Thursday September 10, 2015
Houston can’t be a world-class city with third-world infrastructure. Crumbling streets, broken sidewalks, and ineffective drainage stifle economic growth and negatively affect our quality of life. Fixing the city’s failing infrastructure must be a top priority for the next administration.
The first step is to ensure that City Hall has the resources necessary to address the crisis. Balancing the budget (see my other policy papers on this subject) will mean that the City can stop living hand-to-mouth when it comes to funding repairs when the need arises. But in order to truly bring the situation under control, Houston is long overdue for a road and drainage bond issue.
Streets and Drainage
I have long been on the record as opposing the ReBuild Houston program, also known as the Rain Tax. A substantial tax was levied on property owners, but after five years many essential projects have failed to materialize. The “pay as you go” fallacy behind the Rain Tax makes it sound like a fiscally-conservative solution, but if inflation of construction costs goes up faster than the municipal bond interest rate, then the city is actually spending more money on projects by delaying them. And that, of course, denies taxpayers the value of having the improvements completed in a timely fashion.
Bond issues built the infrastructure of Houston for 180 years before we embarked on this costly Rain Tax experiment. Bond issues have another significant advantage over the current system: instead of obscuring the decision-making process and leaving it in the hands of bureaucrats, a bond issue allows the voters of Houston to have a voice in the City’s priorities. Giving the people a voice would help to avoid the sort of travesty of governance that occurred earlier this year when the City promulgated a Capital Improvement Plan that allocated zero dollars to the Clear Lake area, while wealthy neighborhoods within the Loop were lavished with city resources.
The City’s current sidewalk policy makes no sense. Individual property owners are responsible for the sidewalks outside of their homes. That means that on any given city bock, the sidewalk is only as good as the least-responsible property owner pays for it to be. But of course, a property owner can’t just decide one day to build a great sidewalk: they first have to brave the notorious Permitting Department to get their plans approved. City Council recently moved to waive the permit fees for new sidewalks, but this is an inadequate solution.
The City should take responsibility for sidewalk construction. The City can take advantage of economies of scale than can reduce the cost of construction to a small fraction of what would be charged to an individual homeowner. Then the City can effectively set and enforce standards for sidewalk quality and safety.
If the City does not act, federal courts may force us to act. Courts have previously held that a local government can violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to maintain usable sidewalks for use by disabled people.
METRO’s core mission is to move people around Houston, and the bus system handles most of the people who do not drive themselves. After spending many years and several billion dollars on light rail lines with a very limited reach, METRO is finally re-focusing on providing excellent bus service. As Mayor, I will encourage this trend. Bus lines should be re-evaluated periodically for efficiency. Park and Ride facilities should be upgraded and the gaps in the managed lane system should be bridged to the maximum extent practicable.
Let me be clear: now that the light rail lines are operational, I am not in favor of removing them. These lines deserve a chance to provide some value for the massive investment that taxpayers made. But I will not be eager to spend billions more on a sub-optimal system.
Commuter rail has long been discussed, and as the suburbs ad exurbs continue to grow, this option grows in its appeal. The 90A corridor out to Fort Bend County has been identified as a promising project that will connect the southern Red Line terminus with bedroom communities to the southwest along a route that is already largely grade-separated. I will support this project if after proper study it appears that it can improve travel options and reduce congestion, and do so at a reasonable price.