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Meeting notes - Sept. 16, 2009

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Houston-Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee
September 16, 2009, 9:30 am

Meeting agenda

Houston Tomorrow publishes notes from public meetings to help local governments in their mission to provide transparency and to allow a greater pool of citizens to participate in important policy discussions. These notes are not official meeting minutes, nor do they necessarily record every agenda item.

Approval of the Chambers County Transit Plan

TAC unanimously approved the Chambers County Transit Plan, developed by H-GAC staff and the UBS Corporation. Chambers County currently lacks a designated public transit provider, and the plan is designed to coordinate available resources and form partnerships with existing entities. In the short-term, the plan calls for a commuter shuttle pilot project between eastern Harris County and western Chambers County, new carpools and vanpools through NuRide, and a car-ownership program aimed at low-income residents, who could use the cars to rideshare with their coworkers.

In the mid-term, Chambers County will evaluate the feasibility of park and ride service to Baytown, downtown Houston, the Ship Channel, Port Arthur, Beaumont, and Liberty County. The long-term plan calls for a feasibility assessment of an intermodal transfer center near IH-10 and SH 146. In addition, the plan says that Chambers County “could consider either joining or creating a rural transit district. This option might include merging with the Harris County Transit Program, the Brazos Transit District (Liberty County), Connect Transportation (Galveston County), or a rural transportation program through the TxDOT Beaumont District.”

FY 2010 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) Letting Schedule

Pat Waskowiak of H-GAC told the committee that H-GAC has not yet received funding information from TxDOT beyond Fiscal Year 2010 as a result of the agency’s severe funding shortfall. As a result, H-GAC has been unable to develop the 2010-2013 TIP, which ordinarily would have been submitted to TxDOT in May. Instead, Waskowiak said that the likeliest outcome is to approve projects for 2010 alone, followed by a new TIP next year that would cover 2011 to 2014.

Under the current 2008-2011 TIP, Waskowiak said that there is a funding shortfall of close to $1.5 billion in 2010 alone. Most of those projects, she said, are “big-ticket” items in TxDOT funding categories. “The delays in these projects,” she said, “will have pretty significant consequences for local governments.”

Waskowiak presented three draft lists of projects: a list of proposed 2010 lettings - mostly maintenance projects - that are not in the 2008-2011 TIP, a list of proposed 2010 lettings that are in the current TIP, and a list of TIP projects that will likely be delayed beyond 2010 due to funding shortfalls. Waskowiak emphasized that the lists are still just preliminary drafts.

The largest project scheduled for letting in 2010 is Segment E of the Grand Parkway, costing $181 million plus $34 million for direct connectors at IH-10. TxDOT is able to pursue the project despite the funding shortfall because the money would come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The agency estimates that Segment E will be let in April 2010. Other projects scheduled for 2010 letting include $10.8 million for METRO Quickline bus service along Westheimer, Gessner, and Tidwell, as well as Phase II of a Livable Communities Initiative in Midtown between Gray and Alabama Streets. The largest tentatively delayed items are a $94 million widening of IH-45 South in Harris County, and two IH-45 North widening projects - $48 million and $47 million - in Montgomery County.

The TIP subcommittee examined several different funding scenarios over the last several months and has concluded that H-GAC should “stay the course” and make the difficult funding decisions closer to 2012 or 2013, when the TIP will be “grossly underfunded,” according to the a subcommittee representative. The downside of that approach, he said, is that the subcommittee will not be recommending a call for projects, and future calls for projects may be limited.

One TAC member asked if drainage and sidewalks would be delayed, since they are critical projects. Waskowiak told him that drainage projects could be delayed, but usually because of other related delays. For instance, a drainage project may be delayed if a concurrent road widening is also delayed.

Federal Legislative Update

Allen Richey of H-GAC briefly discussed three pieces of legislation that could affect transportation projects: climate change, the transportation reauthorization bill, and the transportation appropriations bill. However, Richey said, only the appropriations bill is currently under discussion. The House passed the climate change legislation in June, but both houses of Congress have been distracted by healthcare ever since then. The timeline for the climate change and reauthorization bills, he said, will depend on how quickly Congress deals with healthcare.

One TAC member asked if Richey had any information on the amendments recently proposed by Senators John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that would strip federal funding from numerous transit and clean transportation projects, including the North and Southeast lines in Houston. Richey said that the Houston projects are probably in a stronger position because they are included in the president’s budget as well as both the House and Senate versions of the bill. However, he said, no one knows what the final bill will look like.

Ashby Johnson of H-GAC said that Texas was facing a rescission of $750 million in federal transportation funds. The state could face an even greater rescission because Alaska and one other state may not be able to rescind their share. Several lawmakers are trying to repeal the rescission, but if the efforts are unsuccessful, he said, “This is going to be painful.”

ARRA Implementation Status Report

Ashby Johnson said that he and Pat Waskowiak are slightly concerned that the MPO portion of the stimulus money is not moving fast enough. All of the funds must be obligated by next March. He said that there was no reason for immediate worry, and that H-GAC must wait for TxDOT on those projects. In addition, he said that the stimulus TIGER grant deadline was Tuesday, and he said that H-GAC provided letters of support for several projects.

Proposed State Implementation Plan (SIP) Revisions

A representative of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) discussed the upcoming SIP revisions. In 2008, the H-GAC region was reclassified from a moderate to a severe non-attainment area for eight-hour ozone. The state must submit a revised SIP reflecting the new requirements by April 15, 2010. Under current standards, the area must attain an eight-hour ozone standard of 0.08 parts per million by June 15, 2019.

The state expects to hold a public comment period for the SIP revisions from October 9 to November 9, and two public meetings will be held at H-GAC on October 28.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency is working on new ozone standards. the standards were last updated in 1997. The new standards will be released around the same time that Texas finalizes the SIP revisions. At that point, TCEQ will begin working on the new standards.

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