Thursday, January 25, 2007

What's up at HCTRA

Last month, I got a very generous invitation by fellow Rice MBA alum Fred Philipson to visit with upper management at the Harris County Toll Road Authority. Being a transportation nerd, I of course immediately accepted, and had to also invite along fellow nerds Christof and Erik (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, guys). It was an extremely engaging free-ranging discussion that covered many topics. I took a lot of notes, and now I get to pass them along to you. If I miss something important, I hope they might chime-in in the comments.
  • Long-term plans include extending the Hardy all the way to Conroe
  • Shorter-term priorities include the Grand Parkway on the northwest side
  • On the southern end, the Hardy extension into downtown is still in "coordination" among all the different entities. 4 lanes total, with a connection to Metro's new Intermodal station north of downtown (Christof noted this would be great for express bus service to IAH from the Intermodal station). They speculate that the extension might be ready in around 5 years (!), about 1.5 years of rail relocation, and then 2-3 years of construction. I'd always thought it was on a faster track than that.
  • The extension of the Ft. Bend tollway to the southwest corner of 610 is on indefinite hold. Evidently, connecting to 610 via 90A is considered "good enough" for now, especially given the tight right-of-way and neighborhood resistance connecting up to 610. I think it's only a matter of time though. The direct 610 connection just makes way too much sense. The interchange is already built!
  • A public meeting on the 290 corridor, including the new toll road along Hempstead, will be held in March.
  • The planned Red Bluff toll road from Beltway 8 through Pasadena to Seabrook is expected to get more active consideration soon as the Bayport expansion creates tons of new truck traffic. I'm a big fan of this one and hope it happens sooner rather than later. I think it would help take a pretty hefty load off of 45S.
  • Metro may consider giving the Westpark RoW it reserved to HCTRA for reversable HOT lanes (used free by commuter buses, of course). I think this would get great utilization, creating extra capacity in the rush hour direction for a tiny, already-strained 4-lane Westpark tollway.
  • If you suffer at the screwed-up exit from BW8 east to 249 north, the good news is they're looking at a complete exit reconfiguration there soon. For those who don't drive up there, EZ-taggers are the only ones that can use the ramp (and they can't get on the feeder), while everyone else is forced to the feeder and through the lights.
We also learned a lot about the EZ-tag system:
  • Metro will use the same system on its HOV-to-HOT lane conversions, and you'll get a single unified bill (hurray for inter-agency cooperation!)
  • You'll be able to use your EZ-tag to pay for parking at the airports. It also has the potential to be used in private parking garages/lots and for access control to subdivisions.
  • In the future, there will be universal tag readers that can read any of the different toll tags across the nation, and eventually you'll be able to drive anywhere and pay tolls with your tag. This will also drive greater adoption by rental car agencies, who are constantly moving cars among locations, so committing to one brand of tag for a car doesn't really work. Right now, a system is being put in place called "plate pass" that will use camera image recognition of rental car plates to route charges back to the renter, so car renters won't have to wait in the long cash lines.
  • Tags don't read 2.3% of the time. Fortunately, they can use the license plate cameras to look up your account and charge you appropriately, although it costs them 11 cents each time they do this (labor cost, I think, of having humans verify the plate).
  • The EZ-tag reads database has tighter privacy protections than your bank account (according to them)
  • Occassionally they do get subpoenas for EZ-tag records. 99 times in 100, it's for an accident investigation. 1 time in 100, it's for a criminal investigation. Lesson: if you're planning on committing a crime, see if you can get a friend to drive your EZ-tagged car through a few readers on the opposite side of town while you're doing it. Makes a great alibi!
  • It is officially against state law to use EZ-tag calculated speeds for traffic law enforcement. Covered 10 miles between readers in 5 minutes? No worries!
Overall, I was very impressed by the technology side. Far more sophisticated than you usually find in a public agency. Kudos to HCTRA for running themselves more like an efficient business than a typical government bureaucracy.

The most important development? Congestion pricing. It's under study, and will probably be at least piloted by this summer, probably on Westpark. It will probably be straight time-of-day pricing there, but the toll lanes down the middle of the new I10 will be dynamically priced in real-time based on demand. Let's hope it's popular and spreads quickly.

One more thing, and this is all my own observation/opinion - nothing from the HCTRA execs. HCTRA is still in heated negotiations over extortion payments to TXDoT to use their right-of-way for future projects. This used to be essentially free, but new state laws allow TXDoT to sell to the highest bidder, public or private. If this makes you as ill as it does me (the big-brother state essentially beating money out of its little local siblings), complain to your state representatives, and maybe this can get fixed during this legislative session. Local transportation infrastructure improvements should not be held hostage to TXDoT payoffs.


At 10:54 AM, January 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the southern end, the Hardy extension into downtown is still in "coordination" among all the different entities. 4 lanes total, with a connection to Metro's new Intermodal station north of downtown (Christof noted this would be great for express bus service to IAH from the Intermodal station). They speculate that the extension might be ready in around 5 years (!), about 1.5 years of rail relocation, and then 2-3 years of construction. I'd always thought it was on a faster track than that.

This is a little disappointing. Most of the right of way appears to be cleared for the extension to downtown. There are a few light industrial-type businesses in the ROW, but 95% the houses have been cleared for awhile. Even the stub-out ramps have been built at U.S. 59/I-10.

Next, this idea of an extension to the Multimodal transit center is a surprise. I've been to the METRO meetings for this and although they mentioned benefits for those who commute by car, I don't remember any mention of this. It appears that they haven't cleared any right of way for this extension to the Multimodal center. All that cleared land is supposed to be part of the Hardy Yards project, if I'm not mistaken. Why couldn't this "extension on the extension" wait until later rather than delaying the entire project? Just like the airport connector being built 12 years after the rest of the Hardy Toll Road? This doesn't seem like good planning on their part because it may take a long, long time to negotiate the clearing of more ROW in this area, probably longer than a couple years. I really wonder what their rationale is here.

Third, I hope that they build this Hardy extension to downtown in a way that will allow for easy conversion to 6 lanes. If there were no connection to U.S. 59, and the freeway were to go straight into downtown, 4 lanes might suffice, but giving people an extra (free) choice to get to the North Loop might lead to this section being overwhelmed.

At 11:12 AM, January 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the South Post Oak extension down to U.S. 90A, I agree with you on that. I don't think they would need to buy out a single home, but some strip-mall-type businesses would have to be cleared. I bet you that when the traffic from the Fort Bend Parkway becomes heavy enough (still waiting on the first traffic counts for this tollway), then HCTRA and TxDOT will have all the justification they need to follow through on this.

I'd like to see the Red Bluff/Fairmont Parkway freeway built as well. The necessary land is there already. I'm hopeful that they will widen and improve Beltway between Fairmont Parkway and I-45 before this is built though, to accomodate the extra traffic (similar to the "La Porte cutoff" (I-610) between TX 225 and I-45).

Thanks for the interesting reading!

At 12:07 PM, January 28, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I think the real story here is the slow pace of new toll improvements and the lack of anything truly "new" (ie not planned for a long time) in the foreseeable future.

As you mentioned, the Hardy downtown connector is moving very slowly and the Fort Bend Parkway missing link is on indefinite hold.

The long-planned toll roads, including the northeast section of BW8, the Grand Parkway sections E and F, and Hempstead tollway are on hold due to the TxDOT extortion efforts. From other sources I'm told that the Hempstead tollway connections at 610 are still other study so the project is far from "ready-to-go". Other projects such as the SH 288 express lanes are also in limbo (although I'm expecting TxDOT to keep that one). This stalemate could on indefinitely, potentially years.

There appears to be nothing in the works to relieve bottlenecks, such as the Westpark tollway intersections at BW8 and 59.

Thinking further outside the long-planned projects, there appears to be no HCTRA interest in other bottleneck relief, such as around downtown.

I don't think you mentioned the main pleasant surprise from the meeting, which is that BW8 southwest (from SH 288 to US 59S) will be upgraded to 8 lanes (4 each way) and this project seems to be moving along. I'm glad to see it go to eight lanes immediately rather than 6 lanes which could be inadequate soon.

If in fact a political agreement is reached to allow HCTRA to build northeast BW8, Hempstead, and Grand Parkway tollways, this will keep HCTRA busy for the next 5 years. But beyond those projects it looks like we really can't expect much, which is unfortunate because the needs are so great.

At 1:32 AM, January 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr Gattis,I'm very curious as to why you are so in favor of Toll Roads but so against High Speed Commuter Rail and Commuter Rail in general.
Who pays you to write so much in favor of Toll Roads?
Do you have a contract with HCTRA?
or Metro?
Commuter Rail,properly built,would put both Toll Roads and Light Rail out of business.
When Commissioner Radack wrote in favor of Commuter Rail,you blasted him over it.Why?His point was the safety factor of evacuating people by rail versus road.In your diatribe of a reply,you couldn't cite facts,only perceptions.
Over 130 people died in that disastrous,unplanned,and unnecessary evacuation.ALL the deaths occurred on the roads.
Of all the people evacuated by rail,not one died or was even hurt.Actually,the people evacuated by rail had a pleasant trip,and compared to what the people on the roads went through,the rail ride was more like heaven.
Why were you invited to that meeting?and not others such as myself,who have been trying for years to get our illustrious elected leaders to at least study Commuter Rail.
Is it because HCTRA knows it has a friend in you?
Do you realize that EVERY major city in America(and some back-water cities like Greenville,South Carolina)are building or studying High-Speed Commuter Rail.
Why should Houston,Texas,the 4th largest city in America,be so far behind everyone else?Is it because the greedy,and in my opinion corrupt,public officials don't want to give up their cash cow?
A few years ago,Commissioner Eversole was quoted as saying that "the toll road system is the most lucrative money-maker the county has ever had.".
We have been told over and over again that we can't "build our way out of congestion" with roads,toll or free.Yet,you and others continue to trumpet Toll Roads and HOV/HOT lanes as the panacea to all of our traffic problems.Even though these are the most expensive types of roads to build.
You,yourself write about how the Westpark Toll Road is already full and how HCTRA is trying to widen it and others as fast as they can,yet you MUST admit,they can never be widened enough.
A Commuter Rail line would move 10 times the people,twice as fast,in half the width,at one-third the cost of Toll Roads and be much,much safer.Toll Roads don't reduce air pollution at all,whereas Commuter Rail could reduce automobile caused pollution by as much as half.
Surely you have the internet.Try entering "High Speed Rail" and "Commuter Rail" in your Key Word Search.
I do and I get information from all around the world on the subject.
EVERYONE but you and Houston's elected leaders are aware of the potential of Rail.
I can't help but wonder what the motive is for so many intelligent people,such as yourself,County Judge Echols and others,to be so dumb when it comes to transportation solutions.
Why it must be money,of course.
Surely it's all about money.
Let's see,the outside the belt developers use Toll Road money for the roads they need for their developements and the inside the loop developers use Metro money for the light rail they want for theirs.
And meanwhile,the taxpayers who fund these boondoggles sit in traffic whether on toll roads or free ones.
Why is HCTRA taking up so many rail right of ways?
Is it to prevent these ROWs from being used for Commuter Rail?
Of course it is.
The fact is: High-Speed Commuter Rail is the wave of the future and the longer we wait to get started with it,the more it will cost us and the worse off(in terms of traffic congestion and air pollution) we will be.
Lastly,I must state that I feel you are doing a total disservice to the citizens of Houston and Harris County with your continued support and promotion of Toll Roads.
In my humble opinion,Toll Roads are nothing more than a "Scam to Skim" and Light Rail is just a real estate value enhancement scheme.
High Speed Commuter Rail is the ONLY real solution to Houston's,Texas' and America's transportation problems.

At 8:03 AM, January 29, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mr. Brown,
I will try and address some of your points. First, I am on nobody's payroll. I am generally against commuter rail for simple reasons: it is slower, costs *far* more, and will carry fewer people than an express, point-to-point commuter bus and vanpool system in a dispersed, modern, multi-job-center city such as Houston. Note that I'm not talking about capacity, but actual ridership. A single lane of freeway actually moves more people every day than the vast majority of rail lines in the country.

>Commuter Rail,properly built,would put both Toll Roads and Light Rail out of business.

Not quite. In every major commuter rail city in the world, the roads - both free and tolled - are quite full. Far from "out of business".

Cities all over America are studying rail because the feds have offered to pick up half of the tab. It's a free honey pot of money, and if "we don't go after it, we're giving away our rightful money to some other city." If the feds eliminated the subsidy, or just gave places block grants of money they could use on any transportation, you'd see these rail proposals dry up pretty quickly. The cost effectiveness for actual people moved is just not there.

And I do admit that roads have widening limits. That's why I support congestion pricing, to shift trips to off-peak times and get more riders per vehicle during peak times.

At 10:36 AM, February 02, 2007, Blogger AMH said...

especially given the tight right-of-way and neighborhood resistance connecting up to 610


Thanks for the info about the Ft. Bend tollway extension to SW610. It's difficult to find much "new" developing info about this project.

Any links or insight into the source of the "neighborhood resistance" you mention. I think the large majority of (single-family) residence owners down in Willowbend / Willow Meadows / Westbury would be for the inevitable clean-up of the SPO corridor that should follow this project.

At 4:56 PM, February 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have no pointers. Just anecdotal evidence from various articles I've seen or people I've talked to. The real resistance may not actually be that high, esp. with the local road congestion getting so bad now (getting those cars onto a pass-thru freeway would be a good thing).

At 10:49 AM, March 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have written a few times to determine if the "people" got their money's worth on the $250,000 payment to someone to determine the "proper" color for the Toll Road signs.

All I want to know is the result of the study and who was paid do do it and, of course, the relatinship of that person with who at the board.

You think I will ever get an answer?

At 1:48 PM, March 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, there's always the option of an official open records request under state law, but I don't know the process for doing that.

At 1:51 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I would very near the proposed Ft. Bend Tollway extension from 90 to 610 where S. Post Oak Road is now, I am completely in favor of it at this time. The people who use the toll road and S. Main are already maxxing out S. Post Oak to get to and from 610. It is unbelievably backed up during rush hours. Trucks that drive S. Post Oak are very loud, and S. Post Oak Road itself is old and needs repaving. Finally, the city has not done its part to provide proper sound walls to the houses that border S. Post Oak. Cars do not drive the speed limit (35) during the off hours and many of them turn their stereos up to where the whole neighborhood can hear them. Hopefully some of these issues will be solved with the tollroad. Those who want to could get quickly from 610 to 90 and down to the beltway, and those who need to get around locally can use what's left of S. Post Oak.

At 12:12 PM, April 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am generally against commuter rail for simple reasons: it is slower, costs *far* more, and will carry fewer people than an express, point-to-point commuter bus and vanpool system in a dispersed, modern, multi-job-center city such as Houston.

Tell that to Dallas who were in similar situation, but within 1 yr, prompted by huge useage decided to double track their new rail sytem, and quickly add hundreds of new buses (as rail expands bus use tremendously). Within 5 years DART rail had over 50Mil Passenger trips. Houston is much better suited than Dallas for Rail. Ask anyone in the city to name the clogged highways and then name the different places those commuters are trying to reach. There are not that many. And rail does not have to go door to door, only get you close where a bus can take you that finally leg. Coming from Dallas I am shocked at how far behind Houston is. It will get rail and love it.... just a matter of when.

At 11:19 AM, November 02, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

G.F.Brown and Anonymous are so correct; With gas prices becoming increasingly high, we need to give people another viable alternative. I was doing research online for the election and that is how i found this blog. I want to make sure I don't vote for people that have not supported rail.


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