw fit. Having more money available from one source to spend on bus service may well enable it to spend a bit less from the other, which could then be used on rail. But even if it doesn’t do that, the fact remains that Metro does need to spend more on bus service. It has taken money from bus service to spend on rail. Reversing that would allow Metro to fulfill the promise of improved bus service that was also in the 2003 referendum while taking a key talking point away from its critics. Chairman Garcia notes that by increasing overall system ridership via better bus service, that increases public support for Metro as it works towards getting the University and Uptown lines built. All of these are good things.

Finally, one cannot overlook crass political calculations. It was easy to see a path to defeating the original referendum, as the only entity that was likely to be happy with it was the city of Houston. Harris County, the small cities, and transit advocates were all unhappy with it, and I believe that would have been a big enough coalition to defeat the measure. I was prepared to vote against it. Here, it’s just transit advocates that are unhappy. It’s far from clear to me that they can muster up enough support to defeat this version of the referendum, especially if there’s a concerted effort in favor of it. One could argue that instead of working to defeat the referendum, it would be better to work on Metro to spend the extra money it will get, and the extra money it will have from its unrestricted sources as debt service gets addressed, in a way that transit advocates think is best. I’m sure they’ll be doing that anyway after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, but my way would probably be less awkward.

Basically, I don’t see the upside to voting against this referendum. I see the case for it, but not the case against it. I wish the referendum would have been better, but that fight is over. This is what we have to work with, and it’s good enough for me.

Metro board passes amended GMP referendum

More consensus this time.

The board voted 8-1 for a measure that, if approved by voters, would continue the so-called General Mobility Program in its current form, allocating a quarter of Metro’s 1-cent sales tax to Harris County, Houston and 14 small cities in Metro’s service area. The local governments use these funds for road and bridge projects.

However, the payments would be capped at 2014 levels, and any growth in revenues from October 2014 through December 2025 would be split evenly between Metro and the other jurisdictions. Another referendum on whether to continue the payments would be required prior to Dec. 31, 2025.

If voters reject the ballot measure, the payments would stop and Metro would retain all its sales tax proceeds.

See here for some background. Christof Spieler was the lone No vote on the amended referendum. I had the opportunity to hear Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia speak about the new referendum after the board voted on it, and he said that this agreement would mean an extra $400 million for Metro from 2014 through 2025, which Metro would use to pay down debt as well as to provide more buses and bus shelters, with the aim of increasing overall ridership and thus broadening support for transit and Metro overall. Garcia noted that retiring some of the debt that Metro now carries would free up other funds for rail – he certainly agreed that the University line is critical to the overall system, that he thought the sales tax projections might be low given the starting point of a sluggish economy, and that the Metro board can call for another referendum to revisit the GMP allocation again any time before 2025. This isn’t ideal, but it’s better than what was originally proposed in that it will actually provide more money for Metro, while likely avoiding a contentious campaign. There’s definitely something to that. We’ll see how it plays out from here.

Keep Moving Houston Forward PAC poll on Metro and GMP

Yesterday I wrote about a poll commissioned by Houstonians for Responsible Growth on Metro and the General Mobility Program. That poll suggested that any changes to the GMP would be difficult for Metro to get, especially in the face of a negative campaign against it. Later in the day, I received the following in my inbox:

A telephone survey of 600 likely November voters recently conducted in the METRO service area shows that voters support a potential ballot measure ensuring continued mobility payments by METRO to local cities and the county, fixed at the 2014 level, by a margin of 67 percent to 24 percent.

The poll was commissioned by Keep Houston Moving Forward PAC, a group formed to pass a ballot measure this fall that will determine the future of the mobility payments.

METRO’s board is currently considering a number of options for the ballot measure; the option tested in this poll is a compromise put forward by METRO Chair Gilbert Garcia between those who want to discontinue the payments entirely and use the funds entirely for transit, and those who want the payments to continue without alteration.

“Voters in the METRO service area support safe and reliable public transit to relieve traffic congestion but are also concerned about the condition of their streets. The proposal we tested is a fair compromise that has strong voter support,” said Billy Briscoe, a spokesperson for Keep Houston Moving Forward PAC.

Here’s the poll memo that was included as an image in the email:

This is all the information I have on the poll. The HRG poll initially showed plurality support for capping the GMP payments in 2014, so this result is not a surprise. The higher level of support for that in this poll can be explained by differences in the sample, differences in how the question was phrased, random variation, or some combination of all three. The main thing it tells me is that it’s highly unlikely Metro will present an up-or-down vote on keeping the GMP as is or doing away with it. I mean, if even the PAC supporting Metro’s efforts didn’t poll the question – or did poll it but didn’t like the result enough to release it – that says a lot. At this point I’d guess the frontrunners are a cap-or-keep-as-is question or something more involved like the Spieler proposal. We’ll know more on Friday when the Metro board discusses the proposals that have been put before it. Houston Politics has more.

HRG poll data on Metro and the GMP

I mentioned on Friday that there had been a poll commissioned to measure voter attitudes towards Metro and the General Mobility Program. That poll was commissioned by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and Joshua Sanders was kind enough to send me the polling data later in the day, which you can see here. On the key questions, a sizable majority says they would vote to keep the GMP, with a small plurality saying they would vote to put a cap on it. However, after being given what is known as “directed” information about Metro, a majority would vote against the cap, and attitudes towards Metro become sharply negative. The point to understand is that a negative campaign against Metro, which for all the good it has done in the George Greanias/Gilbert Garcia era is still not very far removed from the bad old days, would be successful and would likely do a lot of damage to them. You can relish or decry the thought of such a campaign, but none of this should be a surprise. People may like the idea of transit and walking to work and all that good stuff, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote that way.

You may say “But Metro and transit supports can fight back with their own campaign!” That’s true, they can, and if someone wants to show me a poll with some differently “directed” messages in it, we can see what the potential for such a campaign may be. But where would funding for such a campaign come from, and how would it counter the villianization of Metro itself in a pro-GMP campaign? Those who want to keep the GMP as is have an easy target. They can make Metro the bad guy in all this, and it would be effective. What’s the strategy to counter that? Sure, there are plenty of bad guys on the anti-transit side, starting with Steve Radack and John Culberson, but the connection between them and the virtues of spending transit money on road repair is a lot more tenuous and harder to explain than “Metro hasn’t kept its promises and doesn’t deserve more money”. If you can’t see the train wreck coming (pun intended), I think you’re fooling yourself. Read through the slides, look at all the ammunition available to the other side, and tell me you don’t see it.

If it were up to me, I’d be happy to phase out or at least cap the GMP payments. But I have no desire to engage in a fight that looks like a sure loser from the get go, and I suspect that Metro will be thinking along similar lines. That’s why I like Christof Spieler’s proposal and think that it could be the basis for a compromise people can live with, or at least won’t be motivated to spend a bunch of money to defeat. It doesn’t move things forward as much as I’d like, but I’d much rather take smaller steps forward than risk taking big steps backwards. Your mileage may vary, and if you’d rather go all in on capping or killing the GMP, I certainly sympathize. I just don’t see what the path to victory for you is. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is the wisest course to take.

Here come the GMP proposals

At Metro’s board meeting yesterday, trustees presented their proposed ballot referenda for the General Mobility Program.

I still hope we get to have all this some day

“I’m anxious to see the outcome just like everybody else,” said Chairman Gilbert Garcia, before anyone offered their specifics.

As it turned out, city-appointee Garcia was one of only two trustees calling for a vote on capping the GMP at 2014 levels. However, Garcia’s proposal also allowed for the option of voting to extend the program until 2030.

City-appointee Allen Watson called for a vote to cap GMP until September 2030, but sought $200 million bond authority for partnerships on non-rail transit.

Dwight Jefferson, a city appointee, said while he, personally, favors a compromise, public comments had led him to call for an “up or down vote” on whether the 25 percent of 1 cent in tax revenues should still go to the partnering entities for road-related projects.

The two other city trustees, Carrin Patman and Christof Spieler offered proposals that would extend the GMP payments until 2016 and 2019, respectively. Another referendum would be held prior to the new expirations.

The joint proposal from the multi-cities trustees Burt Ballanfant and Cindy Siegel, and Harris County appointees Gary Stobb and Lisa Castaneda called for a vote on whether the 25 percent of 1 cent in tax revenues should still go to the partnering entities for road-related projects or be retained by Metro.

Houston Tomorrow put out a report from the meeting as well. Spieler’s proposal, which you can see here, deserves a closer look. For some bizarre reason when I copy from that PDF it adds a line break after every word, so let me paraphrase:

1. Extend the GMP at 25% of Metro’s sales tax through 2019, with each entity getting 25% of the revenue collected within its jurisdiction. I missed that last clause at first glance, but it’s a big deal and quite possibly a dealbreaker for the member cities, since it would benefit Houston and Harris County at their expense.

2. Metro would get another $640 million in bonding authority, the same as they got in the 2003 referendum, based on the 75% of sales tax allocated to transit and contingent on Metro being able to swing it financially.

3. Metro would continue work on the University Line from Wheeler Station west, with roadwork, utilities, and right of way being funded from Houston’s GMP allocation.

There would also be no decrease in bus service or increase in bus or rail fares through 2019. What I like about this proposal is that it gives Metro something in return for continuing to disburse 25% of its sales tax revenue. It allows Metro to take advantage of historically low interest rates, and gives them a way to work around John Culberson. The smaller cities won’t like it, and it’s unclear to me how Harris County would react. The city may balk at being required to commit any of its GMP funds to this project, even though the University Line and the Uptown Line that it would enable are keys to its own mobility future. It’s also unclear how the politics of this will play out once ballot language has been decided and sides have been chosen. One poll suggests that Metro would have an uphill battle to cap the GMP. This is in conflict with the latest Houston Area Survey that showed an upswing in support for transit, but supporting something in the abstract while opposing the specifics is nothing unusual, as anyone familiar with the polling on “the deficit” can attest. (I should have full data on that poll shortly and plan to discuss it more detail when I do.) If Spieler’s proposal gains traction, there’s certainly room within it for compromise.

Spieler’s proposal is one of many, and the board put off discussing them all until August 3, so we won’t know what we’re going to get on the ballot until then. As I understand it, it’s also possible for the board to simply re-authorize the GMP for another number of years and put off having a referendum until that time. The range of possible outcomes is still pretty wide, in other words. What’s your preference?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

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.

Metro sets the schedule

Metro will take some time and get some feedback before settling on the language for its November referendum.

I sure hope we get to have all this some day

Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia on Thursday laid out for the board what he called a “tight time frame” for a possible November 6 voter referendum on the future of General Mobility Program.

According to the plan, community meetings would be held through July 21 with any proposed options from board members submitted for analysis by staff at the July 26 meeting. That would leave the board with an Aug. 17 date for approving the wording on the ballot and calling for an election, just ahead of the Aug. 20 legal cutoff date.

“It is critical. It is vital. I think we all know the backdrop that we are facing,” Garcia said.

[…]

Recently, Garcia has called for the GMP to be frozen at 2014 levels with the agency retaining any increases in revenues for use on mass transit concerns. However, in asking board members for more options, it appears there is still a consensus to be reached.

Several multicity mayors have already voiced opposition to the freeze proposal and hired a lobbyist to oppose the move. They say their cities depend on the money for street maintenance, and losing the funds would be unfair since the 23 area cities that don’t belong to Metro can retain that penny of sales tax.

During the meeting, board member Christof Spieler said the general mobility payments amounted to a “massive subsidy” to at least some of the participating entities.

You can see the Chairman’s Report to the Metro board with the proposed schedule here. There will be community meetings through July 21, and ballot language will be selected on August 3. See here for the context on Spieler’s remark. I support freezing the GMP – I’d be fine with reducing it as well, but I daresay freezing it is the best Metro will get. I’ll be very interested to hear what kind of feedback they get at those community meetings.

Metro comes to a fork in the road

Which way will they go? It’s up to them, and it’s up to us.

I sure hope we get to have all this some day

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is preparing for a referendum, likely to be on the November ballot, asking voters to decide whether to put millions more of their sales tax dollars toward transit or continue diverting part of it for road projects in their cities and Harris County.

Metro, per the 1978 referendum that created it, receives most of its funding from a 1 percent sales tax levied within its service area, which includes much of unincorporated Harris County, the city of Houston and 14 smaller cities. Since a 1988 referendum, however, a quarter of that 1 percent tax has gone to these partner governments for “general mobility” projects, such as building or fixing streets, roads, bridges, sidewalks, hike and bike trails, traffic signals, street lights and landscaping or drainage associated with road projects.

When these general mobility payments last were extended in 2003, the ballot language required another referendum within 10 years to decide whether to renew the arrangement.

The upcoming vote puts Metro, whose board must craft the ballot item, in an unusual position.

The agency has many plans for which it could use the full 1 percent sales tax, from new bus shelters to the long-planned but unfunded University and Uptown light rail lines.

The partner governments that appoint Metro’s nine board members, however, have come to rely on their quarter share of the sales tax. By September 2014, when current contracts expire, an estimated $2.7 billion will have been diverted from transit for general mobility work.

As board member Christof Spieler notes, the road work Metro provides for is valuable and needed and there is a balance to be struck, but for sure transit has come out on the short end of that deal for a long time. David Crossley is advocating that all of the sales tax allocation go to Metro so it can all be spent on transit. The results of the latest Houston Area Survey suggest there would be popular support for this, Paul Bettencourt’s amateur mind-reading notwithstanding. I rather doubt the Metro board will be willing to go whole hog like that, but for sure they need to push for a greater share for transit. I’d greatly prefer the Crossley plan to the status quo, and I think at a minimum half of the current allocation to cities needs to go back to Metro. We’ll see what they decide.

Bye-bye, intermodal center

In the process of writing off some bad assets in what one hopes is the last ritual cleansing of the Frank Wilson era, Metro says good-bye to something we hadn’t heard of in awhile.

Metro has given up on what it calls an intermodal terminal just north of downtown at Main and Burnett streets on the planned North rail line despite having spent $41 million on it.

“We’re not going to put the public’s money into monuments. We’re going to put it into transit services,” Metro President and CEO George Greanias said.

The design for the terminal included bus bays, a kiss-and-ride area, light rail, commuter rail and possibly a Metro RideStore, restrooms, food service, newsstands and gift shops.

Greanias said there will be a light rail stop at Main and Burnett, but it has not been determined whether the station will serve other modes of transit. He added that the now-shelved design called for a facility that would have cost far too much to maintain and operate.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years after Christof, then still in his pre-Board days, noted that the intermodal center “has been shelved (for now, at least)”. The last bit of news about it since then came two months later, when Swamplot found a picture of the proposed design, which as I look at it today reminds me of a curvier and less-pointy version of the new Dynamo stadium. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. In any event, those of us who remember the intermodal center now bid it adieu.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”

[…]

Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

Yet another threat to light rail expansion

Great.

The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities – not just Houston but cities across the country – that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing – and not everyone realizes it.”

Actually, I have no trouble believing that the Republican Congress will act in bad faith on this. They don’t care. I didn’t include John Cornyn’s crocodile tears quote about how they’d just love to honor their commitments if only they had the money for it, but you can expect that to be the prevailing attitude.

Having said that, there is some evidence that the issue is overstated. The RSC’s proposal isn’t universally accepted by Republicans, and there are Republicans in Congress that support high speed rail, which is a different kettle of fish but which might translate to support for other forms of rail as well. And of course, the Senate gets a say, the President has a veto pen, and the Democratic phrase of the moment is infrastructure, by which they mean “jobs”. So I’m not going to panic just yet. But as with everything else lately, we’ll have to do it the hard way if we want to get anything done.

In the meantime, the Metro board has voted to increase the capital budget for rail this year, having completed several requirements for doing so, and pointed out that suspending work until it has all of the promised federal funds in hand presents risks and carries costs of its own.

If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.

“If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we’re stopped today, we’d be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we’d be walking away from everything we invested already, we’d be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University,” Greanias said. “That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, ‘We’ll move forward prudently, managing the risk.’ ”

[…]

Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.

“The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, ‘Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,’ ” said Metro board member Christof Spieler. “Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access.”

They say they have a Plan B to scale things back in the event of a worst-case, RSC-approved budget. Let’s hope they never have to use it.

Garcia writes about the New Metro

Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia wrote an op-ed for the Sunday Chron that outlined what Metro did in 2010 and plans to do in 2011. If you’ve already listened to my interview with Garcia and Board member Christof Spieler, what he has to say will be familiar. And if you haven’t listened to it, you might want to do so after reading his op-ed, since we didn’t have to worry about space limitations and thus covered a lot more ground in it. As things stand right now, the main story for 2011 will be action by the FTA on the original $900 million New Starts grants, and on the University line; that latter is also dependent on Congressional authorization of the funds in the next budget. Metro has done a lot to put its house in order, at a time when a lot of the things it depends on are out of its control. We’ll see what happens.

NPR on LRT

Nice story on NPR about the expansion of light rail around the country. Pretty much everywhere you look in large urban areas, there’s light rail, construction of light rail, or plans for light rail. Couple of points from the story that are worth mentioning:

In Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego and other cities large and small, light rail is taking off. The trains look more like streetcars than anything else. They’re only one or two cars long, and are electrically powered. The narrow footprint of light rail cars allows them to be put in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.

Generally speaking, light rail is built with its own right of way, while streetcars are built to share existing road lanes with automobiles. That makes light rail faster and more efficient, but also much more expensive than streetcars. When I was listening to this, it made me wonder if they were really speaking about LRT per se, or about LRT plus streetcars plus commuter rail, all lumped together. They cite Dallas as an example in the story but not Houston, which given that Dallas’ system is much more suburban-commuter oriented and less about taking advantage of density makes me think they’re mixing their apples and oranges a bit. I don’t think it changes the nature of the story, I just thought they should have been a little more careful with their terminology.

The current downturn has meant that there have been fewer sales tax revenues, which are paying for the system, and costs have spiraled upward. And in a new era of cutbacks, it’s not clear if more money from the federal government is coming either.

That subject came up in my interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler. Until the basic funding mechanism is reauthorized by Congress, there’s no new money available. Which is tragic on many levels, especially if you believe as I do that the feds should be picking up a much greater share of the costs than they do now. Until we change our default assumptions that make funding highways so much easier, and with so much more money to be had, that’s how it’s going to be.

A message from Metro

Spotted by me at the Smithlands light rail station:

Who knew that Muppets rode the light rail?

I believe this subject came up in my interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christoph Spieler but figured it deserved its own mention regardless. Expect the Board to explore further changes to the Q card program, including possibly bringing back day passes.

Interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler

To say the least, 2010 has been an eventful year for Metro. I think everyone would agree that in many ways, the agency is in stronger shape and is headed in a better direction than it was at this time last year. I thought this would be a good time to get a handle on where Metro sees itself now and where it sees itself going, so I sat down last week for a conversation with Metro board chair Gilbert Garcia and board member Christof Spieler. We covered a lot of ground, including the status of the FTA grants, the University line, improvements to bus service, the next referendum, and more. (We spoke before their settlement with CAF was announced, or I’d have asked about that as well.) Check it out:

Download the MP3 file

My thanks to Garcia and Spieler for taking the time to talk to me, and to Spieler for setting things up.

Spieler on commuter rail

From the Offcite blog:

Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker gave Christof Spieler, Chair of the Cite editorial committee, a big hug after swearing him in as a Metro board member. A picture of their embrace landed on page B3 of Thursday’s Houston Chronicle. It was a landmark moment for the Rice Design Alliance and Cite. Spieler joined the Cite team 11 years ago while still a graduate student at Rice, wrote numerous articles on Houston’s transit, and guest edited several issues. In the current issue of Cite (81), he contributed “Are We Setting Up Commuter Rail to Fail?” Written months before Spieler knew he would be appointed a Metro board member, it went to press before the announcement of his nomination by Mayor Parker but is now reaching mailboxes after his confirmation. This rare bird of an article is one last critical and independent analysis by Spieler, who because of his new position inside the system cannot speak without representing the city government and Metro.

That article, which drew on and combined a number of themes explored on his Intermodality blog, is well worth reading. The issue isn’t whether or not we do commuter rail, since at least for now there is a lot of political support for it, it’s whether or not we do it right. There are a lot of ways to do it wrong, and if we do we’ll be stuck with it. Go read what Spieler has to say, and hope we get it right. David Crossley has more.

Parker names new Metro board

Excellent.

[Mayor Annise Parker’s] choices, which require City Council approval, include Gilbert Garcia, an investment banker and Parker transition team co-chair; Christof Spieler, a blogger and transportation analyst on the board of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition; lawyers Dwight E. Jefferson and Carrin S. Patman; and engineer Allen Dale Watson, of Cobb Fendley.

Garcia will serve as chairman of the Metro board.

I know Christof, and I can’t think of anyone better for the job. To say the least, I’m very pleased his selection. After all the turmoil around Metro these past few weeks, these appointments are the best thing I’ve heard about Metro in a long time.

I’ll have something to say about this later. For now, my congratulations to all the new Board members. I look forward to seeing what you have in mind for the agency.

UPDATE: Here’s the Mayor’s press release on her appointments:

Mayor Parker has selected five new city appointees for the METRO Board of Directors. They are: Gilbert Garcia, Managing Partner, Davis Hamilton Jackson and Associates; Dwight Jefferson, Attorney at Law; Carrin Patman, Attorney Bracewell & Guiliani; Allen Dale Watson, Professional Engineer, CobbFendley; and Christof Spieler, Professional Engineer, Morris Architects. “This is a diverse group of very talented and respected Houstonians,” said Mayor Parker. “They can provide the leadership, transparency and accountability needed as we move to restore public trust in METRO. This is a very critical time with difficult decisions ahead. I know this is the right group for the job.”

The mayor’s announcement follows a three-day trip to Washington during which she reiterated her strong support for the next phase of light rail. It also comes just days after her METRO Transition Task Force presented its findings to her. Five different subcommittees reviewed METRO’s finances, light rail plans, regional coordination, basic services and small business enterprise program. “Although each subcommittee conducted its work independently, common themes emerged that confirm the need for new management at METRO,” said Parker. “There are questions about the design and cost of rail expansion, communication issues, stakeholder frustration and a glaring need for a regional approach to mass transit. We know there will be sufficient funding to build three new rail lines. However, hurdles remain for funding a five line system. I am committed to five lines, but we may need to proceed in phases.”

The Obama Administration’s budget proposal currently includes $900 million in federal funding for the North and Southeast Light Rail Lines. The East End Line, the only line already under construction, and the Uptown Line are to be funded locally. The University Line will also require federal funding. The current best guess estimate of when that funding might be approved is 2014.

Mayor Parker’s recommended appointees are expected to be presented to City Council for confirmation April 7, in time for them to attend METRO’s April board meeting.