Toll roads and commuter railI wanted to comment on a couple very interesting Chronicle mobility articles from Monday. The first is Rad Sallee's Move It! column on Texas House Bill 1892:
...would give the Harris County Toll Road Authority first shot at developing any new toll projects on state-owned right of way in the county.All of these would be really great things for Houston by clearing the way for some much needed HCTRA projects. I have mixed feelings about the core of the bill - a two-year moratorium on private toll road projects. There are some really good features of these deals, which Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation recently articulated to the Texas Senate here. But the noncompete clauses really worry me. We won't be able to expand I35? Or what about state and county roads that run parallel to the TTC? So much of the crux of these deals rests inside the arcane language of the encyclopedia-sized contracts, which few seem to be familiar with. Ultimately, it may be safer and simpler to just have TXDoT build the TTC (via contractors, of course) and toll it themselves (to pay off cheap tax-free bond financing).
If the county weren't interested, the Texas Department of Transportation could offer the job to a private developer or other applicant.
...Another boon for the county, Emmett said later, is that any payments generated by a toll project would be spent on road or clean-air projects in the same TxDOT district or an adjoining one.
The bill also says the fact that a county is earning revenue from a toll project cannot affect its share of state highway funding.
And if local officials and the regional planning agency (here, the Houston-Galveston Area Council) determine that a local toll project is needed, TxDOT must allow use of land for free.
Second, there were a lot of interesting nuggets in County Judge Ed Emmett's Q&A interview.
I'm mostly in agreement. My long-time readers know my negative feelings on commuter rail for Houston. I recently made an exception for rail to Galveston, but I have heard similar things from others: there's just too much freight traffic once you get into the city. Not sure if there's a reasonable-cost solution to that or not, especially with the rapid growth of Bayport.
Q: What projects do you especially want to push through?
A: The completion of the Grand Parkway (outer freeway loop) has got to occur, and the northeast section of Beltway 8, and the Hardy Toll Road into downtown. Also, we need a toll road on U.S. 290, and if we don't talk about commuter rail there, we're making a big mistake. We need commuter rail to Fort Bend County too, and we have to relocate some of our freight rail.
Q: Metro's plan approved by voters calls for commuter rail to the northwest out U.S. 290 and to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90A. A line toward Galveston out Texas 3 has also been discussed. How do you rate those?
A: The U.S. 290 rail corridor is underutilized, and U.P. has said they're perfectly willing to have that one looked at for a commuter line. I don't think a line toward Galveston has high feasibility right now, partly because coming in from the east you get mixed up in heavy freight traffic pretty quick.
I'm not a fan of the 90A Ft. Bend line, because essentially all it will serve is the medical center (the 30 min slog up the Main St. LRT to downtown is too long a connection to be realistic vs. the 59 HOV lane). Since 90A is being upgraded to near-freeway status, it seems unlikely the rail would get enough riders to justify the cost: it only realistically serves one job center, and driving to that job center from Ft. Bend isn't bad enough to push people to rail.
I'm moving towards a more neutral to slightly-positive stance on the potential 290 line. It's underutilized by freight, serves a gigantic chunk of northwestern Harris County that lacks adequate spoke freeways into the core, and could effectively serve several job centers with connections: Uptown (BRT connection), Greenway (BRT+LRT Uline), Downtown (intermodal center), and the med center (Main St. LRT). Lot of potential riders + lot of potential destinations + relatively low conversion cost = reasonable option. I still don't think it's as fast as HOV/HOT express buses, but the "bulk capacity" of rail may trump that in this case (i.e. it could replace a whole lot of buses and drivers, many of which might be redeployed for better service in other parts of town).
In the last two questions, he essentially supports transit-oriented development and rail on Richmond. I really like what I'm hearing from Mr. Emmett, and think he may end up being quite the fine successor to fill Eckels' big shoes.