The editors of the Chronicle have made an excellent point in setting forth why the greater Houston area will suffer if proliferating transit agencies and disconnected bus services result in a Balkanized transit network in our region (“Missing the bus; Our metro area has outgrown Metro's area. Now we're starting to miss connections,” Page B15, Jan. 10). Multiple government entities competing for the same federal dollars, administering separate and unintegrated transit operations, is a surefire recipe for bad public policy, waste and inefficiency. Metro's board has been very sensitive to this issue, advocating a seamless and unified approach to transit that maximizes connectivity and provides ease of use.
During the six years that the present board has served, we have been very much aware of this potential problem. However, our focus has understandably and justifiably been on obtaining the necessary $1 billion of federal funding for, and getting under construction on, the five new light-rail lines mandated by the voters, as well as improving bus service. Now that Metro has been able to move forward on these objectives and to strengthen its credibility, it is time to turn to expanding Metro's service area from that which was appropriate for the metropolitan area in 1978 as well as to restoring Metro's birthright — the full 1 percent sales tax that the voters approved to fund Metro at that time.
The first steps toward this expansion of service have already begun. Forward-thinking leaders such as Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia have worked with us to provide Park & Ride service to areas outside Metro's present boundaries through an innovative approach involving interlocal agreements. Commuters outside the Metro service area in Baytown and Pasadena now travel daily into Houston using the same fare cards, rate schedules and service features as commuters from Cypress and Missouri City. Metro will soon be offering a Park & Ride option to the south on Texas 288 through an interlocal agreement with the transit provider for Brazoria County. Ongoing discussions with officials from Fort Bend County for Park & Ride service are also under way. The emphasis has been on showing these communities what we can do for them before asking them to join our full-service area and tax base.
Metro has little influence over how area jurisdictions receive or spend transit dollars. Nevertheless, the logic for a seamless regional approach — avoiding Balkanized service such as that found in the San Francisco Bay Area inefficiently “served” by no fewer than 13 disparate transit agencies — is inherently compelling. Sufficient common ground must be found among our area's governmental entities as Metro constructs its five new light-rail lines. We must begin contemplating how to utilize the walking distance “delivery system” that the light rail system will create by 2013 as the framework to which commuter rail from outlying areas can be connected.
Forging the common ground to achieve the expansion of Metro's service boundaries is a challenge that will be the responsibility of my successor and those others who will serve on the ongoing Metro board — four of whose nine members already represent Harris County and the multiple cities other than Houston within Metro's boundaries. Hopefully, this effort as well as the appropriate restoration of Metro's sales tax base will have the strong support of our new mayor. Moreover, the Texas Legislature will need to approve such a change, so we will need the support of our legislative delegation. Broadened boundaries won't be easy to accomplish. Other Texas cities and transit agencies (e.g. Dallas, which is already hard at work on the same issue) will need to be engaged. Nevertheless, for the citizens of metropolitan Houston to have the first-class transit system they want and deserve, these goals must be achieved.
Wolff is chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.