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We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s speech Tuesday may have included jabs at state lawmakers, but it was a hit with transit advocates for a single line.

“We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions,” Emmett said in his prepared remarks, alluding to freeway projects that have exacerbated flooding woes. “One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail.”

[…]

Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.

Still, the regret voiced by Emmett – whom many consider a proponent of road building as a champion of the Grand Parkway – demonstrates a shift, if only in tone, regarding regional transportation.

“I totally think what the Judge said is important,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which has pressed for commuter rail development. “Judge Emmett has always been a supporter of the rail district, but it is important when you hear him say there was an opportunity for commuter rail.”

Yes, we could have had a rail component to the I-10 expansion. It was a choice not to do that. It wasn’t hard to see that at some point after the initial expansion, the new capacity would be exhausted. Having a means to move people that didn’t rely on that capacity would have been helpful. The powers that be – read: Harris County and John Culberson – were not interested in that. We won’t have as many options going forward – it’s not like there’s a bunch of available space to build more lanes, after all.

To be sure, Metro express buses make heavy use of the HOV lanes, which move a lot of people and didn’t require a big capital investment on Metro’s part. One commenter on Swamplot thinks that’s a perfectly fine outcome.

The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can). The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.”

I agree that the park and ride experience is a good one, and a lot of people use it. But even with a rail corridor built in, there would still have been HOV lanes, so we could have had both rail and express buses. Build it as light rail and you can have local service, too. Lots of people are using I-10 for shorter trips that neither begin nor end in downtown. We didn’t know it at the time, but the subsequent local bus system redesign would have provided a lot of connections to and from this could-have-been light rail line, thus reducing the need for parking around the stations. It’s not a question of whether rail would have provided superior service to express buses, it’s that rail plus express buses would have been better. But we’ll probably never get to see that for ourselves, thanks to short-sighted decision making more than a decade ago.

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.

Metro and HCTRA exploring other payment options

Look for them soon.

HoustonMetro

Many transit riders are clamoring for smartphone payment for Metro buses and trains, which the agency originally announced would be ready by the end of 2015. Those plans have been delayed because of contract negotiations, but about 100 riders will be chosen for a test of a smartphone-based payment system in January, according to Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Metro approved a $244,090 contract in June with GlobeSherpa, based in Portland, Ore. The company is developing a smartphone app enabling riders to store single-ride tickets or day passes for use as needed. Riders will show the bus operator or fare inspector their valid ticket, which is designed so it cannot be copied or forged.

Current and potential riders are eager for smartphone options, Metro board members said.

[…]

For the initial March unveiling, Wendler said the smartphone payment system will have the ability to accept and verify Metro’s common $1.25 fare and a $3 day pass option. Smartphone options will come later for those who receive discounts, such as seniors and students, and for park-and-ride fares, she said.

Demand also is expected to surge among commuters, Metro board member Christof Spieler said.

“I would roll out park and ride as fast as possible,” he said.

Metro, after years of encouraging Q card use, has eased up on making the cards the preferred payment source. Though the Q card system is aging and likely to be replaced in a few years, it is still the dominant method of paying for bus and train trips in the area.

I noted the pilot of this a few days ago. I have a Q card, which is paid for by my employer – I suspect there are a lot of people like me – so I’m not exactly itching to try something new. I’m sure that when the time comes, companies that subsidize transit for their employees will find a way to use the new system. For everyone else, I see no reason not to offer more options. Among other things, having a smartphone app for paying would make Metro more accessible to visitors and locals who have a short term need for transit, due to a temporary work assignment or a car that’s in the shop or whatever else. I hope this works out.

Toll agency officials are changing drivers’ payment choices as well. The agency wants to eliminate coin-operated machines and staffed toll booths along many roads, and this month it launched its first EZ TAG option that does not require a credit card.

The new reloadable toll tags, though a partnership with BancPass, are available at the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge toll plaza. They’ll be sold in various retail outlets after the new year, toll road authority spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Initial purchase of the reloadable EZ TAG costs $40. The “reload kit” includes a transponder for the person’s vehicle, a card to add balance to the toll account and $15 in tolls. As the toll balance diminishes, drivers can add value to the card online or a certain locations around Houston – for now, the Ship Channel Toll Plaza. Each time the card is reloaded, BancPass, the administrator of the accounts, assesses a $2 fee.

Benton said the reloadable card is aimed at attracting people who do not want to give the toll authority credit card information, many of whom use the toll lanes infrequently.

We have EZ tags, and though we don’t use them often (mostly for trips to and from the airport), I don’t foresee that changing. If you’re going to phase out coin machines and staffed toll booths, then you’ve got to have an option for the folks who use them now. It seems a bit complicated, but that’s the tradeoff for using cash.

Now how much would you pay to drive on that toll road?

How about ten bucks each way at peak times, beginning on May 30?

Toll rates on the I-10 lanes, also known as the Katy Managed Lanes, will increase as officials seek to ease congestion by reducing use of the lanes during peak hours through a process called congestion pricing. The rates will go up by as much as $1.20 at each of the three tolling points along the 12-mile route. The price of a complete trip will jump from $7 to $10 at peak commuting times.

Officials said the increase was necessary to reduce congestion and to encourage people to find alternatives to driving.

“This is the only tool we have to manage the congestion on the lanes,” said Lisa Castaneda, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

[…]

The goal is to have 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles use the HOV lane and the same number use the toll lane each hour. Prices are set to achieve that.

Castaneda said at the current rate of $3.20 at Eldridge and $1.90 at Wilcrest and Wirt during peak commutes, about 20 percent more vehicles are using the lanes than optimal. More people will choose alternatives such as public transportation or a car pool if tolls are higher, officials said.

[…]

Setting prices to create incentives for using transit is common in other major metro areas struggling with traffic. Tunnels and bridges in many places have extremely high rates based on huge demand. The George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York cost $13 one-way for access to Manhattan.

It might not match New York demand, but traffic is choking I-10, despite a $2 billion widening project that made the freeway the nation’s widest – 26 lanes when local frontage roads are included. At the spot where the HOV and toll lanes end near Post Oak, more than 338,000 vehicles use the freeway each day, according to 2013 Texas Department of Transportation figures.

“The only tool we have been using is to pour more concrete,” Castaneda said.

In 2003, before the widening work began, about 215,000 vehicles used the freeway outside Loop 610, according to TxDOT figures.

Further relief along the route is likely to come from people choosing other options, something Castaneda said the toll increase was meant to encourage.

I’d been wondering how traffic today compares to traffic pre-widening. Look at it this way: There were four outbound lanes on I-10 from 610 in 2003, three free lanes plus one HOV lane. It’s a little harder to get a handle on it now because lanes come and go, but it’s something like five plus the two toll/HOV lanes. That means in 2003, there were 54,000 vehicles per lane, and today it’s 48,000. All that for $2.8 billion. Did we get our money’s worth or what? And remember, all those extra cars are helping to clog up the Loop and I-10 inside the Loop and I-45, not to mention the surface streets that connect to I-10. I know, the growth in the area meant a lot of that traffic was coming whether we widened I-10 or not, but as people were arguing at the time, we could have done things differently to allow for some of those “other options” – commuter rail, more park and ride lots, who knows what else. But we poured a bunch of concrete, and now a decade later we’re right where we were before we expanded I-10, with far fewer options going forward. What we do now, I don’t know. But maybe this time more people will listen when we say we need options beyond more concrete. The Highwayman has more.

City and county make a deal on airport toll road revenues

Good.

HCTRA

After two years of negotiations, the Houston City Council approved an agreement Wednesday that provides toll revenue from the airport connector to the city for the first time – 24.5 percent, to be precise.

Officials at Harris County, which has collected all revenue on the segment since it opened in January 2000, said it only made sense to play nice. County leaders have called parts of the original 1997 city-county agreement governing construction, maintenance and tolls “puzzling” and “bizarre.”

The city expects to collect about $1 million annually under the revised agreement, which still must be approved by the county Commissioners Court.

“We do have a better working relationship than we’ve ever had,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “Every so often governments can sit down and say ‘We wrote this in the contract, but we can do something better.’ ”

In a 2011 letter to the county proposing the two sides split toll revenues on the connector, Houston Airport System Director Mario Diaz noted the city contributed 43 percent of the $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property. Diaz also discussed the 1997 agreement, which authorized the city to collect toll revenues only if it built its own toll plaza – which could have resulted in redundant facilities or in the dismantling of the county’s existing plaza.

“That would just border on the line of pure stupidity to tear down a perfectly good plaza and build another one,” Commissioner Steve Radack said. “If the city’s happy with this and the toll road authority’s happy with it and they recommend it, I don’t have a problem with it.”

See here for the background. You will note that at the time, Steve Radack did have a problem with this idea. The fact that he is on board with this plan is a clear sign that city-county relations are at the highest point they’ve been in recent memory. Or possibly a sign of the impending apocalypse. Either way, kudos all around.

But was it worth it?

No doubt that traffic on the Katy Freeway moves a lot more smoothly now than it used to. But there’s a lot more to the question of whether the $2.8 billion that was spent to widen it was a good investment or not.

Four years after the project was completed, a comparative analysis of drive-time data for a three-year period before and after the expansion shows that at both peak and non-peak periods of the day, it takes less time to traverse the Katy Freeway than it used to.

It’s a matter of mere minutes – the morning commute from Barker-Cypress to Taylor, for instance, a distance of 19 miles, now takes, on average, 27 minutes. It used to take about 33 minutes.

But added together, the users of the Katy Freeway are spending a lot less time in their cars.

The evening commute on that stretch now takes an average of 28 minutes as opposed to 38 minutes and 30 seconds.

Data show there is still congestion at peak periods, particularly the evening commute out of the city, but what was once a daylong traffic jam is now for the most part smooth sailing.

“Before they did all that construction, inbound basically was congested all day long,” said Darrell Borchardt, a senior research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. “You would get stop-and-go speeds out there at 11 o’clock in the morning. Now, since that construction has been completed, with the additional capacity, they don’t have those issues in the middle of the day.”

I’ll stipulate to that. I remember driving back in to Houston on Sundays from Austin or San Antonio before the expansion and hitting traffic from Highway 6 on in. That doesn’t happen any more unless there’s been a wreck. The average commute time differences seem rather minimal to me, but I suppose the main thing is that it’s much less likely to take an hour to get where you’re going than it used to. For sure, there’s real value to that.

But no one ever argued that a widened I-10 would shave a few minutes off commute times. The argument was that there were better design options for this project. The Katy Corridor Coalition’s website is long defunct, but this Chron story from 2003 covers the gist of their case.

The Katy Corridor Coalition – a group of west Houston residents fighting the state’s plans to widen the Katy Freeway – will offer a plan today that calls for sinking several miles of the interstate and planting thousands of trees to filter out air pollution.

The coalition, which has filed a lawsuit to stall the massive freeway expansion, said its plan is a more intelligent way to combat air pollution, traffic noise and congestion.

Practically and politically, the new plan might have little chance of becoming reality. But it does seem to echo successful efforts by affluent residents of the Museum District in the mid-1990s to convince state highway planners to sink part of the Southwest Freeway.

“We’ve already seen what the Texas Department of Transportation does doesn’t work,” said Polly Ledvina, a member of the Katy coalition. “Just using a bigger version of the same strategy on the Katy Freeway will just result in a bigger version of the problems we already face.”

Jim Blackburn, the coalition’s attorney, said Wednesday that the proposal is a reasonable alternative to current plans to expand the freeway from 11 lanes to 18, including toll lanes down the middle of the interstate.

Although coalition plans call for sinking the freeway about 20 feet below ground level from the West Loop to Beltway 8, Blackburn estimated it will only add about $100 million to the $1.1 billion project. The work, he added, could still be done within the six-year timetable officials are already using.

And though it would mean massive redesign, the coalition’s proposal leaves room for toll lanes the Harris County Toll Road Authority wants to build and provides dedicated space for a future commuter rail line, Blackburn said.

Boy, remember when this project was only supposed to cost $1.1 billion? Those were the days, I tell you. The KCC’s design plan – which, presumably, would have wound up adding more than $100 million to the final cost, given how much more expensive everything else turned out to be – was generally well-received by those whose interests were broader than simply adding more lanes as fast as possible, but in the end none of what they pushed for was used. We can’t know what things would look like now if the KCC had been taken more seriously by TxDOT, HCTRA, and John Culberson, but it is worth asking if the money we spent was spent as wisely as it could have been. Is a six to ten minute reduction in peak travel time about what we expected? How long do we expect this effect to last – I mean, you have to think that when that new Grand Parkway segment is built it’s going to increase volume on I-10 – and what if anything is there to be done about it when traffic starts backing up again? Sure might have been nice to have that commuter rail option that was rejected. Do we have any idea what the effect of the expansion have been on air quality and flood control, which were two of the things that the KCC plan tried to address? Travel time is just one dimension of this project. It’s good that it’s worked out well so far, but that should be where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

Toll hike

I have three things to say about this.

Starting in September, that jaunt on a Harris County toll road might save you time, but it won’t spare your change.

Unless Commissioners Court intervenes, rates at main-lane toll plazas on the Sam Houston, Westpark Tollway, Hardy Toll Road and the one toll booth on the Fort Bend Parkway inside Harris County are scheduled to increase Sept. 8 from $1.30 to $1.40 for EZ Tag users and from $1.50 to $1.75 for cash customers.

Rates would jump from $4 to $5 during peak hours on the Katy Managed Lanes. Westbound peak hours are scheduled to shift one hour earlier, to run from to 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Off-peak rates on the Katy managed lanes would not change, nor would rates on the Ship Channel bridge.

[…]

Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key explained the need for the increase by pointing to the $1.9 billion his agency plans to spend on capital projects through 2020.

“We feel like we have a compelling argument to make that, for the region’s continued prosperity, there have to be funds available to fund regional infrastructure improvements,” Key said. “The county toll road system happens to be one of the entities that’s still solvent to be able to do that.”

[…]

County Judge Ed Emmett said he supports the increase, noting that the county will be able to improve mobility at a time when the Texas Department of Transportation is hamstrung by insufficient gas-tax revenues.

“Like it or not, there’s no highway fairy in the sky that’s going to pay to build new roads or maintain the roads that we have,” Emmett said. “This is just keeping up with inflation, and it allows us to continue expanding the toll road system.”

1. I’m glad I don’t have a daily routine that requires the use of toll roads.

2. Despite Judge Emmett’s comment, it doesn’t actually take a magic highway fairy to pay for the kind of transportation infrastructure the state of Texas needs. It just takes a Legislature and a Governor that recognize the need for it and the willingness to index the gas tax to inflation. Having said that, I must admit that a magic highway fairy is the more believable option.

3. It sure would be nice if Metro could get the resources it needs for the capital projects it has planned this easily, wouldn’t it?

More on the 288 to Medical Center connector

The more I hear about this idea, the worse it sounds.

A proposal to build a highway connector between Texas 288 and the Texas Medical Center via North MacGregor Way has drawn criticism.

Among those opposed to the flyover is the Hermann Park Conservancy, which says the elevated connector would leave Hermann Park’s new trail system in the shadow of a freeway.

“Horrible,” conservancy director Doreen Stoller said in summing up the proposal.

Among other issues, Stoller said in a written statement, the flyover would take land from the park for non-park purposes, would increase traffic and noise pollution, would cause congestion at one of the park’s major entrances and would diminish the effect of a recent $100 million park upgrade.

The $12.1 million flyover is part of a project to add toll lanes to the highway that serves as a major route between the Pearland area and downtown Houston.

As I said when I first heard about this, whatever this may do to relieve congestion outside 610, it won’t do a thing to relieve it as 288 merges into I-45 and US 59. I would also argue that it won’t do much to actually relieve congestion on the way into the Medical Center. It will mostly relocate it, from the surface streets to this flyover, which will still ultimately have to connect up with the surface streets and the Medical Center parking lots. I’m really not convinced that this thing will do any good, and that’s before you factor in the damage this design proposal could do to Hermann Park. Some years ago there was an idea that got floated to build a connector from I-10 to US 59 parallel to the West Loop, roughly running along where Weslayan is. This of course would have cut through Memorial Park, which helped to make the idea a non-starter. I hope this idea meets the same fate.

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

Tomball toll road

They want a toll road in Tomball, and they’re probably going to get it.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is asking that it be allowed to look at State Highway 249, also known as Tomball Parkway, to see whether it would be make sense to build a toll road from Spring-Cypress Road about 10 miles north, to near Farm-to-Market 1774. Toll roads officials stress that the study is preliminary and no end point has been determined.

“You’ve got a populated area that’s growing that needs more mobility,” said Peter Key, executive director of the toll road authority. “We’re taking those first steps to try to find something that’s feasible.”

[…]

“The people out in Tomball really want that to occur,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Everybody I talk to says it’s almost a no-brainer that it’s a financially good thing to do.”

John Fishero, a vice president at Lone Star College-Tomball and chairman of the 249 Coalition, a nascent group advocating for growth along the road from Beltway 8 to Navasota, agreed.

Morning radio traffic reports, Fishero said, often cite 45-minute drive times on 20-mile stretches of the North and Eastex freeways. The commute on 249, he said, often is pegged at 30 minutes for a stretch of road one fourth as long.

“They’re talking about Spring Cypress to Beltway 8, and that’s only about 6 miles,” Fishero said. “People are sitting there going nowhere. Getting the flow of traffic away from the stop lights and stop signs between Spring-Cypress and Magnolia will definitely help.”

I’m sure it will be better than it is now, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a long term solution. In fact, I’d bet it’s congested from the day it opens, whenever that is. Not really my concern, at least as long as it’s financed with revenues from the tolls on that road, but reading this story made me wonder about other options. There has been talk about commuter rail along the 249 corridor – see, for example this post by Tory Gattis from 2008 – but I haven’t heard much about it lately. Here’s a Chron story from 2009 in which the idea is floated to the local poobahs in Tomball.

John Fishero, the Greater Tomball Area Chamber’s mobility and transportation committee chairman, said the committee was formed to investigate the results of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s “Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study,” which was released in summer 2008.

The study pinpointed five existing railroad corridors that could form the “baseline system” for a commuter rail network in the Houston-Galveston region: U.S. 290 (UPRR’s Eureka line), Texas 249 to Tomball (Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Houston line), Texas 3 (UPRR’s Galveston line), South Fort Bend/FM 521 (BNSF’s Galveston/Popp corridor line), and the Texas 35 Tollway corridor to Pearland (near UPRR’s Mykawa line).

Fishero said several groups on the U.S. 290 corridor formed a coalition several years ago to lobby for commuter rail service from downtown to College Station. That group has the attention of Harris County and several other agencies that could help fund, implement and manage commuter rail projects, Fishero said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would like to see commuter rail projects on the U.S. 290 and Texas 3 rail corridors in the next three years.

“Our concern is that we need to get our hat in the ring one way or another,” Fishero said. “If we want to get something done, we need to start working on funding for our own projects.”

Like I said, I haven’t heard much since. We’re still kicking around commuter rail on the corridors Judge Emmett mentioned, so like the toll road I presume this is still something for the future. My understanding from inquiring with Judge Emmett’s office about this is that it is still being actively considered, but there needs to be a way to tie it in with a transit center of some type on the northwest side so you are not just dumping off commuters with no way to get to wherever they’re going. This is the same basic concern that a commuter or passenger rail line along 290 would have, so when that issue gets resolved then there can be further progress made on a 249/Tomball line. And if we ever do get to that point, we could take it to the next step and extend the line out to College Station as a high speed rail link, as neoHouston documented. Just something else to think about as we go along. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Here come the HOT lanes

Metro's HOV system

Those of you who commute from the ‘burbs into the central core will have new options for how to get there, if you don’t mind spending a few bucks.

Solo drivers willing to pay extra to breeze through heavy traffic could get their chance soon, with Metro expected to start opening its high-occupancy toll lanes early this year.

Metro officials had previously projected a January start to the high-occupancy toll lanes but now say they don’t have a specific date, agency spokesman Jerome Gray said Friday by email.

“We are undergoing final testing of the infrastructure,” Gray said. “In addition, we are completing the integration of the toll processing with HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). Once that is complete we should be ready to go.”

The Metro board approved this change in November. There have been HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway since 2009 – they call them managed lanes, but it’s the same thing with lower tolls. The thing I’ve always wondered about is how they know whom to toll, and whom to ticket if they’ve neither a tag or enough passengers.

Metro’s tolls will apply only to drivers with no passengers who opt to use the HOV lanes for a price. Single-occupant vehicles will enter the lane through a designated path that allows tolling.

Vehicles with at least two occupants will not be charged a toll.

Booth attendants will monitor the number of passengers in vehicles entering the HOT lanes, and Metro police will patrol the lanes.

Violators who evade the toll will be assessed a $75 fine, while “occupancy violators” (solo drivers who use the lanes when they are designated for HOV use only) will be issued a citation requiring a court appearance.

More on that is here. Maybe it works simpler than it sounds. Anyone have experience with the Katy lanes? Hair Balls has more.

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.

Let’s share that toll road revenue

Have you ever taken the toll road connector from the Hardy Toll Road to IAH? I have, many times. Being able to bypass the traffic on Beltway 8 and JFK Boulevard makes it worthwhile for me to take the Hardy instead of I-45. Turns out that the city of Houston paid for part of the construction of this connector, but due to a weird quirk in the contract with the Harris County Toll Road Authority it’s not collecting any revenue for it. The city would like to renegotiate that deal.

In a recent letter to county toll toad officials, Houston Airport System director Mario Diaz pointed to the 1997 deal spelling out how the two governments would construct, maintain and collect tolls on the road.

The agreement, in what officials called a “puzzling” clause, does not give the city access to any of the revenues unless it builds its own toll plaza, Assistant County Attorney Nick Turner said. The county would have to tear down its existing toll plaza.

“It just doesn’t seem to reflect sanity,” said Harris County Toll Road Authority Director Peter Key.

In his letter, Diaz said the city has no plans to build such a plaza, but he noted that the city contributed 43 percent of the road’s $31.7 million construction cost and maintains a roughly 1.3-mile stretch of the road on airport property.

Tolls should be shared “in the same manner and ratio that construction costs were shared and we continue to share in maintenance responsibilities,” Diaz wrote.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved Key’s request to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the city.

“This is an outdated agreement,” Key said. “None of us really understand the mindset of the people that were involved in this 14, probably 15 years ago, in terms of setting it up. It ought to be amended to reflect today’s reality.”

One would think that a few of the folks who negotiated that deal are still with us, so it might be worthwhile to track them down and ask them. Not that it really matters that much today – this is clearly a silly arrangement, and it doesn’t make sense for anyone to have the city tear down an existing toll booth to build its own, so working this out ought to be easy enough. At least, if everyone involved is a grownup about it, it ought to be easy.

Commissioner Steve Radack said he does not support sharing the airport connector’s tolls with the city, saying it seems clear the city is not entitled to the revenues unless it constructs a toll plaza.

“I would hope that the city of Houston has enough common sense not to go out and tear down perfectly good tool booths to build their own so they can collect money,” Radack said. “I believe everybody should shake hands and leave things the way it is.”

Yes, in case you needed a reminder, you should never use the words “Steve Radack” and “grownups” in the same sentence. It’s always nice to know that some things never change.

Hardy Toll Road extension gets final OK

After many years of planning, a project to extend the Hardy Toll Road all the way into downtown is finally headed to the drawing board.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is seeking the court’s permission to begin final negotiations with two railroads to relocate a track north of downtown, clearing the way for the 3.6-mile connector.

Moving a section of track along Maury Street and buying land around it, owned by Houston Belt & Terminal Railway Co. and Union Pacific Railroad Co., would cost a projected $130 million, said Peter Key, director of the toll road authority.

“Obviously, the hard part of the Hardy Toll Road was getting that final leg into downtown,” Key said. “It’s just greater mobility between the central business district and even points south of there, say, the medical center, and the north side of Houston, the airport.”

[…]

Work on the Hardy connector could then begin in 2013. Construction would take about two years, officials said.

The North Freeway “is already one of the most congested roads in the state of Texas,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Ultimately, as (U.S.) 59 gets more and more congested, we are going to need another north-south way into and out of downtown, and Hardy’s going to be it.”

Northbound travelers would access the road from the Eastex Freeway or downtown from Crawford Street, which becomes the Elysian Viaduct. The Texas Department of Transportation plans to rebuild Elysian where it crosses Buffalo Bayou.

Drivers inbound on the new road would be able to head north or south on U.S. 59 or could enter downtown on Elysian, which becomes La Branch Street.

The Court’s approval comes nearly four years after City Council gave its go ahead to the road work. My post from that time contains a link to this map of the extension from the Chron story, which still works. Here’s a Google map of the area, and the Houston Politics blog has an even better look. Back in 2007 I was confused about why the extension would connect into 59 and not I-10, but I think I understand it now. From that point on I-10, there’s no exit into downtown, whereas from 59 you can get off at Minute Maid and at McGowan. The main downside to this is that this particular section of 59, between I-10 and I-45, is already terribly congested. Exiting at Elysian north of I-10 might be the better option, though I’ll bet that gets crowded pretty quickly as well. Hey, you can’t have everything. The North Line light rail extension should be done by 2015 as well (please, please, pretty please) so at least folks who live in that area will have a good option to get downtown without getting stuck in all that traffic.

Speaking of folks who live in the affected area:

Fernando Cisneroz Jr., longtime president of the North Central Civic Association, said he has heard little opposition to the project. Some neighbors are nervous about traffic after the Hardy connector and the viaduct are built or replaced, he said.

“That’s an awful lot of access – it runs right through our neighborhood, and we’re going to be faced with additional traffic coming through,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of noise issues that’s going to cause.”

Cisneroz said he’s “not opposed to people taking an easy route home,” but said if the neighborhood is to accept some negative affects of construction, it should be balanced with some positives, such as new park space.

I hope the lack of opposition comes from general satisfaction with the plan, and not from lack of knowledge about it. I agree that they deserve some mitigation as part of the package, too. 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.

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.

Full fees ahead

The cost of doing business for Harris County keeps going up.

Rising credit card fees have increased that portion of the county government’s banking bill by $1.7 million in two years.

In the year that ended in February, the county paid 36 percent more in fees for customers who pay with plastic to cover their tolls and taxes than it did two years before.

The fees are a tiny portion of the county’s $1.4 billion budget, but the higher bills come during a budget crunch that has resulted in layoffs and a hiring freeze. Just the recent increase in fees would be enough to put 31 new sheriff’s deputies on the streets of Harris County. Rising credit card fees were “a large part” of the reason the Harris County Toll Road Authority stopped allowing people to pay airport parking fees with their EZ Tags earlier this year, said Peter Key, the authority’s director.

The Chron story about the EZ Tag debacle did mention the processing fees, which amounted to $70,000 a month, as a reason. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I must have assumed it was a flat rate that HCTRA was being charged, but clearly that was not the case.

[County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia] suggested that the county consider going out for bids for banking services again next year in hopes of getting another bank to offer lower fees or to pressure Amegy Bank to give the county a better deal.

Key pointed the finger not at Amegy but at the credit card companies as he spoke after the meeting of his frustration over the rising costs.

“They’re just jacking up the transaction fees,” Key said. “The cost ultimately is going to be born by the merchants,” he said, in this case the Toll Road Authority. The tax office, though, passes on charges of $3.95 per Visa debit card transaction and 2.15 percent for most credit cards.

“What has happened is not Amegy but Mastercard and Visa have exponentially increased their fees,” said Edwin Harrison, director of the county’s financial services division.

Indeed, and it’s something that Kevin Drum has written about a few times. Basically, the credit industry soaks the masses to reward the high end users with things like frequent flyer miles and cash back. I’m a beneficiary of that system, but it’s one I’d be happy to see changed, since it’s a huge transfer of wealth away from folks who can’t afford it. Not really something Harris County can do much about, though. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone yammer about the unrestrained growth of government spending. There’s an awful lot of it that’s just not in their control.

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 290 FEIS

The prep work for the expansion/overhaul of US290 is entering its final stages.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed transportation improvements on the US 290/Hempstead Corridor is now available for review. The proposed US 290 Program Corridor begins at the IH 610/US 290/IH 10 Interchange in Houston, TX and extends northwestward to Farm-to-Market (FM) 2920 near Waller, TX for a distance of approximately 38 miles. The proposed enhancements include roadway improvements along a portion of US 290, construction of the new Hempstead Tollway and associated connections to IH 610 and IH 10 in Harris County.

All relevant documents are at that link. One reason why these things are made publicly available is so that all stakeholders can review them and offer feedback. The CTC has given the environmental impact statement a thorough going-over, and you can read their feedback here (large PDF). They pointed out a number of issues, not the least of which has to do with the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes.

At face value, this project includes both expansion of the US-290 main lanes and also construction of new managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Any reader of this FEIS is likely to assume that both 290 and Hempstead project elements will move forward in a coordinated fashion. In fact, TxDOT has repeatedly told the public that the Hempstead Managed Lanes will be constructed before US-290 construction begins, to give people travel options and minimize disruption during construction.

However, TxDOT only controls the US-290 portion of the project. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed SB 792, which specifically grants development rights for the Hempstead Managed Lanes to the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA). TxDOT has neither the authority nor the funding to develop this project.

This FEIS does not adequately reflect the separation of these two projects, nor does it address what happens if the County elects not to construct the Hempstead Managed Lanes. We urge FHWA to require TxDOT to prepare a supplemental FEIS which fully considers these impacts.

That’s quite a large assumption for this $4.6 billion project that involves taking a lot of property that hasn’t been addressed. One wonders where all those self-appointed Metro watchdogs are and why they’re not raising more of a fuss about that. Anyway, see what the CTC has to say, and we’ll see what if any response there is from the FHWA, which as we know is a lot easier to get money out of than the FTA.

Why was EZ Tag airport parking so expensive to operate?

As we know, the program that allows people with EZ Tags in their cars to use them to pay for parking at the airports is going to be shut down because it was losing money. This Chron article that examines the costs of the program raises more questions than it answers.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority has lost more than $3 million in the three years it has permitted its EZ Tag holders to use their passes to pay for airport parking, a Chronicle analysis has found.

[…]

HCTRA officials acknowledged the authority was losing about $80,000 a month to run the airport parking program when it sent the recommendation to Commissioners Court last month.

[…]

There are 1.7 million EZ Tag holders. Spokesman Eric Hanson said the authority projected about 35 percent of those would use the tags at the airports.

Instead, about 80,000 motorists used it at least once in the last year, a little under 5 percent.

Hanson said the authority came up with its projection after sending crews to the airport garages to see how many vehicles there had EZ Tags.

[…]

In both Orlando and Dallas, the airports paid for installation and operation of the equipment that reads the passes. Under its agreement with the city of Houston, which runs the airports, the Toll Road Authority picked up the tab for the EZ Tag system at the garages.

Hanson also noted that the city-run garages where EZ Tags can be used are not the only, or the cheapest, places to park at the airports.

The chief operating cost of the program was bank fees. Amegy Bank was charging the authority $70,000 a month in bank fees for airport transactions because each EZ Tag passing through a garage gate resulted in a charge for using the credit card linked to the motorist’s EZ Tag account. The authority, not the motorists, pays those charges.

According to the previous story, the monthly cost for running this program was $170,000. What was the other $100,000 a month being spent on? I guess maybe some of that was the amortized cost of the equipment, but if so that should be declining over time. I still don’t understand how this could have been so expensive to operate. I mean, surely the EZ Tag readers on the toll roads aren’t comparably expensive, are they?

The flat fee that was being charged for credit card processing was obviously a problem as well, given that it represented nearly 80% of the $90,000 in revenue this was generating each month. Maybe that made sense if you believed the usage projections, but in retrospect a per-transaction fee would have worked better for HCTRA.

And why did those projections fall so far short of the mark? Did they happen to count EZ Tags in the lots at a time when there was a freakishly large number of them, or was it the case that a lot of those folks exited the lots without using their EZ Tags to pay for their parking, perhaps because they didn’t realize it was an option? Was there something they could have done to capture more revenue, or was their model just hopelessly flawed? The two Dallas airports had nearly six times as many EZ Tag-paying customers in 2008 as HCTRA had in the part year. How is this possible?

Again, I don’t get it. This seems like it should have been a no-brainer, and yet it was a complete bust. It deserves more scrutiny to understand why.

No more EZ Tag parking at the airport

As you probably knew, if you had an EZ Tag in your car you could use it to pay for parking at IAH. But not any more, as Commissioners Court will shut it down.

The program provides special lines at Houston’s municipal airports for people with the tags that pay for their use of county toll roads. The parking fees are billed to the motorist’s account, and the toll road authority gets 7.75 percent of the proceeds, airport system spokeswoman Marlene McClinton said.

Use of the service has not measured up to expectations, officials said.

Fewer than half of the more than 150,000 EZ Tag customers who opted in to the program have used it, said LaWanda Howse, the toll road authority’s manager of special projects. That has translated to revenues of about $90,000 per month, she said, while costs of the program are about $170,000 per month.

I know I’ve used this before, though it’s been awhile since we usually employ the traditional “get someone to drop you off and pick you up” method of airport transportation, but I didn’t realize you had to opt in for this. I don’t quite get that – why wouldn’t you just be able to use it if you had the tag? You can use your EZ Tag on other toll roads across the state, after all. I also don’t quite understand how this program could be so exorbitantly expensive. What the heck was that $170K per month paying for? I would have thought a program like this would have been a no-brainer, yet somehow it wasn’t. What am I missing here?

City not paying toll road fines

Oops.

The city has avoided paying county toll road fines using a defense it does not want motorists to use when contesting red-light camera violations.

[…]

A city finance official claimed the toll fines are owed by the individual employees rather than the city, which owns the vehicles.

But the city’s efforts to block registrations are aimed at the owners of vehicles involved in red-light camera violations.

“I think the city is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The city wants to use the defense they won’t allow citizens to use,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said.

If you go to the city’s Red Light Camera Enforcement FAQ, this is what you get:

What if I am not the driver/owner of the vehicle at the time of the violation?

If your vehicle was stolen or sold at the time of violation, or was being test driven by another person, you may submit a sworn statement to that effect to the Court to rebut the presumption, that you were driving the vehicle at the time of the violation. A DECLARATION of NON-LIABILITY form may be downloaded from www.ViolationInfo.com or obtained from the Court. The form must be filled out, accurately and in its entirety. The form must be mailed or hand-delivered in-person to the Court prior to the Notice due date before any additional actions can be taken.

If you are a rental car company or you leased your vehicle, send your letter identifying the driver along with a copy of this Notice within 30 days after the date of the Notice of Violation is received to Violation Processing Center 209 W. Main Street, Mesa, AZ 85201.

Doesn’t really address the question of what to do if someone is just borrowing the car at the time, does it? My friend Dan had the experience awhile ago of a car mechanic getting caught by one of the cameras while test-driving his car. The garage agreed to pay the ticket, but it was a hassle for him. Be all that as it may, the County raises a good point. What does the city say for itself?

Frank Michel, a spokesman for Mayor Bill White, said the city will pay the toll road authority fines and is taking action to improve its internal monitoring of citations issued to non-emergency vehicles.

“It is our position the city is responsible to make sure these fines are taken care of,” Michel said. “Our internal policy is to hold the driver responsible or accountable, and we haven’t done a good job of doing that and we’re going to work on it.”

He added: “Whatever is owed outstanding, we are working with the county to get it resolved.”

On that latter point, there’s a sizable difference between what the city says it owes (about $1000) and what the county says it owes (about $13,000), so this isn’t a settled matter yet. But I suspect the city will pay more attention to this in the future.

Is it that bogged down already?

As we know, the long-awaited Katy Freeway managed lanes opened this weekend. This story about its first day of rush-hour operation gives it positive reviews, but what interests me is this:

[Lisa Castaneda, a transportation engineer for the Harris County Toll Road Authority] spent the morning rush observing from the westernmost toll plaza, near Eldridge. She said the regular lanes had an average speed of about 20 mph, but the toll and HOV lanes were moving along at 60 mph.

“It seems that people got their money’s worth if they chose that,” Castañeda said.

Twenty miles an hour? We spent $2.8 billion adding all those lanes and six months after the grand opening traffic was that slow already? I mean, I expected it to bog down eventually, but not that quickly. Help me out here, commuters. Is this really how things are? Thanks.

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.

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.

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.

Now how much would you pay for that toll road?

So we still don’t know how much the Katy Freeway managed lanes will cost you to use.

Harris County Commissioners are expected to consider a fee schedule and the opening date next month. The new lanes — two in each direction that opened last fall for limited usage — are expected to be transformed into toll lanes no earlier than May, officials said.

The county intends to use a flexible-rate system based on congestion, called dynamic pricing. Initially, certain rates will be set for rush-hour commutes, and different prices may be set for other periods. After about 90-days, the prices may change based on traffic observations.

Signs near the entrances to the Katy Freeway lanes will announce the rates.

Just an idle thought here, but how much usage do we think these managed lanes are going to get? Given the state of the economy, I don’t think too many people are going to be willing to shell out five or six bucks a day to get to work a little faster. Plus, as things stand right now, the traffic on the main lanes of I-10 isn’t all that bad. At least, in my limited experience driving out that way in the afternoon of a weekday, traffic has flowed pretty well. That surely won’t last forever as we get more development further out west, but it is the case for now.

Normally, I wouldn’t care that much about this. Like I said, I don’t drive that way very often. But considering that the Harris County Toll Road Authority spent a half billion dollars to build those managed lanes, it would be nice to know if the demand they projected for them at the time is still about what they’re expecting now. Are they in the soup, or are things going as they envisioned?