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Meeting notes - Aug, 28, 2009

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Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council
August 28, 2009, 9:30 am

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

TPC agenda, August 28, 2009

Administrative Amendments (2008-2011 TIP, 2035 RTP, 2008-2009 UPWP)

Alan Clark of H-GAC discussed several administrative amendments, largely in response to recent cost underruns. The amendments would allow cost overruns on other projects and several changes in funding categories in order to take full advantage of federal Surface Transportation Planning (STP) funds. Without the changes, H-GAC would have to return some of the STP money to Washington.

Clark noted that on Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission authorized the first contingency projects using stimulus money, also a result of cost underruns. The highest priority contingency project in the H-GAC region is a $76 million construction project on IH-45 in Montgomery County. Three pedestrian and transit improvement projects - the East End, Kirby, and Uptown - appear at the bottom of the list.

Clark also noted several revisions to the 2008-2009 Unified Planning Work Program, slightly changing some of the funding amounts as some local agencies have slightly shifted their priorities and funding. Administrative amendments do not require TPC’s approval.

Approval of Transportation Conformity for 2035 RTP and 2008-2011 TIP

The TPC unanimously approved revisions to the regional air quality conformity plan. The changes resulted from modifications to a number of planned road projects, resulting in fewer total lane-miles. H-GAC held a public comment period between July 22 and August 22 and held a public meeting on August 13. No public comments were received.

Bylaws Committee Update

The TPC Bylaws Committee has been meeting since June to discuss the creation of an ethics policy, which is required by recent state legislation. It is also updating some parts of the bylaws to reflect current practices. For instance, the existing bylaws call for reviewing the UPWP and TIP annually instead of every two and four years, respectively, and they also call for TPC items to be delivered by mail rather than email.

In addition, the Bylaws Committee is anticipating additions to the TPC membership once the 2010 Census is completed. According to the bylaws, any city in the region with a population of 50,000 or greater must be represented on TPC. Pearland, League City, and Conroe are all expected to surpass this mark around 2010. As a result, the committee is considering removing TPC’s membership cap. Currently, TPC is limited to a maximum of 26 voting members. Officials from Pearland and Conroe already sit on the TPC, although they technically represent a broader category of “smaller cities.” However, the addition of League City would bring TPC’s membership to 27, in violation of the current cap.

The Bylaws Committee has researched other similar councils nationwide and determined that TPC is on the smaller side. The equivalent council in the Los Angeles area, for instance, has 83 members. However, Chairman James Patterson of Fort Bend County and Houston City Council Member Pam Holm both suggested that the TPC membership cap be raised, rather than eliminated entirely, to make sure that the council thinks carefully about its membership.

One TPC member asked what would happen if a city eclipsed 50,000 residents but later fell below that threshold. He was told that Galveston will probably fall below the threshold in 2010 as a result of Hurricane Ike, but that Galveston was one of the original TPC signatories and would always have a seat at the council. However, other cities that drop below 50,000 residents and are not original signatories could lose their membership in the future, although those areas tend to be growing fast.

Status Report on Regional Aviation Plan

Keith Garber of H-GAC discussed the Regional Aviation Systems Plan, which has not been updated since 1991. The four key challenges facing the 23 airports in the 13-county region are funding, private vs. public ownership, community support, and security issues. The four main goals of the plan are to preserve existing airports, improve safety and security, improve efficiency and eliminate bottlenecks, and benefit communities. Three public meetings will be held in September to discuss the plan.

Garber noted that airport preservation is important because the region has lost two airports in recent years. The region also gained one new airport, but Garber said that new airports are extremely rare these days. Some areas are unaware of the benefit local airports can bring, he said, such as providing bases for mosquito-spraying, medical flights, and evacuation and relief support in the event of hurricanes and other disasters.

City of Tomball Livable Centers Study

Jeff Taebel of H-GAC presented the Tomball Livable Centers Study, the second plan completed under H-GAC’s Livable Centers Program. The first plan - the East End Livable Centers Study - was presented to TPC in June. H-GAC is currently working on six other Livable Centers studies - primarily in the City of Houston - and four related capital projects around the region.

The Tomball study encompasses an area four blocks on each side, with Main Street/FM 2920 running down the middle. The study is designed to make downtown Tomball more pedestrian-friendly and more compact, while providing residents with a sense of place as well. Tomball Mayor Gretchen Fegan spoke in support of the study, saying that she plans to incorporate it into the comprehensive plan being developed by the city. She said that the Tomball Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the study and recommended City Council implement it. The Tomball City Council will vote on the study on September 8.

Status Report on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) Implementation

Alan Clark reported that the response to the request for TIGER grant applications had been overwhelming, with over $1.5 billion in the H-GAC region alone. In the face of such a massive response, the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT’s governing body, decided not to create one statewide list, but rather to offer its support to each individual grant application.

Clark said that many stimulus projects will be let to contract between September and March, and that some contingency projects will move forward over the same time period. H-GAC has encountered a cost underrun of $7 million to $8 million so far, money that can be used for the contingency projects.

One TPC member said that even though not all of the projects will receive funding, TPC would not even be talking about any of those projects without ARRA, and he said that the stimulus program was a good thing.

Clark said that H-GAC just received another transportation-related stimulus grant, this time from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA awarded H-GAC with $9 million to reduce emissions from drayage trucks at the region’s ports. Drayage trucks are former long-haul trucks that run on diesel and are used to transport shipping containers around ports. Most of the trucks are very old and no longer road-worthy, and they spend most of their time idling or slowly creeping along, releasing large quantities of pollutants into the air.

The grant program is designed to retrofit or replace some 3,000 drayage trucks in the region, eliminating 1,638 tons of nitrous oxide, 3,636 tons of carbon dioxide, 239 tons of carbon monoxide, 27.4 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 26.7 tons of particulate matter. H-GAC partnered with the Port of Houston Authority and the Environmental Defense Fund to create the program.

Port Freeport ARRA TIGER Grant Proposal

Mike Wilson from the Port of Freeport discussed the port’s recent TIGER grant application, which would provide for over 15.6 miles of railroad tracks at the port at a cost of $47 million. The project would convert most of the port’s traffic from trucks to trains within about 24 months, which Wilson said would be a boon to the Brazoria region. Currently, he said that the Port of Freeport creates 56,000 jobs and $10.2 billion annually in economic benefits.

Report on Transportation Planning Activities

The H-GAC Board of Directors, meeting on August 11, formally expressed its support for the joint US-Canada Emission Control Area along the coasts. The first-of-its-kind designation, if approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), would limit emissions from ships within 200 miles of either country’s shores. Ships operating within that area would have to use fuels containing no more than 10,000 parts per million of sulfur, dropping to 1,000 parts per million in 2015. According to an analysis performed by both countries starting in 2006, the designation would save 8,400 American and Canadian lives each year by 2020 and avoid 3.4 million respiratory ailments while increasing shipping costs by just three percent.

In addition, France has joined the Emissions Control Area application on behalf of its islands of Sainte-Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Alan Clark said that Mexico is considering joining the application as well. IMO member nations are reviewing the documents and will vote on the designation in March 2010. The Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously expressed its support for the designation on July 14.

The H-GAC board also approved the third year of a funding agreement to continue the Baytown Express Park and Ride service.

Also, Theresa Pella of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) discussed an air quality monitor at Clinton Drive and Clinton Park Avenue in eastern Houston, just outside the 610 Loop, that exceeds the fine particulate standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After investigating the matter, TCEQ determined that the source of the particulates was excessive dust caused by poor road maintenance and nearby unpaved surfaces.

Pella said that the monitor must be brought into compliance, or else the entire region could face be designated as a fine particulate nonattainment area. She said that TCEQ is working closely with EPA, and that EPA does not want to make such a designation under the circumstances. Pella said that there will probably be some upcoming transportation improvement projects near the monitor and encouraged TPC to support those projects in order to bring the monitor back into compliance. One TPC member attributed the excess dust particles to the recent drought, saying that it makes no sense to spend taxpayer money on a problem that will disappear once normal weather patterns return.

At the federal level, Texas and the eight-county region may lose significant federal transportation funding in September 2009. The rescission, triggered by federal funding shortfalls, could cost the state $750 million. Sue Lovell, a Houston City Council Member, asked what local officials could do to try to stop the rescission. Ashby Johnson of H-GAC said that local officials should contact their congressional representatives.

In other federal action, Alan Clark noted that Congress transferred $8 billion into the Highway Trust Fund to keep it from running dry. The money should keep the program running until the spring of 2010. Clark and Johnson said that the Obama administration and US Senate favor an 18-month extension of the current federal transportation bill, but that the House wants to pass a new bill in September.

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