By Gilbert Hoffman
HIGHLANDS Harris Countys chief executive, Judge Ed Emmett, spoke to a full house of Rotarians, guests and interested citizens last week at the regular luncheon of the club. About 45 persons filled the room, to hear about county government concerns.
Emmett started by reminding everyone “I’m not a judge,” the title a misnomer, because he is really the countys chief executive instead.
Emmett was speaking on familiar ground, since he was the state representative for East Harris County, including Highlands, starting in 1978 until the 1980 census caused redistricting. He remained a state legislator for the area, however, until 1986, so he is very familiar with citizens needs. Now he is in charge of a county of 4 million persons, the third largest in the United States, he said. It is more urban than rural, unlike many Texas counties, and is growing fast in the suburbs and especially to the east. One reason for this expansion is the toll road system.
Emmett said that the countys Office of Emergency Management has become an expert on how to handle hurricanes, after Katrina, Rita, and Ike. Although the response was not perfect, Emmett said they learned a lot, and are in good shape to handle the next hurricane. One thing they learned was that neighbors helping each other was the best quick response. Also, the PODs or points of distribution for relief supplies should be located near refuge areas, not in the middle of disaster areas, to facilitate movement to them. Also, fuel supply locations should be announced for next day, not current areas, to avoid traffic jams.
Emmett did not think 2012 would have any disastrous hurricanes for the Gulf Coast, based on his information from meteorologists.
Emmett said that he is not ready to make a decision on the fate of the Astrodome, and especially since he realizes its significance to many people. A quick poll at the luncheon indicated about 50% wanted to save it, 50% thought it could be torn down.
Ideas for saving the dome are many, he said, including a recent one to combine a new AstroArena with a refurbished Astrodome. However, even this scheme would cost about $400 million, necessitating a tax increase, which may not be acceptable to the taxpaying public. He mentioned that there is one other solution, but also controversial, and that is building a Casino inside the dome. This is actually not legal currently, and would require the state legislature to authorize a casino, not a likely scenario.
Emmetts area of most interest throughout his career has been transportation, and he is currently involved with railroads, highways, and shipping decisions related to Harris County.
He feels that the toll road system is very beneficial to growth and mobility, and the HCTRA made a wise decision not to pay off their bonds, so that more funds are now available to expand the system. He pointed out that the managed lanes on several freeways are about to start, and you will be able to use the HOV lanes by paying a fee.
Railroads in the area are vital to our growth, and to keep commerce working, he said. Light Rail will be better when it is a complete system, and it remains to be seen whether the problems on Richmond and the Post Oak spur can be resolved, perhaps by a redesign. Emmett thought that it might be too costly to build an alternate route, with a potential lower ridership.
Commuter rail will happen soon, he said, with the first line probably on the Hempstead/US290 corridor. However, one drawback at present is the connection at the south end of the line, because it doesnt finish in the downtown area. This remains to be resolved, he thinks, before it can really be successful. He said private firms, especially a Japanese one, are planning to invest in a Houston-Dallas high speed rail service, but this may be a few years away.
“Our transportation decisions must plan for 30 to 40 years from now,” he said, with thoughts of seaports and airports in mind, as well as highways.
His talk turned to the Port of Houston, and in particular the Bayport terminal. He said that the port is the “economic engine” that drives the region, noting that contrary to common thinking, we actually export more goods than we import at this port. Then he mentioned that we should partner with Freeport for many types of ships, because it is a better deep water port for future giant ships, closer to the coast and with less dredging required for deep water.
He predicted that the $100 million Cruise Terminal at Bayport will eventually be used, but admitted it was not a good decision when built.
In a surprise statement, Emmett said that our future post business will come from Brazil, Africa, and India, not China or the Panama Canal expansion, because it is still cheaper and faster for Pacific countries to unload on our west coast.
Emmett praised Rotary for the work that they have done worldwide with immunization, relating some personal experiences that made him admire our Polio Plus program.