HCA/ASCE Joint Meeting
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Posted by: Mark Dubuisson
by Jeff Nielsen
HCA was proud to present the two newest additions to Harris County Commissioner's Court; Commissioner Jack Cagle from Precinct 4 and Commissioner Jack Morman from Precinct 2. These two commissioners commented upon their first terms in office, what they see in the future for Harris County and of course answered questions from the audience.
Since this was the annual joint luncheon with ASCE, their President, Paul Voiles acted as the moderator for the event, introducing the two commissioners and asking them a set of pre-determined questions. The first question was asked to Commissioner Cagle, he was asked to comment upon the impact that the anticipated population growth will have upon his precinct. Commissioner Cagle stated that the growth that we are seeing is phenomenal, with over 1000 people a day moving to Texas, 200 of those are moving into Harris County and 80 are moving into precinct 4. There is a lot of growth spreading into the undeveloped region in the northern part of the county he stated. To keep up with that growth we have the 249 Tomball expressway, but there is a problem with congestion where it hits the beltway. Currently the County is working on installing a direct connect to Beltway 8, but the current traffic backup slows down traffic all the way back to the Hardy toll road. The Commissioner stated that we need to add some capacity on the northern edge of the beltway and we also need to look at the spokes because of the continued growth in other areas. He said that we also need to make sure that the traffic between the port and the airports moves quickly and easily, people need to be able to get to their jobs and move around to guarantee that our economy continues to grow.
Commissioner Morman was asked the same question. He stated that he agrees with Commissioner Cagle, but added that he has the Port of Houston in his precinct and his focus is primarily on the heavy truck traffic. When the Panama Canal expansion project is completed, the Port of Houston is expected to see substantial growth in the amount of cargo arriving on its docks. It is imperative that the trucks be able to get that cargo off the docks and out of the city as quickly as possible. Commissioner Morman said that he has about $1 billion worth of transportation infrastructure improvements, toll way related in the planning stages right now on the east side. That includes widening of the East Belt, a new ship channel bridge for added capacity, several direct connects from the beltway to Hwy 225 and the Beltway to the Hardy toll road.
Commissioner Morman was next asked what steps has the precinct taken to rebuild from hurricane Ike and what have you done to prepare for another natural disaster? Flood control is a huge issue for precinct 2 stated the commissioner. “It doesn’t matter what you do in any of the other precincts in relation to flood control, just remember it all flows through precinct 2.” Flood Control has done a lot of things on credit in the past. We are now trying to pay off those bills without turning the spigot completely off. Since Ike, flood control has done six or seven massive projects that will hopefully be able to handle all of the water when we get our next big storm. We are also continuing with the buyout program for repetitive flood loss locations and turning that property, in some cases, into detention ponds and parks. Precinct 2 is currently in the middle of spending about $35 million in grant funds still repairing infrastructure damaged during hurricane Ike.
Commissioner Cagle stated that there are a lot of things that need to be done regarding flooding and natural disasters. One of the things that we have learned is that the way that God has designed streams is actually the best way. The old engineering approach of building concrete shoots to move the water quickly from one end of the county down to precinct 2 isn’t the best approach because once it gets to precinct two it starts to back up. The county is now in the process of trying to acquire the natural bodies of land with the creek and the series of tiered swales that can naturally hold a lot of water and filter it. This approach has an ancillary benefit in that the money spent to serve as a flood control device will also be a park amenity.
Commissioner Cagle was next asked if the redistricting from the 2010 census affected the operation and maintenance of infrastructure in his precinct. The Commissioner stated that he needed to defer that question to Commissioner Morman, explaining that his was a donor precinct in that process. Each precinct has approximately 750,000 people in it in 2000, then in 2010 the precincts had to re-equalize down to one million people per precinct. Precinct 4 at that time had 1.2 million people so we had to donate one fifth of our precinct to the surrounding precincts, of which a significant portion went to Commissioner Morman. What that means for precinct 4 is that we no longer have things like community centers or road camps that we used to have in our precinct. That is the price of growth.
Commissioner Morman stated that the County had redone their maps back in 2011, subsequently got sued over them, and finally got approval from district court last month. Since that time we have been working feverishly to make sure that services continue to be provided to the areas that were inherited from Commissioner Cagle. Morman stated that he has picked up seven new parks and 60% more road miles than were previously in his precinct. He stated that he inherited the Crosby, Huffman and Atascocita areas to the north and that so far there has not been any disruption of service in the area.
Commissioner Morman was next asked about the Court’s recent unanimous vote to put a $217 million bond package before the voters this November to renovate the Astrodome into a convention center, and did he think it would pass? The commissioner stated that he would rather see the money spent on roads and drainage, but that is not an option. He said that he does not know if it will be passed by the voters, there is a lot of emotion attached to the dome. He also said that he has not seen any studies that state that this renovation will make any money or even break even. He stated that he would need more assurances that this project will not be a money loser before he would vote in favor of it.
Commissioner Cagle stated that letting the voters choose what happens to the dome is the right decision. He stated that the County Budget Officer, Bill Jackson has estimated that, if passed you would pay an additional eight dollars on a $200,000 home. The problem though is that you can get nickel and dimed to death on your taxes and there are plenty of people out there that feel that they already pay enough to the county and don’t want to pay anymore. He continued by saying that we know that Harris County will not recover what we invest in that particular facility, the City of Houston will through increased sales tax revenue. Cagle did note that if passed by the voters, the funds needed to do the renovation will come from the tax payers and will not impact the funds needed for infrastructure.
Commissioner Cagle was asked about the grade of C- that was given to county infrastructure by ASCE, and what plans the commissioner had to address the ageing infrastructure? The Commissioner stated that he would like to appeal his grade of C- and noted that the county is trying to do the most that they can with scarce resources. Precinct 4 has no problems that $4 billion dollars could not cure. The truth of the matter is, said Cagle that the county has a dime to do a dollar’s worth of work. We are trying to make that dime stretch by working with other governmental entities to get matching funds and we are leaning more on our toll road system. The toll road system is set up to where it re-invests its profits back into itself. This is a positive idea that allows the county to keep the tax rate on its citizen’s low. Cagle stated that you will see increased use of toll roads, not because of how we make money from them but how they allow us to provide the basic services that we need. The county is intent on having that dime do at least fifty cents worth of work.
Commissioner Morman added that often TxDOT is underfunded by the state. We need to continue to lobby Austin to fund transportation. He noted that the latest initiative is to turn over the FM roads from the state to the local municipalities. That’s a great idea for them but not so great for the county. We all need to actively lobby our representatives to adequately fund TxDOT.