When you go into the voting booth in the next few weeks, one of the ballot items will be about Metro and transit. You will vote For or Against the following:
“The continued dedication of up to 25% of Metro’s sales and use tax revenues for street improvement and related projects for the period October 1, 2014 through December 31, 2025 as authorized by law and with no increase in the current rate of Metro’s sales and use tax.”
Sounds innocent enough, although if you believe that Houston’s destiny depends on robust transit service you don’t even want to continue that practice of diverting transit taxes to non-transit uses.
But what the ballot doesn’t say, and what is buried in the Metro board’s Resolution No. 2012-75, is that if the proposition wins there will be no more rail expansion until at least 2025, which will effectively end the development of the nation’s best new light rail system. And the allocation of the diverted money will continue to be just as patently unfair in the future as it is today.
In the resolution, the board states its intent to use its 50% portion of any incremental sales tax collection for bus-related expenses and to pay off debt. It’s expected that over the period there might be $400 million available. $200 million would go for debt, and Metro would then have $200 million - about $20 million a year - for bus transit expenditures. That’s it.
No additional bus service is promised other than additional “bus revenue hours.” Mostly the increment will be spent for bus shelters, new buses, and operation and maintenance.
It’s important to remember that in 2003, the voters approved a long list of promises, and this ballot item would break most of them.
Metro promises to allocate the diversion of this money to 15 cities and unincorporated Harris County in “substantially the same manner used by Metro as of the date of the election.” That is, Harris County and 14 multicities will continue to get far more than 25% of the sales taxes collected in their jurisdictions, and the City of Houston will continue to get far less than its share.
This particular deal was required by Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, who found the concept of fairly allocating the funds to be “disgusting.”
So Piney Point Village would continue to get $16.49 cents for every transit sales tax dollar collected in the small city of 3,125 people (89% White) with an average median family income of $200,000. With its per capita income of $133,558, Piney Point Village is in fact the wealthiest place in Texas, and has a property tax rate one-third of Houston’s.
Hedwig Village(population 2,557, 81% White, median family income $101,928), whose Mayor Sue Speck constituted (with Radack) the other half of the team those privy to the backroom deal making called “bullies,” would continue to get back 65%, not 25%, of collections in its jurisdiction. Those sales taxes appear to be collected from businesses on I-10. Hedwig Village’s tax rate is also about one-third of Houston’s.
The City of Houston (population 2,099,451, 51% white, median family income, $40,000) would get 20%, not 25%, which puts a serious wrinkle in the Rebuild Houston plan that relied on collecting much more than will be available with a cap on the dollar amount that begins in 2014 (if voters approve something so bizarre). The City has been subsidizing development in unincorporated Harris County and the 14 multi-cities for about 35 years and would continue to do so.
But by far the worst part of this is that it ends Houston’s attempt to become a global city by restricting the future transit system to buses. Buses are certainly the majority of the service now available and always will be. But the plan the voters approved in 2003 would slowly replace the most congested areas with the much higher-capacity light rail service. That plan would be history.
Houston is at a critical juncture and was poised to become a substantially more cosmopolitan city with a higher quality of life. Mayor Parker and the Metro board, under orders from Steve Radack and some suburban developers, have decided not to go there. A few people have already told me they plan to leave the region if this ballot measure succeeds. And of course hundreds of millions of corporate development plans that needed the University and Uptown/Galleria line are now toast.
So the only rational thing to do is to vote No against this terrible plan.
Note: The Houston Chronicle dove into the middle of this over the weekend and applauded the referendum item, urging people to vote Yes. This astonishing twist, from a paper that has consistently, until now, supported the light rail expansion, demonstrates the Through the Looking Glass nature of this strange referendum.
The editors state that the way to “strengthen” our transit system is to vote Yes, which effectively would end the system they’ve always applauded.
And even though the allocations, as discussed above, are patently unfair, the Chronicle says it is fair.
But the true Alice in Wonderland moment is when the editorial applauds the “agreement” of all the parties, failing to reflect at all on the shotgun marriage that nobody on the transit side likes. “Agreement” in this case is the kind of agreement you get in a war when one side is victorious and the other side hands over its sword and capitulates.