Small City Mayors Urge METRO to Continue General Mobility Funding
The METRO Board of Directors has heard from several of the transit authority’s multi-city mayors who are at risk of losing mobility funding for road construction projects in their cities.
The board also heard from dozens of people, either for or against continuing the general mobility program, during a special meeting last Friday.
METRO is considering ending its general mobility program, which provides funding to 14 of the transit authority’s multi-cities, including West U and Bellaire.
West U receives $259,000 per year for mobility projects and forfeits 1 percent of its sales tax to METRO, which equals about $1 million annually, West U City Manager Michael Ross said.
Since the inception of METRO, West U has forfeited over $18 million in sales tax revenue to the transit authority.
METRO is sponsoring a referendum that will be brought to the voters either on Nov. 6, 2012 or May 11, 2013.
Allen Owen, mayor of Missouri City and the chairman of the multi-cities, told the board that they made the mistake of going to the legislature in 1997 about getting out of METRO and didn’t.
“We should have,” he said.
Owen said Missouri City will have to raise taxes by 6 cents if the mobility funds stop completely.
“We’re the little guys,” he said. “Think about the effect it will have on my citizens.”
West University Place, Bellaire, Southside Place, Bunker Hill Village, El Lago, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village, Hunters Creek Village, Piney Point Village, Spring Valley Village and Taylor Lake Village have hired a consultant to provide lobbying services to deal with general mobility funding.
The remaining cities that belong to METRO, which include Humble, Katy and Missouri City, have their own lobbyists.
Katy Mayor Don Elder said that if the mobility funds do not continue, they will also have to raise taxes.
“We’ve been dumped on long enough,” he said. “We receive no services in the 10 square miles of Katy from METRO.”
Former West U Mayor John Neighbors said the decision needs to be based on “fairness and trust” and that “METRO should continue to fund fair and equitable mobility funding.”
Bellaire Mayor Phil Nauert said that Bellaire considers itself a partner of METRO and would like the transit authority to “continue as our partner.”
“Let us together maintain what we have,” he said. “We’re in this together, but we want to stay in this together.”
The board also heard from Congressman John Culberson who spoke in favor of the multi-cities.
“There’s no new money on the federal level,” he said.
Culberson urged the board to write the ballot language in plain English so everyone could understand it and to stop looking for new revenues from tax payers.
“Cut things you can’t afford,” he said. “Focus on what you do well.”
METRO’s funding comes from collecting a portion of the state’s 8.25 percent sales tax from the governments in the transit authority’s service area. Harris County, Houston and the 14 multi-cities all contribute 1 percent of their sales tax to METRO’s revenue. The cities get 1 percent for mobility projects, and the state gets the remaining 6.25 percent.
In 1999, METRO formed contracts with the City of Houston, Harris County and the multi-cities for distribution of general mobility funds, which is 25 percent of METRO’s portion of the sales tax. The cities can use the funds for street improvements and transit projects.
METRO began contributing funds for various projects with Houston, Harris County and the multi-cities in 1982 and formalized its sales tax revenues into the general mobility program in 1987.
METRO President and CEO George Grenias presented the board with two “what if’ scenarios for beyond September 2014, including continuing the general mobility program or ending it completely.
Grenias gave a comparison of how METRO would be affected if the mobility program continued or ended.
If it continued, he said METRO would see limited increase in service hours for local and commuter bus routes, the transit authority would be able to provide a very modest expansion of their bus fleet, park and ride expansion would be minimal, rail construction would resume by 2028-2030 and there would be no capacity for matching grants on major projects until 2025-2027, amongst other things.
If the mobility program ended, Grenias said METRO could increase service hours for local and commuter bus routes, significantly shrink the gap in their bus fleet, significantly expand their park and ride service, resume rail construction by 2018-2020 and have the capacity to match grants for major projects by 2015.
Things won’t get any worse for METRO if the mobility funding continues, Grenias said.
Board member Carrin Patman said there’s a misconception in the community that METRO is broke and they need to get the word out that they’re not.
“We’re not broke today and we’re not going broke because we’ll manage our way through situations,” he said.
Grenias said he sees benefits for ending the GMP entirely, but it’s a board decision.
“I don’t relish your debate, but you’re going to have to figure this out,” he said.
“I do think this is one of the most important things we will face during our terms on the board,” METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.