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Transit symposium events target transit tax diversion

Features author Jarret Walker

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“People need to listen to their children. They don’t want what we’ve been producing in the way of cities,” said international transit consultant and author Jarrett Walker at Houston Tomorrow’s symposium on Houston’s Transit Future.

Walker said the question anybody wants answered is “How much of the city, in all its richness, is available to me?.” The answer depends on a network of pedestrian-intensive places connected by transit to other pedestrian-intensive places.

The symposium was the first of three events starring Walker on May 14, attended by a total of about 100 people. The focus of the events was Walker’s presentations of “clear thinking” about transit service and the crisis the Houston region now faces as transit expansion slows to a halt because 15 cities and Harris County want to continue to take 25% of the transit sales tax, by far the largest source of revenue for transit.

Walker made the case that such pedestrian intensive “centers” of activity and livability are always dictated by transport facilities. A transit network is a series of pedestrian-intensive places connected by transit to other pedestrian-intensive places.

Repeatedly, Walker explained the importance of frequency in transit service to enable people to simply show up at a transit stop without having to know a schedule. He said frequency produces freedom.

The goal should be efficiency, because efficiency means abundance, and abundance means freedom to gain access to shops and services and schools and jobs.

Janis Scott, AKA “the bus lady,” spoke after Walker about the experience and rewards of being a transit rider. Scott has no car and has moved about the city, mostly by bus, for decades, since her days as a student at Rice University.

“I use the b word a lot: bus,” she said. Let’s get over the stigma about bus, the idea that it’s for the poor, the down on their luck.”

She worried about children gaining the freedom to move about their city without a car.
“Parents buy their kids a car as soon as they’re old enough to drive,” she said. “Stop doing that, parents!”

Scott focused on the growth of the aging population, headed to a moment when driving is no longer practical or safe, and a totally different need for mobility is revealed.

Scott was followed by Metro board member and Director of Innovation and Technology at Morris Architects Christof Spieler.

Spieler’s presentation began with an exploration of transit service successes, including local buses, park and ride, and light rail. He noted that the Main Street light rail line already has half the ridership of the whole Dallas light rail system, and cost 10 percent as much.

Six new office towers were started after construction of the light rail line in Downtown alone.

The big challenges, Spieler said, are coverage, routes, frequency, reliability, speed, regional cooperation, serving job centers, the last mile, demographics, funding, and politics.

Metro president and CEO George Greanias presented the situation Metro faces in deciding what to put on the ballot in November regarding the 25% diversion of the sales tax revenue to cities and Harris County.

One slide showed that the 14 small cities produce 6% of the sales tax revenue but get back 16%. Similarly, unincorporated Harris County contributes 10% but takes 18%. On the other hand, the City of Houston contributes far more than it takes, 84% to 62%.

Greater Houston Partnership Transit Committee chair Billy Cooke, who is also executive vice president of Klotz Associates, told the group about the economic value of transit and walkable urbanism.

He noted that property values and tax base generally rise significantly around transit stations and produce more commercial establishments that collect sales tax.

Houston Tomorrow president David Crossley implored the Mayor, the Metro board members, and the audience to work to secure significant investment in the urban core transit system in order to raise the economic profile of 50 square miles of potential transit-oriented real estate.

He called for a straight up or down vote on whether to continue the tax diversion program or end it.

Disclosure: Houston Tomorrow is advocating for giving the voters in the Metro service area the ability to vote for spending all of their transit taxes on transit. The views expressed by Houston Tomorrow at the events do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the co-host, speakers, or sponsors of this educational dialogue intended to bring various constituents together.

You can join us by sending a letter to Mayor Parker, other local mayors, the Metro board, and the County Commissioners requesting that they support ending the diversion of our transit taxes, by clicking here.

More commentary from Crossley here and here.

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