Harris County Judge Ed Emmett Speaks on Transportation in the Region
by Jeff Nielsen
HCA was proud to welcome as this month’s keynote speaker, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Judge Emmett began his presentation by discussing construction projects and started off his comments by saying that he tends to lump state and county projects together. He says he does this because so many of the road projects that have been built lately have either been given back to the state or the state has given them to the county to maintain.
The Judge noted that the Grand Parkway construction is moving forward as scheduled, with sections E and F already on the clock and construction scheduled to begin any day. Judge Emmett stated that this project clearly shows the power of economic development at its fullest. The Judge stated that when Exxon Mobil said that they would not move to Houston unless the Grand Parkway was completed by the time they got there, people jumped through hoops to make it happen. Part of getting that done was that Harris County had to hand the project over to TxDOT so that the Governor could state that it would be done, and put the resources of the State behind it instead of it just being Harris County. As the Judge put it, “In negotiations, the word of the Governor carries a lot more water than that of a County Judge.”
Looking at other construction in the area, Highway 290 has been moved up in the construction schedule and is now a joint State/County/Metro deal. Beltway 8 always has widening projects going on and the Judge noted that the beltway is the cash cow for Harris County bringing in $1.3 million per day in tolls. The Judge stated that it is that money that the County uses to build and maintain other transportation infrastructure throughout the County. Highway 288 is going to be a CDA and TxDOT is going to be doing it. The judge stated that there are still some concerns about how it is going to connect to the Texas Medical Center. He also noted that there was a great deal of concern from the residents of the area over a proposed line that went through part of Herman Park. The Judge commented that you should never put a line on a map unless you are certain that is where it is going to go.
The Judge stated that the biggest project that we need to be paying attention to, and pushing for, is the re-naming of US 59 to Interstate 69. With the renaming of US 59 to I-69 it will have to have a bypass to go around the City of Houston. This bypass will be the most important transportation project in our region for decades, stated Judge Emmett. The bypass would come out south of Houston, go east and then turn north, if it is done correctly, and will connect the ports of Freeport, Galveston and Houston together before connecting back in north of Cleveland. That bypass will guarantee that those ports continue to be the gateway of North America.
The Judge stated that Harris County is having a problem with simple math. There are 4 million people in Harris County, but 1.6 million of those people live in unincorporated Harris County where the only level of government is the County and Muds. By the next census, unincorporated Harris County will be larger than the City of Houston. The Judge stated that all of those residential streets end up on the County road log to be maintained and the County does not have the resources to maintain and repair that many roads, many of which were built back in the 60’s. He stated that we will need help from the legislature to allow the Muds and the County to work together to solve this problem. The Muds, according to Judge Emmett, need to either find a way to share their revenue with the County or we have to find a way for the Muds to do their own street and infrastructure repair. Judge Emmett stated that Texas picks on California about the state of their government and their outrageous tax rates, but if we are not careful we are going to become California. If we don’t make the right decisions now for the future, then we are not going to continue to grow. The Judge stated that he gets letters from voters saying that your duty as an elected official is to slash budgets and cut costs. This same constituent continued by saying that if you don’t we will find someone who will. To comments like that the Judge stated that the only response can be that we have to spend money to build infrastructure, if we don’t we will wither away and stagnate.