Thursday, April 14, 2005

Toll roads and neighborhoods

The Houston Chronicle has an article this morning on some southwest neighborhood opposition to extending the Ft. Bend Toll Road up to the southwest corner of the 610 loop.
"On April 7, members of Super Neighborhoods Nos. 39 and 40 unanimously approved a resolution that calls for changes to a state law so that the public can participate in decisions to build toll-funded roads or to convert free highways to toll roads."
I think we'll be seeing more of these kinds of stories as HCTRA continues to build out its planned network, which is absolutely critical if Houston is to maintain and improve mobility levels and keep high-tax-base employers from fleeing to the suburbs. These situations are a classic case of "greater good vs. vocal local interest", sometimes referred to as NIMBY ("not-in-my-backyard"). The whole region benefits from better mobility, but there can be negative neighborhood effects, and balancing those is the job of our elected politicians. The trick, of course, is what level of politicians: federal vs. state vs. county vs. city vs. neighborhoods. IMHO, Texas has historically done a pretty good job at this by putting the decisions at a high enough level to take into account the greater good, while still getting input from localities - one good example being the recent county-level approval of the Port of Houston expansion. When you push more power, esp. veto-level power, down to the localities, it becomes impossible to get anything done and you get gridlock.

So I guess I'd have to say I'm opposed to the changes they're proposing. If neighborhoods want to influence a toll road, they should contact their elected Harris County Commissioner. On the other hand, I would like to see efforts to:
  1. Acknowledge the concerns of local neighborhoods
  2. Mitigate impacts where economically feasible
  3. Give affected neighborhoods reasonable compensation in the form of other capital improvement projects they might not otherwise get anytime soon: other road improvements, parks, libraries, community centers, flood mitigation - whatever they'd most like to see.
Finally, on a more local note: I actually live in the Meyerland neighborhood near where they're talking about. The traffic on Post Oak barely creeps along at rush hour, which is a big inconvenience to anybody who lives in the area. A freeway would move that traffic through much quicker and clear up local surface roads. I will not be as directly impacted by the construction, but it will put additional traffic on sections of the 610 loop I use every day. I'm trying to think of it like a responsible citizen: yes, I'm inconvenienced, but I understand and accept my minor sacrifice for the greater good. I'm not saying it's easy, but it seems like a sentiment we should try to cultivate a little more in today's me-focused society.


At 10:40 PM, April 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In theory I agree--there should be a compromise between the NIMBY attitude and the 'greater good.' To me, however, this is similar to any other freeway expansion: Why should people who live closer-in be subjected to all the mess of construction (and the effects on property value) so that people in the suburbs can make it home 5 minutes faster? Politicians don't always represent the best interests of those in their district!

At 9:48 AM, April 16, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Ultimately, most of the people closer-in will benefit from higher property values. Better mobility and access to the suburbs -> employers are willing to stay in the core (rather than move to places like Sugar Land and The Woodlands) -> core stays attractive and vibrant -> core property values rise.

The opposite case is Detroit, where almost all of the major employers moved to the far suburbs, leaving a struggling city with a small tax base and stagnant or declining property values.

At 7:46 PM, April 22, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory et al,

Houston's toll road accountability issue is not about being pro- or anti-road building. It's also not about being pro- or anti-tolling. CTC's Westbury and Willowbend volunteers working for toll accountability have EZ tags and use them.

The trouble with country toll road authorities is not about NIMBYism but about lack of due process. When TXDOT builds a project they're required by federal law to get the benefit of neighborhood input, and they're required to conduct a full environmental review. HCTRA is not required to do either by law, and the Harris County Commissioners to whom HCTRA reports, choose not to. The desired process (which TXDOT and METRO do but HCTRA does not) is the mechanism by which neighborhoods might get the benefit of adequate detention ponds and sound walls. Since HCTRA is not currently required to even serve notice to nearby land owners, I don't know how they would seek "compensation" in exchange for serving the greater good.

There's more info on CTC's website at
I'd love for you to join one of our meetings. Check our calendar page for dates.

In response to your comment, I'm not comfortable with the assumption in your generalization about the benefits of rising property values. "People closer in" and specifically "neighborhoods" mostly do NOT benefit from "higher property values." Rising values convey a transactional benefit to the individuals when they LEAVE a neighborhood and their real estate representatives. For the people who stay and comprise the neighborhood, rising values increase the cost for of staying put though corresponding property tax increases. Futher, for most families rising values don't translate into additional buying power. Moderate increases in value over time may be desirable, but steeply-rising prices contributes to churn and lack of neighborhood stability, which negatively affect quality of life.

Robin Holzer
Citizens' Transportation Coalition

At 8:51 PM, April 22, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neighborhood input and environmental reviews seem reasonable. But my understanding is that the CTC resolution also calls for municipal approvals, i.e. veto power - which is a recipe for nothing ever getting built. Is it fair for the city to be able to override the county? Should counties be able to override states? Or states the feds? Should neighborhoods be able to opt out of city council resolutions and ordinances they don't like?

On property values: I agree, moderate increases are healthy. And since home equity loans are now allowed, people can tap that value without leaving their home - to put their kids through college, for instance, or for retirement. And property tax increases are now capped in the city, so that's much less of an issue.

I also strongly agree that steeply-rising prices are a big negative. The history of other cities shows that this happens when supply is restricted - either directly from regulations/zoning or indirectly because of deteriorating mobility (less supply is accessable within a reasonable commute from jobs, so people try to move closer to jobs which drives up interior housing prices). Longer-term this also puts a lot of pressure on employers to move to the far suburbs for the commuting benefits and lower housing costs. And that not only hurts the core tax base, it causes the urban area to fragment and bicker: once someone lives and works and plays in Sugar Land or The Woodlands, they lose their connection to Houston: why should they give a flip what happens to the city or its neighborhoods, schools, or nonprofits?

A chilling but true story: a relative of mine is a pilot for Northwest Airlines and was moving to their hub. So I said "You're going to Detroit, huh?" and he, somewhat embarrassed, said "Nobody up there says they're from 'Detroit' - it's always 'Southeast Michigan'."

I hope I never see the day embarrassed people start saying they're from 'Southeast Texas' instead of 'Houston'...

At 4:20 PM, April 23, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point about equity loans. My sense of inner city property taxes is that even with increases capped (after you've been in place 1-2 years) that the absolute level still increases pretty dramatically over time.

When you refer to mobility, I'm struck that you talk mostly about people moving between the "core" and the "suburbs." But the "City of Houston" is comprised of 5-6 "cities" or activity centers, each of which is indvidually larger than the downtowns of Miami, San Diego or other cities.

It seems to me that the vitality of Houston's urban core has as much to do with the connectivity or mobility within and between Houston's activity centers (downtown, TMC, Greenway, Uptown, Greenspoint, and Westchase) as with connectivity to the suburbs.


At 8:24 PM, April 23, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Certainly, connectivity between job centers is important, but not as much as you might think. The vast majority of people's travel is very simple: to and from work, plus a bit of errand running, usually near home. People traveling between job centers for meetings is proportionately pretty small, and also is usually done during midday when roads have available capacity (vs. morning and evening rush hours).

Here's the nut the city needs to crack: how do you provide a two-income couple access to quality affordable housing and both their jobs with a reasonable commute - as well as give them access to a lot of other job opportunities as they move through their career without requiring them to move to take advantage of those career opportunities and still have a reasonable commute. If people have to up and move each time they take a new job at a different job center, that really weakens communities. This is already a chronic problem in cities like DC, SF Bay Area, and LA/OC. The flip side of the problem are people whose careers stagnate because they are stuck in a job (they can't move for family or spouse reasons) and there aren't new opportunities within commute range.

My personal belief is that - in addition to requiring very high general freeway investments - the transit solution to this particular problem is not rail - which is slow (20mph overall) and too downtown-focused (only 7% of jobs). We need a network of express lanes that cover the city (inc. toll roads with congestion pricing), and express bus/van services that connect all neighborhoods with all the dispersed job centers at 65mph. On any weekday morning, you should be able to go to your super-neighborhood transit center and find commuter buses/vans lined up going to each of the job centers you listed.

At 2:18 PM, April 26, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I would guess that 80% stat is based on trips, not miles. If you drop your kid at school, go to work, go to lunch, return from lunch, leave work to pick up your kid, go to the local grocery store, bank, drug store, dry cleaners, and then home, that's 10 trips with only 2 of them for work, but I would bet most of the miles are typically for the work trips. The errands are usually pretty close to home (and lunch is usually pretty close to work) and are on arterials. The heavy freeway congestion is mostly work trips.

This is also related to why it's so hard to get a new urbanist Midtown: too many commuters go through there on the way home, and it's convenient for them to run a lot of those errands at strip centers in Midtown while the rush hour clears out - and the businesses there want to keep it that way (there's a reason Spec's mega-warehouse store is there). Downtown, the Rice Village, and the Museum District should be less of an uphill battle.


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