Houston-area transportation council rejects proposal to give city more proportional representation

Prop B, passed by Houston voters in November, compels the city to leave a regional council of governments and metropolitan planning organization if it cannot negotiate for more proportional representation based on its population.

Fair for Houston City Hall
Austin Lewellen
Fair for Houston submitted a petition to the City Secretary this week for a charter amendment seeking greater representation on the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Houston voters made it clear in November that they want the city to have more proportional representation on the region's council of governments and its metropolitan planning organization, which determine how to allocate federal, state and local funding sources in areas such as flood mitigation, transportation infrastructure and workforce development.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council, and perhaps the regionwide body as a whole, are making it clear they want to keep things much the way they are.

The transportation council, made up of representatives from around the 13-county region as well as the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), voted overwhelmingly last Friday to stop considering a plan to give the region's largest city more proportional voting power based on its population. The proposal was triggered by the passage of Proposition B, a city charter amendment approved by about 65 percent of Houstonians who voted in November's election, which compels the city to negotiate for more representation both on the H-GAC board of directors and its Transportation Policy Council – or leave those organizations altogether.

With a vote of 20-6 to discontinue discussions about implementing Prop B, the rest of the surrounding region essentially called Houston's bluff.

"It's a pure power play. That's all it is," Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, who made the motion to stop negotiations, said during the meeting. "I'm just opposed to it."

Houston City Council member Sallie Alcorn, the new chair of the H-GAC's board of directors, had motioned for a 30-day continuance to keep discussing the issue, but that proposal failed by a vote of 19-7. Both votes fell largely along urban vs. suburban lines, with two regional representatives for TxDOT voting alongside the suburban delegates.

It's not clear what will happen next as the H-GAC board of directors, which includes many of the same people as the Transportation Policy Council, has yet to make a determination on the potential implementation of Prop B. Alcorn said she would need to defer to the city's legal department and the administration of new Mayor John Whitmire, which did not comment on the matter Monday.

H-GAC executive director Chuck Wemple, who did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment, said during Friday's meeting that the organization was consulting legal counsel.

RELATED: Proposed charter amendment aims to give city greater representation on Houston-Galveston Area Council

Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough claimed federal law prohibits Houston from leaving the metropolitan planning organization because it's the largest population center of the region.

Alcorn called it "uncharted territory" while saying she's "apprehensive" about how the broader H-GAC board will act in light of the decision made by the Transportation Policy Council.

"I do believe there will be repercussions. I'm not sure what they are," Alcorn said. "I'm disappointed. I was hoping we could have come to an agreement."

Friday's vote was criticized by the nonprofits Air Alliance Houston and LINK Houston, both of which supported Prop B and advocate for more public transit and multimodal transportation options in the Houston area, which historically has been car-centric. It also drew the ire of Fair for Houston, the grassroots organization that collected more than 20,000 signatures and petitioned for Prop B to appear on the ballot.

"What happened on Friday was a really clear example of the deeply biased voting system at the center of our regional council of governments. It illustrates the need for reform," said Ally Smither, a spokesperson for Fair for Houston. "It was disrespectful of our elected officials, of our voters and, frankly, I thought it was pretty cowardly."

Alcorn had proposed a two-layered voting system, similar to what is used in the Phoenix area, that she said would have satisfied Prop B while also trying to make its implementation more palatable for those outside the city. She said her idea had built-in mechanisms to prevent Houston or Harris County from blocking a given project, adding that a second vote weighted with more Houston delegates would have been invoked only for contentious projects, such as TxDOT's planned expansion of Interstate 45.

Gabe Cazares, the executive director for LINK Houston, said he was "very disappointed" to see TxDOT representatives "taking a hands-on approach on issues that impact localities." And while his organization advocates for more equitable transportation options around the region, he said the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council as a whole is “more interested in building through the city and paving over communities, particularly those historically Black and brown communities, who have for decades faced the burden of highway expansion.”

“The reality that the (council) cannot ignore is that voters chose to pass Prop B,” Cazares added. “Proposition B is now the law of the land, and someone will have to enforce it.”

Houston holds two of the 28 seats on the Transportation Policy Council and two of the 37 seats on the H-GAC board of directors. Zimmerman called the proposal to give the city more representation a "bad deal."

Carol Lewis of the Gulf Coast Rail District, who voted along with the Houston contingent, said she was open to the idea compelled by Prop B and reminded the rest of the council that those who supported it aren't going away. She also said ending discussions about more proportional representation for Houston gives "more credibility to the folks who voted for Prop B" because it illustrates competing interests between the region’s urban core and its outlying areas.

"There's going to be some unintended consequences," Lewis said. "... If we try to end this today, it's not really going to be ended."