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Texas Transportation Commission

Beware billboard blight

Does anyone actually want this?

Some 25,000 billboards along certain stretches of Texas highways could soar in size under a regulatory change approved by state transportation officials.

The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to eliminate the existing 42½-foot height restriction beginning September 2019, allowing the size limit to double. The ruling followed months of deliberation and discussion, including a write-in campaign that generated thousands of letters both against and in favor of taller billboards.

The action allows the 2019 Texas Legislature to revisit the matter and issue clearer rules, commission chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

“We are trying to bring what I would call a fair balance to the deliberation,” he said.

The commission was immediately criticized for giving lobbyists for outdoor advertising companies a stronger hand in dealing with legislators when they meet next year. Many sign companies are aggressively seeking to roll back limits on height and the brightness of electronic billboards.

“The industry has no incentive to participate in that, help in that, or do anything other than kill it,” said Margaret Lloyd, president of Scenic Texas, which advocates for sign limits.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers in 2017 made clear they intended to keep the 42½-foot ceiling in place, although the authority rested with the transportation commission.

“Billboards will go to 85 feet,” Nichols said, warning of the consequences if lawmakers do not act.

[…]

The latest revisions to the billboard regulations were prompted by a court challenge to Texas’ sign rules in 2016, and a need to address hundreds of billboards that do not satisfy state rules because they pre-date laws, road conditions changed or were simply installed out of compliance.

“Some of them were over 100 feet,” Scenic Texas’ Lloyd told transportation officials. “(Outdoor advertising companies) basically turned their backs to the agency that was regulating them.”

Vela, the industry representative, said Texas has sufficient oversight of the outdoor advertising industry.

“We support robust enforcement of all regulations and believe that the department does a very good job of enforcement,” he said.

Comments pro and con poured in when TxDOT first proposed some of the rule changes in October, with more than 4,700 comments on the height restriction dominating the mix.

Of the 2,010 in favor of increasing the limit to 85 feet or eliminating height rules altogether, many came from outdoor advertising companies, property owners with billboards on their land and companies that use the signs to advertise.

Another 2,694 commenters opposed raising the height limits. Most of those were from Scenic Texas and its supporters and concerned residents.

Emphasis mine. This is not the first time that a proposal to raise the maximum height of highway billboards has come up – in that case, the new max height would have been a relatively petite 65 feet – and not surprisingly, the general public was against it. You know what to do in 2019, Sen. Nichols.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

Three I-45 updates

From The Highwayman:

Texas Transportation Commission members on Thursday approved a $3.6 million contract with Main Lane Industries, based in Houston, to replace the entrance ramp from Allen Parkway to southbound I-45. The ramp, which whips drivers through a steep curve before they merge into the fast lane of the southbound freeway, is a well-known bottleneck. Many drivers consider it hazardous.

“It is a confusing entrance and doesn’t work very well,” Jeff Weatherford, Houston’s deputy public works director, said in January.

The project shifts the entrance to the right lanes of southbound I-45 and creates a dedicated lane from Allen Parkway to prevent traffic from backing up. Work is set to begin on the new ramp later this year, and numerous closings and changes to freeway access are planned as work proceeds. The exit ramp from I-45 southbound to Dallas and Pierce could also close. As of earlier this month, the details of the closings were still being worked out.

See here for the background. This work will be done in conjunction with the other work being done on Allen Parkway. As someone who takes the Dallas/Pierce exit to get to work, I’m a little leery of that penultimate sentence. I hope there’s a “temporarily” in there somewhere.

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition on Facebook:

There was a meeting Monday 8/24 & TxDOT showed some updates! This is a work in progress BUT it appears that TxDOT may be listening! NONE OF THESE CHANGES ARE COMPLETE! However, there are indications that TxDOT is listening to the citizens and several changes are planned. Here is a summary of some of the changes, all for Segment 2 (between North of I-10 & South of 610)

1. Houston Ave is back to being 2 way! TxDOT is proposing a ‘roundabout’ (similar to the one at Washington Ave & Westcott). (see drawing)

2. TxDOT has added back the Southbound entrance to I-45 at Houston Ave (TxDOT had deleted it at the April meeting). (see drawing)

3. TxDOT has added an U-Turn lane from the feeder street Southbound to Northbound just before N. Main. (see drawing)

4. TxDOT has removed the proposed connection / roadway from Houston Ave to North Street nearest to I-45.

5. TxDOT has added back the Northbound entrance to I-45 from Quitman.

6. TxDOT WILL NOW provide the crossbeams on the section of I-45 that will be below grade. This is GREAT! Now we just need the ‘slab’ that goes on top of the crossbeams. If we can convince TxDOT to include that, it will be much easier to create green space in this area.

7. TxDOT will create a service road on the East side of I-45 from Quitman to N. Main.

8. The North St. bridge might NOT be replaced. TxDOT does not know yet if there is sufficient clearance for a vehicular bridge. If not a vehicular bridge, then a pedestrian/bike bridge will replace it the existing bridge.

9. Traffic from the Southbound exit from I-45 near 610 was exiting at Link Rd – TxDOT has changed that to Cavalcade exit instead.

The changes, which will generally be welcomed by folks in my neighborhood, have not yet been posted to the TxDOT website, but they will be. The comments on the post indicate there were notes on the other segments of this proposed project, so if you’re affected by it you might want to keep an eye out on the webpage, or find someone who attended that meeting.

And finally, a Chron story about the potential effects of I-45 construction in downtown.

The owner of a 375-unit upscale multifamily complex stands to have a third of its apartments taken for the project. And a nearly century-old building that just this week received a designation from city preservation officials as a protected historic landmark appears to be around the edge of the project’s proposed right of way.

Unveiled by the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this year, the freeway project proposes to add managed lanes to Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway in north Houston to U.S. 59 south of downtown. Additionally, plans call for removing the Pierce Elevated and realigning I-45 to be parallel to U.S. 59 east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. It is expected to cost more than $6 billion and take years to complete.

Some freeway segments have been designed as depressed roadways with local street traffic flowing above them. Plans show green space above the freeways east of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets.

TxDOT is still in the analysis and environmental impact assessment phases of the project and its plans are subject to change. Spokesman Danny Perez said it would not begin acquiring property until TxDOT had “officially determined the recommended alternative, completed the environmental impact review and have a record of decision.”

“We are working toward getting environmental clearance in 2017,” Perez said in an email. “The date of clearance would be the earliest we could start acquiring right of way.”

[…]

David Denenburg recently bought the historic red brick building, a sliver of which is behind the red line on the map, and he’s already started restoring the five-story structure at the corner of Preston and St. Emanuel.

David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, said federal and state projects take precedence over local historic designations.

“We feel confident we can work around a matter of a few feet to save one of Houston’s historic buildings still standing,” said Denenburg, who owns the property with other investors.

Another block within the proposed right of way contains a large apartment building, one of three structures that make up the Lofts at the Ballpark complex.

Stacy Hunt of Greystar, which manages the property, said the project appears to be a long way off, but the owner of the complex, a pension fund adviser out of Boston, is aware of the possible repercussions.

“The people we represent are very concerned,” Hunt said.

It’s a big change, though as we have seen there are still a lot of pieces to it that are not yet finalized. The environmental impact assessment is where much of those details will be worked out. I’ll say again, this is something all the Mayoral candidates should have an opinion about, because whatever happens will take place on their watch. What kind of changes, good and bad, do they want to see or are they willing to accept in downtown? We need to know.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

Dedicated bus lanes along Loop 610 remain a part of planned transit service in the Uptown area after state officials kept $25 million allocated to an upcoming project.

After months of discussions about the project’s purpose and agreements between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, state transportation commissioners Thursday approved the state’s 10-year spending plan with the money for the bus lanes included.

John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, told officials he was pleased to move the process along.

“We particularly thank you for your leadership and your patience as the area got its act together on this project,” Breeding said.

Proponents of the project have noted Uptown is one of Houston’s most traffic-clogged areas, a problem that’s likely to worsen with recent development. More frequent, fast and predictable transit, supporters say, could give many workers an option that would take cars off the roads and out of Uptown parking garages.

State transportation officials passed the plan without comment. The plan is updated annually and covers the next decade of road expansion and maintenance as well as transit and alternative transportation projects, such as bicycle lanes.

[…]

“The way this project will be successful is to make it reliable and fast,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Post Oak will continue to have three traffic lanes in each direction, with some turn lanes.

Some traffic lights will be sequenced to allow buses to avoid stopping but not those at major intersections such as Westheimer and San Felipe, where tweaking the timing could have disastrous effects on traffic flow.

See here for the previous update. There was far too much squabbling over this, and I’m still unhappy with the condition that there be no preparations included for possible future conversion to light rail, but at least this hurdle has been cleared. Metro Chair Garcia is right that the main goal here is to build something that people will want to use. If that happens, it will be a lot easier to take a next step if there is one.

Uptown BRT lurches forward

One staggering step at a time.

After some uncertainty, fears about rail development in Uptown appear less likely to delay a planned express bus project along Post Oak.

Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board meets Thursday morning, and is scheduled to discuss progress on the Uptown plan. The addition to their regularly scheduled meeting comes after a letter last week from Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley.

The letter lays out a path for officials to settle their differences and keep the $192.5 million project on track.

[…]

In the interim, the entire kerfuffle became pointless. Last month, federal lawmakers passed the fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbids any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

“I am keeping my word to my constituents on these two streets who overwhelmingly oppose light rail on Richmond and Post Oak,” Culberson said.

The same language was in the previous federal spending bill, enacted Jan. 17, 2014.

In a Jan. 22 letter, Moseley told Garcia that the federal prohibition satisfies TxDOT’s concerns.

See here, here, and here for the background. Culberson has been lying about the level of support for rail on Richmond, but at least in this case it had a somewhat positive effect. I know, my head is spinning, too. Anyway, Council has also approved its piece of this, so we should be on our way.

TxDOT still screwing with Metro

WTF?

Given powerful support from local and state transportation officials, the more of the parkway comes together, the more likely the last phases will fall into place.

The project that remains far less certain is the planned dedicated bus lanes on Post Oak Boulevard. The project, which a few months ago was speeding along, has run into significant bumps as TxDOT and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have dueled over agreements related to a bus lane along Loop 610.

Moseley in September warned if all parties couldn’t agree on the project, he’d prefer TxDOT move its $25 million commitment to a new Texas 288 interchange with the Sam Houston Tollway. Losing TxDOT’s money puts the Loop 610 portion of the bus lanes, and potentially the entire plan to run express bus service along Post Oak, in doubt.

Metro officials have since signed the agreement, but transit board chairman Gilbert Garcia complained TxDOT officials haven’t backed off the threat to move the money.

Marc Williams, director of planning for TxDOT, told transportation commissioners Thursday that the discussions are ongoing, but the recommendation at this point is to shift the money to the Texas 288 project.

A final decision is expected Nov. 20 when the commission meets in Austin. Written comments about state’s unified transportation plan — which guides state transportation spending — will be accepted until Nov. 17.

See here, here, and here for the background. What the hell else does TxDOT want? I have no idea why they’re being such huge jerks about this. If it’s at all feasible, I’d advise Metro and the Uptown Management District to tell TxDOT to go screw itself and finance that $25 million themselves. That way they can build it the way they want to, and they wouldn’t have to put up with this petty crap. If that’s not realistic, then I hope TxDOT gets over itself and does its job. But jeez Louise, enough already.

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.

[…]

To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

Texas Transportation Commission continues to be obstinate

This continues to be ridiculous.

Continued disagreement about certain features of a planned Uptown bus rapid transit system prompted a Texas transportation official to suggest Thursday that $25 million in state funding should be redirected.

The comments by Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley were the latest setback for the project, intended to relieve traffic congestion in the Galleria area. After months of planning and lobbying to secure local, regional and state money, it has faced increasingly vocal opposition and a fraying of the partnership among the Uptown Management District, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation.

[…]

The $192.5 million project is expected to open in 2017, with some still holding out hope that portions will open in time for Houston’s hosting of the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 of that year.

Metro, city officials and TxDOT have dozens of items to resolve while they try to counter criticism of the project.

Topping the list of disputes is the state’s role in the project: elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 between Post Oak Boulevard and the Northwest Transit Center. A $25 million commitment from the state led state transportation officials to seek Metro’s assurance the project was strictly a bus plan, not a prescursor to rail.

“We didn’t want our involvement in this project to be clouded by rail versus bus,” Moseley said.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he must clarify whether signing the agreement with TxDOT, which specifies the bus project “will not support a rail component,” puts Metro at odds with its 2003 referendum, which included a rail line in the Post Oak Corridor.

On Metro’s behalf, the county attorney has asked Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s office to determine whether signing the agreement would violate the will of the 2003 voters. Waiting for Abbott’s decision could take months.

Moseley said the potential delay “compromises the availability of those funds” related to the elevated lanes, because state officials have many construction projects ready to go. At a meeting in Austin on Thursday, Moseley said that if the Uptown project is not ready to move forward, he will ask that the state funds shift to a project at Texas 288 and Sam Houston Tollway.

I’ve already ranted about this, and I don’t have much to add to that. The potential delay here is entirely of Jeff Moseley and the TTC’s making. For the life of me, I cannot understand the justification of forbidding the inclusion of some design elements that may someday, if a bunch of things eventually happen, allow for this BRT line to be converted to light rail as the voters approved in 2003 in a cost-effective manner. The TTC has no power to forbid that from happening, and even if Metro agrees to their conditions now a future Metro board will not be bound to keep the Uptown line as BRT if they decide it’s in the public’s best interest to finally move forward with the light rail line we thought we were getting. All the TTC can do is make that future Metro board’s job harder and more expensive. Why would they want to do that?

No taller billboards

Fine by me.

Texas highway officials are shelving a proposal to increase the permissible height for roadside billboards in suburban and rural areas, citing conflicting facts and a deluge of public criticism.

[…]

“It was obvious that Texans care greatly about our visual environment and take pride in the ongoing efforts to improve the traveling public’s experience on our highways,” said Ed Wulfe, a Houston-based commercial property developer and member of the Greater Houston Partnership’s executive committee.

The partnership joined 14 other local or statewide groups in opposing the height increase, which would have applied only in places where local laws don’t set height limits. Houston has one of the state’s strictest billboard codes.

Of 941 comments TxDOT received on the sign rule changes, 919 were related to the billboard height increase, according to a report. More than 900 were from the general public, officials said, asking TxDOT not to increase the maximum sign height.

“We had confidence Texans would speak up for the beauty of their state,” said Margaret Lloyd, a Galveston resident and vice-chairwoman of Scenic Texas, which leads many anti-billboard efforts.

See here for the background. The billboard industry proposed raising the maximum height of billboards from 42.5 feet to 65 feet – for purposes of comparison, the giant statue of Sam Houston outside Huntsville is 67 feet tall, plus a ten-foot base – on the laughable idea that greater visibility for billboards would equate to greater safety. Scenic Texas pushed back, arguing for a reduction to 30 feet instead. The Texas Transportation Commission, sensing a fight it didn’t want to engage in, made the wise choice to retreat. One hopes this will be the end of it, but I wouldn’t count on that. For now at least, the only thing you’ll see above the trees on Texas’ highways will be the sky, and of course the stars at night. Which is how it should be.

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

TxDOT to spur research on driverless cars

Among other things.

The state could fund research into self-driving cars, jet packs and hover cars if a new proposal by the Texas Department of Transportation is funded.

In a presentation Thursday to the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director John Barton said the agency plans to begin working with universities around the state to explore and test “emerging transportation technologies.” He said the initiative would make the state’s transportation system more efficient and better prepared for transformative technologies that are already in development such as Google’s driverless car.

“The disruptive force of the Google car is a dominant issue we have to be aware of,” Barton said.

Along with self-driving cars, Barton also suggested that TxDOT might test out jet packs, hover cars and drones. He also touted the idea of “solar panel roadways,” in which solar panels would be embedded in roads, generating energy and melting snow and ice.

“These are the technologies that we know are real and are coming upon us quickly,” Barton said.

Barton said the project would involve launching “test beds” to try out futuristic concepts and determine how to implement them. It would also use “think tanks” to draw “the brightest minds across the globe” to explore challenges facing the state’s transportation system and to make recommendations to TxDOT and state lawmakers.

TxDOT plans to request $50 million from lawmakers during next year’s legislative session to fund the initiative for two years. The proposal will come on top of the agency’s biennial budget request of $20 billion, which agency officials have said is as much as $5 billion short of what is needed to maintain current congestion around the state as population grows.

“We’re asking them to fund the program for us,” Barton said. “If they choose not to, we may continue to move forward trying to find other funding strategies.”

That’s…surprisingly cool, especially coming from an inside-the-box organization like TxDOT. It should be noted that technology of tomorrow like driverless cars could help ameliorate TxDOT’s long-term budget shortfall, though probably not soon enough to make a difference. There was a bill to enable the use of driverless cars in Texas filed in the last Legislature. I’m sure that will come up again next year, perhaps a bit earlier in the session this time. I’m glad to see TxDOT take a leadership role in this. Perhaps now we can finally get those flying cars we were promised so many years ago.

A step forward for Uptown BRT

Progress.

Texas transportation officials Thursday kicked in $25 million to build a dedicated bus lane along Loop 610, ensuring the second piece of a planned bus rapid transit corridor in the Uptown area.

As part of a larger statewide transportation spending plan for the next decade, members of the Texas Transportation Commission added $25 million to the transit plan. Officials with the Uptown Management District and Metropolitan Transit Authority are working on the bus project.

The project along Loop 610 is specific for buses.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said.

The money is scheduled for the project in 2017.

Plans call for bus-only lanes along Post Oak and Loop 610 between the future Westpark Transit Center that Metro’s building and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It really is a transformational project in Houston,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia, noting it allows workers in the Uptown area to avoid some congested parts of their trip.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I presume the rail restriction on these funds is just for these funds, and that if someday Metro wants to build the Uptown Line as originally envisioned it can do so. That’s not even close to the radar at this time, I just hope future options are being kept open. For now, I’m glad to see this move along.

Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.

[…]

Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

Here comes I-69

Best have your tinfoil hat at the ready.

The first Houston-area piece of a trade corridor — debated for more than a decade and envisioned as one day linking Mexico to Canada — has been officially designated.

Motorists will soon notice new road signs naming a 35-mile stretch of existing U.S. 59, from the 610 Loop to FM 787 in Cleveland, as part of the new Interstate 69.

With little fanfare, the Texas Transportation Commission recently voted to put up the new signage while keeping the U.S. 59 designation.

The I-69 corridor, the so-called NAFTA Superhighway that is supposed to connect the Texas-Mexico border to America’s heartland, has been on the drawing board since at least 2002. Plans to make the corridor wide enough to include tollways, rail and utility lines were phased out in 2009 in favor of a more traditional corridor that will be built in small increments.

The project has met with opposition from farmers and ranchers championing private property rights and others who opposed a large toll-road component of the plan.

That’s one way of putting it. There’s already a seven-mile stretch of highway down by Corpus Christi that has the I-69 designation, and according to Wikipedia there are little bits of I-69 in other states as well. If you’re unsure what I mean by the “tinfoil hat” remark, I suggest you spend a few minutes Googling “NAFTA superhighway”; all will be abundantly clear. Or just spend a few minutes giggling like a schoolboy about the new name. Either way it’s not likely to make too much difference in your daily life, but at least now you know.

You should also plan to drive on I-69 sooner rather than later, because it’s gonna get crowded pretty quick.

As the transformation of U.S. 59 in Houston to Interstate 69 continues, projections show an increase in traffic of up to 150 percent by 2035. Experts say traffic will increase regardless of whether the so-called NAFTA Superhighway, envisioned two decades ago as a trade route from Mexico through Houston to Canada, is fully built.

[…]

Houston’s segment, which already experiences traffic pileups and is not scheduled for any expansion under the plan, would be hit with the largest increase in traffic volume on Texas’ interstate route.

“But that traffic is coming to us no matter what we do. We are going to see a huge increase in freight — more than 300 percent in a little over a decade,” said a committee member, Ashby Johnson, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s deputy transportation director. “Some of it is coming from NAFTA and some of it’s from the widening of the Panama Canal.”

Imagine how nasty the northbound approach to I-45 will be by then. Naturally, there’s no plan to deal with it. If I’m still in the same office, I’ll definitely be taking the train to work by then. Thomas has more.

You can drive 75

Pedal to the metal, y’all.

Vroom vroom!

The Texas Transportation Commission approved 75 mph speed limits for nearly 1,500 miles of interstate in 60 counties.

The action follows a state law approved last year providing for the Texas Department of Transportation to see whether 70 mph speed limits safely can be raised to 75 mph, and to hike the speed as warranted.

Before passage of that law, higher speed limits were limited to rural counties and highways mostly in West Texas, according to TxDOT. Under the previous law, Texans could drive 75 mph on 1,445 miles of highway and 80 mph on other stretches.

You can see a full list of the affected highways here; click one of the PDF map links there, or look at the post above for a graphical guide. Note that this now includes I-10 from the Waller – Austin County Line all the way to Loop 410 in San Antonio and I-45 from the Montgomery – Walker County Line to the Navarro – Ellis County Line. Not that people weren’t already driving 75 out those ways, it’s just that now they won’t get ticketed for it. Well, once the new speed limit signs are up they won’t. The On The Move blog and Dallas Transportation have more. And because tradition demands it:

You’re always welcome in Texas, Sammy.

Texas accepts grant for high speed rail study

Awesome.

Texas accepted a $15 million grant from the Federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program to fund the preliminary engineering and NEPA studies for the Dallas to Houston corridor.

This money was made available by Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida’s refusal of a combined $2.4 billion in high speed passenger rail funding.

Since the adoption of the Texas Rail Plan in November, 2010, Texas has shown it is serious about improving rail across the state. The Dallas to Houston line would connect the two largest metropolitan areas of the state, running parallel to I-45. Most of the right of way along that route is already in place.

A previous grant to study a line between Oklahoma City to Dallas was announced in 2010. The federal plan is to connect the country via a high speed passenger rail network by 2030.

Kind of amazing that we’re the beneficiaries of the crazy, shortsighted decisions made by other states’ wingnut governors, isn’t it? You can find the official mention of this in the June 30 agenda of the Texas Transportation Commission – scroll down to item 5, or see here for the minute order. We’re maybe three steps into this journey of a thousand miles now, but we’re at least moving in the right direction.

Grand Parkway protest

From the inbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Parkway gets state funding

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

TxDOT gets Grand Parkway approval

Another step in the march of the inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas lags on rail: Film at 11

I’m pretty sure we’ve seen this story before, but here it is again anyway.

According to a study commissioned by the Texas Transportation Commission, during the next 20 years, more than $300 billion in 2009 dollars needs to be invested in Texas roads and freeways just to keep commute times from worsening.

Adjust that figure for expected inflation and the cost balloons to $488 billion. The gasoline tax, which provides most of the funding for road construction and maintenance, is only expected to provide $160 billion in revenue during the same period.

California, long maligned as the golden state of governmental malaise, has embarked on a different path. In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in bonds as a down payment on a $40 billion high-speed rail system that will link San Diego to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento via the Central Valley.

Regional transportation authorities have committed about $20 billion to dramatically expand mass transit systems in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, as well as an additional $27 billion to pay for operating the transit systems and improving road maintenance.

All told, the California’s state government and major urban areas will spend more than $80 billion in the next 20 years to transform and expand its transportation infrastructure in a bid to handle the new demand.

I’m pretty sure the TTC study cited in this story is one that was heavily criticized for overstating the funding gap by counting every TxDOT wish list project as a need, but I’m not having any luck searching through the archives right now. Regardless, everyone agrees that there is a gap, that the gas tax is a woefully inadequate revenue source right now, and that Texas would have gotten a lot more federal stimulus dollars for high speed rail if it had had anything resembling a plan for rail. None of this is expected to change any time soon.

And we may have the chance to miss out on a lot more high speed rail funding in the future.

President Barack Obama is calling for a six-year, $53 billion spending plan for high-speed rail, as he seeks to use infrastructure spending to jumpstart job creation.

An initial $8 billion in spending will be part of the budget plan Obama is set to release Monday. If Congress approves the plan, the money would go toward developing or improving trains that travel up to 250 miles per hour, and connecting existing rail lines to new projects. The White House wouldn’t say where the money for the rest of the program would come from, though it’s likely Obama would seek funding in future budgets or transportation bills.

[…]

Obama’s call for increased spending on high-speed rail projects is nothing new. He’s long seen the sector as an area of opportunity for creating jobs and improving the nation’s transportation system. His administration awarded $10 billion in federal grants for high-speed rail projects last year, including $2.3 billion for California to begin work on an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego; and $1.25 billion to Florida to build a rail line connecting Tampa on the West Coast with Orlando in the middle of the state, eventually going south to Miami.

Won’t it be fun watching all that money go to other states? Assuming Republicans in Congress don’t succeed in wiping it all out firrst, of course.

TxDOT to take on primacy for Grand Parkway

From Houston Tomorrow:

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

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

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

Harris County hands the Grand Parkway back to the state

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

TxDOT to give a little more focus to rail

So says Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi.

“Really since the creation of the Texas Department of Transportation, roads were seen as the only solution and we’re learning very quickly that we can’t keep up with enough of the road demand,” Deirdre Delisi, Chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, said this week.

Under the Bush administration, to which Delisi is a one-time political consultant, rail was not considered as important to the state’s transportation needs as were highways. However, that has changed. The U.S. Department of Transportation under the Obama administration has begun to focus more on alternative transportation, including a push during the passage of the stimulus plan, on high-speed rail.

“We’re actually in the process of changing our strategic plan at TxDOT to include rail, both passenger and freight, to improve air quality and to improve congestion on the roads,” Delisi said.

Other densely-populated states, including Florida, have long since created plans for elaborate rail systems. Those received closer attention under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act as they were considered “shovel-ready”. “We’re behind in Texas, relative to other states who have more of a robust rail infrastructure. But we’re aggressively pursuing it where it makes sense, where it’s feasible, where folks want it and where it makes good economic sense,” she said.

We are indeed way behind other states on this, and it’s lost us money and opportunity. It’s nice to hear the words – we’ve never heard these particular words before – but if they’re not matched by deeds, it won’t mean much. There’s an audio clip at the link if you want to hear more. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the link.

The vehicle miles tax

For all the talk about the need to raise the gas tax in Texas to meet our transportation needs, there is another possible way to do it, which is now under study: The vehicle miles tax.

The Texas Transportation Commission has directed a fresh study of the idea, and it is not alone. There are pilot projects in other states and nationally to gauge how such a tax would work.

Texas transportation officials say the study is meant to help give lawmakers information on options ahead of their next regular session in 2011, when they confront a funding squeeze that is expected to drain the highway fund of money for new construction contracts by 2012.

“We need to think differently about how we fund transportation,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi said at a Texas Taxpayers and Research Association forum in November.

Delisi said the vehicle-miles-traveled tax idea is controversial, but should be discussed because revenue from the state’s main source of transportation funding, the motor fuels tax, is declining. The gasoline tax has not been raised since 1991.

I first heard of this concept back in 2004, and am willing to see what the Texas Transportation Institute’s study will have to say. What’s not clear to me is why this might be any less contentious than a straightforward increase and indexing of the gas tax. I get the technical idea, but I don’t quite get the politics.

Just how a vehicle-miles-traveled tax would be assessed is part of the study. It could be as simple as drivers writing a check when they have their vehicles inspected or could involve in-car technology to more precisely track mileage, perhaps tacking on a charge when drivers fuel up by communicating with the gas pump.

The latter would allow for such things as different charges for rural versus urban driving, and for deductions when people travel out of state, noted Ginger Goodin, the Texas Transportation Institute research engineer leading the study. She said, however, that privacy concerns quickly arise when such technology is discussed.

Again, I’m willing to see what they come up with, but I think we can all see the argument that will be used against “in-car technology to more precisely track mileage”, and it won’t be pretty. Who will be willing to stand up to that, and will they be more willing to fight for that instead of a gas tax increase? That’s the question. EoW and Come and Take It have more.

The Senate TxDOT sunset bill is not the House TxDOT sunset bill

As we know, the massive House sunset bill for TxDOT, HB300, contained a boatload of amendments that greatly altered the original bill, including one that would make TxDOT a 15-member elected commission and one that would have outlawed red light cameras. As I suggested, however, the Senate version of this bill would look quite a bit different. Here’s a brief overview of that.

[T]he Senate version laid out in committee this morning (after the House last week passed a version festooned with 177 amendments) does not have the 15-member elected Texas Transportation Commission. It would stick with the current five-member commission appointed by the governor. Mostly. The difference from current law is that the members would have two-year terms and, if the governor didn’t reappoint them or name a new one by Feb. 28 of odd-numbered years, the appointment would then fall to the lieutenant governor.

There are of course myriad other differences, all of them presented in a 70-page “side-by-side-by-side-by-side” that compares current law, the original Senate version, the passed House version and the current Senate version.

Another difference between the House and this Senate version: Red-light cameras would remain legal under the Senate version. The House zapped it. Senate sponsor state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, said that while he personally opposes red-light cameras, there’s enough support for them among other senators that that’s not something he wants to take on.

As for the key underlying issue — whether TxDOT would be neutered, as in the House version, by giving real power over project decisions to local planning organizations — Hegar said his current version does not do that.

The “legislative oversight committee” for TxDOT recommended by the Texas Sunset Review Commission is different between the two bodies. The House would have an eight-member group of House and Senate members, including the chairs of the transportation, finance and appropriations committees. The Senate version basically uses the existing committee structure, having the House and Senate transportation committees meet as a group once a quarter to look over TxDOT’s shoulder.

So there you have it. It’s still early on, and we haven’t gotten to the conference committee yet, so consider all of this to be written on water until a final bill emerges. Given that the only other bill I knew of to kill red light cameras never made it to the House floor, I’d say the odds are good we’ll have them to kick around for a little longer. But as always, it ain’t over till it’s over.

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.