Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Toll roads and commuter rail

I wanted to comment on a couple very interesting Chronicle mobility articles from Monday. The first is Rad Sallee's Move It! column on Texas House Bill 1892:
...would give the Harris County Toll Road Authority first shot at developing any new toll projects on state-owned right of way in the county.

If the county weren't interested, the Texas Department of Transportation could offer the job to a private developer or other applicant.

...Another boon for the county, Emmett said later, is that any payments generated by a toll project would be spent on road or clean-air projects in the same TxDOT district or an adjoining one.

The bill also says the fact that a county is earning revenue from a toll project cannot affect its share of state highway funding.

And if local officials and the regional planning agency (here, the Houston-Galveston Area Council) determine that a local toll project is needed, TxDOT must allow use of land for free.

All of these would be really great things for Houston by clearing the way for some much needed HCTRA projects. I have mixed feelings about the core of the bill - a two-year moratorium on private toll road projects. There are some really good features of these deals, which Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation recently articulated to the Texas Senate here. But the noncompete clauses really worry me. We won't be able to expand I35? Or what about state and county roads that run parallel to the TTC? So much of the crux of these deals rests inside the arcane language of the encyclopedia-sized contracts, which few seem to be familiar with. Ultimately, it may be safer and simpler to just have TXDoT build the TTC (via contractors, of course) and toll it themselves (to pay off cheap tax-free bond financing).

Second, there were a lot of interesting nuggets in County Judge Ed Emmett's Q&A interview.

Q: What projects do you especially want to push through?

A: The completion of the Grand Parkway (outer freeway loop) has got to occur, and the northeast section of Beltway 8, and the Hardy Toll Road into downtown. Also, we need a toll road on U.S. 290, and if we don't talk about commuter rail there, we're making a big mistake. We need commuter rail to Fort Bend County too, and we have to relocate some of our freight rail.


Q: Metro's plan approved by voters calls for commuter rail to the northwest out U.S. 290 and to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90A. A line toward Galveston out Texas 3 has also been discussed. How do you rate those?

A: The U.S. 290 rail corridor is underutilized, and U.P. has said they're perfectly willing to have that one looked at for a commuter line. I don't think a line toward Galveston has high feasibility right now, partly because coming in from the east you get mixed up in heavy freight traffic pretty quick.

I'm mostly in agreement. My long-time readers know my negative feelings on commuter rail for Houston. I recently made an exception for rail to Galveston, but I have heard similar things from others: there's just too much freight traffic once you get into the city. Not sure if there's a reasonable-cost solution to that or not, especially with the rapid growth of Bayport.

I'm not a fan of the 90A Ft. Bend line, because essentially all it will serve is the medical center (the 30 min slog up the Main St. LRT to downtown is too long a connection to be realistic vs. the 59 HOV lane). Since 90A is being upgraded to near-freeway status, it seems unlikely the rail would get enough riders to justify the cost: it only realistically serves one job center, and driving to that job center from Ft. Bend isn't bad enough to push people to rail.

I'm moving towards a more neutral to slightly-positive stance on the potential 290 line. It's underutilized by freight, serves a gigantic chunk of northwestern Harris County that lacks adequate spoke freeways into the core, and could effectively serve several job centers with connections: Uptown (BRT connection), Greenway (BRT+LRT Uline), Downtown (intermodal center), and the med center (Main St. LRT). Lot of potential riders + lot of potential destinations + relatively low conversion cost = reasonable option. I still don't think it's as fast as HOV/HOT express buses, but the "bulk capacity" of rail may trump that in this case (i.e. it could replace a whole lot of buses and drivers, many of which might be redeployed for better service in other parts of town).

In the last two questions, he essentially supports transit-oriented development and rail on Richmond. I really like what I'm hearing from Mr. Emmett, and think he may end up being quite the fine successor to fill Eckels' big shoes.

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At 9:33 AM, April 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A parallel toll facility is currently under construction from San Antonio to north of Austin called SH 130. This toll corridor is currently designed to fit into the TTC alignment when that project ever moves forward.

The design has been completed. SH 45 loop for Austin is in construction in parts and other designs are being completed.

I'm glad HCTRA is pushing forward with their projects. The more TxDOT is removed from their projects, the cheaper and quicker it gets built.

At 10:33 AM, April 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a couple of problems about the private tollroads. Based on impressions not any deep knowledge. So if anyone can persuade me that they are not problems please try.

1) The toll roads seem to be something that the Govt. can actually do rather well and with a lighter debt load.

2) The non-compete clauses really scare me. In Austin for example 35 will become a freeway primarily for relatively local traffic, it may still need to be expanded to meet that need. Would the state be able to do that?

3) I like the government owning the toll roads because they will theoretically set prices to maximize the societal benefit. While i am one of the freemarketeers who got called an ideologue in the previous discussion and thus would normally be for private ownership. All the stuff I have heard about private ownership of the toll roads, what might be happening is still not free market.

4) I have a problem with Anyone who doesnt at least pause for a little when they hear the idea of the full developement of the TTC cutting such a wide swath all the way through the Texas countryside.

5) Why does the road need to go from border to border? We have a lot of empty highway outside the major cities. Why is TTC not being planned just as bypasses of all the major metropolitan areas?

At 12:33 PM, April 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: anonymous

3) I don't believe they set prices to maximize societal benefit. The government is constrained by political reprecussions. Raising prices on tolls will lead to less congestion and more carpooling and transit use, but for the government to raise the price you have to battle the Dan Patrick type hysterics of how a 25 cent hike on a freeway they don't even use is "Criminal!"

At 4:57 PM, April 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree that the government doesnt actually set the price to maximize societal benefit, that's why I stuck that "theoretically" in there.

In your answer though you kind of made my point. By keeping prices lower than would be set by a profit maximizing firm we could possibly have a higher social utility, because all those extra people paying to use the toll road will no longer be contributing to traffic on the free highways. I would rather have an actor that is THEORETICALLY supposed to be looking towards the benefit of every body, since there are (in my opinion) strong externalities in the act of driving.

At 12:02 PM, April 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Anonymous

"I would rather have an actor that is THEORETICALLY supposed to be looking towards the benefit of every body, since there are (in my opinion) strong externalities in the act of driving."

Externalities like pollution? Wouldn't pollution be lessened by higher toll prices by the profit maximizing firm to incent car pooling and transit?

"While i am one of the freemarketeers"

I will dare say there is some incongruity between this statement and your statement that I quoted up top. I am in the Adam Smith tradition that societal utility is best maximized by allowing each individual actor to maximize their own personal utility, but that's another blog.

At 11:16 PM, April 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

societal utility is best maximized by allowing each individual actor to maximize their own personal utility AND FORCING THEM TO ACCOUNT FOR THEIR AFFECTS ON OTHER PEOPLES UTILITIES.

At 1:11 PM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

4) It sounds like you are saying we should take aesthetics and the landscape of our state into consideration. That kind of thinking is very unpopular, and can leave you isolated in discussions like this. Just be warned.

At 3:07 PM, June 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Charles Bacarisse and Ed Emmett appear to be heading toward a rough and tumble primary.

A group of Republican leaders from across Harris County today announced the formation of a “Friends of Charles Bacarisse” committee http://www.friendsofcharlesbacarisse.com/ to encourage the 43 year-old District Clerk to run for County Judge. The group of “Bacarisse Backers” is already gathering political and financial support for the effort. Learn more about Charles Bacarisse http://www.bacarisse.com/ and the Friends of Charles Bacarisse committee http://www.friendsofcharlesbacarisse.com/

In a backroom deal, the Harris County Court unanimously appointed Ed Emmett www.politicalgraveyard.com/bio/emest-engle.html to replace Robert Eckels, who resigned on March 6, 2007. What is worse for Harris County residents is Judge Emmett will continue to own The Emmett Company and direct the overall strategy, but daily operations will be handled his wife and family. Republican voters have serious concerns because of the conflict of interests.


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