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Robin Holzer

Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

What’s going on with US 290?

500px-US_290.svg

Last week, I wrote about the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that TxDOT has filed for its proposed expansion of US 290. This is a huge proposal, with a price tag of $4.6 billion if all of it gets done, and it’s one that has a number of unanswered questions, as the Citizens Transportation Coalition has documented. I had the opportunity later in the week to hear CTC Chair Robin Holzer give a presentation on the status of this project and the issues that they have raised, and it was quite enlightening. There’s a lot going on with this project that I wasn’t really aware of, having to do with things like the Hempstead managed lanes, grade separations, and commuter rail, and I feel like there hasn’t been that much in the news about it. So I figured I’d try to do my part by interviewing Holzer about the project. Here it is:

Download the MP3 file

The CTC has a useful overview page that summarizes the issues and questions that remain about the 290 project. It also includes the CTC presentation (large PDF) that I heard Holzer give. If you want to get up to speed on all this, check it out.

Public meeting for proposed IH-10 frontage roads on January 6

The following is from the most recent Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC) email newsletter.

Recognition that segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway is not “shovel ready” freed up more than $180 million of federal stimulus funding for other mobility projects. Some of that money was reallocated to pedestrian access projects in Houston. But the Texas Transportation Commission voted on Dec 17th to allocate $88 million of stimulus funds to extend new frontage roads along IH-10, inside the loop.

State Representative Jessica Farrar will host a public meeting on January 6, 2010 regarding the proposed frontage lanes. TxDOT has agreed to present all of the current design documents and answer questions about the project.

What: Informational meeting regarding proposed IH-10 frontage roads
When: Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010 from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm
Where: Stevenson Elementary School, 5410 Cornish, Houston, TX 77007 (map)

We encourage anyone who lives or works near IH-10 and White Oak Bayou, between Washington and Taylor, to consider attending this meeting.

Interestingly, this section of IH-10 is one of the least-congested highways in Houston, and it has functioned well without frontage roads for more than 50 years. We have heard no public demand to add them now. CTC’s board believes TxDOT could better invest stimulus funds elsewhere, on a project that maintains the existing roadway system or addresses a critical bottleneck.

However, if TxDOT is going to pursue this project, CTC calls on TxDOT to address several critical issues identified by the White Oak Bayou Association and other neighborhood leaders before moving forward. You can download CTC’s letter to TxDOT (1.5 mb PDF) for a detailed explanation:

  • TxDOT is proposing to advance the project to build new frontage roads along IH-10 but NOT the corresponding flood mitigation project. Given the potential adverse flooding impacts to adjacent neighborhoods in the White Oak Bayou watershed, it is imperative that TxDOT construct all necessary detention ponds for new frontage roads before or contemporaneous with their construction.
  • TxDOT has not hosted a public meeting regarding this project since 2003, and the area has attracted thousands of new residents and businesses in the interim. We urge TxDOT to hold a public hearing for both the frontage road project and the corresponding detention pond project, in January 2010, before moving forward to let contracts.
  • Volunteer engineering resources have identified several critical design issues with TxDOT’s current frontage road plans.

Public participation makes better projects. It’s essential for TxDOT to understand, and address public concerns before committing this project to concrete. If you’re unable to attend the Jan 6 meeting, you may send comments to:

Director of Project Development
Texas Department of Transportation
PO Box 1386  Houston  TX  77251-1386

You can also read more about the IH-10 reconstruction and frontage roads project and the IH-10 detention near White Oak Bayou project in CTC’s online forum.

You’ll definitely want to check out that letter to TxDOT about why the frontage roads are a bad idea, and why the detention ponds should come first regardless of what else TxDOT decides to do. And make plans to attend that meeting if you live in or around the affected area.

It’s hard out here on a pedestrian

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Houston is not a good city for pedestrians, at least from a safety perspective.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

[…]

The statistics are startling. Almost 5,000 pedestrians die in the U.S. after being hit by cars every year, according to the report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, two nonprofit, national coalitions that promote more efficient and equitable transportation policies.

All of the Top 10 dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the South, where new growth after World War II created development patterns that favor cars over pedestrians.

You can see the study here (PDF). I find myself in agreement with, and sharing the frustration of, Robin Holzer at the county’s attitude that they only build roads, not sidewalks. Seems to me they’re doing the residents out there a disservice, not to mention jeopardizing their health. But I suppose nothing will change until voters demand it. Swamplot has more.

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.

[…]

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.

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.

Grand Parkway Segment E gets a go-ahead

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.

Here’s a copy of the agreement (large PDF), which I got via an email sent from Robin Holzer to members of the CTC. She states:

The agreement stipulates that Harris County will be responsible for funding right-of-way acquisition, engineering and design, utility work, environmental studies and mitigation, compliance with TAS and ADA, and any other aspect of the project not mentioned in attachment D. According to this agreement Harris County will be on the hook for the entire estimated project cost in excess of $500 million.

Before voting Cmr. Steve Radack pushed staff to clarify the County’s financial obligations saying, “I don’t want Harris County tax payers to be out one penny on this project.” He asked what happens if the County moves forward on segment E but decides not to finish the project.

Attorney Bob Colley, who worked on the agreement for the County, explained that the County will only be reimbursed for segment E costs if TxDOT or another entity ultimately assumes responsibility for it and the entire Grand Parkway. If HCTRA develops segment E and no one takes it over, the County will be out the entire cost.

Commissioners also clarified the County’s obligations stemming from this agreement. In conclusion, today’s vote allows the County to pursue segment E, but does not obligate the County to begin spending money on it.

Emphasis in original. That’s a lot of money hanging on a what-if, isn’t it?

Back to the Chron:

About 10 representatives from environmental and neighborhood groups that oppose the project spoke against it during Tuesday’s meeting, calling it a magnet for sprawl that will be too far north to have much of an impact on U.S. 290 traffic. They said the court should use the money to build commuter rail or toll lanes on the freeway instead.

A detailed list of reasons why this isn’t such a hot idea can be found in this post from last year, when this project was fast-tracked. I agree with the point Jay Crossley made in the comments to that post, which is that this represents urban planning in another form. Somehow, though, those who object to that idea don’t ever seem to have a problem with it when it’s done this way.