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 July 20, Kristen Wright sat down with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who serves as the First Vice Chair on TPC. Below is an edited version of the transcript.
Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?
Sure. The Transportation Policy Council, over the years – through federal mandates and state mandates, and everything else – has become the focus of the approval process for many projects. Not all projects, but many transportation projects – particularly those that are using federal and state dollars.
Do you view our projected growth as an opportunity, crisis, or both?
Neither one. I view it as a reality. And so, you know – the give and take in transportation planning when it relates to growth is always: do you build transportation projects in reaction to growth, or do transportation projects influence growth? And both of those are true. If you build a transit system for example, people will tend to move to where that transit system is.
When I stayed in Washington, DC, suddenly you had these massive developments go up around each one of the metro stops. The same will occur here, no doubt. Likewise, highways, if you wait until all the people move out – and the roads in their neighborhoods are so crowded – to build the highway, then you’re behind the curve. And if you’ve decided to build the loop ahead of the curve, then you’re subject to criticism for why you’re building a highway where nobody is. But, if that’s where they’re going to go, then that’s always the tough decision, you know. How do you balance transportation reacting to growth versus transportation shaping growth?
One of the Houston myths is that we all drive SUVs and will never walk or ride rail, even though many Houstonians do not drive. Do you think that walkability and bicycle safety are regionally significant transportation concerns?
I would not say that they were broad, regional concerns. I think they are critical concerns in certain areas of the region, and I think that’s where it gets to be difficult – defining which areas. Let me give you an example. When I was in the legislature, I lived in Kingwood. One of the key attributes to Kingwood was the hike and bike trail system. And people used it all the time. If you had a similar system – I won’t say Downtown, but in a Neartown area – people in Houston, Texas will walk or bike to work – how hot is it out there today?
It’s not the same as in other parts of the country, necessarily. But I think there is a real role for walking and – I don’t want to be quick to say too many people equate bicycling with trails. I recognize that there are a lot of people that are serious bicyclists, and you have to provide access to streets. Not every street, though. You can’t make every street accessible to bicycle traffic. I mean, you can’t just put bicycles on the Southwest Freeway, for example. But I think we do need to make as much of our community as possible accessible for those who choose to walk and bike. And in fact, when I moved back here in 2003, I had no thoughts of being in politics. I bought a house in West University, and I selected an office in the Rice Village specifically so I could walk there. And I did.
Many leaders in the Houston-Galveston area support the creation of the Grand Parkway, yet many organizations believe that its construction will be detrimental to citizens and contribute to sprawl. How is this project objectively better for people in the Houston area?
Well, first, let’s have some full disclosure. I was the one in the legislature in the 1980s who created the Grand Parkway Association. And, the idea then was to build the next – and, in many people’s minds – the last loop around the Houston area well in advance of development, so that we wouldn’t get in a situation that you inevitably get in, of “not in my backyard.” You know, I did. And then, I moved out of the state in 1989. When I moved back, in 2003, and the Grand Parkway really wasn’t much farther along than it ever had been, I was surprised. But the basics still remain.
When Loop 610 was built – well, let me give you another example. The Terminal Sub on the Union Pacific Railroad – which is the rail line that runs between Bellaire and West University, and through Memorial Park – that was put there to get it completely out of the City of Houston, so that we wouldn’t have those railroads going through the City anymore. Loop 610, when it was built – I was in high school, and it wasn’t on the edge, but it was out a ways. There needs to be something other than just the arterials, just the spokes. If you’re going to have a hub-and-spokes system of transportation like we have, you can’t have just the spokes coming in. You need to have the connectors. And that’s the key role that the Grand Parkway plays. And you’ll always – I think it’s a fair disagreement for people to say, “Well, should we put our resources there, or should we put them somewhere else.”
The Grand Parkway has been on the drawing boards now for a long, long time. I do see it as the last ring, because people are going to change – they’re not going to keep moving out farther and farther and farther forever.
Many people believe that the Hempstead managed lanes and commuter rail project would solve the problem Segment E is being built for. How do you stand on proceeding with the Hempstead projects?
Well, we have to proceed with the Hempstead projects. And I would respectfully disagree with those who say that one project negates the need for the other. The growth in our area is going to continue to be west and northwest. We’ve got to complete the Hempstead Tollway. I am – I will declare myself the largest, or most active, proponent of commuter rail out the Hempstead corridor. I mean, we’ve got to have that. I’ve been pushing – I’ve been meeting with people in Waller and Prairie View and everywhere else to make sure that it happens. But, even if we do that, we still need the Grand Parkway, for the very reason I just mentioned – that you just can’t have the spokes. You have to have the wheel on the spokes, too. On the outside.
We’re going to have some traffic that doesn’t need to come into town to go back out. And if they can go around on the outside, then that’s better. Likewise, where the development of jobs is occurring and will continue to occur, probably won’t be Downtown. Everybody doesn’t need to come into town. You may need to go from Cypress to Katy. Why would you come all the way in to go back out. So, the Grand Parkway is going to serve that role, too.
Is it important for you to consider social and environmental issues when making transportation decisions?
Of course. But, it’s back to the question of: is transportation a reaction to growth, or does it promote growth? The answer is, it’s both. But in all those, you need to consider social and environmental issues. I mean, there have been times when I’ve worked on transportation projects – one comes to mind, not here, in another part of the state – where it would have moved dangerous chemicals right next to a national wildlife refuge. And I told the people I was working for, “Sorry, you really can’t do that.” I mean, that’s not going to work. And so I think you always have to consider those things.
But, you have to consider the broader interest. I fully understand people who live in a neighborhood who don’t want a transportation project coming through their neighborhood. But, if we had allowed every neighborhood to stop every transportation project that went through it, we would really be in a sorry state right now. Loop 610 – does anybody think we shouldn’t have Loop 610? Well, it went right through the middle of Bellaire. What if Bellaire said, “No, we’re not going to let this happen,” and they stopped it. The Southwest Freeway – if you go back and look at the old photos – you know – there were nice neighborhoods all along there. They were gone. And I remember when they built Greenway Plaza, pretty close to where your office is as a matter of fact. Those were all neighborhoods.
And there was one house that held out till the very end. I remember there was this – I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman – but, a little house sitting there, in the middle of Greenway, all of these office buildings around it. They finally got bought out. But, you have to consider social and environmental.
H-GAC initially planned to allocate $172.3 million in Hurricane Ike recovery money to the City of Houston. Houston’s final allocation was $109 million, but Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald still believed that this amount was too high. Do you believe that H-GAC should be more generous to communities outside of Houston?
Well, I don’t know that I would focus on the Matagorda County Judge’s comments at the time. You have to remember that the initial proposed allocation gave Houston something in excess of $160 million. It gave Chambers County zero. You know, they could go in the pot for everybody else. It gave Harris County considerably less, and once people looked at it, they realized the Harris County allocation was actually going to the cities – like Baytown and Seabrook, and places like that, I think.
In the end, H-GAC got it pretty close to right, simply because you need to go to the areas that were actually hit by the storm. And, I think that’s what really irritated some of the outlying counties – that they were devastated by the storm. They took the storm surge, versus people inland, who yeah, maybe they lost a fence, maybe they lost a roof, but that’s not the same as people who lost their whole house. Likewise, the governments – and that’s what this money would be going for, would be for a large part of the infrastructure. The damage was so much more severe in areas that were actually hit by the storm surge, as opposed to just the wind.
METRO plans to have 37 miles of light rail implemented in 2012-13 connecting the four largest activity centers in the Houston region. Could you talk about the effect you think this will have?
I want to choose my words carefully. The effect will be positive. I think there are a lot of people who would like to argue over the design, and say, “Well, if I had my way, I would have done a monorail.” Or, “If I had my way, I would have grade separated.” Or, you know, any number. But again, we are where we are in the process, I think, with more and more people already moving back into – I’ll use the term inner-city. That may not be entirely accurate, but moving from the suburbs in. My wife and I are classic examples. We lived in Kingwood, we moved off to Washington, we moved back to West U. You know, when you build a rail system, whether it’s heavy rail – like the METRO in Washington, D.C. – people will move nearby, and businesses will form around it. So, I think it will have a positive impact. I think that there are still some serious questions to be resolved about its impact on overall traffic.
The Harris County Commissioners Court recently reviewed the 2010-2014 Capital Improvement Program. The Toll Road Authority projects changed significantly since last year. For instance, both the Sam Houston Tollway and the Grand Parkway received significant funding boosts, while Hempstead Tollway funding was cut in half to $1 billion. Do these changes reflect shifting priorities in the region, or are they simply a result of changing timelines?
They don’t reflect any shifting at all. The Sam Houston Tollway actually went to contract. I mean, it’s under construction, so it will be completed during the timeframe. So once you start construction, then you’re going to shift significantly more money there. Likewise, the extension of the Hardy Toll Road is proceeding, and we’ll be going to contract with that one next. There’s no question the Hempstead Tollway is high on everybody’s agenda. The issue holding that up is more of what the Texas Department of Transportation is going to do with 290. And how we design Hempstead will relate to how the overall design of 290 – what’s going to happen there. I, for one, think Hempstead would come inside 610, and tie directly to Interstate 10. Again, that creates a little bit of controversy from people who might live nearby, but there’s not a lot of housing in the way.
There are some businesses, but to me it doesn’t make sense to dump the traffic from the Hempstead Tollway on to Loop 610, between the intersections of 290 and I-10. I mean, that’s already a massive point of congestion. And so, I think all you see reflected there is just a slowdown, and waiting to see what TxDOT does with 290.
How would you like the public to be involved in transportation planning?
That’s a tough question. I mean, the easy answer is, you want the public all to be involved. The real answer is that you’d like more of the public to be involved. Because, what happens, too often, is only the people who are negatively affected by a project get involved. And the people who may benefit – they may not know they’re going to benefit, even. They don’t get involved.
One of my favorite examples that I’ve given over the years – if you go back and look at the Interstate Highway System – what would have happened if all of the gas stations, cafés, and motel owners on the old US highway system had gone out and hired the greatest lobbyists they could find. And used the argument – in the 1950s – of “Wait a minute! We have a wonderful highway system, and if you build this new interstate system, it’s going to bankrupt all of us.” They would have been absolutely correct. because if you go back to that old US highway system, you see all the abandoned cafés and motels and gas stations – but where would we be without the Interstate Highway System?
And locally, you could say the same thing. Again, back to the example of Loop 610. Where would we be if we didn’t have Loop 610? What if every neighborhood had been able to stop it? And I think what we’re seeing now is – and I understand it – I’d feel the same way if I lived in a neighborhood that I dearly loved, and I didn’t want some transportation project coming through the middle of it. But, when we talk about public involvement, we need to always remember – there’s a broader public than just the people who are directly affected. And it’s that broader public that we always need to try and reach out to, and figure out what they think.
How do you create a balance between maintaining current roadways and expanding them?
Of course, I, as county judge, don’t get to do much of that. But philosophically, that’s a real dilemma. It used to be easier when there was more money available for transportation. There’s not. And so now, that is one of the tough decisions. And – you know – TxDOT has already said that they just have enough money to maintain what they have. They don’t have enough money to build any new roads.
We have to get creative. I would shift your question a little bit, and say that we can’t just think roads. I mean, we have to think public transit. Public transportation. We have to maximize the use of our transportation facilities.
How would you improve long-term transportation planning for the Houston region if you had every planning resource at your disposal?
I’d have to think about that. You know, my only half-serious answer would be: I’d have fewer bodies participating in it. And I say that only half-seriously, because, I mean, truth of the matter is – you’ve got all the cities and the counties and METRO, and TPC, and TxDOT, and Gulf Coast Rail District, and the private railroads – you’ve got all these people. All these entities participating. And, they don’t always coordinate real well, which is the good thing about the TPC. It is supposed to be largely that coordinating body. At the same time, just because of the way it is structured, you’ll have the City of Houston, or Harris County take note of the fact that we have so few votes compared to the far less populous counties around us. But at the same time, those far less populous counties frequently argue that they don’t get their fair shake.
But I think we have to deal with the system we have. And the best thing we can do is make sure that we communicate, and make sure that we understand that transportation is a regional issue. It’s not a purely local issue. That’s why the Gulf Coast Rail District is going to be so critical to the development of commuter rail. Because it can involve Waller, Fort Bend, Harris, Galveston counties. The City of Houston. Everybody. And, it’s not limited. And so I think it’s more just a matter of communication. And, hopefully, the TPC will continue to foster that level of communication.
Thank you for your time.