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Metro struggles with referendum decision

Would voters end fund drain?

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The Metropolitan Transit Authority is preparing for a referendum, likely to be on the November ballot, asking voters to decide whether to put millions more of their sales tax dollars toward transit or continue diverting part of it for road projects in their cities and Harris County, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle:

Metro, per the 1978 referendum that created it, receives most of its funding from a 1 percent sales tax levied within its service area, which includes much of unincorporated Harris County, the city of Houston and 14 smaller cities. Since a 1988 referendum, however, a quarter of that 1 percent tax has gone to these partner governments for “general mobility” projects, such as building or fixing streets, roads, bridges, sidewalks, hike and bike trails, traffic signals, street lights and landscaping or drainage associated with road projects.

When these general mobility payments last were extended in 2003, the ballot language required another referendum within 10 years to decide whether to renew the arrangement.

The upcoming vote puts Metro, whose board must craft the ballot item, in an unusual position.

The agency has many plans for which it could use the full 1 percent sales tax, from new bus shelters to the long-planned but unfunded University and Uptown light rail lines.

The partner governments that appoint Metro’s nine board members, however, have come to rely on their quarter share of the sales tax. By September 2014, when current contracts expire, an estimated $2.7 billion will have been diverted from transit for general mobility work.

Differing views

Marci Perry, chairwoman of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, said she voted to create Metro in 1978 and does not support this diversion.

“We have a choice,” she said. “We can do the same thing, or we can avoid repeating the past mistakes and discontinue the general mobility fund so transit receives all the money we - I - originally voted for.”

Engineer Sanjay Ram took a different view. He acknowledged the diverted funds would have gone much further toward building a strong transit system in the 1980s, but said until technology allows travel by teleportation, street work will remain important.

“Using all of Metro’s funding for buses and rail won’t help us bridge that gap,” Ram told the board. “The general mobility funds have provided much-needed connectivity to the bus and rail system we have and will have with the new lines.”

The 1988 referendum, Metro board member Christof Spieler said, envisioned the agency building 20 miles of light rail, none of which happened. The 2003 referendum, he added, foresaw the agency finishing five rail lines by this year. Instead, three are scheduled to finish two years late, and two others are unfunded. Throughout, the agency met every dollar of its general mobility obligations and funded millions in road work on top of that, Spieler said.

“This has always been a balance between roads and transit, but I think oftentimes transit has come out on the short end of that stick,” Spieler said. “Over the history of this agency we’ve actually spent more money building roads than we have building rail or (High Occupancy Vehicle lanes).”

Spieler said he does not know what the right percentage for the general mobility program should be going forward.

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