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METRO referendum is decided, but confusion lingers over future of Houston public transit

METRO referendum is decided, but confusion lingers over future of Houston public transit

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With METRO's referendum officially approved, the debate over light rail and the future of Houston public transit remains hazy. Courtesy of planetgordon.com
METRO, bus, downtown, skyline, Houston, November 2012
Transit leaders say the referendum will allow METRO to fix an ailing bus system and clear it debts for light rail funding. Photo courtesy of RideMETRO.org
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METRO officials say that contruction on the North, East End and Southeast Lines will be complete by 2014. University and Uptown Lines will be discussed by 2017, with possible public-private partnerships helping to fund the projects. Courtesy of METRO
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According to a new report by Houston Tomorrow, the Bayou City spends $330 per person on roads compared to Los Angeles at $261, Dallas at $253 and New York at $96. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
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METRO, bus, downtown, skyline, Houston, November 2012
METRO, METRORail, light rail, map
Houston, downtown, skyline, blue

Nov. 6 closed a chapter of one of this election year's most controversial issues — the METRO referendum, a measure allowing the agency to use a portion of additional tax money for street improvement, but not light rail construction.

After nearly 80 percent of the electorate supported the referendum, Houston leaders like Annise Parker have been spending the past week celebrating the opportunity to fix an ailing bus system and pay down mounting debts. Referendum opponents, meanwhile, remain doubtful the transit authorities will be able to continue funding rail projects.  

"It's never been our intention to abandon the light rail initiative from 2003," said METRO's Dwight Jefferson. "We need a multi-modal syste m involving buses, trains and HOV lanes."

Since the public approved a 2003 bond to add 22 miles of rail lines, METRO officials recently told the Houston Chronicle the agency has sacrificed bus improvements for rail. The newly-approved referendum will allow the city to add much-needed bus shelters, replace aging vehicles and analyze existing routes.

"It's never been our intention to abandon the light rail initiative from 2003," METRO board member Dwight Jefferson told CultureMap Monday. "We need a multi-modal system involving buses, trains and HOV lanes to cover an area as large as Houston."

Jefferson said that, thanks to the passing of the referendum, the transit authority will be able to pay down a $190 million in current debts. METRO will complete the current construction projects on the North and East End Lines, leaving the logistics of building the final lines — Uptown and University — to be decided in the future. (Click for the full map.)

"By 2016 or 2017, we hope to have our funds in the positive so we can leverage money to finance the remaining two lines voters approved in 2003," he explained, noting that METRO plans to partner with groups like the Galleria District to secure additional financial support.

Future too bus-centric for some

Jay Crossley with Houston Tomorrow, the advocacy group that led the anti-referendum movement, fears that the voter-approved measure allows METRO too much room to abandon the future rail lines — routes that will be needed to help control vehicle traffic as the city continues to grow.

He pointed to a recent Houston Tomorrow report that found that the eight-county Houston region spends more on roads per capita than any other major metropolitan area in the nation. Of the top 10 largest US cities, the Bayou City spends about $330 per person on street maintenance and construction compared to Los Angeles at $261, Dallas at $253 and New York at $96. 

Funding towards road projects like the Grand Parkway only encourage people to live in distant neighborhoods, according to Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow. 

"Clearly, this level of spending isn't a sustainable path for Houston transportation," Crossley told CultureMap. "METRO has been a model for great light rail. Along with Los Angeles we've been leading the nation in the creation of modern public transportation systems. After this referendum, L.A. certainly will move ahead."

With the ability to use more tax dollars for road projects like the Grand Parkway, he believes that METRO and the area municipal governments encourage people to live in distant neighborhoods, increasing congestion and average commute times. He promised that, post-referendum, Houston Tomorrow will recalibrate its outreach and continue to push for responsible transit.

According to a 2011 study by the Brookings Institute, Houston ranks 72 among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas in providing transit access to jobs.

"I truly don't believe people would have voted for METRO's referendum if they knew more of the details about it," Crossley said. "The language was vague and shouldn't have been publicly represented the way it was. We're squandering our abundance here in Houston."

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