Thursday, June 22, 2006

What I learned about Harris County

In a spirit of "show and tell", here are some miscellaneous items I picked up at the MBA (half) Day at Harris County yesterday, where we heard from most of the major department heads in the county, plus County Commmissioner Steve Radack and Judge Eckels (last year was "MBA Day at the City of Houston").
  • Consistently over time, polls show the top 3 citizen concerns are public safety, education, and health.
  • Art Storey is very, very, very happy that they're not going to sell or lease the toll roads. He believes (and I agree), that they can be run more efficiently and with a better financial deal for the taxpayers by keeping them with HCTRA.
  • He also expects we'll have congestion pricing on some of the toll roads by the end of the year. Again, I'm very supportive.
  • He seems confident that they will come to a revenue share agreement with TXDoT for new HCTRA roads in TXDoT right-of-way.
  • Judge Eckels says the new Westpark Tollway has blown right through its ridership projections, and already has congestion problems. He believes Metro is moving away from rail in that corridor, and will be open to some new controlled/managed lanes in that extra right-of-way, possibly two-reversable lanes that would provide a total of four lanes of capacity in the rush-hour direction (vs. two in the other direction). Metro would of course use them for express buses. Eckels specifically mentioned the extra-long, articulated ones. I think it's a great idea, especially since they could easily link up with a new BRT/LRT station at 610 that could transfer people to Uptown and Greenway, two of the four largest job centers in Houston.
  • Moving on to the Port, which has over 150 facilities and is the world's 6th largest port overall, 2nd largest petrochemical complex (after Rotterdam in Europe), largest U.S. port in foreign tonnage and 2nd largest U.S. port in total tonnage. BTW, the reason for the tonnage qualifier is that we're barely in the top 10 for container shipping (LA-Long Beach is the gorilla there with Asian shipping), but we more than make up for it with petrochemicals.
  • Containers are expected to grow at the staggering rate of 16-23%/year for the next decade. Can you say "globalization"? Bayport will let them triple their container capacity, and they're already starting to plan for a new container port on Pelican Island by the Port of Galveston. The planned Panama Canal expansion, which goes up for vote later this year, is a big deal and a critical factor in the port's growth. Asian shippers really want to bypass the West Coast. Right now, 49% of our inbound containers come from Europe, and Charleston and Savannah are aggressively going after that traffic.
  • We have 756 at-grade railroad crossings in the region (county?), a number they want to dramatically reduce.
  • The Harris County Hospital District is the 3rd-largest public health district in the nation. We have 800K uninsured and 400K underinsured in Harris County (out of about 3.5 million people). They are significantly underfunded and looking for federal help (or even a local tax increase to bring us into parity with San Antonio and Dallas). Those guys have to make some really heart-wrenching decisions on a daily basis where to allocate very thin health resources.
  • David Lopez, district CEO, asserted that we would not have a health crisis in this country if not for the Big Four of smoking, drinking, obesity, and drug use.
  • 37,000 people a year get sentenced to community service in the county, and 9,400 are in jail.
  • Steve Radack believes the HPD pension system is in disarray. He didn't go into details, but he doesn't seem to believe Mayor White has fully solved the city pension funding crisis. He's also predicting a major crime wave this fall when the Katrina FEMA money runs out.
That seems to just about cover my very thin notes. Many other topics and departments were covered, but, as I said, I was maybe a tad too selective in my note-taking. Nothing above is earth-shaking news, but interesting stuff nonetheless. All in all, I have to say they gave the impression of a very tightly run ship, with talented people diligently doing excellent work. Certainly much better than the stereotype of bloated, inefficient government. I continue to stand by my earlier assertion that we've got a pretty good governance structure going in Houston and Harris County, and if it ain't broke, we shouldn't try to go and fix it (via a city-county consolidation, for instance).


At 10:45 PM, June 22, 2006, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

Steve Radack believes the HPD pension system is in disarray. He didn't go into details, but he doesn't seem to believe Mayor White has fully solved the city pension funding crisis.

HPD pensions or municipal employee pensions? They are two entirely different things.

On the municipal employees pension plan -- anybody who's been paying attention to the news or HMEPS documents knows it still has troubles. The Mayor reduced the unfunded liability (to a large extent with some clever accounting involving the Hilton Americas) and then moved on to other projects, but the fact is that the unfunded liability is still HUGE. Like Lee Brown before him, Mayor White seems inclined to leave the unfunded liability for the next guy.

At 8:33 PM, June 23, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

That's interesting on the optimism regarding reaching a deal with TxDOT. My perception is that the situation was getting worse in terms of TxDOT-HCTRA relations (or relations between TxDOT and anyone, for that matter), but it sounds like the sitation may have hope. TxDOT's policy these days is to rule with an iron fist which does not promote deals.

The Westpark Tollway idea, with two new reversible lanes, is very interesting and also probably will be needed in the near future. I think the capacity would be quickly used as far west Houston urbanizes. If in fact Metro builds the University Rail line on Richmond, I would like to see the two reversible lanes extended inside the loop to near Shepherd, where they could be merged into the newly widened section.

I am also very, very happy the decision was made not to lease or sell the toll roads.


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