Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Hell has frozen over.

U. S. Congressman John Culberson has been at-odds with METRO over light rail in his district.  In my podcast, he was one of my 'rogues gallery' of the long history of Houston-area mass-transit, though with a caveat that perhaps his opposition to the University rail line was justified.

I never thought he in the continuing years he will undoubtedly serve in Congress would ever budge even a little regarding his continued parliamentary blocking funding for light rail on Richmond Avenue anywhere in his district.  As of yesterday, I can now eat my words.

Read these two links (the first actually links to the second, but the second is so important as to warrant a direct link of its own.

Bulletin from METRO dated 18 May 2015

Joint letter from Congressman John Culberson, R-TX 7th Cong. Dist.

Somehow...  Some way...  And with some sort of black magick, METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia may have pulled off a coup that, if Culberson keeps his word on everything he and Garcia have outlined in their letter, will go down as the greatest achievement of the 2010-2016 Houston Mayor Annise Parker-appointed METRO Board of Directors, dwarfing even System Reimagining: the turning on in earnest of the fountain of federal cash needed for the transit projects our region so desparately needs.

More buses and better bus capital investment...  High-capacity mass-transit from Fort Bend and southwest Harris Counties along Highway 90A...  The list goes on, and I see no better way of going
through all this than to just comment on METRO's bullet points from its above-linked Bulletin.

Support of a state governance bill with a regional focus

This bill is Texas SB 2059 and it speeds up the already-on-the-books laws concerning the coming change in METRO's Board composition triggered by increased Harris County population outside of Houston.  Current law stipulates when Harris County's non-Houston population reaches a certain threshold, a tenth Member, to be appointed by Harris County, will to METRO's Board of Directors be added.  An eleventh Member will then be added to the Board to be a Chairman elected by the rest of the Board.

SB 2059 speeds up the process at which these METRO Board-composition changes will take effect.  Sooner, rather than later, the METRO Board will change utterly to one far more focused on regional mass-transport issues than one that has been as Houston-centric as it has been.

Though he is powerless to stop its adoption by the State Legislature or its dying in committee or in the full Legislature and with the Governor, Culberson has pledged to throw his weight behind it.

These changes are cataclysmic.  Within the next few years, the 'dictatorship', as some have termed Houston's METRO Board majority serving at the pleasure of the Mayor of Houston, will come to an end.  Given the overall record of Houston's Mayors prior to Annise Parker concerning mass-transit, I see this as a very good thing!

This also means for the foreseeable future, any chance of profound changes or utter repeal to the General Mobility Program has been torpedoed.

In truth, this portion of the agreement between Gilbert Garcia and John Culberson is mostly symbolic.  Welcome, but symbolic.

$190 million in Federal Transit Authority funding for future transit projects

Now, we get to the good stuff.

Prioritization of 90A commuter rail
$587 million in matching transit credits

This from the joint letter: "Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail
capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond
Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum."

$300 million in federal funds over three years for buses, Park & Ride expansion and HOV improvements

Does this include 2-way HOV on the Southwest Freeway?  What this does not include, though, are monies to make our bus budget bigger, and that is quite understandable.  This money is for a series of one-time purchases of buses and capital improvements that will help our local bus service for decades to come.

METRO's agreement to not oppose changes to federal or state law to memorialize the cooperative agreement

This is a tricky one and gives Culberson room for shenanigans.  Will our John keep his work and not oppose in future by some sort of clandestine-parliamentary skullduggery any of the items in this agreement?

Given the public nature of this joint letter and its existence in the first place, I think the Congressman has put himself between a rock and a hard place.  Should he not keep his word, it could come back to haunt him.  The good people of the Seventh Congressional District of Texas will be the final arbiters of all that, however.

No rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless voters approve

This is the part that 'blows my mind', to use the now-cliché internet-clickbait motif.  The Afton Oaks neighborhood has been through the years vociferously opposed to light rail on Richmond Avenue going through its neighborhood.

The above verbiage from METRO might lead one to believe John Culberson has softened his stance on light rail on Richmond.  Not really.

The great problem as I see it is the 2003 METRO Solutions Referendum is, twelve years on, getting stale.  Most of the rail service outlined in the referendum has not even begun to be built, much-less funded, and the bus improvements outlined have been effectively nullified by the 2004-2010 METRO Board's refusal to act on these promised improvements as well as the 2010-2016 Board's much-welcomed System Reimagining.

Culberson has always pledged to support the will of the majority of his constituents, and heretofore, his district has, I think, spoken loud and clear on light rail on Richmond, particularly in Afton Oaks.  He has not changed this stance, but he also knows the staleness of the issue.  Having new votes concerning rail on Richmond and Post Oak allows him to keep his word to his voters while having new votes to go on for the future.

Support the will of the voters

This is important.  If the voters, presumably from the whole of METRO's service area, elect to have rail on Richmond and/or Post Oak, what is to keep Culberson and others from in-future blocking funding for same?  John has to keep his bosses happy, and his constituents keep him in office - or not.

+ + +

What has been the hook in Culberson's jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia?  In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue.  Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO's service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson's agreement this week not so surprising.  He simply wants new votes, and I don't much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson's jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Harris County Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation.  More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown's work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city.  However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this 'Culberson-Garcia Accord' than I.  Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year's election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing.  Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

No comments:

Post a Comment