"In East Texas, a lot of people think I-69 is going to be a serious upgrade of U.S. 59, but if they're going to build a whole new corridor--watch out"
Outer loop, commuter rails, train congestion are top priorities
April 16, 2007
By RAD SALLEE
When Robert Eckels stepped down as county judge in February, he closed out 10 years as chairman of the eight-county Transportation Policy Council. The new judge, Ed Emmett, won't chair that council, but will be an important member, with as broad an expertise in transportation as anyone at the table. The former state representative worked on freight rail and maritime issues as an Interstate Commerce Commission member, headed a transportation industry group for 10 years and more recently has been a railroad consultant. Emmett spoke with Chronicle reporter Rad Sallee about the county's mobility needs and priorities.
Q: County commissioners in Texas can build roads as they please in their own precincts, but the county judge doesn't even have a precinct to build in. What's your role in transportation?
A: As the face of the county, I get to use the bully pulpit. There has to be somebody who drives the overall vision.
Q: What projects do you especially want to push through?
A: The completion of the Grand Parkway (outer freeway loop) has got to occur, and the northeast section of Beltway 8, and the Hardy Toll Road into downtown. Also, we need a toll road on U.S. 290, and if we don't talk about commuter rail there, we're making a big mistake. We need commuter rail to Fort Bend County too, and we have to relocate some of our freight rail.
Q: Because interstate commerce is involved, there are limits to what local government can do with railroads, but you've worked closely with them. How would you approach the freight rail issue?
A: I'm tired of seeing kids crawl under trains. The very first thing has got to be to alleviate rail congestion in the East End. That will require adding a second track to a bridge just north of the Turning Basin and identifying the most critical grade crossings, the ones that affect schools.
Some proposals to relocate railroads just won't work, but double-tracking here and there and grade separations here and there would make a big difference. We need to get cracking on those.
Q: One aspect of the Trans-Texas Corridor concept that has received little notice is the idea of moving some freight tracks out of urban areas, such as Austin. That won't work here?
A: The Union Pacific would probably like to get off of Mopac (as Texas 1 is called along the former Missouri Pacific tracks in Austin), but in most other places, railroads are not going to just pull up and move. They have customers they have to serve.
A lot of our rail system has been around for more than 100 years and the city has grown up around it. The Union Pacific line that comes through Memorial Park was put there years ago to be way out in the country.
If you tried to get all the freight traffic out of Memorial Park or Sugar Land, where would you take it? I'm not going to be a party to any relocation that puts even more trains and traffic into the East End.
Q: Metro's plan approved by voters calls for commuter rail to the northwest out U.S. 290 and to Fort Bend County along U.S. 90A. A line toward Galveston out Texas 3 has also been discussed. How do you rate those?
A: The U.S. 290 rail corridor is underutilized, and U.P. has said they're perfectly willing to have that one looked at for a commuter line. I don't think a line toward Galveston has high feasibility right now, partly because coming in from the east you get mixed up in heavy freight traffic pretty quick.
Q: The Texas House of Representatives just passed a two-year moratorium on big privatized road projects like the Trans-Texas Corridor (a proposed statewide network of tollways, railroads and pipelines). What do you think of the corridor idea generally and of plans for TTC-69 through East Texas and Houston?
A: When the Texas Department of Transportation and Gov. (Rick) Perry rolled out the idea, they overstated it. They showed every possible corridor in the state, which totally angered a lot of people needlessly.
And remember those schematics showing toll lanes and truck lanes and railroads and pipelines all together? If what they really wanted was to build a private toll road, it should have been touted as a private toll road.
Q: Will TTC-69 be built?
A: The piece around Houston will have to be built, the way we're growing. But nobody's going to pay a toll down around Victoria. You have a four-lane divided highway right now, and there's not enough traffic to justify a toll facility.
I was disappointed when I heard that (the proposed) Interstate 69 was going to be designated a Trans-Texas Corridor. I knew that was going to cause us more trouble politically than any potential benefit.
In East Texas, a lot of people think I-69 is going to be a serious upgrade of U.S. 59, but if they're going to build a whole new corridor — watch out.
I don't want to go to their town hall meetings when they start talking about taking people's land to build it, and taking business away from U.S. 59.
Q: Do you get along with Metro?
A: I've worked well with Metro so far — a whole month! Do I agree with everything they're doing? Absolutely not. Do I question some things? Of course.
Q: What do you think of Metro's ventures into transit-oriented development? (The agency recently agreed to buy property from a developer with the expectation that he'll buy it back for transit-friendly projects adjacent to the Main Street rail line.)
A: Transportation projects clearly are "If you build it, they will come." In Washington, D.C., every Metro stop has a town built up around it, and I think you're going to see the same thing here.
Q: Everybody has an opinion about light rail on Richmond. What's yours?
A: If the entire Westpark corridor had been preserved as it was originally, maybe they should have put the rail there, but I think there are issues now that the Southwest Freeway has been rebuilt.
When I hear politicians say they are opposed to a transportation improvement because the people most directly affected don't want it, I have a problem. The reason has to be more transportation-related than that.
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