With bond funding secured, METRO officials announce next steps

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

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By; Shawn Arrajj - Community Impact

With $3.5 billion in bonding authority secured, officials with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County have a lot of work to do.

Some of METRO's top brass gathered at a press conference Nov. 6—following an Election Day that saw the agency's bond pass with just under 68% of voter approval—to discuss the next steps in the process of making a reality the 40 or so projects that are slated to be funded with bond money.

The money will help fund projects in the agency's $7.5 billion METRONext Moving Forward Plan, which calls for 75 miles of new Bus Rapid Transit service—including a new connection to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport—and 16 miles of new light rail, including extensions of Green and Purple lines to Hobby Airport. The plan also includes new construction or improvements to 21 park and ride stations and 110 miles of new or improved high occupancy vehicle lanes, including two-way HOV lanes along I-45 North, I-10 West, Hwy. 249 and parts of Hwy. 59 Southwest.

"By approving this historic transit investment, [voters] signal they want to keep our region growing and moving today into the future prepared for our population growth," METRO Board Chairperson Carrin Patman said. "From enhanced bus service to faster connections to both major airports, we’re all ready for 500 miles of transit improvements."

The $3.5 billion in bonding authority will be borrowed over the next 20 years, officials said. The METRONext plan outlines start and end points for many of the proposed rail and bus line extensions, but timelines and the specifics of each route will be determined following future public meetings, which have yet to be scheduled, METRO President and CEO Tom Lambert said.

At the Nov. 6 press conference, Lambert said work began immediately after the election on the next steps to bring the plan to life, a process that will include identifying projects to prioritize and coming up with a strategy to bring back to the METRO board for approval. Each project will also include a extensive community input period, and many projects will also involve applying for federal grants, Lambert said.

"We’re going to be coming very aggressively to our Congressional leaders to make sure it’s loud and clear in Washington D.C. that Houston is ready to step up to receive additional funding to make sure we continue to improve mobility and quality of life in this community," he said.

Projects that will move forward first include a new rapid transit line connecting downtown to the Northwest Transit Center at Hwy. 290 and Loop 610—a project that has already been picked by the Houston-Galveston Area Council to receive federal funding—and accessibility improvements, such as sidewalk connections and making bus stops compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.

"We are not far enough along to start putting timelines on projects, but those will be coming soon," Lambert said.

The funding, along with $500 million in local funds, could help bring in another $3.5 billion in federal matching funds, according to METRO estimates. Funds will only be borrowed when projects are fully developed and funded by other sources, Patman said. METRO will finance the bonds using money collected through a $0.01 sales tax throughout Harris County. The sales tax rate will not be affected by the bond, and METRO does not collect property taxes.

Andrea French, executive director of the Houston chapter of Transportation Advocacy Group, said she believes the bond projects will lead to increased use of public transportation in Houston.

"The connectivity to the airport is tremendous for so many reasons," she said. "It’s kind of a gateway project that affects people coming in and leaving our city, but also people who live in the city as well."

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