After years of preparing and careful planning, the Lake Houston Redevelopment Authority/Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) No. 10 board members were shocked to learn that the Northpark Project had received a death knell from the Harris Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) in January. The H-GAC administers federal transportation dollars.
Out of 63 final projects, the Northpark application was ranked 29th. With only enough money to fund approximately 10, Northpark would not be making the cut.
The Northpark Project is divided into two parts: Phase One will expand the road and include an overpass from U.S. Hwy. 59 to Russell Palmer Road and Phase Two will expand from Russell Palmer to Woodland Hills Drive. Phase One will be paid for with a mix of City of Houston funds and the issuance of a bond. Phase Two, however, was to come from federal money administered by H-GAC, which sporadically calls for projects. The latest call, in the fall of 2018, prompted nearly 200 responses which were analyzed and ranked on a combination of factors, the most salient of which is a benefits/cost ratio.
– H-GAC rating based on faulty information –
At the February TIRZ meeting, the low ranking and the potential sinking of the project was foremost.
Chairman Stan Sarman and TIRZ Manager Ralph Deleon explained to the incredulous group that somehow, crucial data had been left off the application.
“Our application is ranked 29th of 63. There were 190 submitted but many were tossed for one reason or another,” Sarman said.
The Northpark Project received a high score for planning factors, 90 of a possible 100, but we got only 17 of 100 on the benefits to cost,” Sarman said.
“We had material weaknesses,” Deleon said. “Our rush hour and travel time data was entered for only one hour a day. It should have been seven hours of data.”
Houston City Councilmember Dave Martin wasted no words.
“How did this happen?” he demanded to know. Deleon demurred and said he didn’t want to throw the consultant hired specifically to complete the H-GAC application “under the bus.” But Martin pressed three times, asking for transparency and names. Deleon never identified what was readily obvious in the minutes of past meetings; the Goodman Corporation was hired by the TIRZ more than a year ago to help complete the application. TIRZ audit statements indicate that more than $566,000 went to Goodman, Edminster Hinshaw, the engineering firm responsible for gathering the traffic data, Crouch Environmental, and Elmore Public Relations.
Martin also wanted to know if Goodman had been hired by others who submitted projects to the H-GAC, in particular, one coming from TIRZ No. 5, a project in downtown on Allen Parkway. Deleon said yes, they had worked on other applications.
“I screw up everyday,” Martin said. “Why can’t they admit that?”
Sarman explained that in the weeks between the release of the ratings and the meeting, he had met with Alan Clark, the CEO of the H-GAC, resubmitted the application with complete data, and now feels the Northpark Project will be rated much higher and will receive funding.
Deleon later emailed his perception.
“I don’t think it was entirely Goodman’s fault. In fact, I would put more blame on the engineers, as they were the ones tasked to collect the data which was used by Goodman to populate the models. Perhaps Goodman could have seen this coming and sent up a red flag and told us we had holes in our data sets. The engineers, on the other hand, were the ones tasked with making recommendations as to directional moves needed to be taken as the process evolved and that’s really where we probably got lost.”
“Stan and I went down there and met with Alan Clark of H-GAC, who was gracious enough to bring in four different traffic modelers who then patiently went through their findings.
“In fact, along the way, at one point, Stan threw down his pen on the table and strongly told everyone that as a resident of Kingwood who travels the roadway daily, he could attest that at times the traffic backs up all the way to Russell Palmer, which is a good mile from the railroad tracks,” Deleon said.
Deleon went on to say, “We went down there to see what the problem was. We identified the problem with the assistance of H-GAC, who were highly responsive to the new information, which is how we got our cost benefit ratio doubled by the time the meeting was concluded. That’s what’s important. It’s fixed, and to the best of our ability. The rest is now water under the bridge; crisis averted.”
The top 10 H-GAC projects’ benefits-to-cost ratios were ranked from 100 (commuter buses in Fort Bend) to 83 (two at this ratio point – the widening of 1960 and S.H. 105), so it is unclear that even doubled, the Northpark Project will rise enough to be funded, even including the high planning score.
Sarman and the board said the H-GAC is asking for public comment through the end of February and it is very important that residents make their voices heard. Martin mentioned that the Northpark Project is the only one of the 190 that received letters of support from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and all 16 city councilmembers.
Written comments can be mailed to H-GAC, P.O. Box 22777, Houston, TX 77227-2777. Comments from the public are also welcome via telephone calling toll free at 1-855-363-2516.
Martin asked, “Bottom line. When are we putting shovels in the ground?”
Deleon said 18 to 20 months depending on TxDOT’s bidding process, as TxDOT will be the project manager.
The TIRZ voted to enter a reimbursement agreement with Stratus Properties, a division of H-E-B Grocery, that is building a new store on the southwest corner of U.S. Hwy. 59 and Northpark.
Rachel Ray-Welsh of Walter P. Moore, the engineering firm in charge of the traffic improvements in Kingwood, reported yet another delay with the City of Houston completing the turn signal operations at Northpark and West Lake Houston Parkway. It will be a few more weeks, Ray-Welsh reported.
The TIRZ will next meet March 14.