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Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

The White Oak Bike Trail extension starts to come into focus

When last we visited the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, we were puzzling over what the deal was with whatever they were doing next to the trail itself. I couldn’t tell where it was going or why it was there. A couple of weeks later, from the same view that I normally get looking at it from Studewood to the east, I could see that it was coming along but still couldn’t decipher what it was for.

BikeTrailExtensionWalkingPath

Fortunately, I finally had the time to try to find some alternate perspectives. Starting from the new little parking lot for the Bayou Greenways Park on Studewood just north of I-10, I crossed the bridge over Studewood into the little park, which extends north of the trail just before the MKT Bridge, and walked the park trail along its north end, which gave me a side view of the trail extension instead of just the front-on view I’d been getting. And lo, it all made sense.

BikeTrailExtensionSplitFullPicture

You may need to click on the photo to see it on Flickr so you can zoom in. What you see on the left (the west end) is a connection from whatever that parallel thing is to the bike trail. Here’s a zoomed-in view of it that I took:

BikeTrailExtensionSplit

What that says to me is that the parallel structure is likely an alternate path for walkers, with stairs on the east end leading to a flatter surface, instead of the deeper slope that the bike trail has. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. I can sort of see the stairs taking shape at the other end, though it’s still early for that. I suppose there’s a design document somewhere that can confirm or contradict my hypothesis, but if this isn’t what is happening then I’m really at a loss. I expect this will become more obvious over the next few weeks.

So far all of the construction activity is on the west side of that little culvert from the bayou, which creates a bifurcation in the planned path. While I was using this perspective, I got a picture of the gap between the two halves, so you can see what will need to be bridged:

BikeTrailExtensionChasm

I have no idea what the plan is for that. And given what we’ve just seen here, I may not be able to make sense of it when I do see it, at least at first. I’ll let you know when that happens.

(Still no sign of construction on the MKT Bridge itself. I have no idea what’s going on with that, either. The previously reported estimate for that to be fixed was “late summer”, so we still have almost five months. But they sure are taking their time about it.)

Ashby Highrise 2.0

It’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Did you miss me?

Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.

Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.

Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.

[…]

When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.

The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.

But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.

Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city’s legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.

The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.

The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.

See here for all my previous blogging in this epic saga. The photo I’m using in this post, which I’ve used many times before, is of a sign that parodied the iconic and ubiquitous “Stop Ashby Highrise” signs from the height of that controversy. I took that picture in 2007, to give you some idea of the time span. As far as I can tell, the old stopashbyhighrise.org domain is kaput; there’s still a Facebook group whose last post was in 2013, and a #StopAshbyHighrise hashtag, which gave me a chuckle when I clicked on it:

Well, Big Tex Storage is mostly built now, so maybe that’s a positive omen for The Langley, which will always be on the Ashby site as far as I’m concerned. Will the neighborhood residents rise up against it? Will I be forced to undertake another decade-long blogging quest to document it? Tune in and find out. CultureMap has more.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

Now you really need to avoid the 59/610 interchange

Welcome to hell.

Starting this weekend, Texas’ worst bottleneck is going to be an even bigger pain for drivers as the rebuild of the Interstate 69 and Loop 610 interchange turns a corner and takes out a key connector ramp.

Crews will close the ramp from southbound I-69 to southbound Loop 610 at 9 p.m. Friday, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The ramp will not open for two years.

Yes, two years. The new ramp will be among the last pieces of the new interchange to open, shortly before work wraps up in late 2024, based on the latest estimates.

“The work is just to the point we have to do it,” said Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman for the interchange project, which started in 2017. “The upcoming work is going to have an effect, but it is also going to allow us to move toward completion.”

During the ramp closing, TxDOT encourages drivers seeking southbound Loop 610 to continue south on I-69, exit at Fountain View, U-turn and take northbound I-69 to access the southbound Loop.

See here for an earlier warning. Look at it this way: If TxDOT finally gets the go-ahead to start tearing up I-45, then no one will be on 59 between downtown and the Loop because no one will be able to get onto it at either end. Traffic problems solved! CultureMap and the Press have more.

White Oak bike trail extension update

I drive by the construction work being done to extend the White Oak bike trail so that it connects to the Heights bike trail on the north side of the MKT Bridge. I’ve been keeping an eye on its progress and occasionally taking some pictures to document it – see here for the previous update, about a month ago. Here’s what I saw in mid-March:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress031822

Most of the work appears to have been done to the side of where the actual trail is – see the second photo in the link above for comparison. That became even more apparent two weeks later, when I took this picture:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress040522

I don’t honestly know what’s going on to the right of the trail-to-be. My daughter and I were speculating about it when I pointed it out to her, but neither of us came up with something that sounded plausible to me. I assume it will become evident at some point, but for now I’m scratching my head.

Meanwhile, for that closer view in the back, where that little culvert is:

NewDrainageDitch

That part is surely an extension of the bayou, perhaps to make it slightly less likely that Studemont will flood out at the I-10 underpass. I’m just guessing here. It’s not a lot of capacity if that is what it is, but I suppose every little bit helps. Note that the dug-out stuff next to the trail is above where this is.

One more thing, on the side where the Height bike trail approaches the MKT Bridge, coming from White Oak Drive. There has never been an official entry point to the trail from the neighborhood there. You can access it from White Oak Drive, or from where the trail crosses Oxford Street next to White Oak, where the Golden Bagel shop had been, but if you’re approaching the trail from the east side of Studewood, which is to say from the Woodland Heights, that’s some extra redundant distance to go if what you want to do is go towards downtown, maybe using the trail to get to Target or something else in that area. I spotted this in mid-March while out on a Sunday dog walk:

BikeTrailConnectionAtFrasier

That is what I figure will soon be if it isn’t already a paved connection from Frasier Street to the Heights bike trail, making this the closest entry point to the trail from the Woodland Heights that doesn’t involve biking on Studewood itself (you can access the trail from the little parking lot they put in just north of I-10) or on Watson/Taylor, which requires dodging traffic that’s trying to enter I-10. It’s the closest point that I personally feel safe using to access, in other words. We didn’t need this bit of pavement to get there, but this not only makes it easier when it’s been raining and you now get to avoid biking over mud, it also just seems more inviting, like there’s finally recognition that someone would want to do this. Whatever the motivation, I approve.

I’ll post another update as merited. Still no evidence that the bridge itself is being repaired, which remains a source of frustration. But at least this is making progress.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

[…]

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.

What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

Typically, $750 million is the total cost for a major highway project, one that would take years to spend that kind of money. In the case of TxDOT’s plans for a mammoth rebuild of Interstate 45 and the downtown freeway grid, however, that is just the estimated cost increase so far.

Officials last week confirmed new estimates showing an increase of $477.7 million in planned work, while another $274 million in added costs are likely for projects delayed by the roadblocks the project has faced. Combined, it means rebuilding the aging freeway, which already has divided local leaders and various community groups, likely will cost well more than $9 billion. More than half of those increases would go toward the downtown portions where the intersections and changes are most dramatic.

“The rising costs are unfortunate as delay does not meet anyone’s goals,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

[…]

The latest estimates, part of the four-year plan updated annually by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council show rebuilding key pieces of the freeway around downtown will cost considerably more than previously projected.

Based on the updated estimates, costs are jumping for some of the first segments slated for construction. Rebuilding I-69 between Spur 527 and Texas 288, once expected to cost $260 million, now has a projected price tag of $460.6 million, an increase of 77 percent. The next segment of I-69, from Texas 288 to I-45, increased in price from $260.7 million to $456 million, a hike of 75 percent over original estimates.

Some of the increase simply is baked into updating construction costs as major projects await construction.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said planners typically factor in costs rising about 4 percent annually, meaning the longer they sit on shelves the more expensive the projects become.

The I-45 cost increases are larger than many other projects — the entire rebuild of the Loop 610 and I-69 near The Galleria is set to cost $270.9 million — but increases as projects wait for work to begin are not uncommon.

“We are seeing some due to inflation,” H-GAC manager of project planning and delivery Adam Beckom told transportation policy council officials last week.

Four percent of $9 billion is $360 million, a lot of money but not quite half of the expected increase. That’s not exactly how the math would work here, but the point is simply that it’s more than just inflation. You may recall, as I documented extensively here years ago, the final cost of the I-10 widening west of 610 wound up costing way more than the initial (and extremely sunny) estimates claimed it would. That’s just how these things go, and we just tend to accept the ginormous amounts we spend on them. I doubt anyone’s mind will be changed by these numbers, but there they are anyway.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

Metro officials Thursday settled on the route for a busway along Interstate 10 that they predict will improve transit for urban and suburban travelers, whether they hop on board or not.

The elevated busway planned along the southern side of I-10 between Uptown and downtown will allow park and ride buses and bus rapid transit to avoid freeway traffic between the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and I-10 and Houston’s central business district. Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the route Thursday, keeping the $400 million-plus project on pace for construction starting late next year and buses speeding along it by 2027.

“It takes us a long way in my judgment to having a rapid transportation system that Houston can depend on as it grows in the 21st century,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

As part of Metro’s long-range plan, approved by voters in 2019, the agency expects to build 75 miles of of bus rapid transit — large buses that operate similar to rail, using a separated lane to bypass traffic and stop at stations. Though a major component of the region’s transit plan, the first BRT line in Houston, the Silver Line along Post Oak through Uptown, so far has struggled to attract riders as park and ride service to Uptown and office occupancy in Uptown have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

By 2045, officials expect about 30,000 commuter bus riders and 12,000 rapid transit riders to use the busway daily. A trip from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown would take 19 minutes — less than many peak-time commutes by car or truck take now.

[…]

In addition to setting the route, the plan approved Thursday calls for three new stations along I-10 at Memorial Park, Shepherd-Durham and Studemont. Those stations line up with anticipated demand from nearby neighborhoods and expected improvements to major bus routes as part of the agency’s long-range transit plan, said Amma Cobbinah, a Metro senior transit planner overseeing the project.

Within the central business district, the BRT vehicles will use the existing light rail platforms along Capitol and Rusk. Two other stations, at St. Emmanuel and Franklin at Bagby, will be built for the buses.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have not decided if the BRT along I-10 will be an extension of Silver Line service, or a separate line.

Still unresolved, however, is how buses will transition from the elevated busway along I-10 to Franklin and Bagby. Metro’s preference is to use the existing high occupancy toll lane connector into downtown, but the future of that link is in jeopardy because of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 near and around downtown.

There are some more details in the preview story, which ran on Thursday morning before the Metro board meeting, including the “recommended alignment” document and an embed of this video, which shows the proposed route; there is one option in there, which depends on the existing HOT lanes that may be taken out by the I-45 project.

I’ve discussed this project, which was part of the 2019 Metro Next plan, a couple of times. The idea of a Memorial Park stop has come up before, and I think having it in this project makes a lot of sense. And though the Chron story doesn’t mention it, this Inner Katy route has been an implicit part of the plan to have the Texas Central terminal at or near the Northwest Transit Terminal.

As someone who lives about a mile from the future Studewood station, I very much approve of this plan. I will note that to really make this effective, some work will need to be done on the sidewalks on Studemont/Studewood, both north from I-10 into the Heights and south towards Washington Avenue. There are a couple of large residential properties being built on the west side of Studemont, plus whatever is to come on the old Party Boy site, and this station will be close to an entry point to the White Oak bike trail, for further connectivity and easy access to the Sawyer Heights developments, which includes another large new apartment building. The potential is very much there for a lot of people to use this, if it’s easy and safe to walk or bike to it. I’ll never drive to the Galleria again if they do this right. Construction is set to start later this year, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing it all take shape.

More on the 11th Street project

The Chron editorial board mostly approves of the city’s plans for 11th Street in the Heights.

Ever since Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his Vision Zero Action Plan — an ambitious program to end traffic fatalities by 2030 — the city has focused on priortizing pedestrians and bike lanes in the urban planning process.

The 11th Street redesign reflects these shifting values. We applaud Mayor Turner for pledging to move forward with this project, which will make the corridor safer and more accessible. Judging from all the new development along the nearby MKT trail, the project may boost local businesses. The hope is that in the long run, the city’s incremental approach to street redesign, while frustratingly slow to some advocates, will pay off as more of these projects move through the pipeline. The consequences of not proceeding with this redesign, and thus conceding to the car-centric philosophy that has dominated Houston’s urban planning for decades, will be devastating for the city’s long-term ambition of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

[…]

Local residents have voiced concerns that the changes to 11th Street could send traffic circling onto nearby streets. We share this concern, though slower speed limits and stop signs on those residential streets should mitigate traffic hazards somewhat. [David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston,] is also bullish on a pilot program the city launched in Eastwood called Slow Streets, which has shown to have some effect on discouraging motorists from driving on local streets. At key intersections in this neighborhood, the city installed simple, movable barriers encouraging through-traffic to take alternate routes. Vehicles traveling to homes and businesses may continue to access these streets, along with all emergency vehicles, and no parking spaces were removed. Fields is pushing to expand the program citywide.

In the big picture, the 11th Street project does more than just fill a gap in the larger bike network; it will mean more people walking and biking around town, frequenting businesses whose clientele would otherwise be limited to the number of available parking spaces. The goal of street design should be to create a community, not just a throughput ferrying motorists from one destination to the next.

See here for some background, and another CityCast Houston podcast for further discussion. I don’t have a good feel for how strong or organized the opposition to this plan is. The comments left on the project information webpage are slightly more pro than con, not that that’s conclusive. I get a bit of a Richmond Rail vibe in that the most vocal opposition appears to be coming from some businesses on 11th and some homeowners near 11th who are worried about traffic diverting to their streets, but the rest of the area is in favor. I could be wrong about that, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

The big difference here is that unlike the Richmond battleground of yore, there’s no politician representing the area that I know of that has come out against the city’s plan. I don’t know what CM Karla Cisneros, State Reps. Penny Shaw and Christina Morales, or Sen. John Whitmire think about this, but I do know they’re not making like John Culberson back in the day. That makes a difference, both in that there’s no one in power that Mayor Turner or his representative on the project would need to respond to, and also because it suggests that there isn’t enough of a constituency in opposition for an elected official to have to heed. This could change – for sure, people in my neighborhood know how to make themselves heard – but until and unless I see such a thing, I’m going to consider this a strong favorite to move forward. Which it seems likely to do beginning in the summer.

The White Oak bike trail extension is officially under construction

Actual photo of the construction activity, from this past Thursday:

See here for the background. I first noticed some construction equipment in place maybe two weeks before that, and actual activity the following week, which is to say the last week of February. I don’t know yet what they plan to do with that little culvert they’ve bumped up against, but I guess we’ll find out soon.

That picture was taken from the Studewood overpass. I managed to get a closer view from Threlkeld Street, a block west of Studewood:

The yellow crane is the original equipment I had spotted at the location. What you see here is behind the big white crane, below the tangle of trees on the right side of the photo above. Not sure if they were just clearing more space for the equipment or if there’s some other purpose planned.

Anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this and post some more pics as this progresses. As yet, I have not seen any sign of repair work on the MKT Bridge, but maybe the plan is to finish this piece first. Like I said, I’ll post more pics when I see more stuff happening.

The 11th Street makeover

Gonna be interesting to see how this turns out.

A main thoroughfare through Houston’s Heights is the latest street where city officials are preparing for fewer car lanes, in an effort to consider more ways that people get around.

The plan by the city’s planning and public works departments is to transform 11th Street from two vehicle lanes in each direction to one, with bike lanes and occasional turn lanes.

The changes, which city officials argue will not severely impact drivers but will provide huge safety benefits, come as many communities struggle to improve sidewalks and smooth barriers to the use of bicycles and wheelchairs along roads while also providing capacity for cars. A recent plan for Broadway in San Antonio, for example, pitted city and state officials against one another last month over what is the best design for the street.

In Houston, while some have voiced skepticism, there is less political maneuvering as many concede changes are needed along some streets.

Convenient, safe options for walking, running or bicycling in the Heights all run into the same problem as local drivers: 11th Street.

Lined mostly by businesses between Shepherd and Studemont, the street acts as the main east-west road for the neighborhood. Other streets may cover some of the neighborhood, but 20th is the only other major roadway that runs the entire width, mostly straight, with few stops.

As a result, drivers on 11th tend to hit the gas.

“People drive way too fast,” said David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston, noting average speeds on the street often top 40 mph.

For folks trying to cross at the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Nicholson, that can pose problems.

“Never mind stopping, people speed up,” Scott Bottoms, 36, said as he waited to cross 11th Tuesday afternoon on his way back to his townhome.

[…]

Some of the biggest coming changes, however, will be at major intersections where the city is hoping to eliminate conflicts. Traffic along Yale is unaffected, but the planned street redo removes left turns at Heights, from all directions. The ensuing lack of left turns could send traffic circling onto nearby streets and force drivers familiar with the area to alter their habits.

Planners defend the decision as one that de-complicates common collision points in the neighborhood. Bike lanes, turning drivers, runners along the Heights Esplanade and proceeding traffic make for a variety of movements, which leads to confusion and close calls, although only a few dozen crashes in the past decade.

Fields said officials still are trying to resolve concerns about sending traffic onto side streets, but will not sacrifice significant safety gains for ease for drivers. The hope, he said, is to balance both, for all road users.

“When we can do something that checks all those boxes, then we think the community will embrace it,” he said.

That was from a couple of weeks ago. This opinion piece from last week addresses some of the issues that opponents have raised.

For starters, this is not a thrown-together plan the city is trying to sneak past neighborhood stakeholders. It’s part of the 5-year-old Houston Bike Plan and the more recent Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by the year 2030, and the city has provided traffic data that shows the street is more dangerous and prone to crashes than other roads with similar configurations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a statement provided to The Leader on Wednesday afternoon, reiterated the city’s commitment to “making our streets safer for all” and said the 11th Street project is moving forward.

“(Eleventh Street) is a high-crash corridor with 10 percent more crashes than similar streets across the state,” Turner said. “After three years of significant engagement, including with the council members offices, Super Neighborhood and Houston Heights Association, incorporating perspectives from the community, we are moving towards final design to make 11th St. safer for all.”

The point of the project is to provide protections for cyclists and pedestrians – think moms pushing strollers along the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail – and to slow down drivers on 11th who have a demonstrated history of driving too fast and making unsafe movements. Let’s not forget the No. 1 priority for the city employees working on this project, which is being funded with taxpayer money, is to keep people from getting killed or seriously injured.

And as I’ve reported during the last three years, Houston Public Works and the city’s Planning & Development Department have held multiple, regular public engagement sessions in which they’ve explained the project and its finer points to residents, businesses and property owners, giving them the opportunity to provide support or criticism as well as suggestions for improving the plan. The city’s planning and traffic engineers have heeded much of the feedback, too, making several tweaks and even broader changes, including during the last few months.

For example, residents did not like the idea of limiting left turns to only two intersections between North Shepherd Drive and Yale Street, because of concerns about increased cut-through traffic on residential side streets. So the city amended the plan and now intends to allow left turns at all but three intersections on that stretch of the project area, which extends east to Michaux Street and then south toward Stude Park.

[…]

[David Fields, the chief transportation planner with the city and the project co-leader,] refuted one of the big concerns expressed about the project, that a street that’s already busy with car and truck traffic will become overly congested. He said traffic counts show the proposed lane configuration will be more than adequate to move vehicles along 11th, even at peak hours. He also said the current four-lane, two-in-each direction setup would not even be on the table if the city were constructing a new 11th Street from scratch, because the traffic counts do not warrant that much lane capacity.

He also challenged the notion that bike lanes are not necessary because people do not frequently ride bikes along 11th, saying that cyclists did not ride along Houston’s bayous until bike lanes were added there. But now that infrastructure is regularly used.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite baseball movies, if you build it, they will come. And why would anyone come while it’s still too dangerous to ride bikes on 11th?

The 11th Street Bikeway is part of a broader initiative to make the city more bike-friendly and to reduce its reliance on automobiles and by extension, fossil fuels with byproducts that pollute the air. There’s a reason why Houston often has hazy-looking skies.

And this particular project will help provide further trail connectivity in the future, with it slated to link up with the bike lanes going in along Shepherd and Durham drives as well as along Interstate 10 in the southern part of the Heights.

See here for more on the project. I’ve noted the Shepherd/Durham plan to make the larger Heights area more bike and pedestrian friendly, which complements this one. The bike trail on Nicholson and the protected bike lanes on Heights Boulevard will also connect the 11th Street lanes to more existing bike infrastructure. That’s kind of the point.

Not everyone is on board with the idea, of course – you can see one example of such pushback in the embedded picture, which I took about two weeks ago. On this past Friday’s CityCast Houston podcast, Evan Mintz noted a similar meeting at Buchanan’s, a block away from Berryhill (both meetings were also noted in the second article). Evan also observed that the response to this project is basically split between the urbanists on Twitter, who love it, and the NextDoor crowd (however you would describe them) who very much do not. Yet another reason I’m glad I quit reading NextDoor all those years ago.

I’m a supporter of this project. Many people, myself included, drive way too fast on 11th Street. I’m not at all surprised that stretch of road is more crash-prone than average. I’m afraid of fatalities, because you do see pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the road, as well as other vehicles pulling into and out of parking lots and driveways along the way. For the most part, there’s not nearly enough traffic on West 11th to justify it having two lanes each way. I understand that some people get very upset whenever something comes along to challenge the notion of moving the maximum number of cars along at the maximum speed, but this is a neighborhood. It’s okay to want to let people traverse it by other means.

(If White Oak/6th Street went all the way through instead of truncating just past Yale, maybe this would be less contentious. West 11th is the main east-west route through the Heights, I get it. It still doesn’t have to be a speedway. Also, too, I’m old enough to remember when Heights Blvd was two lanes in each direction. We survived the change to its current one-car-lane-plus-one-bike-lane configuration, we’ll survive this.)

I suspect we’re in for a long battle, and it’s just a matter of time before I see a sign in front of a business somewhere advertising a website for the opposition. I will try to keep you updated on developments.

MKT Bridge repairs finally on the schedule

About time.

Houston Parks Board has good news to share about the MKT Bridge!

The plan documents needed for the additional repairs to address damage caused by the August 2020 fire have received expedited approval by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District. With this necessary step now complete, Houston Parks Board continues to move forward with repair work to this vital trail connection.

On-site construction on the bridge is expected to resume in March, after steel is fabricated for the repairs. Construction is estimated to be complete in late Summer 2022, weather permitting. The current detour will remain in place until construction is complete.

We are working diligently to restore the bridge as quickly as possible. We sincerely appreciate your continued patience and we will continue to share updates as we have them.

See here for the previous update in September. The original schedule had this reopening by the end of summer 2021, so it’s been awhile. The Chron has some reactions.

By September 2021, more than a year after the closing, the parks board — a nonprofit that in the interim opened its signature Buffalo Bayou Trail Park on the southeast side of the bayou at the bridge — confirmed the damage was more severe than initially believed and said it would have to redesign the repair work and seek new city and county flood control permits.

Many bicyclists and Heights runners grumbled for months that the bridge — comparable for cyclists to what the Pierce Elevated along Interstate 45 is to automobile drivers — never would have stayed closed for months if it carried cars and trucks.

On Jan. 1, to mark the 500th day since the bridge closed, BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo urged parks officials and city leaders to “bring the same urgency to this bike and pedestrian bridge that they would bring to any other transportation project.”

News of the upcoming work was celebrated — albeit wearily — by some riders.

“Jesus Christ, finally!” cyclist Noel Espino, 33, said in an email. “They mean it this time, right?”

I’m just glad it’s finally happening. I’ll be even more glad when the connection from the White Oak Trail to the MKT Trail is done, too. That was supposed to have started last fall and be done in “early 2022”, but as yet I’ve seen no action on it. Perhaps this was waiting for some progress on the MKT Bridge repairs as well. Just please, get it all done.

Get ready for more construction in 2022

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes that Universities BRT map

Show me the route!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks really nice.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

What the BIF means for Texas

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What once was there

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

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

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

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

Then…nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, yet again, we wait.

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

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

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

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

MKT Bridge repairs delayed

Bummer.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Bike trail connections news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More fourplexes

I am in favor of this.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safety is nice.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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