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On Houston visit, Charlotte leaders ponder Texas-sized transportation questions

HOUSTON Here in the nation’s fourth-largest city, many of the transportation debates Charlotte faces seem to be settled already.

Toll roads are an accepted part of life. Light-rail lines are being expanded. And a 1-cent sales tax seems to be doing the job in getting transportation needs funded.

But during a panel discussion Thursday, Houston transportation officials told a delegation of visiting Charlotte leaders that this Texas city’s transportation system still faces challenges while trying to keep pace with a growing region.

The Charlotte officials, visiting on the latest stop of the Charlotte Chamber’s fact-finding tour of other cities, said Houston’s transportation system seems to be doing a better job keeping up with growth.

Debate, for instance, has been raging in Charlotte about building toll lanes on Interstate 77 between uptown and the Lake Norman area. The state Department of Transportation intends to hire a company this fall to finance, design, build and operate toll lanes.

Lake Norman-area residents, angry about paying tolls to use the major artery through their area, remain opposed to the plan.

Peter Key, director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority, said his agency oversees five toll highways in the Houston region. Houston has three outer belts, the last two being toll roads. Commuters have come to accept the concept, he said, as long as they have free highways to use as an (often less speedy) alternative.

Still, he said overseeing toll roads often feels more like running an e-commerce company than a transportation operation. He said much time is spent trying to get tolls and payments from nonpaying motorists.

“A lot of people just had inflated expectations that if you have a highway and you string some fancy equipment over it the money will just roll in, but it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “It can be a logistical nightmare.”

Many officials from Charlotte had questions about whether partnerships with private developers can help get projects done. Tom Lambert, head of Houston’s METRO transportation agency, suggested such partnerships can be tricky.

He said his agency has allowed private companies to build, design, finance and operate projects in the past. However, it has trimmed back to simply allowing private firms to build and design instead because public workers can oversee the other functions better.

Davidson Mayor Pro Tem Brian Jenest, head of the chamber’s transportation committee, told Houston leaders their city might be bigger, “but our transportation challenges are every bit as big as yours.”

He referred to the fight over toll lanes on I-77 as “a bloodbath.”

Charlotte-area transit projects are mainly funded through a half-cent sales tax approved in 1998. But officials say the recession has left the Charlotte Area Transit System with a massive shortfall.

A transit funding task force launched by Mayor Anthony Foxx has estimated CATS will need to find $3.3 billion to build its remaining transit corridors, and $1.7 billion more to operate and maintain the lines through 2024.

The task force has suggested adding another half-cent to the sales tax, but City Council member David Howard said Thursday’s panel discussion showed the region needs to explore all options for funding.

“I think where we’re landing is we want to use all these private investment opportunities we’ve discussed to the best of our ability before we go to the public,” he said afterward. “Make it the best deal, and then ask the public to partner.”

The day’s sessions also featured panels on other topics:

•  Health care. The delegation toured Houston’s 1,300-acre Texas Medical Center campus, the world’s largest medical complex. The region’s largest employer, it boasts more than 20,000 doctors, nurses and researchers. One Houston official said one of every four hotel stays in the city is related to the health care industry.

•  Minority- and women-owned businesses. Houston has at least 900 such companies, generating $30 billion in annual sales. But some said Charlotte still has work to do in encouraging minority- and women-owned businesses.

•  Foreign investment. Houston has more than 700 foreign-owned companies and more than 90 foreign consular offices. Texas is becoming even more attractive because of economic incentives and cheap energy, said Klaus-Jochen Guhlcke, Houston-based consul general for Germany.

“This is one of the toughest states to compete against,” said Jeff Edge, senior vice president for economic development with the chamber.

Charlotte is making progress. He noted that fDi Magazine, which tracks foreign investment in cities, ranked Charlotte No. 7 overall among its “Large American Cities of the Future.” But the city still has work to do, he added. The magazine ranked Charlotte No. 8 among business-friendly large cities in 2011-12, but dropped the Queen City from that list’s Top 10 for 2013-14.

Frazier: 704-358-5145; @ericfraz on Twitter
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