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Endorsement watch: For the Metro bond

All of the candidate endorsements have been done by the Chron, but there remain the endorsements for ballot propositions. Which is to say, the Metro referendum and the constitutional amendments. I’ll address the latter tomorrow, but for now here’s the Chron recommending a Yes vote on the Metro bond.

Houston Metro is asking voters’ permission to borrow a busload of bucks to add a robust bus rapid transit network, new rail service to Hobby airport and badly needed bus improvements.

It’s a big ask, and if voters agree, the agency will add up to $3.5 billion in debt to its balance sheet.

But Houston needs a better set of transit options. Metro has promised to add the borrowed billions to a giant plan for the future, dubbed MetroNext, and all together the $7.5 billion spending plan is an enormous step forward for the agency and for the city. We strongly urge Houston voters to support this first step, by voting yes on the ballot proposition to give Metro permission to issue the bonds it needs.

Voters should know that the proposal won’t add a dime to the taxes all of us already pay for Metro. Our penny in sales tax is already committed, and the additional borrowing won’t change that. Metro simply wants to sell bonds so it can leverage its future sales taxes to pay for projects right now, rather than wait for the accumulation of annual revenues to grow large enough to finally pay for them. By pooling future revenues, it can fast-track improvements for which users in Houston would otherwise have to wait years, or even decades.

It’s a reasonable argument — so long as the plan to spend the money is sound. We’ve looked at the details of the proposal and heard from those who support it and from those who loathe it. On balance, we think voters should readily support it.

See here for more details about the referendum, and give a listen if you haven’t already to my interview with Carrin Patman, in which we explored many aspects of the plan as well as broader transit topics. You know that I’m all in on this, and the one piece of polling data we have looks good. Either we want more and better transportation choices in the greater Houston area, or we want everyone to be stuck in traffic forever. Your call.

Someone is opposing the Metro referendum

I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the Metro referendum would not get any organized opposition.

Opponents of Metro’s $3.5 billion bond referendum have formed a political action committee to lead a grass-roots campaign to curtail what they say is wasteful spending by the regional transit agency.

“To ask for $3.5 billion is irresponsible,” said Bill Frazer, one of the organizers of the Responsible Houston PAC and a former Houston city controller candidate.

[…]

Opponents used the Post Oak project as the backdrop for their announcement Tuesday, noting that Metro is asking for money to build 75 miles of bus rapid transit in the region despite having nothing to show Houstonians are eager to hop aboard. Critics also noted Metro’s newest light rail lines have never delivered the ridership officials promised when they started construction and failed to build many of the things promised voters in 2003 — as they used the $640 million voters approved to build three rail lines and did not add the park and ride locations and increased bus service promised by the ballot item.

“Before we do another blank check, someone needs to hold someone accountable for the past,” said Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant that helped organize Tuesday’s announcement.

With so many areas in need of improved street drainage, Frazer said transit officials should invest their money there — something he said is possible because Metro’s agreement with cities promises 25 percent of the transit sales tax for street and drainage projects. Nothing, Frazer said, prohibits Metro from spending more than a quarter of the money for streets.

Note that “organized” does not mean “coherent”, or “logical”, or “sensible”. Last I checked, Houston already had a funding system in place for street and drainage improvement, which as I recall from his campaigns for Controller Bill Frazer opposed. Drainage is certainly a vital thing, but it doesn’t improve mobility. I’m also old enough to remember the 2012 election, in which there was a referendum that not only reaffirmed Metro’s one quarter share of the transit sales tax, it granted Metro a full share of the revenue growth on top of what was then being collected. The rest of this is largely unsupported claptrap, which will appeal to the kind of person who thinks any of this makes sense, and nobody else. I’ll be sure to look for their 30-day and 8-day finance reports.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

Meet MetroRapid

That’s the new, official name for the Uptown BRT line.

Station names along the Post Oak dedicated bus lanes will have a familiar ring for riders, transit and Uptown officials decided, as they inch toward opening the region’s first foray into BRT in the coming months.

Eight stations along Post Oak will have mostly non-commercial names, aimed at helping travelers navigate the new bus line. Uptown Houston Management District is building the $192 million project, which started work in 2016 to add a dedicated bus lane in each direction in the center of Post Oak from Loop 610 to south of Richmond.

The southern end of the project will be a new transit center, which will re-route buses from the existing Bellaire Transit Center. The new site, which Metropolitan Transit Authority officials are likely to approve July 31, along with the station names, will be called the Uptown/Westpark Transit Center. It is located at Westpark Drive, just west of Loop 610 where a new ramp is under construction along Interstate 69 as part of the total rebuild of the freeway interchange.

Officials also said they have settled on MetroRapid as the name of the service, which will use large buses but offer trip times and frequencies similar to rail. The Post Oak line will not have all the elements of bus rapid transit, such as priority at all traffic lights, but will be, for most purposes, rapid service.

Though the bus project was devised and supported by officials with the management district, the board of which are major landowners or work for developers along Post Oak, station names largely avoided commercial ties.

“Where possible, the street is the major defining characteristic of a station name,” said John Breeding, president of the management district.

As a result, the stations mirror the names of cross-streets, such as San Felipe, Westheimer and Richmond.

[…]

Tentative plans call for the Westheimer and Alabama stops to have “Galleria” as part of their names, as both are within walking distance of the mall. Breeding said Uptown officials also are working with The Galleria to enhance pedestrian access from the stations to various entrances.

Service is now expected to begin in March of 2020, which is a year later than it was expected to begin the last time an opening date was announced. The HOV lane part of this project is also moving along, also with a 2020 start date. I’m ready to see what it all looks like.

HOV for Uptown BRT update

Checking in on this long-time project.

Uptown’s bet on buses is getting a lift from TxDOT in a first-of-its-kind venture that has state highway dollars going to a mass transit project along one of Houston’s most clogged freeways.

Come next year, buses traveling in their own lanes will ascend to the middle of the West Loop 610 for traffic-light trips between Post Oak and Metro’s Northwest Transit Center via a busway that will swing over the southbound freeway and then parallel to it.

Making all the pieces fit along what by many measures is the busiest freeway segment in the state has taken some engineering creativity, as well as a change in policy for the Texas Department of Transportation that many critics say remains too focused on being the “highway department” in a Houston area that is increasingly urbanizing.

“It is a tremendous recognition of how mobility in this region is changing,” said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The $58 million project, which is becoming more visible along the Loop by the day, adds two lanes in each direction specifically for buses. Though other projects around Houston have benefited buses in the past three decades, such as the Katy Managed Lanes along Interstate 10, this will be the first Houston-area transit-only project using highway money since TxDOT was created in 1991 by merging the aviation and highway departments with the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission.

Just for some background, it was six years ago that City Council voted to approve the Uptown TIRZ plan that included the BRT lane construction on Post Oak as well as the HOV construction on 610. A bit more than a year later came the no-light-rail-conversion conditions, which still chap my rear end. The Post Oak construction started in 2015. If we’re really on track to have everything done by next year (woo hoo!), then among other things that would prove how prescient Uptown Management District President and CEO John Breeding was when he told me in a 2010 interview that it would take five to ten years to finish the project. Based on that timeline, we’re more or less on schedule. Have patience, y’all.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

More details on the Metro referendum

Still a work in progress.

A planned 110 miles of two-way HOV along major freeways with eight new park and ride stations is expected to cost $1.37 billion, with another $383 million in improvements to operate 25 percent more bus trips across the region.

The projects promote new services within Metro’s core area and on the fringes of its sprawling 1,200-square-mile territory. Inside the Sam Houston Tollway where buses travel most major streets and are more commonly used by residents, officials want to increase how often those buses come. Outside the beltway where more than 2 million of Harris County’s residents live, park and ride lots will be expanded and commuter buses will go to more places more often.

[…]

Big-ticket items in the plan are directed at faster commutes and more frequent service in transit-heavy parts of Metro’s area. As officials prepare for eight new or expanded park and ride lots and two-way service even farther out most freeways, 14 core local bus routes are primed for development into so-called BOOST corridors aimed at making bus trips along city streets faster by sequencing traffic lights to give approaching buses priority and increasing the frequency of buses.

“From the outset, we are very pleased with where they are putting the investment,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation planning.

Still, Blair said the agency is hoping for more specifics on how Metro prioritizes projects, both in terms of funding and the timing with which initiatives are tackled.

“People want to know what they are getting and when,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan will be about getting to bus stops. Officials say they plan to coordinate with city planners and developers to make sure sidewalks lead to accessible and comfortable stops, something many riders say is transit’s biggest obstacle in Houston.

As a reminder, you can always go to MetroNext.org for information about the plan and public meetings to discuss it. In a better world, we’d be starting off with a transit system that already included a Universities light rail line, and would be seeking to build on that. In this world, we hope to build a BRT line that covers much of the same turf west of downtown, and turns north from its eastern end. Which will still be a fine addition and in conjunction with the Uptown BRT line will finally enable the main urban core job centers to be truly connected. The focus on sidewalks, which I’ve emphasized before, is very welcome. We need to get this approved by the voters, and we need to ensure we have a Mayor that won’t screw up what Metro is trying to do. I know we’re already obsessing about 2020 and the Presidential race – I’m guilty, too – but there’s important business to take care of in 2019 as well.

Metro moving forward on 2019 referendum

I’m ready for it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is expected to ask voters next fall for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to implement its next wave of transit projects.

The 20-year plan laid out by Metro officials includes roughly 20 more miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes along area freeways.

The plan, based on studies and public feedback, focuses on beefing up service in core areas where buses and trains already are drawing riders and connecting suburban residents and jobs in those areas.

“We are making sure what we are doing here in the metro service area blends into the region,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. “How do we make sure we are putting together an environment and place that connects one mode of transportation to other modes of transportation.”

The overall price tag for the plan is $7.5 billion, more than half of which would be funded via state and federal transportation monies.

[…]

Unlike previous Metro capital plans that spent roughly $1 billion in local money on the Red Line light rail, its northern extension and the Green and Purple lines, the current plan would spend more on buses — specifically bus rapid transit — along key routes where officials believe better service can connect to more places and, in turn, lure more riders. The estimated cost of about 75 miles of bus rapid transit is $3.15 billion.

Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines.

“If you can get a service people can bank on and count on, you don’t need a schedule,” Lambert said.

BRT operates similar to light rail with major station stops along dedicated lanes used only by the buses, though they may share some streets with automobile traffic. The region’s first foray into bus rapid transit is under construction along Post Oak in the Uptown area. Service is scheduled to start in early- to mid-2020.

The MetroNext plan calls for at least five bus rapid transit projects:

Interstate 45 — which is poised for its own massive rebuild by TxDOT — from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport

Interstate 10 from downtown to the proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290

Gessner from Metro’s West Little York park and ride to its Missouri City park and ride

Extending Uptown’s planned rapid transit to the Gulfton Transit Center

A proposed fifth BRT is a revised version of the University Line light rail that Metro proposed and then shelved because of a lack of progress and intense opposition. The line, which some consider the most-needed major transit line in the region, would tie the University of Houston and Texas Southern University areas to downtown and then the Uptown area.

Since becoming chair of Metro in 2016, [Carrin] Patman has said the downtown-to-Uptown connection is the missing link in major transit investment within Loop 610. However, she has stressed that light rail may not be the best mode.

Though officials have pivoted from trains to buses with much of the plan, nearly $2.5 billion in new rail is being proposed, including the extension of both the Green Line along Harrisburg and the Purple Line in southeast Houston to Hobby Airport. The airport legs alone are estimated to cost close to $1.8 billion even though they are expected to draw fewer riders than any of the bus rapid transit routes.

All the details, which as Metro Chair Patman notes can and will change as the community dialogue continues, can be found at MetroNext.org. A press release with a link to Patman’s “State of Metro” presentation last week is here. I will of course be keeping an eye on this, and I definitely plan to interview Patman about the referendum once we get a little farther into the year. And let’s be clear, even if I didn’t have other reasons to dislike Bill King, I don’t want him to ever have any power over Metro. If we want to have any shot at having decent transit in this city, he’s the last person we want as Mayor.

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

The end is near for construction that has clogged Post Oak and delayed drivers, but the buses at the center of the project will not start rolling for at least another year as officials grapple with roadblocks threatening to push the final route three years past its original completion date.

Months of additional work lies ahead on the dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the street as crews complete the stations that will connect passengers to the rapid transit line. Though once on target to ferry passengers this holiday season, workers still are installing electrical and fiber optics systems so the buses can operate, as they pour the last segments of concrete along the widened roads from Loop 610 south to Richmond.

As a result the buses, which officials at one point had hoped would ferry visitors for the 2017 Super Bowl, will not carry passengers until 2020.

Even when Metropolitan Transit Authority begins operating the buses along dedicated lanes in the center of the street, riders and operators face months, perhaps years of detours at both ends of the project as two Texas Department of Transportation projects take shape.

“It will operate. It just may not be the guideways we want eventually,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

As Post Oak proceeds, TxDOT is building an elevated busway along Loop 610 so the large vehicles will move from their Post Oak lanes to an overpass that takes them directly to the transit center. Construction, estimated to cost $57.2 million, started earlier this year. Completion is set for late summer 2020, meaning a few months of the large buses slogging north to the transit center.

On the southern side of the bus project, another challenge looms. A massive rebuild of the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69, already a year into construction, will worsen as the project moves toward its 2023 completion.

Of particular concern is the timing of work south of Richmond, where Post Oak morphs into the southbound Loop 610 frontage road and goes under I-69 before re-emerging at Westpark Drive. Referred to by transportation officials as the “portal” along with the underpass that carries northbound frontage traffic beneath the interchange, it is the critical link for Post Oak buses headed to the new Bellaire transit center.

We were promised that the service would begin in 2019, but between politics and Harvey and whatever else, that’s the way it goes. Solving the problem of extending this to its intended endpoints at Northwest Transit Center and the to-be-built transit center in Bellaire, that’s the big challenge. Among other things, right now this is the main connection to the rest of the city from the Texas Central terminal. This thing is a big deal, and we’re going to need it to be done right.

More Metro regional transit plan meetings planned

There’s more to talk about now.

After gathering input over the past year on how to expand public transportation in the region, METRO says it will soon hold another series of meetings to see what people think of their draft Regional Transit Plan.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said they’re also expecting feedback from a new group of Harris County decision-makers.

“We have a new county government, there are some changes on the congressional level, and we need to take all those things into account,” said Patman. “Because some of the opinions of some of the stakeholders may have changed too.”

As the population grows, METRO says it needs to find better ways to move people to the region’s many employment centers. In the past, most people commuted into downtown Houston. But now, commuters are headed to places like the Med Center, the Energy Corridor, and The Woodlands.

Patman said they also want to tackle mobility challenges within the City of Houston, like providing better connections between downtown and the Galleria.

“The question is what form that will take,” said Patman. “What we’ve been looking at is the concept of bus rapid transit along part of Richmond, dropping down to Westpark, and connecting with the Post Oak BRT. But when we go back out for the public engagement process we’ll get a lot of input into that.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the project webpage. Changes to Commissioners Court as well as changes in Congress may allow for a more expansive definition of what is possible with this. The end result of the meetings and the engagement will be a referendum we vote on in 2019. Go and have your say so what we vote on later is what you were hoping for.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

It’s big, with smaller components that could be done as lower-cost alternatives.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston’s transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. “We’re going to have to pick and choose because we can’t do it all,” said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; “it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study.”

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency’s current financial projections.

“This is big, it’s bold,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. “It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit.” In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent in the mayor’s Complete Communities, according to Thursday’s presentation. “A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations,” said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

[…]

Patman described that vision as “almost a pie in the sky plan” given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves.

“I’m very curious about what we’re really accomplishing,” asked board member Troi Taylor. “It seems like it’s going to be a very small drop in the bucket.”

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

You’ll need to click over to look at the diagrams and explanations. There’s also a long story in the Chron that captures a lot of the discussion and feedback. Nothing is close to being finalized, so what we will eventually vote on on 2019 is still very much up in the air and dependent on what feedback Metro gets and how much the usual gang of anti-transit ghouls scream and wail. The project website is here, with an events calendar and various ways to get updates and give input. It’s early days so there’s not much there yet, but there will be. What about this interests you?

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Metro to buy buses for Uptown BRT

Another step forward.

Metro officials next week are set to spend at least $11.2 million on buses for bus rapid transit service along Post Oak, committing the agency to spending on the controversial project after years of discussion.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members discussed the purchase, and an agreement with the Uptown Management District which is rebuilding Post Oak, Wednesday. The full board meets on Feb. 20, and at that time could approve both the purchase of 14 buses and the agreement.

“This project does exactly what good transit is supposed to do,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “It goes to a crowded area and delivers service that connects conveniently to the rest of the service area.”

Many details of the bus purchase and agreement with Uptown will be worked out in the coming week, after a discussion among board members at the capital and strategic planning committee.

Despite the loose ends, Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said she expected the board to approve the requests, so the agency will be ready for the rapid transit service by May 2019. That is around when Uptown officials expect to be ready, but about a year before the Texas Department of Transportation is set to open a bus-only system along Loop 610 that will speed transit times to the Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10.

See here for the most recent update in this process. Not mentioned in the story, but definitely a consideration, is that the Uptown BRT line would almost certainly connect to the high speed rail station, if not immediately then at some point between the line’s debut in 2019 and the Texas Central opening in 2024. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense for them to not be connected. I’m sure this will be a part of the Metro referendum later this year as well. We’ll keep an eye on this going forward.

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

ONE OF THESE 3 spots revealed in a report from the Federal Railroad Administration will be the planned site for the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail line’s Houston terminal. All 3 are near the intersection of the 610 Loop and the BNSF rail tracks that run parallel to Hempstead Rd. just south of 290.

In the map at top, the station takes the land directly north of the Northwest Transit Center, where an industrial complex home to Icon Electric, Engineering Consulting Services, and others exists now. Hempstead Rd. is shown fronting Northwest Mall at the top of the plan.

Another proposal puts the station in the spot where the mall is now.

See here for the background, and click over to see the locations. We’ve known for some time that the station would be near the 610/290 junction, so now it’s just a matter of picking the precise spot. All three should be proximate to the Uptown line when it finally gets built, and of course there have been discussions with the Gulf Coast Rail District about connecting the line to downtown. So even after the final decision is made, there will still be a lot more to do.

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

A bus guideway along Loop 610 will cost slightly more than anticipated, based on bids opened Wednesday in Austin.

Williams Brothers Construction, a mainstay of highway building in the area, was the apparent low bidder at $57.2 million, for the project to add two elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 from where Post Oak Boulevard curves beneath the freeway to a planned transit center north of Interstate 10.

The project is separate but aligned with the current construction along Post Oak that will add dedicated bus lanes along the road.

TxDOT estimated the project would cost $54.9 million, meaning the Williams Brothers bid is 4.1 percent over state predictions. Four other companies bid between $57.5 million and $64.7 million for the job.

The lanes would run atop the southbound frontage road of Loop 610 before shifting to the center of the freeway. Construction is expected to take 27 months, officials said last year, meaning an opening of mid-2020 by the time construction starts in a few months.

The rest of the project is scheduled to be finished in 2019. That sound you’re hearing is the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects, who are rending their garments at the news that the proposed cost of this piece of the project is a few bucks higher than anticipated. I find this alternately hilarious and infuriating. I mean, 290 and the Loop just north of I-10 is a multi-year and multi-billion dollar disaster area, we’re about to embark on a six-year project to rebuild the 59/610 interchange, and at some point we are going to do unspeakable things to downtown in the name of completely redoing 45 and 59 in that area. Yet with all that, some people lose their minds at the idea of adding a bus lane to one street in the Galleria area. Perspective, y’all. Try it sometime.

People who oppose the Uptown Line continue to oppose the Uptown Line

Film at 11.

A plan for faster bus service along Post Oak, the centerpiece of a larger project to remake Uptown’s Main Street, continues to divide its supporters and transit skeptics, even as work accelerates and commuters brace for limited lanes through the holiday season.

The latest dust-up over the dedicated lanes is over a request to the Transportation Policy Council of the Houston-Galveston Area Council to commit an additional $15.9 million in federal funding to the project. The Uptown Management District and its associated tax increment reinvestment zone, the agency rebuilding Post Oak, also would commit to an additional $15.9 million.

The council is scheduled to meet and decide the issue on Oct. 27.

The request has drawn ire from skeptics, who contend the two bus-only lanes planned for the center of Post Oak will ruin traffic patterns and draw few riders. Many have called it the latest transit boondoggle for the Houston area, which they say will end up costing taxpayers more and provide limited benefit.

[…]

“This project is on budget and fully funded,” said John Breeding, the management district’s president.

Breeding cast the request as a way to shift more of the funding to federal sources, freeing up local money for additional work related to the project.

The dedicated bus lanes are part of a broader remake of Post Oak. The street will continue to have three lanes in each direction with turn lanes. Officials also are adding landscaping and large trees to provide shade, new pedestrian street lighting and wider sidewalks.

The project budget remains estimated at $192.5 million, though some costs have fluctuated.

I kind of can’t really tell what the fuss is about, since the project remains on budget, but then this is a rail-like project and not a road project, which means the rules are just different. As a reminder, the I-10 explansion cost a billion and a half more than we were originally told it would, and the I-45 project is going to cost billions, with overruns certain to happen as well. Somehow, that sort of thing never bothers the people who so vociferously oppose this kind of construction. Go figure.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

At City Hall, Houston and Texas Central Partners announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which commits both sides to share environmental surveys, utility analysis and engineering related to the project and surrounding area and work together to develop new transit and other travel options to and from the likely terminus of the bullet train line.

In the memorandum, Texas Central notes the likely end of their Houston-to-Dallas line will be south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610 and north of Interstate 10. The exact site has been long suspected as the current location of Northwest Mall.

[…]

The cooperation between Houston and Texas Central is no surprise. City officials, notably Mayor Sylvester Turner, have praised the project, with the mayor citing it among examples of his goal of reducing automobile dependency.

“We also look forward to the project’s creation of job opportunities and economic development,” Turner said in a prepared statement.

Here’s the longer version of the story. You can see a copy of the MOU here. I’ve highlighted the most interesting bits below:

3. Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees to coordinate with the City, Harris County, METRO, TxDOT, and GCRD to plan and create the design of the Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees that the design of the Hempstead Corridor must preserve feasibility for high capacity commuter transit. Upon the submission of final approved design plans, and the final approved Definitive Agreements, the Mayor may present to City Council for consideration and approval a resolution or ordinance allowing Texas Central use of the Hempstead Corridor for the purposes contemplated by the Project.

4. Houston Terminal Station Intermodal Connectivity. Texas Central shall ensure the Houston Terminal Station is highly integrated with local transit systems. Texas Central will choose a location for the Houston Terminal Station for which a high level of integration with local transit systems is feasible. Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, GCRD, and other agencies as needed on the location and layout of the Houston Terminal Station and ensure the Houston Terminal Station provides convenient, efficient, and direct access for passengers to
and from local transit systems.

5. Houston Terminal Station Location. Texas Central has advised the City and the City acknowledges that Texas Central proposes to locate the Houston Terminal Station in the general area south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610, and north of I-10. Texas Central will consult with the City prior to finalizing the location of the Houston Terminal Station.

6. Connections to Major Activity Centers. In order to minimize mobility impacts on existing mobility systems and enhance local transportation options, Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, the GCRD, and other agencies as needed for the study, design and construction of connections specifically related to the Project to facilitate efficient multi-modal connections between the Houston Terminal Station and the City’s major activity centers. If Texas Central or the City engages a third party to provide services related to such study, design and construction of connections, the allocation of costs and expenses related to such study, design and construction of connections contemplated by this paragraph 6 shall be mutually agreed upon by Texas Central and the City prior to engaging the services for same.

First, this confirms what everyone basically knew, that the terminal will be at 290 and 610. Of interest is the terminal as an intermodal center, designed to connect people to other forms of transit, as well as the discussion of what those other connections will be. The Uptown BRT line will be one such connector, and then there’s the possible “Inner Katy” light rail line, which as we know from previous entries would involve all of the groups name-checked in point #6. Whether that is dependent on the next Metro referendum, which would likely be in 2018, remains to be seen, but I hope it means we start seeing some activity on possible design and routes for such a line. I’m excited by this. Swamplot and the Press have more.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

Uptown lawsuit filed

I suppose we should have expected something like this.

The city’s Uptown Development Authority and the economic development zone that feeds it were created in violation of the Texas Constitution, two critics allege in a lawsuit that seeks to void all resulting actions and block Uptown from collecting or spending another dime.

The Galleria-area agency’s controversial, $200 million effort to widen Post Oak Boulevard and add dedicated bus lanes down the middle is a key focus of the lawsuit. It was filed Wednesday on behalf of restaurateur Russell Masraff and condominium resident Jim Scarborough, who was also was a plaintiff in another, since-dismissed lawsuit seeking to block the bus plan.

The suit argues that Uptown officials repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in pricing and purchasing land to widen Post Oak – including tracts in which some Uptown board members had a financial interest – and that the agency’s subsequent decisions should be voided or reversed, to the extent possible.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joe Larsen, said he views the filing as having broader significance beyond the bus plan.

“We’re asking the court to order Uptown to make no further payments because all the money involved has been collected through an unconstitutional tax regime,” Larsen said. “The bottom line is the Constitution requires equal taxation.”

He added that the only reason tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, “are not unconstitutional is that there’s a different provision in the Constitution that allows them.”

“In order to meet that other provision in the Constitution that allows TIRZs to be constitutional, they have to be in an area that’s ‘blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped,’ Larsen asserted. “That’s it.”

This is not the first lawsuit related to this project; that one was subsequently dismissed, though without a comment on its merits. In this case, the plaintiffs asked the judge for an injunction blocking the Uptown Development Authority from spending money or issuing bonds while the litigation was in progress, but that request was denied. I feel like it’s also in the Constitution that we cannot have a non-freeway expansion transportation project in this town without at least one lawsuit. I’m not qualified to assess the legal argument being made here, so instead let me bring you a video of “Uptown Funk”, since that song has been lodged in my brain since this story first broke.

With all due respect to “Uptown Girl”, I say this song should be played at the beginning of all court hearings in this case. Who’s with me on this? Swamplot has more.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Uptown BRT will be ready in 2019

A little later than originally expected.

Construction might be set to start soon on dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak through the Uptown area, but the latest projections don’t have riders on the lanes for nearly three years.

Despite earlier estimates to open the lanes in 2018, which Uptown Management District President John Breeding said was possible, even if it happened at “11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2018,” the latest plans don’t have riders hopping aboard until March 2019.

The new date was confirmed Thursday during an update on the project by Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, who are working with Uptown to develop the project, estimated to cost $192.5 million.

[…]

A separate project led by the Texas Department of Transportation will allow the buses to travel along Loop 610 for the portion of the line from Post Oak to Metro’s transit center north of Interstate 10.

The Loop 610 project will not be ready when trips begin in March 2019, said Clint Harbert, Metro’s senior director of system planning and development. It is scheduled for late fall, Harbert said, though Metro is estimating first-year operations on the possibility it might not be ready until early 2020.

Has there ever been a major infrastructure/construction project that didn’t blow past its original completion estimates? I can’t think of any offhand. They’ll get there when they get there, I guess.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

[…]

John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

More on the Gulf Coast Rail District and the high speed rail line

The Chron reports on the story.

Officials with the Gulf Coast Rail District, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Texas Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transit Authority are involved in a comprehensive planning study of rail, generally in the Washington Avenue and Interstate 10 area.

The study, building off numerous previous reports and research by the agencies, is intended to provide a template for how to develop rail between a site at or near Northwest Mall and the former downtown post office.

The study could be persuasive should local officials want to encourage the Federal Railroad Administration or Texas Central Partners, the sponsor of the Dallas-to-Houston rail project, to rethink extending high-speed rail service to downtown, said Maureen Crocker, the rail district’s executive director.

“Really, time is of the essence at this point,” Crocker told rail district officials about changing the high-speed rail plans.

[…]

A 2012 study commissioned by the rail district found that commuter rail along the U.S. 290 corridor would carry an estimated 5,960 riders in 2035 without a direct connection to the central business district. With access to the urban core, ridership increased to 22,580 per day. The study did not examine the effect of the connection on intercity trains.

[…]

Though they were absent from earlier discussions, Metro officials now are engaging in the process. Metro is by far the region’s largest public transit agency and the only operator of passenger rail in Houston, apart from national Amtrak service.

“For such a study to be successful, Metro has to be a full working partner,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the transit agency’s appointee to the rail district.

The various agencies, including Metro, also have different priorities. Even among those interested in a rail link, the demand and types of traveler vary. Metro must consider the needs of all transit users, not just those hopping off high-speed rail, board member Christof Spieler said.

See here for the background. The involvement of Metro is good to hear, as they’re the only outfit that would be capable of operating such a train line, were it to come into existence, and because if you’re going to do something like this you may as well make it as useful as possible. Like, make it have useful stops along the way at places where people would want to go and where connections to bus lines exist. Remember, the two endpoints of this hypothetical train line are themselves hubs – downtown is obviously a locus for lots of other transit options, but so is/will be the Northwest location, which has a park and ride lot now, will have an Uptown BRT station in a couple of years, and may also serve as a stop for a commuter rail line, all in addition to the high speed rail line. You can see why there might be a lot of interest in this. There’s a lot of potential benefit at stake here, so let’s get it right.

Metro posts solid ridership increase

Nice.

METRO’s chosen path to increase ridership by delivering improved routes, with improved connections, is producing solid, steady and most impressively significant, numbers – across the board. Ridership on all fixed routes grew to nearly 7 million in November 2015. That is an 11 percent jump from November 2014.

Local bus ridership numbers for November 2015 are up more than 4 percent from a year ago. METRORail’s Red Line ridership is up nearly 26 percent and Park & Ride boardings have increased nearly 6 and a half percent.

“We are in the first year of a five year plan to improve mobility options for the Houston region,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying. The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

“This is a good start and we expect our new transfer policy will increase ridership even more,” said METRO CEO Tom Lambert. “ The ability to transfer in any direction will not only make our network easier to use, it will give our riders more freedom and can save them a significant amount of money.”

METRO will unveil its new two-way transfer policy on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The new Board policy changes a one way fare into a three hour ticket, allowing fare cardholders free transfers in any direction on local bus or light rail within that three hour window. Currently, transfers are free in one direction.

Not too shabby. You can see the numbers in the embedded image. A few extra details, taken from Metro Board member Christof Spieler’s Facebook page:

“November ridership, @METROHouston reimagined local network: +8% over last year weekday, +9% Saturday, +30% Sunday.”

and

“Red Line now carries nearly 55,000 a weekday, and 11 local routes (all frequent) with over 5,000 weekday boardings, 2x many as before.”

Again, that’s pretty darned nice, especially at a time when there is also some annoying news about Metro’s light rail car supplier. It shows that the whole system is seeing increases – existing light rail, local buses, and Park and Ride buses. Demand is clearly there for transit, and part of this increase is the result of new service – the two new light rail lines, buses running on normal schedules on weekends, and so forth. Keep all that in mind when you hear Uptown BRT naysayers claim that no one will use it. The same people said the same things about the Red Line once, too. Beyond the Uptown line, there are a lot of other service expansion projects being talked about. It’s time to start making some of them more concrete. The demand is there. We need the supply.

Paxton opines on Uptown BRT

AG Ken Paxton was asked for an opinion on whether or not Metro could work with the Uptown Management District on its proposed BRT line. The opinion has been given, though it doesn’t really settle anything.

In the ruling, Paxton said the issue centered on the $640 million in bonds voters approved in 2003, part of an overall rail plan for the Houston area. Metro promised voters to develop light rail along the route.

Holding the agency to that vow, however, would require finding that it spent the money improperly or is developing the bus lanes in lieu of its promise to voters, Paxton’s ruling said.

“A court would likely determine that (Metro’s) contract with the voters included the expenditure of a portion of the bond proceeds on the Uptown/West Loop 4.4-mile rail segment,” Paxton wrote. “Whether Metro’s participation in the Uptown Houston Transit Project violates that contract with the voters requires the resolution of fact issues that are beyond the purview of an attorney general opinion.”

Critics said he decision vindicated their position that Metro cannot substitute a bus project for light rail. The question could arise again if Metro tries to issue bonds – the language of which must be approved by Paxton’s office – or if critics ask a court to intervene.

[…]

A court ultimately, if asked, would have to decide whether voters received the benefits Metro promised them in 2003 and that money was used for those purposes, Paxton’s opinion said.

Another question, Paxton said, would be whether the existing project “will prevent the development of the promised rail segment.”

See here for the background, and see the story for a copy of the opinion, designated KP-0046 if you want to look at it on the OAG website. I don’t see any way this doesn’t end in a lawsuit. That’s just how we roll around here with rail projects. In the meantime, savor the irony of die-hard light rail opponents arguing that the Uptown line has to be built as light rail or else it’s illegal. How Andy Taylor keeps his head from exploding is one of life’s enduring mysteries.

More on the high speed rail station in Houston

The Chron frets about it not being downtown.

After hearing so much about how the proposed Central Texas Railway will help people commute between the central business districts of Houston and Dallas, it turns out that the Houston station will be built near the Northwest Mall at U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

Unless your business is antiques, that location isn’t exactly central. In fact, the French have a phrase to describe rail stations that sit outside central business districts, surrounded by little more than a parking lot: beet field stations.

We’ve heard arguments that, while it isn’t an economic core itself, the proposed rail terminus serves as the center of Houston’s economic footprint, balanced between the energy corridor, Galleria area, downtown, The Woodlands and the Texas Medical Center. But it isn’t just about placing riders at the physical center of a region. Central business districts offer convenient connections to riders’ end destinations. This means walking to hotels or businesses, grabbing a cab or connecting to a local mass-transit system. Downtown Houston is one of the few parts of town that can meet all those standards.

Rail stations on the edge of urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to a June report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration that documented best rail practices from around the world. Sometimes it makes sense to build on more affordable, suburban property. However, those stations function best when they’re at the core of a transit node. Metro’s Northwest Transit Center isn’t enough.

[…]

Metro’s version of commuter rail – Park and Ride – has stations that are little more than parking lots. Those are the dreaded beet field stations that, according to Eidlin’s report, do little to attract economic development.

There’s plenty of opportunities for Houston’s high-speed rail station to connect with the rest of the city, such as a Metro’s planned dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, or even light rail toward downtown. But according to best practices, that groundwork for a mass-transit hub should already be laid by the time the new high-speed rail station is built. Keith said the Central Texas Railway planned to break ground in 2017. Where is Metro’s corresponding local plan?

Jarrett Walker has a response to this.

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won’t go to “downtown” Houston.  Instead it will end atNorthwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I’ve talked with aren’t sounding nearly as upset.  That’s because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It’s also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region’s second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It’s very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

There’s a good discussion in the comments to that post, if you want to read some more. My thoughts are as follows:

1. The decision to put the terminus at 290 and 610 was as much a political choice as anything else. Right now, Texas Central mostly has political enemies in the rural and suburban counties between Houston and Dallas, with some spillover into neighboring rural counties. The legislators who represent these areas include some fairly powerful people, but there aren’t that many of them. The one key vote regarding Texas Central, in a Senate committee, went in their favor because there were more Senators from urban areas like the Metroplex and Harris County who favored the idea. The last thing Texas Central needs is more enemies, and that’s what they would have gotten if they had pushed for a downtown terminus, as plenty of inner Loop folks didn’t like the idea of the trains whizzing through their neighborhoods. Yeah, there’s a NIMBY aspect to this, but the fact remains that a downtown terminus would have had more legislators aligning with the anti-high-speed rail folks. Texas Central didn’t need or want that, and this was the easiest solution to that problem.

2. As long as we’re noting the politics of high-speed rail, let’s also note that Metro is where it is today in large part because of political forces, which among other things have forced them to make dubious promises about not building light rail in the dedicated lanes now being intended for the Uptown BRT line. Metro did plenty to sabotage itself during the early days of the light rail approval process, but they have also had to fight against considerable headwinds, for which the main casualty has been the Universities line. I don’t know what the landscape would look like if there had been a more favorable political climate over the past dozen or so years, but I think we can all agree that it would be different.

3. The area around 290 and 610 where this would be built isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be clear: Pretty much everywhere along 610 between I-10 and TC Jester is a wasteland right now, largely because of freeway construction. At some point, all that construction will be over, and the area can begin to develop into something. When that might be, I have no idea. Prospects for that area may be limited regardless, because access to it is limited by the various freeway interchanges. But if there was ever a time to build something around there, now is as good as any because it’s all going to change over the next five to ten years anyway.

4. I think a lot of concerns go away if 1) the Uptown BRT line gets built; 2) an Inner Katy line, which would connect downtown to Uptown via Washington Avenue and the Northwest Transit Center, gets on the drawing board; and 3) the Universities Line gets back into the discussion. Put those things in place, and this terminus much more accessible to the rest of the city. #1 will happen on its own if nothing torpedoes it. #2 has been the subject of what-if speculation for financial assistance from Texas Central. Not clear how that might work, but it sure would be worth talking about. As for #3, I think everyone agrees that once the Uptown line is built and assuming it’s a success, the argument for connecting it to the Main Street line becomes nearly unassailable. Metro would have to hold another referendum to make that happen per the terms of the peace accord with John Culberson, and for sure all the usual forces against any kind of spending on rail construction will come to the fore. But it could happen, and if these things do happen we’ll be much better off.