Houston Public Radio
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) For the past month, local policy makers have been ruminating on whether it would be a good idea to renege on a promise to give $12.8 million dollars to certain bike and pedestrian-oriented projects. The money is part of a $345 million dollar pot of discretionary funding. Some goes to bike/ped projects, some to road/freight rail projects. The proposal to take that $12 million and put it toward road and freight rail project stemmed from the stark reality that resources for transportation projects in the Houston region are dwindling, and the view by many members of the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) that the funds would be better spent on highway improvements.
But the plan wasn’t received well by bike advocates who came out in large numbers to sign petitions and voice concerns during last month’s TPC meeting. So, after hearing from the public, the proposal was shelved to allow time for more deliberation on how to split up the funds. That time ran out at this month's meeting where the issue finally came to a vote.
Listen the full story here.
Ruth SoRelle and her husband Paul rode their bikes to the meeting. They joined dozens of other cycling advocates to hear how the TPC would vote. Before the meeting I asked Ruth SoRelle what she hoped the outcome would be. “We are not asking for extra money," she said, "we are asking for them to maintain the funding we have. We need to develop alternate ways of transportation. So if we develop bikeways and pedestrian walkways then we’ll accomplish that goal.”
In the end, the SoRelles got their wish. The TPC decided to preserve the money for bike/ped initiatives. But despite the seeming victory,
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) As Texas lawmakers struggle to trim the budget, transportation advocates are hoping the legislators keep their scissors away from the dwindling pot of transportation dollars. A new organization called the Transportation Advocacy Group - Houston Region (TAG) is calling on politicians to find more ways to finance highway and transit projects.
TAG has around 50 members so far. Most are business leaders in the Houston region: engineers, attorneys, contractors, property managers, etc. Wayne Klotz helped start the group. He’s been a civil engineer in Houston for more than thirty years. He says with money for road and transit projects drying up, lawmakers need to come up with other solutions to the region’s transportation problems. “We’ve got all these things floating around but no ability to pay for them," says Klotz. "And if there is no way to pay for them they won’t get built."
Friday, March 18, 2011
(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston-area transportation policy makers have $80 million federal dollars to distribute at their discretion. At the monthly meeting of Transportation Policy Council (TPC) advisers went around the table giving input on how the funding should be divided between bike and pedestrian projects, and road and freight rail projects. There was no consensus on exactly how to do that. (Should 45 percent go to non-road projects or should that number be closer to 11 percent? The former is by far the less likely of the two.)
But there was a lot of chatter on how divvying up the money would shape Houston’s transportation system in the future. Robin Holzer heads up the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, a group that wants more money to go to projects that would build bike lanes and widen sidewalks. “I think the question of how to spend this $80 million has kick-started a really important policy discussion that’s going to play forward into our future investments and in particular into our long-range transportation plan," says Holzer. "And that’s a good thing,” she adds.
Clark Martinson is the general manager of Houston's Energy Corridor district. He’s also a technical advisor to the TPC. He notes that the majority of the conversation circled around alternative types of transportation. “I have not heard anybody discuss that we want more roadways in any of these discussions. I’ve heard people asking that we want to create a more livable environment that’s safer to walk, for our children to walk to school, to be able to ride a bicycle to work and not be in fear on the roads," he said. "And so I think that with that kind of dialogue that’s happening, it’s a real transportation shift in our region.”
Last month cycling and livable centers advocates succeeded in getting the TPC to reconsider a proposal that would have cut all bike/pedestrian funding from that $80 million dollar pot. The TPC decided to delay the vote for a month. It will make its final decision on how to slice up the pie during its March 25 meeting. Almost 3,000 bike and pedestrian activists have signed two petitions calling on officials to save funding for non-road projects.
Listen to the story here.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Transportation policy makers may vote this Friday on a proposal that would stall money for bike and other alternative transit projects in greater Houston.
A portion of the eight-county region’s four-year $8.1 billion dollar transportation budget may see a reduction in funding for bike, transit, and other pedestrian-oriented projects if the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) votes in favor of the proposal. That means a number of these so-called “alternative mode” projects could be delayed by one or more years.
Alan Clark, the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says if the proposal is approved, up to $13 million dollars that would have been spent on “alternative mode” projects could go to road and freight rail projects instead. He says the money could be made available for projects like, "intersection improvements, additional improvements to ramping or interchanges, the widening of an existing road, construction of one that’s in poor condition, that sort of thing.”
But Clark says none of the scheduled “alternative mode” projects are at risk of losing their funding, it just means the money for some of them might come later. Clark says there will still be money available for bike paths, sidewalk improvements, and other bike/transit/pedestrian projects. Fifty-four percent of the total budget is going to transit, while just under two percent is going to bicycle and pedestrian-oriented initiatives.
But BikeHouston board member Aaron Chang thinks that last number should be much higher. "Pedestrian, bicycle, and livable centers have been severely underfunded," said Chang. "And we can’t keep looking toward old solutions to tackle new problems that we’re trying to solve right now."
Wang says he and other BikeHouston members are going to Friday’s meeting to make their case against the proposal.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
METRO had hired CAF to build 103 light rail cars for the North and Southeast rail lines. But last December METRO had to cancel the contract after the Federal Transit Administration said the $330 million dollar deal violated federal purchasing laws and Buy America rules. That has stalled $900 million dollars in federal grants. “The Federal Transit Administration made it clear that unless we terminated the CAF contract and purchased cars under a new program that they were comfortable with, we would not be eligible for the full funding grant,” said George Greanias, METRO’s president and CEO.
METRO was able to recover $14 million dollars of the $41 million it had already paid to CAF. Greanias says the money will go toward re-procuring the light rail cars. “We just issued a notice over the weekend that we’re going to be going out to take bids on rail cars," said Greanias. "And we’ve been working very closely with the Federal Transit Administration to make sure that every step in the process that we’re going through right now meets with their approval.”
Earlier this week the Obama Administration submitted its proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. It includes $200 million dollars for the North and Southeast rail lines.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
(Houston - Laurie Johnson and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) There could be more money on the way for Houston's light rail system. President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 sets aside a hefty $128 billion dollars for transportation projects across America - a 66% increase from 2010. It’s part of a new six-year transportation bill, pegged at $556 billion dollars. "We view this as a big win for public transit," said Peter Rogoff, the Federal Transit Administrator. Obama's budget includes a record $3.2 billion dollars for 21 capital transit rail and bus projects.
If passed, METRO's light rail project would receive another $200 million allocation - that's up $50 million from last year. The money would go towards the construction of the North and Southeast rail lines. George Greanias, METRO's president and CEO, points out that the proposed money is in addition to the $300 million already allocated to the agency. "We worked very hard last fall to regroup after a very difficult summer," Greanias said. "And I think the way we approached that regrouping work has made an impression on the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), on the Obama Administration."
The transit authority got in trouble with the FTA last year after a four month long investigation found the previous METRO administration had broken federal Buy America laws when it handed over two light rail contracts to a Spanish rail car manufacturer. That violation put $900 million dollars in federal grants on hold. METRO was able to come to an agreement with the Spanish company, ultimately canceling its contract in December. The settlement helped put METRO back on track to qualify for the total federal funds.
Obama's $200 million dollar bump for METRO is part of that pending $900 million dollar grant. Rogoff says there's no question last year's debacle delayed METRO's funding. But he says members of METRO's new administration have been willing to work with the FTA to fix the situation. "We have always said that we were not going to punish the commuters of Houston for the misdeeds of prior METRO leadership," Rogoff said. "And I think the amounts of money we have for both these lines in the budget reflect that." He said the FTA expects to finalize the full funding grant agreements before the end of 2012, and adds that both rail projects are on the list.
The transportation money is part of the Obama Administration’s latest $3.7 trillion dollar budget proposal that would slash spending by 2.4 percent.
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority may expand its rail service out to the suburbs. The line would link Houston with Missouri City, roughly paralleling the existing freight rail track along the US 90A corridor for eight miles. It would begin just south of the Medical Center and end just inside Missouri City at Beltway 8. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service design and development with METRO, says traffic in the southwest Houston area will only get worse -- so it's crucial to have other transportation options on the table. Slaughter says METRO is studying this corridor "to find another way to provide high-capacity transit to move people in [the southwest Houston] region."
Listen to the story over at KUHF.
METRO is floating five possible options for the rail project. Most involve light rail technologies. Just one considers commuter rail. They would all require laying down brand new track. Sharing track with freight rail has been talked about in the past, but Slaughter says it isn’t possible now because there's just too much freight traffic. The project is expected to cost between $200 and $250 million dollars.
METRO is holding four meetings this month to get public input on the project. “We’re asking the public to come and join us," said Slaughter. "We’re asking for all stakeholders, public agencies, residents, landowners...employees in the area, to come to the public meetings and tell us what else should we consider; what other alignments we should consider,” she said.
Slaughter says if all goes smoothly, construction could begin on the rail line by late 2017. But finding money for transportation projects is difficult in this economic and political climate, so METRO may have trouble coming up with the cash.
Friday, January 21, 2011
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston commuters were fortunate to spend less time sitting in traffic in 2009 than in 2008, according to a transportation study released by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). The slight drop in congestion was due to the lagging economy and higher prices at the pump. But the respite from bad gridlock has most likely come and gone.
Researchers with TTI looked at 439 urban areas, both big and small. Tim Lomax, a research engineer with TTI, found that commuting in Houston in 2009 was less time consuming than in 2008. "The amount of extra time that people spent on the roads in Houston went from 63 hours to 58 hours," he said.
So why the improvement? Lomax says it’s closely tied to the state of the economy. Economic slow-downs, he says, "bring declines in congestion." Lomax notes that with more people unemployed, fewer people had jobs they needed to get to by car. The high cost of gas also persuaded people to drive less.
Still, a five hour savings over 2008 isn’t much. Let’s face it; spending fifty-eight hours twiddling your thumbs in a stationary car is a bit extreme, even if it is over the course of a year. "You’re still spending on the order of a week and a half worth of vacation extra in your car," Lomax pointed out.
Listen to the story over at KUHF News.
So, despite the slight reduction in traffic jams, Houston ranks 4th on TTI’s list of the most congested big cities of 2009. Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles topped the list. And it wasn’t just time that was wasted.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
(Houston, TX -- Pat Hernandez and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) A state-county debate over who will build a ring road around Houston is picking up steam and heading toward resolution this week, but that doesn't mean everyone is happy with the progress.
Harris County handed over responsibility to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Tuesday for building a segment of the Grand Parkway, a proposed 180-mile ring road that will cross seven counties around Greater Houston.
Fifteen months ago, Harris County took control of the project under the assumption TxDOT didn't have the money to build the road and the two planned to come to an agreement on how tolls would be collected and distributed. More recently, Harris County Commissioners challenged TxDOT to build a 15-mile segment from Interstate -10 to Highway 290 after the state said it has $425-million to spend on the project.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was happy with Tuesday's vote to waive the county's right to build the Grand Parkway, also known as state highway 99. He says it means the Grand Parkway could be built sooner. "It will also then let us focus on other parts of our own toll road system. For example widening South Belt, looking at new projects, like Hempstead, and it'll allow us to focus on other transportation projects. And let the state build State Highway 99, which is the Grand Parkway."
Emmett says they have an advanced funding agreement with TxDOT, which includes reimbursement for the design and money already spent on the project. The Grand Parkway is expected to cost in excess of $5 billion when completed.
For him it’s a win-win: The state will begin construction on part of the Grand Parkway, and the county will be able to direct its energies on other transportation projects that could help ease traffic congestion. This is good news, says Robin Holzer, Chairwoman of Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.
“By all accounts the 290 corridor is the most congested transportation corridor in the entire Houston region. So if letting the Grand Parkway go gets the county to focus our tax dollars on a project that will make a difference – like the Hempstead managed lanes, or perhaps a rail project in the northwest corridor – that’s a good thing.”
Thursday, November 04, 2010
(Houston, TX –– Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houston is planning to let solo drivers pay to drive in a special, faster lane, for the right price. The plan is expected to reduce traffic overall, though it raises some equity concerns that rich drivers can buy a faster commute while everyone else pays the price.
In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. The lanes be controlled by a transit agency, not the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the agency normally in charge of toll roads in the area.
Houston Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time. "With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used," says Greanias. "In the meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to HOV lanes that are congested due to all the heavy traffic."
Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to