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A brief 11th Street update

From the latest Woodland Heights Civic Association newsletter:

11th Street Safety Improvements: Project Update

The WHCA board hosted City officials (David Fields, Lauren Grove, and Colin Lupold) at the January 10th general meeting. We had around 50 or so on the Zoom call, and feedback from neighbors was positive about the project generally, except with some discrete concerns that the City addressed. Here is a brief recap:

  • Timeline. The project is on track to be completed by the end of February.
  • Hogg Middle School. The City has heard various reports of problems with pick-up and drop-off. They have met with Hogg officials multiple times, including earlier on Jan 10th. They did not share specifics but they are working on it.
  • Signal Lights. They understand that some of the traffic on 11th Street is due to old configuration of the traffic signals. The light signals will be changed at the very end of the project—they can’t do that until all striping and signage is in. So help is on the way.
  • Visibility. Several neighbors asked about increased visibility on the curbs and islands. The officials discussed several options and limitations, but will work on it.
  • Cut-Through Traffic. Finally, we discussed examples of increased cut-through traffic. The City re-affirmed its commitment to work with the neighborhoods after the project to minimize negative impacts. But these issues are addressed best after construction is complete.

Next Steps: the City will attend our next general meeting in March to follow up on these matters, and we will be communicating with them in the meantime as needed.

The last pre-construction update I had was from June. In September the planning was finalized and initial work was getting set to begin, and around Halloween I first noticed signs on the street announcing the imminent changes. There probably isn’t that much more to do – this stretch of 11th Street is now one car lane each way with a turn lane in place for much of it. The segregated bike lanes are there, some of those pedestrian islands are there, the “No Left Turn” signs at Heights Blvd are there, and any resurfacing that needed to be done was done early on.

And I have to say, for the most part the effect on traffic has been pretty minimal, as the city said it would be. I take this stretch of West 11th several times a week, all around 4 PM, as part of the kid-carpool thing, and other than having to wait longer at the Shepherd light, it’s really no different. I’m rarely tempted to cut over to 10th Street, and from my normal travels around the neighborhood I have not noticed more cars on the side streets. (*) I haven’t noticed a lot of bike traffic, but I have ridden it myself (just once as of this writing, but there will be more) and it’s great. I had always avoided riding on 11th Street in the past, and having a segregated lane makes all the difference. I’m glad to see from this newsletter update that this change has been positively received, because I definitely approve of it. I hope this means there will be more like this elsewhere in the city.

One more aspect of this, as you can see from the embedded image, is on Michaux, which connects 11th to Stude Park and the White Oak and MKT bike trails. The only changes on Michaux have been the addition of “Bike Trail” street signs and bike lane-type painting on the street itself. I’ve got a plan to do a ride along the whole route and take some pictures in the near future, so you can see that later. They also added a pedestrian island on White Oak at Michaux, so you can’t make a left turn from Michaux southbound onto White Oak, or continue through onto the one extra block of Michaux before it runs into Stude Park. That has made me redo how I get to the I-10 entrance and points south from Watson, either by taking Norhill and turning left onto White Oak from there or turning left to get to Watson before I reach Michaux. I’ve seen a driver or two get caught by surprise by that and do some ill-advised things to compensate, but I expect that will decrease over time.

Anyway. From where I sit this has been a success, and I’ve not seen any kind of response from the opponents of the project. I can’t wait until the Durham/Shepherd project catches up and you can really get places on your bike. I also need to hop over to North Main and see how that project is coming along. If you’re in this area, what has your experience been with the changes to West 11th Street?

(*) I grew up on Staten Island, New York, where everyone drove on the side streets because the main roads, which were often one lane each way and had bus routes and street parking and no protected left turns, were basically undriveable. So I know from taking side streets. If there’s any increase in side street traffic resulting from the changes to West 11th, I can’t see it.

The Pierce Skypark and the Midtown McDonald’s

Fascinating.

The now closed McDonald’s in Midtown isn’t the only parcel at play in the area that could – when combined with a major proposed “sky park’ – help to reshape the southern edge of downtown.

The Greyhound bus station next to McDonald’s in Midtown is expected to close next year, laying the groundwork for a potential redevelopment opportunity in an area on the cusp of a major transformation. The site is near where economic developers are pitching a proposed elevated park on top of a section of Interstate 45 slated to be abandoned if state officials can move forward with their massive overhaul of the highway.

The proposed sky park is steps away from the Greyhound bus station at 2121 Main Street. A spokesperson for Greyhound said the bus station is open and running now, but they acknowledged Greyhound is looking for a different site.

[…]

Marlon Marshall, director of engineering and construction at Midtown Redevelopment Authority, said the closure of the McDonald’s site and the sale of the Greyhound station could benefit future Midtown development activity. While much is unknown, the potential for both sites to be redeveloped puts a spotlight on a section of Midtown that already could see significant change if city and local economic development officials move forward with the proposed sky park nearby.

The Midtown group is hosting a public meeting Feb. 22 on updates to its master plan for the neighborhood, which will include a discussion about what to do with Pierce Elevated, Marshall added.

The sky park proposal has been bandied about for several years and could become more of a possibility as the Texas Department of Transportation inches closer to launching the I-45 expansion.

The proposal involves converting an abandoned section of the highway into an elevated linear park stretching from roughly Heiner Street to Hamilton Street along the southeastern edge of downtown. The section of the highway is known as the Pierce Elevated.

Downtown economic development group Central Houston has pitched the elevated sky park as part of a broader effort to establish a 5-mile so-called proposed “Green Loop” of green spaces, parks and multi-modal pathways encircling downtown. The sky park itself could be reminiscent of the High Line Park, a former railroad spur in New York City converted into an elevated greenway.

“For me the opportunities are almost limitless, there are ways in which you can carve out sections (of I-45) and sell the dirt itself and have someone build a building abutting the freeway – whether it’s a hotel, residence or business and people could walk out of their residences and be on this esplanade that is above the grid,” said Allen Douglas, chief operating officer at Central Houston, who is also Midtown resident and board member of Midtown Redevelopment Authority.

We first heard of the Pierce Skypark back in 2015. The next update we had for it was that it was included in the Central Houston compromise proposal for I-45, the one that the city and county signed off on. I like the idea of it conceptually, though as noted then and now there isn’t a current mechanism to fund whatever the vision for this thing eventually is. I personally think TxDOT should have to kick in at least a piece of it, but beyond that I figure it would be up to the city and whatever developers get on board.

I mean, obviously turning this piece of downtown/Midtown from a busy highway overpass into a genuine urban amenity would be great for the city, and there’s limitless potential for what could be done with it. It’s also a reminder that turning the US 59 overpass on the east side of downtown into a larger US59/I-45 joint overpass would be not so great for that part of town, and that’s even before we take into account all of the current buildings that would have to be knocked down to make it happen. This is the issue with running interstate highways through the center of cities. Are we sure it’s too late to consider the proposal to re-route I-45 to either Loop 610 or Beltway 8? Please? Houston Public Media has more.

A new proposal for adding sidewalks

I’d like to hear more about this.

Some homeowners and developers soon may be able to opt out of requirements to build sidewalks and instead pay a fee into a new fund the city would use to build sidewalks across Houston.

City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a proposal to create a “sidewalk-in-lieu fee” to give developers another way to comply with the sidewalk ordinance.

Under current regulations, property owners and developers are required to build a sidewalk in front of a property unless the project meets certain exemptions. This approach, however, has led to disconnected segments, known as “sidewalks to nowhere,” that do not contribute to a network needed by pedestrians, according to David Fields, chief transportation planner at the Houston Planning and Development Department.

With the new measure, applicants can choose to pay a fee of $12 per square foot if the required sidewalk construction is unsuitable or unfeasible. The fees would go into a new fund, which is expected to generate $1.7 million a year for the city to build sidewalks in a cohesive manner. That would be in addition to the existing sidewalk program’s $3.3 million annual budget.

The plan also would divide Houston into 17 service areas; 70 percent of the sidewalk fees collected in each area would be spent within its boundaries and 30 percent would be used citywide. The idea, Fields said, is to balance the need for sidewalk projects throughout Houston.

“The objective is a citywide pedestrian network to help the city grow sustainably and responsibly,” Fields said. “The in-lieu fee is one additional option for how we get there.”

The basic idea makes sense, and from reading the rest of the article it sounds like there’s a consensus for this. CM Robert Gallegos notes that it doesn’t address the need to fix existing sidewalks, though he still appears to favor the idea. Lack of sidewalks, and lack of good sidewalks, is a longstanding problem in this city, one that greatly limits non-car options for people, especially people with mobility challenges. Any tangible step we can take towards making that situation better is one I’d like to see happen.

I-45 construction never stops

It just keeps moving on.

Though attention remains on rebuilding Interstate 45 through northern parts of Houston, state highway officials also are planning for the next round of road work.

The Texas Department of Transportation has scheduled two public meetings, starting Tuesday in Conroe, related to I-45 from Beltway 8 to Loop 336 in Conroe. The meetings, part of a preliminary process called planning and environmental linkages, are a chance for residents to see possible plans for rebuilding the freeway and get a first look at what TxDOT is considering as it moves toward project designs.

Though preliminary — for comparison, the paused I-45 project in Houston reached this stage in 2005 — the meetings narrow the options for widening the freeway and considering viable transit options along the corridor, based on resident input.

The presentations planned Tuesday in Conroe and Thursday in Spring also will be online, TxDOT officials said.

Officials said the aim of the upcoming meetings, the third round of public sessions, is “to explore transportation alternatives to address the growing safety, mobility, and connectivity needs along the corridor due to the projected population and employment growth in the greater Houston region.”

None of the possible changes are planned or designed at this time, though TxDOT’s record funding means some high-priority projects are accelerating, even as costs for some projects increase.

Good luck, y’all. I would assume that this will be more warmly received by area residents than the current project has been, but I could be wrong and even if I’m not that doesn’t mean it will be super popular. If TxDOT is more willing to listen and make changes to their original design, you can thank us later.

So what’s the deal with that I-45 deal?

Still to be determined.

Houston, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation have an agreed path forward for rebuilding Interstate 45, and a lot of steps to get there.

Details big and small remain works in progress and a federal pause looms as the last big hurdle, for now, as officials move ahead after last month’s agreements.

“We are doing everything we can to move this project forward,” James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, told a North Houston Association luncheon on Wednesday.

The group, focused on economic development north of the city, is a vocal supporter of the widening project because of its potential to improve access to downtown and revitalize sagging areas along the I-45 freeway corridor.

To get some of those benefits, officials first have to iron out technical issue that not only affect the $10 billion rebuild of I-45 and the downtown freeway system, but numerous other mobility projects that cross it. Among them:

  • How TxDOT will rebuild Interstate 69 beneath Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail in Midtown while keeping the trains moving as much as possible.
  • Addressing changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District that improve drainage for neighborhoods north and south of the Loop 610 interchange with I-45.
  • Design specifics of the future I-45 interchange with Interstate 10 that accommodate Metro’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line along I-10 and proposed managed lanes access to downtown streets.
  • Adding sidewalks and bike amenities to areas where TxDOT has committed to trying to reduce the number of properties it will take.
  • Determining how a proposed downtown connection for the Hardy Toll Road will enter the area near Buffalo Bayou and cross a remade I-10.
  • Reconsidering how the project will incorporate Metro’s plans for bus rapid transit into its overall design.

“I think the next steps are sitting down in a room and working out all the details,” Metro board Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said of the work ahead.

Those details are not the only obstacles to construction, which officials will consider moving from 2024 to 2027 later this month in the region’s four-year transportation plan. TxDOT still must acquire some property, Koch said, and the pending Federal Highway Administration review that the local agreements do not affect must be resolved.

[…]

Hailed by elected officials as a breakthrough that salvaged a desperately-needed freeway rebuild, the deals surprised critics of the initial design. They noted many of the details give TxDOT room to renege while others fall short of the changes some neighborhood advocates had sought.

In a statement, Air Alliance Houston said the agreements “will do very little to protect Houston communities from the harms posed by this project,” specifically related to air pollution caused by the larger freeway in many neighborhoods around the central business district.

“It would be difficult to overstate our disappointment in the contents of these two (agreements), the closed-door manner in which they were created and signed, the lack of sufficient time for the public to read and respond to them, and the tone with which they were presented,” the group said.

Officials have defended the deals as the best way to change the project but still maintain the benefits that will come with it, including faster and safer commutes and the creation of two-way managed lanes that can improve transit in the I-45 corridor.

See here for the background. I believe that’s the first I’ve heard of the construction timeline being pushed back to 2027, which is a modest benefit no matter what else happens. We still need to know what all these details are, and I definitely agree that there is room for TxDOT to weasel out on a lot of promises. But I have always believed that one way or another this was going to happen, so any improvements or modifications to the original plan have to be considered with that in mind. Metro is probably as eager as anyone to get this going, as their MetroNext plans depend on various items in the I-45 rebuild. I hope that as long as things are still being worked out there’s still room to get assurances and confirmations about the things that Metro has agreed to.

Universal Studios to open a theme park in Frisco

Of interest, at least to those in the target demographic.

Another major development is coming to Frisco.

City business leaders on Wednesday morning announced that a new Universal Studios theme park is planning to come to the booming Collin County suburb.

The park will be a kids-themed park with immersive experiences and rides involving Universal movies, leaders said.

Universal operates five theme parks and several more resorts.

The Frisco park will sit on 97 acres near the Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway. The park will be about one-fourth of the size of Universal’s main theme parks, officials said. The Frisco park will be “a scale appropriate for our young family audience,” officials said at the press conference.

Officials did not announce an expected opening date.

It’s been a few years, but I’ve been to the Universal Studios park in Florida. It was fun – I was there as part of a business trip, which these things are quite conducive to. This one will be pitched a little differently, per the Dallas Observer.

The new park will be built on the northeast corner of Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway, just a few miles east of the Grandscape entertainment and shopping district in The Colony. The 97-acre park, tentatively named Universal Kids Florida, will be “a one-of-a-kind theme park, unlike any other in the world, specifically designed to inspire fun for families with young children,” according to a statement released by Universal Parks & Resorts.

“We have a portfolio of terrific attractions that appeal to young families around the world and we had an idea to bring all those together and create a destination that is specifically designed to appeal to families with young children,” said Mark Woodbury, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks & Recreation at Wednesday’s press conference after revealing the first artist’s rendering of the new theme park. “That’s what you’re seeing in this illustration now, and that’s what we hope to bring to Frisco.”

Universal’s new Frisco location will also have an adjacent hotel themed to the park’s kid-friendly design, with room for expansion for future attractions and services. Universal released an artist’s rendering of an overview of the theme park showing possible attractions. These include a boat ride on a lake at the center of the property, a land with a medieval castle, a visitors center and playground space that looks similar to buildings in the film Jurassic Park and the Netflix kids’ animated series Camp Cretaceous, based on the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films.

Woodbury described the park as “a lush landscape environment [with] four or five themed lands, each one of them full of attractions, interactive experiences, discovery experiences, exploration, learning opportunities and just a rich, rich experience for families to enjoy together.”

So far, neither the city of Frisco nor Universal have released any further details regarding construction or a possible opening date, nor which movie or television properties and attractions will be included in the new theme park concept. Universal noted in its statement that the park is “intended to have a completely different look, feel and scale than Universal’s existing parks and will appeal to a new audience for the brand.”

The new Universal Studios concept in Frisco is aimed at younger visitors, and will be the first American expansion made by the theme park in the almost 33 years since Universal Studios Florida opened in Orlando.

Click over the see the artist’s rendering. I have to assume that the name will have “Texas” in it and not “Florida”, because that would just be weird. But who knows. It will surely be a few years before this thing opens. What do you think, is this something you’ll be first in line to experience or something you’ll avoid like the plague? TPR, the Chron, the Current, and CultureMap have more.

Don’t Musk my rural Texas

For your perusal.

In August 2021, a handful of Bastrop County residents noticed something big unfolding on quiet Walker Watson Road.

The two-lane road, about a quarter-mile long from end to end, bisects cow pastures, corn fields and woods. It’s lined by 15 homesteads, most on lots of 1 acre or more. Farmers have lived there for generations. Other residents are newcomers looking to escape the hassles of city life.

What they had in common was an appreciation for the area’s peacefulness.

Then the cement trucks, backhoes and tractors arrived.

Seemingly overnight, an 80,000-square-foot warehouse and on-site modular homes for employee went up on the south side of the road, towering over the fields. The construction frenzy brought noise at all hours, light pollution and heavy traffic.

Residents soon learned that the newcomer was The Boring Co., a tunnel firm owned by Elon Musk, one of the richest men on Earth.

One year later, the commercial rocket company SpaceX, another Musk-owned firm, started building a 521,000-square-foot structure across the street from The Boring Co. property.

Emails between SpaceX and Bastrop County officials indicate that the company plans to build a manufacturing plant at the site for Starlink, a subsidiary that’s creating a global broadband internet network via satellites. Construction began in May 2022.

Neighbors say the companies have created nuisances besides noise and strong nighttime lighting, including water runoff spilling onto the roadway. Records obtained by the Express-News back up those claims. The documents also reveal that the companies have pressured Bastrop County officials to approve numerous permits at breakneck speed, and that The Boring Co. has been cited for two code violations and issued three warnings of noncompliance.

On June 22 of this year, then-county engineer Robert Pugh complained in a letter to Bastrop County Commissioner Clara Beckett about the heavy demands both companies had placed on the county’s Development Services Department, which has a dozen employees in engineering and development-related jobs.

Pugh wrote that staff had been “regularly hounded” by Boring Co. and Starlink employees and consultants to “expedite and approve permit applications that are incomplete and not in compliance with the Commissioners Court (CC) regulations.”

[…]

“Sooner or later, I knew either my health or urban sprawl would take this little spot of nature away from me. I never dreamed it would be industry,” said Lynn Collier, who owns a ranch on the road with her two brothers. “I never dreamed that a factory would just come and buy all this up.”

So far, The Boring Co. has dug a tunnel between the two companies’ properties — which total about 100 acres — and built a miniature neighborhood on its site, complete with a soon-to-open Montessori school.

Collier sees strong similarities between her corner of Bastrop County and Boca Chica, near Brownsville in South Texas, where SpaceX has snapped up many residential properties near its spaceport. The company ceremoniously renamed the community “Starbase.” The Boring Co. has offered to buy out homeowners in Bastrop County, too.

“If you are someplace in rural Texas, and somebody has enough money, they just take over,” she said. “If it can happen here, it could happen anywhere.”

I’m not a rural person, and I would have expected there to be a lot of growth and construction in Bastrop County because of its proximity to Travis County. As someone who has driven to Austin via State Highway 71, which goes through Bastrop, for over 30 years, anyone can tell you that it is vastly different than it used to be. I don’t doubt that things are more frenetic than ever and that this can be chaotic and unpleasant for residents there. I also don’t doubt that anyone in Elon Musk’s orbit will do whatever they can to game things in his companies’ favor, whatever the cost to others may be. I don’t have any prescriptions here, I just thought this was an interesting read. Good luck to all those that have to deal with this.

The road construction chaos that we know of for 2023

Forewarned, forearmed, etc.

A new year will mean major developments for some of the biggest highway projects in the region, but drivers should not expect them to be finished until 2024.

The largest projects by the Texas Department of Transportation in the Houston region – the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, widening Interstate 10 west of Katy and enlarging Interstate 45 to Galveston – all will not be done until 2023.

Here is a look at some expected changes drivers may notice:

The story goes into the gory details of these three projects, which will go on for the rest of the year, but basically this is what you need to know. Avoid the Loop around the Galleria, I-10 west of Katy, and I-45 south of 610. If you can actually do all of those three, congratulations. If not, may the Lord have mercy on your soul.

The ribbon is finally cut on the White Oak bike trail extension

I’d been waiting for this.

Hike and bike trail connectivity has just gotten better in the Houston Heights area now that work on a new connector is complete. The City of Houston held a ribbon cutting [last] Tuesday to celebrate the new MKT Spur Connector that connects the MKT and White Oak Bayou Greenway Trails.

The $1.2 million project is a 850 ft. long and 10 ft. wide trail that allows residents to travel from the MKT Hike and Bike Trail to Stude Park, connecting to what used to be a dead end under Studemont Street.

“The MKT Spur Connector fills a major gap for the city’s bike network,” said Houston Public Works Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations Veronica Davis. “This connection proves a safer and more equitable transportation network for all users.”

The connector was completed a few months ago and the city has since added additional safety railings and retaining walls and stormwater drainage to help prevent flooding along the trails.

District C city council member Abbie Kamin said the project creates safer transit for residents who use both trails.

“We are now connecting two of, in district C, our most popular trails where residents can be more comfortable walking, running, biking, and not being forced onto busy streets,” she said.

See here for my last post on the construction of this connector. In looking at those pictures, it occurred to me that I missed documenting all of the safety add-ons mentioned in the story. I couldn’t let that go, could I? Of course not.

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrails

You can see the two types of guardrail added at the three locations, including where the trail passes over the bayou culvert. That one was obviously needed. I’m not certain why the others were added where they were and not in different locations, but that’s all right. They do look good, and if someone decide that’s where they need to be, then so be it.

A side view:

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrailsFullView

I’ve now used the extension a couple of times myself, as both a pedestrian and a bicyclist. It’s great – I had no idea how much it was needed until it was there, as part of the overall network. The MKT Trail, which is on the far end of these pictures, allows for easy bike access to the shopping center where the Target is. I’d much rather bike there most days than drive, but prior to the existence of this extension it was either a much long ride or a ride that involved Watson Street over I-10 and onto Sawyer, which is just too much car traffic to feel safe. It’s now a shorter ride to get there via the trail, and that makes biking there much more convenient and attractive. What’s not to like? CultureMap has more.

Agreement reached on I-45 expansion plans

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

The bottleneck of design differences that has divided officials about remaking Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston is easing, officials said Monday, clearing the way for construction on the $10 billion project, perhaps in less than two years.

“There is no perfect design,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “On balance, with the improvements … I think you have an excellent project that will move forward and move the greater good.”

The agreement outlines plans for widening the freeway by adding two managed lanes in each direction from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, along with various frontage road and interchange alterations.

“We are ready to move forward together,” said Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.

After spending months at loggerheads, but working on some consensus, the Texas Department of Transportation committed to a handful of concessions, such as increasing the money it will pay the Houston Housing Authority for relocation and development of affordable housing, and assurances to design the project as much within the current freeway footprint as possible. The project also connects to trails for running and biking, adds air monitoring in certain areas, adds features aimed at encouraging transit use and commits to stormwater design changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District.

“Not all the things we wanted materialized, but that is compromise,” said Harris County Pct. 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

The agreement announced Monday does not remove the pause the Federal Highway Administration placed on the project in March 2021. But with blessing of local, state and federal elected officials, it is likely TxDOT and the FHWA could come to a separate agreement and work could proceed, people involved in the deal said.

[…]

The agreements are a rare case of a major Texas highway project receiving major changes, prompted by community opposition, after officials had essentially greenlit its construction. The deals, however, also give TxDOT room to consider alternatives that reduce the number of homes and businesses displaced, but also do not hold them to any specific reductions.

“We expect TxDOT to uphold its end of this historic agreement, and not only to evaluate the impacts over the next year but to agree to and fund real solutions that address concerns about displacement, pollution, flooding and impacts on the public transportation network,” said Harris County Pct. 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

The difference in visions has dogged the project for more than two years, but progress on remaking the freeway hit two large potholes in March 2021, after critics of the widening convinced some local officials to step in and federal highway officials paused work. Around the same time, Harris County sued TxDOT, saying the designs did not adequately address the impacts of noise and pollution in some communities, notably the North Side and Independence Heights.

In the roughly 20 months since, officials chipped away at the differences, postponing action on the county’s lawsuit and awaiting the federal review, while exploring what changes TxDOT could make to appease concerns. In the interim, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Garcia, who both were outspoken about the need for changes to the design, were reelected.

The two new agreements, one between TxDOT and the city and another between TxDOT and Harris County, specify the commitments both sides are making. Turner signed the city’s agreement Monday, after it was signed by TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. The county’s agreement can only be approved after a Commissioners’ Court meeting, scheduled for Thursday. Approval of the deal would automatically trigger a request by county officials drop the lawsuit against TxDOT.

Most of the new details are similar to requests Turner made in August 2021, and correspond with requests county officials raised more than a year ago, which state highway officials said they could not approve because they locked TxDOT into commitments on side ventures that were not included in the project.

Opponents of TxDOT’s design, finalized in 2019, said they needed to review specifics of the two agreements, but remained opposed to some of the fundamental features included in the plans.

“TxDOT has yet to adequately respond to community concerns about induced demand — the phenomenon by which wider highways make traffic worse,” the group Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement.

“We want a project that does not displace, and we know that wide freeways do not relieve traffic,” the group said. “We are excited to remain an active partner in this planning and development process.”

The city’s press release is here. On the one hand, I have faith that local political leaders who have been vocal in their opposition to TxDOT’s previous plans have done their best to get as good a deal as they can. They couldn’t hold out forever – there’s a lot of pressure to make I-45 renovation and expansion happen – and no one gets everything they want in a negotiation. If I trusted them before I have no reason not to trust them now. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with every decision they made, but I start out with the belief that they did their best to act in our interest.

On the other hand, I and others who live close to I-45 and will be directly affected by whatever does happen in some way – and let’s be clear, lots of people will be much more directly affected than I will – are under no obligation to like this agreement, no matter how reasonable it may be and no matter how unprecedented it may be for TxDOT to bend as much as they apparently did. I don’t care how long it takes some dude to drive into town from The Woodlands. I’m perfectly happy telling them all to take one of the commuter buses in, and if the service for that is inadequate to push for it to be improved. I have no interest in prioritizing those needs over anyone else’s. I appreciate that Mayor Turner, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, County Attorney Menefee, and everyone I’m forgetting eventually had to say Yes to a sincere and meaningful counteroffer. I really do believe they did the best they could and that we’re overall in a much better place than when we started and that we worked hard for it. But I still don’t have to like it. I’ll try to learn to live with it. That’s the best I can do. CultureMap has more.

Houston to spend more fixing water pipes

Seems like a good idea.

The city is poised to at least double its annual spending on water line repairs, citing two years of pipe breaks and leaks driven in part by ongoing drought conditions.

Houston lost nearly 20 billion gallons of water from January to August of this year, according to records obtained through a public information request. That represents about $75 million in potential revenue for the city’s water utility system.

City Council on Wednesday approved six emergency purchases related to water infrastructure maintenance totaling $21 million. In the previous five fiscal years, the city spent $9 to $10 million annually to repair broken water pipes, city records show.

Such emergency purchases are common during a drought, when extreme heat and dryness put pressure on the pipes around shrinking soils, Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones said.

In June, record temperatures and a significant drop in rainfall prompted the city to issue a drought advisory — which remains ongoing — asking residents to limit outdoor watering and routinely check for water leaks. The last time Houston issued such restrictions was during a more severe state-wide drought in 2011, Jones said.

“All those warmer months without rain in April and May, that’s causing like a domino effect of more heat and more breakage,” she said. “It’s not as bad as what it was in 2011, but it’s important to remember that we were and still are in a drought.”

Houston has an aging underground infrastructure, Mayor Sylvester Turner said during Wednesday’s council meeting. Combined with more extreme weather conditions brought by climate change, spending more money on contractors to fix the main lines is unavoidable, he said.

“We were being overwhelmed, and so we ended up bringing on more contractors to address the situation. That has helped, and it does come with an expense,” Turner said. “We have to recognize the changing conditions and the infrastructure that’s going to be required in order to mitigate more water main leaks.”

From January to May, the amount of water lost to leaks each month nearly doubled, from 1.8 billion gallons to 3.1 billion gallons, data show. The largest water losses occurred in March, April and May, when they accounted for more than 20 percent of the city’s total treated water, slightly less than the 25 percent at the height of the 2011 drought.

That’s a lot of water, and getting the pipes fixed is not just sensible environmentally it’s also a good idea financially. I think the city has been a bit lax on this historically because we’re in a pretty wet climate and generally haven’t had to worry about having enough water. It’s very clear now that that is not a safe assumption any more.

One more thing:

Councilmember Mike Kubosh said the city should ask the state for more support, noting Texas was to receive an estimated $35 billion over five years from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November 2021.

“Some of the cities have crumbling infrastructure, like ours,” Kubosh said. “Thirty billion dollars just sitting there…It’s the people’s money. It doesn’t make sense that they’re not using it.”

By all means, feel free to pick up the phone and call Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and tell them that. I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor.

Concept Neighborhood’s Second Ward project

Sounds really cool. I hope they can pull it off, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Plans to turn a swath of the East End into a walkable district are getting larger and more ambitious – setting the groundwork for what could become Houston’s next 15-minute neighborhood — where everything a resident needs is within 15 minutes of walking distance.

Houston real estate firm Concept Neighborhood – a group of entrepreneurs that include some of founders of the Axelrad beer garden — previously unveiled plans to convert the former W-K-M warehouse complex in the East End into a mixed-use destination with hyperlocal businesses and walkable streets.

Now, the scale of the project — estimated at $350 million — has grown to 17 acres, and developers plan to incorporate up to 1,000 mixed-income apartments with 250,000 square-feet of retail and office space over the next decade. Working with global architecture firm Gensler on a master plan, Concept Neighborhood is expanding its vision for the district after purchasing additional land from Union Pacific Railway and a handful of other property owners over the past few months.

While some neighbors are nervous about gentrification, the developers, if successful, could achieve what urban planners say could be the first project of its kind in the city: a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of adaptive reuse buildings where low- and middle-income residents can live affordably, and where owning a car would be optional.

“Houston does not have a neighborhood for people that want to rely on micro mobility, biking and transit,” said Jeff Kaplan, principal with Concept Neighborhood who lives in the district he’s helping to redevelop. “People can choose to have a car if they want to, and if they want to live car-free, they can.”

In the project called The Plant/Second Ward, developers are stitching several parcels together to create a nearly mile-long corridor of streets lined with small businesses, restaurants and housing across a mix of about 21 old and new buildings — starting from Harrisburg Boulevard in the south and extending north to Navigation Boulevard, a critical thoroughfare in the East End a few blocks south of Buffalo Bayou. Concept Neighborhood also plans to convert a section of a former Union Pacific railway into a hike-and-bike trail running one-third of a mile through the development from Commerce Street to Navigation Boulevard.

Concept Neighborhood’s website is here and a website for this project, called The Plant/Second Ward, is here. The southeast end of this neighborhood abuts the Coffee Plant/Second Ward light rail stop on the Harrisburg (Green) line, as you can see in the embedded image. One of the bigger issues they’ll be dealing with is maintaining affordability for the mostly lower-income residents already in the area. It’s safe to say that if this succeeds it will be the first of its kind in Houston. I’m rooting for them, but I also know that we often hear of large planned real estate projects that seem to go nowhere. I hope this one achieves its vision. (And boy do I wish Swamplot was still around to have a take on it.)

Shepherd/Durham construction update

Good long story in the Chron.

When the workers clear — still months away — Shepherd and Durham, along with some major side streets, will be remade, and in many ways reformed. The streets, dual thoroughfares that funnel traffic between Memorial Drive and Loop 610, will remain major commuting corridors, but with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and spruced-up trees and intersections.

“It certainly could look a lot better,” Heights resident Christie Aycock said. “As it is, there is all this building going on, but you cannot get to it without a car.”

Lack of viable options beyond automobiles is a constant in many Houston neighborhoods, to which the city, various management districts, Harris County and other entities are taking a piecemeal approach to correcting. Some projects, including the $120 million plan for Shepherd within Loop 610, also have federal funding attached.

When completed in sections between 2024 and 2028, the work along Shepherd and Durham will have added sidewalks and a separated bike lane to both streets. The sidewalk redo also will bring the entire route up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a huge improvement for those who use wheelchairs or other assistance.

To make room for cyclists and walkers in the same right of way, the four-lane streets will be trimmed to three lanes, with some dedicated turn lanes at major intersections.

Analyses showed traffic congestion on both streets was due to turns, so losing a lane but gaining turn areas should help drivers proceed more efficiently.

“Both our study and the city’s show it improves congestion,” said Sherry Weesner, president of the redevelopment authority.

[…]

South of Washington Avenue to Memorial Drive, Houston Public Works is more than halfway through a rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that resurfaces both the streets atop new drainage pipes, along with rebuilding six smaller streets between the two thoroughfares. The $12 million project also is adding lighting and bike lanes, and like the northern segment, will trim vehicle lanes from four to three to make room for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“While the contractor has faced supply and staffing issues due to the pandemic, they have a plan in place to finish in the spring,” said Erin Jones, spokeswoman for Houston Public Works.

Farther south, between Westheimer and Richmond, a $27 million rebuild of Shepherd has frustrated businesses and travelers for months, but promises better drainage for the western Montrose and Upper Kirby neighborhoods nearby. Shepherd, meanwhile, will get similar sidewalks and rebuilt intersections aimed at making the street less chaotic, but with the same two lanes in each direction for drivers.

Once the Shepherd work moves to the next phase south of 15th, the bike lanes will connect with bike lanes being developed along 11th Street through the Heights.

Though controversial with some residents, the 11th Street lanes form an east-west route from Shepherd that feed into other trails closer to downtown Houston.

Another east-west route, meanwhile, could carry many more commuters into downtown. Metropolitan Transit Authority’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line includes a proposed stop at Shepherd-Durham on the south side of Interstate 10. As Metro creates the line, it has said connectivity by bike and on foot is crucial, along with improved bus service along the entire Shepherd corridor so residents as far north as Acres Homes have access.

See here and here for more on this project; the 11th Street makeover and the Inner Katy BRT line are also mentioned. As noted before, I’m driving this stretch of road pretty regularly now as part of school pickup duties. It’s not been too bad so far, and I’m excited to see what the finished product looks like. That area is so much more residential now than it was 20 years ago, it just makes sense to redo those roads in a way that fits in with a neighborhood. We need to do this in more parts of the city.

White Oak bike trail extension: The final polish

I haven’t seen a news story or press release to say that the White Oak bike trail extension is now fully open, but what I have seen is bicyclists using the trail. So open it must be. And since the last update a month ago, there have been a couple of finishing touches. Observe:

HeightsTrailExtensionDone

HeightsTrailExtensionFullViewDone

If you zoom in, you can see bike riders in each of those photos. I have not yet had the opportunity to use the trail myself yet, but it’s on my to do list.

One more thing: All the construction equipment is gone, and I was wondering if there had been a finishing touch added to the Frasier Street entrance to the MKT Trail. Alas, that is still a no:

MKTTrailFrasierEntranceDone

Maybe I can will it into existence someday.

Since I’m sure you’re all wondering what public works project in my neighborhood I’ll obsessively chronicle now that this one is finally in the books, well, it looks like work is about to begin on 11th Street. These signs appeared about a month ago:

BigChangesComingTo11thStreet

And hopefully there will be some action on the A Tale Of Two Bridges project. So don’t you worry, there will be more pictures soon.

Texas Central insists they’re still alive

It’s something, I guess.

A lawyer for nearly 100 property owners who are living with the threat of their land being seized said he will seek legal action against Texas Central, the company that for a decade has promised to build a bullet train between Dallas and Houston, if the company does not provide more details about the looming project.

Landowners whose property could be in the path of the train track have petitioned the company to answer their questions. Patrick McShan, the lawyer representing property owners, said he’s prepared to ask a judge to allow him to depose the company — which has said little about the project — to get answers for his clients.

[…]

McShan’s list of questions included inquiries about the company’s leadership and permits for the project.

Robert Neblett, Texas Central’s attorney, said the company spent a “considerable sum” of money acquiring property for this project. Neblett added the company owns hundreds of tracts of land purchased for this project, but he did not confirm The Texas Tribune’s analysis of property owned by Texas Central.

“Texas Central’s chief executive is Michael Bui. Texas Central is not currently looking for a CEO to replace him nor is it looking for a new Board of Directors,” Neblett said in an emailed statement to the Tribune.

Neblett added that Texas Central plans to obtain any and all federal Surface Transportation Board certifications required to construct and operate the project.

Bui is a senior management consultant with FTI Consulting, a business advisory that lists corporate recovery as one of his qualifications. Bui also served as an adviser to a private energy company that provided power to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas following its court-ordered restructuring after the February 2021 freeze that caused hundreds of deaths while knocking out power and heat to millions of people.

According to a news release Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office released Thursday, unnamed representatives of Texas Central said, “the landscape changed since March 2022, when the company underwent a restructuring effort, and the future of the high-speed train remains bright.”

Houston and Dallas leaders have long championed the project that would connect the two cities. Turner said the bullet train would be an economic stimulant for the entire state.

“We had some very productive and constructive discussions about the train in Japan,” Turner said. “The leadership in Houston is very supportive and wants it to happen. I look forward to working with Texas Central and our state and federal partners to advance this project. If you build it, people will take full advantage of it.”

Still in contention is how much land the company has acquired in the 10 years since the project was announced, and how much land is still needed for the bullet train.

See here, here, and here for the background. As noted in the story, the Texas Central Twitter page had its first new post since July, so that’s something. I’d like to see more activity than that, but at least the mirror test shows that there’s still some breath in there. For now, I’ll take it.

Another depressing story about the existential future of Texas Central

It’s sad, y’all.

People in the path of a proposed but floundering high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas last week filed a letter that in many ways labels Texas Central Railroad the little engine that will never be.

They think it can’t. They think it can’t. They think it can’t.

“Granted, Texas Central appears to be doing things,” attorney Patrick McShan said in the letter sent to the company on Sept. 29. “But none of the things Texas Central is now doing suggest in any manner whatsoever that it does, in fact, intend to construct the project.”

The planned rail line, once touted as mere months from construction, now is more paperwork than planning. Since its former CEO left in June, the company has said it is securing financing, but shown little other signs of life, beyond a July 8 statement after the Texas Supreme Court affirmed its right to use eminent domain to acquire property.

“Texas Central has made significant strides in the project over the last several years and we are moving forward on a path that we believe will ensure the project’s successful development,” the company said then. “We look forward to being able to say more about this at an appropriate time in the near future.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Citing various examples, McShan’s letter said it appears Texas Central is operating as a shell of a corporation, paying property taxes it owed in eight of the 11 counties where it owns property, but still owing HOA dues for numerous locations and property taxes in Ellis County.  It reportedly, McShan said, has lost investment from Japan once considered necessary for the project, and has sold some of the properties it acquired during six years of planning and design.

The company never has applied for any construction permits related to construction of the line, though it has certain federal clearances.

“We believe Texas Central has not filed, nor will it ever file, an application for a construction permit for two reasons,” McShan wrote. “One, Texas Central does not want to make these required financial disclosures; and two, it knows that if it did make these disclosures its application would be summarily denied.”

See here and here for the previous depressing examples. I note that the last post on the Texas Central Twitter page was July 8, in response to that last story. If you can’t even issue a pro forma denial to this sort of thing, it is eminently reasonable to wonder what the heck is going on over there, and if anyone is doing anything. I’d love to find some reason for a bit of optimism, but right now that just ain’t there. Please prove me wrong, guys.

White Oak bike trail extension: I think we’re done now?

When we last looked about a month ago, it was clear that the construction on the White Oak Bike Trail extension was almost done, as there was just a small amount of concrete to be poured to connect the trail to the existing MKT Trail. As of last weekend, when these pictures were taken, it seems that at least the concrete work is now finished.

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

You can see two things of interest in this picture. One is that the concrete trail is now farther along – more on that in a minute – and two is that there is no longer a dirt trail dug for construction equipment to access the more southern parts of the extension. What you see to the left (south) of the trail is the dirt (and eventual grass that will cover it) being smoothed back into place. This has a much more finished look to it than what we saw a month ago.

That picture was taken from the overpass on Studewood. I moved over to the MKT Trail to get a better look from the other side. Here’s the last bit of concrete that was poured:

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

And as of the previous weekend, here’s the last bit that was still to be poured, at least as far as the trail itself was concerned:

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

The Heights Trail extension connects with the MKT Trail just west of the MKT Bridge, To my left as I took this picture there was a box about eight or ten feet square that had rebar in it and was clearly awaiting some concrete. It was not attached to either trail and it had workers all around it so I didn’t get a picture. Maybe next time. I couldn’t say offhand what that box was for, but once it’s done it may be obvious to me.

In case you’re wondering where all the construction equipment was at that time:

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

As you can see, that dirt path is parallel and right next to the MKT Trail, and it is curving onto Frasier Street, which we have discussed before. The fate of that connection to Frasier Street was still not clear to me at that time, but I’m a little worried:

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

Initially, and even as of a month ago, that looked like a connection from Frasier Street to the MKT Trail, which I assumed from the beginning would eventually be paved over and become a part of the trail system. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not vital – you can still get there even if you have to cross over grass or mud or whatever, and a block farther west you can access the trail directly from Oxford Street. It’s just that this is a little closer to Studewood, so if you’re coming from that side it’s more convenient. From my perspective as someone who lives on the other side of Studewood, I would just use the Heights trail extension now if I intended to get onto the MKT Trail. All I’m saying is we’re here, we have the equipment, adding just a little more concrete would make it just a little easier for some folks to access the trail, so why not do it? I’ll see what it looks like once it’s clear that the construction is officially over. I hope there will be a ribbon-cutting of some kind to celebrate the completion of this task. If not, I’ll just celebrate it here.

Metro looks beyond parking lots for its park and rides

I like the idea. It will need some careful thought and planning, but the idea seems to be on the right track to me.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority spent decades developing a network of parking lots where drivers could leave their cars and trucks and take transit to work. Now, its leaders are wondering whether those parking lots would be a attractive places for developers who may view those commuters as potential customers.

Metro officials are soliciting proposals for transit-oriented design, in which developers can submit proposals to synch transit center and bus depots with new apartments and shops.

“This is about bringing quality of life to areas adjacent to transit centers, to park and rides,” Metro Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

Metro’s interest extends to both properties it owns and those it leases from private developers. A number of park and ride lots are conventional bus shelters, with parking available in a commercial lot normally used by a grocery or department store that does not have high volumes during the work day.

The agency is starting slowly, after making some headway with a 2015 study to assess potential uses around park and ride locations. The board in August created a subcommittee tasked with joint development and land use, which met for the first time Sept. 14. Staff, meanwhile, issued a request for information to developers, the first step in seeing if any have ideas for using Metro spaces.

“I like the approach that we are asking the market to come to us,” said Diann Lewter, the Metro board member appointed to chair the new committee.

Though possibilities are just now beginning to take shape – a first round of proposals are due at the end of the month, followed by months of analysis and public meetings – some board members said they were eager to move ahead.

“I am really anxious to see it work as fast as possible,” Lewter said.

[…]

Metro already is sitting on very desirable land in the medical center. Located across Fannin from MD Anderson Cancer Center and across Pressler from UT Health’s health science center, the transit center has drawn interest for major projects, all willing to maintain its bus access.

When approached in 2018 with an unsolicited offer that later drew a competing proposal, however, Metro opted to keep things as they were because neither project, officials concluded, would improve transit access for existing riders. Instead, both projects had the potential to encourage hundreds of daily vehicle trips into the crowded medical center.

“Although both proposals provided estimated revenue streams and various amenities, the potential issues related to the customer experience was the overriding factor in … the decision to not move forward with this solicitation” Metro staff wrote in a summary to cancel the discussions.

As land becomes more scarce in key locations, though, Metro at the very least may have to rethink its current use of wide-open, flat parking lots.

“If you build structured parking, you free up a lot of land that can be used for workforce housing, said Barry Goodman, a former Metro president who now consults with Houston-area governments on transportation matters through his company, The Goodman Corporation.

It’s a long story, so read the rest. Not everyone on the Metro board thinks this is a great idea, there are some comparisons to other transit agencies that go both ways, and there’s the unfortunate return of a longtime anti-transit troll who’s back to spew some baloney. As I said, I like the general idea and think it’s worth a long look, but it’s fine if we take things slowly and conservatively.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.

The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.

The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.

A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston’s $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.

The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.

[…]

Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:

  • EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
  • Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
  • Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
  • Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
  • Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen’s Town to the southwest.
  • Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
  • Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
  • Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
  • White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
  • Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.

“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”

It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”

Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.

“We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it,” Douglas said. “What we called ‘civic opportunities,’ they called ‘mitigation factors.’ They said, ‘We like what you’re proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.’ We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand.”

The Axios Houston story is here, and the full proposal from Central Houston is here. I haven’t had a chance to fully review that, so I don’t have a good picture of what these proposals would actually mean. I will note that the Stop TxDOT I-45 folks are not in favor of this, so that should tell you something. We could have a world in which we got these improvements and an I-45 project that was acceptable to the people who will be directly affected by it, I’m just saying. By the way, my headline was written before I got all the way to the end of that HPM story and saw that Allen Douglas of Central Houston was quoted saying their proposal was “not lipstick on a pig”. Great minds do think alike.

West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

City staffers are finalizing a plan to add protected bike lanes along 11th Street in the Heights and reduce the number of driving lanes, despite pushback from some residents in the area.

Crews will begin work rehabilitating 11th Street this month, with plans to start construction on the bikeway part of the project in October, said Erin Jones, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.

“The bikeway design is still being finalized to include METRO bus stop improvements/relocations,” she said.

[…]

“When Mayor Turner announced the 11th Street project would move forward after that short pause, he said something that struck me,” said Joe Cutrufo, the director of BikeHouston. “He said that, ‘we’re not building the city for where we are now, but building the city for where we are going.’ And I thought that was really well-phrased.”

Bike lanes will be added on both sides of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street, where there will be one vehicular lane in each direction with a center, left-turn lane along the stretch between Yale and Studewood streets. The plan also calls for bike lanes along Michaux between 11th and Stude Park to the south as well as protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections such as 11th and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th, and Michaux and White Oak Drive.

There now are two vehicle lanes in each direction on 11th between Shepherd and Michaux, and no center turn lanes.

The project will cost about $600,000, with funding coming from capital improvement dollars for bikeways, according to the city.

See here, here, and here for some background. I fully support this and I am excited to see what the finished project looks like. I also recognize that the construction will be inconvenient, and it will directly affect me. Like most people in this neighborhood, I regularly drive all of those named streets. The carpool we have for getting Daughter #2 to and from high school also involves taking on kid home north of Garden Oaks, for which I take Shepherd already under construction) via 11th. It’s going to suck for awhile, no two ways around it. But hey, I’ve survived more highway renovations than I can count. I will survive this, too. And in the end, the neighborhood will be a better place. Let’s do this.

Still wondering about the existential future of Texas Central

I really hoped this would be a thing. If it isn’t, it’s a great wasted opportunity.

Ten years ago, a company calling itself Texas Central High-Speed Railway announced plans for a trailblazing bullet train that would whisk passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. Company leaders exuded confidence that the trains would be running up to 205 miles per hour by 2020.

The potential for an American high-speed rail line captured the imagination of Texans and national train enthusiasts alike. At one point during an event celebrating the unbuilt high-speed rail line, then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Dallas crowd, “You’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation.”

But a decade on, there are still no new tracks between Dallas and Houston.

Through multiple business entities who often use some version of the Texas Central moniker, developers of the project spent years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, fighting conservative lawmakers’ attempts to dampen their plans and buying land needed to lay the tracks. Perhaps the biggest battle, though, came from legal challenges to the company’s claims that state law allows it to forcibly purchase property when owners aren’t willing to voluntarily sell.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter and handed the company what could be a watershed victory, ruling that Texas Central can use eminent domain for its high-profile project. By the time the court ruled, though, Texas Central’s board had reportedly disbanded and its CEO and president had resigned. The project’s original timeline had already gone off the rails (at one point the construction was slated to begin in 2017). And land acquisition seems to have all but stopped in the last two years, according to land records reviewed by The Texas Tribune.

A spokesperson for the company, who is employed by a consulting firm that handles Texas Central’s media requests, says the project is still in the works.

But the company and Becker have declined to answer specific questions about the leadership exodus, apparent slump in land acquisition, funding prospects and status of permits Texas Central would need to move forward. A federal transportation agency says it hasn’t had contact with the company in two years. The portion of Texas Central’s website that once listed executive leaders is now blank — as is the list of current job openings.

Texas Central’s relative silence on the recent developments has left supporters of the project, who would like to see two of the state’s largest economic engines more easily connected, in limbo. Opponents, who have long railed against the idea of a private company using eminent domain to seize Texans’ land, are cautiously hoping Texas Central won’t rebound.

Even if the company resurges, there remain major obstacles ahead to acquire land and finance an increasingly expensive project described as “shovel ready” as recently as 2020. The stakes of the high-speed rail project extend beyond the company and Texas. The 240 miles of relatively flat land between Dallas and Houston has long been heralded as the ideal location for what Texas Central and its supporters say could be the first leg of a national high-speed rail system that transforms the country.

There are few infrastructure projects in the country that can compare in size to the Texas rail line. A California high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco also faces significant political, financial and legal hurdles. But Michael Bennon, the program manager at Stanford University’s ​​Global Infrastructure Policy Research Initiative, hangs a lot of hope on the Texas project given the relatively short distance, estimated frequency of travel and the landscape between the two cities.

“If you can’t do high-speed rail in that corridor, it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else,” Bennon said.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. This is not the first possible elegy to what might have been with TCR. I’m of the belief that nothing is truly dead until you see the body, but I’m not feeling very optimistic right now. The damn shame of it all is that this was a great idea, and it should have worked. Lots of factors combined to make it not work – again, if this is indeed the end, which I still hope it isn’t – and I have no idea what could make something else work in its place. Honestly, at this point I’m not sure I’d live to see whatever that might be, given the ponderously long times these things take, whether or not they ultimately go anywhere. All I can say is that I hope the reports of TCR’s death are exaggerated. But I don’t have much faith that they are.

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

That’s my neighborhood, and this is the email they sent out on Thursday about it.

In recent weeks the WHCA has challenged TxDOT on their plan to elevate I-10 near our neighborhood between Heights Blvd. and I-45. Due to the lack of transparency, engagement, and overall dubiousness around the project, the WHCA cannot support this project. The project, in its current form, seems to be a waste of taxpayer money and jeopardizes the tranquility and worth of our community.

Below is a high-level list of issues:

  • TxDOT has defined the need, designed, and funded this project to start in 2024 without first considering the impact to the surrounding communities and ecosystems or engaging the public.

  • TxDOT should halt this project until Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) completes its evaluation of a plan to build 8 massive tunnels that would divert and store water underground. A study should be done to determine whether the I-10 elevation would be needed if the tunnel system goes forward.

  • This finished project would not withstand a Hurricane Harvey level event and traffic would still need to be re-routed as it is now and would be through the construction period. Any tax-payer funded project that purports to address flooding should be built to take on a 500-year flood.

  • The elevation of I-10 would add significant noise pollution to already very loud highway noise. The increased noise will impact property values along White Oak and surrounding streets.

  • The construction will last a minimum of four years and will be a burden to our community. In that time we will have limited access in and out of the neighborhood which will cause congestion within the neighborhood. That could lead to homeowners leaving, depressed home values, and homes sitting on the market longer.

  • TxDOT should consult local organizations to define parameters of the environmental impacts to be studied for ecosystems along White Oak and Little White Oak bayous and into our neighborhoods which are nesting sites for important birds like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, the official bird of Houston and formerly endangered Bald Eagles.

  • TxDOT should not take away any greenspace along White Oak Bayou.

  • TxDOT should not disturb the forested area slated to be a detention pond. This provides important sound mitigation, natural habitat and aesthetic beauty.

  • TxDOT should not break the Inner Katy project into smaller projects.

    • We are concerned that TxDOT’s decision to split the Inner Katy Corridor into segmented projects will mean that the full environmental impacts are not captured under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
    • We support other communities like Cottage Grove who are fighting a separate I-10 project threatening their parks and further dividing their neighborhood.
    • Impact analysis should be combined with the current I-45 impact analysis as they will affect the same neighborhoods and bayous

Here’s how you can help stop TxDOT’s I-10 Plan: 

  • Submit a pre-written email to TxDOT and elected officials: click here.

  • Submit your own comment on the TxDOT.gov website and reference project number: CSJ 0271-07-326

See here for the background. Some of these concerns may be more parochial than others, but at the very least the concerns about flooding and maybe playing games with the environmental impact are universal. While the subject of the email was “The WHCA Stands Against TxDOT’s I-10 Plan”, the word “oppose” doesn’t appear in the message body. It is possible that TxDOT could address these concerns. Given the I-45 expansion debate there’s not a huge amount of trust and goodwill, but it could happen. For now, there are a lot of questions that the folks in my neighborhood have.

White Oak bike trail extension: Getting close to done

It’s been a bit more than a month since the last update, and as you can see a lot has gotten done.

WhiteOakTrailExtensionAlmostDone

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnd

As you can see, the trail itself is about 90% done, with only the far west end still needing to have concrete poured. The retaining wall appears to be complete as well. I assume there will be some groundskeeping work done before they declare victory – something needs to be done with all that exposed dirt, and maybe some small trees will be planted. But the heavy construction part is nearly finished.

Here’s a closer look at that western end:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnding

As you can see from the other pictures, all of the big excavation machines are gone. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to come back, but one way or another there will be more concrete poured. You can see a bike rider on the finished part of the trail already. I’ve seen some people walking the trail, and I did so myself a few days ago. Had to trudge through some mud at the end of it, but it was otherwise usable. The question I have at this point is how this trail extension is actually going to connect to the existing Heights Bike Trail. This is how it looks from where you can hop onto the Heights trail from Frasier Street:

MKTTrailFrasierEntrance

MKTTrailHeightsTrailJunction

I’ve shown a version of that first picture before. At the time, the stones connected to the existing trail, and I had assumed that was a planned piece of the project. I still think it is, but I’m not sure what will be done with that extended mud trail that now runs parallel to the bike trail. Obviously, that was used to get equipment on and off of the construction site, and I assume something will be done with it before the work is completed. The sensible thing would be for the White Oak extension to connect to the Heights trail at the closest location, and for that bit of path from Frasier Street to the trail to be filled in with concrete. Hopefully we’ll see the answers to those questions in the next couple of weeks. I will of course let you know.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

A state proposal to elevate Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou is raising concerns among neighbors, who worry about the effects a higher freeway would have on noise and drainage.

The $347 million project, unveiled Tuesday by the Texas Department of Transportation, would raise I-10 between Interstate 45 and Heights Boulevard, a distance of less than two miles. Where the freeway is now, slightly up the slope from White Oak Bayou, would become drainage and open space in some spots, while the lanes would be rebuilt atop concrete pillars.

More detailed designs of the proposal are expected later this year, with an environmental review planned in 2023. Construction would start in summer 2024, according to TxDOT, which opened a public comment period until Aug. 12 on the plan. An in-person meeting is scheduled for Thursday, at TxDOT’s Houston district headquarters near I-10 and Washington.

In their initial presentation, TxDOT officials said the area is too prone to flooding from heavy rains, and too important to regional travel. More than 200,000 vehicles used that area of the freeway on the average day last year, according to TxDOT.

All of that comes to a halt when White Oak tops its banks in heavy rain, however, something that happened during Tropical Storms Allison and Imelda and Hurricane Harvey. Those storms sent water onto the freeway, making it impassable.

Any change to the current design, however, is going to draw intense scrutiny from the neighborhood, residents said.

“We’re skeptical, especially with TxDOT’s track record of valuing exurb commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Brad Snead, a member of the Woodland Heights Civic Association and head of the club’s infrastructure committee, wrote in an email. “That said, our biggest ask at the moment will likely be more time to comment and see the data. We’re not immediately opposed, but we don’t know enough.”

If built, the project would keep the freeway at roughly the same elevation as it goes over Heights and Studemont, and raise it again between Taylor and I-45 to around the same height as the current HOV lane into downtown Houston.

[…]

The proposed elevation, however, is among several changes envisioned along I-10 within Loop 610. TxDOT has proposed adding managed lanes — similar to the Katy Managed Lanes outside the loop — to the freeway, likely elevated above the existing lanes.

Metropolitan Transit Authority, meanwhile, has its own plan to add bus rapid transit along elevated lanes from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Post Oak to downtown Houston. Plans for the busway rely on using the existing HOV ramp into the central business district or building the lanes south of the freeway through First Ward.

This story is from last week, so the public meeting has already happened. You can see a video of the presentation, in English or in Spanish, here. Also on that page are the exhibit boards, which are also the PowerPoint slides from the video, and the schematic, among other things.

I get the reason for this, and I’m glad to see the project if it goes forward as is would not require any taking of residential or commercial property. The construction would be a major pain, and would make a significant part of the Heights bike trail inaccessible (I assume there would be some alternate route, though I don’t know what that would be yet) while construction was ongoing. The noise concern is real – I can’t imagine how loud it might be to have all that traffic up in the air like that, with nothing to block the noise emanating from it. I’m a big proponent of building these elevated lanes for Metro’s Inner Katy BRT line, but that’s far less traffic, and would really only require two lanes so it would be much smaller in scope. After years of fighting the I-45 expansion, I don’t think there’s much goodwill for TxDOT in this area, whatever the benefits of this plan may be. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

More on the planning for the University BRT line

Yes, Metro has to make some predictions about where transit will be needed. Building a line that goes through some of the densest parts of town probably helps with that.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials told voters in 2019 “we have a plan for traffic,” and more than two-thirds of those who cast ballots bought in.

Now that the plan is coming into focus, agency officials will need more than just good ideas to make the lines they have drawn on a map a reality.

The challenge for Metro is picking routes and lines for the future when travel patterns constantly change and economic factors can upend commutes. Even with $7.5 billion in local and federal funding plotted, Metro can only do one or two major projects at a time. Picking the first steps in some ways influences whether the agency can avoid lingering concerns about transit leaders’ ability to deliver big projects.

Officials admit much of their plan is an educated guess, but still a guess about how Houstonians will want to get around in the years to come.

“It is not possible for us to be future-proof, but it is possible to be future-ready,” Metro board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

The long-range plan for transit in Houston, estimated to cost $7.5 billion, spans the entire region, including 75 miles of bus rapid transit, two-way HOV or HOT lanes for park and ride buses along all major freeways and plans for extending light rail to Hobby Airport.

While things such as shelters at hundreds of Metro’s 8,900 bus stops and improved sidewalks along major routes already are in progress, the first big-ticket project on Metro’s list is the University Line. It is among the longest bus rapid transit lines planned in the nation, connecting a dozen of the region’s major transit hubs and roughly 20 neighborhoods, using large buses that stop at stations and act more like light rail than conventional bus service.

The buses use their own lanes along major streets, in some cases taking lanes now open to car and truck drivers, to avoid traffic and offer access to about 40 stops along the 25.3 mile route. It is about one-third of the dedicated lanes Metro wants to build, and along with a planned BRT line along Interstate 10 forms the two east-west transit backbones that join the light rail system downtown and the Silver Line BRT through Uptown.

Transit advocates have called the line critical to linking Houston neighborhoods clamoring for better, faster transit to the job centers and educational opportunities abounding in the region.

“If we can get 5 to 10 percent of the region using transit, that is going to make life better for the 90-95 percent,” Ramabhadran said.

See here for some background, and look for a detailed description of the route embedded in the story. This BRT route will connect with all of the existing light rail lines as well as the Uptown BRT line, and will later connect with the Energy Corridor BRT line that’s also on the drawing board (see page 2). I will never get over the fact that we could right now already have an operational Universities light rail line, but there’s nothing to be done about that. I do see the same old critics making their same old tired arguments in this story, and all I can say is that I hope they have a lot less influence this time around. We’re still a long way out from a ribbon-cutting, and I know I’ll be worried about things that can go wrong until we get to that. In the meantime, learn what you can about this and show your support. We’re going to need all the good transit options we can get.

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

After college, Michael Moritz got a job in Houston analyzing fatal car crashes. Moritz, a 27-year-old native of San Antonio, stood on Interstate Highway 45, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country, and documented how cars collided. One day in the fall of 2019, he learned that the Texas Department of Transportation intended to expand I-45, supposedly to fix congestion and make the highway safer.

“More lanes just doesn’t equal safety,” he said.

And then he learned about all the other negative impacts of the $7 billion expansion project, which would remake Houston’s downtown and demolish more than 1,000 homes, nearly 350 businesses, five churches and two schools.

He got involved with a grassroots group called Stop TxDOT I-45 and started spending nights and weekends fighting the expansion. Gradually, he met people fighting freeway expansions across the state, including in the capital city of Austin, and joined a regular Zoom call to discuss strategy. He signed up for automated emails from TxDOT to find out when new projects were proposed and approved.

In 2021, just a few days before Christmas, he got two emails from TxDOT. The agency had issued a “finding of no significant impact” — or FONSI, pronounced like Fonzie, the “Happy Days” character — for two segments of a $6 billion project to rebuild and expand Interstate Highway 35, which passes through the heart of Austin. “Really?” he thought. “No impact?”

Moritz was alarmed by the idea that adding lanes to an interstate running through one of the fastest-growing cities in the country was considered to have no environmental impact. The expansion of the north and south segments of I-35 would consume 30 acres of land, affect more than a dozen streams and creeks, and add millions of metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere over the coming decades.

Moritz called up a few activists he knew in Austin. Together, they wondered: How often was TxDOT declaring that its projects had no impact on the human or natural environment? Moritz decided to find out. He searched TxDOT’s online archives for every environmental review published since 2015, as far back as TxDOT’s records extend.

Moritz quickly noticed that many projects that were physically connected had been spliced into segments, as I-35 was in Austin. Loop 88 in Lubbock, notably, had been evaluated in four segments stretching across 36 miles. Collectively, those segments would consume 2,000 acres of land, displace nearly 100 residences and 63 businesses, and cost almost $2 billion. Yet all four segments received findings of no significant impact, three on the same day.

Overall, Moritz discovered that between 2015 and 2022, 130 TxDOT projects were found to have no significant impact after an initial review, while only six received full environmental analyses detailing their impacts. Cumulatively, those 130 projects will consume nearly 12,000 acres of land, add more than 3,000 new lane miles to the state highway system, and displace 477 homes and 376 businesses. The total projected cost of those projects was nearly $24 billion, almost half of what TxDOT spent on transportation projects during that time and twice as much as the amount spent on projects that received full environmental reviews.

“It can’t be argued with a straight face that these big, multihundred-million-dollar projects don’t have significant impact,” says Dennis Grzezinski, an environmental lawyer in Wisconsin who has worked on National Environmental Policy Act cases for three decades and who was not involved in Moritz’s study. He called Moritz’s analysis “a giant red flag” that TxDOT was approving projects in violation of NEPA.

“If TxDOT is producing environmental assessments that result in FONSIs over and over and over again, on large-scale interstates and major highway expansion projects, there is clearly something major that’s wrong and not in line with NEPA requirements,” he says.

Now, a group of activists is suing TxDOT, saying that the agency split the I-35 project into segments in order to obscure its full impacts and “circumvent” the requirements of NEPA. The case, filed in U.S. district court, raises larger questions about the federal government’s decision to give TxDOT the authority to approve its own environmental reviews.

“I think the words ‘no significant impact’ have meaning,” Grzezinski says.

Under NEPA, a 1970 law, any state agency receiving federal funding for a project must document how the project impacts the human and natural environment. That documentation is categorized in one of three ways, depending on the project’s perceived impact. Actions that “significantly affect the environment” require a comprehensive environmental impact statement, which quantifies those impacts, includes specific ways the agency would mitigate them and asks for significant public feedback. (The final environmental impact statement for the Houston highway expansion exceeded 8,000 pages.)

On the other end of the spectrum, relatively minor projects — like repaving an existing road or repairing an interchange — can receive what’s called a categorical exclusion, essentially an exemption from NEPA. Everything in between is considered through an environmental assessment, a relatively concise document, typically a few hundred pages. An environmental assessment leads to either a full environmental review or a finding of no significant impact, which allows the agency to proceed with land acquisition and construction.

But because NEPA covers a broad array of government actions, the law doesn’t define what makes an environmental or social impact “significant” — whether it’s acres of land taken or people displaced — and thus what triggers a full environmental review.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest; the story was originally published by Grist. I’ve blogged a couple of times about the proposed I-35 expansion, the design for which makes I-45 look almost sedate. It would not be surprising to me if TxDOT had been playing fast and loose with the impact assessments under NEPA – they are allowed some discretion in coming to their assessments, and it would be a lot easier on them and everyone involved with the subsequent construction if they gave certain projects the “no significant impact”. It’s more than a little hard to believe that could be the case with I-35, and if the end result is a full and rigorous examination of TxDOT’s operations, that’s fine with me. This is a federal lawsuit so expect it to take years to come to some kind of resolution, but I’ll try to keep an eye on it.

If the only choices are “take it or leave it”, well…

Leave it doesn’t sound so bad given the alternative.

One year ago, opponents of the state’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston criticized the “take it or leave it” option state officials offered regarding amending plans for the mega-project.

Tuesday, as part of a public hearing on the state’s long-range plans, opponents opted for leave it, telling the Texas Department of Transportation to drop the 1-45 widening off its list.

“Adding huge swaths of concrete is the opposite of what Houston needs,” Houstonian Joy Fairchild said during a public hearing for TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Program.

The latest UTP, updated annually by the Texas Department, outlines a record $85.1 billion in transportation spending across the state from 2023 to 2032. Though not a guarantee of funding or a commitment to build the projects listed, it details what the state plans to do.

The Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve the UTP at its Aug. 30 meeting. All public comments received by Aug. 8 will be submitted to the commission, including comments from Tuesday’s midday virtual public hearing. People also can comment online, via phone or at local TxDOT offices.

For Houston, more than $6 billion of the plan’s spending centers on I-45, masking it nearly half of the $12.5 billion Houston’s TxDOT district has to spend over the next decade. Estimated to cost at least $9.7 billion, the project would rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, adding two managed lanes in each direction. Some of the project’s cost comes from other non-TxDOT sources, while some of the money dedicated on the project will not be spent until later parts of the construction, likely to stretch beyond 2032.

Though planned for nearly 20 years, concerns intensified five years ago, when groups such as Air Alliance Houston, LINKHouston and Stop TxDOT I-45 organized to argue highway officials should focus more on improving transit and avoid any additional freeway widening.

As the story notes, the I-45 project is on pause while a complaint filed with the Federal Highway Administration over the projects effects on communities of color are investigated. As far as this goes, I don’t think anyone is making any new arguments, and there continues to be a large gap between what activists and local governments want out of the project and what TxDOT is willing to give. I don’t think TxDOT will pull I-45 widening off their list, and if I’m right then I still don’t know what happens next. As things stand now, a whole lot of people will be mad at the outcome, whatever it is.

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Look! Concrete!

A few days after the Fourth of July, I saw this on the White Oak Bike Trail extension:

WhiteOakTrailExtension_NewBuild1_070922

See here for the previous update. That’s the view from where the current trail had ended. I actually saw this bit of progress from above on Studewood, but wanted to get a closer picture to put it into some context. Since then, there’s been quite a bit more progress, as you can see from the Studewood perspective:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudewood_071622

You can also see where the next batch of concrete will be poured on the west side of the culvert, up against the retaining wall. Turns out that the project plan diagram was pretty accurate and this path will be mostly straight, with the curve happening on the west side. Here’s a closer view of the coming attraction:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionZoomedViewFromStudewood_071622

I’m keeping an eager eye on this because they’re clearly moving along, and the last word was that they should be finishing up about now. I’m thinking it’ll be more like late July or early August, but at this point you can see it from here. And I can’t wait to take a picture on this new piece of the trail from my bike. Stay tuned!

There’s no cheap housing in Houston any more

What are we going to do about that?

In the sprawling Houston region, those who could not afford homeownership in the city’s urban core always had options. They could trade proximity for affordability.

But as rising home prices and mortgage rates push homeownership further out of reach for the average renter, the suburbs within Harris County are losing their reputation as an affordable haven, said Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research — just one example of how access to homeownership and quality housing has grown more difficult over the past decade, with challenges accelerating during the pandemic.

The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain.

And no matter how far out you look, it’s difficult to find a home priced below $200,000 in Harris County these days, where the median home price is on track to soon surpass that in Houston, according to the Kinder report.

Nationwide, four million renters in the past year have been priced out from buying homes, the Joint Center for Housing Studies report found. That’s a concern, said Daniel T. McCue, senior research associate at the center, because “if the door is closing on homeownership, it would lock in some significant inequities in housing.”

[…]

Home prices have outpaced incomes because of a confluence of issues including the chronic underbuilding of homes (the building of which has failed to keep up with population growth for years), the increased demand for homes as millennials enter the homebuying market, surging construction costs as the pandemic interrupted supply chains around the country and the fact that most new construction is focused on the high end of the market.

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

Wood, fiber-cement siding and even land that’s ready for new homes became harder to come by and labor became scarce during the pandemic. According to the federal government’s producer price index, which measures the average change in selling prices, residential construction materials saw costs rise more than 30 percent in January 2022 from March 2020, when the pandemic began to disrupt businesses in the United States.

The Kinder report is here. This is a regional problem, but it’s also a national problem. It’s partly pandemic-induced, and so may ease up a bit over time, but it’s also driven by other factors, including some lasting effects of the pandemic such as working from home. The point about housing within the city of Houston now being generally less expensive than in the non-Houston parts of Harris County is interesting, as a lot of the population growth in the unincorporated areas has been driven by affordable housing. We’re still cheaper than many other parts of the country (though not by as much now) so some of that will continue, but some of it will be pushed into other counties, and perhaps some of it will come back within the city of Houston. I’d like to see what the demographers think about that.

In the meantime, this is a real problem for a lot of people, and it’s going to take some big ideas to fix. Which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. The abundance of available land, the lack of restrictions on building, and the general attractiveness of Texas as a place to live has been a huge driver of growth in the area. What do we do when the first two aren’t making a difference and the third is no longer true?

Time to meet the University Line BRT plans

A big step forward, but there are many miles yet to go.

The biggest of Metro’s big bus offerings is about to turn from lines on a map to a full-fledged discussion for Houston residents, as transit officials prepare for the first round of public meetings over the planned University Line.

Just don’t expect fast action on what could be the spine of Metro’s east-west mass transit system. A host of hurdles remain for the bus rapid transit planned between northeast Houston and Westchase, including segments similar to those proposed 15 years ago that ran into a buzzsaw of opposition in some Houston neighborhoods. Elected officials at the time took that opposition and clamped off funding for the project.

Public meetings start Tuesday, with two evening events planned. Nine more meetings follow, where residents can look at display boards of where the Metropolitan Transit Authority proposes widening local streets to allow for bus-only lanes and dedicated stations similar to rail where passengers will enter and exit the 60-foot buses that operate the line.

The meetings are not detailed designs, but a chance for the community to evaluate the plans and offer suggestions of where and what Metro should build to best serve riders, who might not hop onto the buses for a decade or more in some spots. Construction is not likely to happen before 2025, if then, with opening day in 2029 at a cost of $2 billion or more.

“This is a complicated engineering project. It’s going to take some time,” Metro chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

The line, likely built in five phases, would be among the largest BRT lines in the nation, stretching more than 25 miles from the Tidwell Transit Center near Loop 610 and Interstate 69 to Westchase. Metro’s preferred route uses Lockwood to travel through Denver Harbor and Fifth Ward to the Eastwood Transit Center, then jogs through Third Ward with stops at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Following Alabama and Wheeler, the line crosses Midtown at the Wheeler Transit Center using Richmond before turning south at Edloe. From there, the buses would use their own lanes along Westpark Drive to Westchase.

The length, combined with the complexity of building practically anything in the densest parts of the Houston region, makes the project monumental to plan but also critical to tying together a growing but gap-riddled reliable bus network across an area built for the automobile.

“There are multiple pieces to the puzzle,” Ramabhadran said. “We are going to be crossing every highway in the region with the exception of (U.S.) 290.”

Information about the public meetings can be found here. The goal is to submit a proposal for funding to the Federal Transit Administration by August to get in line for funding. After that, we’ll see. Just remember as you look at all this, if we lived in a world where John Culberson never existed, we might already have a light rail line in this corridor right now. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can at least get this project on track, as it were. Attend a meeting if you can, and show your support for making it a little easier to get around town.

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Over the culvert we go

We have a bridge from one side of the construction to the other:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertOverpass062622

You can see the outline of the overpass in my previous photos; you can also see how quickly an expanse of blank concrete can get graffitied. I assume we’ll start to see more work on the east (closer to Studewood) side of the extension, though there’s still a lot of work to be done on the west side, where that retaining wall has to be finished. So does the overpass itself – one presumes there will be railings and probably some lights installed before all is said and done.

You can now begin to see the path of the trail on the east side:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide1_062622

That looks a bit curvier than the project plan diagram would suggest, but whatever. I suppose it’s possible the plan is to excavate more into the hill on the north side, to make the trail more of a straight path, but it may also be that that is unsound from an engineering perspective. The tenants at the 401 Studewood building might have some questions about that.

A closer look right at the east end of the overpass:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide2_062622

It’s hard to judge from these photos how much room there is to dig into the hill. I will of course continue to keep an eye on it.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Is Texas Central in trouble?

This story sure questions its stability.

The departure of Texas Central Railway’s CEO has critics of the proposed bullet train between Houston and Dallas optimistic the controversial project has reached its last stop, far short of ever starting construction.

“Texas high-speed rail is collapsing before our eyes,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a longtime skeptic of the plan, said in a social media post. “Today, with no leadership, no funding, no permits and no Washington bail-out from taxpayers, this project is dead.”

Carlos Aguilar, who stepped in as CEO in December 2016 as Texas Central said it was closing in on construction approvals, announced Saturday that he was leaving the company.

“While I could not align our current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward, I wish the project the greatest success and remain convinced of the importance of this venture for the safety and prosperity of ALL Texans,” Aguilar wrote in a post on the career development site LinkedIn.

Texas Central did not respond to a request for comment.

Aguilar’s departure follows a moribund few months for the company, which dramatically slashed its staff early in the COVID pandemic, while saying it still planned to break ground soon on the 240-mile line between the two metro areas. The Federal Railroad Administration in September 2020 approved plans for the line, mostly along a utility corridor through 11 Texas counties, with a stop near College Station.

While a major step forward, the announcement was among the last significant moves for the proposed train line that was to use Japanese Shinkansen railcars assembled in the United States to whisk travelers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes.

For nearly two years, Texas Central announced various reiterations of previous agreements, shed more staff and fought critics who sought to strip it of its condemnation rights.

The issue of whether the company can acquire property via eminent domain remains unresolved, with a ruling pending from the Texas Supreme Court.

CEOs come and go – this one’s departure doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The lack of news is more troubling – TCR had hoped to start construction in 2020, and while we can all understand why that didn’t happen (seriously, look at the date on that post), the fact that they haven’t announced a new target date to start isn’t encouraging. I continue to believe that this project makes a lot of sense, but if nothing else the original contention that a privately-owned and funded railroad could get lines built and trains running in a faster and more efficient manner than a government-run entity has been sorely tested. I hate to think that all of this work could be thrown away and we’d be back at square one, but that outcome is in play. I sure hope to see something contrary to that soon.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.