Houstonians Hate The City’s Bad Roads, But Pay For Improving Them?

In the News 88.7/KHOU 11 News 2015 Election Poll, we asked what Houstonians consider the most important problem the city is facing. Two issues stuck out, but most are unwilling to put up the money to fix those problems.


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Those polled provided a long list of problems ranging from ... well, let's hear it from Houstonians directly. We went out and did a non-scientific version of the poll:

"In my opinion, it would have to be our pension system, because it's out of control," said Jorge Villarreal.

"Traffic," said George Antunes. "The whole area seems to have gotten a lot more congested a lot more of the time."

"Potholes are a huge annoyance," Madeline Sanchez said. "And I'm about to have to just get a new car."

It's those last two that the poll identifies as Houstonians' most pressing problems by far. Both are transportation-related. A lot fewer mentioned crime and flooding as issues.

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein conducted the survey for News 88.7 and KHOU.

"And then we asked them something different," Stein said. "We said, look, the city gets its money from two sources – the sales tax and the property tax. We told them what the current city sales tax was. We actually said, ‘As you may know, the sales tax rate is 2 percent. Would you be willing to raise the sales tax to solve what you think is the most important problem?'"

The answer, for about 60 percent of Houstonians, is "no." Even fewer are willing to pay more in property taxes.

"That's like saying, ‘I want to win the lottery, but I just don't want to buy the ticket," said Sue Lovell, a former city council member and self-professed infrastructure nerd. She said there's just no way around spending more money if you want the problem fixed.

"In order for us to have better streets and road repair, it costs money to do so. And when you neglect, it costs a lot more because you have to do a lot more rather than having a really good ongoing maintenance program that identifies problems and fixes them right then and there."

Bob Stein interprets voters' unwillingness to pay for improvements as mistrust in government and the belief that there's money somewhere that can be used.

"One other interpretation might be that voters don't think that any amount of money – whether it's a small or large increase in property or sales taxes – would be adequate for solving this problem, but they're not willing to support it," Stein said.

Or, he said, they don't care enough about the issue, kind of like when you have a defective car or dishwasher, but since it still runs, you're not ready to make an investment on it.

Lovell thinks that it depends on what you tell people and how much they trust you.

"I actually think that if you go to people with a good plan and you tell them how this is going to happen, what it's going to cost, how you're going to execute this and you're using the best technology available to identify – I believe if you tell people that and they trust you, they will pay for that repair to happen," Lovell said.

You could argue Rebuild Houston, a model to address drainage and street maintenance, is such a plan. Mayor Annise Parker talked about it on Here & Now when the program visited Houston this week.

"We have a particular problem right now," she said. "We have 30 years of deferred maintenance coming home to roost. And we have a 20-year-into-the-future program to fix it. We have the money, we're doing the projects, but there's only so many you can do at a time."

And by the way, Rebuild Houston is currently being challenged in court, because some say the language in the referendum on it was misleading because it didn't mention that residents would have to pay a monthly fee to make it work.

So much for the "trust" part.

But the pothole problem could get worse if Rebuild Houston is repealed. What to do then?

Well, definitely not raise taxes.

The city's sales tax can't be raised above what it is right now, and because of Houston's cap on revenue from property taxes, an increase here wouldn't work either.

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