August 14, 2005
"We don't want another Katy Freeway"

Yesterday I attended the I-45 Town Hall at Jefferson Davis High School, and it was a very useful two hours. I'm waiting on a couple of links to the presentations that were used, as they have much of the main data for consideration, but in the meantime will summarize what I can.

Before I begin, I note that the only media coverage of this event so far is from KTRK. I know I saw a news camera from KPRC, but either they didn't run anything or I just can't find the link. No idea if KHOU sent anyone, but again I couldn't find anything. Barring anything extraordinary, I expect there to be a full writeup in the This Week section of the Chron on Thursday.

I also note that KTRK estimated 800 people in attendance. I think that's an overstatement - I did a quick count of seats in the auditorium before things got started and came up with 400 for the downstairs portion, plus probably another 100 or so for the balcony. The downstairs was full, and people were in the balcony, so I'd peg the total as being around 500. Still pretty impressive for an August Saturday afternoon, which one speaker after another commented on.

(UPDATE: I've thought about this since seeing more than one reference elsewhere to 800+ people, and I've come to the conclusion that I blew the math. I think I forgot to add in one of the side sections in the lower seating area. Doing so, and recalculating the upper deck size based on the lower being 60% bigger, gets me to about 800. My apologies for the error.)

The meeting was divided into five parts: introduction of and brief remarks by elected officials, current status of the project by TxDOT and its consulting partner Carter & Burgess, a summary of the I-45 Coalition's concerns with the project, a look at Gonzalo Camacho's tunnel option, and a Q&A session. The middle three were done with Powerpoint slides (the first two are the links I hope to have later).

Most of the notes that I took were about what the elected officials had to say.

- US Rep. Gene Green, who noted that though this project did not pass through his district, he was still concerned about it as a native of the area (he's an alum of Jeff Davis High). He mentioned the doubledecking of I-35 in Austin as an option to consider.

- State Rep. Jessica Farrar spoke about the need to raise funds for a study of alternates not currently being considered by TxDOT, as the folks who persuaded TxDOT to go below grade with US59 instead of above grade did.

- County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia stressed that this was not a Harris County project (apparently, her office has gotten quite a few inquiries from residents about it) but said that as a resident of Lindale Park, she was personally affected by it.

- City Council member Adrian Garcia expressed his concern with how public opinion had been recorded at previous meetings - in particular, the town hall meeting from April and the Woodland Heights Civic Association in February are not part of the public record for this process. He was also very concerned about neighborhood impact: "The plans as proposed will do nothing but erase the North Side as we know it, and that's not right."

- City Council member Gordon Quan thanked the I-45 Coalition for speaking to the Council meeting on Thursday (see the end of this post for more on that), and introduced Mike Marcotte, the city's Director of Public Works, whom he said would be taking a more active role at this point.

- State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who represents the Old Sixth Ward, reminded everyone that there will still be severe bottlenecks on I-45 at the Pierce Elevated and the US59 junction.

- US Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was a bit late in arriving, and asked to speak after the TxDOT/Carter & Burgess presentation. As this project mostly affects her district, she spoke the longest, and she brought the house down. I'll give the highlights:

  • There will be a steering committee formed to study the alternatives that are not currently on TxDOT's radar.

  • US59 is still congested despite a longterm project to widen it (this was one of many applause lines she got).

  • Thanks to H-GAC for putting a hold on the project in response to community feedback.

  • Wanted TxDOT to be more specific about how each neighborhood would be impacted by each of the alternatives they did consider.

  • Stressed that this is all about mobility, with a continued emphasis on light rail which she still strongly supports. Emphasized that METRO and others must make good on promised made to the voters when the 2003 referendum was passed.

  • Pointed out that the I-10 construction is more than $1 billion over initial cost estimates, "and we can't even get a lousy billion for a METRO transit system."

  • "We don't want another Katy Freeway." These words were spoken by several people in the course of the meeting.

  • Promised to bring US Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta down to Houston if it would be helpful.

  • Reminded everyone not to take the heat off of METRO as well.

There wasn't a whole lot to the TxDOT/Carter & Burgess presentation that wasn't already well known. One of the reasons why I really want to get my hands on that presentation is because whoever was advancing the slides wasn't keeping in sync with the C&B person (whose name escapes me now). (UPDATE): Her name is Janet Kennison. My apologies for the oversight. Thanks to Robin Holzer for the correction.) A couple of slides were barely onscreen at all. In that person's defense, she was reading from a prepared text and gave no cues at all as to when to advance it. The main points:

- We're still very early in the process.

- All the alternatives they considered involved extra lanes, going from 9 to either 10 or 12, with varying numbers of "managed" lanes.

- There was a "no build" alternative, which doesn't mean "do nothing", it means simply bring the existing freeway up to current legal standards.

- All alternatives were graded on various aspects, with the 12 lane/4 managed lane alternative scoring the highest overall.

- "Some" right of way acquisition would likely be needed at North Main and at the Shepherd Curve at North Shepherd.

The I-45 Coalition concerns were presented by John Wilson of GHASP, who is also part of the Regional Transportation Planning committee at H-GAC. I also hope to get his presentation shortly, but for now here is what the neighborhoods are asking of TxDOT:

- Rerun your highway capacity models under the assumption that arterial roads like North Shepherd and Yale have been improved to the point where they can handle more of the local traffic that is currently a big part of I-45 usage.

- Give us some idea of what kind of right-of-way acquisition would be needed under each plan. One big piece of missing data right now is access roads. I-45 is currently about 75 yards wide. Based on what we know of existing standards for shoulders, access lanes, and medians, the preferred 12-lane alternative would be about 121 yards wide. That just doesn't square with the assertions of "only North Main and North Shepherd for ROW acquisition" unless they have some kind of doubledecking and/or cantilevering in mind; if they do, they've never said anything about it.

- Related to this was the issue of highway interchanges. Wilson pointed out that the exchange at 45 and 610 would have to be like the one currently under construction at 10 and 610, and that this would also require use of eminent domain.

- Explain the cost estimate. The North-Hardy Corridor study (PDF) covers 30 miles from US59 to SH242 in Conroe, and the current cost estimate is $400 million. When compared to the current estimates for the Katy Freeway - over $2.5 billion for 25 miles - that's really hard to believe.

- Make their final recommendations public and available for community study 60 to 90 days before bringing it to the regional authorities for approval.

Wilson stressed that the community can and will get behind a good plan, once one exists.

Last up was a fellow named James, pinch hitting for the out-of-town Gonzalo Camacho to give a very brief overview of the I-45 tunnel plan, which is now being referred to as the I-45 Parkway. The tunnel itself would have limited access and would be for express traffic; there would also be an Allen Parkway-like surface road for local routes. This was a much smaller presentation than the big one (8 MB PPT file), which I still haven't seen Camacho give in person, but we were nearing the two-hour mark at this point, so it was just as well.

I left before the the Q&A session was over, since my experience is that TxDOT never has much more to say than what it's already said. If any of the other 500 attendees want to add to what I've said here, please feel free. I'll add in links to the presentations when I have them, and will look for the Chron story later this week.

In closing, here's a transcript by Robin Holzer of the CTC meeting with City Council last week. Click the More link to read it.

UPDATE: Here, in PDF form, is a more detailed version of the C&B presentation. Still waiting on the other presentation.

UPDATE: A brief version of Robin Holzer's notes from the meeting are here - scroll to the bottom to see them.

Thursday night, I watched most of the rebroadcast of Tuesday's I-45 Coalition outing to Houston City Council to listen again to what Mayor White told us. I'm including highlights from the end of the discussion below. (If you missed it, the session will air three times Saturday on the Municipal Channel (TWC-16). We're up approximately 2 1/2 hours in, so that will be ~8:30am, 2:30pm, and 8:30pm on Saturday, I think.)

Please note that I didn't get all of what was said on this first pass, but I was particularly struck by several of Mayor White's comments:

Council member Edwards asked for a comprehensive view of what TxDOT is proposing around the city since many projects were proposed in the 1960s but those residents don't live here any more.

Mayor White said "Get someone in my office and Dr. Lewis... get this full report that Robin got this out of. Will be on plane during [Saturday's] meeting but want to take this with me so I can read it on the plane. You're doing the right thing. One of my deals. TxDOT could easily reallocate money out of the urban center and create these rings and rings and reduce density in the urban density because the district has so much money.. [something to the effect of: people who say don't build it and TxDOT takes the money somewhere else. What I really like about this proposal is the idea of investing differently in the urban center]. What I really like is people getting into the details and getting into the details early.

Council member Khan asked: "How does City of Houston let TxDOT know what our preferences are? The TPC is one way; is there any other formal way to let them know what our wish list is and what we want investments to be because it affects City of Houston more than anybody else?

Mayor White said, "I think when we come to what the formal input should be under the sort of law and charter and common sense. The very best way is to build a consensus within the community of what we're for that addresses the need. because it is a congested corridor. that is highly thought out and professional. and I believe that the TxDOT commissioners and the district director would be persuaded by that. But we don't want to allocate 10 or 15 million. I'm trying to figure out how much engineering resources we should devote as a city to alternative . to TxDOT.. so far we're focusing TxDOT's issues on where we think you should start the process. so you know Dr. Lewis and I do meet with Gary Trietsch. I'm not sure there's a way. We do have an opportunity here. as I thought about the institutional configuration here I think that's the way to handle it"

Council member Khan agreed that "consensus is a hallmark" of the Mayor's style, said the Mayor is the one who can get consensus, and asked him how he plans to get it.

Mayor White said: "Where we are . we're in the stage of people sharing information. TxDOT. citizens. people talking to people about what we're trying to accomplish and the criteria we should use"

Robin interjected to address two points: Consensus - I had a conversation with Gary Trietsch after the TPC meeting and he said this is not a money issue but they need a statement from the city. and a sense of consensus. as to timing - in TxDOT's formal process, they have done a travel demand model that says they've determined they need 12 lanes. and they're looking to get formal approval from the Policy Council in the next two months or so. But there are serious flaws that folks like John Wilson. David Crossley.. are looking at and would love to talk to folks like Dr. Lewis about. if we want TxDOT to do this differently we've only got ~2 months

Mayor White responded "I'm listening to what Robin just said. they're right. we do need to have some. to direct professional resources you need to have some direction and have resources. we need a team that is interdisciplinary that's working with TxDOT to understand what the criteria are. it's heavily congested. we don't want people idling in their cars. that's a tax on . we want to protect. I'll get a recommendation from Dr. Lewis.

Council member Quan asked Mayor White whether anyone from the Administration was committed to attend the town hall this Saturday who can report back to the Mayor, because without the Administration present we could be spinning our wheels

Mayor White mentioned Michael Marcotte (Dir PW&E) and Dr. Lewis (Chair Planning Cmsn)
So it now seems we're really getting somewhere!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 14, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

SJL - Promised to bring US Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta down to Houston if it would be helpful.

Big Deal! The Queen claimed she cut two deals last year with HUD, and both blew up in her face. HUD still cut off $48 million in HOME money to Houston the day after she held a meeting with HUD and said she would get HUD to see things her way.

Please remember that she was not even told of Mayor White and METRO's NEW transit plan announced a few months back.

If any attendees were counting on SJL to have any influence on the Federal Highway Administration in this matter, I think they are misinformed.

Norm might come down, but it is likely only after he confirms he has secured good seats at either an Astro's or a Texan's game, AND, a free ride the choo choo.

Posted by: Tom Bazan on August 14, 2005 4:30 PM

Well, Tom, speaking as a constituent of Sheila Jackson Lee, I'm grateful we have her representing us and not you. She's quite plainly in tune with the wishes of the residents here, as the standing ovation she received at the end of her statements attested.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 15, 2005 8:30 AM