Several mayoral candidates on Saturday indicated general support for incumbent Mayor Sylvester Turner’s multi-modal approach to transportation, but said more needs to be done to make it happen, including greater community input.
The nine mayoral hopefuls laid out their visions in response to questions from the organizers of a transportation forum at the Architecture Center Houston. The forum, presented by a coalition of community organizations LINK Houston, BikeHouston, Air Alliance Houston, American Planning Association-Houston Section, Blueprint Houston, and the Citizens Transportation Coalition, drew nearly 200 attendees, nearly a third of whom arrived via bicycle.
Former Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia did not mince words when it came to Turner programs Vision Zero, the Climate Action Plan and the Houston Bike Plan.
“Don’t throw tomatoes at me, but at the end of the day, I think a lot of those groups are just groups where there’s a lot of talk going on,” Garcia said. He said super neighborhoods and civic clubs already exist, and that working with committed individuals in the community would lead to more action.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, called Turner’s transportation plans focusing beyond automobiles and road building “admirable objectives,” but said, “We cannot continue to just have announcements without action.”
Whitmire made reference to conversations with local officials in Denver Harbor, noting disparities in sidewalk investment compared to Houston Heights.
“We cannot continue to have the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ as we go forward with each of those objectives,” he said.
Whitmire and Garcia were joined by City Councilmember Robert Gallegos and attorney Lee Kaplan in calling for increased community input to figure out the future of transportation in Houston.
“We pick people to run departments, and that’s the most important thing,” Kaplan said. “That’s why I say, ‘volunteer to be on the Metro board.’”
Gallegos pointed to a lack of communication as a principal failing of previous action plans, such as 2015’s Plan Houston, a collection of 32 goals and strategies aimed at improving communication between government agencies.
He cited community meetings around a Texas Department of Transportation project in the East End, where residents brought up safety issues.
“TxDOT says, ‘We’re going to go ahead and build it, and we’re going to come back later and we’ll deal with it then.’ And that’s ridiculous when we have the Houston action plan that was voted on under the Parker administration back in 2015,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos was not alone in his concerns around TxDOT projects in Houston. Garcia and police officer Robin Williams expressed distrust in the state transportation agency.
“We know that TxDOT is greedy and their main objective is to make sure that they have a reason to destroy the streets and take away bike lanes and walk lanes and sidewalks,” said Williams, who will be a write-in candidate on the November ballot.
Whitmire took a different approach, emphasizing his career in politics, saying the city needed a mayor who could work with state government. He remarked that while Texas did a great job with helping rural communities, he wanted lawmakers to focus on Houston and urban initiatives.
“I’m uniquely qualified to get Austin leadership and TxDOT at the table, and not leave the room until we have a workable solution,” Whitmire said. “How Houston goes is how the rest of the state goes. How transportation goes determines how Houston goes.”
Former city council member Jack Christie also emphasized the importance of building relationships with TxDOT, along with Harris County and lawmakers.
“I have them on speed dial,” Christie said.
Christie noted his support for Turner’s long-term vision for transportation, citing his votes on those measures while he served on council.
Williams and former city council member M.J. Khan called for a full audit of the city’s finances to gain a clearer picture of where funds are going.
Garcia said the city has a “culture of corruption.”
“We’ve got to get the ship righted to improve quality for everyone,” he said.
Businessman Julian Antonio Martinez urged cautious spending, and called for prioritizing funds for issues such as crime, flooding, and road repairs before focusing on goals like net-zero carbon emissions.
The assembled crowd was heavily dotted with bicyclists who were curious to hear the candidates’ responses to this week’s changes in the bike-share landscape in Houston.
The leaders of Houston Bike Share, which operates Houston BCycle, said earlier in the week that the 11-year-old program would shut down within two months because of financial difficulties. Then, on Wednesday, Turner said the city would extend a $500,000 lifeline to the struggling bike share.
The next day, the Metropolitan Transit Authority indicated it was moving forward with a plan to form its own bike-share program.
In light of that, the candidates were asked if they would be willing to find a dedicated city funding source for BCycle.
Garcia, Kaplan, and Khan were the only three who said no, with Khan calling Metro’s plan superior to Houston BCycle.
The candidates did find common ground in support of Proposition B, which is aimed at increasing Houston’s representation on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which distributes millions of dollars in federal funding for transportation and regional projects.
Every candidate also agreed on the urgency to reduce traffic deaths, but offered different approaches to achieve it.
Gallegos cited traffic signals and making sure the system is properly synchronized.
Kaplan, Christie, Whitmire, Martinez and Khan, called for increased enforcement of traffic laws and harsher penalties for violators.
Whitmire called for prioritizing the redesign of some city streets and seeking public input on which roads needed more attention.
Williams and Garcia agreed that driver behavior was an issue, but focused more on educating drivers, particularly younger ones, to slow down on the roads.