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 August 6, METRO President & CEO Frank Wilson sat down with us to discuss issues facing TPC and METRO. Wilson has served as the president of METRO since 2004, and before that he was the Transportation Commissioner for the State of New Jersey. Below is an edited version of the hour-long interview.
H-GAC projects that we’re going to add another three-and-a-half million people to our region by 2035. Do you view this projected growth as an opportunity, a crisis, or both?
It’s actually both. In some cases, growth is viewed as a blessing. Don’t manage that growth properly and you are cursed until the end of time. I give you one simple example of growth gone wrong: LA. I’ll give you an example of growth gone right: Chicago. Which path does Houston want to take? Growth is going to happen. Could be good, could be bad. What are we doing to make sure it’s good? How are we managing this growth? So clearly, it’s what we make of it, not necessarily a pot of gold at the other end but not necessarily an evil visitation.
Could you describe how the TPC fits into that and shapes that growth?
Let me say this. Someone else said it, I don’t know who, so I don’t want to be accused of stealing someone else’s brilliance: All civilizations throughout all time have been defined by transportation.
Well, where is the boundary to transportation, good or bad? Where’s the boundary for air quality? Where’s the boundary for water supply? These are all regional issues. They really don’t rise to the level of state issues unless it’s a really tiny state like Rhode Island. They transcend a township, they transcend a county, they transcend a city. They’re regional.
Where do we come together as a region? As far as I know there’s really only one place that it happens routinely and with some discipline and that’s TPC. I think they have the responsibility to grapple with these regional issues, with this growth good/growth bad kind of issue. They do their work right and growth will be welcome. They do it wrong and we’ll pay the price forever, and that’s what lies in the balance.
So the issue with TPC is, who’s really representing this region, and how do they represent the region? You’re looking at making plans for the future on a broad, grand scale. If you’re looking at planning, that’s where it needs to happen. If you’re looking at execution, it happens on the ground in neighborhoods. That’s not TPC’s role. But where is the plan? Where is the intelligent architecture of the plan to grow properly, the plan to have balanced transportation, to have good air quality, a good quality of life? Well, unfortunately, it rests with them.
Now why do I say unfortunately? They can go and hold hands and have a séance in the dark and come up with a grand scheme and a grand plan, but then you’ve got to go back to all the jurisdictions, political jurisdictions, geographic jurisdictions, and say, “Well now, go implement this.” There may be elected officials on TPC, but no one got elected to be on the TPC. So there is a disconnect between the body that does regional planning – and it’s a correct body because it involves the region – but the execution of the plan happens at a local level. Now how do you unify those? That’s the trick.
Then you look at this and say, “Well, who really needs to be a member of the TPC?” so that there is a linkage, so that when the grand regional plan is done and it’s voted on and it’s a consensus, all the localities who have a hand in executing it, delivering it are faithful to it and are loyal to it. And the plan actually gets to become a reality. Otherwise what you’ve got is planning in the dark. So I think you have to look at who has the ability to execute the plan that the TPC develops, and they need to have a seat, they need to have a voice in both places so that we’ve got this linkage.
Do you think the TPC is a good representative body, that it adequately represents the various municipalities and transportation interests involved?
I would say in general, yes, but specifically no. I don’t think an entity like METRO, who is an implementer, who is an operator, who runs that final mile, who actually executes and delivers the plan, has the right representation.
You know, there’s a big feud over, does our future look like it’s in the suburban part of Houston or is it downtown, inside-the-Loop part of Houston? And the decisions that the TPC makes set the models for where this growth is and set the models for how the feds invest money here. So we don’t really have representation there. I don’t want to throw stones at anyone, I think the people who go there are fine and they do a wonderful job, they’re not paid to do that. However, if it came down to a vote, we, with a strong urban/suburban bent, would be totally outvoted by somebody with a rural bent. So without causing a conflict where we don’t need one, I just don’t think an entity like METRO has got enough leverage in that environment.
Is it important to consider social and environmental issues such as quality of life, causes of obesity, and stormwater runoff when you’re making these kinds of transportation decisions?
Well, you know, some need to be made at a macro scale, the system level, the whole regional level, like air quality. We talked about that, it doesn’t respect geopolitical boundaries. Others, if you want to combat obesity, you want to promote good health, well, how the hell do you walk around Houston? You’ve got to make it a livable, walkable city. Well, you don’t necessarily lead with transportation on that. You lead with land use on that. And so there are libraries full of books about transportation-land use planning. Oh yeah? Show me. How about transportation and land use development. Where’s the institutional entity that can do both? You either do transportation or you do land use. There are not many examples in our country where those things are directly linked, that can actually deliver on, say, the micro scale. So being able to walk is a micro-scale issue, it happens in a neighborhood, it happens on this block or that block.
So they’re all important, but where do they get dealt with? And are they integrated? Are the folks dealing with the macro issue integrated with the people doing the micro issue? So I think the common theme here is, how do you connect all these people involved in delivering a good quality environment, good, sound transportation, great land use? It’s like alchemy, it’s not the easiest thing in the world.
Just to clarify about walkability and bicycle safety. People tend to say, “Houstonians don’t walk, they just drive everywhere,” and it’s certainly very hard to get around on foot as you were saying. So do you think that walkability and bicycle safety are regional issues and can be tackled at the regional level, or is that something that is just best left to the individual municipalities?
I think if you look at things like recreational biking, where someone’s going to go out and ride 25 miles that’s probably a regional issue, because bike trails need to go hither and yon. But if it’s more the common, ordinary use of the bike as a means of transportation, it’s not a regional issue, that’s just kind of a local issue.
I think you’ll find that the kind of thing that I’ll give you throughout this discussion is, people need choice. Let’s say you live two miles away from where you work. And on good days in Houston, biking’s fine. On really bad, yucky, rainy days, and hot and sticky humid days, who really wants to bike to work and walk in looking like they need a shower? So hop on your local bus. Well there’s choice. Some days it is a picture perfect day, and you don’t want to waste it by making your trip to the office in seven minutes on a bike. You want to walk it and enjoy it. Can you? Is it a pleasant environment to walk through, or are you stepping through some areas that are kind of blighted and are not very attractive and are not even perceived as safe? So, can I walk, can I bike, can I take a transit trip? For the day, I’ve got to go to the office, and then I’ve got to go pick up my daughter and go to the play, and then I’ve got to go the drug store, I may need a car that day. So, is that doable?
What’s underlying here that makes quality of life good? It’s not the best bike system in the world or the best transit system in the world, it’s the greatest number of choices that you have. That, I think, defines more than anything else the quality of life issue. You’re not stuck with just having to deal with one way to make the trip.
How do you maintain a balance between maintaining current roadways and transportation facilities and expanding them?
Well, it comes back to, what is your vision for the region and what all its component parts look like. In a former life, I once had the great privilege of making those decisions. I was the transportation commissioner for the whole state. Now, it was New Jersey, so it’s not, you know, Texas. It’s a manageable-sized state, and we had to grapple with those issues.
The question you just asked is way more complicated than you can ever imagine. You actually have to play three-dimensional chess, and you’ve got to be good at it to get it right. As the top guy in the state, I controlled all the state money. But there’s federal money that we don’t control.
Direct to your question, our decision was half to transit, half to highways. And in both cases, it was half to maintenance and half to expansion. The expansion on the highway side was strategic expansion. It wasn’t “Let’s build a whole new interstate highway system.” No, let’s maintain what we have as the top priority. Expansion dollars came later. So you spend out your maintenance money for both highways and transit, and if you got to the priority list, well then from there on, start spending the expansion money. But if you came down the list at any given year and said, well, I’ve got a bridge that’s closed, I can’t even run traffic over it. Well then why would you go try to build a bridge somewhere else in a new community when you couldn’t even run traffic over the one you have?
Where do you actually draw the line on this half? Sometimes it’s 42 percent, sometimes it’s 61 percent. But the notion was, you have a responsibility to maintain the infrastructure you have and strategically expand it until there’s a whole new dynamic of how you fund transportation infrastructure in this country. Well, the advantage we had there was, we controlled all the pieces on the chessboard in terms of, all the roads were ours, all the transit was ours. But here, that’s TxDOT. They generally own the highways. We’re METRO, we generally own transit. So there’s disconnect. So if you’re connected and the responsibility comes to one entity, which is the chief executive of the state, the governor, the decision got made pretty easily. So how do you replicate that model without changing government? And that’s what coming to TPC on equal footing – TPC members, TxDOT, METRO, all even – starts to replicate what a state like New Jersey has or had. And you would expect that they would make comparable decisions. Easy to understand, easy to implement, and pretty sound in terms of providing balance, because that comes to providing choice for people. You don’t have the world’s greatest highway system and no transit, you don’t have the best transit system and no highways. You have kind of balance, an integrated system.
Many leaders in this region support the creation of the Grand Parkway, but there are also a number of organizations that think that it’s a road to nowhere, it’ll just contribute to sprawl, it’ll impact the floodplains. How is this project objectively better for people in the Houston region than other uses of transportation funds?
I don’t know that it is, but it’s the kind of issue that TPC is created to deal with. If you had to say, give me an example, why do TPC? There it is. Now, I’m not trying to be politically correct here and walk a tightrope and not take a position on it, I’m just saying that this is a prototypical issue. You said yourself, it could contribute to sprawl. Well, is that our model? Is that good? Is that going to help us manage growth properly? Go do it. If not, well then don’t do it.
On the other hand, you look at this and say there’s a two-tier, maybe three-tier decision-making process. Can we afford it? How are you going to fund it? If it’s going to suck up precious and scarce transportation dollars, you’d better be darn sure that it’s going to make a huge impact and a positive impact.
Second thing is, forget money. It doesn’t matter whether you have money to do it. Is the outcome, the result of the highway good or bad? Does it contribute to or accelerate sprawl, more environmental degradation, poor use of land, or air quality – does it have those effects or is it benign?
And third is, there is a political-level decision that has to be made. And so in some respects, TPC is a great place to hash it out, and to do the compare and contrasts, and say here’s the pros, here’s the cons, but it’s probably not the final decision-making forum. The political process is probably going to trump the TPC work. It’ll decide whether the road gets built or it doesn’t. I don’t know whether you think that’s good or it’s bad, it’s just the way it is.
Let’s talk a little bit about METRO. According to the Houston Chronicle, you don’t think that METRO should increase ridership at all costs. A recent audit showed that METRO’s ridership has actually decreased somewhat in recent years despite an increase in Harris County’s population. Could you explain the balance between ridership and quality of service?
Well, let’s see. We had a solution in search of a problem. We had an independent, third-party review done by the state and it said, “Over the last five years, hurray for METRO. You’ve done a darn good job in increasing ridership from 2004 to 2008. And, more appropriately, a big hallelujah to METRO because you’re more efficient.” How do they know that? Something called an operating ratio. It’s one number, and it tells you whether you’re spending the public taxpayers’ money wisely or not. In 2004, as a result of spending any money and all money at any cost just to carry the last rider, our operating ratio was 13 percent. And that means you made 13 cents for every dollar you spent. Pretty dismal. An industry standard, to see whether or not you’re running a good system – just for buses alone, I wouldn’t count the seven miles we have as saying we’re a rail system – would be 30 percent. Now you tell me, was that a smart policy, to keep spending money to carry every last rider?
It’s no secret there’s a correlation between how much service you have on the street and how much you spend, so that the shorthand way of talking about this is, we were not running good, productive service in 2000 to 2004. We just ran stuff, whether people used it or not.
We took a different approach and we said, every dollar we spend, we’d better get a return on it. And what the state audit said was, you succeeded in a big way. But we had the helm from 2004 to 2009, somebody else had the helm before that. We don’t want to throw them under the bus and say “bad people,” it’s just their philosophy. So where are we today? We’re at 21 percent. So what was happening, we were running more and more and more service, and then we cut all the unproductive routes.
So, we took over from here and we said, okay, we’ve got to rebuild a solid foundation in the system because our future is 20 years from now, 30 years from now. So when you cut service, we lost some riders, but now we’re building the ridership back up, and a couple of things are going on.
Well, there’s something else that was irresponsible that was done. Fares weren’t increased for 14 years. So we raised the fares, and we more than raised the fares, we restructured the whole fare system, made it more equitable because there was a lot of inequities, there was a lot of waste, there’s a lot of fraud in the fare structure we had before. You as a very affluent person would be able to get a huge discount, maybe almost an 80 percent discount if you bought an annual pass. Well, look at our local bus riders. They can’t afford to write a check for a thousand bucks and save $800. They’ve got to pay every time they get on the bus. Doesn’t seem to be too equitable to us. So what we did is say no, all our fare payers and our riders are going to pay the same fare, and no more deep discounts for the fat cats.
Why is it important? You want us to run more service? Well then I’ve got to make more money. So it’s not like, hey, let’s increase the fares, make more money, and give it to the stockholders as dividends. We don’t have stockholders. The stockholder is our rider. So how do we give them a dividend? I put more service on the street. So we reinvested the money.
What the Chronicle had done is took a snapshot in time that was very successful, and they twisted it around without telling the whole story. Yes, high ridership, low efficiency, lost revenue, headed to bankruptcy. In the next period, yeah, we lost riders. But we’re trying to solidify the base of the business and then grow it, and grow it more successfully. Did we succeed? You bet, that’s what the audit said. And so the story that was told is correct to the level they told it, but if you tell the whole story, you come away with a totally different view.
We’re sticking to our approach to the business, which is spend the taxpayers’ money like you’d spend your own money. You don’t waste it, it’s precious. Go back and look at what we spent to run this business in the last five years, and you see it’s pretty much flat. Now how the heck do you run this billion-dollar business without spending any more money year-to-year-to-year but you’re adding service? Our pension costs are going up, our fuel costs went through the roof, our medical costs go up like everybody else’s. We’re eating those cost increases through efficiencies, by spending less money. So there was no credit given to the fact that yeah, we lost some riders, but we held our costs flat, and now all those savings have built up, now we’re starting to add service back that people are actually using. Go look at what’s going on on Route 2 – Bellaire – our first Signature bus line. Go look at Renwick. They’re huge successes. So we know what we’re doing now and the service we add actually carries real people and they’re giving us real money.
Along the way to grandma’s house, what happens? The economy hits a wall, well, you know the story. Unemployment is very high, so all those work trips that we used to carry we’re not carrying. And so what we’re seeing now is a contraction in use of the system because of what’s going on in the general economy. We are a reflection of a lot of things that we do and happen outside us. When fuel prices skyrocketed, they flocked to us as a safe haven. Well, guess what happened when fuel prices came down by a couple of bucks? They went back to their old habits and are driving again. Is that because we did a bad job or because people made a choice? They made a choice, they left. So fare increases drives ridership down for awhile, but they come back. Fuel prices, as they drop, drives ridership away, Unemployment going up, ridership goes down. So three things happened all at once. Our projection was we should have lost 20 percent of our riders. We lost twelve. So something good was going on then.
So it’s a difference in philosophy. We’re not after the last rider at any cost, we’re looking at making sure METRO is fiscally sound and providing good, sound, stable, reliable services over the long haul, and sometimes you have to do tough things in business, and we’ve done them. And our numbers and our charts and our records show that we’re getting good results from it. Thirteen to 21 – that’s not an easy number to move, by the way. We’re still battling, and it really is an uphill battle. By the way, that number, if you have a rail system and a bus system, kind of like you would equal measures, 50 percent. So as we add 30 more miles of rail, you know, we expect that number to move up probably into the 30’s and maybe low 40’s.
I don’t know if METRO can ever get to 50 percent, because there is no other transit system I know of that has a service area as big as ours: 1268 square miles. Maybe LA will come close, but I still think we’re larger than LA. What does that mean? Well, it means we don’t have a nice, neat, compact little city like San Francisco – seven miles square. They’ve got a transit line on every street. Nobody drives in San Francisco unless you’re crazy! You know, you just walk out, you can ride, you can walk, you can bicycle, but a transit line on every street – north, south, east, west. It’s 49 square miles. We have 1200 square miles. How do you do that? That’s a real expensive proposition. So that’s why I say maybe we can’t get to 50, but maybe we can. We’ll have to see. It’s been a huge challenge.
One quarter of the one-cent METRO sales tax was diverted for general mobility funds. How has this affected METRO, and do you agree with [METRO chairman] David Wolff, who suggested at the [light rail] groundbreaking ceremony last month that the diversion should be phased out over a five-year period?
The leveraged impact of that quarter-cent is that METRO has lost $3 billion worth of investment capacity. You know that story I just told you about having a huge service area, 1200 square miles? We could make a huge dent in getting a transit line on every street if we had access to $3 billion over the last ten years, fifteen years.
We could use that money to leverage federal money, just like Dallas is doing. Dallas is eating our lunch, building light rail. They’ve got 70 miles of rail, we’ve got seven. We would look markedly different today if we had access to that.
Now, David gave an example. I never speak for my board members. I think David’s statement was an example of what could happen. Given the fact that we’ve been giving away $100 million a year, plus or minus, over the last few years—that’s what it’s risen to—and other units of government have become used to getting that money, you wouldn’t want somebody to rip that stuff… We complain because it got ripped away from us. Well, why would we want to turn around and do that to them? I don’t think that’s appropriate. They have plans for it.
But as you look deep into the future, you’ve got to say, okay guys, at some point we’ve got to change the past practice. And so it’s kind of like a stepwise approach here. Do you agree at some point METRO needs to get this money back? And if you can get consensus about that, then you took a huge giant step. Well how long does it take these other units to get the sales tax money to make other plans? In that sense, to be weaned off of it. And I think that’s what David was looking at, and saying, “Well here’s one idea.” Well there’s probably a hundred ideas, but the first thing you need to establish is there’s general agreement that eventually this money’s got to come back to METRO and METRO’s got to do for this region what it’s supposed to do.
What is kind of remarkable to me is people say, “Oh, well METRO only carries such a small number of trips.” Well yeah, that’s the way you wanted it! You disinvested in transit! You built roads! So what, this is a great revelation that we’re not carrying more people? We don’t have enough system to carry more people, and that’s the way the policy makers decided it should be. So don’t make the policy and then criticize for a policy you made. Understand what you did. The reason why we carry such a small percent in 1200 square miles is, the infrastructure money went into something else, it didn’t go into building transit systems. If you put the $3 billion in, I guarantee you we’d be carrying a heck of a lot more riders than we are today, and people couldn’t make that statement. If you’re going to take our money, take it, but don’t come back and be critical that we’re not doing more. What, this is supposed to be loaves and fishes? As far as I know, only one guy did that. METRO’s not capable of that. We need the dollars back to go buy the loaves and fishes.
So I think David used that groundbreaking as a platform, because he’s a principled guy. But you’ve got to do it in a sane, rational, reasonable way. You can’t go in, just say, well, we advocate just ripping the money away from you, now you suffer. So what’s the balanced way of doing this? And we’re not offering a suggestion or saying you have to do it this way, it can’t be done any other way. No, let’s talk about how to do that and over what period of time. So I think that was what the purpose is, and I obviously fully endorse that approach.
There was a lot of concern at the Houston City Council during the Urban Corridors Ordinance discussion that the agreement signed between METRO and the City on the development of the new light rail lines would result in inadequate four-foot sidewalks. Do you think the City and METRO will resolve this issue before the new lines are built?
Well, your question sounds like we disagree, and I’m not accepting the premise of the question. There’s a dragon out there that needs to be slayed, so let me try to kill it right now. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it until we’re finished building the rail lines: Our agenda, city council’s agenda, neighborhood agenda, users’ agenda, are all the same. If we don’t have an environment where people can walk, there’s nobody going to use the rail line! It doesn’t make any sense to have the environment we’re running our trains through hostile to a pedestrian. You don’t jump from your car into a train, you generally go from a sidewalk onto a train and you get off on a sidewalk.
So who said we’re against bigger sidewalks? We’re all for it. It makes what we do useful. Here’s the box we’re put in. Build bigger sidewalks, but don’t take any property, or don’t move anybody out of their house or their business. Okay, we buy it. Don’t take any traffic lanes, because we need all the traffic. Okay. Don’t take any trees. Okay. Well, this will be a really interesting sidewalk we build. We’re trying to respect all the don’ts. So when we say something like, “I can give you a six-foot, ten-foot, twelve-foot sidewalk, but I’ve got to take this business out,” do you want me to do that? We’re trying to keep the businesses there so there’s a reason for people to use the train to go to the business, or to use the train to go to your house. So what sense does it make if we destroy the neighborhood?
This is just a creative tension that goes on, and we collectively, as smart people, have got to find a way to do it. We start out being on their side, we start out saying amen, we’ll do it. We’ll be happy to do it. But when it comes down to destroying Joe Lunchbox’s Lunch Wagon, do you want to do that? We have to do something else. That’s where land use and transportation have got to go hand in hand. Well, we don’t control the land use. So we’re an ally in the campaign, in the war, it’s just that we have constraints we have to obey, and they’re all good: Save the trees, save the traffic lanes, save the houses, save the businesses, and put in a big, wide sidewalk. Fine, we accept the challenge, we’re all for it.
There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about commuter rail, especially along 290 and down to Galveston. What role do you expect METRO to play in a regional commuter rail system, and what challenges do you anticipate?
We’re an operator, we expect to operate it in an integrated fashion. The best transit systems in the nation, in the world are multimodal, fully-integrated transit systems: bus, rail, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, HOV bus. One entity that delivers the entire family of services in the public transportation world makes eminently good sense.
Fragmentation, Balkanization as practiced in the Bay Area, is death. It’s death for the customer, it’s death for the transit agencies, it’s destructive competition, it’s a waste of resources, you have duplication of assets, you have duplication of services. Here’s an example of why I say it’s death: In San Francisco, the BART system runs under the bay from Oakland to San Francisco. There’s also a company called AC Transit—Alameda County Transit—that runs a suburban-style bus across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco. Why? There’s a hundred empty seats on the BART train, and the version of TPC out there—it’s called MTC, Metropolitan Transit Commission—subsidizes the bus with precious fiscal resources, federal resources, to compete with the train running the same place. Now, the bus when it gets to San Francisco stops one place—at the bus terminal, you’ve got to get out and find your way—whereas the train distributes through the city in seven different stations. What are you doing? That story will be replayed here if we don’t fully integrate these modes.
Commuter rail is a must. Commuter rail is part of Houston’s future. It has to happen sooner rather than later, and it is the connection to the urban, inside-the-Loop distribution system. You don’t have any real effective alternative to the highway system today. Yeah, you’ve got an HOV, but HOV means you bring your car into the city, HOV means you have to make a transfer off the bus, but you can only go in one direction at any given time. Take the commuter rail system and get onto the METRO system, bus or light rail, light rail now taking you in many different destinations. You don’t need the vehicle anymore, you can leave it at home.
So how do you allow the Grand Parkway folks to have what they want and what they need and still not undermine the health and viability of downtown Houston? You link them. But it’s not linked effectively if you’ve got different agencies that say, well you pay a fare there, and then you pay a fare over here, and my schedules don’t exactly meet, now you’re going to get off the train and wait 20 minutes for my vehicle to get there. What are you doing? You don’t have the customer in mind.
So if it’s done correctly, commuter rail needs to happen tomorrow. And tomorrow’s right after we make good progress in putting the distribution system on the ground. If the commuter rail system came on today and you got off at the Hardy Yard, what do you do? You’ve got no way to get you to the Medical Center or to Rice University or to Greenway Plaza or to the Galleria or to the sporting event. So first things first, and this is where TPC could be helpful: Here’s the vision for how the whole works, here’s the pieces. Okay METRO, go put this in.
We don’t really care who builds the commuter rail lines. We do care how they’re operated, and we don’t want to see this Balkanization, destructive competition. So coordination’s not the word. You’ll hear coordination. A multimodal, fully-integrated transit system is really what this region needs.
Thank you very much for your time.
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