What's up at HCTRALast month, I got a very generous invitation by fellow Rice MBA alum Fred Philipson to visit with upper management at the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Being a transportation nerd, I of course immediately accepted, and had to also invite along fellow nerds Christof and Erik (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, guys). It was an extremely engaging free-ranging discussion that covered many topics. I took a lot of notes, and now I get to pass them along to you. If I miss something important, I hope they might chime-in in the comments.
- Long-term plans include extending the Hardy all the way to Conroe
- Shorter-term priorities include the Grand Parkway on the northwest side
- On the southern end, the Hardy extension into downtown is still in "coordination" among all the different entities. 4 lanes total, with a connection to Metro's new Intermodal station north of downtown (Christof noted this would be great for express bus service to IAH from the Intermodal station). They speculate that the extension might be ready in around 5 years (!), about 1.5 years of rail relocation, and then 2-3 years of construction. I'd always thought it was on a faster track than that.
- The extension of the Ft. Bend tollway to the southwest corner of 610 is on indefinite hold. Evidently, connecting to 610 via 90A is considered "good enough" for now, especially given the tight right-of-way and neighborhood resistance connecting up to 610. I think it's only a matter of time though. The direct 610 connection just makes way too much sense. The interchange is already built!
- A public meeting on the 290 corridor, including the new toll road along Hempstead, will be held in March.
- The planned Red Bluff toll road from Beltway 8 through Pasadena to Seabrook is expected to get more active consideration soon as the Bayport expansion creates tons of new truck traffic. I'm a big fan of this one and hope it happens sooner rather than later. I think it would help take a pretty hefty load off of 45S.
- Metro may consider giving the Westpark RoW it reserved to HCTRA for reversable HOT lanes (used free by commuter buses, of course). I think this would get great utilization, creating extra capacity in the rush hour direction for a tiny, already-strained 4-lane Westpark tollway.
- If you suffer at the screwed-up exit from BW8 east to 249 north, the good news is they're looking at a complete exit reconfiguration there soon. For those who don't drive up there, EZ-taggers are the only ones that can use the ramp (and they can't get on the feeder), while everyone else is forced to the feeder and through the lights.
- Metro will use the same system on its HOV-to-HOT lane conversions, and you'll get a single unified bill (hurray for inter-agency cooperation!)
- You'll be able to use your EZ-tag to pay for parking at the airports. It also has the potential to be used in private parking garages/lots and for access control to subdivisions.
- In the future, there will be universal tag readers that can read any of the different toll tags across the nation, and eventually you'll be able to drive anywhere and pay tolls with your tag. This will also drive greater adoption by rental car agencies, who are constantly moving cars among locations, so committing to one brand of tag for a car doesn't really work. Right now, a system is being put in place called "plate pass" that will use camera image recognition of rental car plates to route charges back to the renter, so car renters won't have to wait in the long cash lines.
- Tags don't read 2.3% of the time. Fortunately, they can use the license plate cameras to look up your account and charge you appropriately, although it costs them 11 cents each time they do this (labor cost, I think, of having humans verify the plate).
- The EZ-tag reads database has tighter privacy protections than your bank account (according to them)
- Occassionally they do get subpoenas for EZ-tag records. 99 times in 100, it's for an accident investigation. 1 time in 100, it's for a criminal investigation. Lesson: if you're planning on committing a crime, see if you can get a friend to drive your EZ-tagged car through a few readers on the opposite side of town while you're doing it. Makes a great alibi!
- It is officially against state law to use EZ-tag calculated speeds for traffic law enforcement. Covered 10 miles between readers in 5 minutes? No worries!
The most important development? Congestion pricing. It's under study, and will probably be at least piloted by this summer, probably on Westpark. It will probably be straight time-of-day pricing there, but the toll lanes down the middle of the new I10 will be dynamically priced in real-time based on demand. Let's hope it's popular and spreads quickly.
One more thing, and this is all my own observation/opinion - nothing from the HCTRA execs. HCTRA is still in heated negotiations over extortion payments to TXDoT to use their right-of-way for future projects. This used to be essentially free, but new state laws allow TXDoT to sell to the highest bidder, public or private. If this makes you as ill as it does me (the big-brother state essentially beating money out of its little local siblings), complain to your state representatives, and maybe this can get fixed during this legislative session. Local transportation infrastructure improvements should not be held hostage to TXDoT payoffs.