The I-610 W Loop/I-69 SW Freeway Interchange project, which has received federal funding, is a regionally important surface-transportation project. (Photo courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation)

Greater Houston Partnership Says Federal Infrastructure Investment Spurs Regional Economic Success

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

When the pandemic and slowdown hit America, essential facets of our economy and society did not stop. Transportation infrastructure still had to function, goods needed to move through the supply chain, and regions had to connect.

In turn, the urgency regarding infrastructure investment has heightened, particularly around federal investment. It’s a glancing issue in recovery legislation, but an entrenched one in the long-term given that the last surface-transportation authorization expires in September.

In Texas, it remains an ongoing barometer of public policy with purpose.

“Providing funding for infrastructure [historically] is seen, kind of across the board, as bipartisan and one of those responsibilities that government has. It’s also a way to ensure that a concrete source of funding is going to be there for years to come,” says Chase Kronzer, Vice President of Public Policy for the Greater Houston Partnership. “These infrastructure projects are ways to provide certainty in funding. So, when you have these economic downturns, there are always fears and worries. The general public doesn’t know if investments are going to be made in their communities, if funding is going to be there going forward, or if [different] services are going to be offered. Where infrastructure projects come into play is they are tangible things that the public can see as having an impact in their lives for years to come.”

The Partnership is a business-advocacy and economic-development organization for over 1,100 member companies, and infrastructure investment is a policy staple. “Where we try to focus is where we can have a specific impact and where we can talk to our delegation and advocate for things that set Houston apart,” adds Kronzer.

“When it comes to the federal government at any level, you have to look at them as investors and you have to convince them that whatever funding they put forward is indeed worth the investment,” says Kronzer. “… You have to show that there are going to be significant or, at least, positive returns on that investment. So whether that is showing that trade routes will be improved or congestion will be alleviated or areas will become more safe or localities can maintain, at the minimum, the M&O [maintenance and operations] required for a project — those kinds of things are absolutely necessary. And when we’re talking about the federal government specifically, it’s important to point out the impact a certain project will have on a national scale.”

In America, connectivity is at the center of this. Let’s look at three important infrastructure projects that affect the Greater Houston region and the role of federal funding:

1. PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION — Demand for access and better public transit has been on the rise, and the population of the Greater Houston region is expected to exceed 10 million by 2040, according to the regional transit agency METRO. In 2019, a top priority for the Partnership’s Transportation Advisory Committee was working on, and advocating for, the METRONext plan and related local legislation. A resolution was overwhelmingly passed by voters that allows METRO to borrow money through $3.5 million in bonds for expansion and modernization. The plan entails implementing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), improving the Regional Express Network, extending light-rail to Hobby Airport, and some other service improvements. It’s a $7.5 billion project, however $3.5 billion will require securing federal funding.

One of the Partnership’s biggest responsibilities was working with METRO to ensure the plan was fiscally sound and that what would be funded would stay true to what voters passed. This called for boxing in the funds, making sure METRO spends what they are supposed to, and the service offerings are economically viable. “METRO was great to work with and reached out very early to the business community to make sure what they were putting together would be supported by the business community,” says Kronzer. “One of the things they had originally put forth was a large-scale expansion of light-rail to Hobby connecting multiple lines. We did a lot of analysis with them and determined that instead of connecting two lines to Hobby, it made more sense to merge the two lines to one. Doing this made it possible to reallocate close to $1 billion toward other things.”

2. NEW INTERSTATE — A major freight artery that goes through Houston is Interstate 69, which is evolving in Texas from the foundation of U.S. 59. It will run from Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo in South Texas to Houston and then to Texarkana and to other parts of the country and Canada. Made possible through both state and federal funding and ongoing regional advocacy, it consists of stages of upgrades to existing highways. The Partnership helped found the I-69 Alliance (now its own organization) many years ago.

One highly significant portion of the project is now underway in the Greater Houston area. The I-69/I-610 interchange is a major connection point of two extremely busy highways, according to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). The $259 million project is partially funded with federal dollars, according to TxDOT spokesman Danny Perez. Improving safety and mobility, reducing congestion, and updating the interchange to current design standards are project objectives.

This project typifies the utility of ongoing federal investment. “State officials called the project, estimated to cost $16 billion, important to safety and economic development as goods move northward to the Midwest and Northeast,” the Houston Chronicle reported years back. “Of 1,000 miles of the proposed route in Texas, about 70 have been designated by the federal government as interstate quality so far. The goal is to complete half of the freeway in 20 years, using mostly federal and state funds, but with some local contributions possible.”

3. TRADE — Improvements to Port Houston and the Houston Ship Channel Expansion will cost around $1 billion, according to Port Houston. As COVID-19 affected global commerce, tonnage handled at the port, the sixth-largest container port in the United States, dropped. Port Houston handles about two-thirds of all the containerized cargo in the United States Gulf of Mexico.

The Port Houston project will get completed through local public-private funding and varied federal components. Expanding the channel to allow for larger ships will need authorization from Congress through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced the completion of a needed study step toward the Channel expansion, according to Port Houston.

Federal funding is a critical piece of nationally significant infrastructure projects, which take many years and ongoing commitments to get completed. In 2013, Port Houston was awarded a $10 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant toward the expansion of the berth at its Bayport Container Terminal, according to Port Houston. But that is just one facet of the Port overhaul.

Other aspects include adding additional inbound and outbound lanes to Port Road, upgrading the fire boat dock, rehabilitations of various wharfs, and work covering maintenance and gate facilities, electrical and telecommunications infrastructure, and terminal repairs. “Being able to expand the ship channel to safely accommodate two-way traffic and those larger ships that are coming in through the expanded Panama Canal is vital in terms of local, state and global competitiveness,” points out Kronzer. “If you want to ensure that exports from and through Texas are continuing at the growing pace that they are, we need to make sure that investment is made and made as soon as possible.”

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