Interview: Houston Tomorrow’s Jay Crossley on Transit Taxes
By: Erin Dyer
Illustration by Tim Dorsey
Pro-transit activist, environmentalist, sustainability leader and Houston Tomorrow employee, Jay Crossley is highly involved in efforts all over Houston, including the creation of safe streets for all users and all types of transportation, promoting the growth of a sustainable local food system, and founding Houston’s first nonprofit co-op. There has been a recent bustle in Houston concerning the distribution and use of our transit taxes, as some of our transit taxes are being diverted from transit efforts and being used by the city for other projects instead– a complex legislative issue in which Crossley is extremely involved. We had the opportunity to talk to Crossley about his involvement with Houston Tomorrow, as well as the current transit tax issue. He broke down the matter so that we can better understand what it’s about, why it’s important, and how we can get involved in the policy vote in November.
FPH: So, you work for Houston Tomorrow- an institute for research, education, and discussion focused on efforts for bettering our city. What projects have you worked on, or are currently working on?
JC: I am very involved with the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, working to make all streets safe in Houston for all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, the disabled, automobile drivers, freight operators, transit, and local businesses along the street. We are hoping to see action this year from the City of Houston to lead the region in rethinking how we build our City, block by block. People can sign the petition and get involved at: http://houstoncompletestreets.org/
We have been hosting the Houston Food Policy Workgroup for several years. The mission is to nurture the growth of a sustainable local food system accessible to all, through education, collaboration, communication, and creation of a food policy council for the Houston region. Like us on Facebook to find out about meetings and get involved in building a tighter, healthier food shed for Houston: https://www.facebook.com/HoustonFoodPolicyWorkgroup
I spend a lot of time doing research, examining transportation funding, and trying to figure out how we might be able to better spend money in the region to align transportation to the people’s priorities. Sometimes I work on maps on our GIS (Geographic Information Systems) computer, but we’re always looking for a smart intern ready to speak maps to power; I just don’t have time and there is so much hardcore activism to do in GIS in Houston.
The mission of Houston Tomorrow is to improve the quality of life for all people of the Houston region. We do a lot of different things, but mostly try to empower citizens with better information and provide forums for civic discussion that actually lead to positive change. Get involved, come to events, sign up for our email newsletter, and find out what real progress looks like in Houston at: http://www.houstontomorrow.org
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.
Apart from his involvement in Houston Tomorrow and other efforts to propel Houston into a positive direction, Crossley lives on a farm and plays in two different bands– he is a pretty cool dude.