Drain Oh! Why there will be fewer flooded streets in Houston's future
As part of the celebration of Houston's 175th anniversary, we asked local leaders to imagine the city's future. In this essay, Houston City Council member Stephen Costello predicts the impact of the controversial plan to improve the city's infrastructure.
Imagine: Smooth streets, wide sidewalks with overhanging oaks giving wonderful shade, convenient parking, clusters of stores you can walk or ride your bike to, a light rail that goes where you want — this could be Houston in another 175 years. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait that long.
Thanks to ReBuild Houston, the city now has a dedicated funding source to transform our streets and drainage system. We all know that we are paying monthly for how much impervious surface we have on our property, but the city and the developers are chipping in, too. Over the next 20 years, less than half of the money comes from the drainage fee. The city is paying off all of its old street and drainage debt and putting the excess into new projects. This will bring in over $2 billion in the next 20 years.
The normal rains we get are going to flood fewer buildings and drain from your street faster. Many people couldn’t get to work Monday morning, but ReBuild Houston will improve that for about 75 percent of of the city.
On top of that, developers have to pay for new infrastructure their projects will need, and all federal and state grants the city gets will go into the fund. The only way the money leaves the dedicated fund is to pay for streets and drainage. All in all, the program is estimated to raise over $6 billion over the next 20 years.
Quite simply, we needed the money to invest and now we will have it. What does this mean for the future of Houston? In her recent inaugural address, Mayor Parker likened the commitment to invest in infrastructure now to other forward-thinking, bold moves of the past, like securing our water supply and assembling land to create a world-class medical center. Luckily, Houstonians think big.
Infrastructure is the very foundation of our communities and well-built and well-maintained infrastructure translates into improved quality of life, enhanced public safety and increased economic opportunity.
With significant investment in infrastructure, Houston’s future is bright. Here’s what I mean:
Houston will just look better
A friend once told me that Houston's beauty was at eye level since we don't have mountains or water as our visual backdrop. Therefore, our scenic impact must be addressed as we rebuild our infrastructure. We don’t want to see utility poles and wires overhead and “litter on a stick” signs everywhere; we want a good visual.
While the nuts and bolts of infrastructure improvements are underground, we have the responsibility to build wisely so as to maximize Houston’s eye-level beauty. Pretty streets attract residents, pedestrians, bicyclists, and businesses. Good infrastructure is just the beginning.
Houston will be better off financially
ReBuild Houston mandates that the city cut up its credit card—this is a dramatic shift in the way the city does business. Street and drainage infrastructure improvements will be made without the issuance of additional municipal debt. Right now, for every dollar the city spends on a street and drainage projects, it spends $1.60 in debt service. As debt is paid down, the money that used to go toward debt will actually go toward much needed projects in the community. The city’s debt load decreases and money is freed up for actual projects.
Houston will be greener
Wider streets and sidewalks mean more room for pedestrians and cyclists. Wide canopied trees hanging over will give much needed shade in the nine months of summer and reduce the “heat sink” effect of the city. With more people walking and riding when they can, pollutions level decrease and healthy activity increases. With lower pollution, comes more federal funding we can use to reduce traffic and improve our highways. Detention will no longer be built as ugly holes in the ground on the side of the highway; we can build it as expansive parks that line our miles of natural bayous throughout the city. These multi-use parks will have playing fields, dog parks, jogging trails, open areas, and native woods.
Houston will be safer
Investing in these improvements will go a long way toward keeping water out of our cars, homes, and businesses. And since all that water will not be in our streets, that means our men and women of the police and fire departments can do their jobs better. Believe it or not, most of the vehicles they use cannot go in more than 18 inches of water—think ambulances and police cruisers. Less water in the streets also means faster response times. Police and firemen think the same way we do when it rains, “It’s raining pretty hard, I can’t go down Westheimer or Buffalo Speedway. I’ll have to go the long way around.” It might be fine when we take the long way, but not when they do.
For example: the rains we had Monday. Yes, if we get two inches in 15 minutes (which parts of the city did), there is going to be flooding. BUT the normal rains we get are going to flood fewer buildings and drain from your street faster. Many people couldn’t get to work Monday morning, but ReBuild Houston will improve that for about 75 percent of the city.
Houston will have more jobs
Now, down to business. Jobs drive our economy and that’s what world class infrastructure drives — job growth. In addition to the tens of thousands of jobs the construction will create, Houston will be able to attract (and keep) world class companies. Why did Exxon move their headquarters to the Woodlands? To build a campus like I described at the beginning of this piece. Why did Continental move to Chicago? Well, I’m sure there are a bunch of reasons, but our flooding and bad transportation sure didn’t help our cause. That is all going to change.
Imagine everything you love about Houston — minus the traffic, flooding, and ugly, beat-up streets.
Traveling to New York several years ago, as I was leaving my hotel, the bell captain asked me where I was headed.
“Houston,” I replied.
“Oh, the city that floods all the time,” said the captain, without even looking up.
Not anymore. We are laying the groundwork, literally, for a brighter future.