Upping the Ante-Up

You're at the corner of Westheimer and, say, Chimney Rock, trying to head west at 5:30 p.m.

In other words, you're in hell. Nothing but cars in front and back of you, waiting in vain for any movement through another light change. You sit and curse the brainless idiots who have the temerity to try to cut in front of you as they exit a business or parking garage. When you finally reach home, you're a jangling, frustrated mess of road rage.

You don't see much that can be done about it -- no government entity's going to condemn enough land in the densely packed corridor to provide space for a limited-access highway free of the dreaded and countless "curb cuts," or driveways, that help clog the east-west streets outside the Loop.

You might be surprised to know that Metro owns a superbly located strip of land in the area that is perfectly suited for such a highway. Metro has fought the battles necessary to get federal funding for a project, it has done the environmental prerequisites, it has even overcome a federal-court challenge that temporarily stymied it.

Metro could start rolling bulldozers tomorrow on a road that would offer some relief to the harried users of Westheimer, San Felipe and Richmond.

The only problem, according to a politically powerful group that includes westside business interests, the county judge and the mayor, is that Metro isn't thinking big enough.

By now, if businessman Jim Murphy's dream had come true, more than 81,000 cars a day would be using a toll road stretching nearly 13 miles from Shepherd and U.S. 59 out to the Sam Houston Tollway. Those 81,000 cars would be bypassing the clogged surface roads on a high-tech tollway where no one would have to stop to hand money over to a booth attendant and where the prices charged would vary according to the number of riders per car and the time of day.

Instead, Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District business group, looks down from his high-rise near the Sam Houston Tollway and watches traffic build.

If he looks away from the streets, he can see part of the strip of land that Metro bought in 1992 from Southern Pacific Railroad. It's known as the Westpark Corridor and is 100 feet wide and 58 miles long, reaching from Dunlavy Street near downtown out to the city of Eagle Lake.

In his mind, Murphy still sees a four-lane toll road. "We could be driving on this thing in five years," he says. "You don't have to knock any homes down, you don't even have to worry about noise abatement -- these people are living next to a railroad now, anyway."

Murphy is the point man for such westside groups as the Galleria-area Uptown Houston Association and the West Houston Association. He and his troops are lobbying hard to get Metro to shelve its current plans and become partners in a toll road.

Metro wants to build a High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane along four miles of the corridor, from Hillcroft out to a Park & Ride lot near Wilcrest outside the Sam Houston Tollway. The single-lane road, limited to buses and carpools, would handle eastbound traffic in the morning and westbound in the afternoon.

Metro staffers really want to build the HOV lane, if only because they have fought so hard to get to this point: Among other battles, they have convinced the feds to let them use funds normally targeted for rail projects and have seen the project stalled when it became caught up in a court fight over Metro's affirmative-action program.

Murphy is sympathetic. "They're saying 'I got federal approval for a bus plan out of rail money -- that's like a slam dunk over Michael Jordan,' " he says. "They're saying 'I've got all the environmental done, I've got a plan all ready to go, I've gotten out of this morass with subcontractors. I've got all that behind us, and now you're telling me to shift gears?' It's very understandable, their reaction. So we have to build a constituency."

Metro board chairman Robert Miller acknowledges that there is a push from staffers and contractors to start awarding construction contracts on the $49 million HOV plan. "We're under some pressure to start moving dirt tomorrow," he says. "But I think it's incumbent for board members to see if there is a viable alternative."

Miller isn't sure the proposed toll road will work. Much of the $350 million or so needed for construction would come from revenue bonds; the number of bonds that could be sold depends on traffic projections done by an independent financial firm.

That study is not yet complete. "I haven't seen it," Miller says, "but my understanding is that it does not show a high degree of ridership."

Wesley Freise, executive director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, is more optimistic. "If I get federal funding, I believe I can make the project feasible," he says. HCTRA would be part of a complicated union of Metro, the Texas Department of Transportation and possibly the city in any toll road project.

Whether the toll road is financially viable or not is actually beside the point right now. Metro has frozen all work on its HOV project in order to give Murphy and his troops a chance to lobby for their idea, both locally and in Washington.

At the moment, the action is in Washington. The toll road project goes nowhere unless Congress creates some loopholes for Metro to use.

First, Congress would have to let Metro out of its commitment to build the HOV lane (funded 50 percent by the feds); more importantly, it would have to allow the transit authority to use those funds for a toll road even though they come from a federal pool designed only for projects benefiting buses and carpools.

The $49 million HOV lane is part of Metro's $1 billion regional bus plan, which is 50 percent funded by the federal government. A Westpark tollway won't work unless Metro can pay its share of it by using the bus-plan money.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by on the toll road project -- "Until it's completely engineered, no one can say with a straight face how much it will cost," Murphy says -- but the general outlines of the proposal call for a three-way split of the costs.

Revenue bonds would raise about $140 million; Metro would put in about $185 million; and the other $25 million to $50 million would come from what's euphemistically called "other sources."

Toll road proponents say Texas is due for a big share of an expected increase in federal highway spending, and that could cover any shortage.

Before that could happen, though, proponents must convince Congress to lift the restrictions on the money Metro has already been awarded for the four-mile HOV lane and a future expansion of it.

"It's a difficult situation," says John Breeding of the Uptown Houston Association. "Metro is guided by federal guidelines, and sometimes you can let federal bureaucratic guidelines determine what can happen rather than ask what is the right thing to do."

Such naivete in the face of entrenched federal bureaucrats might seem innocent, but the toll road proponents do have some political clout on their side.

County Judge Robert Eckels and Mayor Lee Brown back the toll road, U.S. Representative Tom DeLay, the House minority whip, supports the effort to free up funds, and U.S. Senator Phil Gramm is on the conference committee dealing with the relevant bill.

"The federal government would like to see Metro build what it said it would build," Murphy says. "Unless there's something better out there, and that's what we have to show them.... If this thing had to pay for itself, it'd be a disaster. It won't work unless Metro is a player in it. I think with Lee Brown and Tom DeLay, we're in a position to make it happen, but right now it could get derailed very easily."

Metro chair Miller was appointed to the board by Eckels and voted chairman earlier this year thanks to Brown, so he's giving toll road supporters every chance to make the project work.

He says Metro supports the amendment that would allow them to spend the HOV money on a toll road, as long as the bill does not order the transit authority to do so.

"We want it to be permissive, not mandatory," he says. "We've instructed our lobbyists to push it as long as it only allows discussions on using the funds."

The first effort to have such an amendment attached to the massive highway-spending bill failed, but now that the House and Senate are hammering out the differences in their versions of the bill, proponents are hoping Gramm and DeLay can revive it.

Such a process may take weeks. Until then, everything is on hold.
"We need about $135 million from the feds, and until we get a yes or no on that, my planning is at an end," says Freise of the tollway authority. "If the answer's yes, then we've got a lot of work to do, like environmental work, public hearings, doing an investment-grade study of the project. But until I get a yes, I can't spend any of my money on those things."

If the federal government doesn't come through, Miller believes Metro board members will be facing a quandary.

"If it comes down to the [Federal Transportation Administration] telling me to build the HOV lane and the local community telling me not to do it, that's going to be a tough decision for the board," he says.

Once construction begins on an HOV lane in the Westpark corridor, toll road proponents say, the costs of adding four lanes to it later become much higher than building such a road now. Getting federal funds to do so would also be tough, they say.

"After you've made a significant public investment [in an HOV lane], it probably freezes any chance to change anything for a generation," says Breeding.

"Once Metro builds their project, the dynamics are very different," Murphy says.

To Breeding and Murphy, building a single-lane four-mile road limited to buses and carpools will do very little to alleviate congestion on the west side of town. A toll road, they say, would be much more likely to attract riders throughout the day.

"The toll road would be used for moving traffic across the region, not for short trips within it," Murphy says. "Half of our traffic in Westchase has nothing to do with Westchase -- it's just passing through. If you can get that through traffic off the [surface] streets, you're helping people who work or live here get between their residence and their employment."

It's the west side's large companies that are mostly interested in the toll road -- small local businesses, like convenience stores, see a traffic jam as a captive audience of potential impulse shoppers.

"Retailers don't mind traffic all that much, but employers are different," Murphy says. "They want to get their employees home and have them reach home not stressed by the commute. If you have an employee who leaves work at five and is put immediately into a frustrating commute, you're going to lose that employee. And that's why you're seeing suburban employment centers blossom."

The potential users of the tollway are those south of I-10, north of U.S. 59 and west of Gessner, Murphy says.

The westside groups have long since scaled back some of the more esoteric aspects of their plan. Wall Street, which would be buying and selling the revenue bonds, was skeptical of such gimmicks as "congestion pricing," where a car might be charged $1.50 during rush hour and ten cents at midnight. The plan to eliminate tollbooth attendants by requiring all vehicles to use electronic fare-collection systems also fell by the wayside.

Proponents admit that ridership numbers will be relatively small, given that the road is only four lanes wide. But they remain convinced the project will work.

They point to the Sam Houston Tollway on the west side of Beltway 8, which they say has far exceeded traffic expectations. The most recent ridership figures, according to the toll road authority, show over 344,000 "fare transactions" per day on the road. (No statistics on cars per day are kept; many cars pay several tolls on a single trip, says HCTRA spokeswoman Patricia Watson.)

Most of those fare transactions are on the southern portion of the road, where it intersects with the Westpark corridor. "People are using it for shorter trips than the planners originally thought," Murphy says. "People are taking the toll road to avoid four or five lights. You just have to spend five minutes driving around southwest Houston to know that the demand is there for the Westpark road."

Of course, there's also the Hardy Toll Road, which ostensibly takes riders from the North Loop to Intercontinental Airport. Even though it parallels the usually clogged North Freeway, traffic on the Hardy is so low that a midday driver can get awfully lonesome.

Even if the demand is there, even if supporters can get congressional approval for their financing scheme, the Westpark toll road wouldn't be out of the woods yet.

The project would require a high degree of cooperation between turf-jealous agencies, each of which prefers to be the lead dog.

Already, there have been strains since Metro purchased the corridor in 1992. Metro and the toll road authority have squabbled over paying for a $800,000 study of the proposal. And Metro resistance to the toll road is evident throughout the documents tracing its history: When an initial description of the project called for buses to pay a 25-cent toll, an anonymous staffer scribbled in the margins, "Great! We furnish [right of way] plus $130 million, then our buses pay a toll!"

Indeed, the groups pushing for a tollway have been skirmishing with Metro staff almost from the first. In a November 1993 letter to then-Metro chair Billy Burge, representatives of the westside groups noted that, at Metro's suggestion, they had conducted meetings with various government officials "quietly" until the HOV-lane funding was approved by the feds. Metro staffers were worried the discussions would threaten the federal action, they said.

The groups noted that despite their cooperation, the staff was still pushing a proposal to build the HOV lane as a first phase for a later toll road.

"The Westpark MET [Maximum Efficiency Transitway] steering committee was and is emphatically and unanimously opposed to this suggestion! ... Proceeding with the one-way HOV transitway when the MET clearly is a higher functional use of the Westpark [right of way] would be a squandering of resources that we cannot afford," said the letter, signed by representatives of five westside groups.

"We've been trying to get everyone at the different agencies to think outside of the box," Murphy says. That includes dealing with the Texas Department of Transportation, which balked at having the toll road hook up with U.S. 59 inside the Loop.

Metro chairman Miller says he foresees no problems among the agencies if the project goes forward. "Our area has a good record of cooperation between agencies," he says.

That cooperation would probably extend to funding yet another study of the project. Murphy says that a few changes, such as adding or moving on- and off-ramps, would increase ridership. And that increased ridership projection would mean more revenue bonds could be sold, putting the project on more solid financial footing.

"If you could spend another quarter-million on tweaking the plan and by doing that get another $20 million in bonding capacity, it's worth it," he says. "Realistically, it probably will require doing another study."

Which is not necessarily good news if you're inching your way down Westheimer once again, with no relief in sight for another four or five years. Just remember, as you slowly and nerve-wrackingly crawl along: You're sitting only a few blocks away from ready-to-go land perfectly suited to solving your problem. If only the powers-that-be could agree on how to do it.

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


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