Metro works for the "greater" good…all 0.9% of it

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Last week I ran across this post on Reason’s Out of Control blog which included a link to some interesting data: Houston’s public transit market share in 2005 was 0.9%.

For some clarification, Tom Bazan explained exactly what that means: Out of all the “trips” made by Houstonians, whether by car, bus, rail, whatever, less than one percent was carried by public transit. Think of all the hundreds of millions of dollars Metro collects each year, and then think of what percentage of the population that serves.

Yesterday, Rad Sallee noted that Metro’s board approved a new budget for 2008 that totals $875 million:

The sum includes an increase, to $354 million, for operations — a cost that had held steady for three years before going up 4 percent in 2007.

But the biggest difference from the current budget is a 65 percent increase in the general mobility payments that Metro makes to the city of Houston, Harris County and 14 member cities in its service area.

That annual obligation, which amounts to 25 percent of Metro’s sales tax revenue as required by a 2003 referendum, is budgeted at $185 million in 2008.

Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson attributed the jump to the city of Houston undertaking more mobility projects and presenting more invoices from those projects for Metro to pay.

Tom Bazan has suspected for a while now that Metro wasn’t meeting its general mobility obligation to the city of Houston and Harris County areas where Metro collects sales tax revenues. Does Metro have some making up to do? Sure seems like it!

But what’s really amazing is that light rail proponents complain that the 25% set-aside is too much!

METRO’s CFO, Francis Britton, estimates that since the program’s inception, more than $1.3 billion has been reallocated. Houston could have built a LOT of high-quality urban transit with $1.3 billion.

Even though three-fourths of the sales tax Metro collects goes to public transit, that’s still not enough. The CTC wants 100% of it to go toward transit that serves a teensy fraction of Houstonians.

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Sallee’s story:

But 2007 was a busy year too, with detailed engineering and property acquisition starting on four of the lines, purchases of 65 new buses, opening of three new Park & Ride lots, and testing of a new fare card system.

Hmmmm, wonder what kind of property acquisition has been going on?

And then a bit of number crunching:

To pay for all this, Metro forecasts sales tax revenue of at least $450 million, $113 million in federal grants and $256 million from short-term borrowing with commercial paper.

Fares are estimated to bring in about $53 million, which would be 6 percent of total spending and 15 percent of operating costs.

Metro will take $450 million from local taxpayers, and fares from actual transit riders will bring in $53 million. That’s a plan only government can love!

Today’s Chron carries an op-ed by Roy R. Reynolds who laments the fact that Metro just does whatever it wants, no matter how ill-conceived the project. He starts off with a great point that Kevin Whited also made last week:

Houston Mayor Bill White took to the skies a couple of weeks ago to scope out traffic problems created by at-grade rail crossings. As the mayor’s helicopter swooped around the city, he saw for himself how “arrogant” rail operators seemed when blocking intersections and creating long queues of cars.

He could have saved the 45-minute helicopter ride and just walked a few blocks from City Hall to see the same problems created by Houston’s own light-rail system.

Further in, he gets to the meat of the problem:

Alas resistance, as they say, is futile. Metro recently held public hearings that allowed opponents of the Richmond rail route to voice their dissent. But surely all those attending the meeting know any words of discord fell on deaf ears.

Seemingly nothing can be said that will convince Metro’s leaders of anything other than the plan they’re forcing on Houston. Those who live and operate businesses along Richmond are told to sacrifice for the “greater good.”

Houstonians are inundated with projected ridership figures aimed at showing how useful a rail line cutting through an already-busy part of town would be.

But those dubious numbers, which must come from some bureaucrat’s crystal ball, are designed to secure federal funds. That way, Metro can force a whole nation to pay for a rail system that will serve only a handful.

Never mind that the light rail can’t get commuters from the suburbs to their jobs. Or that Houston’s decentralized population and wide geographic reach vastly reduce the utility of a static mass transit structure.

Logic hasn’t dissuaded Metro in the past. Nor have various political scandals. So don’t expect the rights of property owners along Richmond — the same kind of people who created a city of opportunity — to make a difference.

One last note, Kevin sent me this amusing email yesterday:

We caught a bus from Athens airport to nearby port city of
Ruffina. Very nice bus, minimal number of stops, took hardly any time
at all, three euros for the fare. Not like Metro’s airport express!

Well, that’s what we get with a quasi-governmental agency that has practically no accountability. And those who are in a position to force change aren’t interested.


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About Anne Linehan 2323 Articles
Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.