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TIA Committee

Meeting notes - July 9, 2009

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City Council Transportation, Infrastructure, and Aviation Committee
July 9, 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 Thursday to discuss the upcoming light rail expansion project, as well as revisions to the parking lot booting ordinance and a new delinquent parking fees contract.

Frank Wilson, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), noted that in March the transit agency signed a $1.46 billion contract for the East End, North, and Southeast corridors, as well as preliminary work along the Uptown corridor. The University Line, he said, is at least nine months behind the other four lines, while the Uptown Line is waiting for engineering work and final approval from the Texas Department of Transportation.

The design-build-operate contract is nontraditional, Wilson said, in that it creates a single point of responsibility. Instead of getting one company to design the system, another to build it, and a third to operate it, which can create accountability disputes, the Parsons Transportation Group will be responsible for every aspect of the new lines. The contract includes a five-year “defect free performance” clause, and if anything goes wrong in that time, Parsons will be completely responsible for fixing it. Wilson said that the contract was “revolutionary in this business.”

Wilson also said that METRO is guarding against future price increases by purchasing most of the materials up front. This not only guards against inflation, he said, but it also means that METRO is saving money by buying the materials in a depressed market. He said that METRO will use $64 million in stimulus funds to buy 19 new light rail cars. Unfortunately, he added, the money is going to Spain, because no American companies manufacture light rail cars. METRO had initially hoped to use the money for preliminary work along the new light rail corridors, but the Federal Transit Administration ruled that METRO could not use the funds for that purpose. However, Wilson said that the stimulus money would free up $64 million elsewhere that would be spent locally.

Wilson also noted that METRO expects a Full Funding Grant Agreement by the end of the year, which will provide federal funding to the projects, and that the North and Southeast lines have been allotted $75 million each in President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget.

Wilson said that the project will be developed in four phases - utility work, road widening, guideway work, and finishes - unlike the Main Street corridor, where all construction was completed at once. “Main Street was ripped up from one end of the city to the other,” he said, which caused many problems. The new system has already been used successfully in cities such as Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, and Tempe, and is designed to minimize traffic and business impacts.

No roads will be completely closed, although they may be shut down to one lane in each direction at times, and there will be no long-term lane closures. Doing the utility work first will allow construction crews to find any conflicts with existing infrastructure ahead of time without slowing construction. METRO’s construction manager described each process in detail to give council members an idea of what to expect.

Several city council members asked how long the construction would take, hoping to avoid serious adverse affects on businesses and residents. Wilson said that construction might affect any given point along the corridor for about nine months, although he stressed that due to the staggered phasing, such disruptions would be nonconsecutive.

One public speaker showed up and criticized METRO, saying that the transit agency has not been transparent and has deviated from the 2003 referendum approving the light rail expansion.

In other action, the committee discussed revisions to the city booting and minimum parking lot standards ordinances as well as a new contract for collecting delinquent parking citations. Both items were approved and will be placed on the agenda of the full City Council. The parking revisions were primarily to make sure that booting was only used in cases of nonpayment, rather than for illegal parking and other violations.

The delinquent parking contract, if approved by City Council, would guarantee that 40 percent of delinquent citations will be collected, a significant increase from the current 28 percent. Failure to meet this goal will cost the vendor $75,000, although several council members expressed concern that the penalty was too small, noting that the city could easily lose more than $75,000 in revenues if the goal was not met.

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