Regional plans would include better balance of state, federal funds
May 17, 2016 Updated: May 18, 2016 8:50am
Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.
“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.
Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.
“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.
Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.
“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”
Longtime advocates of bolstering transit and pedestrian options in Houston cheered the mayor’s ideas, along with a handful of highway officials who concede that the days of building more highways further from the city core is waning.
“I think he was spot-on,” said Jeff Collins, with LJA Engineering, a supporter of commuter rail in the region. “We need the money to keep this area moving.”
Only through better cooperation, something attendees said is already occurring, will roads, rails, buses, bicycles and pedestrians coexist in the area. That puts a lot of added responsibility on the regional Texas Department of Transportation office and Metropolitan Transit Authority, officials agreed.
“We talk more than ever before,” said TxDOT District Director Quincy Allen, standing with Metro CEO Tom Lambert. In fact, the two said, they had a meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
Signs of that cooperation are starting to appear. Before Turner’s hourlong speech, Texas Transportation Commission member Jeff Moseley said a planned dedicated bus lane along Post Oak is an example. While Uptown Houston and Metro are working on street-level segments, the state is committing $25 million to lanes along Loop 610 to extend the bus-only access to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center.
More projects like the Uptown bus lanes mean Metro will have to forge new partnerships, public transit agency Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.
“We’re looking forward to putting in the work,” said Patman, whom Turner appointed in March. “The board and staff is ready.”
As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.
“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”
Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.
Many agreed that compromise on certain hot-button issues was critical and that Houston could benefit from moving beyond framing the debate in terms of cars versus trains.
“Rubber or steel, we need investment,” said Jack Drake, chairman of TAG-Houston.
Supporters of expanding transportation options in the area have a long list of projects they’d like to see built, though some disagree on what projects should take priority.
TAG Houston lobbies for $67.7 billion in road, rail and transit improvements over the next 30 years. The largest share of it, $26 billion, is directed to highway improvements under the control of TxDOT, with the bulk of the other funds going to the Harris County Toll Road Authority. That total is surpassed by the $29.8 billion in light rail and commuter rail to be divided between Metro and the Gulf Coast Rail District.
Historically, highway spending far outpaces expansion of rail in the region. In past and current long-term transportation plans by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, highways represent around 80 percent of the spending, with about 20 percent devoted to transit.
Turner said about 577,000 people drive from outside the city limits into Houston each workday, many crossing from one dense area to another.
“Every single day, people coming from outside the city of Houston increase our population by another Atlanta,” he said.
As the area grows and more locations become increasingly urban, proponents of transit improvements say more people will choose bus and trains over crowded highways and streets. But Turner said state and federal money available for transportation is too focused on highways. In the past two state transportation referendums in which voters authorized more TxDOT spending, the added money was restricted to nontolled highways.
“This limits the flexibility the region needs for improvements,” the mayor told Tuesday’s luncheon crowd of about 400.
Still, circling back to his focus on cooperation, Turner acknowledged that TxDOT will play a critical role in the changes he envisions.
“I don’t want to beat up on them too bad when I want their help,” the mayor joked. “I’m not crazy. So TxDOT does excellent work. … We just need more of your funding in the Houston region.”