FPH: One of the main issues you have recently been involved with is the current transit tax issue. The program that is now in effect was approved by voters back in 2003. What are the details of that program?
JC: The Houston region has a 1% transit sales tax that is only used in a portion of the region that agreed to do this over 30 years ago– including most of Harris County, all of the City of Houston, and 14 other cities. The State of Texas allows a 1% transit sales tax. Dallas uses its full 1% for transit. San Antonio only has a .5% transit sales tax, and Austin has a system that is weird, like ours, with some of the money being diverted from transit. When the system was set up and there were actively anti-transit politicians in our region, the agreement was made to divert a fourth of our 1% transit sales tax to roads.
Over time, this program has cost the Houston region at least $2.7 billion in transit funding. You could already be riding the light rail between the Galleria, Astrodome, UH, UHD, St. Thomas, Rice, TSU, Warehouse Live, Notsuoh, all the downtown stadiums, and various neighborhoods, including many with affordable housing options. You could already take a HOV bus from Park & Rides across the region to various job centers– not just downtown– and perhaps in between those centers, and to places like the airports. Also, you’d have a lot more high quality local bus routes, like the 81/82 Westheimer, where you don’t even need to look at the time chart– you just walk to the stop and a bus should be there within seven minutes.
This diversion of our transit taxes means you do not have this high quality transit service today. The continued diversion of it means that Houston cannot begin working on any new services– beyond the three light rail lines and the HOV Park & Rides currently under construction– until 2025.
That is ridiculously stupid.
FPH: If our transit money isn’t currently going directly to transit, where else is the money going?
JC: This diversion has been used for some transit related things, like repaving roads heavily used by buses. However, it also has been used to fund studies on The Great Boondoggle, the Grand “Porkway” and to repave tiny cul-de-sacs in well-to-do neighborhoods. At this point, all of the government entities in the area where we the people are paying our sales taxes for transit have gotten very used to this slush fund.
A representative from West University came to the public hearings that were held to decide what to do with these taxes, and stated that they would be in a very difficult position if the General Mobility Program (GMP)– as the diversion is called– ended in 2014, as it will by law if the voters do not continue it. You see, many of these entities have actually gone heavily into debt repaving their roads, counting on this diversion to continue. West U isn’t the only entity assuming we won’t spend this funding on transit. The Renew Houston program was designed to include the entire allocation of the City of Houston’s GMP, somewhere around $100 million a year.
FPH: Any updates on the current vote for a new policy?
JC: The Metro Board of Directors –under a barrage of pro-transit emails, letters, and organizations, as well as threats from super-rich sprawl developers and those opposed to transit funding– decided to send an up or down vote to the people in November.
Voting YES would mean the GMP would continue diverting 25% of your transit sales taxes– but it would fix the problem that the taxes have not been evenly distributed, with some wealthy small cities having received way more than 25% of the sales taxes collected in their jurisdiction.
Voting NO would mean that once passed, 100% of your transit sales taxes would be used for transit.
Full Story: Interview: Houston Tomorrow’s Jay Crossley on Transit TaxesSource: Free Press Houston, September 18, 2012