September 22, 2003

METRO ballot to list all 7 lines that vote could authorize

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

The Metropolitan Transit Authority Board voted today to change ballot language for the Nov. 4 transit referendum, to satisfy U.S. Rep. John Culberson's insistence that the ballot list all seven rail lines that the vote could authorize.

The unanimous vote, taken without discussion, capped a brief meeting called to meet the Texas Election Code's ballot-change deadline of 45 days before an election. The actual deadline fell on Saturday, but it is usual to extend the deadline to the next business day.

Board Chairman Arthur Schechter said he does not believe that listing the proposed lines on the ballot is "either appropriate or necessary" under the law -- and he protested that Houston was being singled out for such a requirement -- but he moved to make the change "to avoid further controversy and clarify the ballot."

"It is very important that the community not be distracted by needless and damaging political rhetoric about the ballot language," he said.

The new ballot adds the information that voters would be approving:

• "Approximately 64.8 miles of light rail and 8 miles of commuter line."

• The seven proposed corridors where Metro proposes to build rail: North Hardy, Southeast, Harrisburg, Westpark, Uptown / West Loop, Inner Katy and Southwest Commuter Line.

• A breakdown of the first three corridors by segments to be completed in sequence, with asterisks designating segments in the 22-mile initial phase of construction, through 2012, to be funded with an estimated $640 million in Metro bonds.

Schechter said Metro hopes to receive a matching sum from the Federal Transit Administration. He said Culberson has promised to help the agency obtain such funding if voters approve lines.

Culberson was not immediately available for comment. In July, Culberson introduced legislation, approved by the House but not yet voted on by the Senate, that no federal rail funds be used for "any segment of a light rail system in Houston that has not been specifically approved by a majority of the voters."

Williams Sears, chief counsel for the FTA, later issued an opinion that because the original ballot language did not list the "segments at issue," the vote would not suffice for federal funding.