3 Ways to Explore
Essential Houston
Once you’ve settled in to your new home, you’ll want to learn more about Houston and the region, including population and climate information, local government structure, a Houston historical timeline and essentials like police, fire and Houston Public Library information. You’ll also find information about obtaining a driver’s license, registering your vehicle and getting around in the region, whether it’s in your car, via mass transit or light rail. You’ll feel like a local in record time!

An attitude of “can do” among Houstonians ensures that the region remains open to opportunity and big ideas. A few examples are the creation of the Port of Houston in 1914; the Johnson Space Center, now celebrating 50 years and where space flight became a reality; the Texas Medical Center, recognized as the world’s largest medical center; home of the Astrodome, which when it was built, became the eighth wonder of the world; and a community that supports one of the largest cultural districts in the U.S.

Looking back at Houston’s history, the credit for the region’s entrepreneurial spirit lies squarely with its founders, two real estate brokers named John and Augustus Allen, who purchased 6,642 acres of land near Buffalo Bayou for $1.40 per acre to develop the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.” Their dream has evolved into the fourth most populous city in the nation, one that supports a $416.6 billion Gross Area Product. If the Houston region were an independent nation, its economy would rank 30th in the world, ahead of Belgium, Malaysia, Venezuela, Sweden and Greece.

According to the U.S. Census, Houston’s population is 2.2 million and is among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. The area grew 25.2 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censuses – adding more than 950,000 people – while the nation’s population increased 13.2 percent over the same period. From 2000 to 2007, the area grew by 912,994 people. From 2000 to 2030, the metropolitan area is projected by Woods & Poole Economics to rank fifth in the nation in population.
Houston is part of a 10-county region consisting of Harris County, the nation’s third-most populous, and nine other counties including Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, Montgomery, San Jacinto and Waller. Based on the 2008 U.S. Census estimate, Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown is the sixth-largest metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the U.S. with a population of 5.7 million. Within the MSA, Houston is the center of economic and cultural activity.

Houston is located in the state of Texas and encompasses 640 square miles. The Houston MSA covers more than 10,000 square miles and is almost the midpoint between the nation’s two coasts, making it is an excellent distribution point for businesses.

The region represents a wide range of vegetation, from the piney woods of The Woodlands and Lake Conroe to the north to the prairie grasslands of Katy to the west to the sandy, coastal environment of Galveston and Clear Lake to the south. The official altitude of the city of Houston is 49 feet; elevations in the MSA range from sea level to 460 feet.

Nicknamed the “Bayou” city, Houston is known for its intricate system of bayous that run through the city and serve as part of Houston’s extensive drainage system. While they may be considered vital to the drainage of Houston’s relatively flat landscape, in many areas these bayous create a dramatic and beautiful backdrop for homes and businesses. The non-profit group Buffalo Bayou has gained local support for a 20-year master plan, Buffalo Bayou and Beyond, three miles of trails east of downtown, Sesquicentennial Park, the North Side Trail and the purchase of over 35 acres of land in the East End for park lands.

Practically all year long, the area’s residents can enjoy an outdoor lifestyle. Houston averages only 18 days per year with temperatures of 32oF or less and 99.6 days with high temperatures of 90oF or more. Temperatures rarely reach 100oF. Houston’s growing season averages 300 days. The normal frost-free period extends from Feb. 14 to Dec. 11.

Houston has had only 14 measurable snowfalls since 1939. A statistically average year contains 90.3 “clear” days, concentrated in October and November; 114.5 “partly cloudy” days, typical of June through September; and 160.3 “cloudy” days, common in December through May. Prevailing wind in Houston is south-southeasterly at a mean speed of 7.7 mph.

Traditionally, the wettest month is June, with an average of 5.35 inches, and July ranks as the sunniest month. Under these conditions, many are able to enjoy outdoor recreation and sports. When the weather gets warmer, residents appreciate the ubiquity of air conditioning.

Government Structure
Houston has a Mayor-Council form of government. The city's elected officials, serving concurrent two year terms, are: the Mayor, the City Controller and the 14 members of City Council. The City Charter provides the constitutional framework within which city government operates. The city's Code of Ordinances contains the laws of the city.

In Houston, the city government’s 23,000 employees are spread throughout 500 buildings, but the core of local government is still located in the downtown Civic Centre and City Hall. The Mayor serves as the Executive Officer of the city. As the city's chief administrator and official representative, the Mayor is responsible for the general management of the city and for ensuring that all laws and ordinances are enforced. The ground floor of City Hall houses the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and its Visitors Center. For more on city government, visit www.houstontx.gov.

The Mayor serves as the Executive Officer of the city. As the city's chief administrator and official representative, the Mayor is responsible for the general management of the city and for seeing that all laws and ordinances are enforced. Administrative duties include the appointments, with Council approval, of department heads and persons serving on advisory boards. As Executive Officer, the Mayor administers oaths and signs all motions, resolutions and ordinances passed by City Council. The Mayor also serves a legislative function, presiding over City Council with voting privileges. The Mayor is responsible for advising Council of the city's financial condition and presents to Council and annual budget for approval. Annise Parker is the current Mayor of Houston.

City Controller
The City Controller serves as the city's chief financial officer. The Office of the City Controller certifies the availability of funds prior to City Council approval of city commitments, processes and monitors disbursements exceeding one billion dollars annually, invests the city's funds, conducts internal audits of the city's departments and federal grant programs, operates and maintains its financial management system, conducts the sale of public improvement and revenue bonds and produces a comprehensive annual report of city finances.

City Council
The City Council is the city's legislative body, with the power to enact and enforce all ordinances and resolutions. Nine Council Members are elected from districts and five are elected at-large, by all voters of the city. The fourteen members of Council, along with the Mayor, act only by ordinance, resolution or motion. They adopt and may alter the annual budget and confirm the Mayor's appointments. Council is responsible for the appropriation and issuance of bonds, the awarding of contracts and the approval of city expenditures over $15,000. Council may lease or dispose of the city's real estate and may levy assessments against property. Council determines its own rules of procedure, and its meetings are open to the public.

Member of Houston City COuncil
Fourteen Council Members are elected every two years, in odd-numbered years. Council Members are limited to serving three terms of two years each, with each term beginning on January 2 of the even-numbered year. Five Council Members are elected At-Large, or city-wide, while the other nine are elected to geographic districts of roughly the same proportion of population. According to the City Charter, once the population of the city of Houston exceeds 2.1 million, expected for the 2010 census, two more geographic council districts will be added.

You can write to your Council Member at: 900 Bagby, City Hall Annex, First Floor, Houston, TX 77002.

County Government
County government structure is described in the Texas Constitution, which makes counties functional agents of the state. Thus, counties, unlike cities, are limited in their actions to areas of responsibility specifically spelled out in laws passed by the Legislature. For more information about Harris County, visit www.co.harris.tx.us.

At the heart of each county is the commissioner’s court. Each Texas county has four precinct commissioners and a county judge who serve on this court. Although this body conducts the general business of the county and oversees financial matters, the Texas Consitution established a strong system of checks and balances by creating other elective offices in each county. The major elective offices found in most counties include county attorneys, county and district clerks, county treasurers, sheriffs, tax assessor-collectors, justices of the peace and constables. As a part of the checks and balances system, counties have an auditor appointed by the district courts.

While many county functions are administered by elected officials, others are run by individuals employed by the commissioner’s court. They include such departments as public health and human services, personnel and budget, and in some counties, public transportation and emergency medical services.

  • County Civil Courts at Law
  • County Criminal Courts at Law
  • Courts of Appeal
  • District Civil Courts
  • District Criminal Courts
  • District Family Courts
  • District Juvenile Courts
  • Justice of the Peace Courts
  • Probate Courts

Texas – The State of Texas joined the United States in 1845 as the 28th state. With the state capital in Austin, the state government has executive, legislative and judicial branches. The Texas legislature has two houses that meet once in odd-numbered years and as needed in special sessions called by the governor. Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, while members of the Senate serve four-year terms. To learn more about the Texas House of Representatives, including who your local representatives are, visit www.house.state.tx.us.

The Texas judicial system operates under the Supreme Court and the State Court of Criminal Appeals. Judges are elected to the State’s 411 district courts.

Registering to Vote in Texas
To be eligible to register to vote in Texas, any U.S. citizen residing in Texas must meet these requirements:
  • Be at least 18 years old on election day
  • Not be a convicted felon (unless sentence, probation and/or parole are completed)
  • Not be declared mentally incapacitated by a court of law

In most Texas counties, the Tax Assessor-Collector is also the Voter Registrar. In some counties, the County Clerk or Elections Administrator registers voters. You may obtain an application from the county Voter Registrar’s office, the Secretary of State’s Office, libraries, many post offices or high schools. You can also visit sos.state.tx.us/elections where you can request an official, postage-paid application. Or, you can download an informal application that will need a stamp before mailing. You can also register to vote when you apply for or renew your driver’s license.

Property Taxes

While there is no personal income tax in Texas, there are property taxes, also called ad valorem taxes, which are locally assessed. Your county appraisal district appraises property located in the county, while local taxing units set tax rates and collect property taxes based on those values. Property taxes provide more tax dollars for local services in Texas than any other source – they help pay for public schools, city streets, county roads, police, fire protection and many other services.

In Houston, the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar collect, record and disburse property taxes. The Tax Office maintains approximately 1.44 million tax accounts and collects property taxes for more than 60 taxing entities, including Harris County. For the 2010 tax year, the Tax Office expects to collect taxes on $266 billion worth of property.

Sales and use Tax
State sales and use tax is imposed on all retail sales, leases and rentals of most goods, as well as taxable services. Texas cities, counties, transit authorities and special purpose districts have the option of imposing an additional local sales tax for a combined total of state and local taxes of 8.25 percent. In Harris County, the sales rate is 8.25 percent, but the rate can vary in different areas. To find out the tax rate for a specific area, visit www.window.state.tx.us and click on Texas Taxes.

Pet Licensing
The state of Texas requires that dogs and cats be vaccinated against rabies by 4 months of age and on a 1-year or 3-year basis thereafter depending on the vaccine used. Additionally, when traveling with a dog or cat, have in your possession a rabies vaccination certificate that was signed by a veterinarian. Check with your veterinarian about other vaccines that are available for a wide range of diseases.

All dogs and cats over 3 months of age that are being transported into Texas must have been vaccinated against rabies within the last 12 or 36 months depending on the vaccine used.

In Houston, the Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care (BARC) enforces city ordinances that encourage annual rabies vaccination and licensing of pets and requires that all dogs are confined in a yard or on a leash. BARC investigates animal bites and encourages spaying/neutering to control the unwanted animal population. The kennel is open to the public 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. (houstontx.gov/health/BARC)

In Houston, cats and dogs must be licensed. City license tags cost $10 if the animal has been spayed or neutered. If the pet owner is more than 65 years old, the first-year fee is $5. Tags cost $50 for animals that have not been spayed or neutered. Any veterinarian can vaccinate animals and provide license tags. Licenses must be renewed annually. For more information, call 713-229-7300.

Annual vaccinations can prevent several fatal animal diseases such as distemper and parvovirus in dogs and upper respiratory viruses and feline leukemia in cats. Dogs also are susceptible to heartworms, a disease carried by mosquitoes. All dogs should be tested and then given daily or monthly heartworm tablets.

Houston has a “pooper scooper” ordinance that makes it illegal to be out in public with your pet without carrying a pooper scooper, plastic bag or some other kind of disposal device. Violation of this section is punishable upon conviction by a fine of not less than $75 or more than $500. Each violation of this section is a separate offense. For more information, visit www.houstontx.gov/health/quicktips/scooperlaw.html.

If you have an exotic animal, need general information or need details for such issues as dog kenneling and horse restrictions, contact the City of Houston Animal Control at 713-238-9600. For Harris County, call Animal Control at 281-999-3191.

Liquor Laws

In Texas, 21 years old is the minimum age to buy or consume liquor. You can buy alcoholic beverages in a liquor store Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; liquor stores are closed on Sunday. There are no sales of liquor on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving Day. In the event that Christmas Day or New Year’s Day is on a Sunday, stores are closed the following Monday. Beer and wine can be sold in supermarkets and convenience stores from 7 a.m. to midnight on Monday through Friday, on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. and on Sunday from noon until midnight.

Alcoholic beverages may be served in restaurants and bars from 7 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday. A late hours permit/license is available in certain areas that can extend the purchase of alcohol until 2 a.m. On Sunday, alcohol can be served with food service or at a “sporting venue” starting at 10 a.m. until midnight. Other permits may start at noon and serve till 2 a.m. with a late hours permit.

Texas also has a zero tolerance law regarding the consumption of alcohol while driving, and driving while intoxicated (DWI) laws are strictly enforced by Texas police officers. The legal limit for intoxication in Texas is .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC), however, drivers can be stopped and cited for impaired driving due to alcohol or other drugs regardless of BAC. A first offense carries up to a $2,000 fine, 72 hours to 180 days in jail and driver’s license suspension of 90 days to one year. For drivers under 21, a first offense carries a 30-day driver’s license suspension, up to a $500 fine, eight to 12 hours of community service and mandatory attendance in alcohol-awareness classes.

Various counties, including Harris, are partially wet meaning the sale of alcoholic beverages have restrictions. Some prohibit off-premises sale, some prohibit on-premises sale, and some prohibit both. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code (TABC) holds elections several times a year to determine wet/dry areas. Although the laws regulating the alcoholic beverage industry are consistent statewide, the TABC allows local determination of the types of alcoholic beverages which may be sold and how they can be sold by means of local option elections. Elections can be held by counties, cities or individual justice of the peace precincts.

Houston Police Department
The Houston Police Department (HPD) has been keeping Houstonians safe since 1841. HPD is headquartered downtown with community substations and store fronts throughout the city. With more than 5,000 police officers, HPD works daily to keep Houstonians safe. It is not unusual in Houston to see a police officer riding a horse through downtown during the day. HPD maintains a workforce that is trained in a variety of safety strategies, ranging from a dive team to a K-9 unit to a bike patrol.

“Keep Houston SAFE” is a citywide public safety campaign that involves a collaborative partnership between citizens, businesses and the Houston Police Department. The main focus of the campaign is crime prevention and the implementation of proactive enforcement efforts and measures aimed at the reduction of criminal incidents, rather than responding to them after they have occurred.

At the HPD’s Web site www.houstontx.gov/police/keep_houston_safe, users can find out about crime prevention tips, such as
  • A Parent’s Guide to Child Safety
  • Back to School Safety
  • Burglary Prevention for Your Home
  • Burglary Prevention for Your Vehicle
  • Child Car Safety Seats
  • Cyber Safety

This is just a sample of the topics available.

Community programs include Citizen Patrol, Police Volunteer Initiatives and Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.
The police department also works with the community to reduce crime. Programs such as Crime Stoppers, Neighborhood Watch and the Positive Interaction Program all work to help the city minimize crime. Also on HPD’s main homepage, you’ll find links for current crime statistics, a map of police stations and neighborhood storefronts and alarm permits. (houstontx.gov/police).

Houston Fire Department
The Houston Fire Department was established in 1838 with one station, Protection Company No. 1. It grew to a volunteer fire department status with three stations by 1859. After having provided volunteer firefighting services for 57 years, the City of Houston Fire Department began paying its firefighters in 1895. HFD is the fourth largest fire department in the United States and is responsible for preserving life and property to a population of more than 2 million in an area totaling 617 square miles. As of January 2008, the HFD has 3,814 classified members (firefighters) and 435 non-classified members (non-firefighters). The 2008 budget is $387.8 million. 

Today's modern fire service is presently undergoing a transitional process. Over the last few years, HFD has evolved into a highly sophisticated public safety rescue system that has saved hundreds of lives and reduced the severity of countless injuries and illnesses. The Houston Fire Department has a vision that guides the organization towards excellence. That goal is achieved through deliberate planning, adaptability and the courage to embrace challenges and opportunities.

For additional information and/or to contact the HFD Public Education Division, call 713-865-7120 or visit the Fire Department Web page at www.houstonfire.com for a list of Fire Department Educational Programs and more.

Harris County Sherrif’s Department
The Harris County Sheriff’s Department operates in the unincorporated portions of the county to ensure public safety. In addition to numerous other duties, the sheriff’s department operates four jails and a detective unit and offers community programs such as Child Passenger Safety Inspections, Vacation Watch and Rape Aggression Defense.

Student safety is a top priority, so in addition to traditional police departments, many independent school districts maintain a police department. School districts without a police department work closely with local police to create specific programs designed to fit their students’ needs. For more information regarding police departments within school districts, parents can contact school districts directly.

Driving and Registering Your Vehicle
Once you’ve set up residency in the Houston area and have a local address, one of your first stops will be to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to apply for a Texas Driver’s License and to register your vehicle.

Texas Driver’s License
According to the Department of Public Safety, new residents are required to get a Texas driver’s license within 90 days of moving to Texas. New residents with a valid out-of-state driver’s license and who own a vehicle and would like to obtain a Texas driver’s license will need to provide proof of Texas registration, proof of liability insurance, a Social Security number and an out-of-state license. The only examination required is the vision test.

If the out-of-state license has expired, a new resident will have to take a written and a driving examination as well as the vision test. Those who do not own a vehicle will not have to show proof of insurance but will be required to complete an affidavit of non-ownership. At the time of application, new residents will be required to surrender their valid or expired out-of-state driver’s license. The fee for an original driver’s license for people over 18 is $24, and it expires in six years.  For a full list of fees, visit the Web site at www.txdps.state.tx.us/administration/driver_licensing_control/dlfees.htm.

All original applicants for a driver’s license or an identification certificate must present proof of identity satisfactory to the Department of Public Safety, as well as take written, driving and vision tests. For information about documents that may be presented as acceptable proof of identity, go to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Web site www.texasonline.com.

A beginning driver –15 years of age or older – can apply for an instruction permit, which enables the holder of the permit to drive with a licensed driver who is 18 years of age or older in the front seat. To obtain a permit, one must pass the written portion of the driving test.
In addition to the items listed above, applicants under the age of 18 applying for a first-time Texas driver license and presenting either a valid out-of-state instruction permit or driver license must present proof of completion of driver education and verification of current enrollment and attendance in school (or high school diploma or GED).

A new rule placed into effect March 1, 2010, states that driver license applicants between the ages of 18 and 24 must complete an approved driver education course and a driving skills test to become a licensed driver in Texas. Applicants must submit a certificate proving that they successfully completed a driver education course approved by the Texas Education Agency under Sections 1001.101 (a) (1), 1001.101 (a) (2), or 1001.1015, Texas Education Code.

In 2000, Texas passed a new regulation, which requires that first-time foreign applicants must prove legal U.S. residency before obtaining a Texas driver’s license.

Call the Texas Department of Public Safety Driver’s License Office in Houston at 713-681-6187 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday for information on locations and to obtain a booklet on Texas driving regulations. Bureaus are located throughout the area.

Auto Registration/Tags
According to the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Motor Vehicles, new Texas residents are required to do the following within 30 days of moving to Texas: get a vehicle inspection; and register and title their vehicle. New residents must have their vehicles pass inspection before having it registered and titled. After having it inspected, owners should take the following to their county tax office:
  • inspection certification,
  • proof of liability insurance,
  • the vehicle’s odometer reading if it is less than 10 years old,
  • an original out-of-state title, proof of registration, proof of sales tax payment or current foreign/military ownership document,
  • completed Form VTR 130-U, and
  • the following fees:
    • registration fee,
    • title application fee of $28 or $33, depending on the county, and
    • new resident tax of $90.

Members of the U.S. Armed Forces and nonresident students attending accredited Texas schools on a full-time basis are not considered state residents.

Fees for registration and certificate of title, which must be paid in cash, can include registration (front and back license plates), title application, use tax and a new resident fee.

Other fees might include the safety inspection of your vehicle (varies with year and model), any needed repairs and any notary fees. The newcomer’s county tax assessor will have the most recent information. Registration and license tags also must be renewed every 12 months. Texas residents can renew registration and tags by mail, in person or online. For more information about fees, visit the Web site at ftp://ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/vtr/fees/fee_chart_1c.pdf.

Every 12 months, all Texas automobiles must undergo a safety inspection. New automobiles have a sticker that is effective for the first two years, after which the automobile must be inspected every 12 months. State-regulated inspection stations carry a designation as such and can include dealerships, garages or auto service centers. A vehicle that passes inspection will be issued a sticker that must be displayed in the lower left-hand corner of the front windshield.

Seat Belts and Child Safety
In Texas, the law requires drivers and front-seat passengers in all vehicles to be secured by a safety belt. Children under 17 years old must be secured with a safety belt or in a child safety seat, whether they are sitting in the front or back seat. A child less than 8 years old and less than 57 inches tall must ride in a child safety or booster seat. A safety belt violation can result in fines ranging from $25 to $250, plus court costs.

— Safety Seat Guidelines
Safety belts are designed for adults, not children. Use a booster seat to lift your child up and prevent severe injuries in a crash. If necessary, view an informational video about the proper use of child safety seats or call Safe Riders at 800-252-8255.

Follow these guidelines when buying the proper seat for your child:

Birth-1 Year, Up to 35 Pounds
  • Use a rear-facing seat until your baby reaches the weight limit or height limit of the seat.
  • Secure the chest clip even with your baby’s armpits.
  • Fasten harness straps snugly against your baby’s body.
1-4 Years, 20 to 40 Pounds
  • Use a forward-facing seat for as long as the safety seat manufacturer recommends it.
  • Fasten harness straps snugly against your child’s body.
  • Secure the chest clip even with your child’s armpits.
  • Latch the tether strap to the corresponding anchor if your vehicle has one.
4-8 Years, Over 40 Pounds
  • Use a booster seat.
  • Fasten the lap belt across your child’s thighs and hips, not stomach.
  • Strap the diagonal belt across the chest to rest on the shoulder, not the neck.

For information about child safety seats, call Safe Riders at 800-252-8255.

Use of Cell Phones
All types of cell phone usage are allowed if you have a driver’s license with full privileges. However, novice drivers in the beginning and intermediate phases of the graduated learning process cannot use cell phones while behind the wheel. Also, school bus drivers must avoid cell phone use while passengers are aboard. A tentative state law (currently in effect in select cities) prohibits talking on a handheld cell phone while driving in an active school zone.

Houston Highway System

The Houston region offers one of the Southwest’s most extensive freeway and toll road systems. In the Houston region, 739 miles of and expressways are available – 61 percent of the planned 1,217-mile freeway/expressway system. For starters, Houston has more miles of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes than any other city in the nation. HOV lanes are only one piece of the puzzle. In the past several years, billions of dollars have been spent to build or improve toll roads, arterial streets and transit ways and to rebuild and widen every major freeway in Houston. Six freeway corridors contain HOV lanes. The region’s HOV system covers 112.9 lane miles.

Houston is the crossroads for Interstates 10 and 45. Other major highways serving Houston are Loop 610, U.S. 59, U.S. 290, U.S. 90, Texas 288, Texas 225, Hardy Toll Road, Sam Houston Tollway and the Grand Parkway (Texas 99).

Houston also lies along the route of the proposed I-69 NAFTA superhighway that will link Canada, the U.S. industrial mid-west, Texas and Mexico.

Toll Roads
Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) is a division of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department and oversees three toll roads designed to increase mobility. Harris County voters created HCTRA through a bond referendum in 1983, authorizing up to $900 million in general obligation bonds. Once the bonds are retired, the roads will become part of the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation. The Harris County Toll Road system covers approximately 103 miles of roadway in the Houston / Harris County area. There are currently three major toll roads. For information about using the toll roads, other links and and buying an EZ TAG, visit www.hctra.org/about_links.

— Sam Houston Tollway
Beltway 8, the Sam Houston Parkway, along with the Sam Houston Tollway, is a beltway around the city of Houston, lying entirely within Harris County. Beltway 8, a state highway, runs mostly along the frontage roads, only using the main lanes where they are free (mostly on the north side of Houston). The main lanes elsewhere are the Sam Houston Tollway, a toll road owned and operated by the Harris County Toll Road Authority. East of Houston, the Tollway crosses the Houston Ship Channel on the Jesse H. Jones Memorial Bridge, a toll bridge; this forms a gap in Beltway 8 between Interstate Highway 10 (Baytown-East Freeway) and State Highway 225 (La Porte Freeway).

— Westpark Tollway
Opened in 2004, the Westpark Tollway spans a total of 19 miles through Harris and Fort Bend Counties. The Westpark Tollway was the nation's first all-electronic roadway providing a barrier-free drive between Houston's Galleria district and Katy, Texas. Drivers must have an EZ TAG to use the Westpark Tollway.

Harris County's segment of the Westpark Tollway (14 miles) begins at I-610 on the east and extends to the county line near FM 1464. The Westpark offers an alternative east-west corridor for West Houston residents with access to US 59 and the Galleria, the Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 8) and The Grand Parkway.

In 2005, Fort Bend County completed its extension of the tollway. This five-mile stretch parallels FM 1093 from FM 1464 to west of the Grand Parkway.

— Hardy Toll Road
The Hardy Toll Road runs from Interstate 45, north of Houston just below the Harris County line, to Interstate 610, near central Houston. The road generally parallels Interstate 45. The portion from I-610 to Crosstimbers Road is known as Spur 548, although it displays no signage. Construction on the toll road started in September 1984 and the entire road was complete by June 1988. The toll road runs 21.6 miles and costs $3 to drive its full length ($1.50 north of Beltway 8 and $1.50 south of Beltway 8). A four-mile connecting road to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport requires $1.00 toll. At each toll plaza, a 25 cent discount applies to electronic EZ TAG users. The road is named for nearby Hardy Street, which in some areas makes up the frontage roads for the toll road.

Rail Systems
Two major rail systems – Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific – operate 14 mainline tracks radiating from Houston. The Port Terminal Railroad Association, a switching line, serves the industrial area plus the Port of Houston. AMTRAK (amtrak.com) provides passenger service on the Sunset Limited, which serves the Orlando-Houston-Los Angeles route. Since Hurricane Katrina, service from New Orleans to Orlando has been suspended until the lines can be repaired.

Houston TranStar
TxDOT, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), the City of Houston and Harris County jointly operate Houston TranStar, a coordinated traffic management system. It also is responsible for coordinating the planning, design, operations and maintenance of the transportation and emergency functions in the Houston region.

Houston TranStar’s Transportation and Emergency Management Center utilizes high-tech components and multiagency specialists and includes a transportation control room, communications, telephone switch room and the region’s emergency operations center. TranStar also gathers and distributes traffic information and efficiently manages freeways. The system uses computerized traffic signals, dynamic message signs, telephones, advanced radio technology and computers. Visit houstontranstar.org to view a real-time traffic map and to learn about any lane closures.

Public Transit/METRO

METRO opened for business in January 1979 and services the cities of Houston, Bellaire, Bunker Hill Village, El Lago, Hedwig Village, Hilshire Village, Humble, Hunters Creek, Katy, Missouri City, Piney Point, Southside Place, Spring Valley, Taylor Lake Village and West University Place. Major portions of unincorporated Harris County are also included.

— Bus Service
With a fleet of 1,211 buses, METRO operates an extensive network of bus routes and convenient Park & Ride facilities helping to ease rush hour commutes. It’s also paving the way for a cleaner Houston with 34 transit diesel-hybrid buses currently in operation with plans to add 52 commuter buses, as well as 48 additional transit buses and 10 Signature Service buses, which will be placed in service this year.

2004 marked the introduction of the METRORail Red Line, a 7.5-mile light rail service running from the University of Houston-Downtown to south of Reliant Park along the streets of Main, Fannin and San Jacinto. There are 16 conveniently located stations with a total of 18 vehicles that provide access to many of the city’s major employment, cultural/ entertainment, education and medical centers. Major METRORail destinations include downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park/Houston Zoo, Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park.

— HOV Lanes
High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes are open to buses, vanpools/carpools and motorcycles. The lanes, which are accessed via freeway or facility ramps, are reversible to accommodate commuters during peak periods of traffic flow. Users must observe the occupancy requirements, rules of the road and hours of operation. Freeways that utilize HOV lanes include the Northwest, Gulf, North, Eastex and Southwest freeways.

— Park & Ride Lots
METRO operates 28 Park & Ride lots with about 33,300 available parking spaces. Direct nonstop service to downtown, the Texas Medical Center or other major employment centers in the METRO service area is available from all Park & Ride lots and local service. Park & Ride facilities also serve as staging areas for vanpools and carpools.

— Transit Centers
Transit centers are sheltered waiting areas located where several bus routes and/or METRORail converge. METRO’s 19 transit centers serve as efficient “hubs” to allow bus and/or METRORail riders from various locations to assemble at a central point to take advantage of express trips or other route-to-route transfers.

METRO provides a variety of information and services to area employers and employees, such as commuter tax benefit information, organizing vanpools/carpools, computerized ride matching, origin/destination mapping and on-site events. Employer and commuter services include:

RideSponsor helps area companies and groups encourage employees and members to ride METRO as a way to relieve demand for parking and improve air quality. For information, call 713-652-4311.

provides RideShare-matching services for commuters to form vanpools and carpools anywhere in the eight-county region. METRO’s network of HOV lanes is used to bypass congestion and allow commuters to get to work or home faster. For information about RideShare, call 713-224-7433.

is a service for a group of at least seven people willing to leave behind their cars and ride together and is ideal for those who live or work where METRO bus service is not available. Vanpooling helps save on daily travel expenses such as parking and the wear and tear on personal vehicles. Vanpools that begin or end anywhere in the eight-county region are eligible for the $35 per rider incentives per month. For more information, call 713-224-7433.

For more information or to speak with a customer information specialist, call 713-635-4000 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends and holidays. Visit the METRO website at www.ridemetro.org to learn more.

Other Land Transportation Services
Express motor coach service for passengers and small packages is regularly available from Houston to many short- and intermediate-distance points on five different bus lines. Fifty-six Harris County lines offer charter service.

Brazos Transit District (www.btd.org), provides park and ride services from Conroe and The Woodlands to downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center and Greenway Plaza.

For carpools, visit vanpool.org or vpsinc.com to find out if these options are available in your community. Try also searching the Web for commute options to fit your needs.

About 50 taxicab companies serve the area. Also, more than 100 offices of nationally known and local car rental agencies and more than 200 limousine and town-car services operate in the Houston area. About 200 intra- and intercity couriers, including most nationally known companies, provide fast and efficient door-to-door service at competitive rates.

Workers downtown and in midtown who need to get around the area in a hurry now have access to REV Houston. Also known as the “eco-shuttle,” it provides clean, affordable and convenient transportation via all electric/zero emission vehicles.

Port of Houston
As another example of region’s “can do” spirit, a few visionary Houstonians embarked on a plan to create a port out of a city more than 50 miles inland. Work began on the port in 1905 and with a combination of federal and local dollars, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the lower reaches of the Buffalo Bayou to create the Houston Ship Channel.

Now, more than a century later, the Port of Houston ranks first among U.S. ports in volume of foreign tonnage, second in the United States in total tonnage, and 14th in the world in total tonnage. A 25-mile (40-kilometer) complex of diversified public and private facilities, the Port includes more than 100 wharves.

The Houston Ship Channel is a 52-mile inland waterway that connects Houston with markets throughout the world. In 2007, more than 7,700 ships carrying 225 million tons of cargo moved through the Houston Ship Channel. Two major railroads and 150 trucking lines connect the port to the remainder of the continental United States, Canada and Mexico. The Port has added a new $1.2 billion Bayport terminal to expand container handling capacity by 2.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) annually.

Houston Airport System
In 2009, the Houston Airport System (HAS) served nearly 48 million travelers. It is the fourth-largest multi-airport system in the nation in terms of passenger volume, the sixth largest in the world, and it is the eighth-largest international passenger gateway in the United States. George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) on the north side, William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) on the south side and Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center constitute one of the world’s most accessible airport systems.

Detailed information on the Houston Airport System, including lists of passenger-carrying airlines and contact information on cargo airlines is available at www.fly2houston.com.

Media outlets
Houston represents the 11th largest media market, or Houston Designated Market (DMA) in the U.S, as defined by Nielsen Media. The DMA has a population of 5.3 million and includes 19 counties. Due to its size, area residents have access to an extremely diverse media market. There are more than 325 different media outlets catering to niche and general interest needs as well as Hispanic television stations and Houston’s largest daily newspaper, the Houston Chronicle.

— Television
Houston embraced television early when KLEE-TV (now KPRC-TV) broadcast the first Houston commercial TV program 60 years ago. Shortly thereafter, KUHT-TV debuted as the nation’s first public broadcast TV station from its facility at the University of Houston. In 1995, KHOU (11), the CBS affiliate, became the nation’s first all-digital station. TV viewers have a wide range of broadcast options in the Houston area, including national network programming, home shopping, religious programming and three Spanish network channels.

— Cable Television
Comcast is the dominant cable operator in the Houston area with more than 1.7 million homes. Services offered include cable television service, high-speed Internet and digital telephone service. If you’re planning a move, let the Comcast representative know as there may be discounts that apply. Learn more by visiting www.comcast.com or by calling 800-226-2278.

AT&T also offers its U-verse services in the Houston area, providing digital television, high-speed Internet and digital home phone service. Visit www.att.com/uverse to check availability in your area of the Houston region.

—Satellite TV
DirecTV (www.directv.com) and Dish Network (www.dishnetwork.com) are available in the Houston area. Check with your real estate agent or neighbors about companies offering services in your area.

— Radio
There are more than 60 radio stations on both AM and FM dials, offering all music genres, including gospel, classical, soul, pop, Christian, Tejano, rhythm and blues, country, hip hop, oldies, top 40 and hard rock. News, sports and talk-radio options are also available.

— Newspapers
Houston has more than 100 daily and non-daily newspapers based in the city along with 22 university newspapers. Houston’s largest newspaper is the Houston Chronicle, with a daily circulation of 425,138, making it the ninth-largest in the U.S. The Galveston County Daily News is the oldest newspaper in Texas and was first published in 1842. Many U.S. and global news outlets maintain bureau offices in Houston, particularly to cover the energy markets. Among them, include the Associated Press, Bloomberg Business News, Dallas Morning News, Dow Jones Newswire, Forbes, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, Platts Gas Daily, Reuters News Service and the San Antonio Express News.

The Houston Public Library system serves the city's culturally diverse community by offering a broad program of free educational, informational and recreational activities through a central complex and neighborhood branch libraries.

The Library system is composed of a Central Library Complex, including the Houston Metropolitan Research Center and Clayton Center for Genealogical Research, and 36 branch libraries providing a network of materials, services and programs to Houston's diverse neighborhoods. For more information about the library and its rich history, visit www.houstonlibrary.org.

Library Facts
  • Population Served: 2,149,948
  • Registered Borrowers: 797,603
  • Days Open in Year: 350
  • Holdings: 3,951,035

Library Fees
Non-resident Library Card: 
$20/six mos; $40/year 
(fee is waived for residents of the State of Texas) 

Overdue Items (Checkout Period is two weeks)
  • Adult items 20 cents perday
  • Young adult items 20 cents per day
  • Juvenile items 10 cents per day
  • Non-circulating Items $1.00/day
  • Replacement fee - item cost plus
  • Processing fee $10/item
  • Partial processing fee* $ 5/item

Laptops - in library use only
  • Checkout Period: 2 hours
  • Overdue Fine: $25/hour (or any part thereof)
  • Replacement Fee: item cost (approximately $1,500)
  • Processing fee: $150
Source: Houston Public Library, 2004
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