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Grand Parkway

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

Remember the Katy Prairie

From the four things we could have done differently to maybe mitigate some of the worst effects of Harvey:

Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible

Much of northwest Houston used to be covered in prairie land, where tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater. But most of it has been paved over in the past two decades amid rapid development and a massive influx of people. Between 2000 and 2010, this part of Houston grew by nearly 70 percent to a population of 587,142 — equivalent to that of Milwaukee. Restoring or preserving prairie can’t prevent flooding altogether, but it can be a tremendous help in mitigating the damage.

Some local officials flat-out disagree with this conclusion; they believe you can erect public works projects to catch and manage runoff — essentially fighting water with concrete — and don’t need more green space.

But the vast majority of scientists believe the region needs to impose stricter regulations on those who want to develop prairie land.

Just a reminder, because I see some variation of this – some more egregious than others – in every story like this one: The vast majority of this development and growth is outside the city of Houston. It affects the city of Houston, but there’s literally nothing the city could have done about it because it’s outside the city’s borders and ETJ. In the case of this story, I would note that while “the region” may need to impose stricter regulations on development, there is no “regional” authority to do that.

Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that even if we had all the green space we had thirty years ago, there’s only so much to be done about nine trillion gallons of water being dumped on you. A storm this size was always going to be a catastrophe, it just might have been a slightly smaller one if we had been smarter and perhaps a bit luckier. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can be more specific about just what paved over these former wetlands.

Torrential rains that flooded hundreds of northwest Harris County homes last week reinforced long-standing worries that development on the Katy Prairie could make future floods more frequent or more severe.

Development encouraged by a planned segment of the Grand Parkway connecting Interstate 10 to U.S. 290 threatens to diminish the environmentally sensitive prairie’s capacity to absorb floodwaters, said Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in two related lawsuits.

“The Katy Prairie, for decades, has been our sponge,” Blackburn said, noting that the prairie also provides valuable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Tension between development interests and environmental and neighborhood groups surfaced in the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit challenging flood plain maps for the Cypress Creek watershed, which encompasses the area where last week’s floods were most severe. The organization has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the parkway.

The developers of the Bridgeland master-planned community intervened in the case last year, seeking to prevent an expansion of flood plain boundaries that would require the company to take expensive steps to offset increased runoff downstream.

An executive of Bridgeland GP, the company developing the 11,400-acre community, said in a Jan. 9, 2008, affidavit that the revisions sought by the Sierra Club would cost the company $28 million in flood mitigation measures that would “adversely affect” the development.

Despite the company’s efforts, the maps are being redrawn under U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s supervision. Rosenthal has stayed the lawsuit until October to allow time to complete the maps, but officials said they aren’t certain when the task will be finished.

Preliminary revised maps shown to the Houston Chronicle by Blackburn and the Harris County Flood Control District show a significant expansion of the flood plain in an undeveloped western segment of Bridgeland’s property and a reduction of the flood plain in other areas.

That story is from 2009. Here’s one from 2011:

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

To hear Burge and his colleagues at TexDOT and Harris County tell it, they are simply trying to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable: sprawl, on top of sprawl, on top of sprawl. But not in a bad way, they say.

“It will increase sprawl but that’s really the reason people come to Houston: to have a big house and a big yard,” said Burge. “You can call it sprawl, or you can call it quality of life.”

If you want to see what will likely replace the switchgrass and wildflowers of Katy, look to the Bridgeland development. This massive, 12,000-acre “new urbanism” development, where homes sell from $160,000 to north of $1 million, stalled in the real estate crisis. Since then, developers have stepped up pressure on local authorities to bring forward highway infrastructure needed to jump start sales.

Anything that we can do to protect and restore the Katy Prairie going forward, we must do. I hope that the scarring experience of Harvey will put enough political pressure on the people who can do something about this to take action. But one thing we can’t do is decide not to build the Grand Parkway. It’s too late for that.

From the “we don’t want those people coming here” files

Stay classy, Spring.

The headline wasn’t subtle: “Stop Metro from coming to Spring.”

The article,published July 15 on the website Spring Happenings, warned that bus service would “give criminals an easy way in and out” of the north Harris County suburb.

A range of experts I interviewed this week agreed that little evidence supports the “buses lead to crime” idea. (This is also true of its cousin, “Low-income housing leads to crime,” the subject of a column I wrote last year.)

Yet the perception persists that mass transit is the first step in the ruination of a community. It’s an attitude that could complicate the challenge of meeting the mobility needs of the vast, rapidly growing Houston region.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is holding public meetings to gather input on a new regional transit plan. Metro officials say the plan is needed to prioritize options for adding bus and rail service, along with van pools and potentially bus-only lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes.

More than 300 people showed up Tuesday night at a Metro meeting in Spring. My colleague Dug Begley, who attended, said many residents expressed the same concerns as those reflected in the Spring Happenings article.

[…]

Notwithstanding the concern on the near north side, suburbs are where opposition to mass transit seems to find its fullest expression. Transit researcher Todd Litman has an idea about why this is the case.

“Automobile dependency has been used for generations as a moat to keep poor people away from certain areas,” said Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization.

Crimes involving vehicles – car thefts, vandalism, road-rage violence – are far more common than those associated with public transportation, Litman said. Imagine the reception a campaign to keep cars out of a neighborhood would receive in Houston.

Nonsequieteuse says what needs to be said about this. I’ll just add one thing, which is that if the people of Spring are that concerned about evildoers coming in from the outside world and defiling their pristine community, then they’re not thinking big enough. If they really want to defend their borders, they’ll need to petition TxDOT and HCTRA to tear up the exits to Spring from I-45, the Hardy Toll Road, and the Grand Parkway. I mean, that’s how everyone gets around in these parts, and that includes the bad guys as well as they good guys. If Spring wants to isolate itself, then let it isolate itself. Just as long as there are no half measures employed, that’s all I’m saying.

On the environmental challenges to the Houston region

I turn the mic over to Jim Blackburn, in a reprint of an article he wrote for Offcite in 2014.

The future of the City of Houston might be more affected by extreme weather events than by any other factor. The impacts of these extremes are well known but not well addressed. Our ability to compete and survive in the harsh natural environment and competitive economic climate of the 21st century will rest on how we address these challenges.

As we learned in 2011, drought is a serious worry. Though we should plan for and anticipate constricted water supply and availability, we are not as vulnerable as many other areas of Texas. Our Achilles heel is flooding.

Flooding in our part of the world comes from two major sources: major rainstorms associated with tropical storms or cold fronts, and the surge tide associated with hurricanes. These two sources of water—one coming from the sky and the other from the Gulf—are major threats to our well-being.

Houston will be severely and perhaps permanently affected if we don’t address our known problems. All of the issues discussed below have solutions, but these solutions require that action be taken—that things be done differently. Some of the incentive for these changes will have to come through litigation simply because responsible officials will not otherwise step up and do what needs to be done.

It’s a long and detailed article, and well worth your time to read. Some of the topics it covers are the inadequacy of the 100 year flood map, the Centennial Gate, the value of undeveloped land like the Katy Prairie, and more. Check it out, then ask the nearest Mayoral candidate what he thinks about it.

Council approves Costco tax rebate

I still don’t think this is a good idea.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday approved a $1 million economic development deal to help Costco build a store outside the city limits.

In a rambling discussion ending in a 12-3 vote, supporters argued that the sales tax rebate would drive further development in the area around the site of the proposed store, at Interstate 10 and the Grand Parkway, generating revenue the city would not collect otherwise.

Opponents said they had heard no argument for why the rebates were needed for the store to be built, or, in Councilman Andrew Burks’ case, said the deal did not ask enough of Costco.

Corporations should take a more active role in funding after-school and summer jobs programs in the city, Burks said, and should give preference to veterans in hiring.

[…]

The store would sit on 14 acres Costco has under contract in the Cimarron Municipal Utility District. The city since 2003 has had an agreement with the district under which the parties split the revenues of a 1-cent sales tax collected within the district’s boundaries. The city provides only animal control services there, and property owners pay no city property taxes.

Economic development experts have said the area is likely to develop without incentives, given that a new segment of the Grand Parkway connecting I-10 with U.S. 290 will open in December. Councilman C.O. Bradford, who joined Burks and Councilman Larry Green in opposing the deal, took a similar approach.

“Is the incentive necessary?” Bradford asked. “I haven’t heard anybody articulate the real need for the incentive.”

Councilman Ed Gonzalez said the proposal was necessary because Costco was considering a nearby site that would generate no revenue for the city.

“While technically, yes, it’s a very lucrative site, very high-profile and likely Costco would still come there, I think to some extent, by us having skin in the game, we guarantee they do come into this area,” Gonzalez said. “I would rather us control some of our own destiny here, make sure this investment is here and leverage our $1 million to bring a much greater return to the citizens of the city.”

See here for the background. I get why Council agreed to this, but the question I haven’t seen asked – let alone answered – is what the return for the city would be compared to what was likely to be built on that property if no rebate was offered. We all agree that something would be built, possibly this very Costco, but even if you accept that Costco would have gone elsewhere, something else would have been put there eventually. As such, it makes no sense to compare the revenue the city will get from making the deal to zero. Compare it to some scenarios where something else gets built, and compare it to that. Is it still worth the money the city is giving up? If it is, then I can live with this. If not, then we need to do a better job of making economic projections.

Where the congestion is

From the On The Move blog:

Dallas motorists suffer the most highly congested road conditions in Texas, says a recent report from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The state’s top three bottlenecks are all located in Dallas County, according to the 100 Most Congested Roadway Segments in Texas. But while Dallas has the hottest spots, Harris County actually has more of them. The Houston area has 31 on the worst road conditions traffic list while Dallas has 21.

Road conditions for Fort Worth are next in line for headaches, with 15 tight spots, followed by San Antonio with 11 and Austin with 10.

Here are the top 10 most congested roads and their respective counties:

  1. SS 366 in Dallas, from I-35E to U.S. 75
  2. I-635 in Dallas, from I-35E to U.S. 75
  3. U.S. 75 in Dallas, from I-635 to Woodall Rodgers Freeway
  4. I-35 in Travis, from SH 71 to U.S. 183
  5. I-35W in Tarrant, from I-30 to SH 183
  6. U.S. 59 in Harris, from I-10 to SH 288
  7. I-35E in Dallas, from I-30 to SH 183
  8. I-10 in Harris, from I-45 to U.S. 59
  9. I-610 in Harris, from I-10 to I-45
  10. I-45 in Harris, from I-10 to I-610

See this interactive map to locate all 100.

Congestion patterns haven’t changed much over the past year, Texas officials say.

Here’s what struck me about this. Take a look at the map for Houston:

TxDOT Houston Congestion Map

As was the case last year, by far the worst congestion is inside and on Loop 610, with the roads between 610 and Beltway 8 right behind. For all the billions we’ve spent on I-10, it still sucks, with the stretch from Beltway 8 to 59 being worse than the stretch outside Beltway 8. I-45 is a mess from one side of the Beltway to the other, but especially from 610 South and up. 59 is a parking lot from the West Loop to I-10. And none of that is getting any better.

I harp on this stuff because I get so worked up about how skewed our priorities are. We’re about to spend billions on a road to nowhere out of some vague concern about future traffic when we’ve got traffic stacked up to high heaven right now on existing roads. The reasons behind this are entirely political, yet the people who are affected by it essentially have no voice in the process. We engage in urban planning on a massive scale when it suits those who benefit from it and cry about distorting the “free market” when it doesn’t.

Of course, part of the problem is that the standard solution of simply pouring more concrete and increasing lane capacity won’t work in many of these areas. As I’ve discussed before, two big factors in the congestion on these roads are interchanges – I-10 to I-45, 59 to 610 and vice versa, 59 to 45, etc – and that all of these roads narrow to two lanes at some point inside the Loop, with no place to go to add any more. The only way we are going to be able to truly increase capacity for mobility inside the Loop is to add rail. Frankly, I don’t know that I’ll live long enough to see that happen. But for less than what we’ll be spending on a few miles of road through empty land in far northwest Harris County, we could more than double what the 2012 Metro Solutions plan will eventually provide, and in doing so add a lot of rail to the most heavily traveled parts of the city. If we did that, we just might get some people who currently use these congested freeways for local trips to stay away from them so that the people who have no viable alternative can get where they need to go. It’s a win for all involved, if only we’d recognize it as such. I won’t be holding my breath for it, I’m afraid.

HuffPo on the Grand Parkway

The Huffington Post take a look at that great boondoggle in northwest Harris County, the Grand Parkway Segment E extension from I-10 to 290.

Texas faces a transportation funding gap of $315 billion over the next 20 years, according to the state’s transportation commission. Ten of its top 20 congested roads are in or around Houston.

Yet while the mitigation plans for congestion around several of those existing roads remain unfunded, the state is moving ahead with the construction of more than 180 miles of beltway called the Grand Parkway, segments of which will run right past the new North American headquarters of ExxonMobil. The total price tag for the project, which will require the use of eminent domain, is estimated at $5.2 billion.

Since the 1960s, planners in Houston have dreamed of building the Parkway, a massive third beltway in the suburbs and exurbs beyond the Sam Houston Tollway, which itself rings the 610 Loop near the city’s core. Coming up with the money for the road, however, has never been easy. For decades the grand plan has languished; so far only two out of its 11 segments have been built.

But in January the Texas Transportation Commission, appointed by Governor Rick Perry, decided to assume authority for several segments of the project.

One commissioner said the project was particularly important for the Texas Department of Transportation, commonly called TxDOT, because ExxonMobil was considering moving its North American headquarters to a brand new, 385-acre corporate campus north of the city near where the road will some day go. Suburban Harris County, which surrounds Houston and where the campus is located, had struggled to find a way to pay for its parts of the Parkway.

In January, ExxonMobil’s final decision about that campus had yet to be publicly revealed. Civic boosters seemed to suggest that without progress on the Grand Parkway, the company might leave the region.

“Exxon representatives have stated very clearly to me that TxDOT moving forward on the Grand Parkway is essential, and that if that did not happen, they would not select this site,” transportation commissioner and Houston real estate developer Ned Holmes said. He added that it was “kind of a deal-breaker” for the company.

All of this is familiar to us. Just as a reminder, this is going to cost more than the entire 2012 Metro Solutions plan, at a time when TxDOT is broke, and unlike the Metro project nobody ever got to vote on it. It’s not going to do a thing to improve mobility for the vast majority of Houstonians; if anything, it’s likely to contribute to congestion in the future as development moves into new places. It has the distinct whiff of a sweetheart deal to benefit ExxonMobil and a handful of developers. I have always wondered why the opposition to this has not spread much beyond the transportation policy wonks like the CTC and the anti-toll road crowd, but whatever the case, it’s too late now as ground has been broken on the Parkway extension. Like it or not, here it comes.

Lawsuit filed to stop Grand Parkway

We’ll see how it goes.

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit to block construction of the Grand Parkway in west Harris County until federal and state officials conduct a new analysis of the flooding consequences.

The environmental group says the 15-mile toll road may increase runoff into Addicks dam, which the Army Corps of Engineers has identified as among the nation’s riskiest because of the potential harm to low-lying Houston should the 1940s-era structure give way.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Houston, comes seven weeks after the Army Corps issued the final permit for the new leg of the long-planned outer beltway around greater Houston. The toll road would cut through the Katy Prairie between U.S. 290 and Interstate 10 – a mostly undeveloped area that stores rainwater like a natural sponge.

I believe the Grand Parkway is a bad idea and a misuse of resources, and I have no doubt it will have a negative effect on the environment. I don’t know nearly enough about the specific claims here to offer any judgment. Anybody out there want to comment on this? Swamplot has more.

Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

Who wants to help build the Grand Parkway?

The State of Texas wants to know.

The Texas Department of Transportation, which has responsibility for the parkway in Harris, Montgomery and Chambers Counties, is moving toward use of a public-private partnership to get faster funding for the multibillion-dollar, 184-mile project.

[…]

This spring, the Legislature renewed the public-private option for building the Grand Parkway when it passed a bill that extended TxDOT through 2015. An amendment to the bill authorized public-private partnerships to develop the Grand Parkway, U.S. 249, U.S. 290 and Texas 288 in the Houston area as well as three Dallas-area projects.

TxDOT issued a Request for Information June 10 regarding development of the Grand Parkway and Interstate 35-E in Dallas. Grand Parkway responses are due Wednesday.

Agency spokeswoman Kelli Petras said TxDOT is open to any idea but is leaning toward a public-private deal, also known as a P3 agreement, because of the state’s budget woes.

“An RFI is searching for any method that we could (use to) build the road,” Petras said. “Obviously, with funding limited, it is assumed that a P3 model will be the one selected.”

Gornet said TxDOT’s request for information was not intended to emphasize a particular method of building the parkway.

“If a P3 ends up being the best value for the citizens, so be it,” said Gornet, director of the nonprofit association established by TxDOT in 1984 to facilitate Grand Parkway development.

I don’t have any problems with the concept of a public-private partnership; McBlogger would disagree with that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea. What is a bad idea is spending billions of dollars to build a road in the middle of nowhere when there are far more pressing needs elsewhere. If we’re going to engage in urban planning on such a massive scale, we ought to do so in a way that gets a much bigger immediate return on the investment.

By the way, I wonder what happens if TxDOT doesn’t get any worthwhile responses. I presume they’ll just extend today’s deadline and encourage those that had responded to step it up. Still, something to think about just in case.

Grand Parkway protest

From the inbox:

Misplaced priorities: $4.8 billion to advance SH-99 while US-290 commuters sit in traffic

Coalition to protest Grand Parkway as poster child of all that’s wrong with Texas transportation policy

(Houston, TX) – As TxDOT hosts the final public hearings on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) Wednesday, a broad coalition of groups will hold press events in two locations to challenge the misplaced priorities of the transportation agency.

While Harris County commuters suffer on 34 of the 100 most-congested roadways in the state, including US-290, the Texas Transportation Commission will squander our scarce tax dollars to fund the entire proposed 180-mile Grand Parkway around Houston.

TxDOT’s Commission voted on April 28, 2011 to make Grand Parkway Segment E a statewide “priority” and assigned ~$350 million of statewide discretionary funds to expedite construction. This April allocation increases TxDOT’s planned expenditures to more than $4.8 billion for the Grand Parkway over the next four years. The 41 planned expenditures affect all project segments (B, C, D, E, F1, F2, G, H, I1, and I2) except for A. The 180-mile project will skirt largely uninhabited and environmentally-sensitive areas. TxDOT’s John Barton described the Grand Parkway as “an opportunity to open up areas for development” in Northwest Harris County, subsidizing private land development, and inducing more new roadway congestion.

In contrast, TxDOT’s plan includes one-tenth that amount for US-290 projects, or just $468 million of the $2.3 billion needed for improvements TxDOT outlined in the US-290 Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS). According to the Texas Transportation Insitute, US-290 is the 11th most-congested highway in the state, affecting more than 230,000 Houston-area commuters daily. Other than some initial work on the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT will mostly leave these taxpayers waiting for relief.

What: Press conference
Who: Coalition of grassroots organizations opposed to squandering scarce transportation dollars on the speculative Grand Parkway, including:
Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Houston Tomorrow, and Sierra Club
When: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm, immediately before TxDOT meeting
Where: Outside in front of TxDOT’s Houston District offices, 7600 Washington Ave., Houston, 77007 (map)

“TxDOT’s unelected Commissioners have ‘found’ billions for a speculative toll road that will destroy the Katy Prairie in order to subsidize a few private land developers. Meanwhile, a quarter million taxpaying commuters will sit in traffic on US-290 indefinitely. TxDOT’s gross misallocation of our tax dollars is appalling,” says Robin Holzer, board chair of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC).

For more on this misallocation and how TxDOT could better use our tax dollars, see David Crossley’s recent oped, “Let’s tell TxDOT where to spend its $350 million

See here for more. Be sure to attend the TxDOT public meeting today from 4 to 6 to give your feedback on this. It’s at the TxDOT – Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave.

How would you spend $350 million of TxDOT’s money?

David Crossley would like to know.

Let’s say you found $350 million to do a great transportation project for the Houston region. Would you use it to build a 400-foot-wide, 15-mile-long segment of brand-new highway across the Katy Prairie wetlands where almost no one lives or works in order to enable a lot of sprawling development (and some new flooding) for future residents? Or would you use it to, say, build commuter rail service along U.S. 290 to serve nearly a million people who live there today?

The reason I ask is that there’s a public meeting next week where you could go and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) what you think would be a good (or bad) use of that money. The information about that is at the end of this article.

Maybe you would tell them to use it to do a whole bunch of projects that we don’t otherwise have money for right now, like rebuild State Highway 6 and FM 1960 from I-10 to I-45? If you did all the proposals that are on the table for that corridor, you’d still have $315 million left. What then? Do 2920? 1488? Do all of them?

Crossley’s piece also appeared as an op-ed in the Chron. The $350 million figure of course comes from the money TxDOT magically found to pay for the Grand Parkway. (Remind me again why we have to vote to build light rail lines, but not new highways?) If you can think of something better to do with this money, here’s how to let TxDOT know:

[C]onsider going to TxDOT’s public meeting to talk about the 2011-2014 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) on Wed., May 25. The email I got says, “All interested citizens are invited to attend and express their views on the program.”

You can go here for meeting info and here to get deep information about the STIP. You will be amazed.

The meeting is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m at the TxDOT–Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave. Be sure to go and talk about how you would like TxDOT to spend that $350 million.

Or at least send some comments to Texas Department of Transportation, Attention: Lori Morel, 118 East Riverside Drive, Austin, Texas, 78704, or by email to Lori.Morel@txdot.gov. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Monday, June 6, 2011. Department officials will be surprised, I bet.

You can also go to spend350million.org and leave a comment there. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Grand Parkway gets state funding

No money for schools, but there is money for this.

The Texas Transportation Commission [Thursday] morning unanimously approved allocation of $350 million for construction of the Grand Parkway’s Segment E in west Harris County.

[…]

The $350 million approved [Thursday] morning comes from uncommitted dollars in the Texas Mobility Fund, said Kelli Petras, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

It was part of a total allocation of $775 million for Texas transportation projects, Petras said.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. Yes, I know, the funding for this could not have gone to education or any other non-transportation purpose. It’s still a poor use of the money.

TxDOT gets Grand Parkway approval

Another step in the march of the inevitable.

The state Transportation Commission on Thursday granted the Texas Department of Transportation authority to begin design work and negotiating contracts to build a key segment of the Grand Parkway.

The unanimous vote did not, however, authorize funds to start work on Segment E of the tollway, which would link the Katy Freeway to the Northwest Freeway, just west of Fairfield.

“The Grand Parkway project is an important project for our region and our state,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. “Having a loop that passes around Houston, whether it’s the third or fourth loop depending on where you start counting them, … will help reduce congestion and facilitate economic development.”

Williams, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, called the parkway one of his highest priorities.

TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross said the agency estimates it will cost about $350 million to build the 15 miles of toll road linking Interstate 10 to U.S. 290. He said the agency has no construction time frame, but the Transportation Commission wants work under way as soon as possible.

When completed, the parkway would be about 180 miles in circumference – running as far north as Tomball and New Caney, as far south as League City, as far west as Katy, and as far east as Baytown. The total price tag for the project is expected to exceed $6 billion.

I don’t care to re-litigate all of this, because I know you know where I stand, but the Grand Parkway sure ain’t going to help alleviate any congestion I encounter. Beyond that, all I really want to know is where we’re getting the money for this, and what projects TxDOT will not be doing while it engages in this elaborate and unnecessary bit of exurban planning.

How Houston commutes

Great post from Greg that looks at how people in some Census tracts get to work. One point to highlight:

The Solo Drivers … This is an obviously large portion of the population. But there are some very interesting variations in the extent to which different parts of town score on this count. In general, usege of this mode generally follows wealth and there’s some obvious high points where Metro’s reach isn’t as extensive as it is in other areas. What caught my eye in looking at this group, however, was the differences in some of the areas in the far northwestern part of the county. You can get a sense of that from the aggregate numbers, with the Memorial cluster clocking in at 85% and Third Ward clocking in at 60%.

[…]

Public Transportation … A lot of this, again, tracks with income levels. This time, in a negative correlation – lower income areas use more public transportation. There is, of course, one very notable exception. That would be the DT/Rail cluster (13.9%), which has a share of users that compares very favorably with the Third Ward cluster (15.8%). If you compare the DT/Rail cluster to areas where income levels are more appropriate, the comparison looks like a lights-out argument for the advantages of light rail – 3-4X more usage and taking something on the order of 10% of the population out of cars that might otherwise travel by that means.

If public transportation is a good option for people, many of them will choose it. That has many beneficial effects, including less traffic and better land use. How many of the people that will eventually live out by the Grand Parkway do you suppose will drive alone? Now superimpose a 2012 Solutions map on top of what Greg has and think about the effect that will have. What do you suppose the percentage of transit users will look like in the 2020 Census tracts? What might it look like if we invested in rail the way we’ve been investing in highways? Take a look and see what you think.

TxDOT to take on primacy for Grand Parkway

From Houston Tomorrow:

“There are potential opportunities to help advance [the Grand Parkway] in its entirety over the short term,” according to John Barton, assistant executive director for the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) engineering operations, told the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) of the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on Friday, according to Guidry News.

Barton said the Texas Transportation Commission had voted on Thursday to “accept primacy” for the Grand Parkway, or State Highway 99. This came after Harris County Commissioners Court had earlier voted to ask TxDOT to take on the project and to reimburse the County for its expenses to date.

See here for some background, and click the links above to see more of what was said about this. You have to wonder how an agency that’s basically broke can do this, but you’ll go crazy trying to make sense of it.

Harris County hands the Grand Parkway back to the state

Commissioners Court wants TxDOT to take over construction of the Grand Parkway.

Harris County took control of the project about 15 months ago in the belief that the Texas Department of Transportation did not have the money to build it, and that the county could come to an agreement with the state over how toll collections would be used.

Things have changed since then. First, County Judge Ed Emmett said, the Texas Transportation Commission has notified him informally that it expects to have $425 million available for the project this year.

Second, the county has not come to an agreement with the state on the use of toll revenues. The state has insisted that all toll revenue collected on the Parkway (also known as State Highway 99) needs to be spent on the Parkway itself.

The county wants to keep all the money collected on Harris County segments of the road in the county to pay for drainage projects, connector roads and other necessities the Parkway creates.

At a Transportation Commission meeting last week, Commissioner Ned Holmes said, “I think one of the challenges that Harris County faces is expending funds in counties that are not Harris County.”

[…]

“It is possible that the commission could commit some funding for Segment E in 2011,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Amacker, if the county decides to give the Parkway project back to the state.

“We do believe that it is an important high-priority project, not just for the Houston area but for the entire state,” she said.

And I think it’s a terrible boondoggle that’s primarily going to hugely subsidize development in currently unpopulated areas. Why that’s a better idea than working to improve the parts of town where the people actually live remains a mystery to me. This story was written before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, at which they officially approved the plan. Let’s just say I’ll be hoping that there’s enough chaos in the Lege to make TxDOT lower the priority on this. Houston Tomorrow and KUHF have more.

The Grand Parkway takes another inevitable step forward

No money to fix traffic lights, but there’s always money for the Grand Parkway.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the Harris County Toll Road Authority to negotiate with the Texas Department of Transportation over the development of three Grand Parkway segments inside Harris County with a total length of more than 40 miles. Segment E, which would run roughly from Interstate 10 to U.S. 290, is next up for construction.

State legislation gives Harris County two years after it receives federal permits to start building. It has not yet received those permits, but the county won a lawsuit that challenged the project on environmental grounds.

“If we come to an agreement, then Harris County will build it, then we’ll start as soon as possible, perhaps next year,” County Judge Ed Emmett. “If for some reason we can’t come to an agreement, then it’s TxDOT’s highway again, but I think an agreement can be reached.”

Yes, I know, it’s not a straight up trade of traffic signals for speculative toll roads in the middle of nowhere, but it’s instructive nonetheless. The problem many people have with the Grand Parkway is that it’s being built to address the perceived future traffic needs of people who will eventually move to this currently empty part of the county. The reason these people are projected to live there some day is, of course, because of this big honking road that’s going to be built first. It’s all very neat. Point being, Commissioners Court has for a long time now been committed to addressing the future needs of these future residents, even as the present day needs of people who are already here are being sacrificed. It’s a matter of priorities, and as far as the Grand Parkway is concerned those priorities have always been warped.

Harris County CIP will ignore Hempstead managed lanes

Earlier this month, I blogged about the status of the US 290 expansion, for which TxDOT’s plan rested on the assumption that the Harris County Toll Road Authority would go forth with the construction of managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Well, Commissioners Court will be voting on their capital improvement plan (CIP) tomorrow, and the word is that the Hempstead lanes are out, and the Grand Parkway Segment E is in. From the CTC press release:

Harris County will vote Tuesday to drop funding for Hempstead Managed Lanes, pursue Grand Parkway development project instead


Citizens will ask for 290 traffic relief through Hempstead project

US-290 commuters who want relief must head downtown Tuesday morning to demand alternatives to increased congestion. Harris County Commissioners’ agenda includes a public hearing on the 2010/11 – 2014/15 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP):

9:00 am  Consideration of capital improvements for Harris County, Harris County Flood Control District, Port of Houston Authority of Harris County, and the Harris County Hospital District.

On Tuesday, Harris County residents will urge Commissioners not to waste resources on the speculative Grand Parkway real estate project while 250,000 US-290 commuters need the relief of the Hempstead Managed Lanes as soon as possible.

What:  Citizens urge Harris County Commissioners to fund Hempstead Managed Lanes before the speculative Grand Parkway

Who: Citizens’ Transportation Coalition http://ctchouston.org, and
Houston Tomorrow http://houstontomorrow.org

Where: 1001 Preston at Main St., 9th floor chamber, downtown Houston, 77002 (map)

When: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:00 am

Visuals: Harris County Court chamber, grassroots leaders

Background
trafficOn US-290 each workday, 250,000 commuters sit in traffic. US-290 is widely-recognized as the most-congested highway in the Houston region.

In 2007, TxDOT and Harris County released draft improvement plans for the US-290 corridor. These expansion plans include constructing new managed lanes, like the IH-10 Katy managed lanes, along Hempstead Highway from IH-610 out to Cypress and beyond. The plans repeatedly claim to the public that the Hempstead project will be constructed first, to give commuters new options, before TxDOT tears up US-290. The final plans, released in April 2010, still claim that the Hempstead lanes will come first.

Also in 2007, Harris County fought TxDOT for rights to develop the Hempstead project. With SB 792, the Texas Legislature granted the County exclusive rights to Hempstead. Only Harris County can build the Hempstead Managed Lanes.

Since then, TxDOT has designed $2.4 billion of improvements to US-290, but has no budget. Beyond reconstructing the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT has no funds on hand to add capacity to US-290 anytime soon.

In contrast, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) is flush with cash. According to the County Auditor’s revenue estimate, HCTRA expects to collect $470 million in tolls in 2010/11 and is sitting on another $423 million in cash. HCTRA has  $324 million for capital projectsbudgeted for 2010/11. They should be well-positioned to tackle the $2.2 billion Hempstead project.

Grand Parkway land for saleUnfortunately, it looks like 290 commuters won’t get any help from HCTRA, either. HCTRA’s capital plan includes no funds for the Hempstead relief project, but will spend $125 million for the Grand Parkway, a speculative toll road that will run through mostly-vacant and environmentally-sensitive areas of far northwest Harris County.

In fact, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) Harris County intends to spend $2.01 billion on Grand Parkway in the next four year, as reported in the draft 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). That’s nearly enough to complete the entire $2.2 billion Hempstead Managed Lanes project.

The County’s priorities are absurd when you consider that 384,000 people live in the US-290 corridor. In contrast, less than 15,000 live along segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway. It seems that Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and the Commissioners choose to subsidize developers of proposed new far-flung subdivisions rather than provide real mobility relief to current Harris County taxpayers. They obviously aren’t spending our money where the people are. To add insult to injury, new suburban development that follows the Grand Parkway will only make traffic worse on US-290.

The next time I hear some blowhard like Randal O’Toole yammer on about the evils of urban planning, I’d like to ask him what he’d call this. Be there and make your voice heard if you can.

The Grand Parkway ain’t dead yet

It may not receive stimulus funds, but don’t go presiding over Last Rites for the Grand Parkway.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday delayed a planned request to reallocate $181 million in federal stimulus funds for part of the 180-mile Grand Parkway project, after the Harris County Attorney’s Office said that any court order should be worded to ensure the county does not lose money paid out for acquiring right of way.

Art Storey, who heads the county’s Public Infrastructure Department, notified the court last week that the Feb. 15 deadline for securing wetland permits for a 15-mile tolled segment of the parkway could not be met.

[…]

In his letter to the court, Storey noted that a permit to fill wetlands from the U.S. Court of Engineers cannot not be obtained by the February deadline, adding that because of conflicts over environmental impacts and mitigation, it may never be issued.

However, after Tuesday’s court meeting, Storey said the environmental mitigation issue could be worked out eventually.

I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking or a warning to the rest of us to not get complacent, but be warned. This thing won’t go away on its own. The Court will revisit the matter Tuesday of next week, so stay tuned.

Grand Parkway will not get stimulus funds

As the Chron story headline says, it wasn’t so shovel-ready after all.

Harris County officials will request that $181 million in federal stimulus funding for portions of the county’s controversial Grand Parkway tollroad project be shifted to other projects, citing delays in obtaining federal permits that “might never be issued.“

This summer, the court approved the use of stimulus funds earmarked for Texas highway projects, declaring Segment E of the Grand Parkway outer loop project was closest to “shovel-ready“ status. The 15-mile portion of the road would link U.S. 290 with the Interstate 10 in west Harris County.

The stimulus money is supposed to be used for “shovel-ready” projects, or those that are closest to actual construction but awaiting funding to begin.

The recommendation to withdraw the project from the Texas Department of Transportation’s list of stimulus projects was made by Art Storey, who heads Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department. Storey declined to comment on his recommendation until it is considered at Harris County Commissioner Court’s meeting next Tuesday.

“Staff and consultants have worked diligently and successfully to be on schedule to meet the deadlines to enable Segment E construction to qualify for and receive the stimulus funding, but the federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot be completely processed by the required mid-February date,“ Storey said in a letter to the court. “In fact, because of conflicts over environmental impacts and mitigation, that permit might never be issued.”

Well, good, in the sense that this was bad public policy. Not so good in the sense that it’s a missed opportunity – surely there was something else we could have requested funds for instead. Too late now.

Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct contains the proposed roadway segment, described the loss of stimulus funds as “huge” development in the decades-long saga of the Grand Parkway project.

“When it comes to expecting Harris County to turn this into a shovel-ready project almost overnight, people need to realize that Harris County is a government, not a funeral home,” Radack said. “When it comes to getting any permits and working our way through any possible litigation, between federal permits and the lawsuits, it’s hard to calculate how many years something could be delayed.”

Um, whatever you say, Steve. Houston Tomorrow suggests a reason for the permitting issues.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) formally opposed the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E wetlands permit, according to the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition. Both agencies submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is considering the permit application.

The Segment E mitigation plan states that the project would impact 45.63 acres of wetlands, and it calls for the Harris County Toll Road Authority to purchase 23 acres of credits in the Katy Cypress Wetland Mitigation Bank and 22.63 acres in the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank.

However, FWS states that the project would impact a larger area, including areas outside the immediate right-of-way. In addition, the agency classifies the impacted wetlands as “medium quality,” while the mitigation plan calls them “low quality.” Medium quality wetlands require more mitigation than lower quality wetlands. In addition, FWS says it is “not appropriate” to use the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank, which is 30 miles to the east of Segment E and in a separate watershed. Instead, the agency says that mitigation efforts should all be located in the Cypress Creek watershed.

I know Steve Radack will never believe this, but maybe this really was a bad idea that is getting the fate it deserves.

Just how viable is the Grand Parkway anyway?

So it’s official, Commissioners Court has voted to seek stimulus funding for the Grand Parkway Segment E despite numerous concerns about the way they went about it. Houston Tomorrow explores a facet of this that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Proponents of Segment E have come under fire in recent months for waiving a detailed financial analysis of the project, and the current proposal appears to be an attempt to mute that criticism. However, it comes four months after the Commissioners Court approved 30 engineering contracts worth almost $22 million, and five months after the seven counties voted to waive the market valuation process. The language of Tuesday’s agenda provides some flexibility, so it is unclear how detailed the viability study will be. The commissioners will also vote on increasing the value of one of the existing contracts, as well as purchasing two tracts of land to develop Segment E. The full agenda items are available at the bottom of this page.

Videotaped testimony from last summer’s terms and conditions negotiating process, which is no longer available online, revealed that the entire Grand Parkway is revenue-negative. Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, agreed with that assessment, telling the Commissioners Court in February, “The whole highway is demonstrably a loser.“ However, Storey insisted that Segments E and F, by themselves, are toll-viable.

At the same time, Storey and others hope that the $181 million for Segment E will jump-start the rest of the $5 billion, 180-mile project, including the non-toll-viable portions. Three days after saying that the Grand Parkway will lose money, Storey, who sits on the regional Transportation Policy Council (TPC),spoke in support of the Grand Parkway at a TPC meeting, saying that “the doing of it [building Segment E] will make the doing of the rest of it more likely and more feasible.” He was supported by TxDOT commissioner Ned Holmes, who does not sit on the council but made a special trip to Houston to lobby for the project and said that the stimulus money could “induce the entire Grand Parkway to be built.”

I don’t know that I have anything to add to this. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone complain about the cost of building rail lines.

Cities lose out in transportation stimulus funding

This is not a surprise, but it is a missed opportunity.

Two-thirds of the country lives in large metropolitan areas, home to the nation’s worst traffic jams and some of its oldest roads and bridges. But cities and their surrounding regions are getting far less than two-thirds of federal transportation stimulus money.

According to an analysis by The New York Times of 5,274 transportation projects approved so far — the most complete look yet at how states plan to spend their stimulus money — the 100 largest metropolitan areas are getting less than half the money from the biggest pot of transportation stimulus money. In many cases, they have lost a tug of war with state lawmakers that urban advocates say could hurt the nation’s economic engines.

The stimulus law provided $26.6 billion for highways, bridges and other transportation projects, but left the decision on how to spend most of it to the states, which have a long history of giving short shrift to major metropolitan areas when it comes to dividing federal transportation money. Now that all 50 states have beat a June 30 deadline by winning approval for projects that will use more than half of that transportation money, worth $16.4 billion, it is clear that the stimulus program will continue that pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas.

“If we’re trying to recover the nation’s economy, we should be focusing where the economy is, which is in these large areas,” said Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which advocates more targeted spending. “But states take this peanut-butter approach, taking the dollars and spreading them around very thinly, rather than taking the dollars and concentrating them where the most complex transportation problems are.”

There’s a sidebar graphic to the story that shows each large metro’s ratio of percentage of stimulus funding to percentage of GDP. The Dallas/Fort Worth region does better than Houston, getting 76% of its GDP share back in stimulus funds to Houston’s 42%.

The 100 largest metropolitan areas also contribute three-quarters of the nation’s economic activity, and one consequence of that is monumental traffic jams. A study of congestion in urban areas released Wednesday by the Texas Transportation Institute found that traffic jams in 2007 cost urban Americans 2.8 billion gallons of wasted gas and 4.2 billion hours of lost time.

I blogged about that the other day. Considering that a decent chunk of Houston’s share of this money is going towards the Grand Parkway Segment E, which won’t do a thing to alleviate congestion, Houston’s share of the pot is even less than it appears. Ryan Avent has more.

Stimulus funds and road projects

Stimulus funds are coming to a road that may be near you.

Texas received $2.25 billion from the stimulus for transportation. That’s on top of the $3 billion it got in federal highway funds this year. The regular federal allotment comes with restrictions. Certain percentages must go to improving safety, relieving air pollution and repairing bridges, for example.

The stimulus money has comparatively few restrictions.

Critics say decision-makers took the money and went on a lane-building binge — directing too much money to new roads, which will encourage more driving, and not enough to mass transit or repairing existing infrastructure.

“Widening roads ultimately gives rise to congestion,” said David Crossley, founder of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that explores urban growth. “They’re asking for more cars to drive on the roads.”

A little-known regional body, the Transportation Policy Council, decided how to spend most of the stimulus funds in the Houston area. The council represents the eight counties of the Houston metro region, and its 24 voting members are drawn from local governments and agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

It either chose stimulus projects directly or approved ones desired by TxDOT.

The stimulus has one big requirement: Projects must begin soon, to create jobs and boost the economy. The Transportation Policy Council focused on projects that were “shovel ready,” meaning the necessary government and environmental approvals were in place. After that, the council looked for projects that had been waiting a long time for funding.

[…]

The transportation money is just one stream of stimulus funds flowing into Houston. The Port of Houston got $98 million to dredge the Ship Channel. The Federal Transit Administration allocated $105 million for buses, light rail and Park & Ride lots. But that’s still less than the $181 million set aside to build a section of the Grand Parkway outer loop in an undeveloped part of west Harris County.

Except for the Grand Parkway and a road widening in Stafford, all 15 major road projects getting a boost from stimulus money will be fully funded by it. The Grand Parkway segment is estimated to cost $607 million, and some think that won’t be money well spent.

“There are no people out there,” said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

Holzer said the money should have been spent to relieve traffic on U.S. 290 or for commuter rail.

No question, spending stimulus funds on the Grand Parkway is a terrible idea; of course, the Grand Parkway itself is a terrible idea, but it’s one that has juice behind it. It’s a damn shame there wasn’t a better process in place, one that would have rejected this project for stimulus funding, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.

Smart Growth America, a national urban planning coalition, said Texas spent almost half its stimulus road funds on new roads or extra lanes. By contrast, Maryland and North Dakota spent all of theirs on maintenance. Studies show that repair work on roads creates 16 percent more new jobs, according to the coalition.

You can get that full report here. As we know, Metro will get a little bit of stimulus money. More would have been nice, but what really matters now is getting funding through the regular appropriations and approval process for the remaining light rail lines. If we can get that done, it’s all good.

Katy Freeway managed lanes set to open

Christof notices a banner ad on chron.com for the Katy Freeway managed lanes, which are set to open on Monday, April 18, and gives us an update on them.

The lanes will now be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outside of rush hours, they’re a toll road: every car, regardless of how many people are in it, pays $1.10 to go the full length of the lanes. During rush hour, in the rush hour direction, single occupant cars pay between $2.00 and $4.00 and 2+ carpools are free. Those rates will need to be adjusted if the lanes are too popular, because HCTRA (who operates the lanes) has promised METRO (who gave up the HOV lane to make room for them) that buses will keep moving at full speed. Single occupant vehicles and carpools will be sorted out by a three-lane toll plaza: left lane for carpools, right two lanes for SOVs.

I guess they’ll have some sort of video surveillance to ensure that single occupancy vehicles are not trying to sneak through the non-toll lane. I predict that some time in the next year or so, we’ll see a story reported on how whatever system they have for monitoring this still has a few bugs in the system. The only question is whether they err on the side of caution or aggression.

Other potential problems:

Across the country, people have shown a distaste for tolls when a free option is available. Toll roads like Beltway 8 that don’t duplicate a freeway do well. Toll roads like the Hardy that do tend not to fill up. And Houston’s first managed lanes are in a corridor that just had a lot of free capacity added.

We may also begin to see problem with the lanes themselves. Nearly all the on- and off-ramps are from the regular lanes. If those lanes get congested, getting to the uncongested managed lanes will be hard for both carpools and buses. Some more direct ramps like those at Addicks and NWTC would have helped.

I think even if the free lanes don’t get too congested, having more vehicles cutting all the way across the highway to get on and off is going to increase the number of accidents. But maybe not so much if the free lanes stay relatively free-flowing. I wonder if anyone will do a study of this.

In other news, I recently realized that Bloglines has stopped noticing new updates from Intermodality’s RSS feed, so over these past few weeks as I’ve been wondering if Christof has been off the grid, it turned out that the problem was on my end. So, while I ponder the logistics of switching to Google reader – this is not the first time Bloglines has done this to me, and there are a couple of other feeds that are currently lost as well, I just noticed their loss sooner because they update more frequently – here are a couple of posts that I might have commented on:

Houston rail transit in an alternate universe. Maybe we are better off not having approved earlier rail referenda.

Why the feds like pavement and not rails. Don’t even get me started on this.

The transportation stimulus comes home. A look at where federal transportation stimulus money will be going around here. Some of it will even be spent on non-boondoggle toll roads.

The map – now with officially approved colors. An update to the Metro 2012 Solutions map, with station locations and other useful information.

Radack’s Hill

Who says Harris County is flat? Not County Commissioner Steve Radack, who is building a hill in Hockley for soap box derby enthusiasts.

It is a vision seven years in the making for Radack, who predicts the hill will draw hundreds of derby enthusiasts from around the region and across the country, along with runners, hikers and possibly even skateboarders. Built using dirt excavated to create a chain of lakes at Katy’s Paul D. Rushing Park, the 50-foot incline will allow the motorless cars to zip downward with the aid of gravity at speeds approaching 35 mph.

The project’s estimated price tag has grown from $300,000 to more than $2 million as the plans became more elaborate, including adding an amphitheater on the hillside for concerts and community events. Although the county is facing a budget crunch that has forced some departments to cut spending by millions of dollars, Radack said parks are an ideal investment in a time of economic uncertainty.

“When you think about building something that thousands of families will come to, to provide their kids with space to play and exercise, I mean, that’s a big thing we’re in business to do,” Radack said. “And that’s why I continue to build parks.”

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how much the county has spent on the hill since the main $6.1 million contract in 2007 covered both excavating the dirt to create the lakes and trucking it 12 miles to build the hill. Radack said most of the money was spent on the lake excavation, but he did not have an exact tally. The hill was finished about a year ago and has been allowed to rest so the dirt can settle and stabilize.

Well, at least now I have a better understanding of why Radack cares so much about how long it takes to drive between Hockley and Houston.

OK, you can use some stimulus money on rail

Whew!

Federal transit officials on Tuesday reversed course and agreed to allow Metro to use nearly $30 million in economic stimulus funds for utility relocation work on the proposed North and Southeast rail lines, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee announced.

Just last week, Metro was told such stimulus funds could not be used on the latest extensions of the rail lines because the projects were not deemed “shovel-ready.” Instead, the Federal Transit Administration recommended Metro use its stimulus funds for converting 83 miles of high occupancy vehicle lanes to high occupancy toll lanes.

[…]

Jackson Lee said the about-face — announced in “letters of no prejudice” from the FTA — followed U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s visit to Houston earlier this month.

LaHood, who was invited here by Jackson Lee to see the light rail line, spent all day March 13 meeting with Metro supporters, officials from various universities and other public institutions.

“He was able to ride on the (rail) system and meet with the head of Texas Children’s Hospital, who was able to explain how vital the system was,” Jackson Lee said.

Of the total $28.9 million in federal stimulus funds freed up for Metro’s rail plans, $19.2 million is earmarked for utility relocation work on the North Corridor Light Rail, while $9.7 million will be devoted to relocating utilities for the Southeast Corridor Light Rail.

The key to getting the economic stimulus funds was proving that Metro could start the work within 90 days — a requirement to secure the federal monies, Jackson Lee said. The utility relocation work can be contracted and people hired to do the work immediately, she said.

Of course, the definition of “shovel ready” is different for rail projects than it is for toll road projects. But we’ll take what we can get.

A better idea for the Grand Parkway

If we must build the Grand Parkway Segment E, then this would be a far more preferable way to do it. Probably less expensive, too.

Commissioners Court OKs Grand Parkway Segment E work

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved an agreement to build and maintain a segment of the Grand Parkway connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290, but questions over what would happen if the county ultimately decided the project was not financially viable could delay work indefinitely.

The agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation clearly states that Harris County would be reimbursed for its investment in Segment E of the proposed “outer outer” loop around Houston if another entity agreed to develop the entire 185-mile project.

But the agreement does not describe what would happen if the county decided not to build the segment after spending money on the segment and no one ever agreed to build the whole project.

After a lengthy discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, the court voted to accept the agreement anyway. But Commissioner Steve Radack said later he does not want the county to spend any money until he knows for sure who would reimburse those expenses and how quickly that would happen.

“I am not going to put $20 million-plus dollars worth of county money on a toll road roulette wheel,” he said after the meeting.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis declined to speculate on whether the agency would agree to those terms.

In other words, it is unclear whether or not there’s a “No Backsies” policy in effect. May I suggest that when this inevitably winds up in court that the county retain Harvey Richards as their attorney?

On a more serious note, this vote went through despite there being numerous unanswered questions about the project’s financial viability, and the use of stimulus funds on a toll road.

Citizens’ Transportation Coalition chairwoman Robin Holzer said the county should not invest any more money in the segment until that study is completed.

“Harris County has a responsibility to every toll road user in our region to slow down and do this right,” said Holzer, whose mobility advocacy group argues that Segment E will do little to address pressing traffic concerns while helping developers get rich building sprawling subdivisions on the Katy Prairie.

Art Storey, the executive director of Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department, acknowledged that deadlines associated with accepting $181 million in stimulus funding for the project are prompting county leaders to move expeditiously. Construction must be completed within three years, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Storey said the county has been negotiating with TxDOT for permission to build the road since last June, hoping it would ease traffic on U.S. 290 by diverting some drivers to the expanded Katy Freeway.

“Stimulus money was not in anybody’s vocabulary when we asked for permission from Commissioners Court to negotiate with TxDOT,” Storey said. If anyone truly started moving more quickly after the stimulus money became available, it was TxDOT, he added. The $181 million allocation was among $1.2 billion in stimulus projects the Texas Transportation Commission approved last week.

[…]

The new “investment-grade” study would build upon similar but less detailed analyses conducted in 2004 and 2008 that showed the segment is toll-viable, meaning it would pay for itself over time. An investment-grade study involves an extensive analysis of local traffic and economic data to let potential investors know what kind of risk they would be taking.

Previous studies showed most of the other Grand Parkway segments would not be used enough individually to recoup the cost of building them. However, the entire project could be revenue neutral over the years if the highest-grossing segments subsidized the lowest-grossing ones, Storey said earlier this year.

The real question is whether existing toll roads such as the Westpark or the Sam Houston would be used to cover any shortfalls on the Grand Parkway. “Could be revenue neutral over the years” leaves an awful lot of room for things to not go as hoped, after all.

Activists tell TxDOT to slow down and be open

The following is a press release from a coalition of activists, including the Sierra Club, Environment Texas, Independent Texans, Houston Tomorrow, and the CTC:

Representatives of a broad coalition of quality of life, political reform, and environmental groups and citizens from across the state are requesting that the five Commissioners of the Texas Transportation Commission (the Commission) slow down and revisit the transportation projects that they will vote on Thursday morning at 10:00 AM to include in Texas’ request to the Federal government for use of American Economic Recovery Act transportation funds. The Commission has the authority to delay the vote and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to reconsider the project list.

With $1.2 billion of stimulus funding at stake, many Texans, including Texas legislators, have raised red flags, citing a lack of transparency and fairness in the process led by the TxDOT and culminating in the vote by the Commission today. The concerned groups charge that TxDOT failed to address environmental and quality of life issues, including development of alternative forms of transportation.

That vote was taken yesterday, and TxDOT went ahead with its original plans anyway. The fight isn’t over – as noted before, among the projects in scope for this is the Grand Parkway Segment E, for which there are still many hurdles to be cleared, and thus many more opportunities for the public to push back. TxDOT is also still subject to a sunset review this session, and their actions here can and will be used as evidence of whether or not they’ve made any substantive changes as they’d promised.

The rest of the release is beneath the fold. I will note that if you’re one of those people who thinks Metro should have been more transparent in their negotiations with Parsons, you ought to be holding TxDOT to a similar level of scrutiny. It’s still the public’s money, after all.

(more…)

Morrison speaks on the Grand Parkway

Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison writes about the recently-greenlighted Grand Parkway Segment E and the possibility that stimulus funds could be used to fund what will become a toll road.

If Segment E is funded from the stimulus money and finally constructed, exorbitant tolls from this segment will be used to finance and construct the remaining segments in Liberty, Montgomery, Brazoria, Chambers, and Galveston Counties. That means the citizens of Fort Bend County and North-west Harris County will be paying for those segments even though they never drive on them. From a mobility standpoint many of these remaining segments are useless. Miles and miles of the remaining pieces will cross open prairie where no one lives, will have little or no effect on traffic and are not needed. When our transportation dollars from Washington D.C. are desperately needed to get people to and from our population centers, it only seems reasonable that the federal stimulus money should be spent on actual mobility projects.

There’s more, so check it out. On a related note, the Observer has a report from that rally at the Capitol that urged TxDOT to slow down and get more public input on how and where it should be allocating those funds. And quit pissing everybody off while they’re at it.

Here come stimulus money

The first batch of funds is arriving.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $500 million to Texas cities and counties on Monday, part of a wave of stimulus money expected to flow into the state.

Federal officials released $14.4 million more to support 12 Texas health centers, many of which provide care to people with no health insurance. The federal money is expected to create more than 400 jobs in the state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

[…]

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs received the biggest chunk of money — about $148.4 million for affordable rental housing projects that rely on low-income housing tax credits.

More than 350 public housing authorities in Texas received $119.8 million for public housing projects, including energy-efficient modernization, capital improvements and critical safety repairs. San Antonio and El Paso received the most public housing assistance with about $14.6 million and $12.7 million, respectively.

There’s more, and I’m glad to see it. I suspect most of the agencies that will benefit from these monies haven’t exactly been flush in recent years, if ever. Hopefully, we can get a lot of good done.

Of course, there’s still a fight looming over how much Governor Perry wants the state to accept. Towards that end, a group of Democratic legislators will be calling on Perry to take everything that has been allocated for Texas. From their release:

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston,) Representative Jim Dunnam (D-Waco), Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), Senator Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso), Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) and Senator Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) will hold a press conference to urge Governor Perry to accept all available stimulus funds on Tuesday, March 3, 2009, beginning at 9:00 AM, in the Lieutenant Governor’s Press Room.

The press conference will call on state leaders to invest the stimulus funding in programs and priorities which will give a hand-up to as many Texans as possible. The legislators will particularly focus on plans to shore up Texas’ rapidly dwindling Unemployment Insurance System.

While Texas does not yet face double digit unemployment, as Michigan does, the economic forecast is not rosy. According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, the Texas economy will lose 111,000 jobs in 2009, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise from 6 to 8.2 percent. The recently passed Economic Recovery Act offers $555.7 million to Texas to shore up its shaky unemployment fund, but the state must first pass a series of reforms to be eligible. Unfortunately, even as Texas accepts stimulus funds, some continue to say the state should reject unemployment funding, simply because it requires small changes to the program.

It would be nice to have some Republican legislators doing this as well, but this is a good start. That press conference will be at 9 AM in the Lt. Governor’s press room in the Capitol.

Finally, on a related note, a group of transportation activists will be making a call of their own to TxDOT tomorrow regarding that agency’s plans for its federal stimulus funds.

In February, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allocated $2.25 billion in federal transportation funds to Texas. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) will allow states up to one year to decide which projects to build.

But the Texas Transportation Commission is poised to ram through $1.7 billion of new stimulus-funded projects at their meeting Thursday. The project list is chock full of controversial projects, including the Grand Parkway in Houston, the US-281 toll road across the Edwards aquifer in San Antonio, roads to nowhere, and sprawl highways through environmentally-sensitive areas. Further, many Texans object to spending stimulus on toll roads.

On Tuesday morning, Texans from across the state will converge at the capitol to demand that Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) slow down and do this right. We must ensure our federal stimulus isn’t wasted on boondoggles!

What: Joint citizen press conference

Who:

* Texans United for Reform and Freedom (TURF), Terri Hall, http://texasturf.org
* Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, Brandt Mannchen, http://texas.sierraclub.org
* Environment Texas, Alejandro Savransky, http://environmenttexas.org
* IndependentTexans, Linda Curtis, http://indytexans.org
* Houston Tomorrow, Jay Crossley, http://houstontomorrow.org
* Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Robin Holzer, http://ctchouston.org

When: Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009 at 9:15 am

Where: East steps of the Texas Capitol, Austin, TX

That would be just like TxDOT, wouldn’t it? I hope they listen to the call to slow down.

UPDATE: The Observer has more about TxDOT and the fast one they’re trying to pull.

Grand Parkway Segment E gets a go-ahead

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved an agreement to build and maintain a segment of the Grand Parkway connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290, but questions over what would happen if the county ultimately decided the project was not financially viable could delay work indefinitely.

The agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation clearly states that Harris County would be reimbursed for its investment in Segment E of the proposed “outer outer” loop around Houston if another entity agreed to develop the entire 185-mile project.

But the agreement does not describe what would happen if the county decided not to build the segment after spending money on the segment and no one ever agreed to build the whole project.

Here’s a copy of the agreement (large PDF), which I got via an email sent from Robin Holzer to members of the CTC. She states:

The agreement stipulates that Harris County will be responsible for funding right-of-way acquisition, engineering and design, utility work, environmental studies and mitigation, compliance with TAS and ADA, and any other aspect of the project not mentioned in attachment D. According to this agreement Harris County will be on the hook for the entire estimated project cost in excess of $500 million.

Before voting Cmr. Steve Radack pushed staff to clarify the County’s financial obligations saying, “I don’t want Harris County tax payers to be out one penny on this project.” He asked what happens if the County moves forward on segment E but decides not to finish the project.

Attorney Bob Colley, who worked on the agreement for the County, explained that the County will only be reimbursed for segment E costs if TxDOT or another entity ultimately assumes responsibility for it and the entire Grand Parkway. If HCTRA develops segment E and no one takes it over, the County will be out the entire cost.

Commissioners also clarified the County’s obligations stemming from this agreement. In conclusion, today’s vote allows the County to pursue segment E, but does not obligate the County to begin spending money on it.

Emphasis in original. That’s a lot of money hanging on a what-if, isn’t it?

Back to the Chron:

About 10 representatives from environmental and neighborhood groups that oppose the project spoke against it during Tuesday’s meeting, calling it a magnet for sprawl that will be too far north to have much of an impact on U.S. 290 traffic. They said the court should use the money to build commuter rail or toll lanes on the freeway instead.

A detailed list of reasons why this isn’t such a hot idea can be found in this post from last year, when this project was fast-tracked. I agree with the point Jay Crossley made in the comments to that post, which is that this represents urban planning in another form. Somehow, though, those who object to that idea don’t ever seem to have a problem with it when it’s done this way.