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. Alan Clark, the Manager of Transportation and Air Quality Programs at H-GAC, sat in on an interview with Sue Lovell on July 6 and provided his own written statement as well. His written comments appear below. As the Director of the H-GAC Metropolitan Planning Organization, Clark assists the TPC but does not have a voting role.
Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?
Given the many needs and opportunities in our area, the TPC’s most important job is to develop a regional plan coordinating federal, state and local transportation investments that will sustain livable communities, continue improved environmental quality and promote economic opportunity. The TPC’s responsibilities also include setting specific priorities for federally assisted transportation projects like those funded through the Economic Stimulus program. To do this work, the TPC also directs a continuing planning process designed to actively engage residents and businesses of our region in determining the need, scope and priority for transportation facilities and services.
Earlier in the year, the TPC chose to allocate ARRA funds to new roadway construction instead of maintenance projects even though both types were on the initial list prepared by H-GAC. Can you explain why TPC chose not to request stimulus funds for maintenance originally? In general, can you explain your views on the balance between maintenance and new construction?
The first $54 million of projects funded in our area were all maintenance projects. These were selected by the Texas Transportation Commission from a list developed in consultation with our local Houston and Beaumont district offices and the TPC. Because contract bid prices for this work have been less than estimated, TxDOT is in the process of choosing additional maintenance and rehabilitation projects for our area. True, all these initial maintenance projects are on State highways, but many are in urban parts of our region.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (known as the Stimulus bill or ARRA) divided the responsibility for transportation project selection between federal, state and local governments (through their Metropolitan Transportation Organizations - our TPC). In the case of transit funding, dollars were allocated directly to states (for rural and smaller urban areas) or to designated transit grant recipients like Houston METRO. Although the TPC was required to give its approval to the use of ARRA funds for highways and transit projects in the eight county MPO area, it was the project “selector” for only $150 million of the over 1/2 billion in Stimulus funds expected to be used in our region. Federal project selection from the ARRA “TIGER” program is just now underway.
In addition to the $54 million in maintenance projects now being constructed, TxDOT selected other projects from our region based upon competitive scoring established by the Texas Transportation Commission. This included two more maintenance projects (reconstruction of parts of the 610 loop and part of I-I0), the completion of the interchange at BW8 and US 59 North, and Segment E of SH 99, the Grand Parkway.
Of the funds selected by the TPC, the first project selected completed state funding for the 1-10 reconstruction. The remainder of the TPC’s selections include a combination of roadway widening and safety projects for which federal funding assistance had been promised for some time but for which federal dollars were unavailable due to funding shortfalls.
The purpose of the stimulus bill is to quickly move money into construction activity as a means to preserve and expand employment opportunities. Very specific, near term deadlines were given to accomplish this. As a consequence, it was important to select projects that had not only completed all planning and project development activities, but had environmental and permitting clearances (or could quickly obtain them). The TPC relied heavily in its decision making on a detailed analysis of projects which met these “shovel ready” requirements. Our Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) was a source of projects which were “shovel ready” or could be made so quickly. Since the TPC has not, in the past, funded “routine maintenance” activities for cities or counties, there was no ready list of maintenance projects in the TIP on non-state, city or county roadways for which federal eligibility and “project readiness” could be quickly determined.
After its initial selection of projects for ARRA funding, the TPC requested that Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) staff investigate the eligibility of road maintenance projects on city and county thoroughfares. Moreover, TPC directed staff to develop a process for receiving, screening and ranking this type of project as additional contingency projects should funding become available. The time available is very limited in which to identify eligible projects, rank them, complete engineering and environmental analysis and develop the required funding contract with TxDOT. In order to insure federal obligation of funds prior to March of 2010, most of the work by local governments must be completed by late summer or early fall. Nevertheless, TPC is well aware that many cities and counties in our region have delayed basic street maintenance due to the economic downturn and its impact on their revenues. Moreover, the TPC believes these projects can be a beneficial addition to stimulating both direct and indirect job creation.
One of the Houston myths is that we all drive SUVs and will never walk or ride rail, even though at least 40% of Houstonians do not own a car. What do you think the expansion of light rail will mean to Houstonians? Do you think that walkability and bicycle safety are regionally significant transportation concerns?
The expansion of light rail should increase transit access to more persons and jobs. Transit travel will be more reliable and travel times will be reduced (as compared to local buses operating in normal traffic). Therefore, more persons will find that using transit is a better way to travel. And unlike local bus service, rail transit provides much greater opportunity for new economic investment such as transit oriented development near rail stations.
Since every transit rider is also a pedestrian (and possibly a cyclist), improving access and safety for pedestrians and cyclists can significantly complement transit use.
Although work is still being completed on several “livable centers” projects developed with assistance from H-GAC, three were included as “contingency” projects on the TPC selected ARRA program of projects. The centerpiece of these projects is pedestrian improvements in heavy transit use corridors.
Grand Parkway Segment E was not on the original list of potential ARRA 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 City of Houston?
As described above, Segment E of the Grand Parkway was selected by the Texas Transportation Commission as one of the State’s stimulus projects. It did so based, in part, on the following criteria:
• Readiness to implement (project recently completed its environmental finding)
• Economic impact (State’s investment was more than doubled by the use of toll backed bond funding, generating greater employment impact)
• Sustainability (project will generate revenue to pay for future operations and maintenance costs)
• Geographic equity (State desired to achieve relative balance between the distribution of the State’s population and the use of ARRA funding).
Other inquiries as to the statewide priority of this project should be directed to the Texas Transportation Commission.
I would like to understand more about Senate Bill 792, which requires policy boards to establish by-laws creating an ethics policy.
This question refers to the requirement in SB 792 for the addition in the bylaws of our Transportation Policy Council of an “Ethics Policy”. No TPC member has expressed any reservation to this provision of SB 792. The Transportation Policy Council’s Bylaws Committee is reviewing incorporation of an ethics policy into the TPC bylaws and will recommend action this summer.
How do our choices of investments in transportation infrastructure affect public policy? Quality of life? Mobility? Access?
Ideally, investments in publicly owned transportation infrastructure are an outcome of public policy based on priorities established by each community and through their cooperative decision-making in groups like the Transportation Policy Council. Mobility and access are important dimensions of quality of life. The provision (or lack) of transportation infrastructure and services will directly affect mobility and access. Because these facilities and services utilize scarce public and private resources, their costs (including the potential loss of natural environment, increase in air and water pollution, potential secondary development) must be carefully considered in relationship to public benefits.
The new Federal Transportation Reauthorization Bill will start in the US House soon and Chairman Oberstar is expected to propose radical changes in the way US DOT funds transportation projects, including modal equity, greater control at the MPO level instead of the states, and new targets including reduced Vehicle Miles Traveled and carbon emissions. Are you excited about these changes? What do you think this will mean for the Houston region? Is the region prepared to take on a 21st century transportation challenge?
It is too soon to tell what specific directions Congress and the Administration will give to transportation policy in the next authorization bill. Many of the changes under discussion could support the TPC’s efforts to create more vital, sustainable communities and a healthier environment. However well intended these ideas may be, they will mean little unless resources are increased to meet the growing transportation needs in metropolitan areas such as the Houston-Galveston region. Neither Congress nor the Administration has proposed a method to make and sustain significant additional transportation investment in our country. Until that reality is addressed, the substance of a new bill is secondary.
This region is well positioned to take full advantage of greater devolution in decision making to local governments. There is great opportunity to strengthen cooperative action between our cities and counties. This is ever more apparent as growth outside the City of Houston and Harris County may dominate future development patterns.
There is a perception at least that transportation funds are directed outside the city, even though a majority of Harris County residents live inside of the City of Houston. Do you think that the residents of the City of Houston have enough representation on the Transportation Policy Council?
The City of Houston directly appoints 3 of the 26 voting members of the TPC (the most of any one agency or local government). Other members of the TPC (such as METRO and Harris County) also have substantial interest in the City’s welfare. More to the point, however, actions by the TPC have historically been taken with substantial consensus of its members.
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?
• Increase use of tools that give policy makers, residents and users of the transportation system visual representation of a project and its land use impacts;
• Sustained community outreach and involvement through project planning, development and implementation;
• As part of an expanded effort to create “livable centers”, greater examination of low cost strategies that enhance transit, bicycle and pedestrian access;
• Continued examination of the impact of increased goods movement by truck and rail on existing neighborhoods, and streets. Develop plans to reduce existing and prevent future conflicts with goods movement.
• Improved analysis of financial resources needed to maintain and expand transportation services and infrastructure;
• Continued development of evacuation plans for hurricanes and other emergency events.
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