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Houston's Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee Says: "100% Plan" is Phony Alternative to Metro Solutions

Introduction by Light Rail Progress – November 2003

Note: Houston's Metro Solutions plan, defended in this commentary by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, was approved by voters on 4 November 2003. For more details, see Nov. 4th Election Result: Major Net Victory for US Rail Transit.

One of the more common strategies of opponents in rail transit initiative campaigns is the "red herring" – to start promoting this or that "alternative plan" to confuse voters and defuse interest in the main issue up for a vote by diverting attention into a basically empty, invalid, or otherwise irrelevant "substitute" scheme of one sort or another. These may cover a wide range – in the case of the debate over the Metro Solutions plan proposed by Houston Metro (facing a vote on November 4th – see our story As Houston's Light Rail Project Nears Finish, Major Vote Looms Nov. 4th), opponents to the rail + bus plan have included advocates of monorails and other "gadget transit" proposals, to a sudden embrace of a nebulous "commuter rail" scheme by otherwise anti-rail Road Warriors.

However, what the prevalent core of oppositionists seem to have rallied around is a somewhat amorphous highways and transit amalgam under development by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC, the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization), called the "100 Percent Solution" plan. This was never explicitly posed as a competitor to the Metro Solutions proposal – indeed, Metro Solutions could eventually be made part of it – but it serves as a convenient "red herring" because, in its current form, it is, well, rather amorphous ... less a plan than a wish list. Thus is serves the purpose of transit foes to give the appearance of an alternative and (they hope) divert votes away from the actual, implementable Metro Solutions plan on the table.

All these aspects have been well perceived by supporters of rail transit and the Metro Solutions plan – such as Houston-area U.S. Congressional Representative Sheila Jackson Lee. Rep. Lee incisively targets the real source of the opposition to Metro Solutions, and accurately makes the connection to the suddenly ardent embrace of the H-GAC "100 Percent Solution" scheme, in the following op-ed recently published in the Houston Chronicle.

Houston Chronicle
Oct. 23, 2003


Derailing Metro transit plan isn't an alternative

By U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Just over one century ago, in 1880, Houston, the powerhouse of Texas business, had a population of only approximately 16,000 people, according to a federal census. Since then, the metropolis has seen unprecedented growth to become one of America's most populous cities. That's why we need a public transportation system that is funded by the public and will be used by the public.

The greater Houston area is subdivided into six counties: Chambers, Fort Bend, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller. Harris County proudly hosts the city of Houston, and that is where the largest part of the population is concentrated. In 2000, approximately 3.5 million people lived in Harris County alone. Over the next 20 years, the population of the Houston region will continue to grow. In fact, the influx of more than 2 million additional people in Harris County and another million in the surrounding counties is expected. With respect to transportation, Houston and Harris County already experience serious problems. The imminent increase in population will only exacerbate the problems and will have a negative impact on the overall quality of life in the region. All forms of infrastructure improvements must provide the solution.

Road and freeway improvements, as well as the construction of an enhanced public transportation system, will alleviate the problems while generating significant tax dollars. Statistically, Houstonians travel more miles per day than there are miles between the Earth and the sun. The distance between the Earth and the sun is about 93 million miles. Houstonians drive about 156 million miles per day!

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has worked over the past two years to create a long-range plan for mass transit in the Houston area called Metro Solutions. Texas has a Transportation Code, and it is authorized to act in this field of local government through Metro. Given the need for the service to be provided by Metro's plan and the state's jurisdiction to implement a plan that has been accepted by the public, why does the federal government and a member of the House Appropriations Committee need to interfere with its progress?

This member has worked to hinder this highly beneficial transportation project for quite some time. In fact, his amendment to the Transportation, Treasury, and independent Agencies Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2004, also known as H.R. 2989 and incorporated as Section 163, aimed directly at this project with proposed restrictions that are both redundant and unnecessary. This member introduced Section 163 under the guise of ensuring that the citizens in the transit authority service area had an opportunity to voice their desires with respect to the light-rail proposal. He took these measures despite his knowledge that the Metro board has been diligently working with the community to establish development plans that do not violate Texas law and despite the fact that Chapter 451 of the Texas Transportation Code requires the referendum process that will take place on Nov. 4.

Furthermore, his actions likely precipitated the issuance of an opinion by the Federal Transit Administration's chief counsel as to the denial of funds for the Advanced Transit Plan largely due to the redundant prohibitions of Section 163. Although Metro has called for a referendum pursuant to Chapter 451 of the Texas Transportation Code, in addition to having held several public hearings on the matter, the FTA, by way of this opinion, had summarily deemed the process insufficient for purposes of the Section 163 prohibitions. Because neither H.R. 2989 nor Section 163 is law, the FTA opinion effectively disrupted and interfered with the local administration of a transportation project that has been fully accepted and supported by members of the community.

In addition to the fact that the basis for this opinion was premature, i.e., the fact that both Section 163 and H.R. 2989 are not law as yet, the Metro board held a meeting to change the language of its referendum ballot for Nov. 4 to further conform to these prohibitions that are not yet law. This ballot was then accepted by the Department of Transportation for compliance with federal regulations. Metro held 178 public and stakeholder meetings during its development of the Metro Solutions plan between December 2001 and July 2003.

The alternative plan backed by Metro Solutions opponents and formulated by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the "100 Percent Solution" plan, is still in draft form and has not yet had specific public involvement for the additional 5,000 lane-miles on top of the already planned 5,600 lane-miles. In terms of economic benefits projected for Metro Solutions, between $130 million and $200 million per year in regulatory costs will be saved to reduce pollution emissions.

The opponents of Metro Solutions offer the 100 Percent plan as an alternative. However, it is not an alternative. First, unlike the Metro Solutions plan, the 100 Percent plan is an unfinished study and not a plan at all. Secondly, Metro Solutions covers only a portion of the eight-county region, while the 100 Percent plan contemplates the incorporation of the Regional Transportation Plan, or RTP, which is a multimodal plan that covers the entire eight-county region. The RTP is not an alternative to Metro Solutions – it includes Metro Solutions. Also, unlike Metro Solutions, the 100 Percent plan is based on a wish list of regional road and transit projects that have no identified funding and would require significant amounts of right of way. The claim by Metro Solutions opponents that the 100 Percent Solution plan can reduce congestion depends upon the sudden appearance of this wish list of projects that the federal government currently prohibits local officials from planning and programming, as they have no existing revenue streams to fund such projects.

In conclusion, there is no need to impede or to derail the Metro Solutions plan. Houston is the only city in the United States that was affected by funding restrictions of H.R. 2989. As a result, the city has been singled out and excluded from the 25 slices of a funding pie worth $1.2 billion federal dollars. Dallas is slated to receive $30 million under the act. The referendum vote on Nov. 4 will translate to more needed rail, more buses and more roads with no new taxes. Metro Solutions is a public transportation plan that will serve the public – therefore, the will of the community should supersede any federal special interests. I strongly urge a yes vote on the Metro referendum.

Jackson Lee, a Democrat, represents Houston's 18th Congressional District. She is a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on immigration and Border Security of the Judiciary Committee.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2003/11/03

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