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Mark Ellis

A third act for Jolanda?


CM Jolanda Jones

Jolanda Jones, who lost her at-large position 5 seat in last December’s runoff election, may run in next year’s elections to win a third term on Council — but this time it would be representing District D.

The seat will be open next year because Councilwoman Wanda Adams is termed out.

“I’m keeping my options open,” Jones said Friday when asked if she is running for District D, which extends south of downtown. She lives in the district and her family goes way back in the district, she said.

Jones would have one more obstacle than any other candidate who files for District D: The city attorney says she can’t do it.

Term limits call for a maximum of three two-year terms on Council. However, city law also states: “No person, who has already served two full terms, shall be eligible to file for that same office.”

City Attorney David Feldman opined last year that this precludes people from a non-consecutive third term. Peter Brown resigned in 2009 just days before the end of his second term in attempt to circumvent the prohibition and remain eligible for a third term. It didn’t pass muster with Feldman.

Nor would Jones moving from At-Large 5 to District D, Feldman said in an email Friday, “since a council member is a council member is a council member.”

Jones said simply, “Feldman’s been wrong before.”

I am, of course, Not A Lawyer. So, I’d like for someone who is a lawyer to explain to me the difference between Jolanda Jones and former Council Member Mark Ellis. Ellis was elected as Council Member in District F in 1999, re-elected in 2001, then after serving two full terms ran for and was elected to At Large #1 in 2003. The ordinance in question doesn’t have anything more to it than what was quoted, so I don’t know what else to say. Why Ellis and not Jones or Brown? I welcome your feedback on this.

Montgomery County wants in on rail district

Get on board, Montgomery County.

Montgomery County may join a regional rail group to upgrade freight lines and add commuter services throughout the Houston area.

“It’s time that we need to be a part of this,” said Commissioner Ed Chance of Precinct 3.

For the second time, Montgomery County Commissioners Court will vote on joining the Gulf Coast Rail District after first rejecting the plan in 2007.

The agency was created by the state Legislature in 2005 to enhance the economic benefits of rail while improving the regional quality of life.

The agency has identified $3.4 billion in freight rail improvements needed by 2035, when freight traffic is expected to double in the area, and nearly $3 billion to build five commuter rail lines out of Houston.

“It is something that everyone needs to do as they look at future transportation issues,” said Mark Ellis, chairman of the district

Among the projects being considered for Montgomery County is a commuter rail line, which would run from Houston to Tomball along Texas 249.

Montgomery County also would be a future stop for high speed rail lines that link Houston with Dallas and San Antonio, said Maureen Crocker, interim executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

This is a no-brainer in many ways. I don’t know what the role of the GCRD will be in eventually delivering these projects, but they will certainly have one, so getting Montgomery County involved with them makes all kinds of sense. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the tip.

Fixing freight rail

Good story about freight rail in and around Houston and its present and future needs.

The recession has eased the rail traffic problem temporarily, but transportation leaders warn the reprieve will not last. Houston’s population will grow and the widening of the Panama Canal could bring a massive influx of shipping containers to Houston’s port starting in 2014. Train freight could triple by 2035, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a planning agency.

But clearing the blockages in the rail system will not be easy. “Everyone agrees the system is broken,” [Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District] said. “But there’s a lot of fear of change and people wondering who would pay for it.”

Freight railroads are private businesses, and the big players in Houston have already been spending money to upgrade tracks and switches and keep traffic moving through. But they want public help for the more expensive solutions, like building bridges to separate streets from railroad tracks. In exchange, the railroads may consider sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with commuter trains.

When interstate highways were built, many people thought railroads would wither away. Across Houston and elsewhere, rail corridors were sold off and developed. But now railroads seem poised for a comeback.

They have triple the fuel efficiency of trucks, and that makes them cheaper and less polluting.

In Houston, moving freight onto rail could help a lot with air quality: While commercial trucks account for less than 10 percent of vehicular traffic, they emit more than half the region’s nitrogen oxide (the primary ingredient of smog), according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Freight trains could move more smoothly through Houston if there were bigger rail yards and fewer points where roads and tracks cross. The Ship Channel is also a big geographic barrier.

If you haven’t already, read this Washington Monthly article from January about investing in freight rail; see also this post by Christof. Ideally, some of the things that need to be done here and elsewhere would receive state and/or federal funds. I can see some of this happening at the federal level, if we ever get past the health care debate. It just makes a lot of sense.

Improving the freight rail network may also allow for more commuter rail.

Although it is done elsewhere, Union Pacific, which owns most of the tracks in Houston, would prefer not to share its tracks with commuter trains. “We would have concerns about the safety of commingling commuter and freight operations,” said Joe Adams, a vice president for public affairs. “And we have concerns about losing present and future freight rail capacity.”

That means that commuter rail along U.S. 90A is scarcely a possibility right now. That route, which would serve commuters in Sugar Land and other Fort Bend areas, is a critical Union Pacific route, bringing in containers full of Asian-produced goods from ports in California.

But two other freight lines have less traffic, and Union Pacific is working with government planners to free them up for commuter trains. One runs out the U.S. 290 corridor and one runs along Texas 3 to Galveston. TxDOT is considering granting $2 million in stimulus funds for two engineering studies on those routes.

“My goal is to have trains running in three years,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

That would be a huge accomplishment if it can happen. The pieces are coming together, though there are still a lot of issues, including getting the trains inside the Loop and connecting them to light rail lines. The story notes that there’s an abandoned freight rail line that runs through the Heights that isn’t being considered for use right now, as Judge Emmett doesn’t want to fight that battle. My understanding of this is that it wouldn’t necessarily be all that disruptive to the surrounding areas, but there would need to be a lot of communication done with the neighborhoods to get everyone to buy into the idea. I hope some of that happens while progress is being made on the rest of it. Christof has more.