The economic stimulus deck is getting reshuffled. Road projects that were once slated to get millions of dollars - like the controversial Segment E of the Grand Parkway - might not be ready before the federal deadline.
In Segment E's case, that's because the road would cut through an undeveloped swath of the Katy Prairie, and both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are opposing a needed wetlands permit.
Harris County Commissioners will vote tomorrow to formally ask TxDOT to send the money elsewhere. That could release $181 million for other projects in the eight-county area.
Another development is that construction bids for stimulus projects are coming in 20-40 percent below estimates. That's at least one silver lining to the recession for the taxpayer. And it means that transportation projects that didn't make the initial cut could get stimulus money after all.
Last week, the Transportation Policy Council voted to add about 40 previously languishing road projects to a stimulus-funds waiting list. Projects will be plucked from the list as soon as TxDOT gives the go-ahead to local officials. At the top of the list: $15 million for pedestrian and transit goodies like sidewalks, curb cuts, medians, bus and rail stops for three redeveloping areas of Houston - Upper Kirby, Uptown and the East End Management District. Also at the front of the pack is a plan to build a direct ramp in Baytown between southbound Texas 146 and Spur 330. The ramp would bypass three current traffic signals, easing truck traffic and speeding a hurricane evacuation route.
Clinton Drive makes list
The Transportation Policy Council also moved near the top of the waiting list a project to improve Clinton Drive near the Houston Ship Channel. Previously this road was not on the stimulus-funding radar, so why is it now?
Earlier this month, the EPA warned Texas that soot levels recorded near this road were exceeding federal limits. That put the Houston region in jeopardy of getting slapped with a "non-attainment" air quality designation, which comes with all sorts of costly mandates.
If Clinton Drive gets $5 million in stimulus funds, the road - a crucial route for trucks and Port traffic - could be resurfaced and upgrades made to the shoulders and drainage system. The hope is that this will cut down on dust and particles kicked up by the trucks and released from their tailpipes, and the readings on the air-quality monitor will drop below the federal limit.
At its October meeting, the Metro board gave the go-ahead for the future conversion of highway HOV lanes to so-called "HOT" lanes (high-occupancy toll) like the ones operating on the Katy Freeway. A HOT lane has electronic scanning equipment that allows a solo driver to pay a toll to use a segregated carpool lane during rush hours.
‘HOT' contract near
The board vote, which was not publicized by the agency, allows the Metro staff to undertake negotiations with TransCore to build and operate the controlled lanes. A final contract could be inked "soon," said agency spokeswoman Raequel Roberts.
The conversion of HOV lanes will occur on five freeway segments in the Metro service area: I-45 North and South, U.S. 290, and U.S. 59 north and south. Board documents indicate the cost of installing toll readers and automated gates would be about $48 million. Operating and maintaining the system for five years would cost an additional $42 million. Four-fifths of the total will come from federal grants.
Metro will release more information when the final contract is signed, Roberts said. But she said the HOV conversions could be completed in about two years.
Metro did announce board approval to enlarge the South Point Park & Ride lot. The lot, near the Gulf Freeway and Beltway 8, currently has 376 parking spaces. The expansion will bring the total to 766 spaces in the spring. The lot is heavily used by workers at the Texas Medical Center who park there and take the 297 bus to the hospitals.