Local transportation organizations are gearing up for Election Day on Nov. 3 with road bond proposals for both Harris and Montgomery counties on the ballot in addition to Proposition 7, which could add billions to mobility funding statewide beginning in 2018.
Alan Clark, the director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has more than 30 years of transportation experience with the H-GAC. Clark also worked as a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County and as a traffic-engineering consultant.
Jeff Collins, a board member for the Transportation Advocacy Group, has more than 35 years of engineering experience and is the vice president of the public infrastructure division for LJA Engineering. Collins has worked on several projects in the Greater Houston area, including the direct connectors at Hwy. 290 and the Grand Parkway and at Hwy. 242 and I-45.
How important are the Harris and Montgomery county road bonds to funding road projects and accommodating growth in the Greater Houston area? Why should voters approve these bond proposals?
Clark: The [counties are] having to rebuild their roads from rural highways with just a couple of open lanes and big open ditches into modern urban infrastructure that can accommodate pedestrians and cyclists as well as multilane traffic intersections that need sophisticated traffic control [traffic officials] never dreamed about 20 years ago. So those bonds are extremely critical.
Collins: Really, it’s just growth. You put more cars on the road [and congestion worsens]. We’re behind on the transit side so more cars are on the road, [and the roads] are congested. We’re making the same kind of improvements to Harris County on Hwy. 290, and between Montgomery County and Harris County you’ve got the Grand Parkway, which will be finished close to the end of the year. With population growth, [including] the ExxonMobil development up there, there’s just more people, more cars and more roads. We have to [pass the bonds] because it’s getting more congested.
Is raising the statewide and federal gas tax a feasible option to funding transportation?
Collins: If you look at it from a common sense standpoint, what makes more sense than user pay? If you want to drive a big truck, you’ll be paying more. If you want to drive an electric vehicle, you’ll be paying less. That makes sense. But I think, politically, that has gotten zero traction on the state level, and it’s being debated nationally. [You] may be aware there’s a presidential election coming up so you probably won’t see any discussion on anything that’s going to raise taxes from any party. We ought to be glad we’re sitting here in Houston, Texas, and our economy is growing and something like Prop. 7 can afford us to move money from general sales revenue to transportation.
Clark: Right now, there’s just no political support for it. Someone told me, “The quickest way to become an unelected official is to vote for a tax increase, especially in Texas.” In some ways I don’t think that we have as much everyday support for this issue as one would think, given the water cooler conversations about how hard it was to get to work today and what some traffic delay caused.
What other types of user fees and taxes could the state and federal government look at to fund transportation in the future?
Collins: I think you’ll see electric vehicles taxed equally with gas vehicles [based on the notion] of you’re using the roadways. You’re going to see an evolution [so] maybe the gas tax will go away one day. We’ve already looked at a vehicle miles traveled tax, and I think that got shot down politically.
Clark: Some states have pilot projects going on where—as a motorist—your gas tax gets rebated to you, and instead they’re looking at you car when it gets inspected or how many miles you’ve driven. You pay based on your vehicle and miles traveled. That could all become quite automatic.
We’re interested in looking at, since we’re reconstructing the [Hwy.] 290 corridor, the possibility of creating some kind of reinvestment zone, which could provide something like the first dollars for a commuter rail program. [We could] begin to develop that project with environmental engineering and flood positioning and leverage those dollars with federal resources—if those are still available—so that project could still advance. We’re going to see the ability to target specific projects with more localized investments that are really driven by the growth in the area we enter. There’s uncertainty that that will happen. I’m just saying that’s an idea we’re exploring we hope this coming year.
The rapid rate of population growth in the Greater Houston area has led to challenges in upgrading and expanding infrastructure and services to unincorporated parts of Harris County. How would you rate the success of transportation officials in particular when it comes to anticipating growth and planning accordingly?
Clark: They’re waking up [and] finding out the job they have to do is different than [the one] they had to do before. Most of our county roads and most of our city streets have no sidewalks. People are living in areas that have pretty significant density, and they want to have an optimal way to get there. The growth [issue] is not only that we need more road capacity; it’s also that we need to address bigger needs for drainage and infrastructure that can address pedestrians, cyclists and transit.
What are your thoughts on Texas Central Railway, the proposed privately funded, high-speed rail from Houston to Dallas?
Collins: I am a big proponent of that project just because I see the potential benefit, not only to Houston [and] Dallas, but also the state of Texas. I do think it will get built. I think there’s some momentum. There’s some opposition, more in the rural areas. If you look at what that can do for our area, I think commercewise [there is a benefit].
I think these rural counties—if they treat it right—it could be commerce for them. I think we could look at piggyback[ing] on that rail and put[ting in] a transit line. Maybe you put [transit] underneath them on the same right of way. There are some great advantages, and I think our area needs it.
Clark: A lot of people—especially elected officials in rural areas— were surprised to learn just how much tax revenue [the rail line] will generate as opposed to the road that is tax-free. [The rail line will] be paying taxes to local governments. I think the concerns of how it might affect someone’s use of their property is one of those key issues [rail officials] have to work through with a lot of those farmers and ranchers.