Monday, May 29, 2017

45N+downtown and transportation updates from the Texas legislative session (guest post)

Today's guest post is from Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways.  A bit longer than usual posts here, but with some great updates.
North Houston Highway Improvement Project (including downtown)

In conjunction with public hearings in May and release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, TxDOT recently released updated schematics for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which includes the planned total rebuild of downtown freeways. I attended two of the three public meetings, and there were about 10-15 speakers at each meeting, with minimal or negligible opposition among the speakers. So this project appears to have community support.

TxDOT and its consultant HNTB have continued the process of ongoing improvement of the design, with incremental refinements mostly on the north side of downtown. The numerous improvements on the northwest side of downtown and downtown access spur (on the west side of downtown) combine to provide a significant improvement in that area. These changes are most easily viewed in the green annotations I added to the official schematic here.

I have updated my detailed analysis of the design on, noting the improvements but also identifying 12 remaining items of concern in the design. Some of these concerns have been submitted to TxDOT during previous comment periods, so they likely have already been evaluated with no action taken. Nevertheless, I included the complete list of all issues, new and previous, to provide an overall summary of remaining concerns.

With a price tag of $4 billion for the downtown work and around $7 billion for the overall project, it certainly makes sense for TxDOT to take a look at every possible opportunity for improvement to ensure we get the best possible design for the huge expenditure.

What Could Have Been
I also prepared this map of a potential relocation of the IH 45 main lanes to create space to bring managed lanes through downtown. This option was not formally studied, although it may have been rejected very early in the process. It is now too late to consider this option, but I think this would be the only way to create a north-south corridor of managed lanes through downtown, assuming the Pierce Elevated will be removed. (see previous post on MaX Lanes)

Texas Legislature

Transportation was not expected to be an issue receiving much attention in the session which ended Monday, and that was mostly true. Here’s a summary of the results for this session.


The main question for this session was whether the legislature would fully fund the transfers of general revenue to TxDOT as specified in Proposition 7, approved by voters in 2015. The answer turned out to be no, but the immediate impact is expected to be minimal. TxDOT was slated to receive $4.7 billion in Proposition 7 funding in the next budget cycle, but that amount was reduced to $2.9 billion due to a delay in the transfer of $1.8 billion. Exact Proposition 7 amounts in the budget document are $2.205 billion in fiscal 2018 and $700 million in fiscal 2019.

However, the delay in the $1.8 billion is reportedly only one month, from August 2019 to September 2019, an accounting gimmick to move the money to the next budget cycle. So this one-month delay is not expected to affect projects being planned with Proposition 7 funds. But it is not clear if and when funding will catch up to restore the $1.8 billion, or if the $1.8 billion is permanently deferred. According to a report in the Dallas Morning News, House Appropriations chief John Zerwas, R-Richmond, said the legislature is committed to restoring the $1.8 billion when budget conditions allow.

TxDOT Budget summary 

Here (see page VII-15) and here.

The budget covers fiscal years 2018 (September 2017-August 2018) and fiscal year 2019.
  • 2018 budget amount: $12.4 billion
  • 2019 budget amount: $14.2 billion
  • Debt service is high and rapidly increasing, $815 million in FY 18 and $1.23 billion in FY 19. Nearly all of this increase is the result of shifting certain interest payments from the general budget to the TxDOT budget as a result of Proposition 7. Total financing costs in the biennium are listed at $2.3 billion.
  • A big increase in expenditures for professional fees and services, from $1.06 billion in FY 18 to$1.80 billion in FY 19. Presumably, this large increase is due to planning and engineering services for Proposition 7 projects.
  • The budget document instructs TxDOT to expand Houston’s Green Ribbon program to other areas of the state 
Comprehensive Development Agreement Failure

House bill 2861 called for authorizing 18 projects statewide to be developed using comprehensive development agreements, including two in Houston, the proposed Hempstead Tollway and Interstate 45 between Interstate 10 and Beltway 8, which is all of the North Houston Highway Improvement project outside of the downtown area. Comprehensive Development Agreements, called public-private partnerships in most places outside Texas, use private money to finance projects, with the private funding entity receiving the toll payments. The SH 288 toll lanes are the only project being built with this arrangement in Houston. The bill moved steadily through the legislative process, but the House soundly defeated the bill on May 5. According to remarks by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, it was believed to have failed due to general anti-toll sentiment in the House and a desire to wait and see what happens at the federal level, with President Trump’s infrastructure plan still a work in progress. So TxDOT cannot pursue the two Houston projects or any other projects as new CDAs in the next two years.

Anti-Toll Legislation

Numerous bills seeking to limit or curtail toll roads were filed, mostly in the House, but all of these bills died, most with little or no progress. However, three anti-toll provisions did become amendments on the TxDOT sunset bill.

TxDOT Sunset Legislation and Other Bills

The legislature must periodically review all state departments to authorize their continued existence, the so-called sunset process. This year TxDOT was subject to the sunset review process, and the TxDOT reauthorization bill was a must-pass bill which was approved on Saturday and sent to the governor. Due to the legislative procedural meltdown earlier this month, many bills died and the TxDOT sunset reauthorization became a vehicle for including provisions as amendments on the bill (final conference committee report). While there were no amendments specific to Houston, some amendments of statewide interest include the following:
  • Tolls will be removed on State Highway 255 in Laredo, which is formerly the Camino-Columbia private toll road which went bankrupt and was purchased by TxDOT and now operates as a TxDOT toll road. To the best of my knowledge, this will be the first removal of tolls in Texas since the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike became a freeway in 1978.
  • There is a provision to accommodate the potential removal of tolls on the Loop 375 managed lanes in El Paso, which (if implemented) would be the first removal of tolls from managed lanes in Texas. The Loop 375 managed lanes have been a failure, generating negligible traffic and revenue
  • A requirement that any TxDOT funds used for financing toll roads must be repaid by the tolling agency managing the project (non-retroactive)
  • Imposes new rules on delinquent toll collection, including limits on administrative fees
  • Imposes a large number of reporting and administrative requirements on TxDOT relating to project cost, schedule, performance measures, online reporting and coordination with MPOs
  • Requires TxDOT contractors to use E-Verify to verify legal status for employment
Other bills sent to the governor (not signed as of May 29) include:
  • SB 2205 defines rules and regulations for fully-autonomous self-driving cars. This will clarify the legal issues, an important step toward actually having autonomous vehicles on the road.
  • HB 2646 which authorizes TxDOT to purchase right-of-way for a project before it receives a record of decision of environmental clearance. This will be a useful tool, especially for projects where environmental clearance can take many years.
Legislation Targeting Houston-Dallas High Speed Rail

Rural opposition to Texas Central’s planned Houston-to-Dallas high speed rail project  resulted in several bills to curtail or limit the project. Two bills have been approved by both chambers and have been sent to the governor:
  • SB 975 requires operators of high-speed rail service to meet strict security requirement to ensure safety
  • SB 977 prohibits the use of state funds to plan, build or operate high speed rail operated by a private entity
Neither of these laws is expected to have a significant effect on Texas Central’s plans. The bill which probably posed the greatest threat to the project was SB981, which would have required the project to be compatible with more than one type of train technology. Since the project is being designed to use Japanese technology, this could have been a show stopper. But the bill died in mid-April. So the Houston-Dallas high speed rail project is alive and well.

UPDATE from Texas Central

Federal Legislation

During the presidential campaign, Trump spoke about a trillion-dollar infrastructure investment, but the plan is still being developed and details are not expected until the third quarter of this year (here and here).  Preliminary indications are that it will focus on public-private partnerships, which of course translates to toll roads. Preliminary numbers mentioned are for $200 billion in new federal money to be used to attract $800 billion in private funds. Michael Morris, head of the North Texas Council of Governments, has commented that the completed Dallas-Fort Worth PPP projects (LBJ Texpress and North Tarrant Texpress) are being used as a model in formulating the plan, and the DFW projects also used the 4-to-1 private/public money leverage ratio.

There are many reasons to be skeptical that this will plan will move forward in any shape or form, even massively downsized as a token effort.
  • The long delay in developing a plan suggests there is difficulty getting a consensus on a plan which can get sufficient support for approval.
  • President Trump’s influence on Capitol Hill is weak and probably getting weaker, so persuading Congress to adopt a sea change in infrastructure finance will be difficult.
  • PPPs are not consistent with the values of Congress. House and Senate members generally want to bring home the goods (some would say pork) to their district. Bringing home a PPP which imposes hefty tolls on their constituents and privatizes previously public assets is not necessarily good politics, and could be bad politics. 
  • Congress has shown minimal interest in PPPs and tolling in recent transportation reauthorizations. 
  • Previous reauthorizations of transportation legislation have been difficult and were delayed by numerous short-term stopgap reauthorizations, even though the current FAST Act (expiring in 2020) generally continued long-established policies.
  • Passing a sweeping PPP-heavy plan would likely rely exclusively on Republican votes, and as we’ve seen, holding together the slim Republican majorities in the House and Senate will be very difficult.
  • Financing $200 billion for the public share of PPPs will be difficult or impossible without increasing the deficit or raising fuel taxes.
  • PPPs financed by project revenue are generally suitable for toll roads only and will do little or nothing to help aging urban rail systems with massive deferred maintenance costs, particularly in Washington DC, Boston, New York and Chicago. Without funding for those political interests, the base of potential support is reduced.
  • Congress is still going to be focused on other issues like Affordable Care Act repeal/replacement tax code reform and another budget battle looming at the end of September.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

MaX Lanes: A Next Generation Strategy for Affordable Proximity

Apologies for the long delay between posts - life has not been very conducive to blogging lately. I will try to get back to weekly, or at least biweekly.

The big news this week is the release of my COU MaX Lanes Briefing (backup link), which has been in the works for many months with the support of H-GAC and TXDoT. The overview:
MaX Lanes: A Next Generation Strategy for Affordable Proximity
by Tory Gattis (with Oscar Slotboom)
The core urban challenge of our time is ‘affordable proximity’: how can ever larger numbers of people live and interact economically with each other while keeping the cost of living – especially housing – affordable? In decentralized, post-WW2 Sunbelt cities built around the car, commuter rail solutions don’t work and an alternative is needed, especially as we see autonomous vehicles on the horizon. 
This briefing explores a next-generation mobility strategy for affordable proximity: MaX Lanes (Managed eXpress Lanes) moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed and allowing direct point-to-point single-seat high-speed trips by transit buses and other shared-ride vehicles today, and autonomous vehicles in the future. It includes a case study of Houston with a proposed network as well as profiles of similar lanes around the country. 
Read the report Open or Download PDF 3.2MB (opens in new tab or window) 
Part of the report argues for a 2x2 MaX lane loop in the core of the city connecting the downtown, Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, and Uptown job centers.  With that in place, any HOV or MaX lane now or in the future on the spoke freeways will be able to plug into that and instantly provide nonstop access to any of those four job centers - seven if you include the Katy managed lanes to get out to Memorial City, the Energy Corridor, or Westchase.  We call the ultimate goal "MaX-a-Million" - supporting one million jobs in the core and one million daily commuters - about half of a Manhattan.

Proposed Houston MaX Lane Network

Speaking of MaX Lanes, the draft EIS is officially out for the proposed 45N improvement project, and MaX Lanes are now the official terminology of TXDoT in Houston - "moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed."

Why MaX Lanes over commuter rail? Because commuter rail doesn't work in decentralized Sunbelt cities designed around the car.  LA - with twice our density and perfect year-round walking weather - has spent over $16 *billion* on rail projects with declining overall ridership (and here)!  Houston must innovate a different approach, just like we did with the original HOV lane network.

David Crossley of Houston Tomorrow recently presented on the future of transit for Houston and even he admitted rail is almost completely off the table.  Good thing too, given the steady stream of stories about the misery of rail transit delays and operational problems in DC and NYC.  Lots of good maps and data in his slides - check it out.

My hope is that the report will help provide a common mobility vision that TXDoT, H-GAC, METRO, HCTRA, and the City can all agree and work together on. It's really not very long and very amenable to a quick skim with a FAQ format - please do check it out and let me know what you think in the comments!

UPDATE: Oscar Slotboom's proposal for getting MaX Lanes through downtown as part of the upcoming North Freeway Improvement Project.

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