Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mineta, Spillette, and Eckels' last dance

Three topics today. The first is former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who I was able to see speak at the Houston Forum on Tuesday through the generous invitation of Neal Carlson. He spoke generally about the transportation crisis in this country, but also about a few Houston specifics:
  • Traffic congestion costs Americans $200 billion per year, or about 2% of GDP
  • 2.3 billion gallons wasted in 2003, which created 20 million tons of carbon dioxide
  • The growth rate of our productivity has been dropping lately, in part due to congestion
  • Mentioned the President's congestion pricing initiative, with $175 million set aside in the budget, and Houston is aggressively going after that money
  • Also mentioned we are in nonattainment with the Federal Clean Air Act, and may lose federal transportation funds starting in 2009
  • Mentioned the federal funding for Metro's north and southeast lines, and expressed support for a potential Houston to Galveston commuter rail line
I questioned him about congestion-priced EZ-tag lanes on federal highways, and he said it was recently authorized in a 2005 act. He noted that the gas tax revenue is flat, and inadequate to our needs, so tolling is our best solution. So it sounds like, legally, there's not much preventing us from building an extensive high-speed lane network using converted HOV lanes and left-lanes of existing freeways (inc. 610).

Second, if you didn't catch it, read city planner Steven Spillette's interview with the Chronicle's Nancy Sarnoff on the urban corridors initiative. They want to get more urban-style development along Metro's major GRT transit corridors.

We're looking at revising those that would facilitate different types of development than what we've traditionally had in Houston — especially with an eye toward the idea of having high-quality pedestrian-oriented districts that typically have a mix of uses ... and make it possible for these projects to proceed a little earlier, without having to get the types of variances they normally would have to obtain from the city.

A lot of our peer cities have been getting these projects done, and they're already on the ground. We've yet to have them developed, and we want to make sure we're not delaying them or introducing obstacles that would keep more developers from proposing them. ...

We're looking at how we might modify setback requirements. A truly walkable environment will typically have buildings that front directly to the sidewalk and have a main entrance onto the public sidewalk, as opposed to be being separated by a parking lot or having an entrance in the back of the building. We'll be trying to look at alternative parking arrangements so that we don't end up with the typical sea of parking lots. ...

We're looking to try to have the main set of community workshops in April. ... We're hoping to have proposed ordinances and infrastructure and policy modifications presented to the planning commission and going through the City Council and getting adopted by this summer.

I've spoken with Steve quite a bit about this and other topics, and he's very practical, realistic (especially when it comes to accommodating cars), and really understands the realities of the development market in Houston. If anybody can figure out how to get this kind of development done in Houston with a light touch while avoiding heavy-handed regulations and staying true to Houston's no-zoning/free-market DNA, it's him.

Finally, we have Judge Eckels' State of the County address today at a luncheon put on by the Greater Houston Partnership, who generously invited me as part of the media. The Chronicle has their early story on it here. Of course, the big news is that Eckels announced he will be stepping down as Harris County Commissioner as soon as they can agree on a replacement. It sounded like he wanted to leave earlier, but Katrina and Rita got in the way. It's a little unclear to me if he's permanently going to the private sector, or just until he runs for something new in 2008 or 2010. He's been a commissioner for 12 years, and GHP President Judge Jeff Moseley noted that, when you include positions before that, he's served a continuous 8,802 days of public service. Wow. Impressive. He got choked up at the very end - it was clearly a very emotional moment for him, and he got at least two standing ovations. Clearly, he has plenty of popularity to run for other offices if he so chooses.

The rest of his speech was a long list of impressive accomplishments by the County (it should get posted here at some point). We do seem to have a remarkably competent and effective county government compared to most of the nation. The part most interesting to me was on toll roads, where he noted that the Grand Parkway and 290 tollroads have been held up for quite a while by TXDoT "negotiations" (more like extortion, in my book). He noted that HCTRA can build toll roads for 30% less than the private sector through the lower cost of money with tax free bonds and limits on liability. He called on TXDoT's new commissioner from Houston, Ned Holmes, to "get to work" on resolving the deadlock, although he was conspicuously absent from the extremely long list of local officials attending. Not a good sign. But, for what it's worth, every local official in Houston should be leaning on him - and the Legislature, and the Governor - to get this fixed fast so we can get back to addressing Houston's growing mobility crisis ASAP.

Update: Chronicle front-page, full-length story today on Eckels and his potential replacement.


At 1:14 PM, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About the urban corridors inititive.

"get this kind of development done in Houston with a light touch while avoiding heavy-handed regulations and staying true to Houston's no-zoning/free-market DNA, it's him."

Just get rid of the regulations that we do have. Lot size restrictions, setback limits, and minimum parking requirements need to go. If you cant get it done city wide, at least do it within a half mile of any GRT station. I don't want the city encouraging any kind of developement. Just set everything loose.


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