Sunday, November 16, 2008

Six Federal stimulus infrastructure projects for Houston

In case you missed it as the lead op-ed in Sunday's Outlook section, and since Chronicle links are notorious for rapid expiration, I posted a complete copy below. It came out of a brainstorming lunch Carroll organized with the three of us and Robin Holzer from the CTC. Topic: if there's going to be massive federal infrastructure stimulus for the economy, what would be the wisest investments for Houston? Unfortunately, they listed the names in alphabetical order, when in reality mine should have been last. Carroll sparked it and Christof was the primary author, as well as the brilliant coiner of the "brain train" label. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments.

Update: The Chronicle editorial board backs us up with their own op-ed.

Put Houston on the right track
Build these projects to prepare the city for the future

Houston Chronicle Nov. 16, 2008

The Great Depression was a tough time for America, but it left us with an enduring legacy of good infrastructure. Bridges built in the 1930s bring commuters into San Francisco. Dams erected in the 1930s power the Northwest. An electric railroad from the 1930s carries high-speed trains from New York to Washington, D.C. A 1930s national park in the Great Smoky Mountains has twice as many visitors as any other national park. And in the 1930s, power lines brought rural Texas into the 20th century.

Today, as our economy continues to stall, congressional leaders are discussing a second stimulus plan. In the Nov. 2 editions of the Chronicle, New York Times' columnist David Brooks suggested building infrastructure. That makes sense: Unlike cars or flat-screen TVs, highways, railroads, and parks are made from local materials by local labor, so stimulus dollars circulate longer in the local community and in the country.

If there is going to be a stimulus bill, we need to make sure that Houston gets its fair share. That should mean funding the projects that are already in the funding pipeline, like light rail expansion. But it also means an opportunity for new projects.

So what projects can the Houston region build now that our grandchildren will look back on in 70 years and say, "That was a great idea"? Here are six.

The Brain Train from College Station through Houston to Galveston. Today, cities gain much of their economic strength from their intellectual strength, from engineers, scientists, medical researchers and MBAs. So we can strengthen our region by connecting intellectual centers and employment centers. That's what regional rail can do: one line, connecting Texas A&M, Prairie View A&M, University of Houston-Clear Lake, the Johnson Space Center and UTMB-Galveston to the urban rail network that will include Downtown, Uptown, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, Texas Southern University, and the University of Houston-Downtown and Central campuses. All that brainpower, connected by fast, convenient, Wi-Fi-enabled trains, creates one connected, more prosperous, region. And the same rail line also carries commuters to work.

Greener, more effective bayous. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers lined Houston's bayous with concrete. Today, we know better. Natural banks actually handle floodwaters better, and they're not eyesores. Reconstruction of the bayous, and protection of upstream open space like the Katy Prairie, reduces flooding, reduces water pollution and creates wildlife habitat. Moreover, the crowds on the jogging path in Memorial Park, the families picnicking in Hermann Park and the kids filling the fountains at Discovery Green demonstrate that we need more parks. The bayous offer an opportunity to create new public parks all across Houston and its surroundings, as the unfunded master plan for Buffalo Bayou proposes. Projects like these are already underway on Sims and Brays bayou; we need similar improvements along the rest of our waterways.

A less-congested U.S. 290. Serving a huge swath of northwest Harris County, 290 makes for a miserable commute. That can be fixed by adding new lanes in the form of the proposed Hempstead Toll Road, rebuilding the 290-610 interchange, and bringing on- and off-ramps up to modern specifications. The same project could also grade separate the adjacent railroad line, reducing congestion on surface streets while enabling commuter rail and add a bike path. Studies have been done and design is under way; what we need is funding.

Twenty-first century freight rail. A locomotive can move 10 times as much freight on a gallon of diesel fuel as a truck, and it doesn't take up space on our freeways either. Moving more freight by rail would reduce costs, reduce congestion and reduce the demand for oil. But our freight network is at capacity, and its antiquated infrastructure is disrupting neighborhoods, especially in the East End. We need upgraded lines, grade separations and new freight yards. And since Houston is one of the country's largest ports and railroad centers, federal funds for upgrades here would bring benefits across the southwestern and midwestern United States. The recent Houston-region freight rail study lays out a blueprint.

An air pollution superfund. The pollution in our air isn't all our doing — Houston refines oil and processes chemicals for Dallas, Denver, Detroit and countless other places. But we're the ones who breathe those emissions. These local costs stemming from a national benefit are a strong argument for federal grants to pay for upgrades to pollution control equipment.

Complete streets. We've been upgrading our freeways for decades. But surface streets haven't gotten the same attention, as anyone who's driven to the Galleria knows. A good surface street moves cars effectively, safely accommodates bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders, provides access to homes and businesses, and beautifies the urban environment. To get there, we need to rebuild streets, upgrade intersections and add streets where there are gaps in the grid. That won't be cheap. But if surface streets are more effective, they'll actually reduce how far people need to drive and take loads off of freeways, reducing the need to spend money there.

Building these six projects would help the local economy in the short term, but it would also help us in the long term by building connections to research and education, improving access to job centers, reducing flooding, adding parks, cleaning the air and moving goods more efficiently. That's stimulus we can believe in and that our grandchildren will thank us for.

Spieler writes about transportation in Cite Magazine and on his blog, Intermodality. Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog. Robinson is an associate professor at Texas Southern University, a former Houston City Council member and chairman of the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce.

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At 3:25 PM, November 16, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think they are great ideas. I think 288 should be addressed as well as the TMC and Pearland area grows. My two favorite ideas are the "Brain Train" and greener bayous. I think Houston can really break its negative images and truely have something that is unique if it were able to create linear parks and trails using the bayous. I think Buffalo Bayou has a lot of potential in serving as a a "commuter bike" trail. It runs along the Energy Corridor, Westchase, and Uptown. If the appropriate agencies could get the funding and collaboration together we could have bikes and buses working together to provide people a great alternative commuter option. Just think you can ride your bike along Buffalo Bayou and on hop on bus that takes your through Westchase. Probably a pipe dream; but at the very least, it could provide excellent green space and recreation.

At 1:43 AM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is that a pipe dream? Continuous bike/ped paths already exist from Downtown to Shepherd and from Beltway 8 to the Dam, we just need to connect them.

Now it's probably a better idea to route a bike path along Memorial/Woodway rather than trying to take away River Oaks millionaires' private waterfronts, but I don't think a continuous path network would be difficult at all.

At 7:14 AM, November 17, 2008, Blogger ian said...

Wow Tory, what kind of gun did Christof and Robin have to hold to your head to get you to agree to all these hippy new-urbany ideas, eh? :) Finishing our light rail system? Regional rail to College Station? Complete streets for peds and cyclists? I'm astounded.

At 8:35 AM, November 17, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


You have to look at who will be signing the checks in Washington. With the coming administration, the more myopic the project, the more likely Houston is to get the money.

At 11:11 AM, November 17, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Tory, I thought it was a great article, although like Ian I was surprised / pleased to see some of the proposals coming from you.

Now I guess all Obama needs to do is advocate national high speed rail + funding and you will come around on that too? ;)

>>With the coming administration, the more myopic the project, the more likely Houston is to get the money.

Fair enough, but better to have myopic policies than be blindfolded and pursuing failed "voodoo Reaganomics". At least some true vision is involved in the process ;)

At 5:15 PM, November 17, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The ideas and the op-ed were, of course, a broad compromise. I'm sure each of the 4 of us would rank them differently. Christof put the phrase supporting the light rail network in there, and I did not fight it, but my own recent posts still stand on delaying parts of it to free up money for more important priorities. This piece was not a place for that debate.

I posted before supporting limited commuter rail that basically conforms to this routing. I think 249 makes more sense than 290, but 249 makes it hard to connect Prairie View A&M. This is where a detailed study of costs, benefits, and ridership is needed. But I love the "brain train" branding to help sell it politically.

Complete streets was my least favorite. I agree the grid needs a lot of work in Houston, esp. in Uptown, and I support ped/bike enhancements as long as they don't cost needed car lanes (like the idiotic bike lanes on Westpark that force it from 4 to 3 lanes). I tend to think bike lanes are better situated along bayous and less busy parallel side streets.

At 9:33 PM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I completely agree with regard to bike lanes.

Every 'trose kid with a bike knows which residential streets to take as alternates to the main drags. Hawthorne in mixed traffic will ALWAYS be safer than Westheimer, even with a four-foot striped place "just for you." And where bike routes run along major arterials, it's safer to put a dedicated mixed-use path on one side of the road then try to squeeze a bike lane into the existing 24' slab. That's just cheapo construction.

To the extent the "complete streets" idea makes sense, it says that we should devote the same effort to planning for bikes and peds as we do for roads and rails. We've had a master arterials plan that's been constantly updated and revised since the 40's; no reason not to do the same for bikes.

At 7:45 AM, November 18, 2008, Blogger Peter Wang said...

Tory, when you say "Houston" in this op-ed, I hope you mean "Houston & suburban portions of neighboring counties". Because it would be a crying shame if these stimulus projects were to just stop at the Houston City Limits. Harris County seems completely allergic to Complete Streets, therefore you have an environment which is hostile to bikes and pedestrians, which forces people into cars for even the shortest and most menial of trips.

At 7:52 AM, November 18, 2008, Blogger Peter Wang said...

Speaking as a the lone suburbanite on the CTC Board (77095, I live close to Congressman Culberson) let me point out that we have no connected street grid, no "less busy parallel side streets". We have main arterials that the subdivisions dump into. So any bicycle journey that you might take to a real destination (since there are no schools or businesses located on the banks of bayous) by definition requires a journey on our arterials, which is best facilitated by a dedicated bike lane such as you see on FM529, which I ride thousands of miles per year on. And sidewalks, thank you very much, for people who walk. Right now they walk in the road next to 50 MPH traffic, or in the ditch.

Reminds me of the Third World.

I also don't think bike lanes should cannibalize car lanes, we need to stop being uber-cheap and spend the money on the right of way and concrete and build them right the first time for all users.

"Complete streets was my least favorite. I agree the grid needs a lot of work in Houston, esp. in Uptown, and I support ped/bike enhancements as long as they don't cost needed car lanes (like the idiotic bike lanes on Westpark that force it from 4 to 3 lanes). I tend to think bike lanes are better situated along bayous and less busy parallel side streets."

At 8:45 AM, November 18, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, we definitely meant the Houston metro area. The lead item, the brain train from College to Galveston, was meant to illustrate that.

You make good points about bike lanes in the far 'burbs. My experience is with ones in the core, where they put them on busy arterials when there usually are parallel options on nice quiet neighborhood streets. Obviously, wherever possible, they should put them in quieter areas back from major streets, like maybe connecting these subdivisions as well as along bayous. But, you're absolutely right, they also need to reach important destinations, and that's going to require getting to busy areas.

At 9:12 AM, November 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston Strategies is on my list of RSS feeds. While I've not always agreed with Tory's analysis on some issues, I've appreciated that he is more tied to rational solutions than ideology. This article reflects that pragmatism. Given our economic straits, the federal government is likely to make infrastructure investments to stimulate the economy. Why shouldn't Houston get part of those funds and help us to springboard on one of our most perennially problematic areas, transportation?

The plans outlined in the article are practical and reflect bipartisan thinking to our collective problems.

Thanks to you Tory for working on this article and making it available on your blog.

At 10:04 AM, November 18, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, anon. Very much appreciated.

This response letter got published in the Chronicle today, and I wanted to record it here for future reference. I'm not sure how feasible it is, but it's a good thought.

Add stops to 'Brain Train'

Regarding Sunday's Outlook cover article "Put Houston on the right track / Build these projects to prepare the city for the future" and the "Brain Train" it referred to from College Station to Galveston: Let's be sure it also calls on Bush and Hobby airports. From Prairie View, the line can swing eastward toward IAH and then downtown — thus providing the desirable rail link.

The trains also should run on a new dedicated grade-separated right-of-way with generous curves allowing for high-speed operation, rather than competing with freight trains on the already overloaded rail network.

Missouri City

At 9:31 PM, November 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Realistically, an infrastructure stimulus package will benefit projects which can move to construction very quickly (within 3-12 months). In other words, projects which already have all preliminary work complete, including environmental clearance, engineering, and right-of-way acquisition.

That greatly limits the pool of candidate projects. I don't know exactly where light rail stands, but maybe they could get some work ready within 12 months. I'm thinking that TxDOT may have a few projects ready to go, including expanding I-45 south of Beltway 8 and north of Conroe. Widening US 59 west of Sugar Land could be ready, and possibly more work on US 59 well north of Kingwood. US 290 is not ready. According to the web site, "final federal approval through the Record of Decision (ROD) is anticipated in Summer 2009". Then two years of engineering and right-of-way acquisition can proceed.

So, I think we need to lower expectations of what the stimulus package will do for Houston. In terms of the project readiness, I think Dallas-Fort Worth has billions in work ready to go (highway and rail), so they may get a disproportionate share.

At 6:05 PM, November 20, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I wanted to capture the Chronicle editorial board's supporting op-ed here permanently, since their links don't last:

Worthy works
If public works projects are to be part of the stimulus package, let Houston and Texas have their share.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 19, 2008, 6:22PM

Public works spending seems certain to be a significant part of the stimulus package the Obama administration will propose to help move the American economy out of its doldrums.

On the heels of a presidential campaign in which congressional earmarks and pork-barrel spending were rightly criticized on all sides, any such package must be assembled with care. It should be carefully thought through to avoid bridges to nowhere and heavy concentrations of pork in the districts of powerful congressional committee chairs. That said, it should include its share of worthy projects across Texas and in the Houston area.

A sign of the times: The mayor of Atlanta has already come forward with a list of projects in her area. No doubt, others across the country are thinking along these lines. This state's congressional delegation, working with local leadership in the private and public sectors, needs to be on the case.

Which Texas projects deserve pushing in Washington?

Chronicle readers were offered a thought-provoking list of possibilities for this area in Sunday's Outlook. (Please see "Infrastructure / Put Houston on the right track.")

Three local contributors with experience in transportation and public policy came up with the following recommendations:

• A "brain train" running from College Station through Houston and Galveston. This Wi-Fi-enabled train would connect area universities from College Station to UTMB-Galveston, with stops in the Texas Medical Center and the Johnson Space Center.
• Greener, more effective bayous. Concrete in our bayous would be replaced with natural foliage, inviting the creation of additional linear parkspaces along adjacent areas.
• A less-congested U.S. 290. Much-needed upgrades to the Northwest Freeway.
• Twenty-first century freight rail. A do-over of the vital freight lines that crisscross Houston, including grade separations where necessary to allow traffic to flow more freely.
• An air pollution superfund. Money to clean up the air here from other cities that benefit from our refinery complex.
• Complete streets. Finishing out Houston's surface streets so that they can take some of the load from our freeways.
These projects all seem worthy of serious consideration.

The notion of re-greening all our bayous holds particular appeal for both practical and sentimental reasons. It would be practical because it would improve flood control; and it would be sentimentally attractive to many because it would build on the original and visionary work along Buffalo Bayou made possible by a powerful partnership — George Mitchell, oilman and developer of The Woodlands, philanthropist and environmentalist Terry Hershey and then-U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush. In the mid-1960s, the three successfully blocked efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to concrete and channelize Buffalo Bayou.

Sentiment aside, we have particular sympathy for long-suffering commuters living northwest of town. They deserve a break from the congestion nightmares they face daily, no less than commuters on other major freeways.

The talk of using public works projects to bring the nation's economy back to good health has led many to recall the public masterpieces built during the Great Depression and forever linked with Franklin Roose-velt's presidency. These include sturdy, handsome public buildings in every area of the country and beautiful lodges in spectacular settings across our national park system.

The Depression-era works reflect what's known as a cathedral-building mentality — a term coined to describe the mind-set of workers through the ages who've labored on great projects they knew they would not live to see completed. Our throwaway society could use more of that kind of thinking.

It has been said frequently during the national roller coaster ride of recent weeks that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." And so it is. If there is to be a public works program in the name of resurrecting the economy, let it be thoughtfully and well executed. And let Houston and Texas benefit in ways that will serve for generations.

At 6:45 PM, November 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, good stuff. I'm pleased to see you and my downstairs neighbor Christof harmonizing, and getting a significant soapbox at the Chronicle. Whenever I look out of my window at the old Texas New Orleans Railroad line along Buffalo Bayou, churning daily with the commerce of the world, think about what a marvelous investment was made there a century-and-a-half ago; let's hope the opportunity is seized again in our time.

At 4:30 PM, November 27, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Peter's comment about bike lanes on arterials:

What we really need is cut-through bike paths *through* the subdivisions that cut between cul-de-sacs, allowing bike and ped thru-traffic where autos can't.

We could quite easily develop these by allowing developers to include bike paths as part of the "compensating open area" that comes into play whenever lot sizes smaller than 5,000 square feet (outside the loop) come into play.

Since a simple bike cut-through knocks out 2000 to 3000 square feet of compensating area, this would make continuous bike routes *de rigeur* in the densest subdivisions, where they're needed most, and more common in lower-density subdivisions, as higher-end developers compete to offer the same amenities.

As far as the developments that are already built, let's build seperate paths *next to* the arterials, not in them. I'm sure you can agree that riding along a nice 10-12 foot path next to FM 529 is much more pleasant than riding in a striped lane in it. This is how the Dutch and the Germans do it, and really, they might know a thing or two about bikes...

In the meantime, I've registered a blog at Keep Houston Houston and will henceforth be posting under that name. Happy Thanksgiving.


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