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Mark Ellis

TPC Interviews

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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. Some of the members were unable to schedule interviews but instead answered our questions in writing. On August 3, Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District, submitted a written statement. The full text appears below.

Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?

TPC is the forum for elected officials throughout the region to discuss transportation challenges facing the region and to coordinate responses. It includes elected officials or representatives of regional transportation agencies that are directly responsible to elected officials. The involvement of elected officials provides accountability which is important given the level of funding required to undertake transportation projects and the direct correlation of transportation to the local economy and continued growth.

Do you view our projected growth as an opportunity, crisis, or both?

The region’s projected growth is absolutely an opportunity. The Houston region thrives on independent thinking and innovation. Increased population and freight volumes will require transportation innovation. The Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) is already considered the premier toll agency in the country. With the creation of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) we now have an opportunity to develop a premier rail system that serves commuters, shippers and the Port. Expansion of commuter rail and METRO’s light rail system could impact development and change land use density in areas. This is an opportunity for the Houston region to innovate.

One of the Houston myths is that we all drive SUVs and will never walk or ride rail, even though many Houstonians do not drive. Do you think that walkability and bicycle safety are regionally significant transportation concerns?

I think access is a regionally significant transportation concern. The goal is for persons and products to be able to get where they need to be when they need to be there safely. That is regardless of how they choose to get there. Access is enhanced by having choices about how to get places. Walking and bicycling were primary forms of transportation long before motorized vehicles. They should remain safe options. They are often combined with other options such as walking from a public parking space to an office or cycling to a transit stop. The transportation system is integrated. The more transportation choices we add, such as rail, the more integrated it must become.

Many leaders in the Houston-Galveston area support the creation of the Grand Parkway, yet many organizations believe that its construction will be detrimental to citizens and contribute to sprawl. How is this project objectively better for people in the Houston area than other uses of transportation funds?

A large part of Houston’s rapid growth is attributable to the availability of land which has limited real estate price escalation and enabled wide development of affordable low-density housing. That growth becomes a transportation challenge when it occurs outside of the existing transportation network or significantly increases demand on certain parts of the network. The Grand Parkway is an attempt by regional officials to get ahead of growth so future development does not strain the existing transportation network.

Roadway access will be a necessary component of any plan to accommodate future growth but regional officials understand it is not the only component. The Rail District I chair was created by Harris County, Fort Bend County and the City of Houston. With the support of those officials, the Rail District is planning for commuter rail that will reach 40-50 miles from downtown Houston. On the basis of those plans, additional counties have requested Rail District membership. Local leaders understand transportation funds must be spread across modes to provide access and options.

Is it important for you to consider social and environmental issues (i.e., quality of life, obesity) when making transportation decisions?

Social and environmental issues must be considered because they are part of the costs and benefits of transportation projects. Increased vehicle emissions result in a public health cost and energy usage cost. Reduced emissions are a public health benefit and energy efficiency benefit. Decreased noise is a quality of life benefit that makes an area more desirable and is reflected in property values. Quality of life issues will impact the region’s ability to sustain its growth. Transportation planners and elected officials on TPC must be cognizant of the correlation.

How do you maintain a balance between maintaining current roadways and expanding them?

The system in which the public has already invested must be maintained. Maintenance should be considered as part of roadway life cycle cost as it is with public transit.

METRO plans to have 37 miles of light rail implemented in 2012-13 connecting the three largest activity centers in the Houston region. Could you talk about the effect you think this will have?

METRO’s light rail system will provide the basis for distributing commuters throughout the most congested areas in the region. It will enhance access to busy areas and provide options for getting there. It will enable the initiation of long distance commuter rail using existing rail right of way by connecting rail passengers to their final destinations. It could be the beginning of real change in the region’s transportation network.

How would you like the public to be involved in transportation planning?

One of the biggest challenges with transportation planning is the need to plan ahead. The region can’t look at how projects will impact the way things are today; we have to think about how things will be 20 years from now. Most projects can be designed to minimize quality of life impacts. The region has to be willing to pay that cost now so in the long run the region gets the most benefit from transportation projects. The public has to support the concept of paying for quality of life improvements and has to be vocal about it with elected officials.

How would you improve long-term transportation planning for the Houston region if you had every planning resource at your disposal?

Long-term transportation planning will be improved with a greater public understanding of how closely intertwined our quality of life and economic development is associated with the efficiency of the transportation network. Transportation is not just about moving people but also about moving products that people consume. All contribute to quality of life. A public education campaign will enable the public to place relative priority on different needs and also become acquainted with the costs and benefits of transportation projects beyond standard design and construction. Better understanding of alternatives such as rail, costs such as public health and benefits such as energy efficiency will foster the development of transportation choices with broad public support. Public support is crucial for both planning transportation projects that address quality of life issues and for financing them.

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