Most of Metro’s revenues come from a 1% sales tax. For nearly 35 years, Metro has given about 25% of that money away to unincorporated Harris County and 15 cities that participate in the Metro system. Today that is called the “General Mobility Program,” or GMP.
Over that time and through 2014, $2.7 billion have gone to those other entities. The allocations among the entities are very different and all of them except the City of Houston get far more then 25% of the sales tax collected in their jurisdictions; the City of Houston got about 20%
The Metro board is required to put the General Mobility Program up for a public vote by 2014, and has chosen to do that this November 6, in the general election. Last Friday, the board met to consider 6 proposals for ballot concepts and to choose one of them.
The Metro board of directors is composed of 9 members, five appointed by the Mayor of the City of Houston, two by Harris County, and two by the 14 “multi-cities” that participate in the Metro system.
Sixty percent of the population of the Metro service area lives in the City of Houston, which controls 55% of the Metro board. Unincorporated Harris County has 36% of the population and controls 22% of the board. The multi-cities have 4% of the population and control 22% of the board.
The fundamental issue was whether the money would continue to be given away, which Metro staff and the chairman have repeatedly said would essentially end transit expansion and particularly would take the University light rail line off the table.
The County and the multi-cities joined forces with a proposal that would simply continue the GMP without reference to allocations or to a future referendum.
The over five proposals went from a simple up-or-down vote not dissimilar to the County and multi-cities proposal to a complex attempt to give everybody something, including more rail and bus transit.
It was always a given that the County and multi-cities were not interested in compromises or more transit service, so getting to a majority meant either adopting their proposal or finding one that the five City appointees could accept.
In the end, the latter happened and by a 5-4 vote the board approved chairman Gilbert Garcia’s proposal, which was basically this:
The GMP would remain in place with 25% going to Harris County and the multi-cities but with the money allocated fairly, with each entity receiving 25% of the taxes collected in their jurisdiction, except for Katy, Missouri City, and Humble, which would continue to receive 50%. Additionally a new referendum would have to be held not later than 2021.
There are no transit taxes returned to transit. But the primary beneficiary of the vote is the City of Houston, which would now get more than it has in the past, and the City is also the primary beneficiary of the light rail system in the early years, as property values rise. Board member Christof Spieler has floated the idea of City using its new funds to move Richmond to the top of its rebuild list, thus paving the way, literally, for Metro to begin construction of the University line as it is described in the 2003 referendum: from the Wheeler station to the Hillcroft station.
If the measure passes, that is the only possibility for transit expansion before yet another referendum.
If the measure fails, the program ends in September 2014 and Metro would get all the money, enabling significant transit expansion.