Research and discussion for citizens and decision makers

David Crossley

Vote “No” for more rail in Hou

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For nearly 35 years, unincorporated Harris County and 15 area cities have taken $2.7 billion from METRO’s transit tax revenues, successfully preventing the creation of a robust, high-capacity transit system in the service area. The program that has prevented the emergence of that system is called the General Mobility Program.

METRO gets a penny in sales tax from every dollar of purchase in the service area, which includes part of unincorporated Harris County, the City of Houston, and 14 other small cities that are part of the METRO system. Beginning in 1978, when METRO was established by the Texas legislature, some of METRO’s money was used to repair bus lanes and do other street work related to bus service

In 1984, the METRO board agreed to allocate $150 million to the 16 “partners” and that became the General Mobility Program, which was approved by voters in 1988, in a sort of blackmail that traded support for a rail transit program for 25% of the tax revenue needed to create the system.

In a 2003 referendum, the voters agreed to revisit that idea before 2014, and that’s why a referendum is being held this year.

By now, the recipients of the funds have become dependent on the money, particularly the City of Houston. Under the arrangements, which are executed as a series of contracts with each of the entities, all but the City of Houston get back far more than 25% of the sales taxes collected in their jurisdictions. The city gets only 20%.

The allocations are spectacularly unfair, and the end result is that the City of Houston has been subsidizing the other 15 GMP recipients for decades.

Now there is a chance to end the program once and for all, but it’s a little convoluted in that a “Yes” vote will continue the diversion for another decade. For reasons that are cloudy and even mysterious, Mayor Parker and the METRO board, the majority of whom are appointed by her, are for continuing the program and opposed to spending that money on transit.

A tale of two stories

There are two stories about why that is. One is simply that the mayor needs the money to balance the massive budget of the ReBuild Houston initiative passed by voters in 2010. What voters didn’t know was that the program relies heavily on the METRO money far into the future. The idea of ending the program in 2014 puts the ReBuild Houston effort in a pickle.

The other story is that if this program is not continued several local power players will go to the legislature to get that body to take METRO apart. The threats, so far, include changing the composition of the board to allow Harris County to control it —which would be fabulously undemocratic — and making the GMP a permanent item, perhaps at a higher percentage. The mayor and most of the METRO board believe the legislature would acquiesce.

While it’s difficult to envision the legislature overturning a vote of the people, it isn’t difficult to imagine them trying. Players on the “Yes” side are trying to make a case that “No” means nothing, that it only ends the GMP for the moment, and leaves it up to the METRO board to simply reinstate it. That would be another instance of a government body going against the expressed will of the people.

Full Story: More light rail for Houston? If you’re pro-transit, vote “No” on METRO ballot issue
Source: Houston CultureMap, October 29, 2012

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