It was passed by Houston voters as a tax to address the city’s decrepit drainage system and Third World streets. But $857,000 of the new Proposition 1 fund --- which Mayor Annise Parker pitched as a "lock box that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements" --- is slated for hike and bike trails. (emphasis added)
The money will pay for "design, acquisition and construction" of trails as part of an overall plan to provide "an alternate route of travel for bicyclists and/or hikers away from street traffic," according to the city's latest capital improvement plan.
Shown the budget item, a chief proponent of Proposition 1 was baffled.
“The money was not supposed to go for hike and bike trails,” said Bob Jones, part of the successful Renew Houston effort. “This is not the intention for the money that we voted on.”
Voters approved Prop 1 in November by a 51 to 49 percent margin. The fund, also known as Rebuild Houston, draws from four sources: drainage fees on property owners, developer impact fees, property taxes, and government grants.
The city’s infrastructure has for decades groaned under increased use and been put on the back burner by politicians. As far back as 1989, road funds were cut in favor of the more politically-appealing police and fire staff increases. More recently, the city's overall budget increased by more than half in the six years to 2010, and critics of Prop 1 questioned why the city needed a new revenue stream.
“With a fee and placing that in the city charter, we would be prohibited from spending this money on anything other than streets and drainage," Parker promised in an interview on the eve of the vote. "In an age of teabaggers and activism, this is forcing compliance from government.”
Annise Parker Parker urged voters to back the plan in an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle:
“Proposition 1 mandates a responsible pay-as-you-go plan. For the first time in Houston's history there would be a dedicated income stream - a lock box - that can only be spent for street and drainage improvements.
"Your vote would prohibit us from diverting these dollars for any other projects - with no exceptions. And your vote would mean the city could repair, replace or upgrade every street in Houston that is past its useful life."
Opponents of Prop 1 maintained that the money would be diverted for other purposes as part of the city’s overall infrastructure budget rather than being kept in the promised lockbox.
“This is what we’ve been afraid of,” said Bruce Hotze, a Houston businessman and Prop 1 critic. Unlike individual project bond votes, “this is unknown what the projects are going to be when you vote. It’s outrageous they would spend this money on a bike trail when they told us it was going for drainage and street repair."
Parker declined through a spokeswoman to comment.
The city's Public Works department acknowledged the hike-and-bike program is to receive Rebuild Houston money -- but not via the drainage tax component. The entire Rebuild Houston program is pegged by city charter for "Houston's drainage and streets."
The trails program "will not receive any funding from the drainage fee component," Roberto Medina, senior staff analyst at the department, said via e-mail, adding assurances from a planning person who heads hike and bike trail plans.
"Yes, it is listed as (Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal) funding, but there are four components to that fund," Medina said. "We are well aware that it is not a clear way of identifying how a project is going to get funded, and it would have been nice for it to be more specific."
The city touts 95 miles of city-operated hike and bike trails and lists several extensions that are underway on its website. The capital plan does not say exactly where the trail improvements will be located, referring to a separate city bikeway masterplan.
The trails project was projected to cost $40 million over six years, with almost $28 million from the state Department of Transportation, according to a capital plan for 2009-14. The most recent plan, for 2012-16, calls for additional design work this year and a six-year cost of $30.9 million, with a Metro projects fund making up the largest single share at more than $7.8 million.
The drainage fee, which backers projected would cost an average Houston homeowner with a 5,000-square-foot lot and a 2,500-square-foot home about $5 a month, was discovered to have a heavier impact when the bills went out, and the mayor quickly amended the fee to meet the projections.
Texas Watchdog contacted several supporters of Prop 1 to weigh in on this story. Jack P. Miller, president of RG Miller Engineers, and Christina Lindsay, executive director of the Houston Council of Engineering Companies, did not return calls. A person answering the phone at the home of Jeff Ross, of Pate Engineers, hung up on this reporter.
The Rebuild Houston Oversight Committee, which includes Ross, meets at 10 a.m. every fourth Tuesday in the Mayor’s Conference Room at City Hall.
The city's plans for street improvements are here. For drainage, they are here. Projects funded in part with Rebuild Houston money are marked with "DDSRF" line items, short for the city's Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund. A guide that details the fund is here.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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