in Houston, Texas

How tight is Houston's drainage tax 'lock box'? Bike trails funded by Rebuild Houston money for streets and drainage

Thursday, Oct 13, 2011, 01:28PM CST
By Steve Miller
cycling trails

It was passed by Houston voters as a tax to address the city’s decrepit drainage system and Third World streets. But $857,000 of the new Proposition 1 fund --- which Mayor Annise Parker pitched as a "lock box that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements" --- is slated for hike and bike trails.

The money will pay for "design, acquisition and construction" of trails as part of an overall plan to provide "an alternate route of travel for bicyclists and/or hikers away from street traffic," according to the city's latest capital improvement plan.


Shown the budget item, a chief proponent of Proposition 1 was baffled.

 

“The money was not supposed to go for hike and bike trails,” said Bob Jones, part of the successful Renew Houston effort. “This is not the intention for the money that we voted on.”

 

Voters approved Prop 1 in November by a 51 to 49 percent marginThe fund, also known as Rebuild Houston, draws from four sources: drainage fees on property owners, developer impact fees, property taxes, and government grants.

 

The city’s infrastructure has for decades groaned under increased use and been put on the back burner by politicians. As far back as 1989, road funds were cut in favor of the more politically-appealing police and fire staff increases. More recently, the city's overall budget increased by more than half in the six years to 2010, and critics of Prop 1 questioned why the city needed a new revenue stream.


“With a fee and placing that in the city charter, we would be prohibited from spending this money on anything other than streets and drainage," Parker promised in an interview on the eve of the vote. "In an age of teabaggers and activism, this is forcing compliance from government.”

 

Annise ParkerAnnise Parker

Parker urged voters to back the plan in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle:

“Proposition 1 mandates a responsible pay-as-you-go plan. For the first time in Houston's history there would be a dedicated income stream - a lock box - that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements.

"Your vote would prohibit us from diverting these dollars for any other projects - with no exceptions. And your vote would mean the city could repair, replace or upgrade every street in Houston that is past its useful life."

Opponents of Prop 1 maintained that the money would be diverted for other purposes as part of the city’s overall infrastructure budget rather than being kept in the promised lockbox.


“This is what we’ve been afraid of,” said Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman and Prop 1 critic. Unlike individual project bond votes, “this is unknown what the projects are going to be when you vote. It’s outrageous they would spend this money on a bike trail when they told us it was going for drainage and street repair."

 

Parker declined through a spokeswoman to comment.


The city's Public Works department acknowledged the hike-and-bike program is to receive Rebuild Houston money -- but not via the drainage tax component. The entire Rebuild Houston program is pegged by city charter for "Houston's drainage and streets."

 

The trails program "will not receive any funding from the drainage fee component," Roberto Medina, senior staff analyst at the department, said via e-mail, adding assurances from a planning person who heads hike and bike trail plans.

 

"Yes, it is listed as (Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal) funding, but there are four components to that fund," Medina said. "We are well aware that it is not a clear way of identifying how a project is going to get funded, and it would have been nice for it to be more specific."

 

The city touts 95 miles of city-operated hike and bike trails and lists several extensions that are underway on its website. The capital plan does not say exactly where the trail improvements will be located, referring to a separate city bikeway masterplan.

 

The trails project was projected to cost $40 million over six years, with almost $28 million from the state Department of Transportation, according to a capital plan for 2009-14. The most recent plan, for 2012-16, calls for additional design work this year and a six-year cost of $30.9 million, with a Metro projects fund making up the largest single share at more than $7.8 million.

 

The drainage fee, which backers projected would cost an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home about $5 a month, was discovered to have a heavier impact when the bills went out, and the mayor quickly amended the fee to meet the projections.

 

Texas Watchdog contacted several supporters of Prop 1 to weigh in on this story. Jack P. Miller, president of RG Miller Engineers, and Christina Lindsay, executive director of the Houston Council of Engineering Companies, did not return calls. A person answering the phone at the home of Jeff Ross, of Pate Engineers, hung up on this reporter.


The Rebuild Houston Oversight Committee, which includes Ross, meets at 10 a.m. every fourth Tuesday in the Mayor’s Conference Room at City Hall.

 

The city's plans for street improvements are here. For drainage, they are here. Projects funded in part with Rebuild Houston money are marked with "DDSRF" line items, short for the city's Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund. A guide that details the fund is here.

 

***

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.


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Photo from collection "Cycling at Memorial Park" by flickr user Daniesq, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
SusanS
Thursday, 10/13/2011 - 03:18PM

I used to be a supporter of Mayor Parker, but I've lost faith in her. First the back-and-forth on red light cameras, then the back-and-forth on how large the drainage fees would be, and now this. You can't put stock in anything she says.

TexasTea
Thursday, 10/13/2011 - 08:35PM

Who would have guessed that the city would end up wasting taxpayers' money on frivolous pet projects rather than the promised street and drainage improvements? Oh, yes - those "teabagging activists" (did the mayor really say that??), that's who.

Pathetically, completely predictable. The question is whether it's reversible.

Thanks, TW, for exposing this breach of promise by the Mayor and city - pleaee keep the pressure on.

ADifferentOpinion
Friday, 10/14/2011 - 07:24AM

I'm all for more hike and bike trails and I don't care where the money comes from. If the city has to get the funds (which are a very tiny percentage of the collected revenue) from the drainage tax then so be it. There would be a whole lot less flooding and road funding issues in the City of Houston if all of our regional transportation funding was not being siphoned off by Judge Emmett and his cronies to build the completely unnecessary and extremely expensive Grand Parkway. Creating an off street bike trail encourages people to ride a bike instead of a car which in turn reduces road congestion and pavement wear and tear, so in a very real way bike paths are a road improvement.

Lee Ann
Friday, 10/14/2011 - 09:56AM

SusanS, TexasTea, ADifferentOpinion: Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and for reading Texas Watchdog. Tell your friends. :-)

TexasTea: The mayor really did say "teabaggers." It was indeed an interesting choice of phrase.

ADifferentOpinion, your post about Grand Parkway reminds me that that is another large-scale public project that deserves continuing scrutiny. There has been a lot of reporting on the Grand Parkway, and if there's a new wrinkle or angle that you think Texas Watchdog should look into, please let us know, or e-mail me at leeann(at)texaswatchdog.org.

- Lee Ann O'Neal, Texas Watchdog

neighboronwatch
Saturday, 10/15/2011 - 10:35AM

This activity just underscores that 'dedicated funds' is a myth. Like social security, the funds (a 45% tax increase, based on total tax income for city versus the 'new' income from the 'rain tax') have gone 'into the pile' so now there are shell games, etc. to explain/justify the expenditures- all the while the Houston taxpayers fund 'out-of-control' spending at city hall. The mechanism of this administration (run by a former controller!) allowing the folks that profit from the decision making actually BE the decision makers is outrageous. Other cities around us seem to maintain their infrastructure without a ''rain tax'. As one current council member told me,'We can ALWAYS find money for something we want!', the city now has 45% more money to 'play with', and it is being collected on a HIGHLY REGRESSIVE format!

BeardedPharmacist
Tuesday, 10/18/2011 - 05:45AM

How dare the city of Houston improve an underutilized asset to the city. The amount of money put towards these Hike and Bike trails is a drop in the bucket. These trail improvements are far overdue. Tea party extremist would rather live in a total shithole than spend a dime on these "frivolous" city improvements. Please keep your nose out of inner Houston and in your whitewashed suburbs.

HoustonTxNative
Tuesday, 10/18/2011 - 09:10AM

BeardedPharmacist, your tone doesn't exactly give a good impression for bikeway proponents. To respond to your comment, the fee proponents clearly stated that this fund would be spent on drainage and street improvements, prioritized by the city's worst cases and regardless of location. In other words, take the politics out and address the worst pavement and drainage needs. There was no question that the sales pitch was talking about broken up concrete streets (you undoubtedly know where some are) and flooding problems. I'm all for bikeway improvements (I ride a road bike), but finance those improvements through the proper funds.

Dave Dyer
Tuesday, 10/18/2011 - 03:02PM

In January 2010, the Houston Chronicle printed a letter from me that argued against Prop 1. I said that the City was doing it backwards; they were going to set up a secure stream of revenue first and then decide how to spend it to help with flooding. They really need the plan first and then the funding can be determined. They can't be trusted with a secure stream of revenue. Sadly, i was exactly right. They have now stolen that money to build bike paths. We need to re-vote on Prop 1.

Tom McCarty
Thursday, 10/20/2011 - 07:28PM

According to Council Member Stardig's office this story about Prop 1 funds being spent for trails and bike paths is incorrect. I have corresponded with staff in that office via email and they confirm the story is inaccurate.

Jason
Wednesday, 10/26/2011 - 03:12PM

@Tom McCarty.... ahh yes, Stardig's office staff claims the story is false... therefore it is.

Nothing to see here... move along!

LP
Thursday, 11/03/2011 - 08:17PM

Awesome. We need more off road hike n bike trails! I would ride my bike to work if I didn't have to worry about being run over by a car. Painting lines on streets and calling them bike lanes doesn't count. They aren't used because they aren't safe.

XD9MM
Sunday, 11/06/2011 - 11:17PM

To all of you that don't have an issue with using dedicated drainage funds for other projects then YOU are part of the problem. I didn't vote for this piece of crap legislation just for the very reason of this article. So called "dedicated lock box" funds never are. They always get diverted for some special interest group--there's always "some reason" why just a little of the money can be spent for other projects. Before you know it the "fee" has to be increased again because the drainage projects don't have enough money--because it's been diverted. The lottery ticket legislation was sold to the public that it would only be used just for schools then a week before the election Guv Richards declared the proceeds would be placed in the general fund. Hmmmmm this fee business is another bait & switch shell game played by professional sharks our beloved politicians.

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