in Houston, Texas
More options for vote on Metro sales tax for road projects
Thursday, Jul 26, 2012, 04:35PM CST
By Mike Cronin
buses

Metro board members proposed an array of options for the final wording of a November referendum on the transit authority’s revenue structure during a Thursday morning meeting.

That referendum will determine whether a portion of Houston-area sales tax revenue will continue to go to Harris County, Houston and 14 smaller cities for road construction and repair. Metro collects a one-cent sales tax, keeps most of it to support public transit efforts, and distributes 25 percent to the other governments.

But Metro is considering asking voters to change that mix beginning in October 2014 to fund rail and bus projects.

“We have a very difficult decision to make,” said Allen Watson, board vice chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Houston. “We will not be perfect in our deliberations during the next few weeks, but we will do our best.”

Board members Burt Ballanfant and Gary Stobb suggested keeping the formula as-is.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the Metro board, recommended providing voters with two options. The first would be to freeze the amount of money the cities and county receive from the sales tax revenues at whatever level they reach in 2014, with proceeds above that going to Metro, until 2030. The second would be to keep the current system in place until 2030.

Watson offered a multi-pronged idea that included asking voters to increase Metro’s bond-issuing authority but maintaining the current sales tax formula until 2030.

At least two board members, Dwight Jefferson and Carrin Patman, said they were in favor of a vote up or down on continuing the sales tax payments.

But, Jefferson said, he favors a “compromise” between those two paths that resembles Garcia’s plan: Capping the payments to other government agencies at 2014 levels and allowing any growth beyond that to go to Metro.

“That would address all needs by providing revenue to meet the voter mandate of the 2003 referendum and general mobility throughout the area,” Jefferson said.  “Then, nobody gets everything, and everyone gets something.”

The term “general mobility” refers to transportation needs. The 2003 vote gave Metro the authority to borrow money to build out the light rail system and expand the region’s bus service, as well as continue the 75/25-percent split in the sales tax.

Patman suggested continuing the current formula through Sept. 30, 2016, and holding another referendum prior to that date to determine the future funding structure.

To enable Metro to fulfill the goals spelled out in the 2003 referendum, board member Christof Spieler recommended continuing the current formula until 2019 and doubling the transit authority’s bond-issuing authority by increasing it another $640 million.

Other aspects of Spieler’s plan included not increasing fares through 2019 and maintaining bus-service hours at current levels.

Voters then would have the opportunity to decide future Metro funding in another referendum that would be held in 2019, Spieler said.

Board members will discuss what the final proposal should say during a meeting scheduled for Aug. 3.

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo of buses by flickr user houstontranstar, used via a Creative Commons license.

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