When No Means Yes
Illustration by Tim Dorsey
Why are local leaders condoning an assault on our public transit?
By Amanda Wolfe
When you go to the polls, you’ll vote on a ballot item that allows “the continued dedication of up to 25% of METRO’s sales and use tax revenues for street improvements and related projects” through December 31, 2025.
If you don’t know the facts, you’ll probably vote “for,” since – statistically – you’re with the majority of Houstonians in wanting more and better public transit options (as indicated in Rice University’s 2012 Kinder Houston Area Survey). You’ll walk out of your polling place feeling good about voting for a sustainable Houston.
And, without knowing it, you’ll have just voted to effectively shut down light rail and bus expansion until 2025.
That scenario is what proponents of passing the METRO referendum are hoping will play out many times. The confusing messaging in the referendum is not accidental. During the June METRO hearings, Houstonians for Responsible Growth—along with real estate developer and Mischer Investments L.P. partner Walt Mischer Jr.—threatened to hijack METRO’s future if Houston’s vote went against their interests. When HRG and Mischer announced that a handful of people would pay lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to convince the Texas legislature to overturn any vote against the referendum, local leaders quickly fell into line.
What METRO’s board and many public figures, including Mayor Annise Parker, are now endorsing is the continuation of what is known as the General Mobility Program, which METRO says was “established to enhance mobility and ease traffic congestion.” The GMP is funded through a penny-per-dollar sales tax paid by citizens in the METRO service area throughout Harris County. Twenty-five percent of this GMP funding is meant to be spent on projects to improve public transit, including road repairs in areas with high bus traffic.
Unfortunately, as anyone driving on Houston’s rotting roads can guess, that GMP funding has not been fairly distributed. Some small cities and outlying areas receive up to a 1600 percent return on GMP tax money paid by their citizens, while the City of Houston receives only 20 percent of what Houstonians pay into the GMP.
The biggest catch of the GMP is this: None of the additional funding METRO would receive may be used for light rail. Yes, you read that right. Transit tax cannot be used on one of the most important parts of our city’s transit infrastructure. It is, simply put, a bad deal.
So far, our city has lost $2.7 billion in funding that was meant for transit improvements. If the referendum passes, we will lose $2.1 billion more. METRO admits that it cannot account for all of the lost funding. A few of the only tangible results are road improvements in outlying areas without bus service and the repaving of a handful of cul-de-sacs.
Although METRO CEO George Greanias admitted, during a July speech at HCC’s Northwest College Spring Branch Campus, that continuing the GMP would result in METRO falling further behind in meeting the city’s transit needs, the METRO board’s public stance is in support of the referendum. The chorus of support includes formerly pro-transit Mayor Parker, who endorses a program that excludes and stalls light rail, even as the University Line languishes – unfinished and behind schedule – east of downtown.
So, what happens if you vote against the METRO referendum? METRO receives six times the funding it currently receives for transit, and with no restrictions on using it for light rail or bus expansion. Furthermore, METRO could still share some of that transit sales tax revenue for road improvements, so Houston’s streets could be renewed for buses, cars, and bikes. Voting against the bad deal METRO endorses (at least on the surface) is the first step in a larger fight.
If you still can’t wrap your mind around the idea, think of it this way. You’re not voting against METRO; you’re voting against sprawl. You’re not voting against transit improvements; you’re voting against a few individuals wanting to control the future of your city. You’re not voting against a sustainable infrastructure; you’re voting against the bad deal that’s prevented us from already having one.
There’s no reason why the fourth largest city in the nation should be this far behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago in public transit. Houston recently announced a bid for the 2017 Super Bowl, which would be admirable if we had more than seven miles of light rail and an expanded bus system. In terms of ridership per mile, METRO rail is more successful than any other in the nation. Imagine us having more.
Can you picture Houston serving not only commuters who’d rather take a dedicated bus or rail to work than sit frustrated in traffic, but also an influx of tourists for a Super Bowl? Houston bidding on the Olympics? Houston with cleaner air, happier citizens, and less road congestion?
I can. So I’m voting against the METRO referendum. I love my city, and I want better transit.
To learn more, please visit supporthoustontransit.org