Six Federal stimulus infrastructure projects for HoustonIn case you missed it as the lead op-ed in Sunday's Outlook section, and since Chronicle links are notorious for rapid expiration, I posted a complete copy below. It came out of a brainstorming lunch Carroll organized with the three of us and Robin Holzer from the CTC. Topic: if there's going to be massive federal infrastructure stimulus for the economy, what would be the wisest investments for Houston? Unfortunately, they listed the names in alphabetical order, when in reality mine should have been last. Carroll sparked it and Christof was the primary author, as well as the brilliant coiner of the "brain train" label. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.
Update: The Chronicle editorial board backs us up with their own op-ed.
Put Houston on the right track
Build these projects to prepare the city for the future
By TORY GATTIS, CARROLL G. ROBINSON and CHRISTOF SPIELER
Houston Chronicle Nov. 16, 2008
The Great Depression was a tough time for America, but it left us with an enduring legacy of good infrastructure. Bridges built in the 1930s bring commuters into San Francisco. Dams erected in the 1930s power the Northwest. An electric railroad from the 1930s carries high-speed trains from New York to Washington, D.C. A 1930s national park in the Great Smoky Mountains has twice as many visitors as any other national park. And in the 1930s, power lines brought rural Texas into the 20th century.
Today, as our economy continues to stall, congressional leaders are discussing a second stimulus plan. In the Nov. 2 editions of the Chronicle, New York Times' columnist David Brooks suggested building infrastructure. That makes sense: Unlike cars or flat-screen TVs, highways, railroads, and parks are made from local materials by local labor, so stimulus dollars circulate longer in the local community and in the country.
If there is going to be a stimulus bill, we need to make sure that Houston gets its fair share. That should mean funding the projects that are already in the funding pipeline, like light rail expansion. But it also means an opportunity for new projects.
So what projects can the Houston region build now that our grandchildren will look back on in 70 years and say, "That was a great idea"? Here are six.
• The Brain Train from College Station through Houston to Galveston. Today, cities gain much of their economic strength from their intellectual strength, from engineers, scientists, medical researchers and MBAs. So we can strengthen our region by connecting intellectual centers and employment centers. That's what regional rail can do: one line, connecting Texas A&M, Prairie View A&M, University of Houston-Clear Lake, the Johnson Space Center and UTMB-Galveston to the urban rail network that will include Downtown, Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, Texas Southern University, and the University of Houston-Downtown and Central campuses. All that brainpower, connected by fast, convenient, Wi-Fi-enabled trains, creates one connected, more prosperous, region. And the same rail line also carries commuters to work.
• Greener, more effective bayous. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers lined Houston's bayous with concrete. Today, we know better. Natural banks actually handle floodwaters better, and they're not eyesores. Reconstruction of the bayous, and protection of upstream open space like the Katy Prairie, reduces flooding, reduces water pollution and creates wildlife habitat. Moreover, the crowds on the jogging path in Memorial Park, the families picnicking in Hermann Park and the kids filling the fountains at Discovery Green demonstrate that we need more parks. The bayous offer an opportunity to create new public parks all across Houston and its surroundings, as the unfunded master plan for Buffalo Bayou proposes. Projects like these are already underway on Sims and Brays bayou; we need similar improvements along the rest of our waterways.
• A less-congested U.S. 290. Serving a huge swath of northwest Harris County, 290 makes for a miserable commute. That can be fixed by adding new lanes in the form of the proposed Hempstead Toll Road, rebuilding the 290-610 interchange, and bringing on- and off-ramps up to modern specifications. The same project could also grade separate the adjacent railroad line, reducing congestion on surface streets while enabling commuter rail and add a bike path. Studies have been done and design is under way; what we need is funding.
• Twenty-first century freight rail. A locomotive can move 10 times as much freight on a gallon of diesel fuel as a truck, and it doesn't take up space on our freeways either. Moving more freight by rail would reduce costs, reduce congestion and reduce the demand for oil. But our freight network is at capacity, and its antiquated infrastructure is disrupting neighborhoods, especially in the East End. We need upgraded lines, grade separations and new freight yards. And since Houston is one of the country's largest ports and railroad centers, federal funds for upgrades here would bring benefits across the southwestern and midwestern United States. The recent Houston-region freight rail study lays out a blueprint.
• An air pollution superfund. The pollution in our air isn't all our doing — Houston refines oil and processes chemicals for Dallas, Denver, Detroit and countless other places. But we're the ones who breathe those emissions. These local costs stemming from a national benefit are a strong argument for federal grants to pay for upgrades to pollution control equipment.
• Complete streets. We've been upgrading our freeways for decades. But surface streets haven't gotten the same attention, as anyone who's driven to the Galleria knows. A good surface street moves cars effectively, safely accommodates bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders, provides access to homes and businesses, and beautifies the urban environment. To get there, we need to rebuild streets, upgrade intersections and add streets where there are gaps in the grid. That won't be cheap. But if surface streets are more effective, they'll actually reduce how far people need to drive and take loads off of freeways, reducing the need to spend money there.
Building these six projects would help the local economy in the short term, but it would also help us in the long term by building connections to research and education, improving access to job centers, reducing flooding, adding parks, cleaning the air and moving goods more efficiently. That's stimulus we can believe in and that our grandchildren will thank us for.
Spieler writes about transportation in Cite Magazine and on his blog, Intermodality. Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog. Robinson is an associate professor at Texas Southern University, a former Houston City Council member and chairman of the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce.