I did manage to make it out to the public meeting last night on the I-45 expansion, along with about 400 of my neighbors and representatives of various public officials. TxDOT engineer Mike Tello spoke to us for about ten minutes regarding the project; he was followed by Janet Kennison from Carter & Burgess, who expanded on his remarks. (Also in attendance was Pat Henry from TxDOT, whom Tello introduced as his boss. Henry did not give any opening remarks but was involved in the Q&A that ensued.) Tello and Kennison gave a brief overview of the project, which they insisted was in the initial stages, which is to say prior to any actual schematics. There were references to an ongoing study (the Chron article says it was finished in October last year), with schematics to follow within the next year or so. After that, maybe three more years for one plan to be selected and then work to begin.
Both Tello and Kennison talked about current conditions, projected growth, the need to utilize multiple solutions such as light rail and express bus service, and the fact that the current thinking is for the single HOV lane to be turned into four "managed" lanes, which would (I believe; they weren't totally clear on this) be like HOVs with a toll option for single-passenger vehicles. Other than mentioning the Hardy Toll Road as part of their overall plan, none of this was particularly new to me.
The Q&A session was where the action occurred. Well, in the questions, anyway, where the opposition to any widening of I-45 outside the existing right-of-way was a recurring theme. With the huge crowd present, questions were written down and submitted to be asked by a moderator (who I believe was Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition). My questions did get asked - they were "Why are we widening I-45 when we've already got the underutilized Hardy Toll Road?" and "Won't widening I-45 north of I-10 just make congestion on the Pierce Elevated worse?" To the first, Tello and Kennison more or less repeated what they said up front, which is that the Hardy is an integral part of the overall mobility plan. If they had any figures as to the projected use of the Hardy in 2025 (the benchmark year used in the I-45 study), I didn't hear about them. As to the Pierce, Tello basically conceded that there was no plan to do anything about that, then when pressed on the question Henry got up and suggested US 59 and Spur 527 as alternate routes. I did not find that to be a good answer, but it's what I got.
Other issues raised in the Q&A: Henry came about as close to completely disavowing the Houston Avenue alternative as one can without actually doing it - he cited cost, the number of homeowners that would have to be displaced, and the historic nature of the proposed route as the case against it. Despite repeated variations on the question, no one would commit to not expanding beyond the existing right-of-way (in all honesty, there's no way they could have committed to that at this time). Probably the most important thing anyone said was when Henry told us that if we were to attend just one public meeting regarding this project in the future, it should be the one where they discuss the proposed schematics in order to decide on the winner. He said that would be at about this time next year, maybe a bit sooner.
After the Q&A, representatives for various public officials got up and spoke. First up was City Council member Adrian Garcia, who was one of only two officials representing himself or herself. Garcia thanked Tello for coming out and listening to us (unlike TCEQ, he noted), then basically lit into him. One of the questions earlier was along the lines of "Tell us what we need to do to defeat this plan." Tello's answer was "No comment." Garcia said that it was "unethical" of TxDOT to not tell the community under what conditions it could achieve its goal of preventing the widening of I-45. He also said that TxDOT has been telling us all along that we need to attend meetings and give them feedback, but they needed to look out at the hundreds of people in attendance, nearly all of whom opposed to what they're doing (he called for a show of hands; a total of four people said they were in favor), and realize that they've already got a bunch of feedback. He was clear and forceful in his own opposition as well, and as far as I'm concerned, with all due apologies to Annise Parker, if he runs for Mayor in 2009, he's got my vote.
The only other in-person public servant was Karla Cisneros, who brought with her two gentlemen from Superintendant Abe Saavedra's office whose names escape me. She expressed HISD's official concerns about this project, which presumably have to do with Travis Elementary's proximity to I-45.
The first stand-in to speak came from State Sen. Mario Gallegos' office. He read a letter from Sen. Gallegos which expressed his (nearly as forceful as Adrian Garcia's) opposition to any widening of I-45 outside the existing right-of-way, and which called on his fellow Senators to do something about it. That could be a very big deal from the affected-homeowners' perspective.
Diane Mosier spoke for State Rep. Jessica Farrar, who is already on record in opposition and who has been meeting with the I-45 Coalition folks.
Other officials with a presence at the meeting were Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Gene Green, County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, and City Council members Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and Michael Berry. None of them stated an unequivocal position - they pretty much all said some variation of "we support the community, we share your concerns, please feel free to contact us" with the exception of Sylvia Garcia's person, who simply said he was there at her request to find out what people were saying and report back on it.
I respect that TxDOT took the time to come out and talk to us, but overall this was a frustrating experience. One questioner observed that TxDOT's mantra was "this is too early in the process to know what was going to happen", yet the same issue came up several years ago and then vanished after an outcry at the time. (The link to the IH-45/ US 59 Freeway Corridor MIS on the Woodland Heights page, which was put up during that time, is now dead. I can't find it anywhere on the TxDOT Studies page - you wind up getting redirected to this North Hardy Corridor page, which as far as I can tell is all about Metro light rail expansion.) What happened to that MIS? How can we still be "early" in the project when that work had been done once before? The answers we did get were vague and mostly told us things we already knew; many questions were never directly answered. The answer I got to my Pierce Elevated question was beyond bogus. I already use those alternatives - sometimes I'm forced over to US 59 because there's such a huge backup at the exit from I-10 to I-45 that I literally can't get there entering from Taylor Street. Besides, in my experience, if I-45 is too clogged to get on, US 59 isn't any better. Spur 527 is a fine alternative if you ultimately want to get on 59 South, but you can't get to SH 288 from there, and that's where I need to go for my commute. And call me crazy here, but I bet all those nice folks who bought townhomes on Bagby Street in Neartown probably didn't expect to be on an official TxDOT-sanctioned alternate route for I-45.
Further, I don't know about you, but the idea that there's One Meeting You Really Ought To Attend at some point in the future is alarming to me. How can there be enough time to present all of the schematics that are up for consideration and then allow proponents and opponents of each to state their cases? TxDOT did say that all of the schematics would be on their web page prior to this, but I'm still very worried that there won't be enough of an opportunity to really influence their thinking. Their track record of responding to community input is not encouraging, and I can just hear them say "You had your chance to talk to us at that schematic meeting" down the line.
After the presentation, while I was chatting with some of my neighbors, I overheard Dawn Shumway say that her office had lost a contract on a house on Houston Avenue that very day because of uncertainty surrounding I-45. This was not the first one she'd lost because of this, and it probably won't be the last.
Last but not least, it was announced that the I-45 Coalition was still working on its website and hoped to have it up soon. If anyone reading this was at the meeting last night and wants to add to or correct anything I've said here, please do so.Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 09, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack