The passage of the drainage fund was one of the most surprising outcomes of the 2010 city election. Rebuild Houston passed by a tiny margin, just 6,000 votes pushing it over into winning territory.
A year later, not much has changed.
Rice University Professor Bob Stein says the KUHF-KHOU 11 News survey shows public opinion on the fund among registered voters is still evenly divided.
“I see this issue coming back, particularly it’ll take a year or two to accumulate money for the drainage fee, it’ll take that much longer to get projects going. But I think there’ll be some consternation on council looking at that pot of money and wondering why we’re not using it for something else. They may want to raid that money.”
The money is in a restricted fund and can only be used for projects related to streets and drainage. In fact, it’s not even available to pay for fixing all the water main breaks the city dealt with this year.
But Houston Mayor Annise Parker says it will go a long way toward preventing such a scenario from happening again.
“As we do the overhaul that we have scheduled for our water and sewer system, we’re changing the old pipes for newer technology pipes. We’ve got those big PVC pipes — they have more flex, they handle the soil shifting and once we get those rolled out over the next few years, if this drought comes again in the future, it won’t be as bad.”
The drainage fund is part of the mayor’s plan to change the way the city coordinates capital improvement projects. She says the city will transition from a five-year planning schedule to one that looks ahead for ten years. And she acknowledges it’s natural for people to still be divided on the benefits of the plan.
“The drainage fee that voters approved last November was only implemented in July, so it took us six months to get it up and running, which was absolutely lightning speed. And now we have to bring the money in before we can launch projects. And so it’s going to be a while before people see tangible benefits.”
But urban planning expert David Crossley says it’s not just that people aren’t seeing results. It’s that they don’t see an actual plan for how the money will be used.
“If we knew more about what was going to be done we might, or might not, be much more comfortable with what’s planned. So I think at the highest level we need to see some policies that are saying in terms of drainage let’s use this drainage money to secure our existing neighborhoods, not to create new ones.”
Crossley, who runs an organization called Houston Tomorrow, says he supports the $125 million drainage fund and thinks it will benefit the city, if it’s used in the right way.
“I would like to see that money very carefully used to make all the streets good and to drain all the areas where we have a problem. And that we attach to the drainage policy a lot of small things that we can do to keep the water from ever reaching the street.”
Anyone who lives or drives in Houston can see the need for better streets, and during the rainy season the drainage problem is self-evident as well. Parker says the pay as you go fund may one day be considered the largest public works project in the United States.
“When you build a house, you start from the foundation and you build up. Our underground water and sewer system and our street and drainage system are the foundation of the house that is Houston. Between the work that we’re doing in our water and sewer system and the work we’re doing in our street and drainage system, over the next 20 years we will have transformed the foundation of Houston.”
As our survey continues, we take a look at the city’s changing attitude toward the Houston Police Department. That’s coming up tonight on KHOU 11 News at ten.