A proposal passed by the Metro board Aug. 17 will allow for the continuation of the general mobility program until at least 2025 and help Metro with efforts to increase ridership—if voters approve it in November.
Since 1988, Metro has diverted 25 percent of the sales tax it collects from within its 16 member jurisdictions, which includes Harris County and the City of Houston, for use on road improvement projects as opposed to mass transit. That money is split up based on a series of contracts and formulas; the county receives 18 percent of the fund, and the City of Houston receives 62 percent.
The board approved a proposal two weeks ago that would have changed the allocation process and made it so that each member city and the county received 25 percent of the sales tax collected within their jurisdiction. Harris County stood to lose about $13 million annually, while the City of Houston would have gained about $30 million more.
The new proposal calls for leaving in the place the current allocation process for divvying up general mobility funds between the City of Houston, Harris County and Metro’s 14 other member cities. It also caps future allocations at 2014 levels until 2025, splitting up any future growth in the sales tax revenue between Metro and its 16 jurisdictions. If the referendum fails, the general mobility program would cease to exist after September 2014.
“I’m submitting a proposal to this board that is far superior to the one we passed just two weeks ago,” Chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I think it’s superior in building a consensus and uniting people, but most importantly, it’s really superior for transit. It continues general mobility for good projects, but this time, unlike the proposal on Aug. 3, it does something for Metro.”
According to sales tax projections done for Metro by Barton Smith, unincorporated Harris County is expected to receive about $400 million from the general mobility program through 2026 if it continues. The projections suggest that Metro will receive an additional $926.6 million in sales tax revenue after 2014, which would be split 50/50 between the organization and its 16 member entities. Metro is projected to receive about $400 million by 2026 through its share of the sales tax growth.
Per the referendum, Metro will be required to spend any of its share of the extra sales tax collections on furthering ridership such as acquiring 200 additional buses, constructing up to 1,000 additional bus shelters and the addition of new Park and Ride facilities, bus transit centers and bus operating facilities. Some of the money will also be spent on paying down the organization’s debt.
“I felt that this board and this community has a responsibility in this defining moment to do something better than what we had on the table,” Garcia said. “Better for the community, better for the tax payers, better for transit, better for the future.”
Although the proposal did not have any requirements in regards to rail lines, Garcia said the first step toward fully implementing rail plans from the 2003 referendum is building more community support.
“The other is increased increased ridership and getting the fiscal side in better shape,” he said. “This is a further step toward rail, but it may be painfully longer than we thought.”
Christof Spieler was the only board member to vote against the proposal. He said that while it did not undo the last referendum in 2003, it did not leave the board the resources to do anything in the short term to fulfill the mandate.
“What we have on the table is probably the best deal that can work in the political climate of 2012, but I don’t feel this is ultimately a great deal for transit,” he said. “In the long term, this isn’t enough to do the transformational projects we need as a region. I think this is a brilliant deal through a lot of hard work on the chairman’s part, and I know it will have real benefits for transit, but I fear in the end it isn’t enough.”