Austin, Houston Mayors call for shift away from cars to transit

Link to article here.

Two liberal Mayors, Steve Adler of Austin and Sylvester Turner of Houston, are pushing a shift in transportaiotn philosophy away from road building to one constricting auto capacity for single occupancy drivers in order to force them into a carpool, bus, or rail car. It's New Urbanism's clarion call -- declaring a war on cars and seeks to put drivers on a road diet to force a change in behavior to what liberal elites think is a better option. Never mind that over 95% of Texas commuters prefer to drive their own vehicle and commute alone in their cars every day. To these social engineers, they know better and they'll use their power to turn your freeways upside down, and keep them snarled in congestion to try and force change.

Governor Greg Abbott doesn't share their philosophy and he appoints the Texas Transportation Commissioners that control what happens to the state highway system. With two competing philosophies being advanced by powerful politicians, a clash of the titans is likely to ensue.  

Turner calls for change in transportation philosophy
By Mike Morris
Houston Chronicle
February 8, 2016 Updated: February 9, 2016 9:32am

It is time Texas stopped funding transportation for the huge share of residents who commute alone in their cars each day, Mayor Sylvester Turner told state officials, arguing that widening highways leads only to more gridlock.

Instead, the new mayor called for state funding to shift away from the automobile and toward alternatives, including commuter rail, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, park and rides, and local transit, as the Houston region faces projections of staggering growth in the coming decades.

"The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single-occupant-vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems. These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire," Turner said recently in remarks to the Texas Transportation Commission. "We need a paradigm shift.”

Noting that the enormous expansion of the Katy Freeway did not prevent it, seven years later, from becoming one of the most congested highways in the state, Turner said he supports commuter rail, such as along U.S. 90A, and said it is worth exploring such ideas as dedicated truck lanes and staggered delivery times at the Port of Houston to avoid rush hour.

As for what he will do locally to implement those priorities in the city budget and capital plan, Turner said he awaits early-March reports from his transition team. One recommendation Turner said he knows is coming, however, will be to name a transportation czar, reporting directly to him, who will coordinate a task force of mobility experts from the state, county, Metro, key city departments and other groups.

"I want to place more emphasis on transportation and mobility now than it has ever been," he said.

Turner's comments cheered local progressives and urbanists across the country, some of whom appear to overlook the fact that Houston mayors have called for transportation alternatives since at least the late 1990s, and that highways always have been the purview of the Texas Transportation Commission, the body to which Turner addressed his comments late last month.

Attainable goal?
Still, Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner's speech "the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I've been in Houston." Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers now living in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that means sidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

"I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects," Martinson said. "Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we're always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC's Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

"Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge," Clark said.

Consider all road users
Among the entities represented on the regional transportation council is Harris County, the western portion of which is represented by Commissioner Steve Radack. The longtime commissioner said he is not inclined to reinvent the way transportation is funded in the region.

"This is Texas. People either want to own a horse or a car," Radack said. "The most rapidly growing area, by far, of our region is the unincorporated area of Harris County."
The city has had a funding mechanism to achieve some of the changes Turner seeks, Radack added, referring to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of Harris County, which, in his view, blew its cash on ineffective light rail lines.

Still, Jay Blazek Crossley of urbanism advocacy group Houston Tomorrow remains optimistic.

"The question isn't whether this paradigm shift is going to happen. It's happening," he said. "It's a question of how long it takes the Legislature and TxDOT to catch up and how much money and traffic we have to suffer through as we switch.”

Crossley said the switch started locally when former Mayor Annise Parker issued a 2013 executive order on Complete Streets, essentially forcing the Department of Public Works and Engineering to consider all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians, when designing a street. Even if Turner cannot secure a shift in state funding, Crossley said, he can better implement the Complete Streets concept using the dollars he controls directly.

"I think there's tremendous potential there. Making sure there are sidewalks and that it's a safe street to ride a bike on, you can do all that with our existing budgets," Crossley said. "We can see tremendous progress fairly quickly if the city of Houston unifies and says, 'It's a priority of ours to provide the people with safe options.' “

'Working with all parties'
One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

"That just speaks volumes about this mayor's strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response," Moseley said. "The mayor's office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city's response. What we see is that the mayor's interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT's district engineer met with the leader of Turner's transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor's transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

"The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation," Moseley said. "When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department."

Link to article here.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler highlights 2016 transportation priorities, including rail & I-35 toll lanes
By Michael Theis
Austin Business Journal
January 5, 2016

Editor's note: Mayor Adler has offered more details about the timing and structure of some of the proposals laid out in this article. See the update here.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler wants to bring a bond referendum before voters this year that would add managed toll lanes to I-35, and he wants other municipalities in the region to help foot the bill.

That was one of two transportation projects, along with a new “starter” mass transit rail line, Adler identified Tuesday as City Council priorities in remarks to a luncheon hosted by the Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

On the managed toll lanes for I-35, Adler said he hoped surrounding cities would also advance bond measures to voters to help fund construction. The lanes, similar to the lanes currently being added to the MoPac Expressway, would use variable toll rates to try to control congestion. The MoPac toll lanes are behind schedule and the Central Texas Mobility Authority has issued a notice of default to Colorado-based contractor CH2M Inc.

The I-35 lanes and their variable tolls, Adler said, would be designed so traffic wouldn’t dip below 45 miles per hour and would give buses a way to bypass highway traffic.

“We need a managed lane on I-35,” Adler said. “You will never get people out of their cars and onto a bus if it is caught in traffic. People who are sitting in traffic, watching a bus go by quickly ... some of them will be willing to get out of their car and onto the bus.”

On rail, Adler conceded that 2014’s failed light rail bond measure was a strong indication that voters are not yet willing to be taxed for more transit. Despite this, Adler floated the idea of building an initial rail line that did not require voter-approved bonded funds.

“We need to talk about how we do, if we do, a rapid rail system,” Adler said. “In a city 20 years from now, with 4 million people in it, if we don’t have a rail system, we are going to have significant problems, but there is no appetite in the community to fund a rail plan.”

Adler hypothesized that if Austin could get a smaller, initial light rail transit line up and running, voters would be more supportive of a more comprehensive rail system in the future.

To pay for such a line, Adler suggested using tax increment financing to fund its development. Tax increment financing uses increases in property tax revenue in a particular area to fund public infrastructure development.

“My gut tells me that if we build it, we will have a lot of people getting on that route,” Adler said. “But we have to demonstrate that before we have a large expenditure.”