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Transportation Funding

February 25th, 2011 · No Comments

I got perhaps more involved than I thought I would in a decision by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on how to divide up transportation funds. In brief, H-GAC is a council of city and county governments for the region, and the Transportation Policy Council of that group was deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds for transportation projects. The proposal considered today was described by Houston Tomorrow as:

The proposal calls for increasing road and freight spending while limiting projects that would improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit access, livable centers studies, and other projects listed as “Alternative Modes.” Particular projects to be eliminated from the TIP are not yet determined, but all proposed projects are presumably listed in the Preliminary Project Scoping (pdf) provided by H-GAC. Projects to be cut would include things like walkability projects in Midtown and a pedestrian realm project to provide better sidewalks and neighborhood access to light rail along the future East End Light Rail Line.

As I tried to understand the issue, I was blown away by the complexity of the system by which transportation money is provided and spent. Here’s a summary of how I surmise the system works, and what appears to be at stake in the decision today. I would much appreciate any feedback on how right or wrong this is:

  • The basic transportation framework (“Unified Transportation Program”) considers 12 major categories, with a few extra categories added because 12 just isn’t complex enough
  • About half of the money considered statewide goes to rehabilitation/maintenance projects for roads and highways. These aren’t decided by H-GAC at all, and aren’t part of the decision today
  • A goodly chunk of the money goes to categories 2 and 3, which distribute money to big and small cities for major highway projects. Another big chunk is Propostion 12, which dedicated bonds to transportation projects. Locally, Highway 290 appears to be almost all funded from this (from the department of transporation project website, all but one phase of the project is listed as category 2, and the last is Proposition 12). This funding isn’t decided by H-GAC, either
  • Another goodly chunk of the money goes to bridges and road safety improvement projects. Again, not decided by H-GAC
  • Locally, a large piece of the funding comes from the toll road authority, whose mission appears to be to help developers make as much profit as possible by building highways through currently unoccupied sections of the Katy Prairie. Again, not decided by H-GAC

To summarize the points above: There is a sizable chunk of money that is essentially baked into the system as money spent for roads and highways. H-GAC has no control over this money, and it isn’t on the table for discussion today. The funds that appear to be under discussion today are:

  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds are about half of the pot, perhaps $50 million per year for the region. These are assigned to regions based on how bad the air quality is, and are designed to be used for activities to improve air quality standards.
  • Metropolitan Mobility funds are the other half of the pot, also about $50 million per year. These can be spent on any transportation project

H-GAC has a process for doling this money out, which is pretty much all federal funding. Cities and other local government groups apply, and their applications are graded. Half of the grade is due to cost/benefit analyis (with the benefits based completely on air quality improvement), and the other half on subjective factors. The H-GAC are working on the plan for the next four years, and have already doled out maybe 3/4 of the money. They were trying to figure out what to do with the last quarter when someone woke up and realized that more money than usual had been spent on pedestrian and bike-related projects. The specific resolution today was to try to get funding back in line with historical trends

The interesting part is that historical trends spend 78% of this pot of funds on roadway projects, and 11% on alternative transportation modes. The only way you can hit 78% is to spend all of the “metropolitan mobility” funds on roads, plus half of the air quality improvement funds on roads as well. In other words, we have decided that the best way to improve our air quality by building more roads so that more cars can drive on them.

The funding scores reflect this mentality – all of the pedestrian-related projects have horrible cost/benefit analysis (perhaps $5000 total in air quality benefits). The roadway projects, however, have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in benefits. The analysis obviously takes great credit for the idea that a wider road = less idling = less emissions. This is presumably backed up by an engineering assessment done by a contractor, and may even follow some sort of national guidelines on how to do the estimate. Does the estimate also include the concept that a wider road = more cars wanting to use the road = more development guided by the road = more driving = more emissions? I don’t know

Even with this logic – which seems a bit twisted to me – bicycle and pedestrian projects have somehow been able to win a share of the funding. The council decided that they wanted to stop this, hence the proposal today.

Based on these assumptions, I am left with the following conclusions:

  • The discussion today is not about Highway 290, not about road maintenance, and not about any part of a huge bank of funds dedicated to car-focused projects. That money will be spent on roads regardless of H-GAC’s decisions.
  • If the status quo is retained, the council will continue to spend essentially all of the “metropolitan mobility” funds and a notable portion of the “air quality improvement” funds on roadway projects. 60+% of the total of these two will be spent on roadways.
  • If the proposal under discussion passes, the council will spend 78% of the total on roadways. This is all of the “metropolitan mobility” money and more than half of the “air quality” money. Many bicycle and pedestrian projects would be delayed or cancelled.
  • A truly progressive council would consider spending most or all of the “air quality” money, plus a portion of the “metropolitan mobility” money on things that aren’t focused on cars. This would lead to perhaps 40% of the total being spent on roadways. Note that there is still a huge chunk of other funding sources devoted to roads, so Highway 290 would still get bigger and the Katy Prairie would still be bulldozed for more highways and subdivisions. This step would be progressive, not revolutionary.

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