For a couple years, the six Republican County Judges across the Houston region have spoken in unison calling for the legislature to allow local options to be able to build transit (and roads) across the Houston region.
Austin's Mayor Steve Adler is building a regional coalition behind his vision for a "Seattle-sized" vote to build a modern regional transit system (as well as active transportation and regional arterial roads redone in a safe, multimodal Complete Streets manner). The ballpark figure is perhaps $15 billion in regional funding over a 30 year period. This would cover the $6 to $8 billion anticipated to build Capital Metro's Project Connect vision, and the other modes, including meeting at the least all the high priority needs in the City of Austin bicycle and sidewalks master plans and similar needs in other jurisdictions.
The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board Chair Will Conley – the Republican front runner to be the next Hays County Judge – has publicly joined Adler in calling on the Texas legislature to allow local options through a regional vote to establish new regional taxes to fund this vision.
San Antonio's Mayor Ron Nirenberg recently helped establish a pro-transit advocacy organization – ConnectSA – to lead efforts to fund VIA's regional Bus Rapid Transit plan. While DART is trying to build a second major downtown light rail conduit as a subway, and considering a frequent grid bus network, following Houston and Austin.
Former Dallas County Area State Senator John Carona passed a Local Options bill in the Texas Senate in 2009 to complete a regional transit and roads vision for DFW, but the bill was killed lingering in the House Calendars committee.
The reasonable starting bet for the 2019 legislative session is that it is a very long shot to think the legislature will actually allow local options. But that is what we're working on. If we had the people of Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas (a majority of Texans) all working together, we might have a chance, regardless of whether or not November turns out to be a major swing election.
How to fund the local options
From the theoretical perspective of free markets, switching to funding transportation through a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) fee is the technically correct solution. The US House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit Chairman Sam Graves is actively advocating for and working toward a national approach to switch to VMT fees. From an equity and environment position, VMT fees are also the technically correct answer, especially with the credit-based congestion pricing concept developed by various Texas transportation research entities.
A one cent per mile VMT tax in the Austin region would mean just under $200 million a year in funding, 74% of the desired funding. This could be complemented with a very small regional gas tax or regional vehicle registration fees. Alternative funding scenarios, such as public private partnerships as well as tax increment financing should also be pursued.
However, linking a decongestion fee – VMT fee – with improvements across the region in safe, multimodal transportation, has the exciting possibility of significantly actually reducing congestion from current levels, something that has never been done in Texas.
The Need for Transit Funding for Texas metros
Texas metro region's are tremendously hampered in their ability to compete with the US economic center and globally with our total lack of state transit funding, and limits on local funding, including leaving significant matching federal transit funds on the table. Do we want our economies to continue competing with Detroit and Phoenix or New York, Seattle, DC, Boston?
Farm&City is forming a statewide coalition, One Thousand Texans for Transit to advocate for dedicated state transit funding for our large metropolitan regions, beginning with a push for $300 million in annual funding, an amount that would let our state catch up to Indiana in terms of transit funding. The chart above shows how this would impact the four large transit systems.
Local options is the way that Denver, Seattle, and others have built enviable, regional transit systems. Were the Austin region allowed to pursue the proposed 2020 vote, it might look something like this amount shown in the chart above. Were the Texas legislature to responsibly allow region's to establish local options votes, we can assume Houston, Dallas - Fort Worth, and San Antonio would follow Austin's lead, possibly with Houston moving earlier with a vote in 2019.
Houston and San Antonio both are not maximizing the utility of the presently allowed one cent transit sales tax, with San Antonio only collecting half of the allowed amount, and Houston's Metro forced to give away a fourth of its transit sales tax funding for city and county road projects, to the tune of $2.1 billion between 2016 and 2025. Ending these missed opportunities could be a key element of building reasonable transit funding in those two metro areas.
Establishing these new local and state transit funding mechanisms would also mean bringing more federal transit funding in the form of matching funds, instead of Texas continuing to leave this funding on the table. Doing all of these things could bring Texas metros on par with Los Angeles, Philadelphia, or Baltimore for transit funding per capita – all enviable transit metros with much higher ridership than any Texas metros, and reasonable models for setting goals for the next decade of Texas transit development.