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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

Uptown BRT officially opens

Meet the Silver Line.

T.J. Buttons is used to a bus ride in Houston giving him plenty of time to check his phone. On that front, Houston’s first bus rapid transit route failed miserably.

“It’s so fast,” Buttons said as he bumped along on opening day Sunday of the Silver Line, operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority through Uptown.

More than four years of work — some a source of frustration for critics who called the project unnecessary along the car-centric corridor — preceded the opening, muted by COVID’s constraints on travel in the area. Nonetheless, officials and transit supporters said the opening was cause of celebration, and an indication of the changes coming as Metro plots 75 more miles of bus rapid transit in the region.

For Buttons and other riders, it means a much faster trip than the Route 33 buses it replaces along Post Oak, with fewer stops and less competing with traffic.

“It’s really like the train,” Buttons said.

That’s exactly what officials wanted with the project designed by Metro and the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the street and sidewalks as part of a $192.5 million project. Fourteen 60-foot buses will operate the route, traveling along an elevated busway along Loop 610 and then in dedicated transit lanes in the center of Post Oak.

The Silver Line operates between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 through Uptown mostly along Post Oak to the new Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center south of Interstate 69 near Bellaire. Fifteen bus routes connect directly to the service, via the two transit centers.

Metro and Uptown officials have said the buses will deliver service similar to light rail with boardings via platforms in the middle of the street. Trips will be faster, transit officials said, because the buses are not inching along in regular traffic. Compared to Houston’s light rail system, the buses might outpace trains because traffic is not in front of them or turning from the same lanes, improving both speed of trips and safety.

“If we don’t have shared left turn lanes, that knocks a lot of our issues out,” said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

[…]

Getting the timing right in Uptown, especially at key intersections such as Richmond, is critical to not having the buses obstruct others. In downtown Houston, shortly after the Green and Purple lines opened in 2015, Houston Public Works and Metro spent months tweaking the traffic signal timing to find the right routine.

Skabowski said if there is a silver lining to opening the Silver Line during a pandemic, it is that lower traffic demand because of fewer commutes and shopping trips gives officials a grace period to get things right.

“We still don’t have normal conditions, so that gives us a little window to get there,” he said. “We have the perfect time period to tweak it.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a good Twitter thread showing what the ride experience looks like. As far as that goes, it looks really good, and the service will be frequent (every ten minutes during the day) and reliable. Everything we know about transit ridership says that a comfortable and convenient experience will draw riders, so we’ll see what we get here, especially once people start returning to something like a normal routine. And as Christof Spieler pointed out, this line will connect to multiple high-frequency east-west bus lines, thus really expanding the network in Houston. Later on, this will be extended to connect to the Texas Central station. It’s an exciting development, and next up should be the BRT replacement for the Universities light rail line.

How Nuro is doing in the pandemic

An interesting update on the little driverless grocery (and other things) delivery serives.

As recently as last fall, Nuro appeared to be years away from widespread adoption. The company, which operated in Arizona and California, arrived in Houston in 2018 to test its vehicles on a city known for its diversity, with a wide range of neighborhoods and types of customers. Though the cars were overseen by two human employees in the front seat, the goal was to develop the world’s preeminent fully autonomous delivery service. The robotically piloted Toyota Priuses, equipped with remote sensing equipment on top, became a fairly common sight in central Houston neighborhoods. But before the pandemic, most people didn’t pay them much attention.

Last fall, only 3 percent of the nation’s households were placing frequent online orders for grocery delivery. The low rate was attributed to shoppers’ concerns about higher prices online and delivery drivers showing up late. In May of this year, however, that number had skyrocketed to 33 percent, a stunning increase that—in even the best case scenarios—was expected to take many years to reach, not months. In Houston alone, Nuro has seen its deliveries triple into the thousands since the pandemic turned in-person shopping into risky activity. Suddenly, Nuro was no longer a novelty, but an important aid for many Houstonians sheltering in place.

[…]

In addition to partnering with Kroger, the nation’s largest operator of traditional supermarkets, Nuro delivers Domino’s pizza and prescriptions from CVS. The company expects much of its new customer base to remain after the pandemic, believing that quarantine has only amplified an existing trend toward on-demand grocery delivery. Sola Lawal, a Nuro product operations manager based in Houston who formerly worked for Uber, cites high customer appreciation scores as evidence that new users will remain loyal to the brand.

When I spoke to Lawal, I asked him what he would have thought if someone had shown him those heightened delivery numbers last fall.

“I’m not sure what I would’ve thought,” he said. “I just know I would’ve been very confused.”

The pandemic hasn’t just rapidly expanded the company’s customer base and delivery volume, it’s also forced them to adapt. The company still relies on Nuro employees to oversee the autonomous vehicles, collect valuable information about how they perform on the road, and unload groceries gathered by workers at Kroger. Last fall, when driverless vehicles arrived at a home with groceries in tow, a human operator sitting in the passenger seat would hand the goods over to customers or deliver them to the front door. In Houston, some families had a habit of meeting the vehicles at the curb with a red wagon. “It was like a mini family celebration,” Lawal explained.

With person-to-person interaction no longer safe, Nuro’s engineers rushed to develop a new system that would allow customers to open a delivery vehicle’s doors by flashing a thumbs-up sign or using a setting on their mobile phone. (Both the hand gesture and smartphone features are available only on vehicles in California for now.)

“Creating contact-less delivery was a long-term goal that got sped up when it became clear that, yeah, we need to be able to do this now!” Lawal said.

That was specifically one of the things I wondered about when Nuro expanded its service a couple of months ago. I still think there will be demand for having a human person bring the groceries to your door, but perhaps the demand for contactless delivery will be greater than I might have thought. We still mostly go to the store ourselves – early mornings are fairly uncrowded, and it’s the only way to be sure you’re getting exactly what you want, including when what you originally wanted isn’t available – but the allure of delivery is easy to see. Have any of you tried this service?

Merging transit fare systems

There’s a frustratingly small amount of information in this story, but the basic idea, as best I understand it, is great.

Federal transit officials will spend $14.8 million making sure Houston area transit riders can have more options for how to pay their own way and have seamless options between local bus agencies.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority revamps its aging fare collection system to add options for how and where transit users can pay for rides, officials said making it easier to hop on a bus or train was paramount. That’s why board members said options such as paying with a smart phone was vital, along with adding multiple places such as corner stores where cash-paying transit riders could add money to Q cards.

Part of efforts to ease transit access was adding bus systems such as Fort Bend Transit and Harris County Transit to the system. Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region, could incorporate the smaller systems in, provided either federal or local money could be found.

Metro will receive the grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the second-largest award in this year’s round of money from Washington, announced Tuesday. Officials selected 96 projects totaling $464 million. The money covers replacing aging buses and related infrastructure such as maintenance centers, transit centers and bus stops.

I’ve been an advocate for having a broad regional one-fare-system-for-all-transit-networks approach. This is very much a baby step in that direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If you’re wondering, Harris County Transit runs bus service in some cities that are not part of Metro, so folding them into the same fare collection system makes perfect sense. I wish there were more to this story, or that there were a Metro press release I could read to see what else there may be to this, but this is all we have for now. All I can say is, make it a goal to expand this outward until there’s nowhere else in the region to expand to.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Time for your regularly scheduled announcement that the Uptown BRT line opening has been pushed back

Maybe for the last time, though. We hope.

Rapid bus service is coming to Uptown next month, a couple weeks later than Metro first said this summer and two years later than expected when construction began in 2016.

Service will start along the Silver Line on Aug. 23, along with other bus route changes planned by Metropolitan Transit Authority, CEO Tom Lambert said. Officials pushed back opening day a couple weeks from an earlier estimate to make all the changes at once.

“This allows us to be consistent,” Lambert said.

[…]

“There are four critical traffic signals to getting this done,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction, outlining the remaining work.

City officials, Trevino said, pledged to have the signals in place by the end of the week. The lights are vital to giving buses their own signal to enter and exit the lanes at key such intersections as Westpark and the Loop 610 southbound frontage road.

See here for the previous update, when July was the target month. I will say, this time we have an actual date, which is a step forward. Also, if the term “Silver Line” has been used elsewhere, I’ve missed it. I look forward to a day when the virus is under control and I can feel free to take what would be a joyride for myself on this new line. I hope the date for that doesn’t have to keep being rescheduled.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Checking on Metro’s mask mandate

I admit, I was a bit confused when I saw the earlier version of this story.

Metro wanted to make sure its mask requirement for all passengers passed legal muster, asking a Houston lawmaker to seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That request may be moot after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring Texans to wear face masks while in public, under most conditions.

State Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who represents a west Houston district just south of Interstate 10 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway, had asked the attorney general in a June 26 letter whether Abbott’s previous executive orders limiting local governments’ ability to enforce public health requirements apply to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray on Thursday said Murphy posed the question at Metro’s request. Only certain people — prosecutors, county attorneys and state elected officials — can solicit an opinion from Paxton’s office.

“Given the various back-and-forth discussions about masks we thought it prudent to get some clarity from the AG’s office regarding our ability to deny service to anyone who does not wear a mask,” Gray said. “Gov. Abbott just issued a new order regarding masks and that appears to clear up any ambiguity.”

[…]

When masks became conditional to ride, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said transit officials had no intention of imposing criminal or even civil penalties. Those without a mask will be provided one by Metro staff, and if they refuse to wear it Metro will provide alternative transportation but will not allow them to remain on the bus or train, officials said.

While riders have reported some lax enforcement of the mask requirement on some buses, transit officials have said most riders are compliant with the change and there have been few incidents.

See here and here for the background on the mask mandate. As noted, Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order kind of makes this moot, but the basic question is still there. When I saw the early version of this story, I must have missed the bit about this request being made on Metro’s behalf – my reaction was like “what does Jim Murphy have against Metro?”, which surprised me because that’s not his brand. Briscoe Cain, sure, but not an establishment guy like Murphy. This at least makes sense, though now I’m worried what the answer Metro might be. Anyway, we’ll check back on this when the opinion is given, hopefully at a time when it’s moot for better reasons.

Masks for Metro confirmed

It’s official.

Metro riders need to cover up to hop on, following a decision by the transit agency’s board Thursday to require masks on its buses and trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the requirement at their monthly meeting Thursday morning, citing the need for all residents to protect themselves — and others — in public as COVID-19 cases in the Houston area increase.

“We owe an obligation to each other to treat our neighbors as we treat ourselves,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “In order to flatten the curve we have to take prudent steps.”

The requirement means all riders must wear face coverings, unless it is medically harmful to do so, while on buses and trains and at Metro transit stations and buildings. Workers and contractors also are required to wear masks. Anyone entering a Metro building also will need to have their temperature checked.

Metro drivers will have masks to provide to customers who do not have one, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

[…]

For those who refuse to cover up, [Metro chief operations officer Andrew] Skabowski said, Metro drivers will work through a checklist, informing reticent riders that it is a requirement; if they do not wear a mask, the bus cannot proceed and a Metro supervisor will have to be called to arrange alternative transportation for them, which will take time to coordinate.

“From there, the patron typically either puts on the mask or walks away,” Skabowski said, adding that “peer pressure” on the bus can help diffuse the situation.

As drivers worked to encourage mask use over the past three days, Skabowski said only 10 refusals led to a supervisor being called. In each of those cases, the person either complied or left without seeking alternative transportation from Metro. In two cases, Metro police responded but did not take any action against the rider.

“We are not looking at civil or criminal penalties,” Lambert said.

See here for the background. How Metro has handled recalcitrant riders is exemplary and encouraging. And it really makes you wonder how much better off we’d be if this kind of social pressure to wear masks when out in public had existed at all levels of society. No point crying over spilled hydroxychloroquine, I guess.

So how safe are those driverless cars?

Safer than human-driven cars, but maybe not by as much as you might think.

A new study says that while autonomous vehicle technology has great promise to reduce crashes, it may not be able to prevent all mishaps caused by human error.

Auto safety experts say humans cause about 94% of U.S. crashes, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study says computer-controlled robocars will only stop about one-third of them.

The group says that while autonomous vehicles eventually will identify hazards and react faster than humans, and they won’t become distracted or drive drunk, stopping the rest of the crashes will be a lot harder.

“We’re still going to see some issues even if autonomous vehicles might react more quickly than humans do. They’re not going to always be able to react instantaneously,” said Jessica Cicchino, and institute vice president of research and co-author of the study.

The IIHS studied over 5,000 crashes with detailed causes that were collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, separating out those caused by “sensing and perceiving” errors such as driver distraction, impaired visibility or failing to spot hazards until it was too late. Researchers also separated crashes caused by human “incapacitation” including drivers impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who fell asleep or drivers with medical problems. Self-driving vehicles can prevent those, the study found.

However, the robocars may not be able to prevent the rest, including prediction errors such as misjudging how fast another vehicle is traveling, planning errors including driving too fast for road conditions and execution errors including incorrect evasive maneuvers or other mistakes controlling vehicles.

For example, if a cyclist or another vehicle suddenly veers into the path of an autonomous vehicle, it may not be able to stop fast enough or steer away in time, Cicchino said. “Autonomous vehicles need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what’s around them as well,” she said.

Just how many crashes are prevented depends a lot on how autonomous vehicles are programmed, Cicchino said. More crashes would be stopped if the robocars obey all traffic laws including speed limits. But if artificial intelligence allows them to drive and react more like humans, then fewer crashes will be stopped, she said.

I’ve been watching the Amazon series Upload (very funny, check it out), and one plot point in it is the death of two characters in separate autonomous vehicle crashes. Feels a bit more salient after reading this. This is more a model than a study, and it may well be that driverless cars do better, or eventually get to do better, than what this predicts. But one of the selling points of driverless cars is that they will be able to go faster and in denser traffic than human-driven cars can go, which will save time, allow for less road construction, and provide options for mass transit that are currently unthinkable. Those things are a whole lot less feasible if this model is accurate. Sure, a one-third drop in crashes would be excellent, but that’s not transformative. Under those assumptions, we’ll get the driverless cars, but other than not driving the overall experience won’t be much different.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

Masks for Metro

Yes, please.

Metro riders soon may need more than their Q card or $1.25 to board buses and trains as transit officials weigh making face coverings mandatory for all bus and rail users in a new set of safety procedures.

Transit officials will resume collecting fares along all routes on July 12, as ridership rebounds and more routes return to normal, according to a briefing for Metropolitan Transit Authority board members.

When fares resume, Metro will adjust the safety protocols it set in March, said Andrew Skabowski, Metro’s chief operations officer. Those included requiring riders to enter and exit via the rear door and placing signs on some bus seats to space riders accordingly.

With the resumption of fares, riders will enter from the front again, where Metro will provide hand sanitizer.

What remains unresolved is whether riders will need a mask. Metro’s board is expected to consider on Thursday a measure that would make face coverings mandatory on all buses and trains and at Metro facilities.

[…]

Metro will install hand sanitizer stations on all buses and trains, including park and ride and MetroLift vehicles. Pumps on local buses will be just inside the front door.

“It gives you just enough to address your hands,” Skabowski said.

Liquid sanitizer will be used on buses, while officials opted for a foam sanitizer on trains, Skabowski said, to avoid liquid landing on the floor of the train and causing a slipping hazard.

Installing sanitizer pumps on Metro’s roughly 1,200 buses and trains is expected to cost $146,000. Monthly costs are estimated at $70,000, mostly the 1,000 gallons of sanitizer and 480 foam cartridges officials expect to use.

To protect drivers once the front door reopens, Metro is installing plastic shields so drivers are closed off from passengers. The barriers will consist of drapes of heavy plastic held in place with magnets. Installation is expected to cost $430,000.

See here for some background. A subsequent press release confirms that Metro will in fact ask the Board for this authorization, which they note is consistent with the recent executive order from Judge Hidalgo. It’s not clear to me how they will enforce this – perhaps that will be discussed at the Board meeting – but I hope that just having the requirement in place will greatly increase the number of riders wearing masks.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.

Nuro expands its service in Houston

First groceries, now prescriptions.

Nuro’s fleet of autonomous vehicles is expanding its footprint in Houston, partnering with CVS to deliver prescriptions in a delivery service that is expected to begin as early as next month.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Nuro’s autonomous fleet made its Houston debut last year when it partnered with Kroger to deliver groceries. It later added Walmart to the list. The delivery vehicles to-date were staffed with operators to monitor the service, but Nuro announced earlier this year its plans to introduce a human-free product, the R2, to Houston roads.

The new prescription delivery service will start with a pilot in three ZIP codes surrounding the CVS pharmacy at 5430 Bissonnet St., Bellaire, according to a news release.

[…]

The service comes at a time when, due to the spread of the coronavirus, people are avoiding physical contact with one another. Especially those with underlying health conditions.

“We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery,” said Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of Store Operations at CVS Health. “We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it’s not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations.”

See here for the background. Nuro began its automated grocery deliveries in March, just as everything was starting to shut down. I’d had a lot of question prior to its launch about how popular that would be versus human-driven deliveries. How many people would prefer having their groceries unloaded and brought into their house – or at least to their front door – for them, versus having to walk out to the car and haul them in themselves? One presumes the pandemic has had some effect on that calculation, though we don’t get any insight into that from the story. Be that as it may, this does seem like a propitious time for this kind of service to debut. I would have been more skeptical of this a few months ago, but not so much now.

Here come the electric bikes

Cool.

Houston’s growing bike share system will jump into over-drive in the coming months, fueled by $250,000 in Harris County funds that will put 100 new electric bikes on city streets.

An amended plan by Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis approved [recently] will buy the bikes, along with additional stations in under-served communities.

The bikes — outfitted with electric motors — will be distributed and used across the entire B-Cycle system, most of which lies within Ellis’ county precinct.

[…]

With the addition of the electric bikes, Ellis’ proposal — approved [recently] by Commissioners’ Court with money from Precinct One discretionary funds — totals $842,700 and includes installation of 30 stations — half in low income areas — along with 320 bicycles.

The expansion of e-bikes will increase the number of electric bicycles in the system from five to 105.

“Five isn’t very much of a pilot,” Ellis said Wednesday. “Let’s get these in place and let’s see what usage is like then.”

Key to that use in many communities is the location of kiosks. B-Cycle, operated by a local nonprofit, allows people to check out bicycles from stations of 10 to 15 bikes across the area, mostly clustered in downtown, Midtown, Montrose and the Texas Medical Center. Riders can check out bikes and pay $3 for every 30 minutes of use or use a monthly or annual pass and receive the first 60 minutes of use free. Bikes can be checked out and returned to any of the 109 current stations, though 12 have been shut down because of the COVID-19 crisis to lower exposure in area parks.

“Even after shuttering a dozen of our highest-performing kiosks, ridership has remained strong,” said Doogie Roux, operations director for Houston B-Cycle. “We’re still seeing people make increased efforts to travel in a socially-distant, environmentally-responsible and fun way.”

All of the new stations planned are in Precinct One, though the additional bikes will be distributed and used across the system, which now totals 109 kiosks and nearly 800 bikes. The upcoming stations are part of a larger program to increase the total to 160 by next year.

You know I’m a fan of B-Cycle. Some of the kiosks close to where I live are closed for now, but I do still see folks riding around on them. I’m glad ridership hasn’t suffered too much at this time, but expanding the system, especially in the indicated areas (see the embedded map in the story) is what they should want to be doing. Keep it up, y’all.

And now a few words from our city transportation planner

Didn’t know we had one, did you? Well, we do, his name is David Fields, and he had a few things to say to Chron reporter Dug Begley in a recent Q&A:

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

There’s more, so go read it. The point of interest for me is the observation that if work from home becomes more widely adopted, it really changes traffic patterns, and potentially reduces the future need for road construction. This has always been a consideration for transportation wonks, but we’ve never seen it in action like this. I am certain that more people are going to resume commuting to work in the coming weeks – here we are hand-waving away the potential for further lockdowns – but I’m also certain that some number of people who have been working from home as a result of COVID-19 will continue to work from home going forward because they like it and it suits them. Who knows what our streets and highways will look like after that?

Again, this is not a revelation to transportation planners and their ilk. A steady increase in telework has always been factored into their calculations. The point is that this is likely to be a step increase in those numbers, which changes the shape of the curves in their models. Some plans are already in motion – the 59/610 interchange rebuild, for example – while others are not yet finalized – the ginormous I-45 project – but in either case what we once thought was true now may not be. What are we going to do about that?

On a somewhat random side note, another factor that transportation nerds have been eyeing has been the rise of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles that are shared by multiple riders are one option touted as a possible future mode for mass transit. I’ve been skeptical of stuff like this for a variety of reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing having more appeal in the future, at least as an alternative to buses, and assuming there’s a way to separate the passengers from each other. Also assuming that the ridesharing companies that would surely be among those providing this service survive the current economic environment, which, who knows. You’d think now would be the time for someone to be touting the benefits of this concept, but I at least haven’t seen such chatter.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

Goodbye, Greenlink

Another version of Metro’s downtown trolley system is shut down due to coronavirus, and likely won’t come back, at least not in that format.

Downtown Houston’s free shuttle may have hauled its last passenger, a victim of the central district’s stop-and-go traffic, as well as changes in how residents and visitors move around town.

GreenLink, shuttles that pick up and drop off at Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops along various streets in the downtown district, stopped March 23 as transit officials and the downtown district reduced service because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The timing could accelerate what already was a planned discontinuation of the service on May 31, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District, which owned the shuttles that started circling the city’s center in mid-2012, operated by Metro with funding from the downtown district.

Eury said given the weeks of isolation orders likely ahead, it is possible GreenLink shuttles never get a green light ever again, at least in their present form.

[…]

Metro on March 24 agreed to buy the seven buses used on the route for $264,439, their estimated value due to depreciation.

Officials said it is possible they will not go far, however. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the transit agency is exploring quick routes across the central business district to connect workers on the eastern side to the park and ride service largely focused on the west side.

“I’ve had a number of people who live in northern or western park and ride areas tell me they would use the service if they didn’t have to walk from the west side of the (central business district) to the east side in Houston weather,” Robinson said.

Robinson said a decision will come within a comprehensive look at the entire commuter bus system, and how it can serve jobs spreading across the downtown area and into EaDo and Midtown.

That makes sense. The Greenlink buses were low-capacity to begin with, and to some extent they were an alternative to walking, which when downtown streets were jammed was often at least as quick a way to go. Uber and Lyft also competed with Greenlink. I worked two different stints downtown, for two years in the mid-90s when the previous trolley system was in place, and for four years in the 2010s with GreenLink. I never used either service, mostly because I’m a fast and impatient walker who doesn’t mind a little recreational jaywalking. In my second time downtown, I made use of B-Cycle when I had to take a trip that was just a bit too far to walk. As Metro redesigned its local bus system a few years ago, it makes sense to rethink what GreenLink is about, and to ensure that it’s providing the kind of rides that most people really need. After we’re all able to get out of the house and use it again, of course.

Coronavirus and driving

There are a lot fewer cars on the road now, though the decrease may not be quite as much as you’d think.

I don’t miss this

Traffic around the country has plummeted since governments began enacting stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak, but data from vehicle navigation systems and other monitors shows many of us are still out of our homes and on the road.

Nationwide, traffic analytics firms say, daily traffic remains at about 60% of normal levels, even as the vast majority of Americans tell pollsters they’re staying home more.

In California, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, daily trips statewide remain at 58% of normal levels, according to Wejo, a British company that collects data from sensors in some passenger vehicles.

On Wednesday – two days after the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland enacted stay-at-home orders – daily car trips in the region remained at 51% of normal in D.C., 53% in Maryland and 59% in Virginia, according to Wejo, which does not include trucks or other commercial vehicles.

The figures are similar in parts of the country at the forefront of the U.S. covid-19 outbreak and where people have been under shelter-in-place orders longer.

[…]

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted March 22-25 found that 91% of Americans reported staying home as much as possible due to the coronavirus outbreak, and nearly 9 in 10 said they had stopped going to restaurants and bars.

But plenty of Americans are still on the road, even if they have curtailed their travel.

Some of the remaining traffic, experts say, stems from motorists heading to and from the many worksites that have been deemed “essential”: health-care facilities, supermarkets and liquor stores, construction sites, banks, dry cleaners, hardware stores, pet stores, government facilities, and auto and bicycle repair shops, among others. The Washington region’s orders also exempt plumbers, electricians and others needed for home repairs.

Some workers who previously might have taken mass transit or carpooled might now be driving alone in an attempt to distance themselves from others, experts say. Public transportation service hours also have been curtailed dramatically.

And though many of us have greatly reduced our travel, we usually can’t eliminate it. Activities deemed essential to carrying on daily life include fetching food, going to a doctor’s appointment or picking up a prescription. In The Post-ABC News poll, 6 in 10 people said they had stocked up on food and household supplies.

And if you want to hit the road to avoid climbing the walls? Washington-area officials say it’s OK to drive for “leisure” or relaxation – a pastime not typically associated with the region’s roads.

It turns out that a lot of driving is not just for going to and from work, but for things like errands and shopping, which people are still doing albeit not as often. And of course there are a lot of people who still have to go to work, for those essential services. My team was ordered to start working from home on March 9, and I’ve barely been on the road since then. I don’t miss it at all. It has been a good opportunity to give my elder daughter some road experience with her learner’s permit, since we’re much less likely to encounter nasty conditions. This was a national story from the Washington Post, so there was no Texas-specific information in it, but an earlier Chron story suggests we’ve seen the same effect here, so much so that conditions have been great for road construction projects. It wouldn’t surprise me if one result of all this is more people working from home for the long term, which in turn would mean a permanent dip in traffic. We can all hope.

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

Houston-area transit officials will wait out a little more of the coronavirus crisis before soliciting bids on five of the first projects in their $7 billion construction bonanza for bus and rail upgrades.

“Moving this by a month does not hurt anything at all,” said Sanjay Ramabhadran, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member.

Board members on Tuesday delayed approval of the procedure for selecting engineering, architecture and design firms for what could be more than $1 billion in bus and rail projects along key routes. The projects are the first in the agency’s long-range transportation plan, which voters approved in November, authorizing Metro to borrow up to $3.5 billion. The remaining costs for the program, called MetroNext, will be covered by federal grants and unspent local money Metro set aside for future budgets.

Instead, officials said the requests for proposals are set for approval in April for:

  • an extension of the Green and Purple light-rail lines to the Houston Municipal Courthouse
  • bus rapid transit and a dedicated lane along Interstate 10 from Loop 610 to downtown Houston
  • rapid bus service and use of managed lanes along Interstate 45
  • a new Missouri City Park and Ride
  • enhanced bus corridors along the Westheimer and Lockwood bus routes

The time will allow Metro officials to review the specifics of the agreements, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for some background. No mention of the Uptown BRT line, whose target opening date is now July, though Lord knows what anything means at this time. Metro has suspended fare collection for now, in part because people need all the help they can get during this crisis, and in part because ridership numbers have plummeted during the crisis. Neither of those will have much effect on Metro’s cash flow in the short term, but the concurrent decline in local sales tax revenue will. We’ll know more about that in May when the Comptroller disburses the March tax revenues.

Metro suspends fare collections

Among other things.

Transit in Houston will be free starting Monday and passengers will use the rear door to board and exit buses to limit exposure to drivers and other riders, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Friday.

The changes are aimed at providing some social distance for passengers and employees while also offering some savings for Houstonians facing job and wage losses during the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“Everyone is facing economic hardships, so we are going to adjust the system,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

While necessary for many to access jobs, crowded buses and trains complicate efforts for riders to keep a distance between themselves and others as medical experts advise to reduce the spread of the coronavirus or the COVID-19 illness it causes. Though Metro has seen sharp declines in ridership, it remains fully functional, agency leaders said.

Generally, only the back doors of local buses will be used so fewer people have to walk from the front of the bus to a seat, Lambert said. Anyone who needs a ramp or lower step to enter and exit the bus still will be able to use the front door, he said.

Dropping fares is one of several changes to Metro’s operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Along many high-use routes, Metro has added buses and put placards on seats encouraging people to distance themselves from other passengers.

You can see the full press release from Metro here, and their coronavirus resource page is here. San Antonio’s VIA has taken the same step. Metro is also running more buses on certain routes to help people maintain social distancing. There’s still a lot of people that have to go to work, and they deserve all the care we can give them. Like traffic in general, Metro’s ridership is down at this time, and they will have to deal with the financial fallout from that when this is over, but in the meantime they’re still providing service. I’m glad for that.

Les traffic, easier construction

We’ll be talking about the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come.

A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.

Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.

“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.

This is actually a great time to hit the streets and get some major work done while there are fewer folks driving, officials said. Work is accelerating or changing on a handful of projects, Lewis said. Typically during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, crews halt work on TxDOT projects in the vicinity of NRG Park. When the rodeo pulled up stakes, the highway workers returned.

The chance to disrupt fewer drivers also is changing some schedules, Lewis said.

“Work on the (Loop) 610-Interstate 69 interchange project has moved up the placement of beams for some of the new connectors,” she said.

Contractors working with TxDOT also are seeing if they can extend lane closures to expedite work while traffic volumes are low. Lewis said those are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“As events evolve, this also could change,” she said.

This all might not last too long – Lord knows, we are all hoping that the bulk of the social-distancing requirements will have a short lifespan – but road construction will be a little easier, and a whole lot less disruptive, in the meantime. I know I’ve barely been in my car over the past two weeks – my group at work was told to start telecommuting ahead of most others, and this past week was spring break. What has been your experience – are you driving less and enjoying the respite, or driving as much and enjoying the lesser traffic?

Texas Central hopes to start construction this year

It would be best for them if they get going before the Lege can take any action against them.

After an economic impact statement and safety rules are completed, the Texas High-Speed Train may begin construction before the end of 2020.

David Hagy with Texas Central said The Texas High-Speed Rail, a 240-mile high-speed rail line meant to make a 90-minute commute from Houston to Dallas, is expected to complete its Economic Impact Statement and safety guidelines by this summer. The train travels 200 mph between destinations, with 30-minute wait times for rides during peak times. A map on the Texas Central website shows the rail’s alignment running through northwest Harris County roughly along U.S. 290 and heads north after Hockley.

Hagy, regional vice president of external affairs for Texas Central, gave a presentation about the high-speed rail to the Government and Transportation committee of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce on March 5.

[…]

As for land acquisition, Hagy assured that the Texas Central team is attempting to avoid going through private property as much as possible while offering to buy land above its appraised value. Texas Central already has a preferred route with roughly 30 percent of parcels needed purchased.

“All of our routes that we looked at are really drawn by the Federal Railway Administration with our input and public comments and meetings,” Hagy said. “When you straighten that route out you end up impacting a lot of private property that was not only set aside environmentally for (I-45) but you also impact a lot of it. There’s also the Sam Houston National Forest and all kinds of complications.”

Just passing along the news, which was from an earlier time when we could contemplate things like this without thinking about what effect coronavirus would have on it. Texas Central still has obstacles beyond that and the Legislature – they need to acquire all the land they require, and the question about whether they can use eminent domain remains an open question – but it’s my belief that the more physical progress they can make, the harder it will be for their opponent to stop them. This will be the test of that.

Improved bus corridors are coming

Sounds promising.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is set to upgrade a pair of Houston bus routes, hoping that raising the quality of bus service will prove the key to increasing transit use.

The 54 Scott and the 56 Montrose/Airline routes will be the first put to the test of as part of Metro’s “Bus Operations Optimized System Treatments” — aka BOOST. The corridors will be decked out with spruced-up bus stops and shelters, bike racks and better sidewalk and trail access where practical. Digital signs at bus stops will give real-time information about when the next bus is coming.

Some of the most striking improvements, however, will be less about what riders can see and more about the technology that will provide buses an advantage by communicating with traffic signals. That could in some locations give the bus extra time to make a changing green light, or hurry through the red-light cycle to decrease the time the bus spends at an intersection.

“Getting through that intersection, if we can hold the green light a little longer, improves our travel time,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Less time sitting at stoplights could make transit more attractive.

“What they are trying to do is drive bus ridership,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director for Houston Public Works, which is working with Metro along the corridors.

Construction along the corridors is expected to start in the coming months and take 18-to-24 months to complete, transit officials said.

[…]

The Scott and Airline routes were chosen as the first of 17 BOOST routes because both follow bustling commercial corridors, have high ridership — both typically average around 6,000 daily boardings — and development along the routes is walk-able by Houston standards, officials said. Both lines also cross other core routes in the Metro system, such as the Red and Purple light rail lines and the Route 82 Westheimer, Route 2 Bellaire and Route 4 Beechnut bus lines.

We first heard about this last January as the first details of the MetroNext referendum started coming out. Traffic lights are a big variable in bus travel times, so adding some predictability, which in turn should allow for more frequency, is welcome. I used the 56 a lot when I was working downtown, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this in action.

The people who oppose the high speed rail line still oppose the high speed rail line

In case you were wondering.

In the same room where many mobilized against the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor freeway project 15 years ago, critics of a proposed Houston-to-Dallas bullet train promised to shoot that down, too. No matter how long that takes.

“Unfortunately, we are five years in and I can see five more years,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

At a Wednesday night town hall organized by the group and attended by local and state officials along with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, elected leaders promised the crowd a fight starting in Washington, where regulators are expected to release safety requirements for high-speed trains and consider whether the Texas Central project is a federally-recognized railroad.

“After we stop them again in Washington, this battle shifts back to Texas,” Brady told the crowd of landowners, mostly from Grimes, Montgomery, Waller, Harris and Madison counties.

[…]

In a statement, Texas Central said it remains committed to the project, noting the support of more than 100 groups and organizations.

“It is not surprising that those few detractors would also attempt to be vocal as progress is being made,” the company said.

I don’t think anything has changed recently. Either Texas Central can get to a point in their construction where they’re basically unstoppable, or the opposition may be able to put up a roadblock they can’t overcome. At this point it looks like they may have to survive one more legislative session, and who knows where that may go. I think as long as the US House stays Democratic it’s fairly unlikely that such an obstacle will come from there, as the Democrats from Houston and D/FW are not going to support anything to kill this. The courts remain a wild, but they may also be too slow-moving to be a factor. One way or another, the race is until construction really gets started.

Nuro set to roll out

Ready or not, here they come.

Self-driving delivery vehicles that carry no humans will hit Houston roads next month.

Nuro, a San Francisco technology company, is planning to deploy its next-generation autonomous delivery vehicles in Houston after receiving federal approval. The R2, which features climate-controlled compartments and 360-degree cameras, radar and sensors, will carry grocery orders from Kroger and Walmart to customer’s homes, starting in March.

Nuro last year began piloting self-driving Prius cars in Houston, but the delivery vehicles still had a human driver and passenger to oversee the technology. The R2, which weighs about 2,500 pounds and has a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour, will have no human driver or passenger.

[…]

Several grocers, including Kroger, Walmart and H-E-B, are testing self-driving grocery delivery service in Texas. Supermarket chains are investing heavily in new technologies to win over online shoppers. Customers using the autonomous vehicle delivery service will have to pick up their groceries from the vehicle curbside, notified of their arrival via text message. They will use a unique code to pick up their groceries.

See here, here, and here for some background. I am very interested in three aspects of this. One is just how many people will use this service at all, and how that changes people’s grocery shopping habits. You still have to shop, you’re just doing it over an app instead of in person at the store, where your decisions may be affected by the sights and smells of the goods, the samples and specials that are being pushed, whatever other impulses you may have, and what your kids may be nagging you for if they’re with you. I could see this being used more heavily for last-minute and “oops, I forgot I needed this thing and I don’t want to go back to the store” needs than as a full substitute for doing the in-person stuff.

Two, how many people who already use some form of human-delivered groceries will switch to this. The Nuro option will surely be cheaper (and there’s no guilt about tipping), but you have to be home to retrieve the groceries. As I’ve noted before, when we’ve used Whole Foods’ delivery service, we put a cooler on the front porch and have them deliver while we’re at work. That’s a real time and effort-saver for us, and as such it’s worth the extra cost. How tight a delivery window will you get with Nuro? If I know I’m only going to be home or available while I’m at home for a short period of time, do I trust my order will arrive when I need it to? And of course some people will require assistance in bringing their groceries in, and some people will not want to leave their house on days that are cold or scorching hot or rainy to haul bags of groceries inside. How that will break down is not at all clear to me.

Finally, note that the top speed of these things is 25 MPH. That’s nice and safe and very pedestrian-friendly, but it’s also going to mean a lot of aggrieved drivers on Houston’s main roads doing dumb things to get around the Nuro cars. I suspect there will be some number of accidents that aren’t the Nuros’ fault but wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t exist. I can’t wait to see a study about that effect. Also, going back to my second point, how confident will Kroger and Walmart be in the delivery time estimates they give their customers? My guess is their algorithms will have to be tweaked a bit here and there over time. What do you think? Does this option excite you or is it just another tech thing you’ll never use?

There’s still (a little) time to affect the I-45 design

There’s stuff happening this week. After that, it gets harder.

City officials and consultants will spend the coming weeks finalizing a few ways to turn the region’s largest and most controversial freeway rebuild of recent years into an Interstate 45 for commuters and inner-city-dwellers alike.

First, however, they must weigh about three dozen ideas with their costs, be it more traffic, trouble for pedestrians or added property acquisition.

“Every one of these is a set of trade-offs,” consultant Christof Spieler told a crowd Feb. 1 at Aldine Ninth Grade School. “If you make lanes narrower, that means you need less property, but it also means you might have more crashes.”

City planners and consultants said the ideas are all viable in and of themselves, but some would require the Texas Department of Transportation to seek federal waivers, such as one calling for 11-foot freeway lanes in certain areas. Others could be a choice between different interests, such as moving the freeway away from White Oak Bayou to preserve greenspace, at the cost of a “more massive” set of ramps, planners said.

The project, expected to cost at least $7 billion, will rebuild most of the downtown freeway system along I-45, Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 and assorted ramps. North of downtown, TxDOT plans to reconstruct I-45 with two managed lanes in each direction from I-10 to Beltway 8.

TxDOT is moving ahead with plans for final environmental approvals and could begin construction within 12 months.

City officials will accept comments on their proposed changes through Friday, and forward the refined ideas to TxDOT in the coming weeks.

[…]

State officials expect to release the final environmental assessment on the project, broken into three segments, in late spring or early summer. Paul encouraged people to examine the final proposal for some of the changes TxDOT already has incorporated to address some of the concerns.

That release will kick off a comment period — though the state does not plan to hold public meetings — before TxDOT can seek federal clearance. With that approval, TxDOT can proceed with construction, which is planned to begin on the southern end near I-69 and Spur 527 and move around downtown and then along I-10 and northward.

The main thing you can do is to take the City of Houston survey about the I045 project, to give them your input and thus help shape the feedback they will give to TxDOT. There are a lot of voices out there, and they don’t all want the same thing, so make your voice heard. You have until Friday, the 14th, for your answers to be included. It has 40 questions and takes a bit of time, so plan accordingly.

And in case you were wondering, this is still in the picture.

“It is a mistake to route our traffic through downtown,” said Michael Skelly, who has organized some of the efforts to change the project over the past two years.

While saying some of the city suggestions would improve the project, Skelly said Houston does not go far enough in demanding changes. Skelly said he wants officials to consider minor changes to I-45 and focus their efforts on routing traffic out of downtown along Loop 610 or the Sam Houston Tollway, through mostly commercial and industrial areas.

“If we’re going to spend $7 billion, I’d rather spend it on a big idea like this,” Skelly said.

The idea, along with opposition by a group arguing to stop the project entirely, contradicts the mandate designers had when they settled on the plan in 2015 to widen the freeway and re-route it to the east side of downtown. For years, their goal has been to increase capacity on I-45 — not move that capacity elsewhere.

“We’re not taking that for granted,” Spieler said. “If the response we get is that reducing capacity is a goal, that requires TxDOT to not fulfill what they are trying to do. Within that, we don’t know which of these are good ideas or bad ideas, but we think there are more options for change.”

I’m not exactly sure what it will take to make that happen, but at least it’s out there.

A better way to do I-45

From Michael Skelley on Facebook:

Here’s a new vision for I-45.
-saves money
-no displacement in low income areas
-no destruction of White Oak Bayou
-prevents TxDOT vandalization of EaDo
-downtown amenities if we want to fund those ourselves

This vision addresses the fundamental problem with this project – we should not be sending thru traffic through the heart of Houston, especially at the expense of low income communities, our kids’ health, and our bayous.

Almost half the traffic on I-45 is not going downtown. Let’s use Beltway 8 and 610 for thru traffic.

Please let us know what you think!

I like this a lot. I’d need to see some numbers, but I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of spare capacity on the east sides of Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As someone noted in the comments on this post, the 45-to-610-to-45 route is only about five miles longer than the 45-all-the-way route, and once you factor in the potential time savings from traffic that flows better, it would probably be no slower than the average trip along 45 is now. This would cost a lot less because there would be a lot less actual construction, and it would be less disruptive because the main construction needed would be at the two interchanges between 45 and 610, rather than the enormous integrations of I-45 into US59 and I-10 that are being proposed today. It would also allow the reclamation of a bunch of downtown real estate now being taken up by the existing I-45 – no more Pierce Elevated, as the current plan allows, but also no more gulf between the Heights and the Near Northside and Lindale. Much of 59 south of downtown was put below grade during its last major renovation, in response to public demand. This makes so much sense I’m kind of surprised no one had proposed it before now. I hope it’s not too late to make TxDOT consider it. What do you think?