Updated 8:46 am, Wednesday, May 18, 2016
The answer to Houston’s transportation challenges isn’t readily at hand, but is available with better cooperation and a realization that more options to solo driving are needed, Mayor Sylvester Turner told a luncheon of engineers, elected officials and consultants Tuesday.
“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner said at the event, hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.
Turner, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, touched on a laundry list of projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access. Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, but together the options could reform how people travel.
“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” the mayor said.
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 Tuesday afternoon.
As options increase, Turner said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good, and face 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 and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”
Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already splicing the meaning of Turner’s statement on light rail, and its obvious reference to the decade-long discussion of light rail proposed along Richmond Avenue.
Many agreed that compromise on certain hot-button issues was critical, and 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 Houston area have a laundry list of projects they’d like to see built, though some disagree on what projects should take precedence.
TAG Houston lobbies for $67.7 billion in road, rail and transit improvements over the next 30 years. The largest share of money, $26 billion, is directed to various highway improvements under the control of the Texas Department of Transportation. That total, however, is eclipsed by the $29.8 billion in light rail and commuter rail identified, divided between METRO and the Gulf Coast Rail District.
Typically, 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 around 20 percent devoted to transit.
Supporters of more robust transit covering a larger part of the Houston region say that balance needs to change, despite current travel trends. Roughly nine out of 10 working residents in the Houston area rely on a private vehicle to get to and from work.
As the area grows and more locations become increasingly urban in design, 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 heavily focused on highways. In the past two state transportation referendums in which voters authorized more TxDOT spending, the added money was restricted to only non-tolled highways.
“This limits the flexibility the region needs for improvements,” the mayor told the crowd of around 400.
Still, circling back to his focus on cooperation, Turner acknowledged 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.”