METRO’s referendum will ask voters whether they want to authorize the transit agency to continue sharing a portion of its sales tax with Harris County, the City of Houston and a dozen smaller municipalities in the region.
“This is a crossroads that’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen.”
That’s David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow.
He says if voters approve the measure, METRO will keep more money in the future for buses and transit centers, but they won’t be able to use any of the growth in sales tax on light rail for ten years.
“They had to specifically agree with Commissioner Radack that they would not build light rail with the sales tax increment that would come out of this vote.”
Reporter: “But they’ll be able to use their other monies for light rail.”
“Except they don’t have any other money. The reason this has been such an interesting discussion for so many months now, is that METRO is at a place where they cannot afford to move on to the next piece of the light rail line.”
Houston Tomorrow, along with the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Better Houston are starting a social media-driven campaign to get people to vote No to the METRO referendum. A no vote, they say, would allow METRO to keep all of its sales tax money and use it however they want.
METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia says it’s true that right now there’s no money for light rail. But he says the referendum will allow METRO to pay its current debt, which would allow them to borrow money for an additional light rail line.
“If we did not have this referendum and it did not pass, it would just be even longer before we could take on another rail project because we would need to do these two items — increase the ridership and pay down the debt to have greater capacity.”
Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who appoints five of METRO’s nine board members, says even if people vote against the referendum, METRO will likely continue sharing its sales tax revenue in a less formal way.
“If the referendum fails, the METRO board can decide anything they want to do with that money and I would fully expect them to commit, going forward, to continuing the general mobility payments in some form. It is naive and, frankly, foolish to simply assume that if it were voted down suddenly 100 percent of that money is spent exclusively on building rail in Houston.”
If that happens, David Crossley wonders why METRO is holding the referendum in the first place.
“They could just say to the voters here’s mud in your eye, just forget it, we don’t agree with your vote and we’re going to do what we want. But if the voters firmly say no, it’s a little hard for me to see how METRO says never mind that vote.”
So the question for voters is this: Does it really matter whether you vote yes or no for the METRO referendum? METRO, the mayor and Crossley all think it does matter, but for very different reasons.