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As Houston adds sprawl, the consequences multiply

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  • As Houston adds sprawl, the consequences multiply

    June 13, 2005, 1:09PM

    As Houston adds sprawl, the consequences multiply
    Transportation, conservation and housing among issues of concern

    Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

    Spring Valley residents struggle to pay sharply higher property taxes. Houston schools close while suburban districts groan under the weight of thousands of new students. Rising land prices make it harder for conservationists to preserve shrinking wildlife habitats.

    These are among the effects of metropolitan Houston's continued expansion as developers plan subdivisions 50 miles from downtown and public agencies build the roads that make these distant sites accessible.

    A June 5 Houston Chronicle report detailing plans for new residential developments on remote prairies and farmlands has rekindled discussions about the costs of a sprawling local growth pattern that seems to have no limits.

    While political and civic leaders in Houston's free-market culture remain averse to restraining growth, pressure from activists is leading to a more inclusive process for planning the transportation investments that influence where development occurs.

    Mayor Bill White, meanwhile, said he is launching initiatives to help the city — particularly areas of northeast and southeast Houston that have been "leapfrogged" by new development — capture a greater share of the single-family housing market.

    "I don't want, nor do most people in this community want, to tell people where they can and can't live or how long their commute should or shouldn't be," White said. "One person's sprawl is another person's dream house.

    "On the other hand, as a fiscal conservative, I'll tell you it is much more expensive for us to provide transportation services, water and sewer services and everything else if somebody lives twice as far away."

    High stakes for Houston
    Providing services to many of the new developments is not a direct city responsibility, since they lie outside Houston and, often, outside Harris County. Yet the city and its inner-ring suburbs have much at stake in the debate over the shape of area growth.

    For example, the expansion of the Katy Freeway — cited by executives of two companies planning developments near Fulshear as one reason their projects are feasible — has required the condemnation and destruction of numerous homes and businesses. The city of Spring Valley, which lost 90 percent of its commercial tax base to make way for new freeway lanes, raised property taxes by 27 percent last year.

    Among the dislocated residents was Suzanne Wetzel, who had lived in Spring Valley for 17 years. She moved to a leased townhouse after all the homes on her block were razed for the freeway expansion. Wetzel said that because of rising area property values, the payment she got for her house wasn't enough for another of comparable quality.

    Leaders of organizations that support a more compact growth pattern say the loss of open space available for farming, re-creation or wildlife habitat is one of the costs of sprawl. An example, they say, is the Katy Prairie, an important habitat for migratory birds.

    The Katy Prairie Conservancy has managed to purchase or otherwise protect about 17,000 of the prairie's 500,000 to 700,000 acres, said Mary Anne Piacentini, executive director. But the job is getting harder.

    "The development is going a lot faster than some of us had anticipated," Piacentini said. "It's putting pressure on land prices and making it more difficult for us to purchase land."

    Recent efforts to change the local development pattern have focused on the Regional Transportation Plan, which guides the construction of roads and transit projects throughout the Houston area. The most recent plan, approved a year ago, calls for the construction of 12,900 miles of new roads and streets through 2025.

    "That was not a plan, it was a continuation of what we've always done," said Polly Ledvina, a leader of the Citizens Transportation Coalition. "A 75 percent increase in vehicle-miles traveled is assumed. Sprawl is written into it — it's guaranteed, when we should be trying to rein it in."

    New planning approach
    In response to criticism from Ledvina's group and others, leaders of the Houston-Galveston Area Council will take a new approach to developing the next transportation plan, which will extend through 2030, said Alan Clark, the H-GAC's transportation director.

    The H-GAC is collaborating with Blueprint Houston, a nonprofit group devoted to improving local planning, in a process that will give more consideration to the effects of transportation projects on growth and development, Clark said.

    White agreed that transportation "is a critical issue in defining where and how the city grows." His strategy for directing more growth into the city, however, doesn't involve withholding transportation projects from remote areas.

    Instead, White said, he wants to make the city more attractive for development through initiatives such as Project Houston Hope, a redevelopment plan for six neighborhoods just outside Loop 610. The plan calls for making tax-delinquent property available for affordable housing, working with school districts to improve educational quality and building streets and utilities to replace crumbling infrastructure.

    Helping on housing
    With reasonably priced houses available in improved neighborhoods, White said, young families might be attracted by urban amenities such as libraries and entertainment venues that "are difficult sometimes to create in a new community." He said people who live outside the city often tell him they wish they were served by Houston police and firefighters.

    White said he wants to more than double the number of single-family housing starts inside the city within two years. He said his staff is researching the current figure for the city; builders typically release new home-construction figures on a regional basis.

    Barton Smith, an economist who directs the University of Houston's Institute for Regional Forecasting, said White's strategies might have some impact but cannot overcome the market forces pulling growth into remote areas.

    On the other hand, Smith said, developers building on the suburban frontier are more vulnerable to an economic downturn or other factors that might weaken market conditions.

    "It was the distant suburbs that got creamed when the Houston economy took a dive in the 1980s," Smith said.

    White said developers of new, distant subdivisions should also consider that subsidence — the sinking of ground because of the extraction of underground water — eventually will force them to get water from lakes and streams rather than from wells.

    "A bill is going to come due for a lot of these folks when they move from well water to surface water," White said. "Eventually, there's going to be water that is piped in and sewage that is piped out."

    Source: Houston Chronicle
    "Blue Oh-Two" (#424)
    Rick's header, Hondata gasket, Mugen thermostat/fan switch, Mugen radiator cap, Aussie mirror, Lucid's rear speakers, Alpine CDA-7893R & KCE-865B, Muz's saddlebag, Windscreen Light, Modifry's glove box organizer and lots of Zaino!

  • #2
    June 14, 2005, 9:42AM

    New transit plan is leaning more toward buses
    Culberson and DeLay sign on to seek federal funds for a phase that uses special buses

    Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

    Special buses would substitute at least temporarily for some light rail, a new east-west light rail line would cross the existing one, and heavier trains would carry some suburban commuters under a $2 billion Houston-area transit plan unveiled Monday.

    Key to the plan, Mayor Bill White said, is that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and U.S. Rep. John Culberson are committed to getting Metro the federal funding to make it all happen by 2012.

    An estimated $1 billion each would be needed from Metro and the Federal Transit Administration, Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said.

    White attributed the support of Culberson and of DeLay, who had sponsored legislation barring Metro from spending federal dollars on rail, to the "businesslike, straightforward, honest approach" the city and Metro have taken.

    The plan calls for an eight-mile light rail line from the University of Houston central campus to Greenway Plaza and the Uptown-Galleria area and 28 miles of commuter rail along the Northwest Freeway and U.S. 90 (South Main) through Missouri City.

    Bus rapid transit
    In a 2003 referendum, voters in Metro's service area approved expansion of rapid transit beyond the Main Street light rail then nearing completion.

    That plan contemplated light rail for the new corridors.

    The one unveiled Monday envisions use, at least in the short term, of a system called bus rapid transit in which rubber-tired vehicles run in dedicated guideways.

    Culberson, R-Houston, said White "has recognized that the rail plan submitted to the voters had big problems, and he is trying to fix that."

    DeLay, R-Sugar Land, said in a statement, "I like the tone Mayor White has set re-evaluating Metro's program, and I applaud him for personally taking on the leadership in this area."

    Wilson said the 20 miles of bus rapid transit in the North, Southeast, Harrisburg and Uptown corridors would run on roadbed like that of the seven-mile Main Street light rail line and would stop at similar boarding platforms. Only the electric power system and train cars would be missing. He said the rails would be laid and covered up, ready for use when ridership justifies using them.

    The existing MetroRail would be extended from its northernmost point at the University of Houston-Downtown to a site near Burnett on the Northside, from which a 20-mile commuter rail line would extend out the Northwest Freeway to near Barker-Cypress.

    Wilson said that line and the Missouri City one likely would be built on freight rail right of way that Metro would buy or lease from railroads.

    Officials in Fort Bend County, most of which lies outside Metro's service area and taxing jurisdiction, were pleased to hear Metro plans to build through Missouri City and eventually to Rosenberg. But Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert was cautious, saying, "I really would hate to pay a tax for a rail system that only took 2,000 or 4,000 cars off the road."

    Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said private developers might build the line extending beyond Metro's jurisdiction.

    Putting off a rail fight
    U.S. Rep. Gene Green, who has supported Metro's plans from the start, said he is pleased that the North, Harrisburg and Southeast lines run through his district, where many residents are transit-dependent, but that he was not disturbed they will have to wait for light rail.

    "I want those rails in the ground, and if we have to go a year or two with buses and rubber tires ... then we can fight in a few years over whether we can get the light rail there," he said.

    The plan calls for 40 miles of "signature" buses, a form of bus rapid transit that travels in the street but has its own guideway at intersections.

    Federal funds not assured
    Metro board Chairman David Wolff said Federal Transit Administration funding is not assured since only $9 billion is available for transit projects nationwide in the current cycle, with $50 billion in proposed projects competing. Metro hopes to get $400 million in the current cycle and $600 million in the next, Culberson said.

    Wilson said the local match for FTA dollars would come from bonds retired with sales tax and other revenues. Culberson said the congressional delegation will seek legislation to let Metro apply the $324 million of its own funds spent on the Main Street line toward the local match for future projects.

    Not everyone is pleased.

    "It's the same old story," said David Hutzelman, president of the Business Committee Against Rail. "We don't need to be pouring more money into a political success and a transportation failure."

    But Polly Ledvina of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, which fought the Katy Freeway expansion and lost, called the announcement great news.

    "It's about time," she said. "Too bad the right people did not see the light in time for the residents and businesses of the Katy Corridor."

    Source: Houston Chronicle
    "Blue Oh-Two" (#424)
    Rick's header, Hondata gasket, Mugen thermostat/fan switch, Mugen radiator cap, Aussie mirror, Lucid's rear speakers, Alpine CDA-7893R & KCE-865B, Muz's saddlebag, Windscreen Light, Modifry's glove box organizer and lots of Zaino!


    • #3
      June 13, 2005, 10:54PM

      How $2 billion would move people

      Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

      Some answers about the revised transit plan unveiled Monday:

      Q: Is this a big deal?

      A: Yes. What Metro is proposing would involve the expenditure of $2 billion, split evenly between local revenue and federal funds, and for the first time bring commuter rail onto the scene.

      Q: How long would it take to finish?

      A: Officials project that construction would be completed within seven years.

      Q: Who would benefit more, suburban commuters or urban residents?

      A: Both would see significant additions to current service. Commuters who drive would have more dedicated high occupancy lanes on all major freeways. Long-discussed commuter rail would make its debut with a 20-mile stretch along U.S. 290 from downtown to Cypress and another eight miles along U.S. 90A from Missouri City to the Fannin Street southern terminus of the existing light rail line. But much of the new construction would take place inside or just outside Loop 610, including 11.8 miles of new bus rapid transit running from just north of the Loop along Interstate 45 into southeast Houston near the intersection of Griggs and the South Loop.

      Q: Why isn't there more light rail in the plan?

      A: Light rail is expensive and must have high anticipated ridership to justify building it. The nine new miles of light rail are limited to one crosstown route roughly paralleling Wheeler and Richmond that would connect the University of Houston to the Uptown-Galleria area. However, 20 new miles of "fixed guideway transit" that would use a special type of bus could be converted to light rail if enough passengers use it. Other than the type of vehicle, the line would look the same as the existing light rail line on Main. It also would be built with rail infrastructure, including tracks and station platforms.

      Q: Will there be rail to the airports?

      A: Not yet. Although rail lines to both Hobby and Bush Intercontinental are anticipated, their construction will be put off until the next phase of the rapid transit plan.

      Q: How is the bus rapid transit different from the signature bus service that would operate on more suburban crosstown routes?

      A: The signature buses would resemble regular city buses but would make fewer stops, with special stations built for them at those stops, and they would have the ability to override traffic signals at certain locations.

      Q: How are the HOT lanes mentioned in the plan different from existing HOV lanes?

      A: HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes would run in both directions at the same time, there would be more of them and they would be available for a toll to cars with only one occupant.

      Q: Why does the commuter rail line serving the southwest sector not extend past Missouri City?

      A: The plan takes commuter rail to the limit of the Metro service area. However, the plan envisions the rail being extended to Richmond and Rosenberg if a way can be developed for communities outside the service area to pay for the extension.

      Q: Does the plan include commuter rail along the Katy Freeway?

      A: No. But Metro officials are studying the issue along with the Texas Department of Transportation. They say the next phase of Katy corridor transit planning may include high-speed rail as a component. Metro also anticipates commuter rail running from Galveston to downtown Houston.

      Q: Would the commuter lines require new track construction and the acquisition of right of way?

      A: Yes and no. The lines would use existing track along 290 and probably new track along an existing right-of-way along 90. This is why the lines can be completed in a relatively short period.

      Q: What is the difference between light rail and commuter rail?

      A: Commuter rail uses heavier cars that are pulled by locomotives along standard gauge railway track. It makes fewer stops than light rail.

      Source: Houston Chronicle
      "Blue Oh-Two" (#424)
      Rick's header, Hondata gasket, Mugen thermostat/fan switch, Mugen radiator cap, Aussie mirror, Lucid's rear speakers, Alpine CDA-7893R & KCE-865B, Muz's saddlebag, Windscreen Light, Modifry's glove box organizer and lots of Zaino!


      • #4
        Houston needs some kind of mass transit, especially to downtown and to the airports.


        • #5
          I thought they had already decided that we'd get that light rail connection to IAH ???

          Somewhere around 2025 or so.
          "Blue Oh-Two" (#424)
          Rick's header, Hondata gasket, Mugen thermostat/fan switch, Mugen radiator cap, Aussie mirror, Lucid's rear speakers, Alpine CDA-7893R & KCE-865B, Muz's saddlebag, Windscreen Light, Modifry's glove box organizer and lots of Zaino!