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|$350 Road Bond|
The issuance of $350,000,000 road bonds and the levying of the tax in payment thereof
The $350 million road bond includes:
Summary of the election results:
Number of Voters by Commissioner Precinct:
For/Against Percentage by Commissioner Precinct:
Percentage of Registered Voter Turnout by Commissioner Precinct:
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:54:29
MCTP Endorsed a "NO" vote.
MCTP Position Reasoning - The MCTP believes that Montgomery County needs to invest in its transportation infrastructure, but the current bond proposal has several major problems:
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:47:03
The Woodlands,TX - Apr 2, 2015
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:48:43
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:50:05
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:51:50
Submitted by kenneth vaughn on 2015-10-08 19:52:42
A road bond is a loan contract used when the government wants borrow money to make major roadway improvements. It is analogous to a person taking out a mortgage to buy a house, but the terminology is reversed. For example, the government "issues a bond" and receives money in exchange, just like a homeowner gives a signed loan contract to a bank in exchange for money. Whoever owns the bond or loan contract is entitled to be repaid the principle with interest.
Just like a house, roads are expensive to build, but once built, they should provide the owner with years of benefits. It is reasonable to take out a loan to gain the benefits - if and only if - the expected benefits are worth more than the cost (with interest) and the benefits are reasonably expected to continue for the full life of the loan. For example, it may be reasonable to take out a 5-year loan for a basic car to get to work; but you should not take out a 30-year loan for a car since it is unlikely that the car will last that long. Nor should you buy a fancy sports car and try to claim it is an "investment".
The same is true with road bonds. Using the money from the bonds to build needed roads is appropriate. Using long-term bonds to fund periodic maintenance is really just a futile attempt to postpone tax increases. Using bonds to fund unneeded roads is not a wise investment decision because it increases maintenance costs while not providing significant benefits.
Unfortunately, in order to sell this bond to the public, the county has decided that it is critical that they say there will be no tax increase. The only way that they can avoid a near-term tax increase is by issuing long-term (30 year) bonds. However, 23% of the bond money will be devoted to maintenance of existing roadways that will likely last less than 15 years. Further, another 37% of the money will be spent on projects that are not identified as being needed by any recent country transportation plan. As a result, it appears that only 40% of the money is being invested wisely.
The proponents and opponents of the bond seem to have differing views over whether there is a county-wide transportation plan and whether it is being followed. An extensive search of the Internet and efforts to obtain plans via the County Commissioners have resulted in the following list of plans, each with their own set of problems.
The Commissioners Court argues that there is a Thoroughfare Plan and that it is currently being updated. The reality is that the current plan has not been properly maintained and it does not qualify as true plan.
The current plan is woefully out-of-date. When the project was being approved Judge Craig Doyal (then Commissioner Doyal) admitted that the last thoroughfare plan the county conducted was in 1985. Since then there have been a couple of updates to the plan, but this is the first major revisiting of the entire plan. To put this in context, Montgomery County had a population of roughly 150,000 in 1985. Basing a $350 million bond proposal on a 30 year old plan is rather unwise. Proposing such a bond months prior to such a major update is inexplicable. Lack of leadership in this county has been problematic and we're seeing the results of the years of the lack of plans and patchwork fixes.
In addition, the existing "plan" is not really a plan. When we found the plan online, we thought it was just the title page; however, after contacting Judge Doyal to provide clarification, it appears that the Thoroughfare Plan amounts to one map of the county with some lines drawn on it. Showing existing or proposed, with vast stretches of the county without any thoroughfares for miles. Since then, Judge Doyal's office has come out with an "interactive plan", which initially featured Hwy. 99 (Grand Parkway, a Tx-Dot project), as a key project in the Rayford Rd. corridor. In turn, they also omitted Rayford Rd., which is the biggest project on the bond!
Lest there be any confusion in what a proper thoroughfare plan should look like and contain, all one needs to do is to look at our neighbors. The Houston Thoroughfare Plan Map is available online. At first it may look somewhat similar - a map. But there are several features on this map that aren't present on the Montgomery County Map, including:
In addition, Houston's plan includes backup information in a table with 1,802 entries that identifies each segment of each Collector/Thoroughfare with the current number of lanes and the current right-of way. This gives a thorough view of how the each corridor will eventually develop into a comprehensive network of mobility.
In short, the Houston Plan allows one to see what is envisioned plan (which is a coherent grid network) and to understand how wide a street is likely to be widened to - even if they don’t own the right-of-way today. And the information is all online and public and updated annually.
Fort Bend County Plan
But perhaps you only see these details because Houston is so developed. We can also look at the Plan for Fort Bend County - a county with a similar population, similar growth rate, and has to work through the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) as we do. Their plan contains much of the same information as the Houston Plan:
And like Houston's plan, it is up-to-date (2015).
When compared to real thoroughfare plans, it is clear that Montgomery County does not have anything that comes close. This does not mean that we have to define one-mile grid design for the county; to the contrary, the Montgomery County plan should reflect the needs and desires of its citizens. But once again, Montgomery County fails. It has not consulted its citizens on what they would like to see in a plan.
Montgomery County is currently updating its out-of-date Montgomery County Mobility - Thoroughfare Plan. While this is commendable, there are still serious problems with this project.
Firstly, the development of the plan is delayed for unknown reasons. The study began in March 2014 and was supposed to be complete in February 2015; it is now scheduled to have only a draft in the summer of 2015, but as the presenter of the "Plan" said, "don't hold me to that".
Secondly, this plan is not being developed with any public input. The April 8 report to the Commissioners Court listed a number of inputs into the report, including:
As noted above, citizen input was not included. Further, despite being a year into the project, there have been no public meetings to discuss any details about the development of this plan. Even at the April 8, 2015 presentation, there were no details or draft ideas presented as to what would be proposed. At best, the plan appears to be under development by a group of academics that are keeping their cards close to their chest. But it would not be surprising to see such an opaque project that proposes exactly what the Commissioners want. Montgomery County deserves an open process, not one controlled by a select group of people.
Thirdly, the report to the Commissioners Court gave no indication that it would be a thorough plan along the lines of Houston or Fort Bend. This is a critical problem. Thoroughfares, particularly Principle Thoroughfares, need to be planned early because the concept of a thoroughfare is that it can carry a considerable amount of traffic over a considerable distance. Unfortunately, designing these roads will already be a major challenge because of the way development has already occurred. Many existing thoroughfares currently 'T" off onto other streets. Many of these should be designed to continue - but in many cases, new residential developments have recently been built blocking any reasonable continuation of the roadway. A classic example of this is about to occur at 1488 to the east of I-45. Currently the land to the east is undeveloped, but there are already plans to build a residential community blocking the natural path of such a major road. Our #1 priority in a bond should be to develop a real, community-consensus, plan.
According to the H-GAC testimony given to the Commissioners Court, without the benefit of a proper thoroughfare plan, the county does not know where it needs to preserve right-of-way or where near-term improvements are best made . As an example of this, the Houston Plan reveals what appears to be differing concepts between what Montgomery County is planning and what Houston is planning in the Kingwood area. Houston's plan calls for extending the West Lake Houston Parkway, whereas Montgomery County is proposing a study on Ford Road, which is a quarter mile away from the proposed alignment for the proposed Lake Houston Parkway. We desperately need to plan before we waste more money.
In short, approving the bond to fund "future needs" for areas of the county where a study has not been completed is simply unwise.
In contrast to the Thoroughfare Plan, the South County Mobility Study was developed with public input and has produced both near-term and long-term maps showing various improvements, including proposed number of lanes on each roadway. In addition to the near-term and long-term maps, a report is provided giving even more details about each proposed improvement. For all intents and purposes, these are shovel-ready projects.
What is notable from this plan is the number of short-term needs that are not included in the current bond proposal while many projects without justification are included. Missing projects include:
The Houston-Galveston Area Council has a 2035 plan for the Houston metropolitan region. While the region has planned for this timeframe, the plan for Montgomery County is very limited. There are only three projects identified for the 2025-2035 period, when Montgomery County is projected to add roughly 300,000 residents. These three projects total roughly 5 miles of roadway and a new interchange at I-69 and The Grand Parkway. In the meantime, the plan fails to identify any major east-west thoroughfare, such as a freeway, despite the fact that the population will likely be over a million people by 2035.
In short, the HGAC Plan demonstrates how little planning has been done in Montgomery County and how desperately we need a real community-consensus plan.
This is always a tricky question filled with assumptions that politicians love to over-simplify.
The county commissioners have said that if the proposal passes they will spend the money and if it does not pass, they will not. None of the roads are proposed to be toll roads, so the only source of revenue to repay the bonds will be county tax revenues. Therefore, by definition, future tax revenues will have to cover the repayment of the bonds plus interest. If the bonds were not taken out, the need for future taxes would be lower (but we may be sitting in more traffic).
The commissioners claim that these bonds will not require a tax increase. When pinned on this issue, they explain that they mean that it will not require an increase in the "tax rate", a rather important distinction. As noted above, even the ballot claims that bond will be for the express purpose of "The issuance of $350,000,000 road bonds and the levying of the tax in payment thereof". The promise is also based on a number of other assumptions that may or may not be valid.
When considering the claims, it is worth noting that the commissioners' position has changed. As recently as November 2014, the commissioners claimed that any bond over $300 million would result in a tax increase. However, when the commissioners decided to make the bond $350 million, they directed Frost Bank to go back and use more aggressive financial assumptions.
While the details of the plan remain unclear with nothing released to the public in writing, it appears that their proposal is based on balloon payments. In other words, they will continue to use the county's questionable practice of only paying interest-only for the first several years of the bond and then face a payment increase about a decade after its initial release. While this practice shifts a greater share of the funding onto the new residents of the county, it is also the exact type of practice that resulted in the 2008 financial collapse and is generally not very wise money management.
Secondly, the proposal assumes that assessed home values will continue to rise at a rate faster than inflation. So while your tax rate may not change, the money out of your pocket will likely noticeably increase, while the commissioners will claim nothing has changed. Perhaps more concerning is the tight relationship among the commissioners and the Appraisal Board. Appraisal Board members include former Judge Alan "Barb" Sadler, former commissioner (Pct. 3) Ed Chance (Chair), and current Pct. 1 Commissioner Mike Meador. They, with two other board members including builder Tom Cox, appoint the actual County Appraiser (Mark Castleschouldt). It's little wonder why people, like former state comptroller Susan Combs, are concerned about this relationship. At a minimum, it has bad appearance, especially when MoCo appraisals are rising so abruptly, particularly in the Woodlands.
Thirdly, the commissioners have said that the bond will not all be issued at once, but will be rolled out over the next 5-7 years. While this does indicate a level of proper management, they have not explained why it is so important to have the road bond approved this far in advance when there is so many questions regarding the county transportation plan.
After being questioned about the amount of 5-10 year maintenance projects included in the bond, the commissioners revised their statements and said that they will not use long term bonds to fund these projects. However, they never updated their financial analysis after making this new promise. It is highly questionable if the initial analysis by Frost Bank is still applicable.
Finally, the "no tax increase" pledge is also premised on a continuation of the rapid population growth in the county. The recent collapse in oil prices may slow that growth. Over the ten year period (i.e., when the balloon payments start to kick in) that growth rate differential means that we will only have perhaps 70% of the population needed to avoid a tax increase - which could easily result in a need for a 40% tax increase for every household.
On 4/21/15, Commissioner Noack was the first to offer up that taxes would likely go up.
Readers should note that none of this suggests that we should not invest in the county infrastructure; it simply means that we need to invest wisely and that there is a cost to this investment.
The commissioners have promised that the proceeds will be used to fund a specific list of projects in each of the four precincts as follows:
The Montgomery County Tea Party has asserted that only 40% of the bond money will go to projects that are truly needed today. The rest of the money is going to projects that are not as warranted as many other needs in the county. For full details, click on the graphic.
The county commissioners developed a list of 100 plus projects. These same commissioners then appointed a group of eleven individuals to make the final selection of projects from the previous list, instructing them that the final list could not result in a tax-rate increase (assuming a revised 8% population growth rate, after initially beginning with an actual 5.4% rate based on the previous 11 years). The final selection of 77 projects was made solely by these individuals and no public meetings have ever been held on many of these projects and public details about the projects are limited to the links to project lists provided on this page.
One of the 11 appointees, Gordy Bunch, resigned from the committee due to the inclusion of the Woodlands Parkway Extension project. He has since identified several other major problems with the chosen projects.
The remaining members of the Road Bond "Citizens" Committee interestingly are also involved in a Political Action Committee(PAC) that are promoting the bond. Most of the contributions PAC's donor list consist of engineering and construction firms from Houston. The many who participate in it could be construed that they apparently stand to benefit greatly from their contributions to this PAC. In addition, it's apparent that the laison person between the County and the Engineering & Construction firms, in a rather odd relationship - is none other than Mary Hammer Menzel. She became "infamous" when she actually advocated "passing the bond" in a commissioner's court prayer, concluding it with invoking Providence to stop those "against the bond" from being "used by Satan" but reported in the news as the advocates against the bond as "tools of Satan".
The project lists were formally adopted by Commissioners Court. It would be difficult for them to legally avoid completing any of the projects if the bond is approved.
Roughly 40% of the bond money goes towards major transportation improvements that are needed today. However, 23% goes towards maintenance, which should be funded out of normal operating funds or at worst a short term bond. Another 37% goes towards projects that are not on near-term transportation plans and do not appear to be critical needs. Some of them, such as the Woodlands Parkway Extension will actually make severe problems worse (such as the intersection at Woodlands Parkway and 2978) and create massive problems where none exist today (e.g., Woodlands Parkway at 2978).
In the meantime, the bond does not provide any solution to true east-west mobility and fails to fund a study to develop community consensus around a county-wide transportation plan.
Montgomery County is projected to have a population of a million people sometime around 2035. This represents a doubling of current county population and represents a roughly 3.5% growth rate per year. The growth rate in population will result in a similar growth rate in the traffic demand. If we do not build new roads and widen existing roads, we will all be stuck in gridlock.
County bonds are one way to fund these improvements and simply represent future taxes. Other funding sources include the state and the embattled federal government highway transportation program, as well as the developers that want to build new homes and buildings. Toll roads are another way to fund roads (although they are usually only applied to freeways or major bridges, there are exceptions in Montgomery County).
A balanced approach should include a mixture of these sources. While the current proposal does include such a mixture, the details behind this mixture are hidden and are clearly missing on some projects like the Woodlands Parkway Extension, where the county appears to have budgeted to build the road to and through the developers property. While they claim that the developers will fund their portion, no documentation of this agreement appears to exist and it would raise the question as to what would happen to the roughly $12 million extra in the budget.
The most controversial project in the list has been the Woodlands Parkway Extension.
Extending the Woodlands Parkway would provide an additional path from the intersection of Woodlands Parkway and 2978 to 249, and what will soon become the "Aggie Toll Road". The connection between these two points is currently provided by: - A more southerly route via Hardin Store Road, and - A more northerly route via 1488.
Another true east-west corridor is desirable, however, the proposed alignment is not east-west, it is southwest-northeast. In addition, it is not being designed as a true corridor; instead it is being planned as a winding road through a woodlands like development with a whole series of traffic signals. (Side note: County officials have intimated that these same developers have indicated they'd donate part of the land to building the segment of roads through their development, though no "Letter of Intent" is available to back up that claim).
Rather than encouraging this development at this point by offering to build new roads for the developers, the county government needs to work with the local communities and determine a vision for our future, and in particular jointly decide where we want to have major thoroughfares. This exercise should have been done decades ago, but the longer we wait the more difficult the problem will become. We will already be faced with serious challenges in obtaining the necessary right-of-way without knocking down new developments. The time to plan is NOW and we should not be subsidizing new growth until we have consensus around a plan.
It takes time to design and build a road, but if the recent actions by the commissioners is any indication, this is their number one project and will receive immediate attention. Nonetheless, the process will likely take two or three years; the two studies that analyzed the proposal both assumed an opening date in 2018.
Two studies were funded by Montgomery County. One, by Amani Engineering, Inc., was commissioned by Precinct 2 and the other, by Brown & Gay Engineers, was commissioned by Precinct 3.
The Amani (A) study evaluated existing conditions in 2015 and compared these to potential conditions in 2018 under a scenario where the extension is built and a scenario where the extension is not built. The study only considered one criteria, which was whether Woodlands Parkway had sufficient travel lanes to handle the projected volumes. All data in the report was based on H-GAC projections made in 2013.
The Brown & Gay (B&G) study was much more extensive. While it used the H-GAC projections as a baseline, it validated and adjusted these numbers with their own field data collection. In addition to the 2015 and 2018 conditions, they also evaluated conditions in 2025 and 2040 for both the build and no-build scenarios. Finally, they looked at both major characteristics that define surface street capacity: the number of travel lanes and the delay at signalized intersections.
Widening of Woodlands Parkway
Both studies investigated whether Woodlands Parkway would be wide enough to handle projected traffic volumes and both came to the same conclusion: Woodlands Parkway will likely need to be widened at some point in the future and the extension of the parkway will only necessitate this widening at an earlier date.
The Amani study investigated the peak hour directional volumes whereas the B&G study looked at daily volumes. The directional peak hour results are good at highlighting showing how the road is performing during peak conditions, whereas the daily volume analysis gives better insight as to how congested the road might be for prolonged periods. In addition, the B&G study made projections using both the raw H-GAC numbers, as well as with adjusted numbers based on their own data collection.
The results of these studies are shown in the following table. The letters correspond to industry accepted "Level of Service" (LOS) values that are similar to letter grades in school; an "A" equates to free flow conditions whereas an "F" is a failing grade and indicates severe congestion. As in school, "C" is roughly average for urban areas, a "D" is barely passing, and an "F" is failing. Due to the anomalies in traffic flow, an "E" indicates unstable conditions where a user may experience very busy, but flowing traffic or may experience failing conditions that are slow to recover.
|WP east of FM 2978||Amani||B||B||D|
|WP east of Flintridge||Amani||C||C||E|
|WP west of Kuykendahl||Amani||E||F||F|
Only the B&G study performed an intersection analysis and the results are startling. The intersection at Kuykendahl is already over capacity and will only get worse. Extending the parkway will make this existing problem even more severe. However, the big problem will be at the intersection with FM 2978. This intersection is currently operating at an acceptable level of service and planned improvements will allow this intersection to continue to perform well for the next 10 years or more if the parkway is not extended. However, if the parkway is extended, the intersection will immediately exceed capacity on opening day and delays at the intersection skyrocket to almost 8 minutes in 2025 and to 18.5 minutes in 2040. Building the extension without major improvements to this intersection will result in major traffic problems.
The performance of surface streets can be constrained by either the width of the roadway or by delays caused by intersections. For example, if a street has heavy through volume coupled with a lot of vehicles entering from side streets, traffic can back up simply because there aren't enough lanes; this is very typical of freeways, but can also happen on roads (e.g., northbound Honea Egypt in the evenings). On the other hand, surface streets are often constrained by the performance of signalized intersections. This typically occurs when the through traffic on the street receives less than half of the time at an intersection (which often occurs on major streets because of cross street traffic and turning movements).
The B&G study provides the formal evidence of what most drivers of the route already know, the big problem on the Woodlands Parkway are the major intersections. The results of this study are shown in Table 2 using a similar letter grade scale, coupled with an estimate of the delay time at the intersection as measured in seconds.
|WP @ FM 2978||No-Build||D / 41.4||D / 37.5||C / 25.8||C / 31.2||C / 32.2||D / 46.7||F / 95.7||F / 110.9|
|Build||D / 41.4||D / 37.5||F / 143.7||F / 281.5||F / 282.6||F / 478.0||F / 679.1||F / 1111.1|
|WP @ Kuykendahl||No-Build||F / 114.6||F / 70.4||F / 133.1||F / 82.5||F / 164.5||F / 109.2||F / 229.4||F / 178.8|
|Build||F / 114.6||F / 70.4||F / 148.6||F / 94.8||F / 182.3||F / 127.6||F / 252.5||F / 204.3|
The new road will provide a logical route for some road users, particularly those traveling between Pinehurst and the Walmart area at 2978. However, given the massive delays that will occur at FM 2978 and Kuykendahl, the road is not a very viable route into the heart of the Woodlands, especially for those living closer to FM 1488, which will provide a much more direct route to I-45. Further, development along the extension is likely to also significantly add to the projected delays. In fact, portions of the extension are expected to operate at level of service "D" on opening day and these conditions will only worsen as more development occurs.
Most developers are required to pay for their own roads. Counties will typically wait for development to occur in an area before building any new roads at their own expense. From the county's perspective, this is a way to encourage developers to develop near existing roadways rather than constantly asking for new handouts. If they want to develop land off of the beaten path, it is typically their job to provide their own access road.
For example, the developers already have access to 249 (the new Aggie Toll Road) and are free to develop their land as they wish. The county has expressed their intent to eventually make a thoroughfare through the area, which only benefits the developers and the developers can plan with that commitment in mind. However, there is no reason for the county to build the extension before the new development goes in. The South County Mobility Study clearly indicated that the traffic volumes do not currently warrant it without the new development - which may or may not occur. There is no reason for the county to spend millions of dollars to allow the developers to have a viable project. If their project is viable, the developers will build it without the extension. If that occurs, there is a good chance that other developers will build most of the remainder of the road and the county will not have to spend any money on the road at all, which is the way it should be for this road that is primarily going to be used by the new development.
Another project in the list is the extension to Nichols Sawmill so that it connects with Mueschke Road. This will provide better N-S connectivity for Magnolia to the Houston area.
Both the proponents and the opponents of the Road Bond agree that this roadway is a key improvement that needs to be made to address existing issues. The proponents believe it should be built immediately. The opponents of the bond have expressed concern that extending this road before there is a proper thoroughfare plan may actually make matters worse. Improving mobility to this portion of the county will immediately result in a significant increase in development in this area. Unfortunately, the county has not planned for the other supporting infrastructure to handle this increased demand. Accelerating the speed of development in this area is likely to result further constraining options on where future thoroughfares are built. The opponents believe that the extension should only open after a proper thoroughfare plan is in place so that the additional development can be managed in a more orderly manner.
The proposed road bond includes $79 million for road rehabilitation and ditch maintenance projects; both of which have fairly short lifespans.
The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has estimated that road rehabilitation projects in east Texas are likely to last only about 7 years. This is much shorter than the originally proposed 30-year bond payoff timeframe. Once confronted with this fact, the commissioners have suggested that they will make sure that those projects are funded with shorter bond durations; however, they never revised their financial analysis of the bond proposal once this promise was made. Shifting 23% of the bond money to 5-year bonds rather than a 30-year bonds is bound to significantly increase the payoff rate and consume more county revenue. Therefore, until a new financial analysis is conducted, it is inappropriate for the commissioners to simultaneously claim that they will fund all of these maintenance projects on short-term bonds without implementing a tax rate increase.
However, more to the point, one has to wonder why the county is not budgeting for these maintenance activities out of the county budget. They argue that they do not have enough money in the county budget - but they don't explain why the money is not there. Perhaps it has to do, to some extent, with a bloated county payroll. The commissioners are the highest paid in the state of Texas, despite MoCo only being the 11th largest county in population. It's included in G&A Expenses that have quadrupled over the last 13 years, when population increased only by 67%.
Clearly these are costs that will be incurred over and over again. If the county only had one road to maintain, it would make sense to have a special bond when it needed to be rehabilitated; but the county knows that about 10% of its thoroughfares will need significant work in any one year - and it should budget for this maintenance expense rather than using the complexity and costs that bond money incurs.