Houston METRO bond on Nov. ballot

Houston metro bond

By ALEX WUKMAN

A new Houston METRO bond is on the ballot this Election Day. Houston voters are considering a transportation bond that would build $3.5 billion in improvements without raising taxes. 

If passed, the Houston METRO bond will create 75 miles of bus rapid transit routes. The bond could add 16 miles of light rail, including 10 miles to the purple and green lines.

Additionally, the bond would build a train to Hobby Airport, which could cost $1.4 billion alone. 

METRO eventually wants to build a train to Bush Intercontinental Airport. However, the transit agency is starting with the closest airport first. Another proposed rail extension would take the Red Line to the North Shepherd Park and Ride. 

The Houston METRO bond will borrow $3.5 billion to fund construction, with the cost covered by the agency’s 1 percent sales tax.

If the bond passes, the transportation agency plans to use the money to start work on its proposed $7.5 billion regional transit plan.

METRO hopes to be able to secure an additional $3.5 billion in federal funds to cover construction costs. The agency plans to cover the anticipated $500 million shortfall with future revenue.

With this year’s referendum, METRO is going to the voters for the first time since 2003. The Metro board considers the bond a key step in the creation of the agency’s METRONext initiative.

What’s on the Houston METRO bond

Among the long-term goals outlined in METRONext are 110 new miles in the transportation agency’s Regional Express Network.

Should the proposal pass, the funds would be used to construct 75 new METRORapid lines. Another project would add 290 miles to the agency’s BOOST and signature services.

Also on the drawing table are 21 new or improved park and rides and transit centers. Houston-area residents could also see a 25 percent increase in local bus service and the debut of 10 new community circulator routes.

The Houston METRO bond would also allow for improved transit service on major freeways. The bond will also pay for sidewalk repairs, improved bus service, and improved bus stops.

Additionally, the METRO board plans to use the bond to fund resiliency planning, partnership projects, and universal accessibility. 

Houston METRO bond opponents’ long memory

The proposal has drawn criticism and opposition from Houston’s political and business leaders. One of the main antagonists is Responsible Houston, a political action committee founded by a former candidate for Houston City Controller.

Some opponents point to METRO’s Post Oak project and the 2003 vote on light rail expansion as evidence that METRO can’t be trusted.

A key criticism is the dispute over the Westpark/Richmond light rail line. In 2003, Houston voters approved a West Side/University Corridor light rail line. When the election was called, and the ballot presented, the language described the train as traveling along Westpark.

However, METRO staff and board members later decided that the word “Westpark” didn’t specifically mean “Westpark Drive.”

METRO’s board claimed the ballot language allowed it to shift the train’s route. The clause in question used the phrase “based on demand.”

Agency staff interpreted that to mean the proposed route could move north by one-half of a mile to Richmond Avenue.

Another claim that left a sour taste in Houston voters’ mouths was a METRO explanation that “Westpark” could mean “Westpark Corridor.”

Houston METRO bond for street repairs

The bond proposal has also been criticized as being overly costly and packed with unnecessary spending. One critic, a former METRO chairman, claimed that the agency can’t afford to pay off the debt it currently has.

METRO argued that the assertion was “completely erroneous.” Critics have also claimed that the bond proposal would raise taxes.

However, the agency is prohibited by statute from increasing taxes. The bond’s opponents also demand that any transportation dollars be spent on drainage instead of buses and trains.

METRO already spends 25 percent of the transit sales tax for street and drainage projects, according to the agency. Opponents claim that nothing prohibits METRO from spending more on road repairs and drainage.

Responsible Houston planned to spend $250,000 fighting the bond package, but was only able to scrape together $6,000.

Supporters spend big

The bond proposal has also drawn its fair share of supporters. Moving to the Future, a political action committee backing the bond, raised $473,000.

Campaign finance reports show that the organization spent $5,250 on website development.

METRO itself planned to spend $8.5 million advertising the bond package.

The agency’s ability to spend millions of public money led some critics to cry ‘foul.’ Opponents claim that METRO’s advertisements violate Texas’ ethics rules by stating that the agency “has a plan for traffic.”  

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