Ten transportation opportunities for the next mayor

It’s Labor Day. The summer is over and, sooner or later, the public is going to start paying attention to the Houston mayoral race.

The mayor of Houston is one of two local elected officials — the other is the Harris County Judge — who can get media attention pretty much whenever they want. Thus, in addition to the considerable official power the mayor has in our strong-mayor form of government, they have a large bully pulpit. Even when an issue isn’t under the city’s control, the mayor has a lot of influence. And, thanks to term limits, a Houston mayor tends to stay in office for six years unless they do something really stupid. Six years isn’t a long time when it comes to planning transportation projects, but it is long enough to make a real difference.

Unfortunately, Houston mayors haven’t made much of a difference when it comes to transportation, with one exception. That exception is METRO: the mayor appoints a majority of the board, and major accomplishments like the Main Street Line are generally the work of the mayor. But the (critical) details of those projects, as well as operations, tend to be left to the board, and in other modes — highways, toll roads, the airports, the port, freight rail — our recent mayors have been nearly invisible. Bill White is typical: he has focused on operational improvements like Safe-Clear and left the big project planning to TxDOT and the county.

But January is a new slate, and the new mayor has the opportunity to take advantage of their position and show leadership on transportation issues. If they do, here are some areas where they could make a big difference.


1. Get the light rail lines built — and figure out what the next ones are. This was on Bill White’s to-do list when he took office 5 1/12 years ago, and there’s little in the ground to show for it. Some of the blame for that goes to the federal government, but METRO’s — and thus the mayor’s — decisions have a played a big role as well.

Now that things are moving forward, there will be a new problem: construction. We’re going to see streets torn up across the city. That will surely be painful, but how painful is up to the new mayor. METRO has to watch its contractor closely and communicate with neighborhoods constantly. Meanwhile, the city’s Public Works department has to work closely with METRO to make sure city utility coordination doesn’t delay construction and that other nearby projects don;t compound traffic and access problems. So far, METRO and Public Works have been at odds as often as they’ve been on the same page. That needs to change.

The mayor also needs to watch to make sure the lines get built right. Details like crosswalks, street trees, and intersection geometry really matter, and once they’re built they’re set in concrete. This is another case where METRO and Public Works need to work together, and the mayor is the only person who can make that happen.

Meanwhile, we need to keep going. We need a plan for the next set of lines — and this time around, the mayor needs to be ahead of METRO, building the neighborhood and citywide consensus behind the plan.


2. Improve bus service. Houston’s local bus systems has needed a rethink for at least 20 years. Route structures are confusing, stops are inadequate, service levels are inconsistent, and passenger information is pathetic. And, while the service is excellent, the commuter bus system is intimidating to new riders. Fixing this won’t take a lot of money; it will take concentrated attention. METRO can do that at the same time as they build rail but it will take a separate, dedicated staff and, perhaps most importantly, a political mandate.


3. Guide good urban development. One unfortunate result of the Ashby highrise controversy could be regulations that make construction more difficult everywhere. A better result would be new rules that make it easier to build what we do want. Growth is going to happen somewhere; incentives and regulations that make it easy to build good projects will reduce market pressure to build bad ones. This will likely take the p-word: plans that identify what works and what’s needed in a particular area. The city could start with Midtown and East Downtown — two areas where everyone agrees new development is good thing.


4. Target infrastructure to growth. New density in inner neighborhoods has many positive effects: it reduces how much people drive, gives people more choices on where to live, supports more retail and services, reduces habitat loss on the outskirts, and strengthens the city’s economy. But the neighborhoods that have seen the brunt of this growth have seen their infrastructure — drainage, parking, pavement, green space– get overloaded. There’s a simple solution: better infrastructure: roads, parks, storm sewers, transit. Some of that might be paid for with impact fees. But that new development is creating new tax revenues, so it only makes sense to bring some of those revenues back where they came from in the form of city-funded projects. It wouldn’t be hard to create metrics — based on building permits or on population growth — to identify which areas need the investment.

The new infrastructure needs to be guided by a new public works manual — one that takes into account the challenges of limited right of way and is designed to create “complete streets” that serve motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and neighbors alike.


5. Rethink parking. Parking is an issue in numerous ways. In Downtown, paid parking on Saturday afternoons helps drive away customers from restaurants, but those same street are packed at midnight. In Midtown, parking regulations make it hard to open new businesses. On Washington Avenue, spillover parking from clubs in jamming up neighborhoods. In Montrose, bungalows are being torn down for new parking lots. There’s a common theme, though: the city isn’t using the tools at its disposal. The city puts up meters, create neighborhood parking districts, enforces parking restrictions, regulates how much parking businesses have to provide, and runs its own parking garages. But it does so, for the most part, unintelligently. Why is Downtown parking free when it’s in highest demand and paid when there’s no demand? Why is it cheaper to park on the street instead of in a garage when street parking is more convenient? Why are parking requirements the same in Midtown as on FM1960? Why isn’t the city using the property it owns around Washington to build off-street lots? Wherever parking is a problem, the city ought to be identifying that problem and then using every tool is has to solve it.


6. Fix the freeway bottlenecks without destroying neighborhoods. TxDOT’s strategy for 40 years has been to keep adding lanes. Their future plans are more of the same — more lanes on I-45, more lanes on 290, more lanes on 288. But the biggest traffic problems now are bottlenecks — the Pierce Elevated, 610 and 59, 610 and 290, 59 at Main Street, 288/59 at I-45. Adding more lanes to put more traffic into those bottlenecks will only make traffic worse. So the focus should be on the bottlenecks. But any major construction in an urban area has to be designed to improve surrounding neighborhoods, net harm them. And solutions have to include more effective use of existing right of way through more intelligent lane configurations, better connections to surface streets, and electronic traffic management.


7. Finish the bayou greenways. The trails along Buffalo Bayou from Downtown to I-10 and along Braes Bayou west of the Medical Center are among the most loved green spaces in Houston. They’re also useful bicycle commute routes. Our other bayous should have similar trails. There are already fragmented trails along Braes Bayou and Buffalo Bayou in the East End, White Oak Bayou, and Halls bayou. They need to be made continuous and linked to each other as well as to the surrounding neighborhoods. Sometimes, as in Downtown, the gaps are only a few hundred feet long; sometimes, only 20 feet of dirt separate a path from the street. Some other bayous already have room for trails, but need pavement; some need agreements with adjacent property owners. These are not expensive projects; they simply need attention.


8. Get commuter rail (and high speed rail) right… and fix freight rail while we’re at it. The county and METRO are planning commuter rail; the state is pursuing funds for high speed rail studies. Both of these projects would be connected, and Houston is literally in the center of that combined network. The mayor will be in an excellent position to make sure they connect well to major job centers and local transit. The mayor will also be the best protection inner city neighborhoods have against potentially destructive projects. Commuter rail and high speed rail projects also need to be seen as an opportunity to improve our freight rail system so it can carry more feeight with less impact.


9. Clarify construction. Our transportation system is always belong worked on somewhere. Lane closure, detours, and cones are not occasional interruptions; they are part of life. We won’t change that. But we can do our best to reduce the impacts. To start with, we need a lot of signage. The “lane closed” at the construction site isn’t enough — we need another set of signs blocks away, where it’s still possible to take an alternate route. We need coordination, so we don’t have that alternate route torn up as well. And we need construction management that puts the focus on getting in, getting the job done, and getting out. The city needs a “construction czar” who can watch over all city, county, METRO, and state projects and manage the impacts.


10. Involve the public. Today, it’s nearly impossible for a mere taxpaying resident to find out what’s planned near their house. Even elected officials have trouble keeping track of the projects a dozen different agencies are working on. We need one source for that information: type in a zip code, find put everything that’s going on nearby. The city could be that source. Gathering information from Public Works and Parks and Recreation is easy. METRO reports to the mayor, so that’s not a problem either. And while agencies like TxDOT can easily stonewall the public, they can’t do the same for the mayor, so the city can get and share that information as well. And, once the information is out there, the city can make sure the public get a voice. It can publish contact information and public meeting schedules for every project, with rss feeds and email notifications by zipcode. If the implementing agency won’t hold a public hearing, the city can hold one for them.

So far, the transportation plans out of the mayoral candidates seem timid. That may seem appropriate in a time of recession with limited budgets. But those budgets will go a lot further if they’re used strategically in pursuit of a greater vision. They’ll also go further if the city works with other government agencies and with private institutions, non-profits, and developers. That’s the biggest opportunity of all: the city, the county, METRO, and the state can do a lot more together than they can do alone. A mayor who can work well with others will be a much more effective mayor, not just in transportation but in many other areas as well.

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