February 10, 2004
Round round get around, I get around

Quite a bit of transportation-related news in the paper today. The big story is that the planned construction on the so-called "downtown spur" off of US 59 will go ahead as planned starting this weekend.

Spur 527 will close this Friday as planned. U.S. District Judge David Hittner on Monday denied a request by a residents' group, the West Alabama Quality of Life Coalition, to temporarily halt the project. The elevated link from the Southwest Freeway into downtown will be rebuilt, and its heavily traveled inbound lanes will be closed for nearly three years.

Although the neighborhood organization could appeal the decision, that option appeared unlikely Monday.

The coalition contended that closing of the spur's inbound lanes for 33 months would flood local streets with traffic, increase pollution and endanger children.

But Hittner disagreed with arguments that residents would suffer irreparable injury from the project or that the public interest would be harmed by letting the work begin on schedule, at 9 p.m. Friday.

"After considering the public consequences of halting this project as a whole and not just the consequences to individual parties," he wrote, "this court determines that a preliminary injunction is not in the public interest at the present time."

Hittner's ruling also said the plaintiffs failed to show that the defendants, including the Texas Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, had not complied with federal requirements on environmental protection and historic preservation.

Coalition attorney Jim Blackburn said it would be very difficult to win in an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Judge Hittner gave us a very fair hearing," Blackburn said. "We absolutely got a fair shot. I feel that we should have won, but I have no complaints about the court."


Reconstruction of the 43-year-old spur is part of a larger project that will also extend improvements to the Southwest Freeway northward from Mandell to Texas 288. The segment from Mandell to a point north of Montrose will be lowered below ground level, three decorative arched bridges will be added to the four that are now in place, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority's high-occupancy vehicle lane will be extended.

Opponents say they know the work needs to be done, but they had hoped to delay it until 2007, when other local road projects, including improvements to the Katy Freeway, West Loop and Kirby Drive, would be finished and better able to handle the overflow.

This is going to be an enormous pain in the ass, and while I think the WALQ folks have a strong case for delaying the construction - I drive on the spur several times a week and it looks to me like it's in decent shape - I reluctantly agree with Kevin that stopping this debacle probably wasn't the job for a judge. Blame TxDOT and County Judge Robert Eckels - they're the ones who are making this happen.

KHOU did a story last night about travel times on the alternate routes into downtown from Sugar Land, taking Beltway 8 or Loop 610 to SH 288. (Somewhat surprisingly to me, 610 North to I-10 East wasn't mentioned. That's the way I'd go if I were unlucky enough to have that commute.) All these routes are much longer than 59 to the spur, and I suspect the residents are correct when they worry about people taking 59 as far as they can and then navigating the neighborhood roads from there. I'm really glad i'm not living in that part of town right now.

Speaking of Judge Eckels, the good news is that by the time we've lived through all of this pain and inconvenience, we might finally have some commuter rail available as an alternate commute.

"What we can see is that, even with light rail, mixing trains and traffic is a bad idea," Eckels said. "We are setting records for accidents, and with our many visitors to the city, people will not just get used to it."

"Rail can be an important part of our mobility solution, and the voters have told us to move forward," he said. "But common sense and our obligation to the people require us to make the current line safer and fix its operational shortcomings."

With the cooperation of the city, Metro and railroad companies, Eckels said, the county could have more than 100 miles of commuter rail within five years.

The county already is studying the idea, identifying U.S. 290, Texas 249, Texas 3 and U.S. 90 as potential corridors.

Eckels campaigned against a November referendum proposal for Metro to build 73 additional miles of light rail. The measure was approved.

That's mighty big of you there, Bob. Why weren't you talking about this five years ago? Oh, that's right, because you were fighting any kind of rail transport tooth and nail. Now that this dam has finally and irrevocably been broken, you've hustled out in front of the parade and hoped to look like a leader. Thanks a hell of a lot.

Well, we don't have commuter rail yet, but maybe this round of road construction will encourage people to explore mass transit options, such as taking the light rail line in from the South Fannin Park 'n' Ride.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the Metropolitan Transit Authority's light rail line carried almost twice as many passengers as Metro officials hope will be taking the train on a daily basis by year's end.

An unknown, and probably large, number of the 61,000 boardings on MetroRail that day were football fans from out of town who attended the game at Reliant Stadium.

But if Metro is to achieve its goal of 33,000 rail boardings a day by year's end, it needs to persuade the locals. About 15,000 of these turned out Jan. 1 to ride for free, just before the line opened for business.

Jeff Arndt, Metro's chief operating officer, said statistics for Super Bowl weekend prove that many people will ride MetroRail to a special event. But he noted that the Super Bowl was an extraordinary event.

"There was nothing typical about it," he said.

A more accurate picture of rail's daily role in the local transit mix may emerge later this week, when Metro's January ridership totals are released.

I'm looking forward to seeing those numbers. The first month has certainly been eventful, but I don't think anyone can claim that the rail line isn't being used. The key is ensuring that ridership grows over time.

Finally, a little sympathy for a lost suburbanite. Louisiana St. is the road to take to get from downtown to I-10 and points westward. There are signs that point this out, as well as the access points to I-45, US 59, and SH 288, but there aren't as many as there should be, and if you're not on Louisiana you probably won't see anything very helpful for I-10. Sorry about that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 10, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Eckels fought rail "booth and nail" as in toll booth. He didn't want anything to complete with his toll way projects and still doesn't.

While Harris County is exploring the possibility of commuter rail lines in on 290, 249 and 90, they adamantly oppose pursuing one in the Katy corridor. Sure maybe after we work on the Katy Freeway for 5-10 years we'll think about going in and adding a rail line after the fact. Riiiight.

No, they don't want any rail going to the Katy/Cinco Ranch area. It might take away from traffic on the upcoming Westpark tollway.

The good news is these guys are going to look like fools if/when commuter rail lines along 290 and up 90/59 corridor take off in popularity leaving the residents of Katy/Cinco Ranch to wonder where there line is.

The bad news is that it's going to be 15 years before we'll see it. That's a long time to wait to laugh at these fools.

Posted by: Patrick on February 10, 2004 4:53 PM