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. On July 14, Kristen Wright spoke with Randy Redmond, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) District Engineer for the Beaumont District. Redmond has served in that position since September 1, 2008. Below is an edited version of the transcript.
Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?
TPC’s role in the region, I consider them the local decision makers for transportation projects based off public input and I guess local – regional – needs, helping to guide the direction of transportation improvements. They basically select what projects need to be constructed based off the funding available. And they’re a body of elected officials and citizens in the area that are very knowledgeable of the transportation needs.
Do you view our projected growth as an opportunity, crisis, or both?
That’s a pretty good question. Opportunities often create new opportunities that create new opportunities. With growth, economic development, job creation – with that typically comes mobility issues, whether they be transportation, congestion, or the need for more transit opportunities or rail. So, they go hand in hand – growth always presents opportunities, from an economical standpoint. But they also present a quality of life issue at times. I would say both on that one.
METRO plans to have 37 miles of light rail implemented in 2012 to 2013 connecting the four largest activity centers in the Houston region. Could you talk about the effect you think this will have?
Well, the Beaumont region isn’t quite as developed, nor do we experience the congestion that the Houston region does. I’m not real familiar with the light rail project, but any alternative mode of transportation’s going to be a great asset to any region. And the ridership – you know, Texans – a lot of us, anyway, are pretty set on liking to have our mobility at hand. And we’re slowly evolving as a state. Especially in our developed areas, recognizing there’s alternative modes of transportation, other than just driving your own vehicle to work every day, or to the grocery store. So, any light rail or transit opportunity is I guess laying the framework to allow commuters or citizens to choose alternate modes of transportation. In the rural areas where you don’t have congestion problems, that hasn’t, I guess, gone over as easily – but in the metro areas, I think it’s a great benefit. The cost–benefit ratios might not be glamorous right now as what they will be in the future. With every transportation move, we have to look at the road. And eventually, us Texans will decide that there’s other ways to get around.
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?
There again, that’s kind of more of a Houston-oriented project, although a little bit of the Grand Parkway comes into the Beaumont District. I hate to speak directly towards the project, but if it’s okay, I can speak kind of in general terms. Any transportation project, or any economic development project – or even the creation of a new subdivision – as more people come, you just see more and more sprawl. And perhaps constructing a new highway at any location may bring people to that immediate area quicker. I was saying, “If you build it, they will come.” I think with Texas right now, with the growth we’ve seen over the last decade, for sure, I think they’re coming whether we build it or not. And, it’s just a matter of how much we’re willing to sacrifice to accommodate a trade-off between quality of life and getting from Point A to Point B in a reliable fashion on a reliable time schedule, versus sitting in traffic for hours out of the week, where you could be home playing with your kids. It’s kind of back with the growth – opportunity, crisis, or both. I guess sprawl goes hand in hand with that. As you have more growth, they’re going to have to go someplace. So again, that’s not directed towards the Grand Parkway project in particular. Just transportation projects in general.
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?
Yes. Walkability – especially in your more developed, metropolitan areas, your downtown areas where a lot of the people choose to live because they choose not to drive. They want to be close to maybe their work, and don’t have the resources to drive. I guess that’s one aspect that we always have to consider in our planning, is making sure we have some reasonable facilities out there to accommodate folks. Also, we have folks who just want to get out and walk for health reasons. We always need to take that into account in planning our transportation facilities. It comes down to – like everything we do as a governmental agency, and everything the private industry does – it comes down to dollars and putting your dollars where your biggest risks are and your biggest benefits are.
There’s really not an apples to apples comparison between the number of vehicles on the road right now versus the number of walkers and the number of bicyclists. Does that mean we should ignore the walkers and bicyclists, and focus all our dollars towards highway facilities? No. But, there needs to be a balance there. And as we manage our limited funds, we always need to evaluate the balance pretty thoroughly. It would be nice to have sidewalks down every highway. And maybe that’s an opportunity. I know a lot of the local cities, with their development plans – they’re requiring the developers to come in there and install sidewalks in new development, and that’s great. That is a resource that we’re being able to reach into, other than tax dollars, to help create those sidewalk facilities. I know on a lot of our transportation improvement projects, now we’re looking at a wider outside lane, or a shoulder to accommodate not only the safety of the driving public, but bicyclists and other means of transportation.
During the state legislature’s special session, no TxDOT reforms were put into state law, and all sunset recommendations were put off for two years. Do you believe that this was the appropriate decision?
I believe that our legislators have a tough task to balance all the needs of the state. They do really well – the drawback of the sunset bill not being passed through, and some of the other legislation, was, there were some things included in the transportation bill that were great things. It was a good bill, it just kind of didn’t make it across the finish line. But the communities worked together and came up with a compromise bill and provided some good benefits to the public, and required some extra things from TxDOT that we hadn’t necessarily implemented yet.
Although the bill didn’t pass, TxDOT has taken the recommendations that were to be included in the bill, and we’re looking at implementing some of those suggestions or requirements on our own, even though it’s not necessarily mandated that we do it. So, we’re pleased that the legislators came back in special session and extended TxDOT and other state agencies for a couple of years till they can reevaluate sunset at the next session. We’re also proud that they went ahead and authorized the issuance of some Prop. 12 bonds to help our transportation system and help us overcome some of these funding shortfalls in the meantime.
How is TxDOT becoming multi-modal?
TxDOT – your Texas Department of Transportation – has evolved during my career. And we’re a lot more that just highways. We are heavily involved in public transit, and beginning to get deeper into the rail element – both freight and looking at passenger rail. How we can be involved – and we have I guess some authority given to us in a previous session to study rail, to do some planning – we really haven’t received any funds to go construct rails, to speak of. But I know – from an urban district – that transit and our public transportation is an important component here, and we’re happy that we’re being given the opportunity to participate in the public transportation mode.
Of course, here in Beaumont, we also have several ports for the movement of freight via waterways. It’s an important component, and the more freight we can ship by water – it lessens the wear and tear on our highways from heavy trucks. It provides an alternative mode, in lieu of the state freight rail system that’s apparently heavily congested.
TxDOT has been criticized by members of the Texas Legislature and citizen groups for its embrace of toll roads. Do you see a future for toll roads in Texas transportation planning?
Toll roads are a tool in a tool box, as we face funding challenges today and in the future. It’s something that should always be evaluated. You know, a lot of folks would rather not pay a toll. But, when given the alternative of sitting in congestion, or potentially sitting in congestion, or having a reliable alternative mode that may cost a little extra to drive on, it gives the ability to make that decision that day. Am I willing to pay a couple dollars to feel more comfortable that I’m going to be able to make it home at a set time? Or, am I not in a big hurry today, that if I get held up for 30 minutes in traffic, it’s really not going to bother me that much. It provides an alternative mode.
It’s not the cure-all solution – there’s some inherent costs that go along with toll roads. It requires some operations. Collecting the monies and processing the transactions. Luckily, with the electronic tolling systems that we have out there today, I think we’ve become a whole lot more efficient with those. And I think the public’s recognizing those electronic tolling mechanisms – rather than having to stop at a cashier at a toll booth, and pay with money. I think the future for toll roads, as they’re warranted – not in every case, but as they’re warranted – is to go to those electronic tolling systems. It’s just another mechanism to get an alternative mode of transportation constructed sooner, rather than waiting for traditional gas tax revenues to fund all our needs.
How would you like the public to be involved in transportation planning?
I think that the public is the reason we’re here. We need to make sure there’s some avenues out there for them to provide some input on what their needs are. And provide us comments about our proposed improvements out there. I get the impression that some of the public feels like they aren’t given enough opportunities, and we’re trying to remedy that, and make sure we’re out there enough and provide the mechanisms that they can provide input.
I love it when the public gets involved. Sometimes, at public meetings, we work hard on a transportation project, and we have a citizen stand up, maybe in opposition, or voicing some concerns about what we have proposed. I have a lot of folks who have come to me, and say, “Man, I’m sorry about that. I don’t understand why they’re opposed to…” I like those comments. I like good comments or bad comments. I like people to be involved in helping us make the decisions. And the people who are for projects need to stand up and give us some positive input, too, if they want it to come to fruition, because we do listen to the public. A lot of cases, the only thing you hear about transportation projects – especially controversial ones – are the negatives, and the positive vibes out there don’t necessarily make the headlines as well as some of the negative vibes do. I’ve been involved with a lot of transportation projects – for every one citizen opposed to a project, we may have 100 who are in support of it. But the hundred don’t take the time to go out and have their voices heard, because they believe the project is going to happen whether they want it or not. And that’s not the case anymore. And we’ve got to have the supporters of projects, as well as the concerned comments on our projects.
How do you create a balance between maintaining current roadways and expanding them?
Well, what they’re funding – I don’t know that there is such a thing as maintaining a good balance. If we can’t take care of the roads that we already have constructed, building additional roads and not having the resources to take care of them is kind of a hard pill to swallow. I think that in an ideal world, you can find a happy balance at the funding provided. I think congestion mitigation is a huge concern, especially in our non-attainment areas where we have air quality issues, and providing some mobility or alternative modes of transportation is important for our health and our quality of life.
At the same time, you don’t want to sacrifice our maintenance to a point that it’s dangerous to drive on the road, or you cause more damage to vehicles driving on deteriorated roadways than you’re saving in your expansion project. If we were to have a pothole out there, and a car hits it, it may not cost the overall tax system, but it costs that private individual the cost of going and having their vehicle aligned. So, everything costs money. It’s just a matter of where we’ll pay: building new highways, maintaining our current highway system, versus the time and the expense of sitting in congestion, versus the cost to the individual for damage, or wear and tear on their vehicle because of a lack of maintenance of our system.
Is it important for you to consider social and environmental issues when making transportation decisions?
Yes. And in fact, through our planning process, that is probably the area that we focus the longest time on, actually. Preparing the construction documents, and constructing the roads – especially the construction part – is the part that the public sees the most of. But, the planning effort – going through the social and environmental impact of various alternatives – is a pretty lengthy process that we as transportation planners take very seriously.
How would you improve long-term transportation planning for the Houston region if you had every planning resource at your disposal? What would be your ideal system?
Now, I guess from a planning perspective, if we had all the resources we needed at our disposal – to fall back to your earlier question of balance, and maintenance and construction of new roads or expansion of existing facilities – I would always try to find that balance. We don’t want to go out and just build roads to be building them, if there’s not a need. That’s not a good investment of tax dollars. So, we always want to get it built by the time it’s needed, but we don’t want to build it way too soon so that it becomes a maintenance issue before it’s really needed.
So, in an ideal world, our projection models are perfect, and we know exactly what the growth’s going to be for the next thirty years. I think we did a pretty good job statewide with our partners from the Metropolitan Planning Organizations, modeling the anticipated growth. But it varies quite a bit. So, we’re always playing with some unknowns. I guess in a perfect world, those unknowns would be certainties. And we’d be able to provide a true balance of mobility via vehicles, or transit or light rail. And maintenance.
And the second part of your question, what would be my perfect transportation system. I don’t know. I guess if the original settlers of Texas had been able to have that perfect planning model, knowing what the growth would be forever – you would lay out the ultimate system of highways you need to sustain the growth for the various years. And you preserve those corridors. And then, you build them as they’re needed. Unfortunately, we’re nowhere close to that, and I don’t foresee us ever having the resources to catch up to that point. So, meantime, what’s my perfect transportation system in the real world? As development comes in, we have the local city planners working hand in hand with us.
And other elected officials – that as the development’s coming into our area, they work with us early in stages to figure out the best ingress and egress from the various developments, such that we don’t have continuous intersections down a corridor. That we have some joint use in the development – some off-site circulation – where the customers visiting those retail centers or going to the subdivisions don’t necessarily have to get on the main thoroughfares while they’re doing it.
Now, I think that our cities have recognized that, too. And they’re working to get with us as new developments come in, to get with us kind of early to look at the best solutions – even on redevelopment of existing plans. Something as simple as, before, we used to not think anything of putting four driveways in four different businesses. Now, we worked with the developers and the local governments to limit it maybe to two driveways that serve all four of the businesses. I’m being in the reality instead of in the perfect world. I think we’ve come a long way in that direction.
Thank you very much.
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