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 6, Kristen Wright sat down and talked with Houston City Council Member Sue Lovell. Lovell represents the City of Houston At-Large Position 2, and in 2008 City Council elected her to the position of Vice Mayor Pro-Tem. Alan Clark, the director of the H-GAC Metropolitan Planning Organization, sat in on the interview as well. Clark assists the TPC but does not have a voting role. Below is an edited version of the interview.
Could you tell me about TPC’s role in the region?
Sue Lovell: Well, it actually is the planning council. And it’s to set the long-range term – pretty much 35 years out – to have a plan for what’s going to happen in the region, as it pertains to transportation.
Do you view our projected growth as an opportunity, crisis, or both?
Lovell: Opportunity. A blessing, these days. If you have regions that don’t grow, or cities that don’t grow, then they tend to wither up and blow away. The fact that this region is going to grow by millions over the next 30-35 years is a great opportunity for growth and development, economic development, jobs… This region will stay thriving, just as Houston has during this recession – we’ve been extremely lucky. We just passed a city budget where we don’t have a deficit. We didn’t have to lay off one city worker. We didn’t have to cut back one city service at all. Compared to other major cities, that’s pretty darn good.
As a member of the TPC, you have recently been an outspoken advocate for roadway maintenance. Earlier in the year, the TPC chose to allocate American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to new roadway construction instead of maintenance projects even though both types were on the initial list prepared by the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Can you explain why TPC chose not to request stimulus funds for maintenance originally? In general, can you explain your views on the balance between maintenance and new construction?
Lovell: As you know, the ARRA funds had to be “shovel-ready,” ready to go. And, traditionally, on our Transportation Improvement Program – which is our sort of pre-phase planning – there weren’t any maintenance projects that were. So, when the ARRA money became available, we were able to pretty much take the TIP and move forward with what we wanted to do with the funds. We did come back later, though – what was it, last meeting? The City of Houston, we proposed that the ARRA funds that are not spent – because they have to be spent during a certain time – are not spent, and before we lose them, and go back to Washington, we’d be ready with maintenance projects. So, we can just roll them over and do maintenance projects.
Alan Clark: The first $54 million in ARRA money were all maintenance projects. And the first projects selected by the Policy Council finished a maintenance project on Interstate 10, I think it was, in our area.
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. What do you think the expansion of light rail will mean to Houstonians? Do you think that walkability and bicycle safety are regionally significant transportation concerns?
Lovell: I think walkability and bicycle safety are regional concerns. I think 30 miles of track will be a tremendous opportunity for Houston to continue to grow, to get people out of their cars, for us to continue the challenge to get cleaner air. As I’m sure you probably know, our light rail line has the most ridership of any light rail line around the United States. So, that’s proof that people do want to ride it, they’d just like it to go more places. And it can’t just be the light rail line. It has to be a transportation system, which is what TPC assists in doing. We can lay the light rail line down – that’s great – and where the light rail line’s going is very good. The University line, when it’s built, will connect to every major employment center in the City of Houston.
So, the growth that will come, the economic development that will come, the city will become more urban as – probably – our suburbs stay the same. But the core of Houston will become far more urban and more dense. But it has to also be intermingled with good bus routes. METRO is now doing some Quicklines, which get you from one place into the Medical Center, which is a major employment center. It is 20 minutes faster – has to be. And then, we’re looking at commuter lines from Galveston in and 290 out – the largest growth in the region’s going to be out the 290 corridor towards Cypress. Of course, they’re struggling right now, because they’ve figured out that their school taxes have to go up. But that’s where the growth will come. So, it’s very important to be able to bring people in, have them be able to travel throughout the city without bringing their cars.
Grand Parkway Segment E was not on the original list of potential ARRA projects compiled by H-GAC. This list included many other smaller roadway projects, METRO projects, and maintenance projects. Could you explain why Grand Parkway Segment E was a superior project to these other projects? How is this project objectively better than others for the people that you represent in the City of Houston?
Lovell: I don’t know that you say it’s better or not better. I think the thing we’ve done best in Houston is to be able to look long-range down the road. And to be able to – even without zoning – sort of predict where our growth is going to be, and to plan for that. We didn’t do that before, and we were really in kind of a transportation mess. We’re doing that with TPC.
When I moved here, there was the 610 Loop. That was like being outside of the city. And then, you look at the Beltway. Well, the Grand Parkway, because of the growth – and all the growth going to 290 – and you’ve got growth going out west. It just doesn’t make any sense to not be able to connect this pocket of growth. We have to be able to do that. If we don’t, then all of our other major thoroughfare streets and all of our other streets will take the brunt of that traffic. And once that happens, you can’t fix it.
So, with the opportunity of this money that’s here to be able to finish that segment – and I know it’s controversial – but with opportunity, we are able to come back and get money for maintenance, knowing that not all this money’s going to get spent. Everybody says they can spend all this money, but they can’t. Not in the amount of time. We’re going to keep it here, and now we have our other maintenance projects in place. We’ll be able to come back and do maintenance. And you know, it’s a regional deal. We can’t just be about Houston. There are small roads out in Brazoria County, Liberty County, Chambers County that are extremely important to them.
Clark: By the way, the Policy Council wasn’t really the group that selected this project. This was one that did require TPC’s approval, but it was selected by the Texas Transportation Commission. In other words, TxDOT.
Lovell: And, it was truthfully one that I had to really think hard about. But in the long range, you are not going to stop the growth from going where it is. You just can’t. And they’re moving up there because of its affordable houses and good schools. So, there’s just no reason why we shouldn’t take the opportunity to link those. I think that in the long run, this is a good decision.
METRO plans to have 37 miles of light rail implemented in 2012 or 2013 connecting the three largest activity centers in the Houston region. Could you talk about the effect you think this will have?
Lovell: It will make Houston a more urban city. It will have more people moving in, and it will create density, which is not bad. It’s going to hook up all the major employment centers. All the universities. It creates economic development, which is always good. It creates jobs. And for the city, it’s great, because it really helps expand our tax base. The more people that come in and the more people that buy, the more people pay taxes. Sales taxes go up. Our share of property taxes goes up. And it increases property value. So, for the city, it’s a really wonderful thing. As long as we don’t do it in a bubble, and we’re not. You know, we’re looking at commuter rail from Galveston in, we’re looking at commuter rail from 290.
How do our choices of investments in transportation infrastructure affect public policy? Quality of life? Mobility? Access?
Sue Lovell: Affect public policy? I don’t quite know what you mean by that.
Alan Clark: Well, my thought is that working with the TPC members, they see these investment decisions and publicly-owned infrastructure as an outgrowth of their policies. So, I think they see transportation investment as a tool to address the issues in their communities. The way this question was asked, it’s almost like it happens over here somewhere, and nobody’s thinking about the consequences of it, or the justification for it.
Lovell: All I know about is the City of Houston. We’re really neighborhood-driven in this city. When neighborhoods come to you and say we want something, they’re listened to. So, if a neighborhood comes and says, “Man, we’d really like a bike trail” – the Columbia Tap is a perfect example – all those different neighborhoods say, “Yeah, that’d be great. We’d love to get on this great bike path, and be able to move back and forth, or to walk.” So, it’s usually driven from the grassroots up. And when that happens, then public policy – as you say – becomes very easy, because you’re here to listen to the concerns of your neighbors and your citizens. And so, when they find that you can’t do it – it’s not because you don’t want to, but because there’s no money available.
Clark: In fact, I think we hear about a lack of investment in new transit services or improved roadways or sidewalks as a major factor in quality of life.
Lovell: Right over now in the Second Ward, over on Washington, the city has a recycling center that the business next to it wants to buy, because they want to expand. We wanted to buy another piece of property four or five blocks away, six blocks away, but within the same neighborhood. And the neighbors went crazy. “Why are we moving it over there?” Part of it is because another company wanted to buy that piece of property, and found out that we were going to buy it, and stirred up trouble.
The other part is – there’s a hike and bike trail going by it. So, now, here you have quality of life people that are fussing at you because you’re putting in an expanded recycling center. It offers more opportunities for recycling, but they don’t want it next to their hike and bike trail, because they think it’s going to stink, which aluminum and cardboard – that doesn’t happen. Or it’ll be a hazard because the trucks’ll be coming in and running all over the hike and bike trail. We don’t do that. So, now, you have a clash of the city trying to be proactive and the neighborhood pushing back, based upon a whole bunch of things that aren’t even factual. And then, here you are, going, “Golly, we gave you the hike and bike trail – now you want to expand recycling. Now you don’t want them both together.” But in an area which is becoming more and more dense, there is not an opportunity. So, what may happen is they might lose the whole recycling center totally.
If I have to decide whether for a business to close down that’s been there a long time – and move out to the county – I’m not going to. I’m going to vote for the people that are working in that business. And the people that don’t like the recycling center next to the hike and bike trail – we can work out a way where that can coexist, because it does all over the place.
Clark: Yeah. Landscaping, fencing, things like that. People don’t even have to know it’s there.
Lovell: This is like the Richmond Rail thing. It’s all paid opposition.
The new federal transportation reauthorization bill will start in the US House soon and Chairman Oberstar is expected to propose radical changes in the way US DOT funds transportation projects, including modal equity, greater control at the MPO level instead of the states, and new targets including reduced vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions. Are you excited about these changes? What do you think this will mean for the Houston region?
Lovell: I am! Actually, I had the opportunity to meet with Chairman Oberstar when I went to Washington with METRO to discuss the light rail funding. We met with him, and then Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee. And, it was a really interesting meeting. First, he totally gets transportation. He’s been so frustrated by being boxed in by a Congress that doesn’t get how you do these projects. Congress puts so many restraints and barriers up instead of being quick and effective.
When you do a roadway, it’s a pretty simple process. When you do light rail, it’s like a Rubik’s Cube to be able to find your way to get the money. He’s proposing that the money be put up just the same way as roads. If that happens, it will be incredible for major cities like us, because we’ll be able to build light rail the same way – and as quickly as – we build some of our roads.
There is a perception that transportation funds are directed outside the city, even though a majority of Harris County residents live inside of the City of Houston. Do you think that the residents of the City of Houston have enough representation on TPC?
Lovell: Well, my gut reaction would be to say no. Okay, we’re within Harris County, so Harris County has representatives. That really sort of forces us to have a good working relationship with Harris County if we want to get things done. You build consensus – that’s sort of what our Council does. I think why we’re so effective right now.
So we have to work with Harris County and learn how to get along with them. Then, METRO has board members on there, and we have to work with them. And, so, it actually makes for collaboration, which I think makes the region far better. And when you’re on this Council, this is not just thinking about what’s good for Houston, but you have to think about what’s good for the region. If we just dominated, and everything came to Houston, and we let the rest of the region around us suffer, it would hurt our city. A lot of the people that come in and work in the city everyday don’t live in the city. So, the collaboration that makes that happen – I think that’s good. It forces everyone to talk to each other and come to consensus. And actually, it’s worked really well on the whole. We haven’t had any big disagreements.
Clark: Very rarely do we even have anybody who votes the other way. It happens occasionally.
Lovell: But before we get there, there is an opportunity to say, “Well, what do you think?” And really talk with each other, which is what you have to do in a region.
How would you improve long-term transportation planning for the Houston region if you had all the planning resources at your disposal that you could ask for?
Lovell: I’d like the county to come in and pay more money to do some maintenance on our roads, since people live in the county but come into the city. I wish we could figure out a way to work that out with the county, truthfully. How do we do that? But, I think that it’s exciting right now. To me, the single most important issue is how we’re going to manage transportation. And we’re at one of those moments in history, we know that growth is coming. We’re happy to have it, and we have an opportunity to plan for it. Especially in an area where there is no zoning, really. That makes it even more difficult and challenging. And I think that what we have on the board right now – is really a good plan.
Looking at commuter rail, we’ve got to look at how we’re going to do it down in Fort Bend. You know, METRO is starting to do some other things with their bus system. So, you could live out on 290 – one day, soon – and get on the commuter rail, and come in by the Northwest Transit Center. And then, you could figure out how you come Downtown and work – and never bring you car in. I think that the whole master plan for the whole region right now is really promising, exciting. And, I think right now, the group that we have really sees it that way. METRO is fixing to break ground, and I think when people in the city start seeing those rails on the ground – finally – I think that’s going to be a very exciting thing. They’ve just been hearing about it and hearing about it, but once it happens, as we saw with the Main Street line, once it was down, it’s full. You go over there; it’s full all the time. So, I think that’ll make a big change in the City of Houston. Then, we’re going to have to figure out how we manage the growth and the density. And how we live next to each other, which we’re not used to doing. How you put a bike path next to – you know – a recycling center.
Thank you both.
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