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Tom Reid

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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 14, Kristen Wright conducted a telephone interview with Tom Reid, the Mayor of Pearland. Mayor Reid serves as the TPC Secretary and also sits on the H-GAC Board of Directors. An edited version of the transcript appears below.

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

It represents the eight-county area, and it also brings together the principal players – both elected officials and three appointees, which are the Port of Houston, METRO, and organizations of that type. But, it’s basically an elected official organization, and we look at the needs of the region to make certain that money from the federal and state sources are appropriately placed for the biggest and best good.

And, of course, the eight-county area is a non-attainment area. And as such, we have to be very careful how we appropriate the monies to make sure that we also meet those deeds and requirements set up by federal law. I think it’s an organization that is fair, and appropriates the money in the areas where it has the greatest impact on transportation and air quality. And I think it’s done with a regional concept in mind. We’re good stewards of the money.

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

Houston and Pearland are two examples of growth. Rapid growth. And, I think the reason why we’re growing is that we’re doing a lot of things right. We’re making some good decisions, and we are keeping people’s needs in mind, or they wouldn’t be coming here. And, if they came here and we weren’t doing this, then they’d be leaving. So, I think growth can be a very positive thing. I think it needs to be the right type of growth, and I think the way we govern, and the way we utilize our resources in this area determines what type of growth we’ll be getting. And I think we’ve done a good job of that.

How do you feel about Gov. Perry’s veto of Senate Bill 2169, which would have required the state to establish a “smart growth” workgroup?

You know, I’m focusing on so many of the issues related to the City of Pearland, and I didn’t really study that issue in detail. So, I’m not sure if I can speak with authority on it. But, you’re talking about smart growth in general?

Yes.

I think smart growth is something that – is smart. It’s utilizing the resources that you have, the area that you have available for applying those resources, and making sure that you get the biggest bang for that buck, and a favorable impact on the area and the citizens. Sometimes, it has a bad connotation because – some other ideas that people have – they want to inject into what they call smart growth. I think it’s something that we need to really take a hard look at – something that we need to make sure we do it the right way.

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?

You know, Pearland is in the process of trying to get light rail to come to us. We have a strong belief that it will be a plus. People drive their SUVs and vehicles for the simple reason that there are no other alternatives. You can’t ride a bicycle from Pearland to Houston. You know, it’s eight miles or so, and the traffic is bad, so you have to have something that offers the equivalent of being able to drive. And, you know, a lot of places like New York, the transportation system is set up where it covers an area, it’s reliable, and if you miss this bus, another will get on in just a few minutes. We’re spread out as big as Pearland and Houston, Galveston areas – a huge, huge footprint. Getting around is rather difficult, so you almost have to have a vehicle to do that. And, of course, those individuals who do not have vehicles – METRO light rail, these are alternatives I think people would turn to.

Even those of us who drive pickup trucks or SUVs – we would turn and use light rail and park and ride facilities if those modes of transportation take us where we want to. One of the problems we’ve run into is that a light rail from Pearland has to go down pretty close to the Medical Center. But if somebody needs to go to the Galleria, are you going to be able to arrive at a transfer station, where you could get a vehicle – or light rail traffic over towards the Galleria. So, the destination has an awful lot of control and determination over what type of transportation methods that you want to use. Because we’re so spread out, and our needs – or, the destination where we want to go – are so diverse, you almost have to have a car to do that in this part of the country.

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 from people in the Houston area?

I’ve lived in the Houston area since the ‘50s. And I remember when 610 was a “challenged” loop. People say, “Why in the world are you wasting your money putting something called 610 looping around the City of Houston. Who in the heck is going to use it?” But you can’t hardly get on it now, because it’s used so much. People made the same comment about Beltway 8 – “Why are you spending money? We’re putting in new areas of uninhabited regions of Houston. Why are we spending the money to do that?” Look at what Beltway 8 has done to make the City of Houston – the area – something very special. And, I think the same thing would happen in the expansion of the Grand Parkway. What it is is a 610, Beltway 8, a little farther out. And whether we build it or not, we’re going to have to have something in the way of transportation in those areas. When it does develop. And, if you don’t have it there, it’s going to cost so much more in the future to buy the land, to move things out of the way, than put in place. And, I think once it gets built, people will have the same feeling about the Grand Parkway as they do about 610, and 610 Loop and also Beltway 8, too. Just see. And, “How’d you ever get by without them?”

So, you don’t believe that it will lead to an even “Grander” Parkway 30 years down the line?

Yes, it’s – that’s the way it was with Beltway 8 – you know, it’s not like Beltway 8 is not complete within itself. Now, the east part still needs to be developed, but I tell you, I use it all the time. I speak very favorably about my favorite Beltway 8 – which is, of course, the northern boundary of Pearland, which separates Pearland from the City of Houston. I think it’s something that, if you don’t have transportation – arterials that will provide mobility from one part of the quadrant, six o’clock in the area to nine o’clock or 12 o’clock, which is not part of the area – you don’t have ways to get around, and you become “stagnated.” And incidentally, the Grand Parkway will come just south of Pearland. And, we’re looking with great favor upon that happening.

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

That is a challenge. How do you maintain what you have, and also expand those arterial needs that you feel are required for future growth. And one of the things that a lot of people keep forgetting is that Pearland and Houston are part of a growth state. We have about 20 million people in Texas now. The demographics are telling us that it’s migration, not necessarily immigration.

It’s a challenge. You know, the current roadways – unfortunately, most or all of them in the Houston-Galveston area are getting quite old. And TxDOT is concerned that the monies that they’re receiving – most of it has to go to repair what we already have in place. That is a challenge. We also have to be aware of the fact that future arterials are needed. Growth is something that – unless you put up a fence, or barricade – it’s hard to stop. We’re such an attractive area that we’re bringing in more people, we’re developing, we’ve got to have places to put them – we call them subdivisions, we call them shopping centers – to take care of them. And when you do that, you have to have ways to get to them. And our air quality requirements say that people stagnating in narrow streets and slow traffic are creating a lot more air quality issues than people on a Beltway traveling at 35 to 45 miles per hour. And, so you have to think in terms of taking care of the people that are moving in, and to do that, you have to have roadways. And when you build them, you have to build them in such a way that is traffic-friendly and would contribute to increasing air quality, rather than reducing air quality.

Maintaining what you have is a challenge, and I think that has awful lot to do with the quality of construction that you put into the roadway initially. Do you have a good basin? Do you have good materials in place? And are you choosing to put the roadway in the right location? So, I think there’s a good balance, and that’s one of the things that our Transportation Policy Council has to face. We are looking primarily at new roadways. But we don’t look primarily at replacement of the existing roadways. So, we have to make certain that we utilize some money appropriately up front – to get the biggest bang for the buck over the long haul. So we won’t have to be continuously repairing something that is poor quality, poor choice of location.

According to Houston Chronicle blogger Greg May, chances are good that the TPC will approve Connect Transit’s park and ride proposal. The park and ride will be located by the 288 corridor in northern Brazoria County. Why is the TPC so enthusiastic about the project, and how will it affect the region?

I think probably the 288 corridor is – in the mornings and afternoons – is one of the biggest transportation challenges for drivers. We’re eight miles to the Medical Center, and of course, a lot of people live in Pearland that – there’s 7,200 of them, as a matter of fact – that work at the Medical Center. And, it seems like everybody has to be on the road at the same time in the morning to get to work. The park and ride is something that has a dual benefit. One, the polling that we have done with the people not only in Pearland, but those who live south of us along the 288 corridor – have indicated a desire to ride the bus in to the Medical Center. Of course, there is a transfer station or two. You can catch a bus to other locations. And that’s one of the pluses.

But primarily, it does two things. One, it gets more vehicles off the 288 corridor, which is getting as bad as 59 and the Gulf Freeway. And, it also frees up parking spaces at the Medical Center. That parking space can be utilized for current employees, and also for patients that go to the Medical Center. And, if you’ve kept up with the forecast of what the Medical Center will be like in the future, the indication is over the next 15 years, or so, you’re going to add another 30,000 people there.

So, if we have more people coming in, the need for park and ride – for people who would rather ride a park and ride in the morning, catch it, come back home at night – has a lot of attraction. I think it’s something we’ve been working very hard on with the Transportation Policy Council and the Houston-Galveston Area Council. I’m on both of those boards. And we’ve been working with them to try to make this a reality.

It looks like Connect Transit is the right method of us utilizing a transportation group to make certain that our citizens get in to the Medical Center, and also to other areas in Houston from their transfer, though I think it is available there to the Medical Center. That was kind of a rambling response, but I hope you can unravel that. I think it’s a good thing. I think it’s a very big plus, and all of our citizens are really looking forward to it, and it’s something I’ve invested a lot of personal time in.

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

That’s a challenge. Citizens have a tendency not to get involved in preparing for their own well-being sometimes. I think the Transportation Policy Council is an outreach to a number of communities, Pearland being one of them. And, we make certain that the information that we have is available in the newspaper, it’s available on the website – the Transportation Policy Council website. Also, the Houston-Galveston Area Council has transportation issues as well. And, trying to get the citizenry involved in it, to be honest, is quite a challenge. There’s no real good way in the eight-county area that the Transportation Policy Council has a responsibility for. For all of the citizens to be aware of everything that we do – but we’re very careful – we pick and choose those things that I think contribute the most to the citizenry in the area and represent the best possible utilization, the best stewardship of the monies that we have available. Things cost a lot more than they used to. And, the citizens, of course, have to pick up that tab. And, I’m one of the citizens, and I have to pick up that tab. So, we’re very jealous of how we utilize that money.

But getting the citizens involved is something – I think our Road Warrior is a great plus. I read his blog, and I think that he – at least his article in the Houston Chronicle is a very positive thing, and I think he’s done a good job of picking those issues that would attract the citizens, and maybe get them more involved. And, I think he’s helped a lot in luring people to the potential ridership of our park and ride system that we hope to put in place, I hope before Christmas.

Do you believe that the residents of the City of Pearland have enough representation on the Transportation Policy Council?

Yes, I do. We’re very fortunate that we’re allowed to be on the Policy Council. And, when you are a City of 50,000 or more in the region, you have sort of a designated position on the Council. And we, of course, are sitting here at 130,000 people down here. If you talk about our total population base here, it’s about 130,000 people. And we also have – I guess you have the honor of having the 288 corridor go right through Pearland. And State Highway 35 going through Pearland. So, we have a couple of rural state highways that have considerable transportation overload, where all these people are going north, and all of these people going south on those roadways, but there sure are a lot of them there.

But I think Pearland is fortunate to be on the Transportation Policy Council. I’ve been working with transportation now for the last 35 years, in one way or the other. And I think being in the position where we are – with the population and the adjacency to the Medical Center, the University of Houston, and the Johnson Space Center – that we have a lot of people living here that work at those facilities, and we have a lot of use of the transportation arterials that prompt us to be a good candidate to be helping – how can we make sure that all the transportation issues are handled better. If that makes sense.

[Editor’s note: Technically, at this time Mayor Reid represents Smaller Cities of Brazoria County on the TPC. The City of Pearland does not qualify for its own seat on the council because its official population, as of the 2000 Census, is 37,640. However, Pearland’s population is expected to be well over 50,000 in the 2010 Census, at which point the city will formally have its own seat on the TPC, a prospect that TPC discussed at its August meeting. Conroe and League City are also expected to surpass 50,000 residents in 2010 and gain seats on the council.]

Is it important for you to consider social and environmental issues when making transportation decisions?

Absolutely, I think transportation issues and the quality of life and the environment all are part of the same consideration that you have to take when you make transportation decisions. Quality of life, of course, is – I think – in the eye of the beholder in a number of cases. What I think is quality of life, somebody may not think so. But, the environmental issues, I think, are there whether you like the transportation issue or you don’t like the transportation issue. And we have to be very careful about that, because it is part of the plan that we use in making decisions for the Transportation Policy Council – both in the TPC and the Houston-Galveston Area Council. You have to factor those in. You have to factor in the quality of life. Of course, you have to factor in – is this the right transportation decision as opposed to another transportation decision – and got to have a balance in all of those type of decision-making processes.

Now, I’m intrigued by one of your statements. You say quality of life is in the eye of the beholder. Could you elaborate upon that?

Yes, I think that a Beltway 8 is a contribution to the quality of life in Pearland because it gives us an opportunity to be able to access other parts of the region in a very short period of time. And in a more environmentally sensitive way. I’m traveling 45 to 55 miles on Beltway 8 – make sure you’re traveling on the Beltway 8 – but I consider that because of the 55 miles per hour, you’re probably putting less bad pollution in the air than you would at six miles per hour on a street. I see that as a quality of life issue. Someone else may look at that and say, “What in the world are we doing with, all that traffic up there?” And that it’s just an eyesore.

So, I think that’s it’s a personally related thing. A street, a boulevard coming through Pearland –some people may say all it does is put all these cars past subdivisions. Well, for me, it gives me an opportunity to access parts of our city in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way. I see that as a quality of life issue. Someone else may say all that traffic coming by my subdivision is bad quality of life. There’s an upside and downside to everything, depending on the individual’s viewpoint on life, I guess.

What is your ideal regional system?

What would be my ideal transportation system? If you were in New York City, my answer would be completely different than what I would say here in Pearland. The whole idea is to be able to provide means of getting from one location to another. If I can go from here to Reliant Stadium without bumper-to-bumper traffic, I think that’s a plus. If I have bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there, I think that is a minus. So, trying to put together a plan for a regional transportation – that is the challenge.

We’re trying to figure out what we’re trying to do with the Transportation Policy Council and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation issues. We’re trying to figure out – how can we regionally put together the best transportation system? One of those is light rail. Not everybody wants to ride light rail. It doesn’t go where they want to go. Park and ride is a beautiful system. It’s probably more flexible than light rail. But not everyone wants to sit and wait for the next bus to come, and it won’t take them exactly where they need to go when it gets to the end of the bus line. You have to have other alternatives for people who can’t use those systems effectively. And that’s called an automobile. And so you have to prepare methods in the regional transportation system that will allow for automobile people to effectively go from their location at home to their destination, wherever it might be. For most of us, it’s in the morning. It may be one destination in the afternoon, it may be another one. So, you have to be able to have methods for them to use to get there. We call them streets, or roadways. So, how do you do that is one of the challenges of the Transportation Policy Council.

How can we have this network so that here is something for everybody: rail, bus, use of their own personal vehicles, maybe. And we’re also encouraging – wherever possible – people to use bicycles. And the bicycle path – that’s one of the greatest things included in our transportation planning. But, I can’t use a bicycle to get to the Medical Center from Pearland. So you have to have these options available. And in the morning when you get up, you can choose the best option. If you’re just going to the Medical Center, park and ride is going to get you there. If it’s light rail, that’s another thing. If I want to go to the Galleria, I’d better use my car. We have to have that in our picture.

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

Well, I think we’re going to have to nibble away at it. I think that the issues are – we’re working with little ideas like Livable Centers. We can walk, play, work, live in one little area, and not have to venture out across a city to get what you want. It’s all there, within walking distance, or bicycle riding distance. Those are ideas that suit some people, but don’t suit everybody. How do we do this? I don’t really know what kind of resources I could pull together to make a regional plan a better one. I think we’ve brought together probably some of the better minds in the area with the Transportation Policy Council – the eight-county region – and I think we’re really looking at how we can resolve the question you just asked. I’m not sure. We’re challenged.

There’s a limited amount of money. We have limited control over certain issues. We can’t tell people they can’t build in certain areas, therefore they don’t need transportation to get there. You have to try to figure out how to use the resources that you have – which are relatively limited, both federal and state – to try to put together a network of transportation options that make a lot of sense, and have minimal impact on environment and quality of life. So I’m not quite sure if I can answer that definitively. That’s the challenge we’re facing right now. And if I had that answer, I would probably get a big pat on my back from somebody. I’d be the Chairman of our Transportation Policy Council on H-GAC. And TxDOT as well.

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