Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Grand Parkway, stimulus-for-tolls, and the secret benefit of HOV->HOT conversions

I'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:
  1. Better utilization of precious freeway capacity.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Kudos to Metro. It can't happen soon enough.

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.

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At 10:40 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Keith said...

1) Anadarko's former location outside on I45 at Greenspoint just OUTSIDE the beltway is hardly "the core".

2)You contradict yourself when you spent the first portion of your post celebrating the efficiency of ring roads and then list the move of Anadarko from a ring road location out 15 miles to the Woodlands as a benefit. In fact, Anadarko's original location would have been perfect by your standards -- at the junction of the Belt and a major 'arm'

3) In terms of work destination decentralization -- I'd love to take you around Los Angeles (where I currently live) and show you what happens when decentralization is combined with explosive population growth, density, and ineffective mass transportation planning. Is this the future we want for Houston.


Anyway, I really enjoy your blog and even though I passionately disagree with you most of the time I'm glad that somebody in Houston is thinking about planning.

I'd love to know if you've ever lived outside Houston for an extended period of time before...

At 11:44 AM, March 20, 2009, Anonymous Mike said...

Do you happen to know Tory how segment F of the GP is coming along (290 to I-45)? It is seeming less and less likely that they'll be able to do it because of all the development that has happened along its path.

At 11:49 AM, March 20, 2009, Blogger spuck said...

This post was very well composed, and the distinct issues well linked.

Keith, I lived in the Northeast for four of the past six years and would love to show you how it works when perfectionist Enlightenment sensibilities (which always shape-shift to turn the available traits into quality of life features that must be frozen into place) try to make the built environment depend on transit's centralizing effects. Car use is not noticeable lower, and even in Cambridge and Somerville - with twenty thousand people per square mile - once you get a block from Mass Ave, where the subway runs, density is not high enough to cost-justify burying power lines; yet the place will be a geriatric ward in twenty years (with some college students in the middle) because a planning regime that tries (very conscientiously or not) to politically internalize all negative externalities of growth will inevitably make the current constituents happy - because it's hard to fly in their faces - at the expense of future immigrants, who are easy to force to compromise, since they're not around to protest. The graying heads of Eastern Massachusetts are glad to see their nest eggs made so valuable by good growth management. They do not realize that when a couple million of try to cash out, there are going to be few buyers because new households have been so constrained for so long that they have simply gone to other parts of the country. It is easy to deplore the LAs and Houstons and on down the list for fostering a consumer culture that is not tight-knit or nourishing of our higher values. But if you look at the places with the most integral local nurture, they are Maine and Pittsburgh and small towns - places where a much higher proportion of residents have deep roots in the place; a proportion that's high precisely because it isn't generating new lines of work sufficient to shelter many new families from elsewhere. If you examine the problem enough, you'll find that we can't have it both ways. I would like more community than I find anywhere in America, but the best and only deeply effective way to accomplish that is to attenuate the other things that people could be doing... I would rather feel that people are being given a chance, and I am happy to be back in a place that offers a rare hospitality to folks whose lives would hit the most dead-ends elsewhere. The effect of an LA built around tighter public trains would not have been a nurturing city of four million: it would have been a markedly smaller city where median incomes nonetheless couldn't afford to live within a half mile of a station on their daily routine.

Less critically, since you understood in (1) that Anadarko was being said to have left, I'm not sure how in (2) you feel this had been celebrated. It wasn't.

At 3:02 PM, March 20, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anadarko may not have left the core, but it still left the city of Houston and Harris County, and we lost that tax base.

I was not saying Anadarko moving out was a benefit, but a loss.

LA is definitely not the future we want, but I think their primary failure was a lack of investment in the transportation infrastructure people actually want to use (freeways). Maybe if Slotboom reads this comment, he can provide a link to the map of canceled freeway projects in LA. It's insane how much they gave up on.

At 7:20 PM, March 20, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The map with the canceled freeways of Los Angeles is not available and a freestanding image, but is in Chapter 1 page 69 of the Houston Freeways book which is available for free download.

Warning: 13MB file

Having visited LA several times recently and having been stuck in stalled traffic on the 405, Hollywood area and downtown at times when you would never expect traffic jams (weekends), the freeway links which are sorely needed include routes M, F, E, and G, in that order.

This link provides more analysis of the canceled routes


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