The Grand Parkway, stimulus-for-tolls, and the secret benefit of HOV->HOT conversionsI'd like to address three distinct but related issues in this post. The first is defending the Grand Parkway, which recently had segment E approved from 290 to 10W. As the Energy Corridor grows its job base, instead of people moving farther and farther out I-10, they can grow up and down the GP - so in that case it actually keeps them closer in than if they move out to Brookshire or Sealy (less sprawl).
Loop freeways help keep an urban area more compact and connected. Cities that don’t build them end up with a starfish urban shape, and each arm is relatively independent of and disconnected from the rest of the arms. Not a healthy city if you ask me. If you live on one of those arms, you can’t realistically choose jobs on the other arms and have a reasonable commute. It limits where you work and live and socialize. Loops keep a region unified and give citizens more choices and opportunities.
I somewhat sympathize with the CTC that the 290 rebuild should be a higher priority than GP SegE, but 290 is not "shovel ready" and therefore not eligible for federal stimulus. We have to build what we can while the money is available. What I'd like to see HCTRA do is take that SegE positive revenue and invest it in the Hempstead-290 tollway first, delaying the other GP segments. As long as the revenue forecast is strong, they could probably float bonds on it even before it's finished, and use the bond money to start on Hempstead-290 sooner rather than later.
The second issue is using stimulus money to build toll roads, which the Chronicle recently opposed:
"It seems clear that a toll road should be funded by … tolls."Here's the problem with that: Government has a certain pot of tax money to use to maximize mobility improvements. Now suppose, for example, that money is enough to build one free road, or, build three toll roads, none of whom can be completely financially supported by their tolls alone. Assuming equal mobility gains from each, three toll roads are the obvious choice to maximize the return from a limited transportation budget. The tolls help supplement tax funding to get the most mobility benefit for the taxpayer.
The last item is the recent Metro announcement that they're converting 83 miles of HOV toll lanes to high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes using federal stimulus funds. It will still be free and just as fast for buses, van, and carpools, but the extra capacity will be sold to single-occupant vehicles at prices that vary by time-of-day. It won't really move that many more vehicles, but there are three very good reasons for doing this:
- Better utilization of precious freeway capacity.
- While not many people will pay the pricey tolls every day, it's a valuable option that's available to everbody when they really need it, whether they're late for a meeting, the airport, day care, or whatever that might be more important to them than a few bucks. That option is a great amenity any of our citizens will be able to take advantage of when they need it.
- And the secret benefit: top executives, the ones who make the big bucks and can easily afford these tolls (and whose overworked schedules preclude transit or carpooling), are the ones who decide when to give up on an office in the core and move to the suburbs, like Anadarko did to The Woodlands. If their personal commute is miserably slow and long, that's a big incentive for them to leave the city of Houston and even Harris County. Keep them happy, and they help Houston keep a healthy, vibrant core with lots of high-paying jobs and tax base.
Update: Bad news. Metro has delayed the vote to check into ridership, costs, and future expansion. Let's hope they get through the concerns and move forward soon. I will note that, given how full some of the lanes can be already during peak rush hours, they will almost certainly need real-time tolls that sense the load and set prices appropriately. Surges due to weather or accidents can overwhelm fixed toll schedules.