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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.

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