Tag Archive for: Alan Black

Ins and Outs of Texas Flood Infrastructure Funding

Alan Black, P.E., formerly Director of Operations at Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD), is now Vice President at Quiddity Engineering responsible for helping public agencies secure local, state and federal partnership funding. 

While at HCFCD, Black oversaw planning, design and construction of all projects and managed applications to State and Federal agencies for flood-mitigation funding, bringing in more than $1 billion since Hurricane Harvey.  Since leaving HCFCD, Black helps clients understand the labyrinth of funding opportunities and develop a long term, proactive strategy to secure funds. His comments below provide insights into Texas’ multi-year funding process for the Flood Infrastructure Fund (FIF) and how to improve it.

Alan Black, VP at Quiddity Engineering and former Director of Operations at HCFCD

More Projects than Money

Rehak: So, you saw the three billion dollar list of projects that HCFCD submitted to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) for Flood Infrastructure Funding?

Black: Yes. We started developing that when I was still at Flood Control. That list was submitted to the San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group for inclusion in the State Flood Plan. It includes everything on the radar for Flood Control that they would like to be eligible for State funds at some point in the future. The list includes Flood Management Evaluations, Strategies and Projects. 

The labels can be a bit confusing, but Flood Management Projects (FMP’s) include design/construction; Evaluations include engineering studies, and strategies are things like flood warning systems. FMP’s involve the biggest dollars, but it takes a lot of upfront work to get there since TWDB requires a benefit-cost ratio (BCR). 

Calculation of the BCR is no small task, so there aren’t a whole lot of construction projects on the Harris County list; many got relegated to FME’s because the feasibility studies didn’t have enough information yet.

It’s hard pulling together lists like that because of the level of detail required, the short time allotted, and the politics involved. Commissioners’ Court members, for instance, might say, “There aren’t enough projects in my precinct!” 

Importance of Being in Flood Plan

Black: Even though state funding dollars aren’t available at this instant, you want every single project you’re contemplating to be on that list.

These projects will compete for whatever the state appropriates this year. And right now, that could be $400 to $700 million for the whole state depending on which bill you look at.

Houston Stronger has been advocating for $5 billion, but will consider themselves lucky if legislators appropriate $1 billion. 

Rehak: Where did this all this start?

Black: After Harvey, voters approved a constitutional amendment that created the FIF, which the legislators can replenish periodically.

In 2019, the legislature appropriated $770 million out of its economic stabilization fund, – the rainy-day fund – to get things started. 

The legislature is now modifying the flood-infrastructure fund rules so that dollars can only be spent on projects in the state flood plan.Alan Black

Need for More Frequent Plan Updates

Black: The flood plan is to be updated every five years. So, think about that for a second. If in the next five years you want to apply for FIF funding, the only way to be eligible is if you’re already in that plan. 

Many have already urged the San Jacinto regional flood-planning group to establish more frequent updates – say once a year – because HCFCD by itself is constantly developing new initiatives.

Method for Prioritizing Projects is Changing

Rehak: With so many projects, how will they be prioritized? 

Black: For now, look at the first round of applications on the TWDB website under the “flood intended use plan.”  TWDB spelled out the scoring criteria. They received 285 submittals and ranked them using those criteria. Then they invited the top projects to submit final applications that used up the amount of money available.

Rehak: The benefit/cost ratio seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people. Tell me more about that.

Black: Buried in the original plan was a statement that said a benefit/cost ratio greater than one is “generally preferred.” At the time, we interpreted that as a green light. We thought, “Hallelujah! Somebody finally gets it. They’re not going to make go/no-go decisions based purely on a BCR.” 

So, we intentionally submitted several projects with low BCRs because we thought we had a rare opening to get them funded. Unfortunately, TWDB rejected four of our applications – three in State Representative Armando Walle’s district alone – because of their low BCR. 

Possible Change In Benefit/Cost Ratio Requirements

Rehak: Are people trying to change the rules for future funding?

Black: Yes. This session, Senator Creighton filed SB 2524 to prohibit the TWDB from requiring a benefit/cost ratio on applications.

How Memorandum of Understanding Requirements Complicate Projects

Black: Also, currently, TWDB requires “memorandums-of-understanding” (MOU) between jurisdictions for FIF projects. Say one MUD has a project that benefits the entire Cypress Creek watershed. Right now, that MUD must enter into an MOU with every other MUD in the entire watershed!  Senator Creighton’s bill would remove that requirement. 

New Ranking Criteria Not Yet Finalized

Black: To be fair, TWDB has stated they plan to adjust how they award future funding based on lessons learned.  For example, to rank the projects in the State Flood Plan, the TWDB recently published draft ranking criteria and invited public comment.

TWDB has stated they don’t know yet how they will use that, but first and foremost, things will be narrowed down simply by who submits applications. If the state flood plan has 2,000 projects but only 300 submit full applications, that just filtered out 1700.

When New Funding Could Become Available

Rehak: When could we see flood infrastructure funding for projects on Flood Control’s list? 

Alan Black: Fairly quickly, I hope. Fiscal Year 2024 for the state begins September 1, 2023. They’re likely already working on their draft future intended use plan. So ideally, they roll out the application window late this year or early next and start that process. It takes a couple of months to put the applications together, evaluate them, score them, and invite final applications. Actual money maybe starts flowing this time next year.

Benefit of Two-Step Applications

Rehak: Why the two-step process? 

Alan Black: Two steps actually benefit local agencies because of the effort it takes to finish the final application. Abridged initial applications let you invest smaller amounts of time, money and resources. Why make people fill out full applications if TWDB knows it won’t have enough money to cover all of the projects?

Rehak: TWDB offers both loans and grants. Why?

Loans vs. Grants and the Local Funding Requirement

Black: Everybody wants grants because loans have to be paid back, but flood projects don’t generate revenue like water projects do. And the TWDB share of grant funding ends up the opposite of the way the Feds work. The Feds will say, look, you are going to have to have some local skin in the game, but we’ll cover 75% –  80% of the project.

The best grant percentage TWDB gave any Flood Control District project was 35%. All the rest had to come from local funds and they had to be truly local. 

For example, FEMA lets you use HUD Community Development Block Grant funds to offset local match requirements. But TWDB won’t. 

That’s going to greatly impact the number of applications in the future. People will say, “Oh, wait a minute, you’re only going to grant me 20% of my project? Well, I don’t have the other 80%. That’s why I was applying.” I hope they change that. 

Barriers to Cooperation Among Jurisdictions

Rehak: There were many projects in the Region Six San Jacinto flood plan outside Harris County that affect flooding inside Harris County. Is Harris working with other counties? 

Alan Black: The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group represents eleven counties. But the Harris list comes from agencies within Harris boundaries. There was a tremendous outreach effort to other counties and municipalities. But many of them just never put two and two together. When I joined Quiddity, I asked one of our clients why they didn’t submit a project to the state flood plan. They said, “We didn’t even know about it.”

Fortunately, we got their project into the plan. But many smaller agencies just don’t realize the ramifications of not having projects in the plan. Getting their attention will be an uphill battle for several years. 

Rehak: Why isn’t Harris County cooperating more with other counties? 

Black: To be fair, they are somewhat.  But first, there has recently been some reluctance at Commissioners Court to spend Harris dollars outside of the County. 

Second, when Harris projects benefit other areas, we have to enter into an MOU with the adjacent agency or jurisdiction. It’s too complicated. People have other things to do. They have other, higher priorities closer to home. They just don’t have the time or the resources. 

In a perfect world, it would be great if the development of the San Jacinto Regional Flood Plan included every single agency in the region, but getting them all together at the same table at the same time is too big of a lift. 

Flood Infrastructure Funding “Only a Start”

Rehak: Will we ever have enough money to fill all our needs? 

Black: Let’s just say for the sake of argument, the legislature appropriates $400 million. That’s across the whole state. Now, let’s assume they have a $30 billion plan. That $30 billion could easily be spent in Harris County alone and still not meet half the needs.

Pulling together this state flood plan is a great start, but we WILL need other sources of funding.

At Quiddity, I preach being proactive with funding pursuits. Pick the project you want to apply for a grant for in 2 or 3 years and start developing the information now!

Black’s Guiding Principles for Funding Applications

Black: And understand my three guiding principles for funding. 

  • You have to spend some money to make money. 
  • There’s no such thing as free money. 
  • And your project will go slower with federal funds.

Guest Post by Alan Black, VP at Quiddity Engineering on 4/7/23

2077 Days since Hurricane Harvey

New Woodridge Village Detention Basin About 12% Excavated, Engineering Study Almost Done

A new Woodridge Village Stormwater Detention Basin that could almost double detention capacity on the site continues to move forward slowly as housing starts slow. The trend at Woodridge seems consistent with other excavation and removal (E&R) contracts countywide.

Meanwhile, the first draft of a preliminary engineering study for the Woodridge site and Taylor Gully is complete and going through management review at Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD).

Status of E&R Contract on Woodridge Village Site

As of mid-September 2022, Sprint Sand and Clay had removed 57,785 cubic yards of dirt from a planned detention basin on the Woodridge Village property in Montgomery County. Sprint is working under an E&R contract with HCFCD. The contract calls for them to remove up to 500,000 cubic yards at a minimum of 60,000 cubic yards per year or 5,000 per month.

Looking NE across new basin. Last month, it extended as far as the middle of the far pile of concrete pipes on the right.

So the company, which began work in February, has virtually met its first year minimum after eight months. However, the rate has slowed somewhat in recent weeks as housing starts have slowed due to a rise in interest rates. In the last four weeks for which totals are available (8/22/22 – 9/18/22), Sprint has removed only 3,045 cubic yards. To date, that brings the total excavated to 12% of the contract max.

Housing starts in the South have been especially hard hit. According to the Census Bureau, starts in August fell 13.5% compared to July and 15.4% compared to a year ago. That depresses demand for fill dirt and makes it harder for Sprint to find buyers for it.

Under the terms of its HCFCD E&R contract, Sprint gets only $1,000 for removing up to 500,000 cubic yards, but has the right to resell all the dirt at market rates. That’s how it makes its profit.

Woodridge Vs. Countywide Data

To see whether Woodridge was an anomaly or part of a trend countywide, I asked HCFCD to show readers the bigger picture. Alan Black, Deputy Director of Engineering and Construction supplied the data below. The chart shows the trend in all HCFCD E&R contracts countywide going back 10 years.

Source: HCFCD via FOIA Request

All data is open to interpretation. But I see three main “regions” in the chart above.

  • The first is pre-flood bond – before August 2018. With the exception of a few blips, excavation remained below 5,000 cubic yards per month. That’s roughly equal to the average being removed from Woodridge Village each month.
  • The second is a huge spike that occurred after flood-bond approval. it peaked at almost 35,000 cubic yards per month as HCFCD readied engineering studies on more than 180 projects countywide.
  • Third, HCFCD had a sharp falloff at the start of the pandemic in January 2020. After things stabilized, we see a gradual rebuilding. It coincides with a housing boom and is followed by another gradual drop-off. The latter coincides with rising interest rates and falling housing starts.

Regardless, the trend in the last few months does not bode well for those concerned about finishing the new Woodridge Stormwater Detention Basin quickly.

Looking W. The new Woodridge Village stormwater detention basin at the top of the frame could eventually fill most of the area between the road on the left and the ditch on the right.

Status of Preliminary Engineering Study on Taylor Gully

We should remember, however, that HCFCD always intended the Woodridge E&R contract as a head start on excavation while IDCUS finished its preliminary engineering study on Taylor Gully and Woodridge Village. The study began in mid-2021. IDCUS had 300 days to complete it.

IDCUS submitted the first draft of its results several months ago.

Amy Stone, HCFCD spokesperson

Since then, HCFCD staff has reviewed it and asked IDCUS to take a closer look at some areas, said Stone. At this point, the revised draft is working its way up to HCFCD top management for final review and comment. HCFCD has started preparing a presentation for all those affected in the area and exploring the best dates for a community input session.

Assuming HCFCD management doesn’t ask IDCUS for more revisions, we should know recommendations and next steps this fall. Following a public comment period, more changes may need to be made to engineering plans before design and construction start.

Folks who flooded in Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest as well as others farther downstream in Mills Branch and Woodstream Village eagerly await the findings. More news when it becomes available.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/30/2022

1859 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Harris County Creates Trust To Fully Fund Flood Mitigation Projects Without Partner Assistance For At Least Next Six Years

On Tuesday, 6/29/21, Harris County commissioners voted unanimously to shift Harris County Toll Road Authority and other county funds into a trust designed to help bridge potential shortfalls in partnership funding. The amount would be $40 million per year. As a result, construction of Flood Bond Projects can continue without interruption or delay for at least the next six years. If more partnership funding materializes during that time, funds deposited in the trust could help cover non-bond projects farther into the future.

The issue of a potential shortfall in bond funding boiled into headlines back in March. Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis demanded to know where the money would come from to finish construction projects in Halls and Brays Bayou Watersheds if partnership funds did not materialize as planned. He gave Budget Management and the Flood Control District three months to develop a plan for backstop funding.

As of June 2021, HCFCD Needed to Find Additional $951 Million

When considering all flood-bond projects – not just those in Halls and Greens watersheds – the situation looks like this as of the end of June. See explanation of chart below.

As of 6/28/21, without any additional partnership funding, the potential need could be $951 million.

In 2018, voters approved a $2.5 billion flood bond that included $5 billion worth of projects (first column). Part of the $2.5 billion voters approved (third column) was designed to help attract another $2.5 billion in partnership funding. But only $1.25 billion has materialized so far (fourth column). With other transfers already made (fifth, sixth and seventh columns), that leaves a need of $951 million.

Commissioners wanted to know where that money could come from. Especially after HCFCD received nothing in a statewide competition for $1.1 billion in US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hazard mitigation funds. General Land Office Commissioner Bush later requested a direct allocation of $750 million for Harris County, but that could take years – if it comes.

Trust Not a Substitute for Partnership Funding

The county intends to step up the search for partner funding. But if that funding does not materialize, it has also created a Flood Resilience Trust. The Trust would:

  • Backstop the 2018 Bond Program
  • Mitigate risks of increased construction costs
  • Potentially fund future flood risk reduction projects beyond the 2018 Bond Program

The Trust does not eliminate the need for partner funding. If partner funds materialize as hoped, HCFCD can use any excess money in the trust to construct future flood mitigation projects beyond the bond program.

The graphic below shows that $489 million has already been identified and allocated to the trust from various sources. The new element added on Tuesday (column six) includes $343 million in HCTRA funds. With rounding and other funds, that would help create a proposed Flood Resilience trust of $833 million to help cover the $951 need.

$40 Million Transfer Per Year from Toll Road Funds

Approximately $40 million per year would be transferred into the trust (red line in chart below). That should cover any unsecured spending through about 2027. By then, hopefully, HCFCD will have identified more partnership funds.

Commissioners spent a considerable amount of time debating the legality of transferring toll road funds to flood mitigation projects. The consensus: toll road development has impacted flooding in Harris County. Flood Control identified a $15 billion need to mitigate increased stormwater runoff caused by historical development of roadways. So, it should not be hard to find a transportation connection to most flood control projects that would satisfy auditors.

Equity Prioritization Framework Will Apply to Trust

The pie chart below shows the weights that will be given to various factors when deciding which projects to develop first with the additional funds.

Weighting in new prioritization framework

This differs slightly from the original equity prioritization framework. Compare the table below.

Weighting in 2019 Equity Prioritization Framework

They seem substantially similar, but the names of some factors have changed. For instance:

  • “Cost per structure” has replaced “project efficiency.”
  • “Flooding Frequency” has replaced “Existing Conditions/Drainage Level of Service.”
  • “Structures Benefitted” has replaced “Flood Risk Reduction.”

Cost per structure is not home value. It is the cost of the project divided by the number of homes benefitted.

“Structures Benefitted” counts the number of structures only, not the the value of those structures.

Thus, this factor gives more weight to densely developed urban areas.

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia have complained bitterly and repeatedly that FEMA Benefit/Cost Ratios for flood mitigation projects include a weighting factor for home value that theoretically gives higher preference to affluent neighborhoods. But that’s only one of many factors that FEMA considers.

This report from William & Mary’s law school explains that “impoverished communities may receive a Federal cost share of up to 90 percent of the total amount approved under the Federal award to implement eligible approved activities in accordance with the Stafford Act, but these communities must meet stringent criteria to receive funding.”

Regardless, I see no weight given to more valuable homes in Harris County’s prioritization guidelines. In fact, the density factor and social vulnerability combine for 45% of a project’s total score.

The biggest problem with this framework is that it doesn’t differentiate between street flooding and bayou flooding. Additional flood control projects for the bayous may not help homes that flood due to water collecting in streets.

For More Information

Here’s the full presentation made by the Flood Control District’s new acting director, Alan Black. And here’s a high-level summary prepared by the Harris County Budget Management Department.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/1/2021 based on information provided by Harris County Flood Control and Budget Management departments

1402 Days after Hurricane Harvey