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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Get ready for more construction in 2022

Happy New Year! Here are the places you’ll want to avoid driving in 2022.

Flush with green, Houston area transportation officials have a whiteboard full of highway and transit projects poised to start in 2022, but rolling out all that blacktop will mean drivers see many more orange cones and construction zones, leaving some feeling blue.

Texas Department of Transportation construction spending is expected to top $2.2 billion for the Houston region for fiscal 2022, which began Sept. 1, nearly double the 2021 total. The projects that money pays for are spread across the region, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, during a discussion with local transportation officials.

“(2022) is going to be a very big year for our region, for the contractors and whatnot,” Koch told members of the Houston-Galveston Council’s transportation advisory committee on Dec. 9. “You will see a lot of barrels and cones out.”

Among the major projects set to break ground in the year are new bridges across Texas 288 to remove many at-grade crossings from the highway and transition more of it to a freeway-like form. Across five different projects, TxDOT has teed up $135.6 million worth of work on overpasses in Brazoria County, along with a $70.9 million planned widening of Texas 36.

[…]

Upcoming construction, meanwhile, does not reflect work spurred by the recently approved federal infrastructure bill. The federal framework, which continues many of the same methods for funding highways and transit, is likely to jump-start a litany of other projects, officials said. Tapping those federal dollars, however, will mean as drivers see more construction zones, local and state officials — along with the engineering and planning firms they hire — will be preparing for even more work.

Much of that work is already planned for Metro, which received voter approval for $7.5 billion in new projects and upgrades in 2019, weeks before COVID changed commuting patterns worldwide. Since, Metro officials have prepped for many of the projects to proceed, with some of the earliest work likely unveiled this year.

Metro is likely to choose a preferred route and potential station locations for a planned busway along Interstate 10 in the next two or three months, allowing transit officials to get in line for federal transit money by mid-2022 as they continue design.

The project is the linchpin in Metro’s expansion of rapid transit from downtown west into Uptown, which is crucial to park-and-ride service in western and northwestern parts of Harris County, officials said.

“The benefits extend beyond those seven miles,” said Amma Cobbinah, a senior transit planner with Metro overseeing the project, noting how the lanes connect downtown to the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, a major stop for park and buses.

Now past the transit center, those commuter routes crawl along I-10 with car and truck traffic to and from downtown, making them far less efficient and timely.

Provided the project stays on pace, officials said they hope to begin construction by late 2023 and start service in 2027.

Work on the so-called Inner Katy is just one of two major bus rapid transit projects Metro is moving forward on in 2022. Transit officials in December unveiled an online open house outlining plans for the University Corridor project, a 25-mile BRT line planned from the Tidwell Transit Center north of Kashmere Gardens, south through Fifth Ward and the Eastside. The line then turns west through Third Ward and Midtown and then through Greenway Plaza and south of Uptown where it connects to the Silver Line that runs along Post Oak.

Eventually, the University Corridor will connect to the Westchase Park and Ride near Westpark and Beltway 8.

And all this also includes the ongoing projects like the 610/59 interchange and I-10 widening out west around Brookshire, not to mention some non-freeway zones. I’m excited about the two BRT projects, both of which will be with us for a couple of years. If we can live through it all, the end results should be well worth it. Drive safe, y’all.

Still no Metro redistricting

Check again in 2031.

Growth in western Harris County outside Houston’s boundaries was not enough to tip Metro’s board to 11 members during the 2020 Census, transit officials said

“It didn’t occur, so we have the same board composition,” said Carrin Patman, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro’s board seats are set by state law. Houston appoints five members to the board no matter the size of the board. As the area outside Houston grows, members are added. Currently, Harris County appoints two members, and the 14 smaller cities that are part of Metro appoint two members.

[…]

When 75 percent of the county population not covered by Houston is in Metro’s coverage area, then the county is entitled to another seat on the transit agency board. Also at that time, the rules shift from Houston’s mayor appointing the chairperson, to the ten-member board — five by the city, three county appointees and the two smaller city designees — picking an 11th member to act as chair.

Using 2020 Census population data, transit agency staff and consultants concluded 2.4 million people live outside Houston in Harris County, with 1.6 million of those within the Metro service area.

The story pegs that at 66.3% for the ratio, so assume there’s some rounding in the total population numbers given. I was pretty sure that I had blogged about this topic before, and sure enough, I did. If anything, the “portion of non-Houston Harris County that is within Metro’s service area” has declined at bit since 2011; at best, it stayed about the same as before. Harris County is growing faster than the city of Houston, but apparently more of that growth is in the non-Metro parts of the county.

I noted back in 2019 that Harris County provides some transit services for the non-Metro parts of the county. This is a subject I feel like I want to know more about, and one that I feel deserves more attention. I realize that right now is not a great time for any transit agency, but we will eventually get past that. To me, all of Harris County should be part of Metro’s service area, including the cities like Pasadena that have not wanted to be included in the past. Indeed, and I have mentioned this before, the longer term goal should be to expand Metro out into Fort Bend and Montgomery and other places where there’s a need, or failing that to ensure better integration between the differing transit agencies and their services. Given the number of governments that would need to be involved, including the Legislature if we want to change what Metro covers, that’s a huge and unwieldy task. All I’m saying here is that the greater region would be much better served with more comprehensive access to transit. Whatever the best way is to get there, let’s start moving in that direction.

One reason for the fight to stop the I-45 project

Because the project as it now stands would be bad for a lot of kids.

Principal Shawn Nickerson can see the highway connector from Bruce Elementary’s basketball court. Cars whiz by, spewing dangerous pollutants into the air. And if the proposed Interstate 45 expansion moves forward, Nickerson fears the children will be at greater risk. Some already moved because their apartments were sold to make way.

Federal officials earlier this year paused the state’s planning efforts on a rebuild of I-45 and various highway connections because of concerns about how it could affect communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Critics recently filed a federal complaint calling for greater scrutiny of those impacts.

Bruce Elementary serves as a striking example of the project’s potential harm, following a history of environmental injustice in Greater Fifth Ward. Houston ISD relocated the school in 2007 from a spot across from a lead-contaminated industrial site. It was put near the juncture of Interstates 69 and 10, northeast of downtown. Advocates say students had among the district’s higher asthma rates.

Some of the kids live in a Houston Housing Authority property across I-10, walking on a bridge over 10 lanes of traffic, never escaping the fumes. The city earlier sold the state another housing authority property where students live. Fifth Ward residents navigate too among train tracks, concrete batch plants and a rail yard contaminated with likely cancer-causing creosote, used to treat rail ties.

“Ms. Dr. Nickerson,” as students call her, can’t fix all that, but she considers it her job to advocate for better air quality and traffic safety. Her students play outside during recess. Some take puffs from inhalers at the nurse’s office beforehand.

The $9 billion I-45 project, the largest freeway redo in Houston’s history, includes expansion work from central Houston all the way up to Beltway 8 in Greenspoint. It also reroutes the highway’s path around downtown. Instead of curling west as it does now, I-45 would circle to downtown’s east alongside I-69, until it meets I-10, right by Bruce Elementary.

A newly built interchange there would include a connector that would cut right by the northwest corner of the school, seeming to come as close as possible without actually taking any school property. “Our students, when they go out to recess, what is that going to be like for them?” Nickerson asked. “What does that mean in terms of safety? Even beyond just outside, our indoor air quality, how will that change?”

[…]

Concerned about various impacts, Air Alliance Houston in 2019 helped coordinate an assessment of how schools could be affected. The environmental advocacy group looked specifically at nine schools, including Bruce. Researchers noted that children were especially vulnerable because their bodies are still developing.

Traffic-related air pollution can cause asthma to develop, the report says. Poor air quality could affect their day-to-day lives, perhaps causing missed school days from being sick and lower academic performance.

Advocates at the time suggested TxDOT build tree-lined buffers, install air monitors and not allow vehicles to idle in the carpool line. But then the argument around the project grew so large that detailed requests got lost, said Harrison Humphreys, an advocate Air Alliance Houston.

TxDOT says in the story that the project will bring about air quality improvements, and that they have reached out to the parents at Bruce Elementary. Any infrastructure project is going to have some negative effects on some people. Ideally, we try to minimize that while we maximize the benefit to the community as a whole, and we compensate the people who are being negatively affected. The deeper issue here is that the same people have been harmed by I-45 from the beginning, they continue to be harmed by it, and they’ll be first in line to be harmed by the expansion. The rest of us won’t be. This is why there are federal complaints about the project, and why Harris County filed its lawsuit, which is now on pause pending current negotiations. If we can’t come to an equitable resolution, then we really shouldn’t make the same people pay a higher price for the expansion of this highway.

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

Get ready for some major construction, but the end result will be well worth it.

Beginning next month, those who travel along North Shepherd Drive and Durham Drive in the Heights are going to have to cope with road construction – for at least the next five years.

For decades after that, though, driving down the parallel, one-way thoroughfares figures to be smooth sailing. And the same goes for walking and cycling.

Construction is expected to start in late January on the Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project, which will overhaul the two north-and-south streets between North Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to the south while adding bicycle lanes, new and wider sidewalks, landscaping and new underground infrastructure for water, wastewater and stormwater drainage. The project could take at least five years to complete, according to president Sherry Weesner of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the $115 million initiative and providing a significant portion of the funding for it.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us, but it’s going to be worth it,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights as part of District C.

[…]

Protected bike lanes have been part of the plan for the TIRZ 5 project between 610 and I-10, where they will be on the east side of both Shepherd and Durham, according to Weesner. METRO bus stops on Shepherd also will be on the east side of the street because there is room to accommodate both, she said, while the bus stops on Durham will be on the west side.

New, wider sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Shepherd and Durham, where vehicular traffic lanes will be reduced from four to three on both streets with the addition of designated turning lanes at select intersections with typically heavy traffic, such as West 11th Street. Weesner said two different traffic studies showed that congestion on Shepherd and Durham was caused mostly by the absence of turn lanes at busy intersections, so there does not figure to be a negative impact on traffic flow even with the overall reduction in lanes, she said.

In addition to the work on Shepherd and Durham, the project also calls for improvements on several of the cross streets that connect them – 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th streets.

Weesner said two other features of the project are city-owned street lights and an underground bio-retention system – called the Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater Management System – that will be beneath the trees planted on each side of Shepherd and Durham. The idea is to capture stormwater to help drainage and promote the growth of large trees.

“This is a really great project, because it can do so much,” Weesner said. “The area is really changing. The area has lots of new restaurants and other facilities, and people want to be able to walk there. People need to be able to walk from one business to the next business. Improving all modes of transportation is very important.”

I like this a lot. There’s been a ton of mostly residential construction in the area, and there are now a lot of places to eat along both Durham and Shepherd. Making it easier to get around by non-car means will be a big difference maker, and will be a boost for bus riders as well. I hope they figure out a way to connect the bike lanes directly to the Heights bike trail as it passes underneath. It will be a pain going through five years of construction, but I can’t wait to see what the result looks like.

Here comes that Universities BRT map

Show me the route!

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

See here for the previous update. I reiterate everything I said then about my mixed feelings, but I remain excited about finally getting this off the ground. We’ve needed this for a long time.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians.

Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

[…]

After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Specifically, Rogers said FHWA “is not prepared at this time to allow TxDOT to resume any right-of-way acquisition in Segment 3.” TxDOT, he added, could acquire properties from owners who approach it on a case-by-case basis “rather than relying on eminent domain.”

See here and here for some background; the story also references the lawsuit filed by Harris County that has been temporarily paused to allow the discussion that led to this agreement. It seems like the intent was to keep I-45 on the TxDOT project list for at least a little longer, to see if an agreement among all the parties can be reached. I don’t know how likely that is, but it never hurts to talk.

Though there is concern about the project’s impacts in Midtown, Third Ward and Eado, the most vocal opposition to the project emanates from north of downtown where TxDOT proposes to add two managed lanes in each direction to I-45. That widening, which requires the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses adjacent to the freeway, has drawn scorn and accusations that highway officials are perpetuating decades of carving freeways through low-income and minority communities to the detriment of those neighborhoods.

“Wider highways are not an appropriate or effective intervention to expand commerce opportunities, and they do not expand opportunities for those bearing the greatest burdens of the expansion,” more than 15 groups wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, released Tuesday. “Highway construction and expansion interrupt lives, displace people from their homes and businesses, and decimate generational wealth, especially in communities of color.”

The letter, a response to a letter sent by seven Houston-area Congressman urging Buttigieg to not impede the project, was drafted by Stop TxDOT I-45, which formed to oppose the project, along with Air Alliance Houston and 14 environmental, community or left-leaning groups.

See here for more on that, and here for the response letter, which also observes that the people who want to get the I-45 project going don’t represent those who will be affected by it. I doubt there’s an agreement that satisfies everyone, but there are definitely options that do a better job of minimizing harm and promoting equity. That’s what we need to aim for.

Yeah, traffic is worse than before

You’re not surprised, are you?

By most measures, traffic is back to pre-COVID congestion levels — or even more clogged in some cases. What seems to have changed, based on a handful of studies that looked at different facets of how drivers moved around American cities and locally, is who is logging all those miles.

“There are still a lot of people who are not driving like they used to, but those that are driving are driving more miles,” said Jeff Schlitt, director of sales engineering for Arity, which tracks driver behavior.

As they log more miles, however, drivers are not letting up on the gas pedal, not keeping their eyes on the road and often not driving safely.

“Our trend is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said during a Sept. 30 update on road safety at the commission’s monthly meeting.

Arity, a spinoff business of insurance giant Allstate, follows drivers via smartphone apps that meticulously track location, allowing the company to measure numerous patterns, including trip routes, speed of travel, mobile phone use and sudden stops. Through data from third-party apps — the company says it receives data from 60 percent of U.S. drivers — the company then studies changes in trends.

In its latest report, released last month, Arity said overall U.S. vehicle travel is 8 percent higher than 2019 levels before the pandemic. Travel varies by state, however, with Texas up 10 percent and Massachusetts up 1 percent.

In Houston, COVID dropped freeway traffic volumes by about 45 percent in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, before congestion crept back up and remained about 10 percent below 2019 averages for most of last year, according to data compiled by Houston TranStar.

When fears of a winter surge in COVID cases sent many back into isolation last December, traffic volumes dipped again, then eased. By March, when the first wave of Texans were fully vaccinated, traffic volumes had risen above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic dropped off in the summer, as is common when schools are out of session, something Schlitt and others said was a sign of normalcy.

“I think what we are seeing is a return to seasonality patterns,” Schlitt said.

Drivers said they are also seeing people moving back into their old habits of going to stores rather than relying on deliveries or choosing to eat in restaurants rather than cook at home.

[…]

With roughly three months left in the year, 3,278 people have died on Texas roadways, according to the state’s crash reporting system. Typically some reports can take weeks to appear in the system, and Ryan recently said the daily average of deaths has increased to 13 per day for September.

Unless the roadway carnage rapidly slows, Texas is on pace for more than 4,000 deaths. That would be the highest since 1982, when the per-mile fatality rate was three times higher, cars lacked airbags, drivers and passengers were far less likely to wear seat belts and aggressive enforcement of drunken driving was rare.

During the early months of the pandemic, highway and traffic safety officials said fewer drivers on the road left more room for unsafe motorists, who used less-congested lanes to accelerate. That meant that even though Texas had fewer collisions, they were happening at faster speeds, leading to tragic results.

Now, safety observers said with drivers accustomed to those 75 mph and 80 mph speeds, freeways are more crowded and collisions are increasing. For the first nine months of 2020, Texas police logged 393,919 crashes. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, at least 459,972 crashes have occurred, a roughly 15 percent jump.

I have done so much less driving over the past 18 months, thanks to working from home. It’s contributed to a significant reduction in stress for me, and I’m not a nervous driver. I’m just much happier not having to drive on our miserable freeways day in and day out. Some number of commuters are taking advantage of more flexible or hybrid work schedules these days to be on the road more in the middle of the day, which is better for them but maybe not as good for the people who are normally on the road at those times. All I know is, the longer I can go as a mostly non-driver, the better.

Metro approves electric bus purchase

We should have them in a few months.

Metro is charging ahead with its plan to add electric buses to the local transit fleet.

Board members Thursday approved a $22 million contract for 20 new buses and chargers that will operate along two routes that cross at the Texas Medical Center. They will be the first all-electric buses the Metropolitan Transit Agency has added to its roughly 1,200-bus inventory.

“Getting the ball rolling is important,” board member Chris Hollins said.

Officials will spend the next few weeks finalizing the contract, and barring any delays or a lack of progress on a federal grant that could pay most of the cost, the new buses will arrive and start carrying passengers in late 2022, officials said.

Ten buses will operate on Route 28 along Old Spanish Trail and Wayside, and 10 would be deployed to the Route 402 Bellaire Quickline. The buses are built by NOVA, one of four vendors that submitted proposals to Metro.

“We are going to get some real-world operating experiences,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Importantly, Lambert said, the buses are going to routes that serve communities where improving air quality is critical.

The routes were chosen because they operate at the right distances for testing electric buses and both stop at the Texas Medical Center Transit Center for drivers to take breaks, said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

Metro is buying the buses but could defer its own costs so federal money picks up most of the tab. The agency has a $20 million grant proposal in the process with the Federal Transit Administration that, if approved, would virtually pay for the new buses.

See here and here for the background. Electric buses currently cost about twice as much as diesel buses, but the grant will mostly offset the purchase of these buses, and with future investment spurred by the infrastructure bill and the need to fight climate change, the price gap will narrow. I look forward to seeing these buses in action.

Rolling coal

From last week.

A teen who struck six cyclists while allegedly blanketing them in black smoke along a Waller County road faces six felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“One for each of the people he almost killed with his reckless and violent behavior behind the wheel,” said Rachael Maney, national director for Bike Law Network, which is representing the riders, in a statement.

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis presented the case to a grand jury last week, with the recommended charges.

“Earlier today the juvenile voluntarily surrendered himself, and was detained by representatives from the juvenile justice department where he will be held in custody until further orders of the juvenile court,” Mathis said in a statement.

Because the driver was 16, the charges are filed in juvenile court, but could be elevated to adult court. Charging someone under the age of 17 as an adult requires a process that must be certified by a County Court at Law judge. Mathis did not respond when asked whether prosecutors were seeking to elevate the case to adult criminal court.

Rick DeToto, a Houston lawyer hired by the teen’s parents, said because of the “confidentiality laws surrounding juvenile cases, we have no further comment at this time.”

“My client and his family continue to pray for the quick recovery of the injured bikers,” DeToto said.

The six cyclists on a training ride were struck Sept. 25 as they rode with dozens of others along U.S. 290 Business about two miles west of downtown Waller. Four of the injured were taken to area hospitals, two with significant injuries.

“We are happy to report that our clients continue to make advancements, no matter how small, on the long road of physical recovery ahead,” Maney said.

[…]

Maney, speaking for the other lawyers representing the riders, credited local officials for — albeit weeks later — treating the case seriously.

“I believe that … Mathis and special prosecutor Warren Diepraam have done their jobs to deliver what is a real step towards justice given what’s possible and what’s not within the Texas criminal justice system,” Maney wrote. “A system that does not favor people on bikes and generally provides far too much room for police and other prosecutors to endorse the marginalization of cyclists and other vulnerable road users through their historic inaction.”

Many cyclists, including those outside the area as the case drew national attention, heavily criticized local officials for not arresting or charging the teen at the scene and suggested the small-town politics of Waller led to a lax response.

“When law enforcement lets drivers get away with threatening and attacking people on bikes, they send a message that drivers own the road, and that anyone else is merely an obstruction,” said BikeHouston Executive Director Joe Cutrufo.

I don’t have a strong opinion on what an appropriate punishment for a 16-year-old should be in this instance. I’m just of the opinion that he cannot be allowed to get away with it, which it looked like he might at first. This malicious stunt could have easily had a death count with it, and he needs to feel some consequences for that, both for his own good and to serve as a warning to other idiots like him.

I’m willing to wait and see what happens with the criminal justice part of this, since it is at least on track. But there are other issues to consider as well.

Rolling coal is nothing new in truck-loving Texas. Videos of elaborately tricked-out pickups blasting diesel smoke are all over social media. But the recent incidents have raised questions about the practice of tampering with diesel engines.

Just a week or so after the Waller crash, an unidentified driver was seen on a now-deleted viral video rolling coal into a packed Whataburger in Cypress off of U.S. 290 after a high school football game. The person who took the video, Jayson Manzanares of Bridgeland High School, said he often sees drivers in his area rolling coal, but usually at a stoplight and not directed at people.

Local truck aficionados and environmental advocates agree coal rollers are an inexperienced, rogue minority of drivers who give diesel a bad name. But many who don’t roll coal do tamper with their diesel vehicles’ exhaust systems, often disabling the emissions control system or installing aftermarket defeat devices that help cheat emissions tests, as Volkswagen did in its scandal. The practice adds huge amounts of pollutants to the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Modifying diesel exhaust systems is illegal, but drivers rarely are sanctioned for doing so, or for using diesel smoke to harass or harm pedestrians, bicyclists or other drivers. Until that happens, the practice is unlikely to stop, officials and safety and environmental advocates say.

I mean, this should be a total no-brainer. Put some real penalties into the crime of “rolling coal”, with actual enforcement, and do the same for tampering with diesel exhaust systems. I know we won’t get that with our current Legislature, but put it on the wish list for the future.

Republicans want to get the I-45 project going again

We all want things.

Seven Republican members of Congress from the Houston area are urging federal transportation officials to quickly wrap up a review of Texas’ planned Interstate 45 rebuild, arguing that much of the opposition to the project is “disingenuous” and has come from national environmentalist groups.

In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls and six of his GOP colleagues criticized the Federal Highway Administration’s move to study the I-45 project’s effect on low-income and minority communities, which has put the rebuild on pause since June.

The Republican congressmen said the project would help alleviate traffic congestion, “establish I-45 as a viable hurricane evacuation route” and expand “commerce opportunities,” among other benefits for the Houston region. And while Buttigieg has sided with local officials and advocates who say the plan overly disrupts low-income and minority communities, the GOP officials said the federal halt on the project “will place the people you purport to be concerned about at a severe economic disadvantage and endanger their safety.”

Nehls, R-Richmond, was joined in signing the letter by U.S. Reps. Brian Babin, Kevin Brady, Michael Cloud, Dan Crenshaw, Michael McCaul and Randy Weber. They also argued that “a disturbing amount of opposition to the project is coming from outside of Texas,” noting that the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement are backing a local group’s efforts to halt the project.

“While we support and appreciate local communities engaging in government and the decisions that impact them, it is disingenuous to cloak radical environmentalism with the alleged local considerations,” the letter reads.

See here and here for some background – basically, the Federal Highways Administration is following up on a request to investigate the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll; they’re also reviewing an agreement with TxDOT that allows the state agency to approve its own projects. Both of these will take some time, and while it’s reasonable to ask how long they may take, sometimes the answer’s gonna be “as long as it takes”. There’s also a lawsuit filed by Harris County to make TxDOT review the environmental review of the project, which needless to say would set things back a long way. I don’t know that Secretary Buttigieg could give these guys an answer that would satisfy them even if he wanted to. It’s fine by me if he just tells them they’ll need to be patient.

By the way, in the current Congressional map, Reps. Cloud, McCaul, and Babin have districts that do not include any piece of I-45. In the new map, the piece of Rep. Nehls’ district that crossed I-45 is now in Rep. Babin’s. I guess when their buddy asks them to sign a letter, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with them for it to get signed.

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

Built on top of tree-lined East Avenue, the road opened in 1962, cutting off Black and Mexican-American East Austin from Downtown. Like urban renewal projects in other American cities, the road’s destructive legacy has recently been reconsidered in racial terms.

But unlike with similar projects in Syracuse and New Haven, the question in Austin is not how to tear down the highway but how to expand it. Those cities are not growing; Austin is. Just as the Texas capital embarks on its generational transit investment, the state is planning to spend almost $5 billion to expand eight miles of I-35 through Downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide. Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) will join the mainlanes and frontage roads, stretching the highway’s width to nearly 600 feet in places, and erasing almost 150 properties.

With their latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers, the blueprints have the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations. It’s a testament to America’s highway designers that this tangle, hard to follow with one finger, will one day be navigable at 70 miles per hour.

[…]

Last month, the mayor and nearly the entirety of the Austin City Council signed a letter addressed to the I-35 team at the Department of Transportation with some requests: Change the design to narrow the right-of-way. Build more crossings. Make frontage roads into pleasant local streets. Design, fund, and build highway decks—suspended parks over the road—to knit together neighborhoods that were severed in 1962. And delay the project until Austin can complete its transit lines.

“It’s something we have to do something about. It’s deadly, it’s dirty, it divides our community,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a City Council member who has denounced the plan. “I-35 is the poster child for our car-choked congestion problems, and their solution is just to make it bigger. They tell us the life span is 75 years. That means 2100. When I think about 2100, I don’t see a sprawling Houston, but a city that helps people move around without cars.”

There are alternate proposals, such as the one drawn up by the Urban Land Institute at the behest of Downtown interests. That design proposes a narrower right-of-way, cantilevered frontage roads, highway decks to support green space, and new housing alongside it all. A similar highway cap, Klyde Warren Park, opened in Dallas to much fanfare in 2012.

A local group called Reconnect Austin wants to bury the highway entirely and build a surface-level boulevard, in the style of Boston’s Big Dig. Divert intercity traffic to State Highway 130, a road built east of Austin two decades ago for just this purpose. Give the city’s transit network a chance to make its mark, they argue, before you undermine its offerings with a brand new (free) highway.

See here for the background. I wanted to highlight this article for two reasons. One was because it referenced an Austin Politics report that showed how TxDOT’s predictions for future traffic on I-35 are basically the same as they were 20 years ago, and that the levels of traffic they were predicting then have not come close to being accurate. Makes me wonder what a bit of similar investigation into claims about traffic on I-45 would yield.

The other is for this diagram, taken from TxDOT’s renderings for the proposed expansion, and included in the piece:

I’d say I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous than that, but then I have seen TxDOT’s plans for I-45, so. Anyway, check it out.

Elon Musk’s underground adventure

Say what now?

When it surfaced two months ago, the notion of Teslas whizzing through underground tunnels between San Antonio International Airport and downtown seemed fanciful.

Now, there’s a sign the idea may have gained some traction.

The Boring Co., a tunneling firm backed by billionaire Elon Musk, has been talking to local leaders about building an underground transportation loop in San Antonio. Musk is the CEO of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, as well as the founder and head of SpaceX.

Under The Boring Co. proposal, a fleet of company-driven Teslas would use the below-ground circuit to shuttle visitors between the airport and downtown San Antonio, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.

On Oct. 1, in what sources described as the first concrete step to explore the idea seriously, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority formally invited contractors to submit plans for “a transportation project that can efficiently and economically transport people between the general vicinity of the San Antonio International Airport and the downtown area of San Antonio.”

Alamo RMA Chairman Michael Lynd Jr., a residential estate developer, said the authority issued the request for airport-to-downtown plans in “response to a proposal submitted to us by a company.” He declined to identify the firm. Sources told the Express-News it was The Boring Co.

Lynd said the authority now has opened the process to competing firms with ideas for a better, “economically viable” way to move travelers from the airport to the center city.

“First, give us an idea,” he said. “Next, give us the facts and the tangible data behind it.”

The deadline for proposals is Dec. 1.

Read the rest, because it doesn’t get any less bonkers. I have no idea how this could possibly be economically viable, but I’m not a spacefaring billionaire supergenius, so don’t pay me any mind. I will say that it’s a 15 minute drive from the San Antonio airport to downtown SA, so it’s not like the Uber/Lyft fares they’d be competing with are particularly expensive. But it would be cool, you have to admit that.

Still more driverless trucks

A familiar story by now.

Some trucks hauling FedEx deliveries from Dallas to Houston may soon be missing a key feature: drivers.

Autonomous vehicle company Aurora announced this month it has partnered with FedEx and truck-manufacturer PACCAR to begin testing driverless big rigs along the 250-mile stretch of I-45 between Texas’ two largest cities. While the trucks will make the trek with a safety driver up front until at least 2023, almost all of the roadway decision-making and driving will be left to Aurora’s software systems and location-sensing hardware.

Gerardo Interiano, VP of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Aurora, said Texas seemed like an obvious place to test their trucking service.

“Trucking is the backbone of our economy, and Texas moves more goods by truck than any other state,” he said. “The weather is favorable and it’s a welcoming state for new technologies, both of which are advantageous as we refine and deploy our technology and service with a trusted transportation company like FedEx.”

[…]

Aurora’s trucks will deal exclusively with “middle mile” applications, which usually involve shipping goods between large cities. They will not yet experiment with last-mile deliveries, which deliver products directly to stores and doorsteps, or cross-country trips. The trucks will pick up loads at a delivery facility on the outskirts of Dallas and drop them off at a FedEx facility north of Houston, avoiding the more congested and urban stretches of the freeway.

The new trucks will use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar, which uses reflected light and the Doppler effect to detect traffic conditions about 1,000 feet up the road.

The story notes some autonomous car rollouts in various Texas cities, but does not note that there have been announcements of driverless trucks in Texas before, with Otto supposed to be on I-45 and TuSimple on I-10. I have no idea if they are actually doing the things they claimed to be ready to do in 2019, but they did claim them, and now they have more company. Mashable and TechCrunch have more.

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

In May 2019, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) unveiled a $7.5 billion plan to expand the abhorred stretch of I-35 that snakes through the center of Austin. Dubbed the Capital Express Project, the proposal’s potential changes were drastic: In addition to adding two levels of tunnels, it would widen the highway on each side by several lanes and significantly increase the interstate’s footprint. State officials proclaimed the proposition, still in its infancy, as the long-awaited answer to the capital city’s notorious traffic woes.

“This is a huge choke point for the entire state of Texas,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said of the plan. “We now have a solution on the table. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”

On its face, the proposal seemed like a promising offer for Austinites who spend countless hours idling on the most congested stretch of road in all of Texas. But in reality, it was the blueprint for an ineffective, outdated strategy that would only spur sprawl, transportation advocates argued. In fact, they pointed out, studies show that roadway buildout actually increases congestion because it fuels the need for car-centric transit.

All of this was on the mind of Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison as she drove up to Dallas later that fall. Born and raised on the capital city’s East Side, she knew the impacts of highway expansion all too well. The place where Black residents had been subjected to decades of systemic racism and financial redlining after being forcibly moved to in 1928, East Austin was effectively cut off from the rest of town by I-35. As a result, the interstate wasn’t just a hulking mass of concrete and asphalt, she said: It was oftentimes the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

Given these experiences, Harper-Madison was eager to explore alternative transportation solutions when she first learned about TxDOT’s proposal. Enter Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre public space that was established atop a downtown stretch of Dallas’ Woodall Rodgers Freeway in 2012. Witnessing the vibrant, tree-lined area was nothing short of revelatory, Harper-Madison said. The complex, once consumed by concrete and traffic congestion, had been converted into a natural gathering ground for people from all walks of life.

[…]

That trip couldn’t be more pertinent for Harper-Madison and her fellow Austin officials these days. That’s because TxDOT is now on the verge of pushing forward plans to expand I-35 — a painstaking endeavor that leaders worry could result in a big-money boondoggle if not handled correctly. For context, there are three community-drawn proposals that would limit the highway’s existing footprint, downsize it to an urban boulevard, or even incorporate Klyde Warren–inspired green spaces, but the state has shown little interest in entertaining them. Instead, TxDOT has prioritized two “build alternatives” that would simply demolish the I-35’s upper decks and widen the thoroughfare considerably.

Such proposals (which are eerily similar to those being contested in Houston) run in direct opposition to the town’s long-term transportation plans because they double down on a car-centric model less than two years after Austin voters approved a $7 billion mass transit bond. Residents don’t want bigger highways, Harper-Madison said. They want smarter, forward-thinking ways to get around their city.

If allowed to move forward, TxDOT’s proposed expansion will engulf nearly 150 homes and businesses along the interstate. Many of these, like the Stars Cafe and the Austin Chronicle building, are local institutions. Others, such as the Escuelita del Alma day care center, Taqueria Los Altos, and Hector the Barber, are popular utilities whose erasure would leave a glaring absence in nearby communities. With Austin already struggling to combat skyrocketing costs of living and growing suburban sprawl, now isn’t the time to push people out, Council Member Greg Casar said.

I don’t live in Austin, and I don’t have to deal with I-35, which by any definition is a mess and a hellhole. But when I hear about a $7.5 billion plan to widen and add capacity to I-35, I don’t see a solution, I see an even bigger nightmare of construction-induced worse traffic, neighborhoods and existing businesses being displaced and destroyed, and an even bigger traffic problem a few years down the line. I wonder what a $7.5 billion investment in mass transit might look like. And if you do live in Austin and have similar thoughts about this, I say raise hell and fight it with all you’ve got, because they will steamroll you otherwise. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

Bike trail connections news

Here’s something nice and simple and good, because we could use that.

The White Oak Bayou Greenway and MKT Trail will soon be connected.

The city announced Thursday that the two trails will be linked by a 850-foot connection, which was described as “one of the last critical pieces needed” for the trail systems.

Councilmember Abbie Kamin said the project creates safe access and greater connectivity between two popular trails in her district, according to a news release. Carol Haddock, Houston public works director, said the connection is “progress toward creating a safer and equitable transportation network for all users.”

The new MKT Spur will branch off from the MKT trail north of White Oak Bayou toward the east, connecting it to the White Oak Bayou Trail, which currently dead ends under Studemont.

There’s a similar story in CultureMap. Construction should begin “in the fall” and be done in early 2022, which I had noted in this post about the repairs to the MKT Bridge. This is all right in my neighborhood and it makes me happy, but a whole lot of people use these trails.

For purposes of illustration, this is the endpoint of the White Oak trail:

There’s a branch-off right before there that takes you into Stude Park. When this is extended, it will continue on along this part of the bayou:

That’s a view from the Studewood overpass. You can see the MKT Bridge up ahead in the distance. Here’s another view, from the Studewood side of the MKT Bridge:

The continuation of the trail would be on the far side of the bayou in this picture, going either over or around that little culvert there. It would end up on the other side of the MKT Bridge:

I assume they’ll do something to ease the downward slope, to minimize the odds of someone losing control and ending up in the bayou. From there, you cross the bridge and can access the rest of the bayou trail, from the access to it on the other side.

Interestingly, there are a couple of trail maps around where I took those pictures that show “before” and “after” versions of the trails. This is from the “trail detour” map on the south end of the MKT Bridge:

Note the disconnect in the trail from Stude Park to the bridge. Now here’s what you see on the trail map at the new parking lot on Studewood, just south of I-10 where the trail crosses over Studewood and approaches the MKT Bridge:

There’s your map of the near future. It took me a minute to realize what this meant and where the extension would meet up with the existing trail – at first, I thought it meant somewhere on the far side of the bridge, and I spent a little too much time trying to figure out where that might be. But you can see the whole thing in these pictures above. And in a few months, you’ll be able to traverse it. I’ll do an updated photo set when it’s all open. Gail Delaughter has a few photos of her own on Twitter.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

Interstate 45 still is on a road to rebuild after Texas transportation officials on Tuesday kept the controversial project in the state’s 10-year construction plans, but warned that failing to get federal highway officials to remove their hold on it could halt the plan altogether later this year.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday approved the state’s 2022-2031 unified transportation program, keeping the I-45 project listed in it. The unified program is the guidepost for freeway construction in Texas, as only projects included can receive state funding.

That approval, however, is contingent on settling a dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal officials told TxDOT in March to stop work on the project until concerns related to its impacts on minority and low-income communities and how TxDOT addressed those effects is completed.

“It is not the local support that’s the problem. It’s Washington, D.C., (that) is the problem, impeding our ability to go forward with this project,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We will give FHWA 90 days and we will come back and revisit this,” Bugg said. “After the 90 days have expired we will discuss what to do with the project.”

He said if the issues have not made progress, the commission could start the process of removing the project from the long-term plan. TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said removing the project would require another 60-day public comment process.

Williams said discussions with federal officials are constructive and continuing, but he would not speculate whether it is practical or possible for federal officials to operate on the commission’s timeline.

[…]

As part of the UTP public comment process, TxDOT received 12,700 comments, 8,170 of them related to the I-45 project. The response, which included an online poll, was a record-breaking amount of public engagement for a TxDOT program, officials said.

Of those comments related to I-45, TxDOT said 5,529 — around two-thirds — supported keeping the funding in place.

Critics, however, questioned the process TxDOT used to solicit comments. The online poll, opponents said, set up a “take it or leave it” choice of either TxDOT’s vision or nothing at all.

“It is your responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to engage the public in productive ways and you have failed to do so,” said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINKHouston.

See here, here, and here for some background; the version of this story from before the meeting is here. I might suggest that the issue here is not with the FHWA and its timelines, but if we had agreement on that point we probably wouldn’t be here right now. Not much else to say here, we’ll see where we’re at after we catch up with that can we just kicked.

Here come those electric buses

Here comes the commitment to buy them, anyway.

Local transit officials no longer are blowing hot air about the emissions coming out of Metro buses.

Board members Thursday approved a plan for all new Metropolitan Transit Authority buses to produce zero emissions by 2030, setting one of the largest bus fleets in the nation on a path to pull away from diesel engines and toward electric, hydrogen or some other alternative.

“It could not be more vital to take this step forward,” Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “We have the capability to do it and the expertise to do it.”

The commitment came with the board’s approval of the purchase of 20 electric buses — part of a pilot to further test battery-driven buses and how well they perform in the heat of a Houston summer. Setting a goal is part of Metro’s work to create an agency climate action plan, which will be written by a committee led by former Harris County Clerk and Metro board member Chris Hollins.

[…]

The change will not happen overnight, transit officials acknowledged. Metro, with a fleet of more than 1,200 buses, typically buys about 100 new buses a year.

Board members said in the interim they expect Metro to move aggressively but deliberately to new engines, either more natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel, or hundreds of new electric or hydrogen buses.

“Every step in that direction will be helpful,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said last week during a discussion of agency’s goals.

See here for the background. A bit of wiggle room in that commitment, which is more about phasing out diesel than onboarding a particular technology, but that’s fine. I look forward to seeing which way they wind up going.

Driverless Lyft service coming to Austin

We’ll see what the demand is.

People in Austin who use the ride-hailing service Lyft will have the option of selecting a self-driving car starting in 2022. But, at least initially, two humans will sit in the front as “test specialists” in case anything goes wrong.

Ford’s self-driving vehicles, including the Escape Hybrid SUV, are powered by technology from Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company that includes Ford and Volkswagen as major investors.

The vehicles will launch first in Miami later this year. They’re scheduled to arrive in Austin in the first half of 2022.

The number of self-driving Lyft vehicles operating on Austin streets will be relatively small at first. Ford, Lyft and Argo AI are giving themselves five years to get “at least 1,000 autonomous vehicles on the Lyft network” across multiple cites, they said in a joint press release. More details about the size of the fleet in Austin will be revealed closer to launch, a Lyft spokesperson said.

“This is a technology that is going to roll out in pockets,” said Jody Kelman, who leads product management for the consumer arm of Lyft’s self-driving division. “We always see that there will be a huge place for [human] drivers on our network.”

Ford started testing self-driving cars in Austin three years ago. The auto-maker had initially planned to launch its commercial self-driving service in 2021, but last year pushed the date back to 2022, citing the pandemic.

Driverless cars have long been seen as a key part of the Uber/Lyft future, since it eliminates the expense of drivers for them. It would also mean that the companies would have to own, maintain, and store the vehicles they’d use, which is a much more significant expense than the drivers are. As such, I have no idea how big a piece of that future this is, or how it would change their basic business model.

Here in the present day, I wonder how appealing the driverless Lyft service is for their customers versus the standard person-driven automobile. If you’re the type that prefers never having to interact with the driver, then this would have appeal. I’m the type that would be more worried about what happens if something unexpected comes up – car trouble, the programmed route becoming unavailable for some reason, an accident, whatever. Maybe I get a call while I’m in the ride and my plans have changed and now I need to go someplace else. Who do I tell to make that happen? Am I stuck there until I get to my destination and then have to call for another ride? Low-probability events, to be sure, but I’m certain there are plenty of other folks who would think this way.

One other potential factor in the not-yet-post-COVID world is that not being in the car with a complete stranger has more value now, even if you might be giving up some level of service assurance. I pondered this issue with the rise of automated grocery and pizza delivery services, and the same considerations apply here. There’s more room in the marketplace for these kinds of services than I would have originally thought, but it’s still all a bit puzzling to me. What do you think? There’s a longer version of this story in the Statesman, if you can get past their paywall (it was in a print version of the Chronicle a couple of weeks back, in the business section), and The Verge has more.

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

Even with fewer riders hopping aboard and a more dour financial outlook, Metro officials say the agency is full steam ahead on a host of projects aimed at adding buses to scores of routes and neighborhoods.

That includes an approval scheduled for Thursday by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board to commit $40 million to development of a planned bus rapid transit line from around Tidwell and Interstate 69 to Westchase, via Denver Harbor, downtown, Midtown, Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

The project, similar to the Silver Line along Post Oak that opened a year ago and uses dedicated bus lanes to deliver service to stations akin to light rail, is one of dozens in Metro’s $7.5 billion long-range plan. That plan, approved by voters in November 2019, relies heavily on federal grants, which could come quickly if Washington lawmakers approve budget and infrastructure bills in the coming weeks or months.

“If we can get our ducks in a row on as many corridors as we can, that is good for the agency,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Metro submitted a preliminary application for funding related to the so-called University Line bus rapid transit project to the Federal Transit Administration in late July. Houston transit officials heard back from their federal counterparts in one week, a quick turnaround for a first series of questions, said Shri Reddy, executive vice-president of planning, engineering, and construction at Metro. Among the issues raised by federal officials was more assurance that Metro had committed money for developing the project, prompting Thursday’s vote.

That story was published on Wednesday; on Thursday, the board approved the money as planned, while giving me a bizarre sense of deja vu.

Seriously, Afton Oaks? After all this time? I mean, it’s all residential on that stretch of Richmond, so I doubt any stops there would be busy, but geez. Anyway, Metro is projecting less revenue now than it had originally planned for and that could lead to some uncomfortable decisions about service levels down the line if actual revenue is in line with that, but that’s a concern for later. For now, this is a good start.

Metro seeks electric buses

Proof of concept for now and contingent on a competitive federal grant, but hopefully the start of something bigger.

Transit officials in the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world are recharging their attempts to wean Metro off fossil fuels.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, sensing both the technology and federal interest in funding are ripe, are preparing to buy up to 20 all-electric buses that would operate along two routes.

Though Metro has tried and failed to find an electric bus that can handle the hot Houston summer in the past, officials said they are growing more optimistic newer batteries have the necessary juice to keep the vehicles moving and riders cool.

Fears the region may not have much time before drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change with lower vehicle emissions, are prompting Metro to move faster on flipping the switch on its fleet, albeit gradually.

“Some of the recent weather events have made this a more urgent matter,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro, referring to the increasing frequency of major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and flooding in the Houston area.

In addition to buying zero-emission buses, Metro officials also are forming a task force, led by board member and former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, aimed at modernizing Metro’s operations to meet local climate change goals.

The changes for Metro are likely to vary in scope and size. Some, such as replacing lighting with more energy efficient LED options, already are underway. Others, such as encouraging more transit use and less solo car and truck trips by travelers by offering more convenient bus routes or adding bus rapid transit lines, are included in the agency’s long-range plans.

[…]

The viability of the vehicles, however, remains uncertain. That is why Metro officials — who manage about 1,200 buses — plan to start with 20. Previous attempts to test electric buses in Houston did not lead to purchasing any because the buses could not pass a test to see if they could drive and keep air conditioning running enough to cool the interior at the same time.

The a/c test can be one of the most challenging parts of operating in Houston, Metro Chief Operating Officer Andrew Skabowski said.

“A bus, every corner, opens its doors,” Skabowski told Metro board members last week, explaining that taxes the components when it is 95 degrees with 96 percent humidity.

“It takes a lot of power, and it will remain a concern until we put a vehicle into service and see how they perform,” Skabowski said.

He said though the technology is emerging and advancements in the battery power and improved HVAC system made some of the newest electric buses meet Metro’s specs on paper, the true test will be when they hit the road.

As noted, there’s a federal grant that would cover most of the cost of those buses, but there’s no guarantee Metro would get it. It’s not clear if they would still pursue this at this time if not – there may be further opportunities for such funding after the infrastructure bill passes, for example. That previous attempt was from 2016, and it’s reasonable to think that the technology has improved enough to try again. Metro is right to have a plan to reduce emissions, and buses are their biggest source by far. It’s good they’re being proactive about it.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

Supporters of state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston northward trekked to Austin on Thursday to keep the imperiled project on pace, fearing the region could be stuck with an aging freeway and no sign of relief.

Urging state officials to stay committed to the project — and, most importantly, pay for it — supporters said it is up to highway officials to deliver the benefits they say will help heal issues of racial and income inequity raised by opponents.

[…]

Fifteen years in the planning, the project to rebuild I-45 around the central business district and north to Beltway 8 near George Bush Intercontinental Airport is estimated to cost $9 billion but can start construction only if the Texas Department of Transportation keeps its money on the project. Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who oversee TxDOT’s spending, are considering removing all phases of the project from the state’s 10-year plan, essentially shelving it until Houston-area leaders and highway planners can come to agreement.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners will hold a public comment session Monday and accept input via mail, phone, email and online forms until Aug. 9. The commission is scheduled at its Aug. 31 meeting to decide whether to remove the project from the annually updated 10-year plan. If removed, the rebuild would need to be reinserted into the plan, allowing TxDOT to redirect the money to other highway expansions or rebuilds in the meantime. Most of the money would have to remain in TxDOT’s Houston region that covers Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller counties.

Yes, that is the infamous I-45 survey. You still have time to fill it out.

Critics said the pause gives officials ample time to rethink the design but that a last-ditch online survey with a yes-or-no vote is not a way to come to agreement.

“Honestly, we are on the same team and we want the same things for all of the communities,” said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Stop TxDOT I-45 group opposed to the project. “We want economic development, we want to reduce flooding, we want safety, people to be able to move through the region freely. This is not the answer.”

Cook was one of two speakers Thursday among about a dozen opposed to the project. Transportation officials limited public comment to one hour as part of their meeting.

A larger turnout of opponents is expected for the full public hearing Monday. Stop TxDOT I-45 has continued walking door to door in affected communities where hundreds of homes and businesses could be impacted, as community business groups mounted an aggressive online campaign in support of TxDOT.

“You can find a way to connect this project with something someone cares about,” said Ben Peters, a Stop I-45 volunteer, as he walked in Fifth Ward on Saturday.

Opponents, Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have said that rather than widen the freeway, more of it should be converted to accelerate Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, replacing two managed lanes with, perhaps, a transit-only lane and dedicated stations along the freeway.

TxDOT, while incorporating some changes from more than 300 public meetings over the past decade, has not wavered from the managed lanes plan, saying some of the suggested changes are too significant and would set the design process back years. Regional officials repeatedly approved those designs, TxDOT leadership noted.

“I-45 is established as one of the most pressing candidates in our region for TxDOT to make improvements to address safety, traffic delays and potential emergency evacuations,” said Craig Raborn, director of transportation services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal transportation money in the region.

H-GACs Transportation Policy Council supports the project but has encouraged critics and TxDOT to keep addressing differences. The policy council’s chairman, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, urged his county leadership this week to write a letter in support of the project.

I kind of have a hard time believing that TxDOT would pull the money from this project – which would not kill it but would move it to the back of the line while the current funds were used on other projects – but I can imagine them getting a little antsy. We’ll know soon enough.

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether.

“A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

Many fear the state — if it does not get full-throated support — simply will pull the project and leave one of the spines of the local freeway system a crumbling mess.

If removed from the state’s 10-year unified transportation program, updated annually and approved by the commission, the planned rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 would be shelved. That would leave drivers and residents waiting months, maybe years longer than promised for two managed lanes in each direction, updated and additional rainfall detention, wider frontage roads and upgrades bringing some aging parts of the freeway up to current standards.

See here for the previous entry. My first thought in reading this story was “SurveyMonkey? Really? How sure is everyone that this can’t be hacked or spammed?” But Mayor Turner in his full statement and Michael Skelly on behalf of the Make I-45 Better Coalition articulate a different problem: The survey doesn’t have enough choices. From Skelly’s email:

The worst part is that the only two options on the public comment form are both flawed:

  1. Supporting the I-45 expansion exactly as it’s designed — despite the many flaws we’ve previously discussed, or
  2. Rejecting the I-45 expansion entirely and removing all funding for it

What about keeping the funding, but building a redesigned project that actually supports the residents and environment of the City of Houston? We could “make I-45 better” by—for example—following the alternative designs that the City of Houston Planning Department unveiled after listening to many, many public comments. The City of Houston pushed for a Vision C which would have accommodated transit, reduced rights of way impacts, and saved money, but TxDOT completely ignored the City’s suggested plan. If TxDOT truly cared about the public, they would allow for a better, safer project to be built.

Just to be clear—despite a new public comment period opening, the I-45 project has not changed since the last comment period in 2020, following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Having a third choice would risk not getting a majority in favor of any one option, but it would be a better gauge of what the public actually wants. As configured, there’s an even higher risk of “be careful what you ask for”.

In the meantime, you have until August 9 to submit your comments, and there’s an online public engagement on August 2. See the Skelly email for all the details. I have no idea what might happen here, but you should make your voice heard while you can.

Is it a car that flies or a plane that drives?

It’s a little of both.

Photo from Klein Vision

A prototype flying car has completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The hybrid car-aircraft, AirCar, is equipped with a BMW engine and runs on regular petrol-pump fuel.

Its creator, Prof Stefan Klein, said it could fly about 1,000km (600 miles), at a height of 8,200ft (2,500m), and had clocked up 40 hours in the air so far.

It takes two minutes and 15 seconds to transform from car into aircraft.

The narrow wings fold down along the sides of the car.

Prof Klein drove it straight off the runway and into town upon arrival, watched by invited reporters.

He described the experience, early on Monday morning, as “normal” and “very pleasant”.

In the air, the vehicle reached a cruising speed of 170km/h.

It can carry two people, with a combined weight limit of 200kg (31 stone).

But unlike drone-taxi prototypes, it cannot take off and land vertically and requires a runway.

I’ve blogged about flying cars a few times before – what can I say, the subject is fascinating, and also somewhat terrifying – with the first entry in 2017, when Uber was talking about having an “intra-urban flying vehicle network” available in 2020, with Dallas and Fort Worth being its target. Didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned – they’re now talking 2023 as a more realistic date – but that’s the way it goes. This particular model is basically a car with retractable wings; other models we have heard about include flying motorcycles and something that looks like a drone capable of carrying multiple humans. That latter model is likely a few more years off, but who knows with any of this.

There are a lot of concerns about these things, including noise, safety, and of course the climate effect, but so far that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. As with driverless cars, which are still in their infancy and still have some major engineering challenges to solve, I think it’s a matter of when and not if for these things. We ought to at least think about how we want to integrate them into society, rather than react when they do show up. You can see more pictures and videos for this particular flying car at the Klein Vision website. CNet and Yahoo have more.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

Hemmed between a request for a pause by federal highway officials and an outcry from opponents, planners of a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 in Houston are taking their plans back to the public in what may be a last effort to keep the project on pace.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Wednesday said more public scrutiny is needed of the plan for remaking I-45 north from downtown Houston to Beltway 8.

“Basically, let’s take this project and put it back out for public comment … then we will see where we go from there,” Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

Additional public input on the I-45 project — at least the seventh time state officials have asked for comments — will be accepted via the month-long comment process for the Texas Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan, set to start July 7. The decision to seek more public comment, should it lead to the project being delayed or removed from the plan, was viewed as a necessary but unfortunate step by commissioners.

“I think it is very sad that we are at the point we are at with this particular project with regard to the amount of work and the amount of public engagement,” said Commissioner Laura Ryan, who lives in Houston.

Tying the project to the long-range plan is significant because as costs increased to a current estimate of $9 billion for the work, it represents about $1 of every $8 Texas will spend on highways during the next decade.

Officials estimate TxDOT has spent $503 million developing the project to this point. Delaying or significantly redesigning the project could make it the costliest highway hiccup in Texas history, far exceeding the $15 million spent on the Trans-Texas Corridor more than a decade ago before the planned tollway got the heave-ho.

[…]

The Federal Highway Administration in March asked TxDOT to pause development activities on the project. That was clarified in a June 14 letter to include any property acquisition and final design efforts after opponents found people still were receiving property offers.

“We’re frustrated that it’s taken the federal government stepping in to get TxDOT to do the right thing,” said Molly Cook, a Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer.

The right thing, however, is what remains in dispute. Supporters have increased their pressure in recent years, as local elected officials have changed. For more than 15 years to the present, Bugg noted there has been strong regional support for the project because I-45 is a crucial travel corridor for all of southeast Texas. Sixteen times, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the local regional planning agency made up of various elected and appointed officials, unanimously backed the project.

Many local officials still do, including state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, who urged transportation officials meeting Wednesday in Austin to charge ahead.

“I do firmly believe this corridor needs to be completed and if TxDOT can push on that they ought to,” Thompson said.

Citing the importance of I-45 to trucking and evacuation of the Gulf Coast in case of disaster, Thompson said delays in construction come with consequences opponents might not recognize.

“I do understand their concerns, but this is also vital to our entire region,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there are competing interests here, as the city of Houston and Harris County and a bunch of neighborhoods and residents have serious concerns about the many effects of the project, while people who are mostly from far outside of Houston and the affected area want this built yesterday. It’s on TxDOT to balance those interests, and the opponents are not going to meekly roll over. It’s not my problem that TxDOT has spent a ton of money on this project without being able to deliver something that is acceptable to those who will be the most directly affected by it.

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

In two letters released Wednesday — one to the Texas Department of Transportation and another to Harris County leaders — the Federal Highway Administration said it expected Texas officials to halt work [on I-45], including the purchase of needed property, on the $7 billion-plus rebuild of the freeway until more scrutiny of the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll can be completed.

“This is an incredibly rare step, but it is a rare set of circumstances,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said of the federal decision, noting how TxDOT, in his opinion, cut corners on its environmental assessment.

In a statement, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the decision to slow development by FHWA “indefinitely suspends key steps” on a project state and local officials have sought for more than 15 years.

“It’s unfortunate there is an expanded delay on this project, but TxDOT remains fully committed to working with FHWA and local officials on an appropriate path forward ,” Kaufman said. “We know that many in the community are anxious to see this project advance.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Menefee said Wednesday the county remains committed to redesigning the proposal.

“We do need and our community deserves an I-45 project, Hidalgo said. “We also need a project that respects the wishes of the community.”

She said TxDOT for the past two years has ignored suggestions from local officials and groups to make the project more transit-focused and displace fewer people.

“You can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input,” Hidalgo said. “You cannot bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act.”

[…]

The letters reaffirm a request from federal officials in March that work on the controversial project halt until the concerns over equity and the freeway’s design are addressed. Federal officials sent TxDOT the letter after Hidalgo raised objections in May that the highway agency was acquiring property through purchases and eminent domain.

“We share the concerns raised by your recent letter suggesting that TxDOT is not engaging in the pause and may be proceeding with other aspects of the I-45 project,” wrote Achille Alonzi, FHWA’s division director for Texas.

In a letter to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams, FHWA officials said any pause applies to “right-of-way acquisition, including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain, and final design activities.”

Further, federal officials said they are reviewing its agreement with TxDOT signed in December 2019, that allowed the state transportation agency to approve its own environmental impact study and move forward on the project. Texas and California have authority to approve their own projects, provided they show they complied with federal law. The review, which critics have called an audit, means federal officials will double-check Texas’ process, which could take months.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letters. I’ve been wondering lately if we’re going to see the likes of Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton get involved in this. I mean, we have local Democratic officials brazenly telling TxDOT that they can’t do their job and build their highway like they’re supposed to, and surely this cannot stand. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been some pushback from the “only Republican governance is legitimate” crowd before now. And I hope I’m wrong to be worried about this. We’ll see how this goes. The Press has more.

Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

Feel the excitement! No, seriously, we’ve waited a long time for this.

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

Planning and technical work alone could take the next two years, with Metro set to approve a consulting agreement with engineering firm AECOM, paying it $1 million to start the initial designs. The total cost of the University Line is likely to exceed $1 billion.

As noted before, Metro is moving quickly to try to get federal funds so that design and construction can begin on the timeline indicated above. I support that and hope they’re successful, but I have to admit this all leaves me feeling bittersweet. Remember, the original Metro referendum passed in 2001. The Main Street line opened in 2004. We were talking about designs for what would have been the Universities light rail line in 2005. A combination of some cranky Afton Oaks residents, former Congressman John Culberson, the former Metro board’s incompetence, and the 2008 economic crash have all led to this, where we’re trying again to build something that in another universe might be celebrating its ten year anniversary by now. I feel pretty good about the current plan coming to fruition maybe five years or so from now, but the amount of time that was wasted with nothing to show for it is staggering and nauseating. Let’s please never do that again.

Supreme Court agrees that Texas Central is a railroad

Or at least, they declined the opportunity to say otherwise.

Texas Central Railroad, according to the Texas Supreme Court, is a railroad, ending a five-year legal battle over the controversial high-speed rail company’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

The ruling, unless a federal court intervenes or stops the company in another way, clears the path for backers of the Houston-to-Dallas bullet train to acquire land over the objections of landowners unwilling to sell.

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to review the Texas 13th Court of Appeals ruling last year that upheld Texas Central’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

“The court’s denial of review should put an end to over five years of contentious litigation and clear the path for Texas Central to bring the high-speed train to Texas,” Texas Central said in a statement.

[…]

At issue in the case, brought by Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles, was whether Texas Central was classified as a railroad by state law. Despite claiming to be a railroad, Miles’ lawyers noted the company owns no trains, has no track and does not operate any service. Texas Central remains, after more than nine years, still in the planning stages, and continues to face stiff opposition from rural residents.

Being considered a railroad is important because only a railroad has a right to acquire property under eminent domain for a private purpose. Otherwise landowners simply could refuse to sell. Now, Texas Central must offer property owners fair market value, but can go to court to condemn land.

See here and here for the background. With the manufacturing contract, the final federal environmental approvals, surviving the legislative session, and now this, it’s been a few good months for Texas Central. Opponents still have some arrows in their quiver – they are challenging the environmental approvals, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Greg Abbott is asked to add consideration of eminent domain to a special session agenda – but the path forward is a lot clearer for them now than it was a year ago. Once they start actually laying track – and I know I’ve said this before, but it’s still true – they will be hard to stop.

Texas Central signs construction deal

Sure seems like they’re getting close to actually laying track.

The developer of a long-planned — and controversial — high-speed rail line that would get passengers from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes announced Tuesday that it signed a $16 billion contract with an Italian company to build the project, in what could be a step toward realization.

Webuild, based in Milan, will oversee heavy construction of the planned 236-mile (380-kilometer) project for developer Texas Central, the companies said in a news release. Webuild will operate through U.S. subsidiary Cheshire, Connecticut-based Lane Construction Corporation.

Nearly half the distance the bullet train will cover — at speeds up to 200-mph (320-kph) — will be elevated to reduce the impact on property owners, the companies said.

[…]

Webuild CEO Pietro Salini said the project brings further focus to the company’s work in the U.S., its single biggest market.

“Being part of such a challenging project as leader of the design and construction of the railway is a unique experience that we are extremely proud of,” Salini said.

Webuild was created in 2020 from Salini Impregilo, a leading player in major infrastructure projects that acquired Lane in 2016 and more recently Italy’s Astaldi engineering firm. Building the project will employ 17,000 people directly, Webuild said. The rail link itself would use Japanese bullet train technology and would employ 1,500 people once completed.

As it happens, Texas Central had signed a manufacturing deal with Salini Impregilo in 2019. Texas Central got their final federal approvals in September, and made it through yet another legislative session intact, which looked a little shaky to me going it. Is this finally The Year That It Happens? We’ll see. See the press release for more.

Study claims Uber has reduced drunk driving in Houston

Of interest.

Paid rides have saved lives and lessened drunk driving convictions in Houston, according to a new study released Wednesday by local researchers that claimed a direct link between more folks hailing an Uber and fewer wheeled into emergency rooms.

“The data shows that ridesharing companies can decrease these incidents because they give young people an alternative to driving drunk,” said Dr. Christopher Conner, a neurosurgery resident at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and lead author of the report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s surgery periodical.

Conner and the other researchers compared trip information from Uber — which supplied the data — in Houston between 2014 and 2018 to emergency room visits to Houston’s two Level I trauma centers during the same period and four years prior to Uber’s debut.

Vehicle-crash visits to the ERs at Ben Taub and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center dropped 23.8 percent after Uber arrived in February 2014 during the peak Friday and Saturday night periods, researchers found. The decline was even more pronounced among people below age 30, where researchers reported a 38.9 percent drop in hospital visits as a result of wrecks.

The authors also found a decrease in drinking and driving convictions in Harris County during the same period.

Back in the early days of Uber and Lyft, when they were trying to get licensed to operate in all the cities (and seeking to pass a bill in the Lege to mandate their approval), there were studies conducted that showed similar results in other locations, and at least one study that disputed such effects. What we have now that we didn’t have then is a lot more data. I thought at the time that the connection between ridesharing services and a reduction in DWI made intuitive sense, and I still think that now even as I find the overall case for Uber and Lyft to be less compelling. I do think it’s easier, and more the societal norm, to get a drunken friend or colleague or whoever into an Uber or Lyft than it was in the older days to persuade them to call a cab. More work should be done to better quantify that, but that such a trend is visible is no surprise to me.

Update on the bike trail bridge

We have an estimate for repairs.

Weather-permitting — and the sky this weekend likely will not look that permitting — runners and cyclists along a popular Heights trail will have a key connection back by September.

Houston Parks Board officials said repairs to the MKT Bridge along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail will start in the coming days, potentially Friday. The $193,000 job will take 60-to-90 days, officials said. In the meantime, runners and riders should continue to detour along the White Oak Bayou Greenway and Heights Boulevard.

The bridge closing came after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of the bridge, supported by large wooden beams and latticework. The span dates back decades, part of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line rebuilt a decade ago as the Heights Hike and Bike Trail.

The fire, which might have been set inadvertently, remains under investigation. A fireman and arson investigator reported minor injuries as a result of the blaze, which took about three hours to extinguish because it charred the thick wooden beams.

The effects, however, linger for trail users, who since have been unable to use the bridge — a key connection in the bayou trail system, just feet from the park board’s new signature greenway park.

See here for the background. The Friday in question was this past Friday, June 4, but I don’t know offhand if work has started – the rain probably put them off for now. As noted before, there is a detour that allows you to get around the disabled bridge, but it takes you a long way to do it. As it will have been a year since the fire by the time this is set to reopen, I’m sure everyone who uses this path will be very happy to see it be available again.

And more good news:

Some of the frustration, runners and cyclists said, is how close other usable trails are to the bridge, but remain inaccessible. The White Oak Trail ends at Stude Park within sight of the bridge, but does not connect to it, blocked by a flood control channel.

Unrelated to the bridge fire and repairs, that could soon change. Houston Public Works, after years of planning, is preparing to start construction on extending the trail. If work starts in August as expected, the $950,000 job to make the connection could be completed by the end of the year or early 2022, officials said.

I’ve looked at the end to this trail for years and wondered what it would take to make that obvious connection. I’m delighted to see that it is finally on the verge of happening.

Traffic deaths are way up

Not good, y’all.

With traffic levels returning to normal levels post-COVID, Texas is on track for more than 4,000 deaths on state roads, a total unseen since the mid-1980s when the state had millions fewer residents and far deadlier streets, according to partial estimates from the first five months of 2021.

In the Houston region, sharp increases in pedestrian and bicycling deaths, along with impaired driving in 2020 have continued unabated into 2021.

“We are going the wrong way,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said. “It is heartbreaking, it is frustrating, and we have got to do something about it.”

[…]

With some fatal wrecks likely not yet logged in the state’s crash database, the first four months of 2021 are the most deadly start to a year at least in the past decade, according to an analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data. Statewide, at least 1,368 people have died on Texas roads, a 24 percent increase over last year and 19 percent jump from 2019 when traffic levels were unaffected by COVID. In the eight-county Houston area, roadway deaths were up 27 percent from last year, with 256 confirmed fatalities, including 183 in Harris County, which saw deaths increased by 36 percent from 2020 and 30 percent compared to 2019.

Comparisons to both 2020 and 2019 show that the spike is not simply COVID, though safety officials think some of it could be based on changing conditions. The pandemic significantly dropped daily traffic counts, which opened up Texas’ wide freeways for abuse.

Now with traffic teetering on a return to normal pre-pandemic levels – in some spots, vehicle volumes are already back to 2019 totals or more – some of those speedy trips are ending tragically.

Many drivers said the risks are easy to see, both from a combination of unruly motorists and streets that favor speed over safety.

“If you build a street like a highway, people will use it like a highway,” said Richard Ward, 55, who lives in Sugar Land.

As the story notes, it’s not just Texas – road fatalities are up nationally, too. There are plenty of long-term issues in the state and around Houston – car-centric road design, higher-than-safe speeds allowed on residential streets, insufficient enforcement of speeding ordinances, etc – but no single cause for the current increase. It seems likely that some people got used to being able to drive more recklessly when the roads were less crowded, and maybe there’s some pandemic stress in there as well. Whatever the case, be careful out there.

(The story notes that there was little action taken by the Legislature to address road safety issues this session. All things considered, we should probably be grateful, because the way things were going someone was sure to propose eliminating drivers licenses and traffic lights as the solution.)

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.