Houston’s two remaining candidates for mayor appear to have cooled their earlier support of local Proposition B now that it has been approved by voters and the candidates find themselves an election away from becoming the person in charge of carrying out its promise.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and state Sen. John Whitmire both endorsed the proposition to require Houston to leave the Houston-Galveston Area Council if the regional planning body fails to offer it proportional voting power. It was approved overwhelmingly Nov. 7, but in a Wednesday forum hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston, both Jackson Lee and Whitmire said the path laid by the proposition will be difficult for the city to navigate.
“As it’s presently conducted, it is not the best pathway forward, but I will not rush to judgment before I assess how we can come together and have those monies distributed to ensure we’re unified as a region,” Jackson Lee told dozens of elected officials and transportation advocates from around the region gathered in the Royal Sonesta ballroom.
Whitmire joked about the proposition’s promise to make the regional council more fair to Houston and argued that during upcoming negotiations the city needs to ensure it is being fair to governments in the surrounding region, as well.
“Yes, we got the petition to be fair to Houston. Who the heck wouldn’t sign that petition?” Whitmire said.
Both noted the risk of losing federal funding distributed by H-GAC if Houston simply withdrew from the council, concerns that were outlined in an August memo sent by City Attorney Arturo Michel to Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The comments on the proposition were part of a wide-ranging discussion on transportation in Houston that also served as the first time Whitmire and Jackson Lee participated in a forum together since advancing last week to the Dec. 9 runoff.
The pair took different approaches to managing the impending $9.7 billion rebuild of Interstate 45. Prior to an agreement between the city and the Texas Department of Transportation announced in March, the project was delayed by the federal government for two years over concerns it would remove affordable housing, decrease air quality and make drainage worse. Construction is expected to start in 2024 and last 18 years.
As mayor, Jackson Lee said she would continue her role as an advocate for people living near the planned expansion. Jackson Lee pressed TxDOT to better communicate with concerned residents living near the project throughout the stoppage.
“We have better relationships now because Sheila Jackson Lee was engaged,” she said. “We were not moving forward and now we are moving forward. That does not mean there will not be hills and valleys, but I, as mayor, will be engaged as a problem solver to the problems as they come up.”
Whitmire, on the other hand, argued the two-year stoppage was a waste of time, and the agreement, which increased the project’s price tag by nearly $3 billion, comes at “a tremendous cost to taxpayers.”
With improvements to the downtown convention and entertainment districts in the works, Whitmire said a successful expansion of I-45 is critical to supporting the city’s economic growth and connecting the city core with the surrounding region.
Whitmire went on to say activists protesting the project over transportation, environmental and housing concerns risk blocking the project altogether. Those same activists are working in opposition to his campaign for mayor, he added.
“There was a meeting last night of anti-45 activists, and they’re getting involved in the mayor’s race,” he said. “They’re not supporting me. If you think the 45 expansion is in place, you’re mistaken. There’s still much activity to block it.”
Chloe Cook, an organizer and spokesperson for Stop TxDOT I-45, said her organization did hold its monthly meeting Tuesday night, but the mayor’s race was not a topic of discussion. Instead, they discussed community outreach ahead of required public meetings hosted by TxDOT about the project and the group’s plans to set up a table at Zine Fest this weekend, she said.
“We’re really focusing on communicating with people across the city on how they can get involved in these huge decisions that affect their health and mobility,” Cook said.
The advocacy group has no plans to get involved in the mayor’s race, she added.
The forum put on display more of the testiness between Whitmire and Jackson Lee that began in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 election. Jackson Lee has initiated most of the exchanges with Whitmire, who finished in first in the general election and is widely seen by political analysts as the frontrunner in the runoff.
Jackson Lee accused Whitmire of “throwing darts” at Turner’s administration and dividing the city after he criticized the state of Houston’s drainage system.
Overall, the pair shared many similar positions, expressing support for efforts to expand public transportation, improve the city’s roads and work with local, state and federal governments to improve regional mobility.
Both continued to highlight their backgrounds, asserting they are uniquely qualified to improve Houston.
Whitmire said his years in the Texas Senate will allow him to work with TxDOT and the Legislature to secure transit funding for the city.
Jackson Lee argued her position in Congress will allow the city to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation and better compete for federal transportation grants.
The next mayor’s negotiations with H-GAC will be a crucial first step to funding any large transit projects in the city of Houston, both said.
In a room populated with officials from surrounding cities and counties, both candidates expressed interest in unity with H-GAC partners in the interest of improving transit across the region.