Now we know that a solid majority of Harris County residents, by 55% to 40%, want all Metro sales taxes to be used for transit and not for street improvements and other non-transit projects, according to the new Kinder Houston Area Survey.
And a clear majority, 51% to 44%, want more taxpayer money to be spent on improving rail and buses rather than on expanding existing highways.
That feels like a line in the sand that you’d think elected officials would pay attention to. But massive expansion of the highway system is underway and there are no short-term plans for expansion of the transit system.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the $2.5 billion that has been taken out of the transit sales tax over the last couple of decades, money that went to the City of Houston, 14 smaller cities, and Harris County, largely for road projects.
Because of that it’s been incredibly hard to build transit infrastructure. After the 2003 referendum authorized Metro to build five new light rail lines and other expansions, to be in service in 2012, this year. So the forces who lost that election went to work to throw every conceivable roadblock in the way of all that service and they were hugely successful. Three rail lines are under construction and should be in service in 2014, only a little late. But anybody who is dreaming of having a ride on the University or Uptown light rail lines is going to have a very long wait – maybe forever.
I would like to believe this new Kinder survey, directed by Rice’s Stephen Klineberg, will have some impact, although political friends tell me it won’t.
In fact, the impact should be totally game-changing. Because the survey also reveals that the number of people who would rather live in a “single family home with a big yard, where you would need to drive almost everywhere you want to go” as opposed to a “smaller home in a more urbanized area, within walking distance of shops and workplaces” is shrinking fast. Today 51%, a majority, want the walkable urbanism instead.
In the 2010 survey, Dr. Klineberg was able to extract just the City of Houston numbers from that question and show that 50% of the residents of the City wanted the walkable urbanism choice. That was in 2010, when only 41% of all Harris County residents wanted the walkable choice. Today with Harris County preferences up to 51%, we’re probably going to find that the City of Houston numbers are 55% or maybe even 60%.
It’s hard for the region’s public officials to get it that sprawl is dying as a development paradigm. But in spite of the fortunes we’re throwing at it, it is dying, and if we don’t embrace walkable urbanism, especially in the City of Houston, which has a lot of good fundamentals left over from the streetcar days, we’re going to have a tough time with our budgets and our streets are going to be nearly impassable. Walkable urbanism drives the tax base up and minimizes the service requirements; sprawl does the opposite.
The two things that have to happen to support walkable urbanism are to invest all of the transit tax in new transit, and throw out the current plan to tweak Chapter 42 of the development code in favor of a serious process to at least legalize urbanism if not totally embrace it.
But the crisis of the moment is about the transit tax. In the back rooms, deals are being worked out. The smaller cities and the City of Houston are essentially digging in their heels, partly because the area’s engineers are so intent on having access to this money for their Rebuild Houston project of fixing the streets and improving drainage. The 55% of us who want that money to go to transit are incredibly disorganized; the other side is not disorganized. So we have a terrific challenge: get our message to Mayor Parker, in particular, and the Metro board of directors, who will be the ones to decide in public.
Note: this originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle’s blog site The List