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Transportation Policy Council

Houston-Austin rail update

Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation is planning to fund environmental and financial feasibility studies for a passenger rail line connecting Houston to Austin, according to the Texas Tribune and KUT Austin.

The planned line would be a 110mph train connecting Houston, Hempstead, Brenham, Giddings, and Austin, for about $1.2 billion, although TXDOT is considering several variations, according to a presentation at the Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council as reported by Houston Tomorrow.

TXDOT does not have a funding source identified for the completion of the project, but is conducting the studies to be better prepared for future federal funding opportunities, according to KUT Austin.  Meanwhile, the Lone Star Rail District is conducting studies on how to move freight traffic from its intended passenger rail line connecting San Antonio to Austin and many points in between, while efforts continue to build a true high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas with all private funding.

Listen to audio file of KUT story (mp3)

As I said before, I think any rail line between Houston and Austin that takes longer to drive is highly unlikely to be attractive to people. I still hope there’s more to this than what we’ve seen so far.

Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

How would you spend $350 million of TxDOT’s money?

David Crossley would like to know.

Let’s say you found $350 million to do a great transportation project for the Houston region. Would you use it to build a 400-foot-wide, 15-mile-long segment of brand-new highway across the Katy Prairie wetlands where almost no one lives or works in order to enable a lot of sprawling development (and some new flooding) for future residents? Or would you use it to, say, build commuter rail service along U.S. 290 to serve nearly a million people who live there today?

The reason I ask is that there’s a public meeting next week where you could go and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) what you think would be a good (or bad) use of that money. The information about that is at the end of this article.

Maybe you would tell them to use it to do a whole bunch of projects that we don’t otherwise have money for right now, like rebuild State Highway 6 and FM 1960 from I-10 to I-45? If you did all the proposals that are on the table for that corridor, you’d still have $315 million left. What then? Do 2920? 1488? Do all of them?

Crossley’s piece also appeared as an op-ed in the Chron. The $350 million figure of course comes from the money TxDOT magically found to pay for the Grand Parkway. (Remind me again why we have to vote to build light rail lines, but not new highways?) If you can think of something better to do with this money, here’s how to let TxDOT know:

[C]onsider going to TxDOT’s public meeting to talk about the 2011-2014 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) on Wed., May 25. The email I got says, “All interested citizens are invited to attend and express their views on the program.”

You can go here for meeting info and here to get deep information about the STIP. You will be amazed.

The meeting is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m at the TxDOT–Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave. Be sure to go and talk about how you would like TxDOT to spend that $350 million.

Or at least send some comments to Texas Department of Transportation, Attention: Lori Morel, 118 East Riverside Drive, Austin, Texas, 78704, or by email to [email protected] Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Monday, June 6, 2011. Department officials will be surprised, I bet.

You can also go to spend350million.org and leave a comment there. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

Today’s the day for the TIP

That postponed Transportation Policy Council meeting to determine how to allocate unprogrammed federal transportation funds happens today.

A proposal before the regional Transportation Policy Council last month could have clawed back $12.8 million in funding set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects and directed those dollars to road and freight rail work. At the urging of advocacy groups, the proposal was tabled to allow for more discussion.

The TPC — an appointed body of mostly elected officials that directs federal transportation funding in the eight-county region — will take up the issue at its meeting Friday.

“I’m hoping we can reach a compromise to where all of the (bike and pedestrian) funding is not lost, yet certainly understanding the need for roadway and rail funding,” said Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell, a TPC member.

[…]

In its 2011-14 transportation plan, the council has direct discretion over just $346 million in federal funds, $266 million of which already is allocated.

Some TPC members have proposed setting percentage guidelines on how the remaining $80 million should be spent: 1 percent on planning studies, 9 percent to 13 percent for alternative modes such as biking, walking and mass transit, and for air-quality projects, and the remaining 75 percent to 82 percent on roads and rail.

“I think there are going to be a lot of people in the broader community who aren’t in a particular interest group who say, ‘Wait a minute, of course, we ought to be giving 80 percent of mobility funds to actual mobility projects,’ as opposed to sidewalks or hike-and-bike trails,” [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

[…]

Advocacy group Houston Tomorrow has suggested spending 55 percent of the funds on roads and rail, and 34 percent on alternative modes.

They lay out their case here, with David Crossley adding more here. The meeting is this morning at the TPC’s office at 3555 Timmons, 2nd floor, room A. It’s open to the public, and the public comment period begins at 9:30, though there will be a TPC workshop beginning at 8:45 that you can also attend but not participate in. I look forward to seeing what happens.

HGAC hearing on TIP

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council will host a public hearing to discuss citizen priorities for the use of discretionary funds in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program on March 25, 2011 at 8:45am at the H-GAC building in the 2nd Floor Conference room at 3555 Timmons.

The Technical Advisory Committee will meet Wednesday, March 16, 2011 to discuss, amongst other things, a proposal to pursue “option 4” for allocating the remaining funding, as well as a H-GAC staff report on “the TIP Call for Projects.”

Houston Tomorrow has published a primer on the TIP funding issue.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m impressed by the amount of attention this has received. Take advantage of the opportunity to affect the outcome while you can.

TPC delays vote on TIP

Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’sTransportation Policy Council (TPC) unanimously voted on Friday morning to delay by thirty days its vote on a full $79.8 million allocation of unprogrammed federal transportation funds toward Mobility – roadway and freight rail – projects and a reallocation of $12.8 million from already committed pedestrian, bicycle, and Livable Centers projects to Mobility projects.

The 30-day delay will allow the public and elected officials to further explore how potential money from the federal Surface Transportation Program Major Metro (STP MM) and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) funds should be allocated within the Houston-Galveston region’s2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The decision came after elected officials heard from more than 20 business, bicycle, pedestrian, and political advocates in attendance, plus thousands of citizens who signed petitions and called officials’ offices during the week to voice their concerns regarding the manner in which federal funds were being distributed toward various transportation modes.

Rather than push a vote through, City of Houston Council member Sue Lovell requested that the TPC delay voting on the issue for 30 days so that elected officials could more carefully examine the options on the table and hear from their constituents.

See here and here for some background. Houston Tomorrow has an online petition that calls for roadway spending to make up no more than 55% of regional transportation infrastructure spending, which it says in accordance with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I don’t know enough about the 2035 RTP to comment on that, but I am glad there will be more time to discuss this issue. A press release from CM Lovell about the requested delay to the vote is beneath the fold.

(more…)

More on H-GAC and the TIP

I received some feedback from Judge Ed Emmett’s office regarding this post about H-GAC’s Friday Transportation Policy Council (TPC) meeting, at which funding in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) will be discussed and voted on. There’s some context missing from what Houston Tomorrow and Bike Houston wrote about this.

Let me start by pointing you to the TPC agenda item concerning the TIP. The original allocation of funds, with $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” monies remaining, was determined by the TPC to be short of their goal for project type Mobility, which includes “added capacity roadways; traffic operations/Intelligent Transportation Systems, transportation systems management, roadway rehabilitation/maintenance, grade separations/interchanges and freight rail projects”. To meet their goal of 78% allocation for Mobility, all unprogrammed funds plus an additional $12.8 million were designated for that type, with the extra money coming from the Alternative Modes type (“bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements”); a third type, Air Quality, had no flexibility in its allocation, and the Planning/Studies type was already at zero. Alternative Modes is still getting $38.9 million, or 11.2% of the $345.6 million total, down from $51.6 million, which would have been 14.9%.

What Judge Emmett told me was as follows:

– The $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” funds came from a variety of sources, including the federal and state governments. This is money that was going to be spent but hadn’t been attached to anything yet.

– The TPC had decided to set ranges for the share of each project type’s allocation. Mobility’s range is 75-83%, Alternative Modes and Air Quality is 9-13% for each. The original TIP had Mobility below that range, and Alternative Modes, which Judge Emmett referred to as “hike and bike trails”, above it.

– No Alternative Modes project that already had funding lost funding as a result of this. There were some projects that had been approved but not yet funded that were pushed back to the 2015 TIP. These projects will retain their approval – in other words, they will not have to got through the approval process again and as the Judge put it “will be at the front of the line” for funding.

– In addition, as noted on page 3 of the agenda item, if there are any Mobility funds left over, unfunded but approved Alternative Modes projects would be eligible for them.

– The TIP covers a three year time frame, and most of the Alternative Modes projects that have been approved for funding have already had those funds allocated, and this is why there’s little of such funding allocated after this year.

I hope all this helps you understand it a little better, as I now do. I appreciate Judge Emmett taking the time to answer my questions. Please note that none of this is intended to discourage you from attending the TPC meeting on Friday if you were thinking about it. By all means, if you think the target ratios for Mobility and Alternative Modes are wrong, if you think that there are approved but unfunded Alternative Modes projects that shouldn’t have to wait till 2015, or if you have some other opinion about any of this, you should attend. That’s what it’s all about.

Why aren’t we investing more in non-road transportation?

Houston Tomorrow has some disturbing news.

A proposal to limit bike, pedestrian, and livability funding in the 2011 Transportation Improvement Program will come before the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) this Friday, February 25, at a public meeting in the H-GAC building at 3555 Timmons on the 2nd floor in Conference Room A.

The proposal calls for increasing road and freight spending while limiting projects that would improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit access, livable centers studies, and other projects listed as “Alternative Modes.”  Particular projects to be eliminated from the TIP are not yet determined, but all proposed projects are presumably listed in the Preliminary Project Scoping (pdf) provided by H-GAC.  Projects to be cut would include things like walkability projects in Midtown and a pedestrian realm project to provide better sidewalks and neighborhood access to light rail along the future East End Light Rail Line.

The proposal for shifting spending in the TIP does not appear to match the objectives or spending targets of the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.  Further, the code of federal regulations governing the RTP and TIP process mandates public involvement both early and continuously in key decisions in the programming process, but no such opportunity seems to have been presented to the public on this proposal.

Sections of the Houston Area Survey on transportation priorities and spending priorities to better plan for growth indicate that the priorities of residents of the Houston region are not aligned with the proposed changes to the 2011 TIP.

Bike Houston is organizing local opposition to this plan as well as other groups expected to publicly oppose the changes over the coming days.

I don’t see how this makes any sense, and for it to happen with so little fanfare is just wrong. I realize that we’re all up to our necks in action items and things to fight back against these days, but take a moment to look at Bike Houston‘s writeup of what this means, and consider joining in the call to rethink this. Hair Balls has more.

Just how viable is the Grand Parkway anyway?

So it’s official, Commissioners Court has voted to seek stimulus funding for the Grand Parkway Segment E despite numerous concerns about the way they went about it. Houston Tomorrow explores a facet of this that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Proponents of Segment E have come under fire in recent months for waiving a detailed financial analysis of the project, and the current proposal appears to be an attempt to mute that criticism. However, it comes four months after the Commissioners Court approved 30 engineering contracts worth almost $22 million, and five months after the seven counties voted to waive the market valuation process. The language of Tuesday’s agenda provides some flexibility, so it is unclear how detailed the viability study will be. The commissioners will also vote on increasing the value of one of the existing contracts, as well as purchasing two tracts of land to develop Segment E. The full agenda items are available at the bottom of this page.

Videotaped testimony from last summer’s terms and conditions negotiating process, which is no longer available online, revealed that the entire Grand Parkway is revenue-negative. Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, agreed with that assessment, telling the Commissioners Court in February, “The whole highway is demonstrably a loser.“ However, Storey insisted that Segments E and F, by themselves, are toll-viable.

At the same time, Storey and others hope that the $181 million for Segment E will jump-start the rest of the $5 billion, 180-mile project, including the non-toll-viable portions. Three days after saying that the Grand Parkway will lose money, Storey, who sits on the regional Transportation Policy Council (TPC),spoke in support of the Grand Parkway at a TPC meeting, saying that “the doing of it [building Segment E] will make the doing of the rest of it more likely and more feasible.” He was supported by TxDOT commissioner Ned Holmes, who does not sit on the council but made a special trip to Houston to lobby for the project and said that the stimulus money could “induce the entire Grand Parkway to be built.”

I don’t know that I have anything to add to this. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone complain about the cost of building rail lines.

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.