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Meeting notes - June 26, 2009

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Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council
June 26, 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, June 26, 2009

Amendments to the 2008-2011 TIP and 2035 RTP

H-GAC staff presented TPC with information about three administrative amendments to the 2008-2011 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) and 2035 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). Administrative amendments do not require TPC approval.

Resolution for Approval of Change in Functional Classification for SH 249, SH 146 and FM 646

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) requested three changes in functional classifications. TxDOT requested the new SH 249 bypass around Tomball, opening this month, to be designated as a National Highway System Route, replacing what is now Business 249-B. It also requested that FM 646 and SH 146 be redesignated from Urban Freeway to Urban Arterial, allowing federal funds to be used on the roads. TPC approved the resolution unanimously.

Approval of Ex-Officio (Non-Voting) Member on the Transportation Policy Council representing Freight Railroads

In March, Judge Ed Emmett raised a question about whether private interests were allowed to sit on TPC. The issue arose when Joe Adams of Union Pacific Railroad replaced Tom Kornegay, executive director of the Port of Houston Authority, upon Kornegay’s retirement. In May, H-GAC concluded that private entities were not allowed a voting presence, and Adams resigned. Emmett said that Adams provided helpful expertise and suggested that Chairman James Patterson appoint Adams as an ex officio, non-voting member. Patterson asked that the item be placed on the June agenda.

The TPC unanimously approved the appointment of Joe Adams, with Hugh McCulley of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroads as the alternate.

Greater East End Management District Livable Centers Study

Jeff Taebel of H-GAC and Diane Schenke of the Greater East End Management District presented information about the recently-completed East End Livable Centers Study. The study is the first to be completed since the Livable Centers program was authorized in the 2035 RTP. While the Greater East End encompasses the entire area between downtown and the Port of Houston, the study focused on the area immediately adjacent to downtown.

Taebel noted that this area has a number of strengths, including two future light rail lines—the Southeast and East End lines—and a new Dynamo soccer stadium. Schenke noted that the area is not currently well-connected, but that the area already has high bus ridership and transit habits. She said that 16 percent of people in the East End ride buses, as opposed to five percent citywide.

Houston City Council Member Melissa Noriega expressed support for the Livable Centers proposal, but also expressed her concern that the street grid was being destroyed by projects such as the new soccer stadium. City Council Member Pam Holm also expressed support, but said that it is important to help the area evolve while recognizing the limitations of existing infrastructure.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr. was in the audience and said that he did not know the study was being presented today, but that he strongly supported it. However, he expressed his “strong disappointment” with H-GAC in general, although he did not cite any specific issues.

Legislative Update

Allen Richie of H-GAC discussed several pieces of state legislation, but noted that he would have to wait until July, after the special session, to talk about the TxDOT restructuring bill.

At a federal level, he noted that the Obama administration has proposed extending the current transportation bill by 18 months, while Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota introduced a proposed $500 billion transportation bill earlier this month. Richie said that the Federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money in August, a problem that must be addressed by Congress.

Alan Clark of H-GAC noted that Ashby Johnson, also a staff member at H-GAC, is vice chair of the national Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations and could provide some more information. Johnson said that he had discussed the bill with several groups, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and Transportation for America. He said that there were several proposals on the table, but that greenhouse gases were targeted in all of them. Johnson expressed some concern that H-GAC and other Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) could end up “on the hook” for all greenhouse emissions, including non-transportation related emissions. He also said that MPOs could end up with a stronger role in project selection.

Clark added that there was some concern that the transportation discussion was being led by areas of the country with little projected future growth and development. Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, expressed concern that in “devolving” powers to MPOs, the federal government was actually trying to expand its authorities over those areas by imposing more requirements.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)

Clark noted that on Thursday, the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), authorized regions to seek additional funding from the stimulus act as a result of underbids and the potential that other MPOs around the country may lose money by failing to meet deadlines. Delvin Dennis, chief engineer of the TxDOT Houston District, said that his district had an extra $20 million as a result of underruns, while Randy Redmond, his counterpart in the Beaumont District, said that his district had about $5 million in underruns.

Clark said that H-GAC, with the help of the TPC officers, had created a process to evaluate proposed maintenance projects that would be added to the stimulus contingency list. The first step involves eight key questions meant to determine sponsor and project eligibility. After that, sponsors must submit eligible projects along with a map and a letter of support from an elected official, at which point H-GAC and TxDOT will evaluate the projects. The main evaluation criteria are average weekday vehicle miles traveled, pavement condition, and cost per lane mile.

Storey asked if small cities that had to rely on contract engineers would be eligible for such projects. Clark said that cities submitting projects must, according to ARRA rules, have an engineer on staff, and that smaller cities may have to work with local counties and TxDOT to implement projects.

Clark said a call for projects would be issued on June 29 and projects must be submitted by July 31, with TPC action on August 28.

Clark also said that on Wednesday, President Obama signed the Supplemental Appropriations Act, allowing up to 10 percent of a transit agency’s stimulus money to be used for operating expenses. He said that agencies in the Houston region had already begun the submittal process, and that the federal government recommended completing the submittal process and then making amendments in order to take advantage of the operating expenses funds.

Presentation on the University of Houston (UH) Transportation Plan

John Walsh, Director of Real Estate and Planning at UH, said that transportation is key to achieving Tier 1 status. The main campus is expected to grow from 36,000 students to 45,000 students by 2020, and many of those students are commuters. By then, local vehicle traffic will have increased from 125,000 vehicles per day to 160,000 per day, creating gridlock at several locations.

Walsh said that UH wants to manage the traffic rather than trying to build its way out. The university wants to shift I-45 access to the underutilized Spur 5 and rely on transit for 10 percent of all trips. In addition, the university will convert many of its parking lots to parking garages, freeing up more land on campus for development. The university also hopes to extend Spur 5 all the way to the 610 Loop, as well as extending Wheeler to Old Spanish Trail and the planned university business park just east of campus.

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