Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The state is spending billions on toll roads when it should be investing in flood infrastructure.
The Grand Parkway, Houston’s third and outermost ring road, is looking at a record year. Three major segments of Texas state highway 99 opened for business in 2016—and business is good. Since tolling began on the most recently completed arc of Grand Parkway, a segment that threads the city’s northwest suburbs between U.S. 290 and I-45, toll transactions have more than doubled. Revenue has climbed from $2.7 million in January to $4.4 million in February, the month that tolls opened.
By its completion in 2023, the Grand Parkway will form a 180-mile-long ring encircling greater metro Houston. The highway is a wonder of the world, of a sorts: As the Houston Chronicle helpfully demarcates, the Grand Parkway is large enough to circumscribe all of greater London and Paris, the entire Baltimore-Washington, D.C., megalopolis region, and the whole damned state of Rhode Island. The Grand Parkway is filthily large, the apotheosis of sprawl.
For the extant 38-mile stretch of outer-outer-beltway tollroads that opened this year, the Grand Parkway Transportation Corporation, a quasi-state agency, has paid $1.1 billion. Per the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, all 53 miles of state highway 99 that have been completed to date have cost $2.9 billion. By the end of it, completing the Grand Parkway will cost more than $5 billion, to be repaid by drivers over decades in tolls.
The investment must have seemed sound back in 1991, when the study for the first 14.5-mile stretch began. But today, the Grand Parkway looks like the Great Missed Opportunity. To consider just one angle—and there are many, from the benefits of smarter transit that won’t be realized to the possibility of driverless cars arriving before the tollway bonds are even repaid—Texas has not invested nearly so much research or resources into managing its floodplains. And now, Houston is experiencing historic flooding—flooding that would be uncharacteristic if floods weren’t so damned typical for the region these days.
Almost a year ago to the date, CityLab reported on the worst flooding to hit Central Texas in 30 years (whomping Austin and San Antonio, but also reaching Houston). A year later, the Brazos River is now surging to its highest water mark in more than a century, promising even more flooding in Houston, just weeks after the last severe storms and deadly floods saturated the area.
Texas needs to start taking flood management at least as seriously as it takes highway construction (and it needs to stop spending so much on sprawl-enabling highways). It is too late to unroll the Grand Parkway and other initiatives that have taken precedence over flood management in the Lone Star State. But it isn’t too late for Texas to take storms seriously. They will keep coming.
Develop a statewide flood infrastructure plan, already!
Texas got dinged by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2013. The group gave the state a “D” for flood control as part of its infrastructure report cards (a program the ASCE should resume). Texas lacks a statewide floodplain management plan, and does not participate (as a state) in the National Flood Insurance Program, despite the fact that Texas typically leads the nation in terms of dollars paid out for flood claims.
Individual communities in Texas do participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. In fact, Texas trails only Florida in the number of its total flood insurance policies across the state (589,357 policies to Florida’s 1,813,592 policies). But the state simply does not fund flood-control infrastructure, leaving it to individual communities to prepare for floods on their own.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Houston branch of the Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Houston slightly better marks for its flood infrastructure: a C- (still not great). The report shows how municipalities respond to the lack of state guidance or funding for flood control. The Harris County Flood Control District and Fort Bend County Drainage District have adopted ad valorem taxes to fund drainage projects, for example; but those are just entities within greater Houston, an area that is roughly the size of Northern Ireland.
The state’s failure to take precautions is costly in both blood and treasure. Eight people were found dead in Houston after April’s historic floods, which caused more than $5 billion in damage and flooded more than 1,000 homes. Frankly, the U.S. deserves a national strategic framework for destructive floods. But at a bare minimum, Texas needs to get in the game.
Recognize that sprawl and flooding are cousins
The Grand Parkway represents more than an opportunity cost. Sprawl is exacerbating the flooding in the region. According to the Bayou Land Conservancy, Harris County has lost 13,000 acres of wetlands to new development, including the suburban tracts of homes that have followed the development of the Grand Parkway.
These wetlands are irreplaceable. Fields like the Katy Prairie, to the west of Houston, cannot fully absorb all the rain that falls in a 100-year storm, such as the one that fell on the area in April. But as those wetlands disappear, even lesser storms are invested with more destructive power. Samuel Brody, a professor with the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University Galveston, has said that sprawl is “driving the spiraling cost of flooding and the loss of lives in this area.”
“By allowing so many wetlands to be turned into subdivisions, we're not just kicking them to the curb; we're turning them into curbs,” writes Jennifer Lorenz, the former executive director of the Bayou Land Conservancy.
Lead the way with the solutions that already exist
As CityLab’s Julian Spector wrote in April, there are some homegrown answers to flooding that Houston and other Texas cities (and Texas as a whole) could stand to adopt more broadly. One such piece is a flood-warning system, a “combination of cameras, radar, rain gauges, and digital modeling” designed to alert communities to flooding locally. Flood warnings matter, but when a county is 1,700 square miles in size, county flood warnings cannot tell you how concerned a resident actually needs to be.
The flood-warning system at Houston’s Texas Medical Center, which Spector describes in the story, has been in place since 1998 and has guided researchers through dozens of storms. It only took $100,000 to install, minus ongoing maintenance costs. Building out these systems (or smart-detection systems like these) in urban areas across the state could be the first subject of study in a statewide flood infrastructure plan.
Stop pretending to hate FEMA
Beyond the serious structural problems with sprawl, infrastructure, state and local coordination, and financing, Texas has an attitude problem. The state takes an excessively anti-federal, anti-FEMA posture, even though Texas relies on disaster assistance like nobody’s business. Texas absorbs more disaster aid than any other state. Last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott “declared disaster declarations literally from the Red River to the Rio Grande.”
After heavy rains in May, Governor Abbott declared disaster conditions for 31 counties. During his tenure as state attorney general, Governor Abbott filed 31 lawsuits against the Obama administration for various injuries. Governor Abbott did thank President Barack Obama for making individual residents of certain flood-torn counties eligible for applying directly for FEMA assistance after the Tax Day floods. But if there’s been a sea change in Texas leaders’ attitudes toward the federal government, it hasn’t gone far enough.
The problem has deep roots in Texas culture, as I wrote last year. And while it might annoy non-Texans that Texas both eschews help and needs the most help, the attitude problem is specifically a hindrance to Texans insofar as this mental block keeps the state from adopting smarter policies or legislative initiatives regarding aid. Texas can and must do better.