Whether mass transit in the Houston area - including light rail, bus, park-and-ride and other services - expands significantly in the next decade could depend on a decision to be made by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board today, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle:
The board will choose a proposal to place on the November ballot, asking voters whether to end, alter or continue the so-called “general mobility” program, which diverts a portion of Metro’s sales tax revenues to fund road projects.
By state law, Metro collects a 1 percent sales tax. Since 1988, the transit agency has diverted a quarter of that sales tax revenue to the city of Houston, Harris County and 14 small cities in its service area for building and maintaining roads, bridges, bike trails and other such projects.
A 2003 referendum requires Metro to go back to voters to ask that the general mobility program be continued.
Without decreasing the share of Metro’s money that goes to roads, most experts agree, it will be a decade or more before the agency can expand its transit system.
Metro board member Christof Spieler, in a recent op-ed piece, depicted the referendum as a choice between transit options and gridlock.
“This is not some abstract discussion about funding formulas; it is a decision about what options Houstonians will have to get to work, school, and all the other places they need to go in their day-to-day lives for decades to come,” Spieler wrote. “If general mobility continues at 25 percent, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service ... for a decade or more, even as the population continues to grow.”
Members of pro-transit group Houston Tomorrow plan to demonstrate at Metro headquarters Friday in support of Spieler’s proposal, which would keep mobility payments at 25 percent, allocated based on the sales taxes a city collects, extend Metro’s bonding authority and see the agency pursue the University light rail line, from Wheeler Station to Hillcroft Transit Center via Richmond and Westpark. His proposal also would call for another authorization referendum in 2019.
“We recognize that the people of Houston prioritize investing in transit and that they support dedicating as much of the transit tax to transit as possible,” Houston Tomorrow president David Crossley wrote in a letter to officials at Metro, Houston and Harris County. “A strong transportation network that supports a vibrant and growing economy must provide safe, affordable, and reliable choices for all travelers, as well as provide opportunities for businesses to settle in the area.”
Crossley stressed that construction of the University line is particularly important in that it would connect downtown, the Texas Medical Center and Greenway Plaza, three of the region’s largest employment centers, by rail.