Mobility and traffic management are critical to the vitality of the region. A new report from the Kinder Institute details how a myriad of agencies fragment highway enforcement in Harris County including, the county sheriff, five constables, 17 smaller cities, Metro Police and the Houston Police Department—25 total agencies patrol the pieces of the area’s major highways.
The report presents highway enforcement as an opportunity to consolidate functions across agencies with the goal to eliminate administrative costs with no substantive impact to the quality of service provision. The report finds the fragmented enforcement of highways can lead to regular patrol officers being pulled from their normal beats, on top of complicating enforcement to regular commuters. Streamlining the service would undoubtedly improve mobility in the region.
The figure below shows the complicated picture as it stands today. Currently, the sheriff’s office patrols all non-tollways within Harris County, outside of incorporated cities. The Houston Police Department patrols all non-tollways within its city limits. Similarly, smaller cities patrol all non-tollways within their city limits. Five constable offices patrol pieces of the tollways via contractual arrangements with the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) --- separate from the contentious contract deputy program. Metro Police is responsible for enforcement on High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that extend beyond the county limits. Finally, there is the Texas State Highway Patrol, which operates statewide, primarily on rural highways.
The report offers several options to improve highway enforcement and reduce the number of agencies involved. The sheriff’s office could take over all non-city highways including tollways, moving the five constable offices to shift resources within their districts. This would allow a single division to specialize on highway enforcement outside of cities and would be politically feasible since the constables, HCTRA, and the sheriff are all part of the same county government.
Concurrently or separately, the Houston Police Department and the sheriff could take over enforcement of HOV lanes from Metro as the lanes are contiguous with the roads the sheriff and HPD already enforce. The figure below shows how these options streamline enforcement in the region’s highway system.
Consolidating highway enforcement could be extended beyond law enforcement to the multiple tow and motorist assistance programs. Currently, outside of the City of Houston and tollways the Motorist Assistance Program, jointly operated by Metro and the sheriff, responds to minor vehicle issues and engine problems. Inside of the City of Houston and outside of tollways, the Tow and Go program offers towing services at no cost to motorists. On tollways HCTRA operates its own Roadside Assistance program at no cost to drivers. Consolidating these systems and ensuring they serve all of Harris County creates economies of scale, streamlines service and eliminates administrative costs across organizations accomplishing the same function.
The report, of course, does not advocate for any one of these options, nor does the universe of options end with these, rather, it highlights a clear opportunity to improve our law enforcement services and improve mobility in the region.