Every third Tuesday of the month, thirty-seven local policymakers pack themselves into a conference room in Greenway Plaza to determine the shape of Houston’s future. Although this particular conference room is in the geographic center of the Houston region, the policymakers represent the interest of people in the suburbs. This isn’t by accident. It’s how the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) board is designed.
Despite being relatively anonymous compared to the Mayor of Houston or the Harris County Judge, H-GAC is arguably just as powerful. They have one major responsibility – to engage in long range planning for the Houston region. Planning that outlasts elected officials. Planning with legacy.
Following the construction of the Federal Interstate Highway system in the 1960s, the United States government required cities with more than 50,000 people to coordinate with their neighbors to spend federal infrastructure dollars. These projects often impacted more than just one city or county, so organizations like H-GAC formed to help regional stakeholders plan together.
Today, H-GAC handles transportation infrastructure planning as well as planning for a variety of other regional needs, including flood infrastructure, workforce development, and publicly funded childcare, among others.
H-GAC gives disproportionate representation to the suburbs
H-GAC has two principal decision making bodies: a 37 member board of directors made up of elected officials, and a 28 member Transportation Policy Council. The board of directors oversees all H-GAC programs. The Transportation Policy Council, as its name suggests, focuses on transportation infrastructure projects and serves an eight county subset of the full thirteen county region.
Both the board of directors and the Transportation Policy Council make decisions by majority vote. But the composition of each board disproportionately benefits people living in the suburbs, at the expense of people living in the City of Houston. To be clear, we are not talking about the race/ethnicity of the board members themselves. We are talking about the populations they serve, and the power they have on the board.
On the board of directors, each of the thirteen counties in the region receive one vote each. Additionally, home rule cities with more than 25,000 people get one vote each. Independent School Districts share one vote, while home rule cities under 25,000 people share two votes and general law cities under 25,000 people share two votes.
Because of their size, the City of Houston (population 2.3 million) and Harris County (pop. 1.8 million) get two votes each, rather than a single vote like the City of Sugar Land (pop. 119,000) or the City of Friendswood (pop. 40,000). But these additional votes do not confer additional influence or power over decisions. In practice, if a policy benefits the suburbs more than the City of Houston or Harris County, it is very easy to get a majority vote of suburban interests.
The result is clear: entities on the H-GAC board of directors represent vastly different populations but effectively share equal voting power on the board. Voters in smaller jurisdictions have a disproportionate amount of voting power relative to their population or even their land area.
Combined, the City of Houston and unincorporated Harris County comprise more than 57% of the population, yet only 11% of the votes.
Mapping the rate of H-GAC votes per 100,000 residents further illustrates this pattern. When accounting for population, a resident of Colorado County has 52 times the amount of voting power on H-GAC’s board of directors as a resident of the City of Houston.
Black, Hispanic, and Asian people are the ones who lose power
The power inequality on H-GAC’s board of directors also manifests in race and ethnicity. Areas with a larger voting share by population tend to be more White. Areas with a smaller voting share by population — specifically the City of Houston and Harris County — are more diverse.
Weighing the race/ethnic populations of the H-GAC’s membership by their voting power shows how White people have a disproportionate amount of voting power on the board of directors and that it comes at the expense of the region’s Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations.
These discrepancies have real consequences.
In 2021, H-GAC approved adding the North Houston Highway Improvement Project to the long range transportation plan. This is a planned 10 year, $10 billion expansion of Interstate 45 in central Houston. This project is entirely within the City of Houston and Harris County boundaries. The highway runs through many Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. These communities would bear the majority of displacements from the project. Despite “no” votes from the City of Houston and Harris County, H-GAC pledged their support.
In 2022 the H-GAC board of directors awarded only 2% of nearly $500,000,000 for flood infrastructure projects to Houston and Harris County following Hurricane Harvey, despite the majority of flood damage occurring within those jurisdictions.
A 2006 study from the Brookings Institute found that metropolitan planning organizations across the country “underepresent both urbanized areas and racial minorities”. In 2021, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act moved to require all new MPOs to “consider the equitable and proportional representation of the population of the metropolitan planning area”. This means that newly formed MPOs will have to find ways to cooperate that hold the voice of each person in the region equally.
While new MPOs are being held to this higher standard of representation, this requirement does not extend retroactively to existing MPOs such as the H-GAC. Any change to the H-GAC’s balance of power will have to come from the state, or the H-GAC itself.
The Houston community responds
Earlier this year, Fair For Houston began circulating a petition for a ballot initiative that would amend the City of Houston charter and force the H-GAC to adopt a voting structure proportional to population.
If this petition is successful in time for the November 2023 municipal elections, it will join another ballot initiative aimed at weakening Houston’s strong mayor system by allowing council members to place items on the city council agenda for consideration.
In addition to electing a new mayor, there is a lot at stake in Houston this November. A renegotiation of Houston’s position in the H-GAC by a mayor held more accountable to the people of Houston could finally put Houstonians back in the driver’s seat for the region’s future.