Chronicle Story

Houston Areas Leaders: Time to Push Transportation Improvements Beyond Adding and Widening Freeways


Houston Chronicle

12/23/16

By Dug Begley


Houston-area officials, and especially drivers, have known for years the region's roads are strained and congested, but a panel earlier this month with the county judges of the area's largest suburban counties might have been a first in terms of the dire message expressed.


"Traffic is not going to get any better. It's just not," Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta said.
Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal told the crowd of engineers, road builders and consultants: "You can only put so many lanes of traffic down."


The message from Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert: "Trying to do what we've done over the last 50 years and more of it just will not work."


Even as some of the region's most powerful elected local officials - from county judges to mayors to Austin lawmakers - cite the need for mobility changes, long-term plans continue a course of adding freeways and tollways while jump-starting a handful of transportation projects aimed at getting people off the road.


Officials agree the solution is not more cars and trucks on ever-wider freeways, but new ways of moving people and goods so commerce can continue without the added cost of Houston's gridlock. At the same time, increasing demand forces the Texas Department of Transportation - where officials acknowledge the state's metro areas warrant special attention that isn't always about freeways - to meet growing suburban freeway needs.


For the first time in about a decade, state transportation officials have hundreds of millions of dollars more to spend on building and expanding roads, though the amount will fluctuate with the state's tax collections. Also, the money must be spent on highways - not freight rail, tollways or public transit - because of the ballot language state legislators approved in 2014 and 2015.
While the potentially up to $3 billion more in state funding annually is a huge investment in TxDOT, it's also a big challenge for state and local officials.


"However we fund it, we have to be able to justify we have good projects," Texas Transportation Commission member Jeff Austin said.


Although transportation officials are planning a record-setting $70 billion in transportation spending over the coming decade, it's still not enough for every big project envisioned in Texas. In Houston, the biggest project which is a redesign and widening of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway in northern Houston to I-69/U.S. 59 in the central business district, is expected to cost at least $6 billion. Setting aside the money TxDOT has to spend on maintenance and other dedicated transportation needs, the cost of the I-45 project - if the project was built all at once - would tie up nearly all the resources from the state for two or three years.


State officials are working closely with metropolitan planning organizations statewide, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council's transportation policy council.


Mixing federal, state and local funds with toll roads planned in the region, the transportation council wants to spend $10.7 billion over the next four years, $9.6 billion of which is already committed to particular projects.


Houston remains in a toll road building phase despite many Texas communities rejecting them. More than $4 billion worth of toll projects are planned through 2020, including the replacement of the Ship Channel Bridge along the Sam Houston Tollway, estimated to cost at least $962 million.
With a number of big-ticket items and long-awaited freeway projects, regional plans remain highway focused because of the money and the demand, officials said.

 

According to the transportation policy council's improvement plan, which is updated annually, the Houston area has about $950 million in federal and state money that is flexible, meaning it doesn't have to be used for roads or specifically for transit. More than 70 percent of that discretionary money, about $675 million, is now planned for highway projects, with pedestrian and bike projects receiving about 7 percent.


For public transit and alternatives such as bike trails, that means intense competition for the funding even as local officials tout their value. There is fresh optimism about these transit and alternative projects since some of the biggest supporters are unlikely suburban community leaders. The ideas are not new, just the commitment to see them through, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.


"We dropped the ball on commuter rail a long time ago," said Emmett, adding that past Metropolitan Transit Authority officials failed to seize support for a rail line along Interstate 10, eliminated when the freeway was widened from 2006 to 2011.


"I could even make money from a commuter line," Emmett said during the recent panel discussion held by the Transportation Advocacy Group Houston Chapter. "We need to get serious about where we need commuter rail."


A backlog of other long-sought highway projects, however, makes that a tough task, as projects and agencies compete for state funds and regionally-controlled federal and state money. During a separate presentation to regional transportation officials on Dec. 16, Quincy Allen, director of TxDOT's Houston office, identified the agency's top three unfunded transportation projects, each focused on freeway improvements.


"Addressing congestion is one of the key initiatives of our (TxDOT) administration," Allen said in prepared remarks for the presentation.


In addition to the first phase of the massive I-45 project through downtown Houston, which alone could cost $3 billion, Allen said elevated express lanes along Loop 610 from I-10 to U.S. 59 and a new Loop 610 interchange with Texas 288 should be high priorities.


Transit and the county officials agree if transit projects do proceed, it will be with as-yet unapproved funding, likely after voters have their say. Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman has said among her top priorities is a regional transportation plan that looks at the entire Houston area's mobility needs and then lays out specific projects for voters in a referendum.


Officials also said sending a common message to Austin and Washington lawmakers about the need for certain transportation projects is important. Though Emmett - who has bristled at state lawmakers who know the needs but then refuse to consider raising taxes or fees out of political fear - said forceful discussions might be necessary.


"It is not a message that's new to the folks in Austin," Emmett said of diverse transportation investment in Houston. "Until there starts to be a political price for not getting it done, it is not going to happen."


For Houston to cash in on federal transportation funding, the local officials said, it will take agreement and timing. Hebert, noting President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to make rebuilding the nation's infrastructure a priority, urged local transportation planners to be ready.
"Whatever he comes up with, the ones up there first with their hands out will probably get the money," he said during the panel discussion. "And right now I don't have a plan to sell."


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