Texas Steers its Own Course on Infrastructure; Will Congress Follow?
Texas Construction News from Virtual Builders Exchange
This section of Interstate 35 going through downtown Austin is the second most congested road in Texas.
Posted: 3-1-2017, 10:37 p.m.
by Edmond Ortiz
It may be a sign of President Donald Trump’s belief in the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure, but it so happens that Elaine Chao enters office as one of the few cabinet picks with experience related to her new area of responsibility.
Chao was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in January, a department where she was Deputy Secretary of Transportation under George H.W. Bush.
In his Feb. 28 address to the nation, Trump asked for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment. But with Chao at his side and maybe some cooperation from Democrats, Trump may secure his legacy in one respect. He may be remembered as the Infrastructure President. Assuming the House of Representatives is agreeable to his plans, contractors will have more jobs on their work schedule than they can handle.
The challenges are indeed abundant. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates $3.6 trillion in infrastructure needs nationwide through 2020. In its last report card in 2013, ASCE gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ overall. Another report card is due this month.
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) recently issued its own grade on bridges nationwide. The group found 185 million daily crossings on nearly 56,000 structurally deficient bridges.
VBX Project ID 2017-1C09 | Harris County - Construction of New Twin Bridges over the Houston Ship Channel for the Sam Houston Tollway Ship Channel Bridge Replacement Project
Texas is just as desperate as any state for federal funds, but the perennial gridlock in Congress convinced the state Legislature that more locally-funded options were needed.
In 2014, voters passed Proposition 1 to divert a portion of state oil and gas tax revenues to the State Highway Fund. The federal gasoline tax--the resource traditionally used for road improvements--has not been raised since 1993 and it is not indexed to inflation.
In 2016, the Legislature went further and allowed a second ballot measure. New sales and use taxes were created through the passage of Proposition 7 to augment the State Highway Fund.
There are billions of dollars of infrastructure projects statewide now in the works or ready to let.
ROADS & DRAINAGE
The Trump administration and Congress must still work out details on federal spending, but Texas is already preparing its first payment of $5 billion from state sales tax revenue toward roads and bridges.
Officials with the state’s largest regional transportation agencies are fast-tracking dozens of major projects and hundreds of less prominent ones. Nowhere is the demand for relief more felt than in Harris and Dallas counties. Of the Top 21 worst congested roads, according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), 19 are in those two counties. Of the other two, Travis County ranks 2nd worst with a section if Interstate 35 and Denton County ranks 18th with yet another section of I-35.
Alan Clark, senior transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC), said his agency is focusing on reconstruction projects and “bottleneck” removals. West Loop 610 and Interstate 69 West, a highly-congested area, is one target for relief.
“That project will really alleviate traffic that wants to go through downtown (Houston) and not around it,” Clark said.
Reconstruction of Interstate 45 southbound from downtown to Galveston Island—one of the state’s oldest freeways—is another big-ticket item.
HGAC has also been looking at designing parts of new or combo freeways as depressed roadways, particularly on the east side of downtown Houston. This would allow local arterial street traffic to flow above the freeways, and open up land for greenspace or possible parks.
“Parts of roads here are already depressed,” Clark said. “But imagine almost that entire stretch, instead of freeways of between all those activities, it could be more pedestrian-friendly,” Clark suggested.
The Houston area hopes any influx of money will also go toward its flood control needs. Major storms have produced significant flooding in the last two years.
Steve Costello, the city’s resilience officer, told the Houston Chronicle in early February that when floodplain land is protected, it can become useful for development.
Sid Martinez, director of the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Prop 7 money can be used only for non-tolled projects on the state highway system.
“TxDOT has 12 major funding categories that range from preventative maintenance and rehabilitation, to safety, to added capacity on major metropolitan corridors and on rural connectors,” Martinez said.
“The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) began identifying how the Prop 7 funds would be split among some of those 12 funding categories a few months ago. Our region then began looking at projects that could move forward over the next 10 years with these dollars.”
In January, the AAMPO Transportation Policy Board adopted a five-year list of projects, including: expansion of U.S. 281 from Stone Oak Parkway to the Bexar/Comal county line; expansion of Interstate 10 between Loops 410 and Loop 1604; expansion of 1604 between Interstates 35 and 10; and congestion relief along Wurzbach Road from Northwest Military Highway to I-10.
In August, the TTC is expected to update TxDOT’s 10-year Unified Transportation Program to add an additional five years’ worth of projects.
“We look forward to any new investment in our regional transportation system and stand ready to work with all of our regional transportation partners to ensure that we move the best projects forward with any new available funding,” Martinez said of the AAMPO.
Will Conley, executive committee chairman for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), said his agency has been aggressively “teeing up” projects for readiness for the past five years.
“We’ve created schematics, gotten environmental clearance, bought rights-of-way, located and relocated utilities to prepare projects to let,” he added.
Conley noted the construction work along the I-35 corridor in Central Texas is an example of how CAMPO worked with locals and other partners for years to make those projects shovel-ready. More projects between Williamson and Hays counties are in the works.
“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is 35 through downtown Austin,” Conley said of planned improvements. CAMPO and its partners are close to finishing an environmental impact study there.
Dan Lamers, senior program manager for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), said his agency has maintained its practice of assuming funding increases in the future for long-term projects.
NCTCOG adopted a new project plan in 2016. The Dallas-Fort Worth region has about $7 billion in projects that could be used with Prop 7 funds or with state Proposition 1 money.
“Our plan contains projects that can be built out when new money comes up. That way, it never catches us by surprise,” Lamers said.
Notable upcoming projects in North Central Texas include improvements at I-35 East/U.S. 67 south of downtown Dallas, Interstate 635, as well as Interstate 820 and on I-35 West in Fort Worth.
VBX Project ID 2017-12F2 | Garland, Dallas County - South Fifth Street Water and Paving Improvements - Daugherty Drive to Miller Road
The DART railyard on southeast central Dallas. DART has the state's largest passenger rail system.
It must be said that Texas has a spotty record when it comes to the development passenger rail. Many projects have failed and some now under consideration are facing opposition.
Nevertheless, Texas’ largest cities are looking for funding assistance—public, private or a mix—to press forward with light, commuter or freight rail initiatives. And TxDOT continues to study rail alternatives.
Texas Central Partners keeps pledging to reach its $12 billion fundraising goal to build the nation’s first high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.
Texas Central, a private enterprise, announced in February that its land option program has resulted in contracts for about 30 percent of parcels needed for the project’s 10-county route.
“Texans see the many benefits of a system that will provide a safe, reliable and productive alternative to the state’s transportation demands,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said. However, Texas Central must also fight state politicians that are sponsoring bills this session to kill the project.
Communities along the Austin/San Antonio corridor had high hopes for the Lone Star Rail District to develop a commuter rail line. But reliance on Union Pacific cooperation doomed the project when the railroad pulled its support.
Amtrak, though, has reignited such hopes. It confirmed two months ago it is doing a ridership and revenue study. Amtrak plans to announce, by mid-year, what it will take to improve the Union Pacific lines to accommodate high-speed passenger trains.
Initiatives for rail are not all uphill. The Federal Highway Administration favors commute-by-rail solutions as an answer to road congestion and some Texans have organized to promote it. Generally, the nonprofit group Texas Rail Advocates says Texas’ growing population and economy will only drive up demand for increased rail capacity.
“We have been supportive of the bullet train initiatives discussed across Texas,” said executive director Chris Lippincott. “Right now, the Dallas-Houston project looks to be farther along than any other lines.”
Lippincott said TRA likes President Trump’s push for infrastructure spending, which could aid much-needed rail projects.
“It’s also important to note that there is an emphasis on engaging the private sector to bring innovation – and money – to the table,” he added.
Freight in Texas and nationwide could get a boost, too, in the coming years. Last fall, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute unveiled a Freight Shuttle System (FSS) prototype, following nearly 20 years of research requested by the federal government. The system, if realized, would consist of automated, electric-powered transporters bearing trailers and containers on elevated highways.
This would take many 18-wheelers off conventional highways, and help improve air quality and road safety. Freight Shuttle International, a private company, is financing the project.
Port of Houston Authority officials have pledged to use the technology by building a five-mile system to link two communities, Bayport and Barbour’s Cut.
VBX Project ID 2016-1722 | Austin, Travis County - Public Plaza and Permanent Downtown Rail Station - Capital Metro
The Houston Ship Channel is vulnerable to a hurricane storm surge. The Legislature is considering development of a coastal barrier.
Improvements in truck and rail freight traffic could boost operations for Texas’ sea ports, such as Port of Houston and Port of Corpus Christi. Port of Houston’s container volume rose 2 percent in 2016, and has grown by 11 percent over the last three years.
“We have successfully retained cargo that was diverted during the prior year...and have increased cargo volume across most of our trade lanes,” Port Houston Chairman Janiece Longoria said in a Feb. 1 press release.
Houston going from net importer to net exporter reflects the development of new oil and natural gas reserves across the region.
That has sparked more than $1 billion in infrastructural investment in Port Houston, including new cargo cranes.
This boost in exports also means more traffic around Port of Corpus Christi, through which more than $100 million in goods move daily. In 2015, more than 103 million tons of cargo traversed the port, with 63 percent it outbound.
Port Corpus Christi also looks to benefit from a project designed to deepen the existing Corpus Christi ship channel to 52 feet, and widen it to 530 feet. The project will also add barge shelves and allocate more space for wildlife habitat.
“This project really is vital to the continuing prosperity of our region, and future prosperity for the nation,” said Port Chairman Charles Zahn Jr. in a December news release.
Another agency that is relevant to port activity is the Texas Freight Advisory Committee, which submits its findings to TxDOT. It has put high priority on one notable project, dredging of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
The Legislature has paid more attention to coastal and inland ports, recently. On Feb. 8, 2016, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Texas Ports. It held meetings in 2016 and submitted its Committee Report in November that suggested creating a fund similar to the Texas Mobility Fund to provide port infrastructure loans.
This year, state House Speaker Joe Straus created a Select Committee on Texas Ports, Innovation and Infrastructure. The panel is exploring ways to develop a protective hurricane barrier all along the Texas Gulf Coast. The impetus for this effort came from studies of the potential devastation that could have occurred from a direct hit on the Houston Ship Channel by Hurricane Ike in 2008; the hurricane shifted course at the proverbial last minute, sparing Houston from a worst possible scenario.
Land Commissioner George P. Bush, in a press statement, called the barrier “our state’s most important infrastructure project.” No plans have been drafted, but it’s estimated such a barrier would cost billions in federal and state funds.
The 1940s-era Barker Dam in Houston controls flood waters from Barker Reservoir. It is considered one of the more at risk dams in the state.
The condition of the nation’s dams has gotten much public attention, with a crumbling spillway at Oroville Dam in California.
ASCE, in 2013, gave a D+ grade to the nation’s dams. Back then, the group ranked Texas No. 3 in the nation with the number of “high hazard dams,” which was 915. Texas has more than 7,000 dams.
ASCE noted the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is 52 years.
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO) estimates $21 billion is needed to fix high-hazard dams.
“(Oroville Dam) is a good illustration on how it’s important to inspect these dams and monitor them,” said Mark Ogden, project manager with ASDSO.
Ogden said the problems with the nation’s dams go beyond their age.
“Over 30 or 40 years ago, there was a different understanding of engineering dams, spillways, concrete and pipes. Then, there is more development downstream,” he added.
VBX Project ID 2015-0ACE | Wylie, Texas (Collin County) Lower Bois D'Arc Creek Reservoir Dam and Intake Project - North Texas Municipal Water District (Subbid)
Andrea Morrow, public relations manager with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), said her agency has a “robust program” of inspections and education for dam owners.
“When extreme weather strikes Texas, these engineers also respond directly to stressed dams and provide their expertise to help prevent failure of the structures,” she added.
TCEQ engineers also review engineering plans and ensure significant- and high-hazard dams have emergency action plans.
ASCE, in its 2013 report, says investing in infrastructure is critical to supporting quality of life and economies in communities.
“The reverse is also true – without prioritizing our nation’s infrastructure needs, deteriorating conditions can become a drag on the economy,” the group added.
On Feb. 28, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt posted to Twitter a lengthy thread on an innovative new process the Commissioners Court will use to approach the county's infrastructure needs, going forward. This is a portion of her explanation.
Adolfo Pesquera is a veteran news journalist. He has previously worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines throughout the United States. He is a communications graduate of the University of Texas-PanAmerican.
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