For the first time in its history, Harris County is taking an inventory of the condition and life expectancy of every county-maintained road before deciding how mobility funds should be distributed among each of its four precincts in 2020.

The study, launched this summer, is expected to take about one year to complete. However, county officials said they plan to make some funding recommendations in February based on early findings to allow county commissioners to set their budgets before the start of the new budget year in March.

Harris County Engineer John Blount, whose department is leading the study, said it will provide a more in-depth look at the county’s needs than was available at any time in the past.

“This [method] is what would be considered best practices as far as determining the state of our mobility infrastructure,” Blount said.

The study was launched in July by Harris County Commissioners Court with a 4-1 vote, with Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle dissenting. However, both Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who each cover parts of the Cy-Fair area, have expressed concerns about its potential outcomes.

Cagle said he fears the study could be used as a “power play” to divert funds from his and Radack’s precincts under the guise of improving efficiency.

Several road widening and extension projects are being studied in Precinct 4, including the widening of Telge and Grant roads in northwest Houston. Previous goals for the design and construction timelines for those projects have been put in question as precinct officials wait to see how the mobility study could affect funding, Cagle said. The extent to which individual projects might be affected will not be known until the dollars are allocated next year, he said.

“We’ll have to wait and see what occurs with regard to the raw grab of money,” Cagle said. “If the raw grab of money occurs, then we’re going to have problems in terms of how we take care of the responsibilities that we need to take care of.”

Driving every road

The recommendations in the mobility study will be based both on the data being compiled as well as on policy priorities set forth by commissioners, Blount said.

“We’ll have all the data at our disposal, but we need direction from commissioners on how they want projects prioritized so we can put that data to use,” he said.

In previous budgets, mobility funds were split up across each of the county’s four precincts using a formula that took several factors into consideration, including population, total county-maintained lane miles and total county-maintained thoroughfare miles, according to county documents. Heading into the 2019 budget year, precincts 3 and 4 combined to make up 52% of the population, 65% of the lane miles and 62% of the thoroughfare miles, which resulted in those two precincts getting about 59% of mobility funds.

The study will include new data obtained through an analysis of every road maintained by Harris County, Blount said.

In July, Harris County entered into an agreement with the Florida-based software company Data Transfer Solutions to perform a detailed analysis of every county-maintained road. The project uses high-tech vans that collect data on each road as they drive them, said Scot Gordon, vice president of asset management with DTS.

Gordon said the vans have covered about 50% of the county roads as of early December. The goal is to have covered all the major arterial roads in time for commissioners to review the data for their March budgets and to tackle the remaining local roads throughout the spring.

When looking at all the data, Harris County will be given a better idea of the service life of each road, including the type, severity and density of pavement distress, Gordon said.

“Images are also being collected and backed up, so there’s a lot better documentation,” he said. “The county can go back at any time and see what was done, and it gives the engineers better data to support what projects need to be done in the future.”

Policy priorities

When the engineering department presents the mobility study to commissioners in February, Blount said the presentation will include recommendations for how mobility funds should be split. However, before those recommendations can be made, he said commissioners will have to provide direction on how projects should be prioritized, such as to what extent things like safety, mass transit and equity—investing in parts of the county that have been overlooked in the past—should be taken into account.

Money from several different sources is at stake, including roughly $120 million in toll road funds and about $30 million in funds provided by the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County through its general mobility program, as well as $390 million in unspent funds from a mobility bond voters approved in 2015.

Prior to the launch of the study, commissioners voted 3-2 in July—with Cagle and Radack dissenting—to divide the METRO funds equally across each precinct until the study’s completion. The move took more than $4 million in already allocated funding away from precincts 3 and 4.

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a driving force behind launching the study, said he wants to improve upon the previous system, which he said he believes was arbitrary and unfair to precincts 1 and 2. He said evenly splitting the METRO funds was a temporary solution until the system can be fixed.

“It’s a fair way to do this until we figure out some way of doing it that takes into account a review of where the money has gone in the past with an eye towards equity—fairness to people who normally get overlooked,” Ellis said at the July meeting when the funds were shifted.

To meet the late February deadline, Blount said it would be ideal for commissioners to vote on policy priorities sometime in January.

“Each commissioner has their own idea in their mind about what factors are most important,” Blount said. “They all make valid points, but it’s going to be up to them to figure out how to ultimately put everything together in a way we can use.”

Local concerns

Although Blount said there is no indication for how mobility funds could be split up in 2020 at this point, both Cagle and Radack have expressed concerns about their precincts losing money.•In an interview following the launch of the study, Radack pointed to the amount of funds each precinct currently spends on mobility projects as evidence that the needs are greater in Precincts 3 and 4.

According to budget data, an estimated $103 million in unspent mobility funds was carried over from 2018 to 2019 in Precinct 1 compared to $39 million in Precinct 2, $30 million in Precinct 3 and $45 million in Precinct 4. With rollover funds and new allocations combined, Precinct 1 started the year with $125 million in the bank, compared to $69 million in Precinct 2, $62 million in Precinct 3 and $81 million in Precinct 4.

The higher spending in precincts 3 and 4 may be related to the portion of those precincts that fall within unincorporated Harris County, Radack said.

Both Radack and Cagle said the details of how specific road projects could be affected are unknown until budget talks get further underway. Capital project databases for each precinct show a variety of projects in the study phase in the Cy-Fair area, but project costs typically do not get finalized until the study phase is completed, officials said.

Leslie Martone, president of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, said there is a connection between creating a healthy environment for businesses and funding mobility needs.

“I think they go hand in hand,” she said. “We need stress-free mobility to not only commute for personal but also for businesses in the community.”•In December, commissioners in each precinct began the process of putting their budgets together to be adopted next March.

Although he declined to provide details, Cagle said there are tools at his disposal to fight back against a potential shift in funds that he said is unfair to his precinct.

“I’m ready to see what’s going to occur in those budget hearings,” he said. “I will utilize every tool and avenue possible to make sure that I’m able to serve the people of Precinct 4.”