April 28, 2007
A new toll road concern

Long as we're talking about toll road issues...In a completely under-the-radar move, the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council has approved a proposal by TxDOT and the HCTRA under which HCTRA would send some of its toll revenues to TxDOT to fund local projects. What does that mean in real life? Christof explains:

The problem is that the procedures which allow affected neighborhoods and the general public to scrutinize and influence transportation projects -- public hearing, environmental review -- are required because of federal funding. If a project doesn't require federal funding, no public involvement is required. It is literally possible for a neighborhood not to hear about a project until the eminent domain notices show up in the mail.

Thus, giving TxDOT toll funds would allow it to push through projects that have significant public opposition or major impacts. For example, most of the I-45 widening project is relatively uncontroversial. But the section inside 610 is facing significant opposition from the residential neighborhoods bordering it. With toll funds, TxDOT might split the project, seeking federal funding -- and undergoing public review -- only for the section outside 610, and building the section inside 610 with local toll funds and no federal environmental review requirements. I haven't heard anyone suggest this, and I don't have any reason to think TxDOT plans to do this. But we've learned often that tools that are open to abuse get abused.

The second problem with the resolution is that is includes a list of projects (pdf). Some of these are projects that are undergoing at least some public review process -- 290 -- and some are projects we've known are going forward -- the Hardy Toll Road Downtown Extension. But there are projects on the list that we had thought were dead due to neighborhood opposition -- the Fort Bend Toll Road extension to 610 -- and others we've never heard of. The most notable among the latter: the the extension of the Westpark Toll Road along Westpark as far as Kirby: 4 lanes, presumably elevated, directly next to residential neighborhoods.

Once a project is on a list that gets approved by the TPC, it's a lot closer to happening. Months or years from now, a neighborhood might object. And they'll be shown the list and told, "it's in the plan. It got approved. There's nothing you can do." Pieces of paper can have a lot of power.

And this piece of paper came out of nowhere. There was no public announcement, let alone hearings. It was a last minute addition to the agenda. David Crossley of the Gulf Coast institute spotted it only because he was looking through the TPC web site.

Christof lists some of the members of the TPC, which includes City Council members Pam Holm and Sue Lovell. Might be a good idea to ask some of these folks a few questions about this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 28, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles