Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

construction

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a look at that long-awaited Ismaili Center

Looks really nice.

Designs for Houston’s the Ismaili Center Houston were unveiled Monday afternoon, revealing architecture and gardens likely to set a new bar in a city increasingly devoted to modern design and lush green spaces.

With a structure designed by UK-based Farshid Moussavi and gardens by Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects — a renowned landscape architect known locally for his work transforming Memorial Park — the new Ismaili Center will sprawl across 11 acres at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard.

Clad in a silvery beige Turkish marble, the building will be a cultural landmark where local and visiting Ismailis can worship, and where others can attend cultural and educational events. Gardens on all four sides will include terraced plantings and water features in a configuration that pays homage to ancient Islamic architecture but with vegetation found in Texas ecosystems.

Houston was chosen several years ago by His Highness Aga Khan as the site of America’s first Ismaili Center, picked for its large population of Ismaili Muslims and for its overall diverse community. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader — or imam — of Ismaili Muslims, and is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam some 1,400 years ago.

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the local land in 2006 and later donated seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures — that sit across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park. Excavation on the site is already under way and a formal ground breaking will likely take place early next year with construction finished by the end of 2024.

[…]

The Ismaili Center has no front or back; each side is equally detailed and welcoming, though there will be entry doors off of West Dallas and Montrose streets, Moussavi said. Deep on the lot toward West Dallas, the building had to be located outside of the 500-year flood plain to avoid damage in future weather events.

Woltz, who leads the landscape architecture team that will craft 10 acres of lush garden where there is now dirt and scruffy weeds, also did the landscaping for the Ismaili Center in London. Houston’s center will be the seventh throughout the world; the others — built between 1985 and 2014 — are in London, Toronto, Lisbon, Dubai, and in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

See here for the previous update, and here for an aerial view of what the property will eventually look like. It sounds great and the pictures are amazing. I still don’t know why it all took so long, but at least something is finally being built there. Maybe there will be hope for The Stables some day.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

Harris County will pause its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over the proposed Interstate 45 widening in hopes that it leads to a consensus that has eluded them for more than four years.

The pause, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court at a special meeting Monday, instructs County Attorney Christian Menefee to seek a stay on the lawsuit in federal court as he negotiates with TxDOT to resolve differences between the changes the county seeks to the project and the current plan.

The project, estimated to cost at least $9 billion, would rebuild and widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including the freeway’s interchanges with Interstate 69, Interstate 10 and Loop 610 in Independence Heights.

The stay and pause, officials said, would give an opening to officials to work out details of the planned freeway widening without backing off their opposition to what TxDOT is proposing.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Menefee said he will ask the court for a stay of 30 days, and then potentially extend that for an additional 30 days if the discussions are “fruitful.”

“The pause is a show of good faith by the county to remind TxDOT that we’re in this to find solutions and address community concerns,” Menefee said in a statement. “We expect TxDOT to work alongside us to achieve the same. If that does not happen, the county will resume the suit and we’ll let the courts decide.”

[…]

Skepticism remains high among project opponents that TxDOT can be a willing participant. Jeff Peters, a member of the Stop TxDOT I-45, said backers consistently have bullied people into accepting their design with the threat of doing nothing if they do not get their way. He urged the county to proceed with the lawsuit, rather than relent.

“This is a critical piece of leverage that can bring TxDOT to the bargaining table,” Peters told Commissioners Court before it approved the pause.

Highway officials, however, have said since March that the federal review and lawsuit leave them no choice but to stop talking. At an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said the pause by the Federal Highway Administration and county lawsuit were more of an obstacle to open dialogue because they impede TxDOT from designing alternatives.

“We can’t spend money to design and we can’t spend money to do those things,” Ryan said at the forum, which drew criticism because it was for paying guests only at an event sponsored by various engineering, construction and planning firms.

See here for the background. As noted recently, there are other obstacles to the project, though perhaps if Harris County and TxDOT can settle their differences, those can be handled as well. I’m fine with this approach – if there’s a path to meeting the needs of the many people and groups that have been objecting to the design of this project, then sure, let’s go for it – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. There’s already been a lot of time for talk, and I don’t know how much latitude TxDOT has to give. There’s some risk here for Harris County as well, as the opponents of this project aren’t likely to be happy with half a loaf. But hey, lawsuits are time- and resource-intensive, and they often end in settlements anyway, so why not give this a try. You never know.

What the BIF means for Texas

That’s the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed last week.

The White House estimates that Texas will receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects after federal lawmakers passed a long-anticipated national infrastructure bill on Friday.

The influx of capital is set to advance existing transit plans, pay for much-needed repairs and could lay the groundwork toward increasing transportation options for Texans.

U.S. House lawmakers gave the roughly $1.2 trillion measure final approval late Friday after a series of negotiations and concessions to get the bill passed. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

[…]

Here is the breakdown of the funds that Texas is expected to receive based on estimates from the White House:

The White House also estimated that $3.5 billion will be invested to weatherize the country’s energy infrastructure, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much of that money would go to Texas or how those plans could combine with measures approved by the Texas Legislature this year in response to February’s devastating winter storm.

It’s smaller than I wanted, and there are some projects that were left out, but that’s still a sizeable investment, and after four years of loose talk about “Infrastructure Week”, it’s nice to finally close the deal. Just needed the right President and Congress, clearly. Speaking of which, remember that every Republican in Texas voted against this bill, so when you inevitably see one of them take credit for some project that is being funded by it, be sure to call them out.

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, look, it’s a Robinson Warehouse update!

From the new CityCast Houston newsletter, Lisa Gray’s latest project.

What once was there

“It appears that the property purchased by the Aga Khan many years ago is under development,” writes City Cast subscriber Mickey Altman. “What is going on there?”

He’s talking about the enormous lot at 2323 Allen Parkway – right across from Buffalo Bayou Park’s alphabet-dude Tolerance sculptures, and with a looong edge facing Montrose. For 14 years, as midrise apartment empires rose all around, those 11 high-profile acres have languished, tantalizingly empty.

Their vacancy especially grated on Montrose denizens and architecture fans because they’d once slavered over the site’s possibilities. After the Aga Khan Foundation bought the place in 2006, it razed the crumbling brick warehouse that occupied the land and announced plans to build a big-deal Ismaili Centre like the ones in London, Vancouver and Lisbon.

The Aga Khan, a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect of Shia Muslims. He’s also a world-class architecture fan, and Ismaili Centres in other cities present themselves as brick-and-mortar proof of Ismailis’ friendly, do-gooder worldliness. Houston’s Ismaili Centre was to be part park, part prayer hall, part conference center – and open to the Montrose public.

Then…nothing.

In 2010, Swamplot blog readers spotted construction trailers. False alarm! Those were for a bridge across the street.

“Hark, a fence!” snarked Swamplot in 2012, when new chainlink appeared. But construction failed to follow.

In 2013, earth-moving equipment rumbled across the field, and a contractor told a reporter that he was preparing a cricket field. Instead: Crickets.

At last, in February 2019, the Ismailis announced something. Passing over a passel of starchitect finalists – David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas – they’d picked up-and-coming Farshid Moussavi, a Harvard professor. And to design the enormous grounds, they chose Thomas Woltz, known to Houstonians for revamping Memorial Park and the landscaping around Rothko Chapel.

And now, three years later? To answer Mickey Altman’s question, I emailed Farshid Moussavi’s office in London. “We anticipate that there will be a press release regarding the project sometime next month,” responded her studio manager, Ishwariya Rajamohan. But alas: No pretty drawings, and no real timetable.

But something is happening. Yesterday, from the southern edge, I saw earth-moving equipment, Port-a-Cans, and best of all, what looked like giant bathroom tile samples – presumably the architectural equivalent of fabric swatches, to show what how various exteriors might look on the site itself.

And so, yet again, we wait.

Lisa took a picture of the construction equipment she saw, so click over if you’re curious. I had driven past the site just a couple of days before she posted that and didn’t see anything at that time, but I drove by again on Thursday and sure enough, dirt had been moved. It’s all on the southern end at this point, right at the Montrose/West Dallas intersection.

I of course have been obsessed with the former Robinson Warehouse site since the old place was first being demolished in 2006 – yes, of course I observed the news about the architect noted in that piece – so this is very much of interest to me, even though my daily travels (or what will be my daily travels, when I start going back to the office) don’t take me by there any more. For sure, though, when there is something happening, I will make a point of getting over there on the regular to take more pictures of it.

By the way, I recommend visiting the CityCast Houston homepage and signing up for the daily newsletter. There will be a podcast coming soon as well. Lisa Gray is an excellent observer of the Houston scene, and it’s a pleasure getting her daily insights. The newsletter is free, so go sign up for it.

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

MKT Bridge repairs delayed

Bummer.

Months after a fire closed a key Houston trail link, opening day for the M-K-T Bridge remains up in the air, after workers discovered more repairs are needed to the old railroad crossing.

“They found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment,” the Houston Parks Board said in a statement. “Further repairs are needed before the bridge can safely reopen. In addition, there is also damage to the bridge caused by wear and tear that we would like to address while it is closed.”

That leaves the link along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou closed for an undetermined period, officials said. Initially parks board officials planned to have the bridge open by the end of summer.

[…]

Officials closed the bridge after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of White Oak Bayou. The blaze, investigated as an arson, charred the wooden beams that support the trail bridge. Houston Parks Board and city officials spent months assessing and then approving fixes to the span.

Now with more work needed, much of that process starts over again, with engineers designing the repair and the city issuing permits.

“As a result of this new development, and for safety reasons, the bridge will remain closed,” parks board officials said. “We are disappointed that the bridge will not open as originally planned and cannot say for certain when the bridge will reopen to trail users.”

See here and here for some background. No indication yet how much of a delay this will cause, but we’re already at the end of the summer, so we’re surely at least a few months out. As noted in the story, there’s now a project to extend the White Oak Bayou Trail to connect it to the MKT Bridge, which is expected to be done in early 2022. It would be awesome to have both of them done by then, but getting the bridge repair right is the more important consideration.

Bike trail connections news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More fourplexes

I am in favor of this.

Houston is mulling changes to its planning rules that could encourage a broader variety of housing types, such as triplexes and fourplexes, that developers and the city say could create more affordable options and help fill an unmet niche in the local housing market between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes or townhouses.

The current rules discourage those “middle” forms of development by allowing no more than two units on a single-family residential plat. The code allows for a duplex, or a home and one “accessory dwelling unit,” such as a garage apartment.

If owners want develop a project with more units, they have to get a commercial multifamily designation, which triggers higher financing costs and more regulations — such as the number of parking spaces, or the width of the driveway — that make the projects less feasible. The city did not approve a single new permit for three-, four- or five-unit structures in 2019 or 2020, an indication that it can be cost prohibitive for developers to pursue them.

“All of these requirements discourage such developments,” said Suvidha Bandi, principal planner for the city Planning Department.

The city has released a survey seeking public input on the rules, and whether they should be changed. The survey has garnered roughly 500 responses to date, and the Planning Department recently extended its deadline to Aug. 16. The potential changes are part of the Livable Places initiative, a bid to make the city more walkable, affordable and equitable.

[…]

Any changes would not supersede local deed restrictions, which could limit such developments in certain neighborhoods, Planning Director Margaret Wallace Brown said.

If the city were to loosen the planning restrictions, it could encourage more development in what housing experts call the “missing middle,” the dearth of housing supply between single-family homes and larger complexes. Daniel Parolek, an urban designer who coined the term, has said those developments typically have been illegal or discouraged in many parts of the United States since the 1940s.

That is when many of the existing triplexes and fourplexes in Houston were built, according to city planning officials. Since then, city planning rules have made it more difficult to build them.

As the story notes, this is the start of a long process, as a proposal has yet to be drafted and would need approvals from the Planning Commission and City Counci. Houston used to have a lot of three- and four-plexes. Montrose had a ton of them, usually those foursquare brick buildings that I’ve always liked, in the 90s when I was living there. They were definitely the affordable places to live, and they could be again. It just makes sense to me to revise the rules that are now preventing their construction. Really, we need to have a conversation about doing this in neighborhoods that have deed restrictions prohibiting them as well, which includes the neighborhood I live in now. The fact is that Houston is a much more expensive place to live now than it used to be, despite the vast amount of open space we have to build more housing, and we need to take action to make more affordable housing available. This would do that, and I support it.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell me how to get (safely) to Memorial Park?

Safety is nice.

A $200 million-plus plan to improve [Memorial Park] is aimed at making it a signature destination for all Houstonians. With that success, though, will come the same challenges anything popular in Houston faces: How will people get there, where will they park and what can be done to give them an option other than driving?

A variety of projects are planned or proposed to offer safer or additional options, including new bike paths, wider sidewalks, even a possible Metropolitan Transit Authority hub to rapid buses. All of the ideas, however, are years away and still face some public scrutiny that could alter the plans.

Efforts to create or expand trails follow what has been the largest park investment in a generation — a $70 million land bridge that creates a hillside through which Memorial Drive passes, connecting the park’s north and south sides.

[…]

One of the biggest challenges to improving access to Memorial is the big roads that border it: Loop 610 and Interstate 10. Running along the west and north edges of the park, the freeways are a barrier where the freeway intersections with Washington Avenue to the northeast and Memorial and Woodway to the west can be chaotic for cyclists and pedestrians.

“What we want is a safe, easy, biking solution,” said Bob Ethington, director of research and economic development for the Uptown Houston District.

Ethington said along Loop 610, officials are considering how best to get runners and cyclists as far away from cars as practical. Those plans include a connection from the south, parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as far south as San Felipe.

The trail skirts a rail line south of the park, in the River Oaks area dotted with some of the most expensive homes within Loop 610. Other projects could follow, taking the trail as far as Brays Bayou and creating what could become a freeway of sorts for bicyclists between two popular bayou routes.

The key connection to the heart of Uptown, on the other side of Loop 610, is a planned trail running near the top of Uptown Park Boulevard, where it curves into the southbound frontage road, that will follow Buffalo Bayou beneath the clatter of 16 lanes of traffic above.

That connection, which could include a new bridge strictly for the trail across the bayou, would eliminate a stress-inducing street crossing for cyclists and runners at Woodway.

“The corner is terrible and the (Loop 610) underpass is not great,” said Randy Odinet, vice president of capital projects and facilities for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The Uptown work, which follows Briar Hollow in the neighborhood south of Buffalo Bayou, recently received a boost, when $4 million of the $5.3 million price tag was included in the House version of a federal infrastructure bill at the request of Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, who represents the area.

For travelers headed to the park from the east, two planned projects could help. Construction is set to start in about 20 months on a new bike lane spliced through a narrow piece of public land on the south side of Interstate 10. The Texas Department of Transportation project would eliminate a broken link between the Heights and Shepherd corridors and Memorial Park, caused by I-10.

Now, cyclists can use the Heights Hike and Bike Trail and White Oak Trail to access the Cottage Grove neighborhood north of I-10, then a pedestrian bridge atop I-10 at Cohn. About a half-mile from the park at the end of the Cohn crossing, however, is where the easy access stops. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks and nearby streets force runners back to TC Jester, which many avoid because of the heavy traffic and truck volumes and high speeds.

Design of the TxDOT project is not finalized, but the work likely will include a trail along the south side of I-10 from Cohn to Washington, through a slice of state-owned right of way and beneath the UP tracks. At Washington, it is expected to cross at the intersection and into the park.

The project also will replace the Cohn bridge with a wider span and assorted street-level improvements north of I-10 along the frontage road.

Most Houston residents and travelers, however, cannot simply hop on a bike and get to the park. Current transit offerings are limited to three bus routes, two of which come every 30 minutes. The third, the Route 85 Antoine/Washington that skirts the eastern edge of the park, is the only frequent route, coming every 15 minutes. More than a dozen bus routes pull into the Northwest Transit Center less than 2,500 feet away from the park, but those 2,500 feet are impassable because of the I-10 interchange with Loop 610.

A planned bus rapid transit route along I-10, however, could radically improve access if Metro were to include a stop at the park. Metro officials, while not committing, said they are considering a possible stop at Washington on the park’s boundary.

The idea of a Memorial Park station has drawn interest from transit riders and officials. Often, transit is built and discussed in terms of moving people solely to jobs and schools, Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

“It is also about getting us to recreation facilities, parks,” Ramabhadran said.

Plans for the BRT line include an elevated busway along I-10 so large buses can move in their own lanes from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston. Transit officials plan various public meetings before any station decision is made.

“You cannot order a BRT corridor on Amazon and have it delivered next week,” Ramabhadran said.

It all sounds good to me, and you can see each of the planned items in the embedded image. Years ago, when it was still possible to dream about more light rail lines being built in Houston, I proposed a rail line that was a combination of Inner Katy/Washington Avenue and the current Uptown BRT line, which would have included a Memorial Drive segment. That was included for the purpose of making it easier for more people to get to one of Houston’s biggest parks and premier destinations. That idea will never happen, but seeing a proposal for a Memorial Park-accessible stop on the now-proposed Inner Katy BRT line makes me smile. It really is kind of crazy that the only way to get to Memorial Park for nearly everyone is to drive there, especially considering how impossible it used to be to park. There’s more parking now, but we could get a lot more people into Memorial Park if they didn’t have to drive to get there. I very much look forward to seeing these projects take shape.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Central signs construction deal

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Update on the bike trail bridge

We have an estimate for repairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And more good news:

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

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

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

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

A new downtown park

Something to look forward to, when we’re all comfortable being in crowded spaces again, even outside crowded spaces.

Houston officials broke ground [earlier this month] on a new park in south downtown that by next year will provide the area with its first addition of major greenspace since Discovery Green opened more than a decade ago.

The park will take up most of the block surrounded by Bell, Fannin, Leeland and San Jacinto streets, replacing a Goodyear Auto Service Center. It will include a central lawn area, gardens on the north and south sides, dog runs for large and small breeds, water features and art installations, and a second location of Tout Suite, the East Downtown cafe. Construction is expected to wrap up next March.

Officials have dubbed the new area Trebly Park, a nod to the three street corners surrounding the park, and the implication that “there’ll be three times as much here for everybody who lives in the neighborhood and who visits,” said Bob Eury, president of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The project previously had gone by the name of Southern Downtown Park.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the project is part of city leaders’ ongoing efforts to bring more parks and greenspace to the downtown area, such as the renovation Jones Plaza farther north. Those types of investments will spur further growth downtown, Turner said, adding that when he was growing up in Houston decades ago, the central business district would become “dead” shortly after everyone left work for the day.

“When I grew up in this city, there were probably, other than the hotels, I don’t think there was anybody living downtown. And now we have about 10,000 people living downtown,” he said. “The developments have led to the design and construction of this park, and at the same time, the parks are leading to residential and other transit-oriented development downtown.”

Downtown has other issues right now, but I expect they will sort themselves out one way or another. In the meantime, more park space is welcome. If like me you were scratching your head at the explanation of the “Trebly Park” name, CultureMap is here to help:

“Trebly Park is located on Block 333 of Downtown Houston, on a site defined by three city block corners. Trebly, meaning ‘three times as much,’ is fresh in spirit, rolls off the tongue, and is not moored in convention. By its definition, Trebly Park implies that the park has much to offer those who visit it in terms of experience with ‘three times as much’ fun, play, interaction, relaxation and deliciousness.”

Good to know. I’ve got it on my places to visit next spring.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Are you ready for some I-10 construction?

Well, ready or not

State highways officials set out in 2004 to develop a plan to remake Interstate 45 and add managed lanes, only to face increasingly stiff opposition in the past three years from elected officials and community activists that its plan was out of step with future travel needs.

New plans to add managed lanes along Interstate 10 along a corridor inside Loop 610 took only days to get that same response.

The Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority are jointly presenting plans for a so-called Inner Katy Corridor, a project to remake the 10-lane freeway — five lanes in each direction supported by frontage roads and entrance and exit ramps — by building dedicated bus lanes, adding two managed lanes in each direction and upgrading drainage along depressed portions of the freeway.

“The commitment remains to moving the same number of single-occupant vehicles at high speed,” said Neal Ehardt, a freeway critic who advocates a more urban-focused approach that includes downsizing major highways. “We are keeping the same number of single-occupant car lanes and we are adding managed lanes. This is not the mode transition we want. It is more like mode bloat.”

Officials counter that it is a necessary step — and an unconventional one for TxDOT — to stay within the existing freeway footprint as much as possible but meet demand. They understand there are some that believe no additional lanes are needed, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT’s Houston office.

“That is a nice goal to have, but where we are today, we are not there,” Koch said. “We still have traffic and congestion today and we are dealing with those things. I understand the passion those folks have, but not everybody wants to get on the bus.”

Comments for this phase can be submitted to TxDOT or Metro until March 31. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials created a virtual meeting room, also available until March 31.

Planners have three objectives for the eventual project along the I-10 corridor:

  • Building dedicated bus lanes along the freeway to extend Metro’s bus rapid transit from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 to downtown Houston.
  • Improving drainage along the segment where I-10 is below local streets, from Patterson to Loop 610.
  • Adding two managed lanes in each direction and improving carpool access by eliminating any gaps where HOV drivers mingle with general traffic.

Those objectives would be broken up into multiple projects, likely with different timelines.

Metro’s bus lanes, for example, already are funded via the transit agency’s capital budget and money controlled by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which distributes some federal highway funding. Provided Metro is ready to proceed, construction of the $227.5 million bus lane project is set to begin in 2023 and open in 2025, according to H-GAC’s five-year plan.

TxDOT’s managed lanes are not included in upcoming spending plans, with officials saying the current timeline would be to start construction in 2027. The goal, Koch said, is for TxDOT to have some idea of what people prefer so the Metro bus lanes can be built without interfering with what the state constructs in the future.

[…]

The transit lanes have a chance to radically improve the quality of bus rides in the corridor and the region, said Christof Spieler, an urban planner and former Metro board member.

Relative to past freeway discussions, he said, TxDOT is part of a larger conversation about how various projects are coming together, ultimately to determine how Houston grows.

“There are signs in there of TxDOT being more creative than in the past,” Spieler said.

I’m going to wait and see on this one, based on Spieler’s comments. The Metro bus lanes, which were part of the 2019 Metro referendum, are a must-have. I think everyone would like to see drainage improved for this stretch of highway. It’s adding the managed lanes that are going to cause the heartburn, since that either means widening I-10 (which would take up to 115 more feet of right-of-way, according to the story), or adding elevated lanes (which would still need 45 feet) and adding concerns about noise and visual blight. My advice is to attend any public meetings and give your input while you can, because it’s going to be time to start building before you know it.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

Texas highway officials [last] Thursday gave themselves the green light to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, a crucial step in the process, despite lingering concerns from critics that the proposed $7.5 billion widening project is out of step with the region’s future needs.

The record of decision, essentially a declaration that the project met all the steps laid out in federal transportation rules, clears the way for construction of the revamped freeway, but also allows for changes, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

In a statement, Houston District Director for TxDOT Eliza Paul said the decision “is a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”

Those proposed changes, which critics have sought for more than three years as the project moved through its environmental process, include significant revisions in more than a dozen neighborhoods.

“‘Refinements’ is a blatant mis-characterization of the critical changes requested by Harris County, the City of Houston, and other elected officials representing the people of the directly impacted communities,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has worked with local neighborhoods to oppose the project.

See here for the background. I don’t know what to expect from here, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Still, the only way to get something like what you want is to keep asking for it. I don’t know how much better it’s possible to make this, but there’s only one way to find out.

There’s a real lack of consensus about the I-45 project

It seems unlikely that TxDOT could just throw up its hands and walk away from this, but it’s at least a possible scenario.

A proposed agreement devised to bring planners and critics of a massive redesign of Interstate 45 together has left officials in many ways further apart and opponents with a chance to convince more people the $8 billion project is stuck in the past.

No one is pulling the plug on the freeway rebuild or its design, but transportation officials said the lack of consensus between the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council has the region’s largest-ever freeway rebuild at a crossroads. It is a hurdle a proposed memorandum of understanding was intended to clear, but the various agencies could not even agree on the agreement.

Transportation Policy Council members tabled a resolution last Friday after TxDOT said that even voting on an agreement that had no legally binding effect could complicate the project. That left some officials struggling to understand how various concerns about the project can even be addressed.

“I think it is a huge black mark on TPC and H-GAC that after all of this work and all of this community involvement nothing happens,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a member of the committee that worked on the now-scuttled agreement. “I just can’t imagine this thing foundering at this point and how it will affect the public’s perception.”

[…]

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out federal money for highways and must include the project in its spending plans for the next decade, brought TxDOT and others together in June 2020 to create an agreement outlining what each hoped to gain from the project and some outline of the design’s goals. A committee was formed to develop a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the entities outlining what they jointly commit to and who is responsible for certain particulars. The committee was headed by Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Transportation Training and Research.

Lewis said the various groups achieved a lot, developing what she called a framework from which to build consensus even with “extremes of positions” among TxDOT and the project’s critics.

“The opinions were not necessarily all aligned but we got to a good place,” Lewis said.

TxDOT’s legal review, however, called for sweeping changes, eliminating any part of the proposed agreement that conflicted with the current environmental plan. Otherwise, lawyers concluded, TxDOT would not able to sign a deal that differs with what it proposed to federal officials.

Unable to get a firm, binding agreement, Lewis said the committee sought a resolution that would go to H-GAC’s transportation council. The reasoning was that a resolution could at least serve as a guidepost of what everyone wanted to achieve.

Even that ran into opposition from TxDOT. The concern, state officials said, is a resolution would send mixed signals that the project did not have regional support, although the transportation council’s 10-year plan has set aside money for it.

In a statement some said boded ominously, [TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza] Paul noted if the Houston area slowed or stopped its support of the project, it could lose its place in line for state funding.

“I know TxDOT is not going to let the $8 billion sit around until we know what we are going to do,” Paul said.

I don’t know what to make of that, so go read the rest. As noted in the last update, Harris County and the city of Houston oppose the design as it is now but still want to see the project work. Other groups like LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Stop I-45 are firmly in opposition, and there’s some hope among them that this could be a way to kill the project. I have a hard time believing that, but given how long this idea has been in the works, I could imagine it being delayed for another few years, with the current pot of money being re-apportioned. The TPC has another meeting in late February to try again with this resolution, so we’ll see if they’ve made any progress on it by then.