Some on Metro board looking for compromise on general mobility program

July 13, 2012

Several Metro board members, including Chairman Gilbert Garcia, are looking for something “between the bookends” of eliminating the General Mobility Program, or keeping it with no changes.

Garcia and board members Dwight Jefferson, Carrin Pitman and Allen Watson heard public comments and answered questions at a community meeting July 12 at The Power Station in Southwest Houston.

“This is a critical issue for (Metro’s) future and for transit,” Garcia said.

At stake is the 25 percent of Metro’s 1-cent sales tax that’s returned to its regional members for transit-related projects in those areas.

The General Mobility Program was created in 1988 and extended in a 2003 referendum, which also mandated another referendum on the program by 2013. Metro expects the referendum to be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Mayors of the 14 multi-cities — who along with the city of Houston and Harris County make up Metro — have actively campaigned to keep the program, saying their cities rely on it for street improvements in already tight budgets.

The mayors say its a matter of fairness, that the 23 other municipalities in the Metro service region collect that penny sales tax for themselves and not Metro, and are able to put that revenue to use for themselves.

Metro says that it’s aware of the impact that eliminating the program would have on the mulit-cities, but it needs additional revenue to complete transit projects — and start new ones.

That’s why the board is actively seeking a “balance” between eliminating the program and keeping it as is, said Jefferson, chair of the board’s Finance Committee.

Jefferson said the “New Metro” inherited a deficit from the previous board and administration and that it became clear early on that Metro needed new revenue.

“I’m a proponent of a compromise that will continue to fund the General Mobility Program, but also allow Metro to recover tax revenue,” he said.

Pitman said that she agreed with Jefferson, that she was in favor of a compromise.

Jefferson said that under one compromise he’s heard the GMP would pay out $2 billion between 2015 and 2030.

Metro President and CEO George Greanias said in a presentation of the “bookend” scenarios that 83 percent of Metro’s revenue is sales tax revenue — around $560 million this year.

Metro’s other sources of revenue include the “farebox” at 10 percent, and recurring federal grants at 7 percent.

One-quarter of the sales tax revenue goes into an escrow fund for the General Mobility Program, Greanias said, and is paid out as cities submit projects.

He said that the city of Houston collects 80 percent of the sales tax for Metro, but only gets 62 percent back through the general mobility program. Harris County gets 18 percent of the GMP funds; the multi-cities 16 percent; 4 percent goes to the program.

Eliminating the GMP would allow Metro to continue to expand its bus fleet and other operations, and begin design and right-of-way work for planned light-rail lines such as University and Post Oak by 2015, Greanias said, and construction could start as early as 2018.

If GMP continues as is, preliminary work wouldn’t start until 2024; construction until at least 2028.

Public comments were split between keeping and eliminating the program, although some asked about the U.S. 90A corridor rail line and when it might be built.

Greanias said that if GMP continues there would be no capital projects until the late 2020s, and 90A would not be a priority.

After the meeting Jefferson said the New Metro runs a “conservative shop,” keeping a rein on spending. He said the agency has won awards from the Texas Comptroller for its finances, and received a perfect score on an FTA audit.

“I hear concerns about whether Metro will be good stewards of taxpayer money,” Jefferson said. “We will.”

Garcia said that he and the board are working with the multi-cities mayors to find a “balance” that will “meet the needs of Metro and the needs of the communities.”

Even with a ballot that may be crowded with a presidential race, a city of Houston bond referendum and an HISD bond referendum, Metro has to be on that ballot as well, Garcia said.

“I think people need to determine what they want to do with transit,” he said.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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