Making Better Streets, Better Drainage a Reality
By Katherine Mestousis
ReBuild Houston is the direct result of City of Houston voters approving Proposition One in November 2010. The proposition directed the City’s Charter to “be amended to provide for the enhancement, improvement and ongoing renewal of Houston’s drainage and streets by creating a Dedicated Pay‐As‐You‐Go (PAYGo) Fund for Drainage and Streets,” including capital improvements, ongoing maintenance and compliance with federal/state water quality laws in our drainage systems. Though technically only a funding mechanism, ReBuild Houston delivers a long-term plan to address street and drainage infrastructure needs in a systematic, prioritized and objective manner.
ReBuild Houston is not a ‘quick fix.’ The most difficult task ReBuild Houston faces is paying off past debt while continuing to rebuild Houston’s street and drainage systems which have been inadequately funded for more than 30 years, similar to most cities. ReBuild Houston addresses this problem by providing a reliable, long-term funding stream that will free the City from the restraints of mounting debt. ReBuild Houston is a PAYGo model that is distinct from the previous “put it on the credit card” model, otherwise known as issuing bonds.
At present, debt is a primary source of infrastructure funding in the United States but the City of Houston is setting a new trend and standing apart from others. Prior to ReBuild Houston (before 2011), debt totaled approximately $1.7 billion and costs more than $150 million per year in debt service. As ReBuild Houston pays off the old bonds, the number of street and drainage projects – paid for in cash – will increase dramatically. Since the approval of the five year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for Fiscal Year 2012, ReBuild Houston PAYGo funding has nearly doubled for Fiscal Year 2015 without securing any additional debt.
The ReBuild Houston Pay-As-You-Go solution provides four sources of funding that will, in time, alleviate all street and drainage infrastructure debt. By the year 2020, Houston will begin to see a dramatic drop in debt and a commensurate increase in available project funds due to PAYGo funding.
ReBuild Houston’s four dedicated funding streams include Ad Valorem Taxes, a Drainage Utility Charge, a Developer Impact Fee and Third-Party Funds. Each of these funding streams has its own particular uses to which funds can be utilized. For instance, 11.8 cents of every $100 of property value collected (Ad Valorem Taxes) from property owners is currently going toward paying off debt incurred on previous street and drainage projects. As old debt is paid off, the balance of funds from the 11.8 cents reserved will then go to new street and drainage projects via PAYGo funding. What that means is, as more debt is paid off – more cash projects will be funded.
ReBuild Houston is a subset of the City’s legacy 5-Year CIP specific to streets and drainage. At the same time, it is an extension of the CIP and provides a 10-year planning process for Houston’s street and drainage systems. This initiative allows the City to pro-actively mitigate past degradation of our infrastructure and focus on the areas of highest need or ‘worst first.’ ReBuild Houston’s ‘worst first’ approach utilizes objective, citywide data based on uniform city standards.
‘Worst first’ refers to the identification of need areas by examining actual infrastructure conditions based on City of Houston standards for level of service. The Need Areas of each of three categories (Storm Drainage, Thoroughfares/Collectors and Local Streets) are comparatively scored throughout the City and prioritized using a multitude of data and various tools including but not limited to the Storm Water Enhanced Evaluation Tool (SWEET); citywide traffic counts which are used to identify roadways that need additional capacity; flooding data, both structural flooding and street flooding that would make roads impassable. Additionally, each city street is assessed by the Street Surface Assessment Vehicle (SSAV) and is assigned a Pavement Condition Rating (PCR). Streets are compared to other streets citywide to identify the highest needs based on condition and level of service.
The SSAV assesses all Houston roads approximately every two years and can identify rutting, roughness, cracking and other street conditions. The SSAV provides an objective process for pavement rating in a timely manner. The SSAV utilizes and coordinates various technologies housed in a single mobile unit. These technologies include an IMC 360° Camera, which was similar to the Google camera used at the time; Road Profiler; Crackscope Unit; Accelerometer; and a GPS Antenna with Distance Measuring Instrument. Testing for the SSAV began in 2009 and the City of Houston was the first city to integrate and utilize the IMC 360° Camera, Profiler and Crackscope unit all in one system.
Once the areas of greatest need are identified throughout the city, the Need Area is then pre-engineered to provide solutions to the identified issues. Pre-engineering aims to define the scope and derive an estimated cost; then a Candidate Project is borne. Once a Candidate Project is defined, it will compete with other Candidate Projects within its category (i.e. thoroughfare with other thoroughfares) and will be prioritized based on a benefit to cost ratio. The highest ranking Candidate Projects are then recommended for the next CIP as funding allows.
A CIP Process Manual (http://bit.ly/1ptFS6a) has been authored by the Public Works & Engineering Department to communicate a transparent methodology in the development and prioritization of a “5+5 Year Plan.”
For more information on ReBuild Houston, visit www.rebuildhouston.org.