In the weeks following the passage of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s $3.5 billion bond referendum, some Missouri City leaders are pushing back on what projects the plan will bring to the city over the next 20 years.

Some Missouri City City Council members have expressed a strong desire for light rail to connect Missouri City to downtown Houston and the Medical Center. However, the METRONext Moving Forward Plan, which is funded in part by the bond referendum, places less of a focus on light rail even in downtown Houston.

METRO is continuing to flesh out, finalize and apply for federal funding for the projects included in the METRONext Moving Forward Plan, said Eddie Miranda, the vice president of government affairs at METRO, in a presentation to the Missouri City City Council on Nov. 18. He said because of this, there is still time to make adjustments to the plan.

Missouri City City Manager Anthony Snipes said the city would continue to work within the bounds of its current contract with METRO, which is valid through Dec. 31, 2025.

“We will be working with METRO to determine the next steps in our mobility and being part of the regional mobility for this area,” Snipes said.

Moving forward

All voters who live in METRO’s service area, which includes Houston as well as several bordering municipalities and suburbs, were able to vote to decide whether the $3.5 billion bond would pass. The bond referendum passed with 67.9% support.

Missouri City voters approved the referendum with 76.7% support, according to Fort Bend County election data.

Snipes said there was community engagement throughout the election to make sure everyone in METRO’s service area understood the bond.

“I think based on its passage at 68%, [citizens] understood the value of the its passage,” Snipes said.

The $7.5 billion METRONext plan concentrates most of its projects in Houston proper.

The plan includes 75 miles of new bus rapid transit. METRO describes these buses as trains with rubber tires—they run in separate designated lanes and have raised boarding platforms—and are about half the cost of light rail.

In inner Houston, METRONext includes 16 miles of METRORail extensions and would connect two light rail routes to the William P. Hobby Airport.

Another initiative is 110 miles of two-way high-occupancy vehicle and bus lanes on major highways leading into the downtown area.

The plan also allocates funding for systemwide updates, including improvements on 17 routes with high ridership.

“The plan was truly travel improvements for the entire region,” METRO President and CEO Tom Lambert said. “And we think that the plan reflected what community was looking for us to do over the next 20 years.”

Missouri City would receive a small taste of the METRONext upgrades.

Hwy. 90A will be a part of the Regional Express Network, where buses will run in two-way HOV lanes from the two Missouri City park and rides to job hubs downtown.

Additionally, a BRT corridor will extend from the Missouri City Park and Ride at Hwy. 90 and Beltway 8 north along the Beltway to Hwy. 290.

The city could also see some of the system-wide enhancements, such as traffic light synchronization and improved bus stops, Miranda said.

Floyd Emery, Missouri City’s District D councilmember, said ahead of the City Council election, many constituents questioned whether the city’s partnership with METRO was the best use of their tax dollars. He asked METRO representatives during the Nov. 18 meeting if there was a way to see the costs of the services the agency is providing to the city versus the sales tax dollars Missouri City contributes to METRO.

“How can we be assured ... that we’re getting, so to speak, the bang for our buck?” Emery asked.

Steve Okoroha ran for the Missouri City City Council District C seat in November but lost to incumbent Anthony Maroulis. Okoroha said he does not believe the city is reaping the full benefits of its partnership with METRO.

“For money that is going to be going toward an entity that is going to be providing services to a city, but it is not providing the same services as it does within the central Houston metropolitan area is deficient, in my opinion,” Okoroha said.

Missouri City’s current partnership with METRO provides that 1% of the city’s sales tax is collected by METRO. This means that for every $1 spent in Missouri City, $0.01 goes toward funding METRO. In fiscal year 2019, Missouri City estimates the city contributed $10.3 million to METRO.

Okoroha said he wants to see METRO provide a full bus system in Missouri City. Yet Thomas Gray, a principal transportation planner with the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said while he could see Missouri City having some fixed bus routes in the future, that tends to not be what suburban communities want.

“Generally we see that suburban people are interested in park and ride service,” Gray said.

The future of light rail

One METRO service Missouri City City Council members hope to see come to fruition is light rail.

“I’m wondering what the opportunity is to see something really come through with the [Hwy. 90] corridor, the light rail,” Emery said. “I think that’s something that’s been discussed for a number of years, and every time we think that we’re taking the step forward something happens in another district or another area gets the attention and the 90 corridor sits on the back burner.”

The METRONext plan does include a potential light rail opportunity that would run from the Fannin Transit Center on Loop 610 down Hwy. 90A in Missouri City to Hwy. 59 in Sugar Land.

However, the reality of a Missouri City light rail seems far off, according to city staff and other officials.

Gray said Missouri City alone could not support light rail from a financial and ridership perspective. He said other Fort Bend County entities including Sugar Land, Rosenberg and Richmond would need to help fund the project.

“We need them on board as well, both from a political support standpoint as well as a financial standpoint before we can build anything,” Gray said.

Sugar Land city spokesman Doug Adolf said city leaders have not had an interest in pursuing an agreement with METRO, but the city has not taken a position on a light-rail partnership.

Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, who also sits on the H-GAC board of directors, said before light rail was available in downtown Houston, people said it could not be done.

“Never say never,” Zimmerman said. “You have to have a regional coalition of people that are interested, and you have to have the financing. The biggest thing is you have to have ridership.”

Missouri City Mayor Yolanda Ford said because of the challenges with acquiring the land necessary for a light rail, the city should support BRT throughout the area.

“That [Hwy.] 90 BRT would be a priority because it’s working just like rail, and it’s going to move people the same way. That’s something we absolutely need to focus on,” Ford said.

Emery, along with Council Member Jeffrey Boney, were not satisfied with this. They said they thought the light rail project was in the city’s original contract with METRO.

“I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that we’ve already made significant investments into this METRO agreement with the purposes of getting rail, if that is truly the case,” Boney said.

Additional reporting by Beth Marshall