Sep. 3--Transit officials spent the past 18 months developing a plan to add $7.5 billion in new bus lines, rebuilt transit centers and rail expansion.
They have nine weeks to sell it to voters.
"We're in campaign mode now," said Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman.
With election season, however, comes some complications. Patman and other officials can stump for the plan, but cannot use Metro money or staff to directly campaign in favor it.
The agency, however, is almost guaranteed to be the biggest spender during the campaign because it is allowed to educate voters on the plan to add 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and nearly $600 million in local bus system enhancements ranging from road and bus station improvements along key routes to new or restored sidewalks to bus stops.
Officials are asking for voter approval to borrow $3.5 billion, paid back by future sales tax revenues from Metro's 1 percent sales tax. Federal funding is expected to cover about $3 billion of the projects listed, with $500 million in local funding Metro anticipates to have covering the rest.
Metro, based on its 2020 budget, will spend $6.7 million to educate voters on the long-range plan, another $1.8 million for public engagement and $800,000 on legal expenses related to the plan.
The key distinction is Metro staff can talk about the plans for new projects and the benefits all they want: They just cannot mention the election, encourage people to support them in November or spend any public money to solicit people's vote for the ballot item in an official capacity.
"As a body, as a group, they cannot take action to in effect campaign for an issue," Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said.
Board members, however, can campaign individually, with Patman and others already making the rounds without Metro staff in tow. Supporters started a political action committee, Moving to the Future, aimed at passing the bond. The campaign initially was led by Ed Wulfe, the Houston real estate tycoon active in local politics for the past 50 years. After Wulfe died July 28, engineer Wayne Klotz stepped in as treasurer.
As of its mid-July campaign finance filing, the PAC reported $106,000 raised and an additional $145,000 in pledges. Patman and her husband, lawyer James Derrick, each offered $50,000, making them the largest donors listed.
The remaining $151,000 comes from 14 companies, most in the engineering industry, that have done past work for Metro, City of Houston, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation. Those include firms that designed or helped design local freeways, such as Cypress-based CivilTech and S&B Infrastructure, headquartered in Houston. Others have previous experience with Metro, such as Omega Engineers, which developed the Green Line light rail extension, and HDR and Huitt-Zollars, which designed portions of the Red Line and its stations.
The plan also has the backing of the region's primary business group, the Greater Houston Partnership.
"The ability of Houstonians to more efficiently move around our region is essential to our continued economic success -- both for our businesses and our employees and their families," Mark Cover, chairman of the group's transportation committee, said in a news release.
According to the PAC, a poll it commissioned found 70 percent of likely voters support or are leaning toward supporting the bond, with 23 percent opposed. The same poll found 57 percent considered traffic congestion a serious problem.
Vocal, organized opposition to the plan has yet to coalesce, despite Metro's many critics, some of whom say the plan does not go far enough.
Others are skeptical, based on Metro's past and criticism that the Green and Purple Lines, which opened in 2015, still carry fewer riders on an average day than nine of Metro's main bus routes.
"Metro has to explain why these expansions are needed when the last two rail line extensions have such low ridership," at-large city council candidate Anthony Dolcefino said in a news release opposing the transit plan. "We need to see who actually rides the $300 million investment we are already making in the Uptown bus project, for example, before we consider one more penny."
Meanwhile mayoral candidates Tony Buzbee and Bill King, both said at a recent forum in Kingwood the agency needs reform.
"Metro wastes a ton of money," Buzbee said, noting bus stop safety and appearance should be addressed before big projects are started.
King focused more on opposing the plan itself.
"I am 100 percent against more light rail," King said, noting Metro carried more riders in 2003, prior to opening the Red Line, than it does today, after spending nearly $2.6 billion.
Total ridership for the system peaked in 2001 and then nearly surpassed that in 2007, before falling dramatically during the national economic recession, according to analyses compiled by the American Public Transit Association. Since 2010, ridership has grown 7.5 percent even as Harris County's population has grown by 18 percent.
Houston is not alone facing rapid growth and raging debate related to how transit fits into a region dominated by automotive travel. Many Sun Belt cities and growing Midwestern metros have leaned into investing in transit in recent years, with mixed results.
"There's no hard and fast rule about which transit referenda pass, and which don't, other than that about two-thirds of such proposals get voter approval each year," said Yonah Freemark, an urban planner and founder of The Transport Politic, which tracks transportation policy in urban areas. "So, that means -- absent other issues -- Houston's referendum is more likely to pass than not."
Recent elections in Nashville, where voters rejected a $5.4 billion tax hike to fund a $9 billion transit plan last year, and Phoenix, where voters beat back a ballot item to strip transit officials of money in favor of road improvements, provide some -- albeit inconsistent -- indication.
"What's striking about Phoenix is the resounding vote against striking transit funds," Freemark said. "Perhaps this is a result of the vote being a negative one. People, in general, are more likely to support retaining existing policies than enacting new ones."
Part of the Metro supporters' pitch is to build on what already is working without additional taxes. The Metro bond instead would allow transit officials to borrow money by extending the 1 percent sales tax people already pay to 2040. One-quarter of the tax proceeds return to Harris County and the 15 member cities for street construction and other mobility uses.
Still, the vote will not happen in a vacuum. Voters also will be choose a mayor and City Council members. Those other elections can affect who turns out -- either helping or hurting a referendum -- and can align the issue with candidates.
That was the case in Nashville, where the mayor, Megan Barry, campaigned vigorously for the measure, then fell from grace when she admitted to an extramarital affair with her bodyguard and resigned after pleading guilty to felony theft in connection with travel and overtime expenses related to the affair.
"Campaigns of this sort need to be tightly controlled and managed, or they can fall apart," Freemark said of transit bonds. "The Nashville mayor's sex scandal certainly did not help matters."
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is seeking re-election, has come out strongly in support of the Metro bond.
"If we continue our normal pattern of just building bigger and wider roads, we cannot keep up with the growth," Turner said.
Cars, however, still are king, Turner said, and Metro use bears that out. Ridership has increased slightly since 2015 when transit officials redesigned the bus system, though many transit agencies have struggled with losses. If riders and advocates feel the service is performing well, that may be more of an endorsement than that of business leaders, said Jacob Anbinder, a historian who has studied urban policy and transit accessibility.
"Having a strong and well-funded capital plan is not as important as running frequent, reliable transit where people need it," Anbinder said.