Monday, July 30, 2012

Metro's big decision and a potential solution

The Metro board is deciding this week on the referendum ballot language regarding general mobility payments (GMP - a quarter of their 1% sales tax goes to city and county entities for general transportation projects, typically roads).  Options include keeping it as-is, getting rid of it entirely, or anything in between, including capping it at the current dollar number and letting the growth increment go back to Metro for transit projects.  The hard part is getting it down to a simple Yes/No choice for the ballot.

Without additional money, Metro will not be able to build the University or Uptown LRT lines anytime in the next decade+.  As I've been saying for a long time, it was a *huge* mistake that Metro built the lowest-value lines first (connecting the fewest key destinations) - they consumed all discretionary dollars and are unlikely to impress voters with their metrics once they are running, thus making it harder to get support for future lines, including the far more valuable Universities line.  Metro is also, unfortunately, following in the footsteps of many other transit agencies: underestimate rail costs, over-promise, under-deliver, and then go back to voters threatening draconian cuts if they don't get additional funds - usually bus service, but in this case critical road funds.

Christof Spieler of the Metro board lays out the overall situation excellently here, including lots of good numbers.  He also has a pretty interesting compromise referendum proposal that would still get the western part of the Universities line built while maintaining the GMP, mainly by relying on the City of Houston to use part of its GMP to do a lot of the prep work along the line.  Unfortunately it also leaves TSU and UH students twisting in the wind if the want to go west, requiring multiple transfers on a very circuitous route - not to mention an ironically named Universities line that wouldn't connect any actual universities (except UST).

Josh Sanders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth lays out the pro-GMP case here.  HRG also has a poll out showing 69% of voters want to increase or keep the GMP as-is (poll details).  To the average Houstonian, road improvements are a higher priority than transit.  Both in his article and in our own conversations, Josh laid out some disturbing points:
  • Metro's last referendum promised a 50% increase in bus capacity, but instead they have cut it 15%
  • METRO promised it would be able to complete the 3 light rail lines by 2012 and would do so with the approved voter bond capacity and Federal assistance.  Not one line has been completed and their costs have substantially acceded their original estimates.
  • Cost for the 3 light rail lines was to be an estimated 1.6 billion dollars, now running well over 3 billion
  • The purpose of extending the 2003 GMP agreement 10 years was that METRO was going to have a substantial amount of work done and there would be evidence on capital costs, operating costs, and ridership numbers to allow for the public to make an informed decision on what the GMP should look like going forward.  None of that information is available because METRO is so far behind schedule.
  • METRO currently has over 500 million dollars of unfunded pension liabilities. 
UPDATE: Some other stats from a public Metro presentation by Walt Mischer, a former chairman of the GHP Transportation Committee and supporter of the 2003 referendum:
  • Actual rail costs are running 3.3 times higher than original cost estimates.
  • Rail lines under construction are running $140 million per mile (!).  That's 3 miles of light rail = 1 Reliant Stadium = 600 lane-miles of major thoroughfare road construction (!!).
  • Overall Metro ridership continues to drop, even during substantial population and job increases.
Given that tax increases will almost certainly be required if local entities lose the GMP, Metro asking for some or all of the GMP back is, in essence, a request for a taxpayer bailout.  Ugh.

I'm not really sure what the right answer is.  I tend to favor something between keeping everything as-is (i.e. the "Metro's chickens come home to roost" scenario) and Christof's proposal.  But there might be an intriguing alternative.  What if Metro kept the GMP as-is, but to raise funds for the Universities line, it sold its HOV/HOT lane network to HCTRA or TXDOT (who I think would do a better job managing and expanding it) and sold its commuter buses and Park-and-Ride lots to private operators?  Metro would get the capital it needs, and Houston could get the vastly more effective commuter transit system it needs: a comprehensive urban network of HOT lanes (maybe branded as “MaX Lanes (Managed eXpress Lanes) - moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed”) connecting all of the job centers and residential areas.

These lanes, in turn, may be best utilized by a private express bus/shuttle/van and park-and-ride market providing single-seat service connecting every suburban residential community with each of Houston's decentralized major job centers.  Private shuttle operators could compete on routes, schedule, reliability, price, service, and amenities like wifi and laptop trays.  These services, in turn, could enable Houston to hold on to and even grow our job and tax base rather than see them dispersed to the far suburbs because of increasing traffic congestion (the new Exxon Woodlands mega-campus is a canary in the coal mine here).  It could also be of great benefit to employers, allowing their employees to be more productive during their commutes (especially email).  Finally, it could also open up new job opportunities to Houstonians by bringing additional options within their acceptable commute range.

I don't know how much money Metro might raise with this approach.  They say they've put $1+ billion into the HOV network.  I'm guessing the net present value of the expected cash stream from them being converted to HOT lanes is far less than that.  Don't know what the P&R land or buses are worth.  But I'm guessing they might get into substantial hundred-million dollar numbers, which would have to be a boost for the Universities line.  An option at least worth exploring?

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