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Commissioner James Patterson

Interviews with the TPC

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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 29, Kristen Wright sat down and talked with Fort Bend County Commissioner James Patterson, who chairs the TPC. Patterson has represented Fort Bend Precinct 4 since 1999.

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

Well, TPC is a subset of the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The Transportation Policy Council doesn’t worry about anything except transportation issues. It may be transit- or public transportation-related, or it may be roads and bridges, hike-and-bike trails. I tend to oversimplify everything, but TPC, in my mind, is like a funnel for federal gasoline tax, state tax. TPC is the funnel and looks at the money and says, a bridge over the San Jacinto River is more important than a road through XYZ County. So we prioritize, because we never have enough money, of course.

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

Well, it’s both, because if we handle the growth properly, then it’s certainly an opportunity. If it’s improperly handled, like I read in the Chronicle this morning, then you have fancy condos being built without any place for people to park and no proper drainage. So that becomes a crisis.

Judge Hebert was reluctant to approve a proposal that would fund the extension of the Westpark Tollway from the Grand Parkway to the city of Fulshear. He argued that funding the Westpark Tollway would reduce the County’s ability to expand the Fort Bend Parkway. However, the proposal was eventually approved. Do you believe that this is the best use of the county’s money?

Well, your description of what occurred is not correct. Judge Hebert’s concern was that the plan that the engineering firm was putting together for a pass-through toll process had the county spending up to 40% of the cost of a TxDOT road. This was not just about the Westpark Toll Road. This was about 1093, which is a state highway. It was not about the Parkway Toll Road, it was about all state highways. Counties can’t get into a spot that they’re paying for 40% of all state highways. We’ve got too many county roads that we need to be fixing. That was what that was about. We finally got it down to a reasonable number, and then it passed.

The success of the Sugar Land Town Center has changed the way we think about walkability and livable centers throughout the Houston region. Could you talk about the role of livable centers in long-range transportation planning for Fort Bend?

Well, obviously, the town center has certainly made a big difference to folks that visit there. There’s not many people that live there. There’s a small portion of people that live there that actually shop there. It has, in fact, created some traffic problems at Highway 6 and 59. So, you would have to do a lot of planning to coordinate the amount of traffic that’s going to be at a given location for a livable center to be more than a congestion pile. We’re going to see more of them – in fact, on last Friday, at the Transportation Policy Council, the East End Management District presented a plan to Council asking for support of an East End livable centers plan.

Grand Parkway 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. Are new roads prioritized over maintenance and transit? And why?

Well, the information you have is incorrect. There were 2 different pots of money. One pot was strictly TxDOT-designated projects. The other pot was MPO – the Houston-Galveston Area Council-designated projects. The $181 million for Segment E came out of the TxDOT-designated pot of money.

How do our choices of investments in transportation infrastructure affect public policy? Quality of life? Mobility? Access?

Gosh, I think it’s the other way around. I think public policy makes the decision on how important we think infrastructure is. When I was elected to this office, the former county commissioner said, “Remember, you repair roads. You don’t build roads.” Well, today, with the growth that’s coming out to Fort Bend County, not only do county commissioners get involved with building roads, we have to do a very good job of looking for future right-of-way. For future roads, it’s only a guess. So your public policy determines how important we think infrastructure is.

In February, the Fort Bend County Commissioner’s Court voted 3-2 to approve a market valuation waiver for the Grand Parkway. According to local journalist Bob Dunn, you believe that this waiver is a step towards putting the Parkway under local control. However, Commissioners Morrison and Myers believe that the agreement may force Fort Bend County to pay $100 million or more to the State of Texas. The development of the proposed Grand Parkway is a contentious issue in Fort Bend and across the Houston region. How will you reconcile opposing views?

Well, the Senate Bill 792 that was passed in the State Legislature – not this past session, but the session before, number 80 – laid out very specific steps that had to be accomplished, and the order they had to be accomplished in. Step 1 of the process was to establish terms and conditions under which the Grand Parkway would be developed. And those terms and conditions are how you will let the toll rates be established – there’s three or four items on the terms and conditions. Those terms and conditions had to be approved by all seven counties and TxDOT. Then, those terms and conditions had to be approved by the Transportation Policy Council. All that was accomplished. Now, the next step in the process was to either conduct a market valuation or waive that market valuation.

Now, all the market valuation was to accomplish was to say – there’s 180 miles of road. So, what is the value of that project today? Well, when we started out three years ago, there were people who believed that project was worth a positive 5 billion dollars. But after a little bit of looking at it, they suddenly realized it was not this “golden goose” that Texas could go sell to somebody. So, TxDOT and the counties all sat down, and looked and said: “Okay. What is this about? Is this about selling or buying? Or is this about infrastructure? Public policy or infrastructure? Is this about infrastructure?” And say, okay, we need an overpass at 90A and the Grand Parkway. Well, we need that overpass for people to be able to travel. We don’t need to say, TxDOT, we’ll pay you a million dollars to get to build it, or, TxDOT, you pay us a million dollars so we can build it. It needs to be teamwork, which is what it should be. So, waiving the market valuation is simply a way of saying we’re going to work together as a team. So, I don’t believe that it is anything that has to go back and be solved.

So do you believe that the dissenting commissioners will eventually come on board?

They’re on board. That was a one-time misunderstanding. Commissioner Myers is fully aware of the need for the overpasses on Segment D. And Commissioner Morrison is fully aware of our need for the county to be in control.

One of the Houston myths is that we all drive SUVs and will never walk or ride rail, even though a large number 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 success of the METRO rail line was critical to people’s attitudes for the next step. It’s a very expensive proposition. You’re right. I tell people in Fort Bend County, “You’re supposed to drive a Suburban and tow one, so if the first one has a problem, you can get in the second one.” We are seeing more people willing to take a commute route. To do so, you’ve got to make it convenient. And which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Okay, we can only afford the route that runs every 15 minutes, and it runs only for 3 hours in the afternoon. In the meantime, you got a problem if you need to get home, or get to your child, get to daycare, get to school, whatever it might be. So, the successful areas have multiple plans, multiple ways for people to exit the system. But that’s the expensive part.

Can you clarify what you mean by “exit the system”?

That’s bad terminology. To be able to get back home or to get to the daycare center or the school, or whatever it might be.

Though some estimates show that roughly 14,000 Fort Bend residents work in the Texas Medical Center, the Fort Bend Express commuter bus service struggled before ending on March 6. Do you believe that this is a serious blow to the viability of public transit?

Well, August 1 there will be a commute route – Fort Bend County and the Medical Center. It’s been reinstituted. Obviously, we think it’s a priority, or we wouldn’t be reinstituting it.

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?

You know, I don’t think all the planning resources in the world would really change – I think our program of planning through the Transportation Policy Council is the best process. Our region is well represented. As we are there Friday, and I look around, and you got the county commissioner of Brazoria County, from Galveston County, from Chambers County, from Liberty County, the assistant city manager for Conroe, you’ve got the engineer from Waller County. So, everybody is sitting there. It’s not like that’s a Houston-Harris County process. Everybody’s in the process. So, you could do more if you had more money, but would you do it any better? Your question was the planning process. I don’t think that more money would improve the planning process.

Thank you very much.

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