Oct. 25, 2003, 10:23PM
Opponents eye Metro rail funds for
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.