(TNS) — Voters gave transit officials the windfall of buying power they asked for to transform Houston transit. Now Metro just has to keep its promise of making the bus and rail improvements a reality.
“It’s time to get to work” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.
Voters Tuesday overwhelming supported Metro’s $7.5 billion first phase of transit improvements. The referendum passed with 68 percent of the vote, allowing for $3.5 billion in borrowing by Metro, based on future transit agency revenues from the 1 percent sales tax it controls. The plan made no change to the sales tax or what area shoppers pay, though it does commit the agency to a debt it will have to repay in the future from the sales tax.
Patman and other supporters also had to wait until Wednesday for their victory lap, after Harris County couldn’t deliver most of the results on election day.
Passage, however, is the start of a long process for many of the projects, such as light rail to Hobby Airport from extensions of the Green and Purple lines, 75 miles of bus rapid transit — dedicated lanes used by large buses to deliver a rail-like ride on rubber tires — and 16 enhanced bus routes meant to become signature core services around the region.
Along with the $3.5 billion Metro can now borrow and the $500 million in existing funding the agency can dedicate, the plan, dubbed Metro Moving Forward, relies on $3.5 billion in federal funds. To qualify for those funds, Metro will have to work through the laborious federal appropriations process and work with government agencies. Kicking that off requires some early planning and prepping projects for engineering and environmental reviews.
Metro CEO Tom Lambert said staff had discussions Wednesday about next steps and how the 40 projects pledged on the referendum will be timed. Staff intentionally waited, he said, until the election was over.
“We didn’t want to assume anything,” Lambert said.
With the go-ahead, some scenarios for a first suite of projects is coming into focus, Lambert and others said. A planned bus rapid transit line from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to downtown Houston is likely to be one of the first projects in 2021 or 2022. That project already has some funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, which controls local discretion of some federal highway dollars.
“There’s also some we can do, about mobility and getting to the bus stop, that we don’t need to wait on funding,” Lambert said, noting the plan’s promise of better sidewalks and places to wait. “So let’s get those teed up.”
Other projects will follow as they are ready and as Metro’s nine-member board prioritizes them. Though Patman stressed many conversations are yet to occur among board members, she said Tuesday that the BRT connection from downtown Houston westward, in the same vicinity as the dormant University Line light rail, is a valid starting point.
“My own preference would be to take it out to Westchase,” Patman said. “Even just to Hillcroft, frankly, that needs to happen… I have sensed that people are generally on the same page.”
Approved as part of the 2003 Metro referendum, which narrowly passed unlike Tuesday’s decisive win, the University Line’s proposed route along Richmond became an anchor around the project’s prospects that left it unable to move forward. Opponents along Richmond vigorously fought it, questioning the effect Metro’s trains would have on the area and arguing transit officials reneged when they proposed a “Westpark Corridor” and then designed it to follow Richmond to Greenway Plaza.
The project also faced opposition from former Congressman John Culberson, who stymied federal funding for the rail line. He was replaced this year by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who cheered along with other supporters for the Metro bond on election night.
She said the next step in Washington is to “find that champion” for Metro that can get some of the money rolling into the region, among the local delegation.
Fletcher, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said she will consult with Dallas-area Democrat U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has worked closely with Dallas Area Rapid Transit to secure money for the Metroplex’s transit expansion.
“Now that the voters have said they want it, we want to get to work,” Fletcher said.
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