County judge addresses transportation issues
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett shared his thoughts on Houston's transportation challenges and opportunities, health care and criminal justice issues, and the Astrodome dilemma with a group of Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce members last week.
If you look at a globe and understand global trade, you will see that the Houston region and southwest Texas are poised to be the gateway to North America," Emmett said. But if we don't have a transportation system that can move freight out of the Port of Houston and onto the rest of North America, then we will never become the economic center we could be."
Emmett said the greatest challenge that the region and state faces when it comes to maintaining and building transportation networks is funding.
The state transportation department does not have money to build highways, and there are a few reasons for that," Emmett said. The (state) gasoline tax is not indexed to inflation; cars have become more efficient and are not using as much gas; and as more cars become fueled by something other than gasoline, many won't pay that tax at all."
He said that the Texas Legislature must bite the proverbial bullet," and find new revenue streams or our economy will be strangled and come to a screeching halt."
I think, theoretically, that we need a vehicle miles traveled' tax," Emmett said. I know that a lot of people do not want a GPS (global positioning system) added to their vehicle, but we do have odometers. The problem is that you can't determine on an odometer how many miles the vehicle travels in the state, so we would have to figure that out."
Other options that could be considered by legislators include an increase or indexing of the fuel tax; a local-option tax that is only instituted if passed by a majority of voters; or an increase to the state's vehicle registration fee.
My plea to organizations like the chamber is that when legislators make the tough decisions, you need to help and support them," Emmett said.
In addition, he said, the Texas Department of Transportation must be restored to its previous level of respect. The agency is up for sunset review in the 2011 legislative session.
The (proposed) Trans-Texas Corridor project almost killed that agency," Emmett said. It was a bad plan." TxDOT made the decision not to pursue the project in October 2009.
He said one of the problems with the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 4,000-mile network of highway corridors up to 1,200 feet wide with parallel links of toll roads and railways, was the comprehensive development agreement proposed to fund the project.
A comprehensive development agreement involves a private-public partnership for financing transportation projects, including toll roads, new roads, rail projects, a highway improvement project, or a combination of those.
Now it is time to go back and say that the comprehensive development agreement is gone and allow TxDOT to find other creative methods to finance roads, like the U.S. 290 project," Emmett said.
Toll roads are an option, though many people do not like to pay tolls, he said.
Emmett said the county is pursuing several road projects that the State Legislature granted permission to build in the 2007 session.
Those include the completion of the Sam Houston Tollway northeast from east of U.S. 59 North to south of U.S. 90, which is under construction; and the completion of the Hardy Toll Road from Loop 610 to downtown, which will start construction next year.
Emmett said the county is evaluating its part in the construction of the proposed Hempstead Highway Tollway part of the U.S. 290 reconstruction project plan because a traffic and revenue analysis on the four-lane, 23-mile toll road indicates that it is not toll-viable" because two of the four lanes could be dedicated to a Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County High Occupancy Vehicle facility.
The county is also evaluating its potential role in building segments of the Grand Parkway around Houston, he said. The cost to build four of those segments from Interstate 10 to U.S. 59 would cost about $3-$4 billion, and the county does not have the bonding capacity for that.
We (Texas transportation planners) have to add rail to the mix also," Emmett said. I firmly believe commuter line between Hempstead and the (Union Pacific Railroad) Eureka yard will be up and running within five years."
There are also serious conversations about running high speed rail between Houston and Dallas," Emmett said.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has indicated it would be willing to move freight rail traffic off the north-bound rail line that would accommodate that proposed high-speed rail system.
As for health care and criminal justice issues, Emmett said the Harris County Hospital District should stop focusing on bricks and mortar," and work toward establishing a regional, multi-county system for indigent care.
We also have to separate mental health from the criminal justice system," Emmett said. We now have more mentally-ill patients than inmates and that is fundamentally wrong."
County and Sheriff's Department officials are working on establishing a reintegration center," which will include nonprofits, the Mental Health Mental Retardation agency, the Star of Hope and other agencies which could provide services for mentally ill individuals who are released from the Harris County jail. Currently, they are released to the streets with no assistance.
Chamber members indicated, when asked by Emmett, that they would not like to see the Houston Astrodome torn down. The three options Harris County has on the table include demolition; conversion into a convention and science center; or conversion to a venue for community festivals and gatherings.
We need public input on what happens to the Astrodome," he said. We still owe $40 million on it."
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