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Scott Elmer

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TPC INTERVIEWS

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 28, Kristen Wright sat down with Scott Elmer, the Director of Public Works for Missouri City, to discuss TPC’s role. Below is an edited version of the transcript.

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

The Transportation Policy Council is one of the decision-making arms for the local council of governments, the Houston-Galveston Area Council. What it boils down to is a planning role and an implementation role. Of course, the council of government is chartered to help guide and direct growth in the Houston-Galveston region. And so, the Transportation Policy Council, through a number of different instruments – the Regional Transportation Plan, the Unified Planning Work Program, through Safety Council-type reports – works towards planning and guiding development in the region. And it’s not a regulatory agency by any means. More of a carrot that a stick, on some of these things.

Basically, they serve as a clearinghouse for a lot of information. It comes down to disbursing federal funds for transportation projects. Items are placed on the Regional Transportation Plan. They’re placed on the implementation portion of it, which is a two-to-three year Transportation Improvement Plan – the TIP. And those are how federal funds for transportation are disbursed, and so the TPC is responsible for the placement and removal of projects on both of those plans.

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

Well, I’d guess I’d say a little of both. It’s definitely an opportunity. When you look at Texas and you compare Texas and the Houston economy versus the rest of the nation’s economy right now, we’re doing a lot better. And a lot of that is people coming in here because we’re doing a lot better than a lot of the rest of the nation. So that’s where you have a lot of opportunity.

I don’t know if I’d say crisis, but there’s a lot of things that we have to stay ahead on. And that’s where a sense of urgency or crisis could be. One of the biggest costs of transportation is acquisition of land. It’s a lot more expensive, and a lot harder to construct needed transportation facilities when you’re buying land you that is developed, versus when you’re buying land that is an open field, basically. The other side of the coin is, people view that “If you build it, they will come.” If you build the roadways, then you can encourage more and more development. But, if you don’t build it, then you’re looking at being behind the ball, and projects costing a lot more money to build, when you already have homes and businesses and everything else where you needed to put the road. So, that’s where I would say the crisis or sense of urgency is – maintaining transportation corridors in these developing areas.

Considering the success of the nearby Sugar Land Town Center, how do you see the development of walkable livable centers in Missouri City?

Well, that’s something that we’ve been working towards for quite some time. In fact, the City of Missouri City – next month, in August – will be updating our Comprehensive Plan. Our Comprehensive Plan, which guides outgrowth in the city, encourages livable centers. We also have a municipal management district established for what we call our Sienna Plantation town center, which is very, very similar. Mixed use, high-density residential, single-family residential, commercial, community college, library, governmental facilities are all being established in that particular area. So it’s something that we feel is very much needed. A mix of modes, and a mix of transportation, and a mix of land uses is really, really something we look for.

One of the Houston myths is that we all drive SUV’s 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, it is. For example, in Missouri City, we have a massive plan that includes 27 miles of hike and bike trails on it. We’re currently working with H-GAC to do a bike study throughout the city. It’s a big concern region-wide, it’s a big concern. Will anybody from Missouri City go ride their bicycle to the Medical Center? No, that’s not going to happen. But when you go back to what you talked about previously, cities really need to be places to work, live, and play.

Cutting out those trips in Missouri City from the store to the house, from a function, a festival, to the house – it’s really where you gain hike and bike in a city like Missouri City. We don’t have major employment centers, but as we get more and more employment centers, the more alternative modes of transportation we can provide, the better.

In the Houston area, we do have the rather harsh summer climate that discourages a lot of the alternative modes of transportation. But if you actually look at what happened with the recent rise in gas prices, people started riding the bus. They started making those movements to alternative modes, and a lot of those people – once they made that initial move to an alternative mode of transportation – a lot of them were staying there. You didn’t have the rebound that you would expect when gas prices went back down. A lot of people are staying with those alternative modes of transportation. And if you don’t have them on a regional basis – if you don’t have connectivity – people aren’t going to make that initial move.

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?

Well, there’s a number of reasons, in my opinion. One is: if you look at the development model in the Houston region, it’s going to happen. The area of the Grand Parkway is going to be developed. Do we want to control and guide that development, or do we want to let developers go forth and build things, and then put more expensive roadways on the taxpayers because the area’s developed? So if you look at growth projections, by the year 2030 in the Houston region, we’re basically going to add the City of Los Angeles to us.

Not all those people will be able to live inside the Inner Loop. It’s not going to happen. It’s just not enough space, and there’s not enough redevelopment in that area. So, you also look at the growth of employment centers in the area. Not everybody’s going to go to the Central Business District downtown. You’ve got the Medical Center, you’ve got downtown, but if you look at the number of jobs projected to be created on the West Belt, it’s going to be more than those two areas combined over the next few years.

So, I think that construction of the Grand Parkway is necessary, and would be beneficial, because one, we’re guiding the development, we’re controlling what’s happening. Two, it’s going to happen anyway. And the cost of doing it today versus after it’s developed is going to be several orders of magnitude cheaper to do it today. And, it’s also a user-pay system. The Grand Parkway is set to be a toll road, you know.

Is it important for you to consider social and environmental issues such as quality of life or obesity when making transportation decisions?

It’s actually very important. And there’s a number of reasons. The more we can do to protect the environment – it’s just our obligation to do that. And there’s a fine balancing act between no growth and smart growth on that. A lot of time, people – on one side or the other – get stuck in their viewpoints. But, the environment’s very important to consider.

I think it’s got to be measured with a sense of practicality in some of these areas. Anybody that thinks that land use and transportation aren’t related is – you know – silly. Because you’ve got to take a look at the modes of transportation you’re providing, and how it impacts a community. You know, for example, there’s some areas of the city where car ownership is at a lower level, and in those particular areas, you may not be wanting to provide a Grand Parkway. You want to provide the things that the people are going to actually be able to use. That may be more alternative modes of transportation, more high-occupancy transportation, and those types of things. It’s just like a business trying to sell their products to customers. Transportation is a product. And you need to provide the appropriate product for your customers.

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

It’s difficult. Maintenance is one of the easiest items in any budget – not just a local municipality, but state, federal, everything else. Maintenance is always an easy item to cut. And maintenance is an invisible item – done right. You don’t see the results of maintenance, because you’re extending the life of the same facility. So, it’s very difficult to make sure you get the proper amount of maintenance in budgets. And particularly when you’re looking at things at a state level and a federal level, because there’s so many other demands, other payments that you have to do. But what we do here, in the City of Missouri City, is we maintain a pavement condition index on all our streets. Basically, we rate all the streets in Missouri City, and get a pavement condition index. And based upon that, we estimate – on a yearly basis – what’s necessary to maintain our streets at that minimum pavement condition index, and we set that aside.

We’re looking at a number of things – and I haven’t really fleshed a lot of them out – about different ways of doing maintenance funds, and those types of items. But by having that pavement condition index, which is an objective measure, we can pretty much predict our maintenance budget on a three-year cycle. And then, after that, development of new streets – some of that is done through our Capital Improvements Program, which is based upon part of our tax rate. But a lot of it – actually, since we have zoning, we have land use controls in the city. A lot of the items on major thoroughfares that are on our traffic management plan are actually constructed by developers. We have private individuals build them and give them to the City to serve their development. And we’re able to do that because we have all these planning tools that we take into account.

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

Well, we’ve been a strong proponent of light rail for the past 15 to 20 years in Missouri City. Missouri City is a METRO city. We’re one of the few suburbs that is a METRO city. Most of them – Pearland, Sugar Land, Stafford – are not METRO cities. But, we’re a strong proponent of it, and we believe there is a great opportunity for livable centers around light rail stations. In fact, we’ve been pushing hard for METRO on our Highway 90 corridor, with light rail – as well as the City of Stafford.

We think it brings that tipping point, for lack of a better term – on getting people out of their vehicles and onto alternative modes, because people have less of a bias against light rail use than they do against buses. We think it’s going to make a huge difference. We’re actually working on two corridors right now, the 98 corridor and the 521 corridor, and looking at how we can include both of those into light rail service to Missouri City.

And the bias against the buses, could you explain that a little more?

I believe that a lot of individuals have a bias against ridership of buses because of misperceptions about bus service. You know, a lot of people view bus service as something that is done by people that don’t have the same amount of ability they do financially, or something like that.

A lot of people think that it’s just such a hassle, because I’m stuck by this schedule, and I’ve got to transfer from A to B, and I’ve got to go here versus there, and I don’t want to have to deal with all these schedules and tickets, and everything else. And it’s hard for people to make that transition from what they’ve been doing, day in and day out for 20 years – riding their car – to, “We’ll, I’ve got to buy bus tickets, and I’ve got to figure out my schedule, and I’m subject to when they come, and when they don’t come, and all.” And it’s a lot easier for them to drive that same personal vehicle to a rail station, and get on that rail, which drops them off pretty close, or has only one transfer versus multiple transfers.

The more you transfer people from a station to a station or from a bus stop to a bus stop, the harder it is to get them to use that mode of transportation. You lose people at every transfer point. If they say, “I’m going to have to go here to this bus, there to this bus, and this bus could be late, and that bus could be late,” then you lose people. But light rail only has one – or at most, two – transfers, or something like that. So, it’s easier for them to get their hands around it, and use it.

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

I think there’s a number of ways they should be involved. I guess to back up a little bit – as the Director of Public Works for Missouri City, sitting on the Transportation Policy Council, this is a job I do on a daily basis, but I don’t live in all these communities on a daily basis. I don’t live in Lake Olympia Subdivision, and make my same routes to school. I live in my little world, and my little subdivision, and do my normal day-to-day thing.

So it’s hard for me to know what effectively serves people that live in Lake Olympia, or people that live in the Fifth Ward, or people that live in Sugar Land, or people that live in Huntsville – because I don’t live in Huntsville and I don’t live in those areas. I don’t deal with what they deal with on a regular basis. So, that’s why public involvement is so important.

And whether that’s through charrettes, hearings, public meetings, or just letters or e-mails to people, that is one of the biggest things that we get here on a daily basis, where somebody says, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And sometimes, the answer is “No.” Because it didn’t even cross our minds. So just people speaking up on a regular basis to the decision makers and the policy makers on “How about this?” – it’s a huge benefit because we don’t deal with what the average person deals with on a daily basis.

So I think people should be involved in all aspects of transportation planning. For example, in Missouri City we had about a one year public information and public input process for our comprehensive planning option. And that was a huge benefit.

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

The biggest problem that I see – not just in transportation planning, but in utility system planning, and everyday planning – is getting accurate population projections that are valid for more than the instant in time that they’re generated.

I’ll give you a good example. If you took a look at the population projection for the City of Missouri City and how many new homes we were going to have every year, two years ago versus today – well, we’re still going to have the same amount of homes, it’s just going to start over different time periods.

One of our more major developments was putting in an average of 700 homes a year two years ago. The last two years, we’ve put in 300 homes a year. They’re still going to grow out, they’re still going to sell the same total number of homes, but the time frame’s going to be different. They’ll do it in 25 years instead of twenty. So I wish I could have a crystal ball, and get exactly what I wanted – good population projections that are accurate. Over a longer period would be excellent. The reality is we’re never going to have that. We have to make estimates. We know the trend’s always going to be up. We know that’s going to happen. So we just have to make do with the best we have.

The other problem that you run into is the difference in focus between somebody like – my role on the Transportation Policy Council versus my role here in the City. For example, at the Transportation Policy Council, you’re dealing with items that are regionally significant. You’re dealing with the Grand Parkway, you’re dealing with 290, you’re dealing with the 610/290 interchange. You’re dealing with Highway 59. You’re dealing with Westheimer, you’re dealing with 1960 – major roadways. And that’s great.

What I’m dealing with over here in Missouri City, in that role, is local access streets. Arterial streets. Those types of items. And these are the streets that carry the vast majority of the traffic in Missouri City. You can’t take that same tool kit that you use for Highway 59 or the I-10 corridor and apply it to your local access street.

It’s just two different natures of streets. And having a tool that could help me resolve those two would be helpful – because in my honest opinion, part of the problem that I run into with a lot of the federal funding is, the federal funding comes with set guidelines you have to follow on geometrics in the street. And those set guidelines were designed by highway transportation officials. They’re made for high-speed roadways.

Thank you.

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