12th International HOV Systems Conference: Improving Mobility and Accessibility with Managed Lanes, Pricing, and BRT
Tim Lomax, Texas Transportation Institute, Presiding
Working with the Business Community
Uptown Houston District
Thank you, Tim. It is pleasure to be asked to speak to you today. My comments will focus on how the Uptown Houston Association works with transportation agencies in the city. Transportation is a very important part of economic development in the Uptown area, and in all areas.
In the 1950s, what is now known as the Uptown area began with a shopping development following residential development. The Uptown area is approximately five miles to the west of downtown Houston. Today, the Uptown area is a third largest office market in the state, behind only downtown Houston and downtown Dallas. On a national level, the Uptown area is similar in size to downtown Pittsburgh and downtown Cleveland. The downtown areas in those cities are the focal point for the transportation system, while Uptown is just one of many major activity centers in Houston.
The Uptown area is the foremost retail center in Houston and in the southwest. It also has numerous restaurants. There are over 6,300 hotel rooms in the Uptown area and more are planned. The area is also undergoing a renaissance in residential development. Within the past five years, six residential towers have been constructed.
The Uptown area today provides a mixed-use environment. There are offices, hotels, restaurants, and residential developments in the area. Over the next 10 years, residential development may represent the highest value in the Uptown market. This mixed-use means that more people are coming in and out of the Uptown area on a 24-hour basis than downtown Houston. We face a number of transportation challenges in the Uptown area. The most significant challenges focus on providing mobility.
The private sector began working together in 1975 with the creation of a voluntary association called the Uptown Houston Association. The Association brought together developers, property owners, and other private sector groups in the area to address common issues. By working together, members of the Association were able to better address these concerns than if they would had been working alone. The members also found that they were much more effective in lobbying public agencies to move projects forward by working through the Association.
In 1986, 1987, and 1988, the Association created Harris County Improvement District One, the first improvement district in the state. An improvement district allows you to tax the land and the improvements within the area over and above city and county taxes. In the Uptown area, the tax is approximately $0.16 per $100 of assessed value. This tax is not an insignificant amount for the private sector to tax themselves to make improvements in the area. In 1999, working with the City of Houston, the association created Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) Number 16.
A TIRZ is similar to a tax increment financing (TIF) district or a business improvement zone. Over the next 25 years, the private sector will be making approximately $140 million in investments in the District, while the TIRZ will fund a $230 million capital improvement program for the District. The major elements of the capital program are improvements to roads, streets, pedestrian facilities, and some parking facilities. These projects all focus on improving mobility in the District. The capital improvement program funded through the TIRZ also enhances the District's ability to partner with public agencies on transportation projects.
The TIRZ and the Improvement District are separate entities. Both have their own board of directors. The two are located together, however. I am the Director of the Uptown Houston District, reporting to the District's board of directors. I am also the Administrator for the TIRZ and the Development Authority, which is overseen by a board of directors.
The District has very broad responsibilities. We have a very aggressive traffic management program. It is very important to our members that their employees are able to get to work and leave to go home without experiencing major traffic congestion. Managing traffic in the District is a daily challenge. We work very closely with TxDOT, because what happens on the freeway has a big impact on roads in the District.
The District has also undertaken some very interesting beautification and public space improvements. We also maintain the area, and conduct utility relocation and other needed infrastructure improvements. All of these efforts support economic development in the area.
The establishment of the TIRZ in 1999 has allowed the District to undertake a much more significant public improvement program. In the preceding 25 years, the City of Houston had invested $4 million in roads and streets in the Uptown area. In the past three years, we have invested $16 million in roads and streets in the area. We have been able to show the city the importance of infrastructure investments in the center city to counter developments moving to the urban fringe. There are now 22 TIRZs in the Houston area to help promote reinvestment in the central city.
The District and the TIRZ work together on projects. The District focuses on operations and maintenance, while the TIRZ and the Uptown Authority focus on building streets and other infrastructure elements.
Let me suggest a few ways that groups such as the Uptown Houston Association can expand interaction with transportation professionals and transportation agencies. There are many things we can offer you. First, we have knowledge of our area. We know our property owners and businesses, what their concerns are, and their future plans. It is to your benefit to meet and talk with business groups who can tell you what is going on in their area.
TxDOT has done a very good job of communicating with the Association and other groups about the West Loop (I-610) project. TxDOT has weekly meetings to review the construction schedule and other activities. We have been able to work with the Department on some modifications, such as not closing a key exit ramp during the holiday shopping period. We can also help TxDOT disseminate information to employers, employees, residents, and shoppers. Communication is critical.
Associations such as ours are good partners to help lobby at the local, state, and national levels for needed transportation programs and projects. We also have ideas on projects and insights on what is important in the area. We have been fortunate to work with TxDOT, the City of Houston, Houston METRO, HCTRA, and other agencies on projects.
The Association has a very aggressive traffic management program, which requires coordination with TxDOT, the City, Houston METRO, and others. Using primarily local funds, we installed traffic cameras on buildings at strategic locations. These cameras are monitored in our office. Approximately 11 officers work key intersections during the peak periods. A police officer monitoring the cameras can communicate by cellular telephone to the officers in the field. This system is also used for incident response. It is very important to office building owners that employees of their tenants are able to get to and from work each day. The traffic management program represents another example of how the Association creates value for its members.
The traffic management program has been expanded through a $1.5 million grant from TxDOT and HGAC. The funding allowed for placement of additional cameras, greater integration with TranStar, and enhanced communication with the end user, including video monitors in lobbies and elevators and a website. While these approaches are not new, what is different is that the private sector is the catalyst to bringing all these elements together.
The West Loop (I-610) provides a good example of the private sector and a state department of transportation working together on a project. The West Loop (I-610) carries approximately 270,000 to 280,000 vehicles a day. The Association put a great deal of effort into ensuring that federal and state funding was available for the project.
We also worked with TxDOT on the concept design for the facility. Although we worked with the Department for a number of years, the Association Board had some concerns with the final design. We were able to bring these concerns to TxDOT and work out a revised design in some sections. We were also very concerned about the landscaping and aesthetic treatments in the underpasses. The Association wanted more lighting in the underpasses. The Association provided $1 million in a local match for enhanced treatments to help ensure that the freeway contributes to the livable urban form in the area.
Building a freeway is never easy. Building a freeway in a major office market is especially challenging. Reconstruction of the West Loop (I-610) has had a negative impact on the office market in the area, reducing office tower values by some 10 percent or $100 million. We want to make sure that construction goes smoothly and stays on schedule. The Association is playing a major role in marketing, public information, and team building on the project. We have made a special point of letting the construction workers know how much we appreciate the job they are doing by providing coffee and donuts and barbeque lunches periodically. We also celebrate small and major milestones, such as the opening of a ramp and all the southbound freeway lanes.
The Association has many unique communication methods available. For example, office cleaning crews can put public notices or other information on every desk in every office building in the area. We can send e-mails to all companies, who in turn distribute it to their employees.
We have also worked with Houston METRO on projects. A year ago METRO approached the Association to help administer construction of transit shelters in the area using unallocated funds from a capital grant.
It is important for you to remember that the private sector is constantly reinventing itself. To be effective, we are always looking at how we do business, what services we provide, and sometimes even what business we are in.
I think HOV facilities are an important element of the transportation system. You are to be commended for continuing to think about how to improve the system through managed lanes, pricing, and other strategies. Buses using the Houston HOV lanes provide a great service, primarily to the downtown area. The Uptown area is not served by the HOV lanes. We would like to see a change in this situation so that the Uptown area is a part of the regional transit system. Service to the area could be provided relatively easily by adding shuttle service from the Northwest Transit Center, which connects to the HOV lanes on the I-10 West and the US 290 Freeways. This type of service could open up new markets for transit.
The Association is actively promoting the implementation of this type of transit service. We worked with HCTRA during the reconstruction of the West Loop (I-610) to establish an envelope for a future transit link at an underpass in the Post Oak Boulevard area. The Association provided $1.72 million to widen the bridge structure and the underpass to provide a right-of-way for future service. We then worked with TxDOT to establish a similar link at the north end of the West Loop (I-610).
The Association is working with METRO, Harris County, and the local congressional delegation to develop a new transit center in the Westpark area. The Center would be a key part of a transit corridor in the core of the Uptown area. We realize it will take a number of years to develop these transit elements, but we also know we need to start now to meet the needs of the future.
Never be afraid to reinvent yourself or your agency. The private sector is constantly reinventing itself. It is important to remember that the projects you undertake creates value for someone and may reduce value for someone. It is also important to remember that timing is everything and that relationships are critical to getting things done. Strong working relationships do not happen overnight. It is critical to start early in developing relationships, and it is important to maintain frequent ongoing contact. The Association's working relationship with TxDOT started long before the reconstruction of the West Loop (I-610) and it will continue after the project is completed.
I appreciate the opportunity to tell you a little about the Uptown Association and our interaction with transportation agencies in the Houston area. I hope you enjoy the remainder of the conference and your time here in Houston. Thank you.