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Stimulus funds and road projects

Stimulus funds are coming to a road that may be near you.

Texas received $2.25 billion from the stimulus for transportation. That’s on top of the $3 billion it got in federal highway funds this year. The regular federal allotment comes with restrictions. Certain percentages must go to improving safety, relieving air pollution and repairing bridges, for example.

The stimulus money has comparatively few restrictions.

Critics say decision-makers took the money and went on a lane-building binge — directing too much money to new roads, which will encourage more driving, and not enough to mass transit or repairing existing infrastructure.

“Widening roads ultimately gives rise to congestion,” said David Crossley, founder of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that explores urban growth. “They’re asking for more cars to drive on the roads.”

A little-known regional body, the Transportation Policy Council, decided how to spend most of the stimulus funds in the Houston area. The council represents the eight counties of the Houston metro region, and its 24 voting members are drawn from local governments and agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

It either chose stimulus projects directly or approved ones desired by TxDOT.

The stimulus has one big requirement: Projects must begin soon, to create jobs and boost the economy. The Transportation Policy Council focused on projects that were “shovel ready,” meaning the necessary government and environmental approvals were in place. After that, the council looked for projects that had been waiting a long time for funding.

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The transportation money is just one stream of stimulus funds flowing into Houston. The Port of Houston got $98 million to dredge the Ship Channel. The Federal Transit Administration allocated $105 million for buses, light rail and Park & Ride lots. But that’s still less than the $181 million set aside to build a section of the Grand Parkway outer loop in an undeveloped part of west Harris County.

Except for the Grand Parkway and a road widening in Stafford, all 15 major road projects getting a boost from stimulus money will be fully funded by it. The Grand Parkway segment is estimated to cost $607 million, and some think that won’t be money well spent.

“There are no people out there,” said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

Holzer said the money should have been spent to relieve traffic on U.S. 290 or for commuter rail.

No question, spending stimulus funds on the Grand Parkway is a terrible idea; of course, the Grand Parkway itself is a terrible idea, but it’s one that has juice behind it. It’s a damn shame there wasn’t a better process in place, one that would have rejected this project for stimulus funding, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.

Smart Growth America, a national urban planning coalition, said Texas spent almost half its stimulus road funds on new roads or extra lanes. By contrast, Maryland and North Dakota spent all of theirs on maintenance. Studies show that repair work on roads creates 16 percent more new jobs, according to the coalition.

You can get that full report here. As we know, Metro will get a little bit of stimulus money. More would have been nice, but what really matters now is getting funding through the regular appropriations and approval process for the remaining light rail lines. If we can get that done, it’s all good.

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