mobility-matters TAG Chairman Jack Drake, left, introduces the Mobility Matters Symposium panel. From left to right: Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff, METRO Chairwoman Carrin Patman, the Port of Freeport Executive Director/CEO Phyllis Saathoff and Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman[/caption]

The Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston region and Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership hosted the third annual Mobility Matters Symposium at the HESS Club on Westheimer Road Tuesday. The event provides a forum for discussion of transportation issues in the Greater Houston area and throughout Texas.

Panelists discussed toll roads, traffic congestion, mass transit and the feasibility of public-private partnerships to fund transportation needs in the region.

TAG Chairman Jack Drake and board member Carol Lewis led a panel discussion with METRO Chairwoman Carrin Patman, the Port of Freeport Executive Director/CEO Phyllis Saathoff, Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff and Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman.

Toll roads

Keynote speaker state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-79th) discussed what he felt were problems with the current toll road system.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t have them,” Pickett said. “But collection costs for [some] tolls are the same as the toll costs.”

Vandergriff said he believes toll roads have been over-utilized in the state.

“It is a tool in a toolbox that under appropriate circumstances could be used, but we were over-aggressive,” Vandergriff said. “What does work is the managed lane concept.”

Managed lanes in Houston include the High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on I-10 which are now available to Single Occupancy Vehicle drivers who pay a toll, according to the TxDOT website.

Mass transit

The panel also discussed mass transit and its potential to ease congestion for commuters.

Patman discussed the changes that METRO—the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County—has seen in recent years, including the new bus network that was introduced in 2015.

“We had not redone the bus networks since 1990,” Patman said.

METRO ridership has gone up since the new network was introduced, Patman said. According to a METRO news release, ridership increased by 6.8 percent from September 2015 to July 2016.

Patman said community involvement was important in strategizing METRO service coverage and was instrumental in restoring service to the Manchester route it previously discontinued due to low ridership.

“We’re hoping to build on that [success] with respect to our regional transit plan,” Patman said.

However, Patman said collaboration is needed to formulate the plan.

“We will be coming back to voters to ask for bonding authority which we hope to match with government grants to do the rest of what we need to do,” Patman said.

Port mobility

Saathoff discussed the need for roadway improvements to facilitate mobility, including Hwy. 288 and Hwy. 36 near the Port of Freeport.

TxDOT will soon begin widening areas of Hwy. 36 to move traffic in and out of the area more efficiently, she said.

“We’re extremely excited about what we’re calling the Texas transportation trade corridor,” Saathoff said. “I’d like to see them continue these studies further northward,” she said.

Plans to add overpasses from Hwy. 288 to Beltway 8 should also help eliminate congestion into Pearland, she said. Increasing mobility in Texas metropolitan areas will help the state become more competitive internationally.

“There are a lot of jobs on the West Coast that belong in Texas,” Saathoff said. “Now with the expansion of the Panama Canal, this region is positioned to compete for that business. We need to provide transportation corridors with infrastructure to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Public-private partnerships

Zimmerman said public-private partnerships will play a large role in how the Greater Houston area addresses transportation needs in the future.

Sugar Land’s comprehensive plan, Vision 2025, includes mobility considerations and emphasizes the need to work with other entities to move projects forward, he said.

“Communication is the most important piece, in order to identify those projects that benefit not only Sugar Land, but the county, state and region,” Zimmerman said. “There’s not enough money to do all the projects everybody would like to get done.”

Zimmerman said technology could offer some traffic solutions, such as sensors that sequence traffic signals to adapt to current congestion.

“We’re going to have to use technology because we don’t have the dollars to keep building new roadways,” Zimmerman said.