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TIA Committee

Meeting notes - Aug. 11, 2009

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PUBLIC MEETING NOTES

City Council Transportation, Infrastructure, and Aviation Committee
August 11, 2009, 2:00 pm

Houston Tomorrow publishes notes from public meetings to help local governments in their mission to provide transparency and to allow a greater pool of citizens to participate in important policy discussions.  These notes are not official meeting minutes, nor do they necessarily record every agenda item.

The City Council Transportation, Infrastructure, and Aviation (TIA) Committee met on Tuesday to discuss amendments that would allow the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) to develop two commuter rail lines, one along US 290 out to Hempstead and the other down to Galveston.

GCFRD Chairman Mark Ellis, a former Houston City Council member, presented the amendments and was accompanied by Interim Executive Director Maureen Crocker. Ellis noted that HB 2958 of 2005 enabled the creation of freight rail districts, and that the GCFRD was formally established in January 2007. The board currently has 11 representatives, including three appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court and three appointed by the Houston mayor. The chairman is jointly appointed by the mayor and the county commissioners, and Texas Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes serves as an ex oficio member.

The proposed amendments would change the name of the GCFRD to the Gulf Coast Rail District, expand the board to 13 members to include Waller and Galveston counties, and add commuter rail and passenger rail capabilities.

Ellis said that the proposed 40-mile Hempstead commuter rail along US 290 would cost an estimated $348 million outside the 610 Loop. Commuter rail would use the route during the day, while freight rail would use it at night. By 2035, he said, GCFRD expects 23,200 passenger boardings each day.

The 50-mile Galveston line would cost an estimated $182 million and would carry roughly 23,500 passengers per day by 2035. Freight rail would also use the Galveston route at night. Ellis said that the projects would be developed through a public-private partnership, and that Mayor Bill White’s administration looks on the amendments favorably.

TIA Committee Chair Sue Lovell told Ellis, “This is probably one of the most exciting things happening in this area, having commuter rail.” She asked Ellis for a target completion date. Ellis replied that the Hempstead and Galveston routes would be constructed simultaneously, and that both routes had received stimulus money for preliminary engineering work. He added that GCFRD is negotiating with Union Pacific Railroad, which looks more favorably on the Hempstead route. If a contract were signed today, he said, it would probably be a two-year project, but he expects it to take three to five years at this point.

A staff member with Council Member Anne Clutterbuck’s office asked if the two lines would interface with the METRO light rail system, which will be greatly expanded by the time the commuter rail lines would be complete. Ellis said that GCFRD is in negotiations with METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). He said, “This does not work without the assistance and help of METRO, and we understand that.”

Lovell asked if the projects could be funded by freight rail fees if GCFRD is able to reduce freight rail congestion in the area. Ellis said that such a proposal would require the approval of the railroads, and that such an arrangement could be possible for those two specific projects. He noted that Houston rail congestion costs shippers $430 million every year, and that GCFRD could try to implement a fee to help expedite regional rail projects.

Ellis requested that the committee make a motion to approve the amendments and send them to the full City Council. Lovell noted that the committee did not have a quorum, saying, “I’m certainly in favor of this, but we can’t vote on it today.” Only Lovell and Council Member Edward Gonzales were in attendance, although a number of staff members were present.

The committee also discussed a refrigerated cargo facility lease at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, as well as a technical correction to the Airport Compatible Land Use Ordinance. Lovell said that the revised refrigerate cargo lease would allow Houston to better compete with Miami, which dominates the refrigerated cargo market.

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