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TxDOT’s Delvin Dennis

Interviews with the TPC

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TPC INTERVIEWS

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) is comprised of transportation leaders reflecting a variety of cities, counties, and transportation modes in the Houston region.

This body is perhaps the most important long-term planning and decision-making body in the region, but many citizens and even elected officials throughout the region don’t know about the TPC and what it does. All regionally significant transportation projects must be approved by TPC as part of H-GAC’s duty to address major regional issues such as air quality.

Houston Tomorrow interviewed a number of TPC members over the summer of 2009. On June 19, Kristen Wright spoke with Delvin Dennis, TxDOT’s Houston District Engineer. They discussed the TPC, public participation, and briefly touched upon one of TxDOT’s controversial projects – Grand Parkway Segment E.

Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?

TPC – this group of men and women are the approval authority for transportation programs in our region. Federal dollars flow through a metropolitan planning organization wherever they’re located – there’s a bunch of them in Texas. TPC is the governing board for transportation issues in the region. There’s a board of directors for H-GAC as a whole, but they do not get involved in approving or disapproving or planning or discussing transportation projects. Now, the staff of the H-GAC will vet out and present items to the TPC. The Technical Advisory Committee meets monthly, in advance of the TPC, and they are represented by folks that are extensions of the members of the TPC. I have a staff member that’s a member of the Advisory Committee. We meet monthly, but there’s a lot of other folks working behind the scenes.

Do you view our projected growth as an opportunity, crisis, or both?

I hate to use the word crisis. It is definitely an opportunity. I would not characterize it as a crisis. The Houston region is going to grow, there is no doubt about that. Is it going to grow in such a way that equates to some sort of crisis? I’d say no. Things happen that are out of our control. Financial markets, inflation, recession – things like that. A collapse of the mortgage industry, all that sort of happened in the last eight, nine months. We as a region have zero control over that, and that obviously stymies growth. So all the projections that were made two years ago, 18 months ago, all this stuff has slowed up at this point. Now, will it come back? Yes, it will. If you say when it’s going to come back, I won’t tell you. I don’t know! This stuff has to play out. The growth for Texas, for Houston – we’re going to continue to grow. So I think that’s going to present opportunities for Houston.

TxDOT supports the creation of the Grand Parkway, yet many organizations believe that its construction will be detrimental to the region and contribute to sprawl. Segment E was not on the original list of potential American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects compiled by H-GAC. This list included many other smaller roadway projects, METRO projects, and maintenance projects. Could you explain why Grand Parkway Segment E was a superior project to these other projects? How is this project objectively better for the people that you represent in the City of Houston?

I would almost hesitate to answer that question. At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I work for the Texas Department of Transportation. I work for an agency, it is our mission to provide for the safe and efficient movement of goods and products and we’re also here – transportation promotes economic development. Some folks believe that economic development promotes sprawl. There’s a lot of good back and forth on it. We do our job to the best of our ability with the information that we have. What we do is based on projections. You project growth for 20 years; you project traffic for 20 years. Projections and studies and analysis, you plan to the best of your ability. So, I’m going to leave it at that.

TxDOT has been criticized by members of the Texas legislature and even federal representatives for its embrace of toll roads. Do you believe that toll roads are an effective way to maximize revenue or a drain on the citizens paying the tolls?

I believe that toll roads are a tool. They are a piece of the puzzle. Are they the “silver bullet” answer to bring us out of our congestion and transportation woes? I believe that there is a time and a place. Toll roads, private development, things of that sort took on a life of its own over the last seven to eight years. The whole discussion on toll roads was spawned because there is not revenue – there is not capital – to fund transportation improvements. The gas tax is a broken-down model. It will not keep up with the demands on the transportation system. So, a lot of smart folks started looking at other revenue-generating ideas. Toll roads are an easy thing to grab hold to. The Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Houston area both have mature toll-road agencies, successful toll road agencies, so that model was used for expansion elsewhere around the state. Well my opinion – I’m in line with the Department of Transportation, but there’s a time, and a place, and a use for a toll road in the whole mix of transportation.

How do our choices of investments in transportation infrastructure affect public policy?

I’m almost thinking it’s the reverse. I think public policy has more of a chance of affecting the modes of transportation than the other way around. You can attempt to implement a mode of transportation – toll road, it could be a light rail facility, it could be an interstate highway, it could be all of that. You could choose to implement a hike-and-bike path. But if any of those efforts are misaligned with the public policy for that particular area, region, state, then the chances of implementation are very slim.

How would you like the public to be involved in transportation planning in the region?

Well, I would like them to be involved and engaged as they are now. From a Texas Department of Transportation perspective, the public has more opportunities. The key is opportunity. We offer the opportunity, and that opportunity, in a lot of cases, is not taken advantage of by the public. It’s utilized possibly by a small percentage of the public. It’s no different than a general election. If 10% of the registered voters come out and vote, then you have 10% electing the leaders, and the other 90% did not voice an opinion. Transportation’s sometimes that way. Transportation choice is made, then during implementation, a lot of folks come forward and say, “What in the world were you thinking? Whose idea was this? When was my chance to say something?”

We have opportunities for public involvement going on all the time. Public meetings, public hearings, all that sort of stuff H-GAC has. TPC starts every meeting every month with public comments for those that come and want to stand up and have a time to voice an opinion in front of the Council. So, opportunity is out there, and I don’t see a way to make that any better than what we’ve got right now. At the end of the day, it’s the individual citizen – they have to take time from their busy schedules, engage in the process. That’s the bottom line.

How is TxDOT becoming multi-modal?

We have the ability to construct rail. We don’t have the funding for it, but legislatively, we have the ability. We did not have the ability probably four years ago, maybe six. We do have that legislative ability now. We have the ability to construct toll roads. We didn’t have the ability eight years ago. We are involved with the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway that runs up and down that waterway, from the Galveston area all the way down past Corpus Christi. There’s been studies utilizing the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway as a transportation network for waterway goods movement, maybe an opportunity to get trucks off our roads. We have an aviation division that’s part of TxDOT that facilitates the provision of funding to airports, so all over the state, these are the smaller systems. I’ll leave it at that.

How would you improve long-term transportation planning for the Houston region if you had all the planning resources at your disposal that you could ask for?

What would I do if I was king? I’m not sure what would I do from a planning perspective. So much about planning is predicated on what we can do from a federal rule perspective. Our planning sets forth do’s and don’ts based on the utilization of federal dollars. If I was king, and could do away with a lot of the strings, the restrictions that came about from bureaucracy, federal sorts of things – we are always trying to talk to our Congressional delegation as well as transportation officials in Washington to provide more ability to the local entities to move more transportation projects. I would provide for as much flexibility as I humanly, possibly could, and allow local decisions to be made without strings and governance attached from Washington.

Earlier this month, the Texas House and Senate failed to pass a bill that will keep TxDOT in existence past September 2010. Are you concerned about TxDOT’s future?

No, ma’am. The governor’s already announced there’s going to be a special session. Texas Department of Transportation, we aren’t going away. Either we’ll be reauthorized, or the Legislature’s going to come back and the safety net provision that would keep us alive – that would mean that they would look at TxDOT again. I am 100% confident that the legislature, the governor are going to come together next month, and TxDOT will be viable past September 1.

How do you maintain a balance between maintaining current roadways and expanding them?

Right now, my balance is about as imbalanced as it has been in my career with the Department. Twenty-nine years with the Department, and right now, my focus is on maintaining the 10,000 lane miles that I have responsibility for in the six counties of the Houston District. I’m focusing on maintaining because I do not have the money – I have zero dollars for expansion. Expansion is not even on the table. That doesn’t mean we’re not continuing with planning efforts and that would involve some expansion, but I’m doing that because I have to. I have to keep that going, but if I get to the end of a process for a project and I don’t have the dollars, I don’t have the funding to start construction. So, the funding I get right now is 98% focused on utilizing it to maintain the investment on the ground right now, used every day by the citizens.

Thank you very much.

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