AG Paxton’s opinion on METRO’s involvement in Uptown Houston Transit Project

By Vimbai Chikomo | Dec 21, 2015

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion in response to a query on the authority of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) to participate in the Uptown Houston Transit Project.

Paxton’s Dec. 14 letter to Senator Nichols addressed the legality of METRO participating in the Uptown Houston Transit Project, also known as the Post Oak Boulevard Dedicated Bus Lanes Project, or “Project,” based on a 2003 contract with voters.

In the letter, Paxton concluded that "a court would likely determine that the Metropolitan Transit Authority's contract with the voters included the expenditure of a portion of the bond proceeds on the Uptown/West Loop 4.4 mile rail segment.” Paxton also added that, "Whether METRO's participation in the Uptown Houston Transit Project violates that contract with the voters requires the resolution of fact issues that are beyond the purview of an attorney general opinion."

METRO supporters have watched attempts to expand Houston’s METRO experience hiccups over the years. As a result, traffic congestion in and around the city has left many commuters frustrated and wondering why Houston lags behind other cities in public transportation systems.

“First, we are behind because our politicians shut down funding for rail,” Shafik Rifaat, Principal of SIR Inc. Architects & Planners and Professor at the university of Houston, told the Southeast Texas Record. “The second reason is because Houston has such a low-density. It’s very hard to put public transportation in low density areas because that means you have to get into your car, park your car somewhere and take the public transportation to your destination – which doesn’t get you exactly where you’re going, so you have to take another mode of transportation. And people don’t like to change their mode of transportation many times,” Rifaat said.

Back in 2003, voters in Harris County approved a referendum on METRO's transit authority system which included the Metro Solutions Transit System Plan. The plan involved expansion to METRO’s bus and rail systems. Since the voters had approved light rail along Post Oak Boulevard, the question Paxton’s letter attempted to answer was whether METRO’s involvement in the Project would be violating the contract it entered into with the voters in the 2003 referendum.

METRO’s support of the Project began in 2012 when the board voted to support it. But the deviation from the voter-approved light rail lines to the Project’s proposed bus rapid transit doesn’t sit well with some concerned residents, including Houston Attorney Andy Taylor. In a press conference the day after Paxton’s opinion, Taylor stated that if METRO intends to veer away from the 2003 plan voters agree to, then it should seek permission to do so from said voters.

Many Houston residents have sought to improve the transit issues in Houston by voting for expansion of the METRO, and although the number of METRO supporters has grown over the years. But the crucial question remains: How can the current transit congestion issue be solved in the 4th largest city in the nation?

“First, we address the commuting problem,” Rifaat said. “When you have an existing metropolitan area and you’re trying to integrate a public transportation system in the city’s urban fabric, the most difficult thing is to find the right-of-way corridor to accommodate the system.”

Rifaat, who is a member of the Houston Planning Commission, expressed that Houston is very fortunate to have HOV lanes on all its interstate highway systems, and that these HOV lanes could be used for public transportation at no additional costly land acquisition or disruption associated with new construction.

“If we can make the HOV lanes available strictly for public transportation instead of automobiles, and use vehicles that look like a train but have rubber tires, then the vehicle can easily connect to the local street system. That will help reduce our commuting trouble in and around the city,” Rifaat explained.

The METRORail, in particular, has received opposition in past years. In 1988, voters approved a 20-mile light rail plan. But when Bob Lanier became mayor of Houston in 1992, he halted the plan. Then, US Representative Tom Delay took away $65 million in federal funding for the rail line, and later blocked federal funding for the rail system twice in the House. So METRORail was built without federal funding until President Barak Obama approved a $900 million grant for expansions in 2011. But according to Rifaat, federal funding only goes so far.

“People don’t want to pay more taxes. Public transport takes time to become efficient and pay for itself. Most public transportation systems are subsidized. The federal government can give us the money to build the system, but they don’t give us enough money for the running of the system. So it becomes a local burden,” Rifaat said.

When it comes to selecting the best form of public transportation to invest in, Rifaat said that although rail and monorail are good solutions, they lack in flexibility because they have fixed rails.

“When passengers reach the city, they will need to transfer to other modes [of transport] to reach their final destination. That process can be tedious as well as time consuming. The less transfers the better,” he said. Rifaat went on to explain that one of the problems with the city’s public transportation system is that doesn’t service certain crucial regions of the city.

“Houston needs a high capacity transportation system along the entire length of the Westheimer corridor to serve the high density urban wedge located between I-10 going West and I- 59 going Southwest,” Rifaat said.

The METRO board consists of nine members, five of which are nominated by the mayor of Houston and confirmed by Houston City Council. Two are appointed by the mayors of METRO's 14 multi-cities, and the final two are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Rifaat mentioned that another problem he sees with the Houston transportation system is that the name of Metropolitan Transit Authority only acknowledges Harris County.

“We have 13 counties. To really have a marketable transportation system the Metro Board should consist of people from the 13 counties so we can have a regional transportation plan. We don’t have that,” Rifaat said.

Rifaat said that fixing the traffic congestion will take more than what’s currently being done. “You cannot just keep throwing money at the highways, it doesn’t solve the problem.

So how do we solve the problem inside and around the city? Rifaat believes the answer lies in reducing the number of local trips by creating Livable Communities consisting of high density mixed use developments.

“That means people can live, work, shop, entertain and walk to the grocery store – you don’t have to get into your car every time you have an errand,” he explained. “The suburban model of separating land use does not work. It promotes the dependence on the automobile. When we have housing in one area, commercial in one area, apartments in one area and office buildings in another area, we have no choice but to use our automobile,” he concluded.

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