METRO wants to change its mobility fund terms

July 26, 2012 4:37:06 PM PDT
METRO on Thursday unveiled plans the transit agency says will chart its future. For years, METRO's given away part of the money it collects in sales taxes, but now, some METRO board members want it back.

The dollar you pay to ride METRO doesn't even come close to paying for the bus or the train or the park and rides METRO runs all over town. Fares don't pay for practically any public transit anywhere in America.

So to make the wheels go round and round, METRO charges sales tax on virtually everything you buy anywhere METRO provides service.

It's by far METRO's biggest money maker - one cent on every dollar. This year it brings in $573 million to METRO - nearly 10 times farebox revenue. Twenty years ago, METRO agreed to give Houston, Harris County and the 14 other METRO cities a quarter of it back. This year, that's an estimated $143 million.

The cities use that money for roads and infrastructure projects. Houston is depending on it for its Rebuild Houston program. The METRO deal needs voter approval this November to keep going, but METRO wants to change the terms.

"What's really at stake is the future of transit in the greater Houston area," said METRO president & CEO George Grenias said.

On Thursday, METRO unveiled plans to get some of the so-called mobility money back. Options range from all of it to none of it. METRO says if the system stays the same, they're stuck.

"Without some of the mobility funds coming back, there will be a limit to how much we can grow," Grenias said.

No matter what, METRO will be able to finish the two light rail lines under construction. But if they have to keep giving cash back, they won't have the money to expand beyond on Richmond or near the Galleria, and promised bus expansion is likely put off for years.

"Our organization has been looking at transportation issues in the region for several years now," said Joshua Sanders with Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

METRO critics who've pored over the numbers say METRO is asking for a new deal after failing to keep old promises. In 2003, METRO asked voters to approve rails, saying it would finish those lines by now and promised to expand bus service 50 percent. But bus service shrank and these lines aren't close to running.

"None of it has met the timetable and none of it has been completed," Sanders said.

It is why Sanders and Houstonians for Responsible Growth say don't touch this system and keep the program the same until METRO proves it can get this job done before asking for more cash.

A poll from Houstonians for Responsible Growth suggests that 73 percent of Houstonians want to keep the system the same as it's been for 25 years. Ultimately, you'll get to decide in November.

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