Houston mayoral candidate wants to bond for water fixes

A leading candidate to become Houston’s next mayor said the fourth-largest U.S. city needs a multibillion-dollar bond issue to overhaul a brittle water system.

Democrat John Whitmire, the longest-serving Texas state senator, said one of his main priorities as mayor would be repairing and upgrading a decrepit water-distribution network that springs as many as 1,000 leaks a day. As recently as November, a widespread systemic failure prompted a citywide boil order that shut schools, disrupted hospital operations and closed restaurants.

A crucial water-treatment plant on the city’s east side that failed last year “is very, very fragile,” Whitmire said in an interview at Bloomberg’s Houston office. “We have to do a major infrastructure program, not only water but certainly streets. Broken water mains are all over town so we’ve got to document that, we’ve got to convince the public that we’re using their money wisely and then we’ve got to ask them for more.”

Houston mayoral candidate John Whitmire, a Democratic state senator, says the city needs to borrow billions to fix its leaky water system.

Bloomberg News

He suggested tapping investors in the municipal bond market to raise the funds. Asked how large the debt sale would need to be, he said “billions.”

The cost for governments to borrow for infrastructure projects has risen after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to slow down economic growth. Benchmark municipal bond yields are hovering around the highest in more than a decade. 

Whitmire, 74, has 34% support from likely voters in the Nov. 7 election compared with 31% for his main rival, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who is also a Democrat, according to a poll released Tuesday by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. If no candidate receives at least 51% of the vote, the top two finishers will go toe-to-toe in a December runoff.

Whitmire’s advantage over Jackson Lee in the November vote is within the survey’s margin of error. But in a hypothetical runoff, his lead widens to 50% compared with 36% for Jackson Lee, the poll showed.

Jackson Lee’s campaign didn’t make her available for an interview despite numerous requests. In multiple candidate forums over the past several weeks, she pledged to leverage her years of congressional experience to tap federal funds to fix municipal infrastructure.

In addition to Whitmire and Jackson Lee, there are 15 other candidates running for mayor in the nonpartisan November election. None of the others polled higher than 4%. Incumbent Sylvester Turner has held the office since 2016 and by law can’t seek another term.

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