March 23, 2009

rail vs. urban sprawl

This from The New York Times:
Stimulus Ideals in Conflict on the Texas Prairie

WALLER, Tex. — Over the years the Katy Prairie has survived the cattle ranchers who tamed its fields, the rice farmers who cleared its wildflowers and tall grasses, and even the encroachment of Houston, some 30 miles to the east, whose spiraling outward growth turned most of the formerly lonesome prairie into subdivisions and strip malls.

Now the prairie is facing a new threat: the federal stimulus law.

Texas plans to spend $181 million of its federal stimulus money on building a 15-mile, four-lane toll road — from Interstate 10 to Highway 290 and right through the prairie — that will eventually form part of an outer beltway around greater Houston called the Grand Parkway.

The road exemplifies an unintended effect of the stimulus law: an administration that opposes suburban sprawl is giving money to states for projects that are almost certain to exacerbate it.

A new master-planned community called Bridgeland is rising on the prairie along the proposed site of the road; once completed, the development is expected to have 21,000 new homes on 11,400 acres. Other developers are eagerly awaiting the new road so they can start building on their empty land, too.

And this from The Houston Chronicle:
Metro won’t be using stimulus money on rail

As county leaders press forward with Grand Parkway plans, Metro leaders are looking for a Plan B for two rail lines they had planned to use federal economic stimulus money to help fund.

Metro’s pitch to fund the North and Southeast lines with stimulus funds fell short of the feds’ scheduling mandate.

Metro proposed to “get the ball rolling,” within 90 days, according to its brochure requesting $410 million in stimulus dollars. The transit agency also said $70 million could be used to convert 83 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes into high-occupancy toll lanes.

Last week, Metro leaders said they learned that federal transit authorities preferred the $92 million it will receive in stimulus funds be used primarily on the HOV conversion.

The two rail lines are not at the appropriate stage to satisfy a requirement that 50 percent of the funds be obligated by Sept. 1.

All of the funds also must be spent in a year, and the projects must be complete in three years, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s Web site.
High hopes?

There are use-it-or-lose-it provisions in the stimulus package as the Obama administration has made clear these projects should get started sooner.

Did Metro aim too high?

“We don’t think we overshot the mark,” Metro spokeswoman Raequel Roberts said. “We submitted a project that we believed would qualify for stimulus funds.”

Metro remains several months from final federal approval for those lines.

Perhaps, Metro was simply too optimistic, as Alan Clark, of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, suggested.

“They might have been a little bit hopeful they could do something with stimulus money to advance the rail project,” said Clark, HGAC’s transportation planning manager. “I don’t blame them at all.”
Planning the Parkway

The default project to transform HOV lanes into toll lanes for solo drivers was tabled by Metro’s board of directors last week, but the proposal will be taken up again next month.

Meanwhile, county leaders are wasting no time on the Grand Parkway as the clock continues to tick on the $181 million in stimulus funding allocated for the project.

The 185-mile proposed outer loop around Houston that has been under consideration for more than two decades. Now that it has an infusion of stimulus funds, planners are in frenzy mode to meet pressing deadlines. Seventeen design and engineeringcontracts related to the Grand Parkway are on this week’s Commissioner’s Court agenda.

“A year ago, no one was expecting to implement this project quite on this time frame,” Clark said. “TxDOT and Harris County are working like crazy to get the pieces wrapped up so it can be let to contract within the 12-month period.”

Some of us appear to be more adept at redefining shovel-ready than others of us. It looks like big money out in those prairies. This damn thing is moving too fast to be smart.


But check out this from Houston Tomorrow:
The Sierra Club filed suit yesterday against the Federal Highway Administration in an effort to prevent construction of Segment E of the Grand Parkway.

(Austin)—The Sierra Club late Monday filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Houston against the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County.

“The Grand Parkway is the poster child of bad transportation projects – an environmentally destructive project that’s not needed, not ready, and not cost-effective,” noted Brandt Mannchen, Air Quality Chair for the state chapter and Houston group of the Sierra Club. “In the rush to push Segment E of the Grand Parkway for the benefit of real estate developers, the Federal Highway Administration conducted a weak environmental review that ignores the project’s harm to the Katy Prairie, its potential impact on Houston air quality, and better transportation alternatives.”

In remarks to the Harris County Commissioners Court today informing them of the lawsuit Mannchen noted:
“The Sierra Club, over the past 25 years, has worked to protect the Katy Prairie and implement transportation alternatives to the proposed Grand Parkway, Segment E. We are now at a point where we did not want to be. Filing a lawsuit is a serious undertaking which requires money, time, and other resources. It is a strategy of last resort, not first resort. It is because the Sierra Club feels so strongly about protection of the Katy Prairie and the harmful effects the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E will have on the Katy Prairie, that we have filed this lawsuit.”

The Katy Prairie is a home for hundreds of thousands of geese, ducks, herons, egrets, songbirds, and other wildlife. The Sierra Club notes that it is also a giant sponge that soaks up flood waters and detains and keeps those waters from flooding down Buffalo Bayou causing havoc downstream. According to the Sierra Club, the proposed Grand Parkway project itself will pave over about 700 acres of the Katy Prairie. The environmental group points out that by facilitating the Bridgelands real estate development in its efforts to construct subdivisions in the area, the Grand Parkway indirectly will destroy another 12,000 acres of the Katy Prairie.


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