No Relief in Sight

Traffic congestion will remain a problem for westside streets as the Westpark Tollroad and the HOV-lane projects are stalled

Supporters of the proposed Westpark Tollroad lobbied Congress hard to have their project included in the massive highway spending bill that was passed just before the Memorial Day recess.

They didn't get a "yes." But they didn't get a "no," either. And that means that relief for the traffic-clogged surface streets west of the Galleria -- either from a toll road or a high-occupancy vehicle lane -- isn't likely to occur until well after the turn of the century.

Basically, while the politically influential toll-road supporters didn't get the answer they wanted, Congress couldn't bring itself to slam the door shut completely. Language in the highway bill's committee report allows supporters to ask federal transit officials to do what Congress wouldn't: let funds earmarked for bus projects be used to build a toll road.

To help with that effort, Metro plans to ask the feds for a two-year delay on construction of the HOV lane. Money for that project is already approved and construction bids have been submitted; work could begin almost immediately. Metro board chair Robert Miller -- who owes his job to toll-road supporters Mayor Lee Brown and County Judge Robert Eckels -- says, however, that a delay makes sense.

"It's certainly an open question" as to whether the feds will approve the toll road, he says, but until that answer is known, Metro should hold off on construction. He says the agency should also conduct yet another study of the proposals, an "investment-grade" study that would be similar in scope and cost to the $1 million analysis of the Main Street Corridor.

That means the Westpark Corridor will remain, for the time being, as it has long been: an empty, almost perfectly located strip of land that sits effectively unused while bureaucrats debate what to do with it.

Metro purchased the corridor in 1992 from Southern Pacific Railroad; it's about 100 feet wide and stretches from Dunlavy Street near downtown to Eagle Lake, 58 miles west.

For close to 20 years, the land has been eyed as a possible solution to the crowded surface streets on the west side, such as Westheimer, Richmond and San Felipe. Businesses in the area have long sought a way for their commuting employees to get out to Fort Bend County and environs without having to fight their way through the at-capacity local thoroughfares.

Metro's proposed HOV lane would be a single-lane reversible road on four miles of the corridor, from Hillcroft to a Park & Ride lane just west of the Sam Houston Tollway. The $49 million project has won approval as part of the agency's $1 billion regional bus plan.

Business interests on the west side of town say Metro's plans don't go far enough. They want to build a 13-mile, four-lane toll road that would stretch from Shepherd out to the Sam Houston Tollway, but they can't do it without getting their hands on Metro's bus-project money.

While no one can say with certainty how much the project would cost, one study by supporters projects a $350 million price tag. Revenue bonds would pay for about $140 million of that; Metro would kick in about $185 million of federal funds, and the rest would likely come from the state's pot of federal money.

Getting the feds to agree to allow "bus money" on a toll road is no easy task, however. Even with the support of House Minority Whip Tom DeLay, the toll-road team was unable to get an amendment to the highway bill that would have okayed the switch.

The move was blocked by James Oberstar of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat in the House transportation committee and a member of the conference committee that was reconciling the House and Senate versions of the highway bill.

"He didn't want to take something that was labeled as pure [mass] transit money and put it into something else. He was very concerned with setting a precedent," said Jim Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District business group.

Instead, Murphy and other lobbyists settled for language in the bill's committee report that allows them to ask the feds if they can transfer funds that are less specifically targeted. The report doesn't have the force of law, however, and the feds tend to want the locals to build what they promised to build when they first were seeking federal funds.

Further language in the report directs the federal highway agency to "work with" Houston officials, which Murphy hails as "very, very good," but which to other ears sounds like a sop from representatives passing the buck so someone else can say no and take the heat.

Murphy believes supporters will get a good idea of where they stand within 60 days. He admits the road ahead is difficult, but says that's better than having no chance at all. "We did not get the ideal result we wanted, but we're still in the game," he says. "We haven't won the game, and we haven't lost the game. The game is still going on."

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

 
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