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Meeting notes - July 24, 2009

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Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council
July 24, 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, July 24, 2009

TPC unanimously approved the 2010-2011 Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP), which details all planning activities and funding amounts for the next two years. In other action, the council approved a new member, recognized August as Commute Solutions Month, and discussed a recent report on traffic safety in the region.

Amendments and Administrative Amendments to the 2008-2011 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP)

Alan Clark of H-GAC presented the amendments to TPC. Chairman James Patterson asked about Amendment #125, the widening of FM 1314, saying that the existing plan called for $12 million for a two-mile project but that the current amendment totaled $15 million for just one mile. He asked about the cost difference, and Gabe Johnson of the TxDOT Houston District said that the $15 million figure was a mistake. He told Patterson that TxDOT staff would correct the number. Clark added that the amendment itself was only for $1 million. The TPC unanimously approved the amendments.

Clark also discussed the administrative amendments, which do not require TPC approval. He said that federal officials recently allowed up to 10 percent of transit funding from the stimulus package to be used for operating expenses, which would be reflected in amendment #150. He said that the money would help transit providers that had enough capital money but lacked operating funds. With amendment #142, he said H-GAC will reconcile transit funding with actual federal appropriations. For once, he said the appropriations were actually greater than expected.

In response to questions regarding Amendment #126, the widening of FM 646, Clark said that the project had been pushed back into Fiscal Year 2010, but that in reality it had only been delayed a few months. Fiscal Year 2010 starts September 1.

Approval of JARC/New Freedom Project Recommendations

Kari Hackett of H-GAC briefly discussed the Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) and New Freedom Project recommendations, saying that H-GAC received seven bids - five for JARC and two for New Freedom projects. After reviewing the applications with the help of TxDOT, METRO, and Fort Bend Transit, H-GAC recommended funding four projects, including two JARC and two New Freedom projects. One of the JARC projects is a park and ride service between the Texas Medical Center and Pearland. Clark said that the Medical Center wants to go on record in support of the park and ride, although he had not received the formal letter yet. TPC unanimously approved the recommendations.

Approval of 2010-2011 Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP)

Ashby Johnson of H-GAC discussed the 2010-2011 UPWP, which details all regional planning activities over the next two years. He said that the planning projects total $46 million, including funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). He noted that the UPWP includes commuter rail planning along State Highway 3 and the Hempstead Corridor, as well as $2 million in stimulus funds for a regional freight plan. He also said that for informational purposes, the UPWP includes local planning activities as well, although those items are not subject to TPC approval. TPC approved the 2010-2011 UPWP unanimously.

Nominating Committee Recommendations

The nominating Committee recommended that Wade Battles, Acting Executive Director of the Port of Houston Authority, be appointed to the TPC representing Other Transportation Interests, and that AJ “Pete” Reixach, Jr., Executive Port Director of Port Freeport, be his alternate. The seats had become empty earlier this year, as Tom Kornegay, then-Executive Director of the Port of Houston Authority, had retired in February, and Joe Adams of Union Pacific Railroad resigned in May. The resignation came after a review of the TPC bylaws revealed that private sector representatives are not allowed to sit on the TPC, and in June, Adams was appointed to the TPC in a non-voting, ex officio role. The TPC unanimously confirmed Battles and Rexiach as his replacements representing Other Transportation Interests.

The TPC also unanimously appointed 14 individuals to the Regional Safety Council, 12 of whom will serve two-year terms and two of whom will fill one-year terms to replace members who left before the end of their terms. In addition to the 13 individuals listed in the written recommendations, TPC also appointed an individual from Montgomery County to a two-year term. TPC may add up to two more seats in the future. TPC formed the Regional Safety Council in 2005 to advise the TPC on the development of its safety program as well as to promote safety coordination with other planning activities. The first positions were filled in May 2008.

Commute Solutions Month

TPC unanimously approved a resolution recognizing August as Commute Solutions Month, designed to promote transportation alternatives. The commemoration kicks off with a press conference on August 4 in Greenway Plaza, and METRO will host events during the month as well. The Energy Corridor District and BP are also working together to promote commute alternatives. At the end of the month, a luncheon will be held to recognize employers that encourage commute alternatives and clean fleet policies.

Legislative Update

Alan Clark of H-GAC said that the next TPC meeting in August will provide a good idea of upcoming state funding for transportation, and he said that the numbers are expected to be “grim.” At the federal level, Clark said that there is general support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but he said that “linking greenhouse gases to transportation planning may have a very limited impact.” Instead, he said that regions need better technology, commute solutions, and other approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ashby Johnson made similar remarks at the Technical Advisory Committee meeting earlier this month.

Status Report on Implementation of ARRA (Stimulus) Projects

Clark said that on July 16, TxDOT submitted a list of 26 potential projects for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants provided by the stimulus act. Some agencies will also be able to submit projects directly until September 15. He said that the US Department of Transportation is expected to select less than 20 projects nationwide to receive the $1.5 billion in funding. Clark said that interested parties should continue working on their applications. In terms of general ARRA transportation funding, Gabe Johnson of TxDOT said that some bids have been significantly lower than expected at both the state and regional levels.

Regional Safety Council Report

In June, the Regional Safety Council released a report on traffic accidents in the region over the last five years, through 2007. The council received the 2008 data earlier in the week and will update the report in approximately one month. Overall crashes declined over the five-year period, with fatalities going down 16 percent and injuries falling 26 percent. Jeff Kaufman of H-GAC attributed the drop in injuries and fatalities to safer cars. However, the Houston region still has a higher crash rate than the rest of the state. The 2004 data set is incomplete, he said, because two months are missing.

Driving Under the Influence accounts for half of the region’s fatalities, Kaufman said, and the average blood alcohol content reading is twice the legal limit. Crashes among young drivers have gone down, he added, perhaps because of the state’s graduated license program that prohibits teens from using cell phones or texting until they are 18. Excessive speed causes just 2.2% of crashes but accounts for 38% of fatalities.

Report on Transportation Planning Activities

H-GAC is updating the air quality conformity section of the 2008-2013 Transportation Improvement Program and the 2035 Regional Transportation Program. H-GAC will host a public meeting on August 13 at 5:30 pm, and the public comment period ends August 22.

In addition, TxDOT is soliciting comments regarding possible revisions to its rules and processes. Among other items, TxDOT plans to create a statewide transportation plan and is also looking at the possibility of creating a multimodal working group. Alan Clark said that TxDOT is anticipating a similarly negative sunset review in two years and is attempting to make some adjustments before then.

Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, said that TxDOT had mentioned the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) as a potential member of that working group, but that he thinks that H-GAC should be on the working group instead. Another TPC member said that the idea was to have a diverse committee reflecting transit operators, toll road authorities, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), and others. He said that H-GAC is not listed because TxDOT is already looking at the North Central Texas Council of Governments to represent MPOs. He noted that in terms of transit providers, TxDOT was looking at Houston’s METRO instead of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and that the region would also be represented by HCTRA instead of the North Texas Tollway Authority.

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