As the three new Houston light rail lines being constructed reach the halfway point, people are asking when the work on the University line will begin. The answer is: maybe never, unless we get our act together right now – and I mean in the next 3-4 weeks.
Not only is the University line endangered but so is the Uptown line, which depends on the University line. Indeed, any transit expansion at all other than the current rail construction and two more park-and-ride lots is not going to happen unless we can stop spending our transit taxes on roadway projects.
Metro receives local money from a 1-cent sales tax that was approved by voters when the agency was created in 1978. In 1987 then-Mayor Bob Lanier began taking 25% of that money away from Metro annually to use as he saw fit. That included funding design work for the so-called “Grand Parkway,” which is now under intense construction in order to pull population away from the City of Houston and all the other towns and cities in the region.
Generally, that misappropriated money is used for road projects to provide facilities that compete with Metro’s transit services. That highway robbery continues today and is called the General Mobility Program. It is why there is no work being done on the University light rail line, which is a required precursor to the Uptown line.
As Minister Robert Muhammad said in a 2009 blog post, “The public transportation system of Harris County has been looted for the past 21 years by the City and county to the tune of $2.5 billion. Let me be explicit, 25% of public transit revenue from the one cent public transit sales tax has gone for street, drainage, and landscaping projects. This is NOT what voters established Metro to do when it was created in 1978.”
Muhammad also pointed out that the $2.5 billion could have been used to leverage another $2.5 billion in federal money over the years, so more than $5 billion has been lost that could have already produced the expansion of transit system we need.
Recently, one political insider asserted that “We have spent more transit money on building roads than we have on building transit.”
If the light rail system that was approved by voters for 2012 were operating, it would have far more ridership than the much more expensive Dallas system, and would probably have the highest ridership of any light rail system but Boston’s Green Line, which is fed by a 100-year-old commuter rail system.
The University line is absolutely essential for this kind of efficiency to happen and to give 65 Houston neighborhoods high-capacity transit service, more than any city except New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. This is a smart system with no wasted miles.
Later this year, Metro will have a referendum on the day of the Presidential election, November 6. The 2003 referendum required that it seek a new local determination from the voters regarding Metro’s continuing support of this General Mobility idea. It is not at all clear what will actually be in this referendum, but some sort of vote about the sales tax will be in it, and maybe that’s all that will be in it.
Most of the diverted taxes (about 63%) go to the City of Houston, which has come to depend on them and has been strongly opposed to giving up this easy financial source.
Although Metro is an independent agency, the Mayor appoints the majority of the board. The City appointees are not puppets by any means, but the Mayor is an important player in this decision about what to do.
Naturally, the County commissioners, who are hands-down winning the population growth war on the towns and cities, want to keep the money flowing for roads as do the major engineering firms, not to mention the small cities that use the cash to lower their property taxes.
Rumors are just rumors, of course, but the ones I’m hearing almost every day say the City of Houston insists on holding on to its Metro sales tax money. While this is not a done deal, the Mayor and City Council and Metro board members need to hear from the public quickly, or it will be etched in stone. When that happens, talk of transit expansion will fade away.
Not only is the City raiding the transit agency’s limited coffers, but Metro investment in roads goes beyond General Mobility. More than half a billion dollars of the cost of the three light rail lines now under construction is street improvements and utilities, replacing worn pavement and substandard drainage along all of those streets. The rebuilding of Downtown and Midtown streets was a $200 million program funded by Metro and federal transit funds outside of the General Mobility program.
If we don’t begin to realize that the economic success of the City of Houston is going to be about walkable urbanism served by high-capacity transit, then the City’s future is surely in jeopardy.
We have done a lot of research on the increase in property values and sales taxes around light rail stations. There’s no other way that’s even remotely close to walkable urbanism and transit-oriented development for spurring new business and increasing property values.
If economic development were the primary motivation of the City, this tax robbery would go away in an instant and the light rail system would be the top priority.
The previous Metro administration over-promised and under-delivered. Now it appears Metro’s folks are getting their act together: they got the federal funding that was threatened a few years ago, they’re paying down the short-term debt, they’re more transparent, and they’re getting ready to make the bus system more effective. Of course, they can do a lot to make the agency more efficient and effective. But without the ability to keep the taxes they’re already collecting, they can’t build new high-capacity transit lines, and we really need those for the future of the region, not just the City.
I believe this is the most important fundamental concept to understand about the City’s future: walkable urbanism with rich transit service is the City’s economic and cultural future and the longer we delay becoming a modern city, the tougher will be the budgets and the pain and the general discontent.
Voters didn’t approve the transit tax for it to be diverted to road projects. They are wise: they want transit. As the transit expert Jarrett Walker said recently, “Great cities just don’t have room for everyone’s car.”
Full Story: Let’s spend our transit taxes on transit
Source: Houston Chronicle The List Blog, April 10, 2012