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Oct. 25, 2003, 10:23PM

Opponents eye Metro rail funds for highway work

By LUCAS WALL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Opponents of light rail expansion covet the $5.8 billion that Metro is seeking for new tracks and trains, eager to redirect that money toward increasing the number of highway lanes 53 percent by 2025.

Rail foes are urging voters to reject the transit-expansion plan on Nov. 4 so they can shift Metro's proposed light rail spending into new roads. They are touting something called the 100 Percent Plan being drafted by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the region's transportation planning agency. The goal is to cut current traffic congestion levels in half by 2025 while keeping up with the region's exploding population.

"If we took that money that's being spent on the rail plan by Metro today and used it for building out the freeways, the tollways, the major thoroughfares in the regional plan, we would relieve congestion," Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said. "As you add more people, you have to add more roadways. We need to make that money work smarter."

The 100 Percent Plan has mapped out how many highways will be required in the eight-county region if bigger and more roads are the chief answer to reducing gridlock. A preliminary estimate from the HGAC indicates that 10,703 lane miles are needed to achieve significant congestion reduction.

"It's important the public understand there are very good alternatives," said U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston. "We will never have a chance to solve our traffic problems if Metro's rail plan is approved."

Finding the money for the extra asphalt and concrete is a tough task, however. The HGAC estimates the construction cost at $21.1 billion, but the region will have only $11.5 billion available for highway building in the next 22 years, if current funding sources remain constant.

With a $9.6 billion gap to close, highway advocates see the Metropolitan Transit Authority as one of their best potential cash cows.

Since 1988, Metro has spent 25 percent of its penny sales-tax collections on "general mobility" distributions to Houston, Harris County and 14 small-city members. It proposes extending the mobility contracts, used for road construction and maintenance, from 2009 to 2014 as part of next month's referendum. That would add $774 million in road work, in addition to the $5.8 billion for 73 miles of rail and $979 million in new bus service.

Light rail critics say merely extending the mobility fund is not enough.

They would like to see Metro's treasury raided for more highway projects, much as former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier snatched millions of dollars in transit funds last decade to pay for hiring new police officers.

The foes contend that light rail, running at slow speeds and mostly in streets within Loop 610, is a waste of tax dollars.

"Redirect those monies to things that do reduce congestion," said Michael Stevens, a developer leading the anti-rail Texans for True Mobility campaign.

He contends that more than $5.8 billion could be diverted from Metro because there would be no need to pay for operating and maintaining the proposed trains if voters kill the transit plan. The transit authority counters that, that money would have to be spent running buses instead.

"They will generate $8 billion in cash to the bottom line," Stevens said of Metro if voters refuse to accept more light rail. "That $8 billion is available in reality to commit to whatever makes sense." That comes close to the $9.6 billion highway shortfall, he pointed out, and other revenue could be created.

Stevens and others say that a nickel-per-gallon gas tax in the eight-county metropolitan area, for example, would generate about $125 million per year. That's almost $3 billion over the next 22 years.

Metro's opponents are counting on Orlando Sanchez, who opposes the authority's plan, being elected mayor. He could then appoint a majority of the Metro board and direct them to funnel money into roads.

Sylvester Turner and Bill White, the other two major mayoral candidates, support rail expansion.

This spring's Houston Area Survey found only 28 percent of those polled favored bigger highways as "the best long-term solution to traffic problems." More transit led with 47 percent, while 25 percent favored building urban communities closer to downtown.

Rail supporters scoff at HGAC's idea of spending almost $1 billion per year widening highways, about double the current expenditure in the region. It's fantasy to think Metro would give up its transit tax revenue to pay for more roads, train boosters say.

Metro Chairman Arthur Schechter is among those questioning the wisdom of trying to solve the traffic problem with new roads, calling the 100 Percent Plan nothing more than a "catchy phrase." Massive roads will only create more sprawl, air pollution and additional congestion as people try to drive farther and farther, he said.

The $21.1 billion highway figure calculated by the HGAC does not include costs for buying additional right of way.

Those expenses have skyrocketed in recent years because widening a road now often requires purchasing hundreds of homes, stores, office buildings, restaurants and so on.

Costs on the Katy Freeway widening that began earlier this year have ballooned almost $250 million over initial estimates, partly because of right of way acquisition.

Alan Clark, the HGAC's chief transportation planner, has acknowledged that at least one-fifth of the proposed new lane miles would be almost impossible to build because of limited right of way. But, he said, other capacity improvements can be made.

Converting major thoroughfares into "super streets" -- expressways similar to Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive near downtown -- would help ease traffic tie-ups on major roads, such as Texas 6 and FM 1960, Clark said.

He said it is critical to note that the 100 Percent Plan, which will be finished in the spring, includes mass transit. Metro's proposed light rail lines are actually part of the working analysis. Rail critics are campaigning for voters to reject those lines Nov. 4, which would remove them from the HGAC plan.

But even if that occurs, Clark said, other transit options, such as new bus routes and commuter rail lines, will be studied.

"There's no question about the fact that transit has to be part of the answer," he said.

The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University released its annual Urban Mobility Report last month. It concludes that a diverse set of transportation options are needed to address congestion. More road construction is needed but, by itself, won't solve the problem, and public transit provides many benefits.

"Both sides are a little bit right," said Tim Lomax, a research engineer who co-authored the report. "The thing that is pretty clear is that there is not a single set of solutions."

Eckels, who chairs the HGAC Transportation Policy Council, and his allies all say they support mass transit, but only initiatives that are cheaper than Metro's light rail plan. The county will soon release a commuter rail feasibility study for the U.S. 290 and Texas 249 corridors showing such a system could be built for $2.5 million per mile -- trains included -- and be up and running within three years. Those trains could run up to 80 mph on upgraded freight railroad tracks, according to a study draft.

Metro's light rail plan, Eckels points out, would cost almost $80 million per mile, take 21 years to build, and likely run no faster than 40 mph. The transit authority notes that its Nov. 4 referendum includes a commuter line to Missouri City.

Schechter said he would welcome Harris County funding extra lines. But, he said, light rail must be built so commuters arriving in the city will have a way to reach their destination.

A commuter train arriving downtown does a Tomball resident no good if he works in the East End or Greenway Plaza, light rail proponents point out.