Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Day and Land Use: The Future of Houston Transit

Vote no metroIt's Election Day, and we all know what's the most important thing on the ballot: local land use issues.  Through the initiative and referendum process, as well as in races for local government office, land use ballot issues often have an importance to our communities far beyond the relative amount of publicity they receive . . . especially in a presidential election year. 

IMG_2802In Houston, voters are going to the polls today to answer a number of local government ballot questions, including amendments to the City Charter, a number of bond issues for parks and schools, and perhaps most importantly, a referendum that is colloquially referred to as "METRO."

In the late 1970s, Houston joined about 15 other local government bodies (including the County, the school district, and a number of smaller suburban municipalities) to create the METRO transit authority.  METRO was responsible for regional buses and transit, and in the early 2000s it built the first Houston light rail line.  METRO has ambitious plans to expand the light rail into a regional transit system, but it has always been controversial.  METRO is supposed to be funded by a sales tax, but since its inception, the City has always diverted one-quarter of those revenues toward road improvements.  So the ballot question is whether we should *continue* diverting that portion of the transit tax for another decade.

We discussed it in land use class yesterday.  Here are some competing op-eds: METRO Board member Dwight Jefferson says that "Yes" on the METRO referendum will expand bus system, continue road building and reduce debt.  In opposition, Houston Tomorrow president David Crossley says More light rail for Houston? If you’re pro-transit, vote "No" on METRO ballot issue.  Mayor Annise Parker (D) and most politicians are in favor of the measure.  As you can see in Crossley's op-ed and at the opposition website http://supporthoustontransit.org/2012/, the smart growth/pro-transit crowd is passionately opposed.

So--depending on who you ask--the future of transit in the nation's fourth-largest city is on the line; or, its capability to deal with critical mobility issues. 

The unfortunate thing is that very few people even understand the ballot language, let alone the stakes.  Here is the language of the ballot question that is referred to as the "METRO ballot" issue:

THE CONTINUED DEDICATION OF UP TO 25% OF METRO'S SALES AND USE TAX REVENUES FOR STREET IMPROVEMENTS AND RELATED PROJECTS FOR THE PERIOD OCTOBER 1, 2014 THROUGH DECEMBER 31, 2025 AS AUTHORIZED BY LAW AND WITH NO INCREASE IN THE CURRENT RATE OF METRO'S SALES AND USE TAX.
□ FOR
□ AGAINST

Last year I wrote a screed complaining about ballot language for state constitutional referenda.  Ken Stahl penned a typically thoughtful response with a partial defense of the initiative process for land use issues (and of course he has the leading recent scholarly piece on Ballot Box Zoning).  But this METRO referendum language seems to me to be a perfect example of how screwy the process is.  Basically, if you are in favor of more transit generally and light rail expansion in particular, you are supposed to vote "NO" on the ballot referendum that everyone is referring to as "METRO."  If you want that tax revenue to contiue to be diverted away from transit and toward roads, then you are supposed to vote "Yes on METRO."

We discussed this in Land Use class yesterday and it confirmed to me how confusing this is.  My students are way above the average voter in land-use sophistication, but they still had a hard time figuring this out.  I suspect that most voters, motivated into the booth primarily by their choice for the presidential election, will only have the vaguest idea that if you are pro-transit you are supposed to vote "no" on "METRO."  That's counterintuitive, and I'm afraid that whatever the result is, it won't be a very good democratic indicator.  And that's just for the people who vote on it; the proposal is one of the last items on the ginormous sample ballot that I photographed above.  Many people will vote "straight party ticket" (that's an option in Texas) and walk out of the booth, without even seeing the referendum questions.

So we'll have to see how this land use question is resolved by the people, and, after that, what actually happens to the transit system and whether the political predicitons on either side come to fruition.  In the meantime, remember that while the national horse race gets all the attention, there are critically important land use issues being decided in communities across America tonight. 

Matt Festa

UPDATE: "METRO" passed by a large margin: 79-21.  The presidential vote in Houston was a statistical tie.  All of the other ballot referenda (mostly to approve debt for capital projects) passed as well.  I honestly have no idea whether the METRO vote represents anything at all with respect to public opinion on the future of transit.

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