Partnerships, federal money supplement low state funds
The national transportation bill Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act will have far-reaching effects in Northwest Houston when the money starts flowing in October.
This source of federal funding is one of several ways the state is able to move forward with major transportation projects as traditional transportation money becomes scarcer. Several projects in northwest Harris County—the Grand Parkway, expansion of Hwy. 290 and the Hwy. 249 toll road—will incorporate a mix of funding sources, in part because of issues with the state's transportation revenue system.
The U.S. Congress passed MAP-21 in July, which allocated about $105 billion nationally—and more than $6 billion in Texas—in transportation money for the next two years. The bill sets aside money for improving and preserving existing highways; road, bridge and bicycling improvements; and infrastructure safety.
Earlier this year, it was difficult for the Texas Department of Transportation to estimate how much federal transportation revenue to expect because the U.S. Congress had been renewing similar bills in small increments, said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. After the last national transportation bill expired, it took more than three years for the government to enact another multi-year bill. The passage of MAP-21 was one factor that led to the allocation of additional funding—about $360 million—for portions of the Hwy. 290 project.
"The [state] was used to having predictability, so they budgeted conservatively," Clark said. "As it turned out, the federal government fully funded the bill."
There are three main state funding sources for transportation projects in Texas: the motor fuel tax, vehicle registration fees and the state portion of the federal motor fuels tax. Even though Texas is a high-growth state, the fuel tax—which has not increased since 1991—has and will remain flat, Clark said. Therefore, officials have begun incorporating unexpected federal funding, savings from other projects and a bond program to help further some local transportation projects.
The bond program has allowed TxDOT to refinance a large amount of debt with a high rate of interest to a lower rate, leading to major cost savings, Clark said. Additionally, other projects cost less to build than what was originally estimated.
"Our transportation projects have been, because of the economy, costing us less than the engineers estimated for a while now," Clark said. "We've had a deflation in the price of construction and maintaining some of the state's highway networks, which is a good thing for the public because they get great value for their money."
Partnerships between governmental entities and a potential public-private partnership have brought forward movement to several projects in northwest Harris County this year.
The county entered into an initial agreement in April with TxDOT to install managed lanes—a combination of high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes—on Hwy. 290 from Loop 610 to the Grand Parkway. Now, the two entities are working on agreements in regards to how the design will look.
"We will have some public meetings this fall to show what the interim improvements will be along 290, which are based upon how we incorporated the managed lanes within the right of way already proposed for improvement," said Raquelle Lewis, TxDOT spokeswoman.
Toll financing has become more prevalent in recent years in metropolitan areas such as Houston and Dallas, Clark said. Some projects can be done directly with TxDOT, but in Houston the Harris County Toll Road Authority is involved.
"We're not seeing increases in the motor fuel tax, which is the principle reason why we're turning to a different way," Clark said. "With some major projects, tolling can be an effective way to pay for at least part of the operation and maintenance fees for that facility. We do blend some tax revenue with the tolls, but without the tolls we couldn't build these facilities."
On Sept. 11, Harris County Commissioners Court approved several engineering agreements to move forward on the Hwy. 249 project, which will create a six-lane toll road from Spring Cypress Road to FM 1774 in Magnolia.
"People who live in that region are ready for increased mobility," said Jack Cagle, precinct 4 commissioner. "They are tired of sitting in traffic."
Work on Phase 1, which will span from Northpointe Boulevard to FM 2920, is expected to begin by fall 2013.
Additionally, the Texas Transportation Commission board—the governing body of TxDOT—is expected to select the developer it will work with on a public-private partnership for the Grand Parkway at its Sept. 27 meeting, Lewis said. The partnership will allow for TxDOT to develop three sections of Houston's planned third outer loop in northern Harris County. Work is expected to begin on Segment F-1, which will run from Hwy. 290 to Hwy. 249, by 2013.
Once a region becomes highly populated, one of the only ways to help reduce congestion involves charging to use a facility according to how crowded it is, said David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, an organization that studies urban issues in the Houston area.
"We're starting to see a little of that with the new Metro [high occupancy toll] lanes," he said. "They charge enough that you don't see those HOV lanes really crowded."
Although there have been many ideas about how to increase transportation revenue, not one has had a broad appeal that can be implemented in an equitable way, Clark said. Potential ideas range from increased vehicle registration fees to raising the gas tax to implementing a tax based on how many miles one drives in a year.
"I think ultimately we need to find a way to make use of the transportation system more like a utility, like a water bill, but we have a long way to go before we know how to do that in a way that's acceptable to the public," Clark said.
Every year the price of road construction, steel, concrete and fuel that goes into equipment goes up, but the tax on a gallon of gas stays the same, which means the state is buying less construction with the same amount of money, said David Ellis, research scientist with the Texas Transportation Institute.
"That causes a problem with funding infrastructure in an environment faced with the growth we are seeing," he said. "It's a difficult proposition for TxDOT to deal with, but they are not unique. It's a problem that all states who tax fuel the way we do, which is the overwhelming majority, face."