Millions from program go toward road improvements in Northwest Houston

Note: This article has been updated to reflect decisions made during an Aug. 17 Metro board meeting.

The fate of a decades-old program run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County will be in the hands of the voters in the form of a ballot referendum this November.

Since 1988, Metro has set aside 25 percent of its sales tax collections into its general mobility fund, which is divvied up between the organization's 15 member cities and Harris County. The money is spent on transportation projects and local road improvements, as opposed to mass transit. Harris County commissioners passed a resolution in July in support of no changes to the program, but projections done by Metro suggest it will take longer to carry out some transit services if the program continues.

"The gap is enormous between the people who want more rail, more transit and all the mobility money, and the people who want to continue the road improvements and keep general mobility as is," said Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the Metro board.

Harris County has received about $500 million from the fund since 1988, and it has gone toward various road improvement projects in Cy-Fair, including the ongoing Spring Cypress Road expansion.

"If the general mobility fund continues, we will, quite candidly, continue to fall further behind in meeting the community's transit needs," said George Greanias, Metro's CEO, during a July 19 community outreach meeting. "If the mobility program were to end, we could significantly shrink, but not close, the gap."

The referendum

Metro board members were required to call a voter referendum on the general mobility fund no later than spring 2013, as per the last referendum in 2003. Over the past few months, the board has hosted a slew of community meetings to gather input on how to craft the November ballot referendum. Although the board approved a proposal Aug. 3 that would have made it so each member entity received 25 percent of the sales tax from their jurisdiction, another proposal was adopted Aug. 17.

The newer proposal calls for the general mobility program to continue until at least 2025, but it does require Metro to spend some of the money it gets back on efforts to increase ridership. It also caps future allocations at 2014 levels until 2025, splitting up any future growth in the sales tax revenue between Metro and its 16 jurisdictions. Per the referendum, Metro will be required to spend any of its share of the extra sales tax collections on futhering ridership such as acquiring 200 additional buses, constructing up to 1,000 additional bus shelters and the addition of Park and Ride facilities, bus transit centers and bus operating facilities.

If the measure fails, the general mobility program will cease to exist after September 2014, and Metro will retain all of its sales tax for transit projects such as rail and bus lines.

"I really think the big challenge for Metro will be, how do we operate, how do we get a better, long-term plan to make sure we are spending our dollars as wisely and best as we can in an environment where we know that funds are going to become more scarce, with the needs getting greater and greater," Garcia said.

Harris County's share

Although Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said they believe residents of unincorporated Harris County are paying a significant tax to which there is a minimal return from the general mobility fund, Cagle said it was agreed upon to promote Houston's transportation network.

"There is a benefit to Precinct 4 residents in having the city's infrastructure improved," he said. "Imagine having between 35,000 and 50,000 new jobs being brought into the northern side of the precinct with ExxonMobil and Coventry coming in, and having to stay on a two-lane road to get in and out of work," Cagle said. "These funds are what we use to give us the economic bang to be able to provide mobility and transportation to our residents."

In Precinct 3, the general mobility fund has allowed for the ongoing Skinner Road expansion project from Huffmeister to Spring Cypress roads and the recently completed widening of Kluge Road.

"Since they want to decrease our funding, I think it's time we lay it on the line in terms of how much is out there and turn the public eye on it and improve the unincorporated area, since that's basically the only part of Harris County that is growing rapidly," Radack said.

Transit vs. road improvements

While Metro's 2003 referendum extended the general mobility fund until 2014, it also created a master plan for transit, promising residents four new rail lines. To date, three of the lines are moving toward completion, but no ground has been broken on the University Line, which will run from the University of Houston west to the Galleria area. The line will also connect with Metro's Park and Ride system, which brings in commuters from outside Loop 610, including areas such as Cy-Fair.

"The University Line has truly regional benefits," said Christof Spieler, Metro board member. "If you're in Cypress or Mission Bend, it makes your life easier as well."