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Harrisburg line

Council approves funds for Harrisburg Line overpass

Progress!

The City Council is set to decide Wednesday whether to give Metro $10 million to accommodate traffic as well as trains on a controversial overpass the transit agency plans to build along its Green Line light rail route.

The council delayed action on the matter for 30 days last month at Mayor Annise Parker’s suggestion when Councilman Robert Gallegos raised concerns. Gallegos and some other neighborhood leaders long have lobbied against an overpass and sought more time to confirm Metro’s claims that worse-than-expected soil contamination would prevent a previously planned underpass where freight tracks cross the path of the Green Line along Harrisburg.

After months of delay when the environmental concerns were discovered, the extra 30 days caused consternation for some neighborhood leaders, and for Metro officials.

Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia fired off a letter saying the council’s delay had forced him “to reverse course and to proceed with a plain rail-only overpass.” This week, however, Garcia said those thoughts were premature.

“Looking back in time, we all could have communicated better. And I really think any miscommunication is really a result of everybody trying to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re going to look back and I think we’re all going to be very proud of this project, so I think some of the angst today will be a distant memory when the line is successful and businesses are thriving.”

And indeed, Council approved the funding on Wednesday. The best news is that this overpass will include vehicular traffic as well, and the current design specs appear to be more palatable to East End residents. Current estimates for construction are 32 months, which would put the opening in 2017, but Metro Chair Garcia is optimistic they can beat that. The Harrisburg Line up to the future overpass will be completed by the end of this year, just barely. It will be very nice when that is all done.

Please watch out for the trains

Seriously, people.

Three MetroRail collisions this week highlight persistent safety concerns that arise when trains share the road with cars – a problem that Metro officials hope to control as they prepare to open two new rail lines.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has experienced a relatively high number of accidents in its decade running light rail along Main Street. The agency has made adjustments to improve safety, but this week’s accidents show the problem is far from solved.
Raw Video: Car swerves into path of Houston…

A car veered into the path of an oncoming Metro train headed north. The Tuesday morning crash…

The collisions occurred Tuesday and Wednesday over a period of less than 36 hours. The Tuesday crash occurred along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center, where cars can cross onto the tracks to make left turns. The Wednesday incidents were in the Medical Center and along Harrisburg, where Metro is testing trains in advance of a December opening of its Green Line.

Preliminary analysis indicates the train operator was at fault in one of the Med Center crashes, and motorists likely caused the other incidents. Two of the accidents led to reported injuries.

Metro officials said Thursday that they don’t see the need for any immediate changes to address problems at the crash locations, but they are always looking for ideas to improve safety. Many Metro critics have cited an at-grade system’s potential for accidents in arguing that Metro should have built its lines above or below street level.

Of course, it costs a lot more money to elevate or build below street level. These same critics would have been first to declare that Metro couldn’t afford to build any lines if that had been the plan. I’m just saying.

From October 2013 until the end of June, Metro reported 47 light rail collisions. None of the months has exceeded Metro’s goal of no more than six collisions per month.

Regardless of cause, Metro has seen far more collisions than other light rail systems when the system’s size is factored in.

The eight serious collisions Metro reported last year were the same number as Portland, Ore., where the light rail system travels five times as many miles. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which also travels five times as many miles as Metro, had one fewer accident. Both cities have at-grade systems, but most of Dallas’ system is separated from auto traffic.

Based on Metro’s analysis, 22 of the accidents in the past decade – an average of about two per year – were deemed preventable by the train’s operator.

“In a large sense, it is a motorist who is making a call that is not a good one,” said Margaret O’Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for Metro.

In fact, accidents among automobiles as a whole are up in 2014, compared to the past four years, according to Houston TranStar. In June 2014, emergency officials responded to 874 accidents along major freeway and highway corridors, compared to 799 in June 2013 and 733 in June 2012.

Clearly, this is the fault of the red light cameras. (Sorry, my sarcasm reflex was on autoplay there.)

As MetroRail officials prepare for the December openings of the Green Line along Harrisburg east of downtown and the Purple Line along Scott and Wheeler southeast of downtown, they have focused on community awareness.

“Metro has been out talking to every citizen group it can get itself in front of,” said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End Management District. “They have lights at every intersection that flash. It is very difficult to think what else can be done.”

Still, Schenke said, the new line is “weighed against years and years of people driving on this road. Change is hard.”

[…]

Few of the conditions present in the Medical Center – spots where cars sit on the tracks to make left turns – exist along the Green and Purple lines. In many spots along the two new routes, the track is on a slightly elevated platform and largely fenced in, said Andy Skabowski, operations director for Metro.

That might be enough of a buffer to make a difference, Schenke said. Still, she acknowledged transit officials face a challenge.

“There are people to this day that do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said. “We are conditioned in Houston not to expect anything but cars on the street. That’s what some people think.”

And a lot of those people think they’re the only car on the street. We’ve all experienced drivers like that. There’s only so much Metro can do to prevent accidents. Maybe you think they’ve done enough and maybe you don’t, but at some point it’s on all of us to avoid them. We have a role to play, too, and it’s far from clear that we’re doing what we should be doing.

Southeast and Harrisburg rail line openings pushed back

Well, at least it’s still in 2014.

THERE’S STILL “some uncertainty” over the exact schedule, but all the pieces needed to allow Metro to open Houston’s second and third light-rail lines won’t be in place until late December, according to reports delivered to a committee of the transportation organization’s board of directors last Friday. Previously, an opening date sometime this fall had been projected for the Southeast and East End lines (though the far eastern end of the East End line won’t come on line until a newly planned overpass is built under over the Union Pacific East Belt freight rail line between the future Altic and Cesar Chavez stations). Delays in the delivery of trains aren’t the sole reason for the late openings, however.

The contractor building the lines won’t be ready to turn over the completed tracks until September 30th to Metro, which will then need approximately 60 days to prepare for their operation. Other factors affecting the schedule: delivery of hundreds of newly redesigned axle counters to monitor train traffic on the rail lines, and construction of Houston First’s new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the downtown convention center.

I suppose the optimistic way to look at this is to observe that hopefully this renders the rail car shortage problem moot. And technically, if the opening is on or before December 20, it’s still “sometime this fall”. Right?

If officials can resolve a handful of remaining issues, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will open its two new rail lines in December, according to a revised schedule. It’s a delay from the fall 2014 estimate officials provided earlier this year.

“It is scheduled as of now to open Christmas week,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “It is going to open before the end of the year.”

Missed it by that much. Look, just get it done this year, OK? Thanks.

A lesser overpass

I’m not very happy with this.

A City Council delay in contributing funds for a contentious East End overpass will likely lead Metro back to build a span only for its light rail line and not drivers, and without some of the attributes transit officials and some nearby residents said they wanted.

[…]

The delay in receiving $10 million from the city could have a detrimental effect on whatever is built, as Metro presses ahead. Final agreement between the city and Metro regarding the money Houston committed to an underpass or overpass missed a Monday deadline set by Metro, sparking another spat between transit and city officials.

At the same time Wednesday that City Council members were delaying their commitment, Metro’s board was approving a design contract for the overpass. Transit officials are also planning the first public meeting about the overpass design on Tuesday.

The goal was to develop an overpass with traffic lanes, and add features like murals and amenities to make the overpass more palatable, not just a concrete overpass for the light rail line. All of that is now moot, as the city delays and Metro moves ahead, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

[…]

When Metro moved forward, the decision angered Houston Councilman Robert Gallegos, who asked last week for a delay in handing $10 million over to Metro for the project.

That delay stretched from one week to two because of the upcoming July 4 holiday, and then to 30 days at the suggestion of Mayor Annise Parker, who said she was just hearing about some of Gallegos’ concerns.

Gallegos said he wants to research the level of contamination, whether it should be cleaned up and what can be designed that will protect the community.

“It is not about pushing for an underpass at this point,” Gallegos’ chief of staff, Danial Santamaria, said. “It is concern about the contaminants.”

Metro officially approved the overpass plan in late May. I understand why they want to move forward already, but it’s not clear to me why a relatively small amount of money like that $10 million should have such a large effect on the final design. Surely there must be some way that sum can be covered even if the city backs out of the original agreement, which was made with the understanding that Metro would build an underpass. Given that the underpass option is off the table at this point, I feel strongly that every effort should be made to make the overpass as palatable to the East End residents as possible. Let’s not mess this up over a small sum of money.

Metro opts for the overpass

At this point I can hardly blame them.

Houston transit officials proceeded Thursday with a controversial overpass plan for an East End light rail line, but angry city officials and residents vowed to continue fighting for an underpass.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members rejected a request by residents and the city and state officials who represent them for a 30-day delay in deciding whether to build an overpass or underpass along Harrisburg, at freight tracks near Hughes Street. Board members cited the need to move quickly to complete the line.

The decision came after four months of discussion, which residents wanted to extend so they could further research Metro’s claims about the environmental risks of an underpass. Speakers at Thursday’s board meeting, ranging from engineers to lawyers, questioned some of Metro’s findings without citing specifics.

Metro officials said continued dialogue was unlikely to change their minds.

“We can play this game, but at some point you have to step up and build something,” said board member Cindy Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor.

[…]

Depending on details such as whether vehicle lanes are included in the overpass, Metro would spend between $27 million and $43 million to join light rail segments under construction on the Green Line, between the central business district and the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The overpass could be built in less than three years, according to Metro estimates.

Noting the additional year and up to $20 million in added costs to build an underpass, not including environmental costs, some area residents said they supported the overpass plan.

“We cannot endure any more delays,” said Jessica Hulsey, of the Super Neighborhood 63 Council, which encompasses the Second Ward.

Metro’s press release for this is here. See here, here, here, and here for the background. I have always thought that an underpass was the ideal solution, but at this point given the cost and the time frame, it’s quite reasonable for Metro to say we’re going to do an overpass and we’re going to do our best to make it okay. Various elected officials that represent the area asked Metro not to go forward at this time, so it’s certainly possible they can come under some pressure, but I don’t know what they can do to really affect it at this point. The fact that not everyone is against the decision to proceed also suggests Metro is on reasonably solid ground. The underpass would have been best, but at this point it just wasn’t going to happen. I sympathize with the holdouts, and I wish them luck in making the best of the hand they’ve been dealt.

Metro still aiming for an overpass

I’ll be glad when this is settled.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said they must consider the need to extend the line east of Hughes Road, the potentially costly and time-consuming underpass construction, and the potential environment fallout after a discovery that contaminated soil was more extensive than previously believed.

“We think it is our responsibility to complete the project because it has been going on for some time,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Garcia said he favors a plan to take the tracks over the freight line, but did not want to assume the board would agree. Board members who have publicly stated a preference have supported an overpass, saying an underpass is impractical.

[…]

Residents said if Metro officials know there’s a problem – one that’s common on the East End, where industries and businesses polluted the land – they should clean it up.

“Let’s not leave it for another generation,” said Don Ready, who lives and works in the area around Hughes and Harrisburg.

Some residents and business owners said the issue has been studied enough and it’s time to begin construction, probably of an overpass.

“I have a letter signed by 14 business owners who want the overpass because they need to get it done as soon as possible,” said Mark Rodriguez, who owns a business along Harrisburg and is active with the Oaklawn Fullerton Civic Association.

Metro officials said their overpass design would address some of the original concerns. It could include elevating the light rail tracks and two lanes of traffic over the freight line, while keeping a lane in each direction for street-level traffic and sidewalk access.

Garcia said if an overpass is chosen, Metro would work with the community to make the crossing “as unobtrusive as possible.”

An overpass would be cheaper than an underpass, but Metro might have less money to work with. City officials planned to contribute $20 million, but $10 million of that was tied to the crossing being an underpass, said Andy Icken, chief development officer for Mayor Annise Parker.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m sympathetic to the East End residents who have to feel like they’ve been fighting this fight forever, and I’m sympathetic to the Metro board that is still trying to extricate itself from the messes left behind by their predecessors. Metro, which has other issues it needs to resolve as it finishes construction on the Harrisburg line, would surely like to just make a decision and move forward. I’d feel better about that if I had a clearer idea of just what the costs are at this point. Will it really be less expensive to do the overpass if the city pays $10 million less towards its construction? Is it responsible to leave the buried toxins underground? Might there be some alternate sources of funding to aid the cleanup? Could the new-and-improved overpass design that Metro says they have be acceptable to East End residents? These and other questions remain to be answered.

East Enders want the underpass

We’re talking about the long-debated Harrisburg rail line extension, for which three residents of the East End took to the Chron op-ed pages to make their case for their preferred solution.

East End residents worked for years with Metro to work out a solution for the light rail to cross the “east belt” heavy-rail trunk line near Hughes Street. Two and a half years ago an underpass was deemed the best option to cross the railroad tracks because it would preserve the urban character of Harrisburg Boulevard, the commercial and cultural spine of the East End.

Metro now says an overpass is the only option. Metro tells us they have found an underground plume or accumulation of gasoline in shallow groundwater that might pose a liability if it moves under adjacent properties due to the construction of the underpass. There is no danger. It is strictly an issue of liability, based on perception alone.

[…]

The contaminated plume in question occurs only in the eastern half of the underpass excavation zone, and at most is only 2 feet thick. Contaminated soil thus makes up only about 10 percent of the total volume of the area to be excavated. This amount is not a deal-breaker for the excavation. Procedures are in place to deal with this kind of contamination during construction, and Metro was fully prepared to deal with this until it started worrying about the lateral underground migration of the plume.

These kinds of contaminated water bodies occur all over Houston. So much so that the city, in conjunction with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has a procedure that allows contaminated zones of groundwater that pose no human risk to be left in place with limited or no liability on the part of landowners who had nothing to do with the original contamination. This is exactly the situation of the Harrisburg Boulevard plume.

There are relatively few viable businesses today along the underpass construction zone on Harrisburg, which is exactly how it will stay if an overpass is built there. Let’s not make decisions based on the used-car lots and pawn shops that are there today. Let’s make those decisions based on what is coming if we do the right thing. This is a generational decision.

See here and here for the background. It seems to me that the real issue here, going back to the bad old days of David Wolff and Frank Wilson, is that it costs more to build an underpass than an overpass, and Metro – which is paying for the Harrisburg line with strictly local funds – has been reluctant to spend the extra money. I can understand that, but at some point you have to recognize reality and try to accommodate a community that has been strongly pro-rail and strongly anti-overpass. Before the discovery of these underground plumes, the New Metro agreed to build an underpass with some financial help from the city. If the price of the underpass is now higher because of this discovery, Metro and the city owe it to the East End residents to try to figure out a way to absorb this extra cost, or to find some other source of funds to help cover it. Surely there must be some way to do this.

When are we getting those trains again?

The Metro board has some doubts about railcar manufacturer CAF’s ability to keep its promises.

Houston transit officials, worried that the light rail system might run short of trains for months after two new lines open, are not satisfied with a new schedule for delivery of delayed rail cars.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials expressed deep frustration as they got their first update Thursday on CAF U.S.A.’s revised schedule to deliver 39 new trains to Houston, meant to expand the city’s light rail service.

Two new rail lines are expected to open later this year, possibly in September or October. To have enough trains to run timely service, Metro needs most – if not all – of the new rail cars to increase its fleet from 37 to 76.

Under the most optimistic scenario, Metro would have 45 trains ready to ferry passengers if the lines open in September.

Board members told Metro staff and a CAF representative Thursday that they were skeptical that even the revised schedule is feasible. Even if the company holds true to its latest delivery promises, it still leaves light rail service in a lurch.

“We have gone out on limb, and we are hanging there,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said, turning her attention to a CAF employee in the audience. “I still don’t have a lot of confidence, and you can carry that message to your CEO.”

[…]

Without the trains, Metro plans to start limited service on the two new lines by taking trains off the Red Line. Reducing double-car trains to single cars on the Red Line would lead to severe crowding, officials and riders said.

See here, here, and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I think Metro can muddle through with a shortage of trains for a little while, but the longer it goes the worse it gets, especially if the endpoint is unclear. At this point, I hope they’re warming up the lawyers, because however much oversight Metro may exercise at this point, I have a feeling they’re going to need to enforce some consequence clauses in their contract.

We’ll get our new trains in January

We have a deadline.

The company building Metro’s new trains will deliver the final car to Houston five months late, according to a revised schedule submitted to the transit agency.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is reviewing the schedule, spokesman Jerome Gray said, and hasn’t agreed to the new timeline. The revision was one of the  promises the rail car builder, CAF U.S.A., made when the company acknowledged substantial delays in production in January. Rather than deliver the last batch of 39 train cars in August, the company now expects to deliver the last train in January.

Production problems with the first railcar, sitting at Metro’s south Houston rail maintenance facility, led to substantial delays in production. Workers at CAF’s facility in Elmira, N.Y., are building the second car now, with a fix to a troublesome water leak that led to the problems on the first car. Once the second train passes its tests, and the fix is verified, production will accelerate.

To catch up and deal with other production issues, CAF is expanding its plant, but it still will not meet the contractual deadline to deliver the trains. Under the deal signed in 2011, Metro should already have 16 trains in Houston ready to test and start service. The new train cars are critical to starting service on the East and Southeast lines, set to open later this year.

Without the trains, Metro plans to start limited service on the two new lines by taking trains off the Red Line. Reducing  double-car trains to single cars on the Red Line will lead to severe crowding, officials and riders said.

Based on the revised schedule, Metro would have 21 rail cars by the end of September, when service on the lines could begin. Not all of those trains can immediately enter service, however, as they will need testing and final assembly in Houston.

See here and here for the background. That’s longer than I’d have liked for this to take, but at least there’s a target date. Other than having to temper our expectations for the ridership numbers in the first few months of service, and continuing to be prepared to sue if necessary, I don’t know that there’s anything else to be done but wait and hope this time they mean it.

Leaning towards the over

Metro is working on a solution to the Harrisburg Line over/underpass problem.

“We want the community involved and for this to be as open and honest as possible,” [Metro Board Chair Gilbert] Garcia said.

Before Metro makes a decision, Garcia said, he wanted residents to have a better sense of the problem. Leaking gasoline tanks left a large swath of contaminated soil about 10 feet down. As long as it is undisturbed, it does not present a threat, officials said.

Metro would need to dig more than 30 feet into the ground and displace hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt, necessitating significant cleanup, to build an underpass. And an underpass would change groundwater patterns, possibly spreading the contamination to other adjacent properties, environmental analysts said.

To proceed with an underpass, officials might have to spend years cleaning and preparing the land for excavation. So far, they’ve spent $8.6 million on planning and design for the planned underpass.

Garcia said the best solution is to build an overpass, but redesign it.

See here for the background. The idea is to redesign the overpass in a way that still allows for vehicular traffic on Harrisburg at the freight rail tracks, which should mitigate the effect on businesses there, and to make it shorter so the intersection at 66th Street is unaffected. Metro’s task is convincing the area residents, who have good reasons to be skeptical, that what they’re proposing could work. The board could still go with the underpass, though it would cost a lot more money due to the need to clean up the underground toxins, when they vote on a recommendation. I hope this all works out in a way everyone can live with.

Is it all over for the Harrisburg Line underpass?

Despite earlier agreement between Metro, residents, and the city to build an underpass for the far end of the Harrisburg line, it’s not looking too good for that option right now.

Residents of Houston’s East End supported a 2003 transit referendum that included a light rail line through their neighborhood, but they balked six years later when they learned of plans for a large overpass – a “hideous monstrosity,” in the words of one community leader – that would cross freight rail tracks along Harrisburg.

Two years of often contentious negotiations ensued as Metropolitan Transit Authority officials responded to concerns that the overpass would split the neighborhood and inhibit redevelopment. With the city of Houston as peacemaker and financial partner, Metro shelved its overpass plan in 2011 and agreed to build an underpass, winning the wary support of residents.

But now, as work on the so-called Green Line nears completion, the discovery of a vast area of gasoline-polluted soil appears to have scuttled the underpass plan, reopening a wound that Metro, the city and the neighborhood thought had been healed. The city’s $20 million stake in the project is in question, and transit officials are seeking community support for a plan likely to send the light rail trains over the Union Pacific tracks rather than under them.

The crossing is critical to extending the Green Line east of Hughes Road, planned to link downtown with the Magnolia Park Transit Center. The Green Line, which Metro is building with no federal assistance, is one of two Metro rail lines scheduled to open this fall.

“The most important thing is to complete the project,” said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We are committed, and have told people we are committed, to go to the Magnolia Park Transit Center.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Apparently, the issue with the contamination has been known for a long time, but it’s only now that we’re hearing about its possible effect on the light rail construction. That’s unfortunate, given the way the folks in the area had to fight against the previous Metro regime against the overpass solution. It was only after the current Board was appointed by Mayor Parker, under then-CEO George Greanias, that Metro agreed to do an underpass, with some financial help from the city. At least this time Metro is thinking about how to mitigate the effects of an overpass.

Neighbors feared the overpass would be a “hideous monstrosity,” [Marilu De La Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society] said, that would split the mostly Hispanic community in two, forcing some residents to take circuitous routes around a massive concrete divider.

Metro is working on plans that might soften the impact of an overpass.

Metro might be able to end the overpass before 66th Street, leaving that street open and giving the community a chance to petition for a traffic light at 66th and Harrisburg, officials said. And one design option would send the light rail tracks and two lanes of traffic over the freight line, while keeping a lane in each direction for street-level traffic and sidewalk access.

I hope they can work it out in a way that mollifies the residents. It’s awfully late in the game to be making this kind of change. Campos has more.

Riding that crowded train

Metro ponders its options for dealing with potential delays in the delivery of new railcars.

Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.

Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.

Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.

“If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast,” said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, “that means leaving passengers behind.”

Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don’t know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.

The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December – five months late – and still hasn’t passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.

Metro’s board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency’s 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.

To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.

See here for the background. Assuming that the two that Metro thinks are likely to show up on time do so, then eight cars will need to be diverted. If “at least two” turns out to mean “more than two”, so much the better. On the other hand, any unexpected maintenance will be that much more disruptive. I don’t see how Metro has much choice for how to deal with this in the short term, so it’s really just a question of how short the short term is. A month, maybe two months, to get enough cars in so that the Main Street line doesn’t need to be cannibalized any more, that’s probably not a big deal. Longer than that, especially if the deadlines are fuzzy and promises get broken along the way, that’s a problem. Other than be prepared to sue for damages if it comes to that, I don’t know what else Metro can do about it right now.

I got those “can’t get my rail cars built on time” blues

Actually, I don’t, but Metro does.

The company building 39 new Metro railcars has yet to deliver an acceptable vehicle almost six months after the original due date, potentially delaying full service for rail lines scheduled to open later this year.

The first car hasn’t passed a required water leak test and exceeds the maximum weight specified in the builder’s contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. In a Dec. 30 letter to CAF USA, the American subsidiary of the Spanish train-building giant, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert demanded that the company explain how it will deliver all the cars by the Sept. 25 deadline.

“It is imperative that CAF demonstrate to Metro that it is seriously willing and able to meet its obligations,” Lambert wrote. Metro is withholding a $12.8 million payment until an acceptable rail car is delivered, he wrote.

In a reply, CAF’s worldwide CEO, Jose Maria Baztarrica, assured Lambert that U.S. representatives of the company would come to Houston to “fix all the various issues.”

Continued delay would leave Metro officials with options for opening the lines on time, but possibly not on a full schedule. Fewer railcars ready to hit the street could mean that trains operated less frequently or failed to cover the entire route.

“We can work through it, and we will,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, stressing the important factor is that CAF deliver high-quality vehicles. “We have to be prepared that the cars are delayed and now we need to have a plan going forward of what we’re going to do.”

The railcar manufacturer is now promising swift action to get this resolved.

“If they are having a problem, then to me it is a big problem, even if it is a minor fix,” said Andres Arizkorreta, CEO of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, commonly known as CAF. “These are things we must do.”

[…]

Arizkorreta flew to Houston on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he assured Metro officials the water leak would be fixed within 10 days by installing a gasket

Remedying the leak, which was minor, is necessary before the car can enter service by undergoing weeks of on-track testing, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“The best thing we can do now is get this one at the test track,” Lambert said. “The sooner we do that, the sooner we can build the others.”

Additional cars might come at a brisker pace. Manufacture of the cars will accelerate as CAF U.S.A. expands its Elmira, N.Y., plant, Arizkorreta assured Metro.

Officials said they were pleased with the quick corrections.

“I am convinced this is moving in the right direction,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

About 100 workers will be hired specifically to handle Houston railcar building, roughly doubling the staff now handling the order. CAF agreed in writing Thursday to give Metro a revised delivery schedule by Feb. 15.

That all sounds good, but the weight issue remains a problem. It’s not clear how that will be fixed. I’m going to be optimistic and say that this will mostly get worked out before the Southeast and Harrisburg lines open, but we’ll know more in a month. I hope it doesn’t cause any operational problems, or force reduced frequencies when the new lines open. Metro had already set its schedule back by a year after nearly blowing its Full Funding Grant Agreement due to the shenanigans of previous CEO Frank Wilson, who was trying to circumvent the FTA’s Buy American requirements. It’s possible that in the absence of those requirements, or at least in the absence of Metro trying to get around them and getting caught at it, that we’d be farther along now. Nothing can be done about any of that now, so let’s keep CAF’s feet to the fire and hope they have good news in February.

On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

Metro officials on Thursday scaled back plans for an iconic downtown Houston transit hub where three rail lines will cross after board members grew frustrated with what they called inexcusable delays and cost overruns.

“This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

Faced with a proposal to modify a design after investing time and money, board members instead chose the cheaper option of spending $1.05 million to build a basic canopy. That’s still $450,000 more than they budgeted for the hub, located between Capitol and Rusk along Main.

The block will be a major crossing of the Main Street Line, which opened in 2004, and the East and Southeast lines slated to open in late 2014. Because of its status as the transfer point from the rail lines, Metro officials wanted to brand the stop with a larger canopy and features that drew attention to the rail line as a special downtown asset.

“This is the kind of thing where if you look at successful transit systems, they are not bare-bones systems,” board member Christof Spieler said.

Metro officials solicited teams to propose iconic designs and assembled a jury to choose a preferred plan. The panel made its recommendation on schedule in February 2012, but Metro did not ratify the winner until September 2013, 18 months later than planned.

Interim CEO Tom Lambert said officials still were piecing together exactly how the station planning got off course. By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.

“There was not enough time,” he said. “We cannot have a station without any cover.”

Clearly, someone dropped the ball, and no one noticed it lying there on the ground until it was too late. Not having it – having it replaced by a more mundane canopy – won’t break anything, but Spieler is right that successful transit systems have character to them. If you’ve ever used New York’s subway system, especially at certain stations, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s still possible to salvage something out of this – the firm that submitted the winning design is still committed to it and has been trying to rejig it to lower the cost – but that may require someone with deep pockets to step in and clean up the mess. Let’s hope Metro figures out what happened and makes sure it doesn’t happen again. The Highwayman and Swamplot have more.

Please try to avoid getting hit by the new light rail trains

Seriously, watch where you’re driving when you drive along or past the new rail lines. The train is bigger than you and your car, and if you pick a fight with it you will lose.

Metro is working to make sure drivers and pedestrians get that message. Starting next year, Houston will have 15 new miles of operating light rail tracks.

“It’s a change in mindset for Houston. It’s an absolute change in mindset.”

That’s Metro Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

“This is bigger than just the East End, it’s bigger than the North Line, it’s bigger than the Southeast Line. This means all of Houston, because at some point or the other, we’re all going to cross those tracks.”

O’Brien-Molina says the big thing drivers need to remember is that the trains hardly make any noise, so if you’re driving along a street like Fulton, Harrisburg, or Scott, a train could appear at any time.

That means drivers need to be especially careful when they make left turns. There are also new lights and signs, and crosswalks for pedestrians to get to rail stops.

“We’ve already educated 14,000 children and asked them to bring that message home. We’ve prepared packets to show kids exactly how this works, what the lines are going to look like.”

I sure hope it works, because that first year after the Main Street line opened was ridiculous. Many of the problems occurred in the stretch of Fannin where cars did have to drive onto the light rail right of way to make a left turn. I’ve done that in recent years, after many changes were made to make it less confusing, but it was still a bit unclear, and a bit nerve-wracking. Be that as it may, the vast majority of the accidents were caused by driver error – running red lights, making illegal left turns, and just plain not checking their six to make sure there wasn’t a train right behind them that they were about to turn into. There wasn’t much of an awareness campaign back in 2003, at least not one that I remember, so whatever is being done now will be an improvement. I hope the message sinks in.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

A streetcar for the East End?

It could happen.

As the once solidly industrial East End transforms with a 4-month-old soccer stadium, a light rail line under construction and the imminent sale of a 136-acre plot that could signal coming lofts and boutiques, boosters are studying the possibility of reviving the streetcar in Houston after an absence of more than 70 years.

[…]

Streetcars, which generally are single cars driven by electricity on rails embedded in roads they share with automobiles, are not on a fast track locally. There is no money yet to build even the 4-mile loop – which could cost $10 million a mile – envisioned as the first phase of the project being studied for the East End. Even if there were startup funds, there is no plan to sustain it, since fares alone do not support a system.

Greater East End leaders say the area is fertile ground for the rebirth of the streetcar. Its proximity to an estimated 150,000 downtown jobs makes it a potential commuter hot spot. Streetcar line installation costs could be held in check by the use of remnant track on Commerce and other streets in the neighborhood and the possibility of excavating a long-filled tunnel at Preston and Dowling for a low-cost underpass beneath a freight rail line. Streetcars, Greater East End leaders say, would be particularly useful in solving the East End’s so-called “last mile” problem, in which developers are wary of building too far from the light rail line out of a fear that residents and businesses will not buy in because of the prospect of a long walk in summer heat.

Even with federal funding and future income from a recently created city tax rebate zone in the neighborhood, the East End needs some of those developers to make bets on the neighborhood to increase the property tax collections that will have to be part of the financing package, said Patrick Ezzell, the district’s planning and infrastructure director. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. A streetcar line may attract development, but the district needs development first to raise the tax revenue to launch the line.

“Developers have loved it in other cities,” Ezzell said. “Whether that would translate to Houston, we don’t know.”

I’ve embedded a picture of the proposed line, about which you can find more on page 21 of the East End Mobility Study. This line would run along the southern end of that massive redevelopment opportunity site and connect it to the Dynamo Stadium light rail stop, as it should. Note also the price tag of approximately $40 million for the whole thing, which certainly makes it reasonable to think about even if there’s no funding source at this time. You should browse through that mobility study because there’s a whole lot more to what the planners have in mind than just this, but a line like this makes a lot of sense for the neighborhood that a lot of people would like this to be.

What would you do with 136 acres near downtown?

Something urban, mixed-use, and transit-oriented, one hopes.

A rare opportunity lies in 136 acres just east of downtown Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou-front parcel, a longtime industrial and office complex, went on the market earlier this summer – a move bayou enthusiasts, East End residents and real estate developers had been anticipating for years.

Some of them say the expansive property – even larger than the former AstroWorld site off the South Loop – offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a multiuse development incorporating the cultural influences of downtown, the East End and other surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Architect and urban planner Peter Brown envisions a “town center” where a mix of housing types, offices, shops and cultural attractions encircle a central green space.

Those most familiar with the area cite a lengthy wish list, from groceries to book stores to new recreational facilities. City Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents that part of town, would like to see “shops, rooftops and various other amenities for our East End community.”

And he is hardly alone in taking note of the nearly mile-long stretch of bayou frontage. That combination of proximity to water, combined with skyline views, ups the ante.

“People are drawn to cities that offer urban vitality in a natural setting – New York and its harbor, Chicago and its lakefront, Denver and its mountains, Austin and Lady Bird Lake,” said Guy Hagstette, project manager of Buffalo Bayou Park and ex-director of Discovery Green.

I can’t tell exactly where this is, as no street information is given in the story, but give the description, the photo above, and the suggestion made later in the article by Christof Spieler of a streetcar connection to the EaDo/Stadium light rail station, I can sort of guess; I’d say it’s more or less north of that station, looking at the East Line rail map. It’s clear that a development like this, when it happens, will have a transformative effect on the area. Whether that’s good or bad will depend entirely on what ultimately gets built. The Chron solicited a lot of good feedback from a variety of people – former CM Peter Brown had so much to say they wrote a separate article to capture it all – but in the end I don’t know how much effect anything but what the people who buy the land want to do with it will have. We better hope they get it right.

Couple things to add. One, don’t underestimate the value of abutting the Buffalo Bayou. It’s a great natural resource, and many of Houston’s best neighborhoods are built around bayous. If my estimate of where this is and my reading of this Houston Bikeways map is correct, there’s already a bike trail along the bayou in place for the future residents, employees, and shoppers of this location. That would be a nice, convenient way to get into downtown without having to pay to park. Similarly, a streetcar connection to the Harrisburg and Southeast light rail lines would be an excellent addition and would make the development much more transit-accessible. A short streetcar line could be put in for a fairly small amount of money – the 3-mile-long line that Fort Worth eventually decided not to install had a price tag of $88 million. A line from this development to the EaDo/Stadium station would be not nearly that long and would probably only require one car. It could be paid for by the city, Metro, and the developer – I can’t think of a better use of a 380 agreement than that.

Finally, something I’ve said before but cannot be said too often is that Houston has a lot of empty spaces and underpopulated areas in it that can and really should be pushed for development as residential or mixed-used properties. Many of them can use existing infrastructure, though improvements will need to be made. Many already have access or proximity to transit, which would allow for denser development. There are a lot of places that can be developed that are close in to downtown or other employment hubs like the Medical Center or Greenspoint. The city has advantages that the increasingly far-flung reaches of unincorporated Harris County do not, and it really needs to prioritize making affordable housing available inside its boundaries for people who would prefer to live closer in, and to make it an attractive alternative to those who might not have thought about it otherwise. Population is power, and if the city isn’t growing it’s going to be losing out. There’s plenty going on for the high-end buyer and that’s good, but it’s a small piece of the market. The KBR site is a great opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. The city needs to find ways to get as many of those other opportunities going as it can.

Houston Central Station

This is pretty cool.

[Last Tuesday], the Houston Downtown Management District hosted a competition featuring designs from five award-winning architectural firms.

The challenge: to design an iconic new Central Station – Main on Main Street between Capitol and Rusk. The station would also be the transfer point for three light-rail lines.

The five invited firms from around the country – including one Houston firm – were asked to consider into their design such factors as: openness, views of adjacent buildings, clarity of circulation, feasibility of construction and maintenance, even how the roof would look from a bird’s eye view.

But the most important requirement was to design a station that would become a landmark for downtown Houston.

About 350 community leaders, architects, design students and residents showed up to hear a 15-minute presentation by each architectural firm. The firms were: SHoP Architects; Lewis, Tsurumaki, Lewis Architects; Neil M. Denari Architects; Interloop-Architecture (Houston); and Snohetta, based in Norway and New York.

Each design was assigned a number at random, which did not represent a ranking. Before the formal presentations started, the crowd walked around displays and picked their favorites. Held on the 11th floor, the event overlooked the intersection where the new rail station would be built.

“We wanted this to be an iconic station…where three lines cross each other – East End, Southeast and the North extension of the Red Line, ” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown District, adding that the competition was a joint project with METRO and Houston Rapid Transit (HRT), a joint venture building our light-rail lines.

You can see more pictures of the entries here and a fuller writeup about them at the Offcite blog. Metro is seeking public feedback on these submissions, so check them out and leave your comments. You can also see competition entries on exhibit in the first floor lobbies of the METRO Administration Building, 1900 Main Street, and Chase Bank Building, 712 Main Street, Downtown, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. through February 10. Swamplot has more.

Metro signs Full Funding Grant Agreement

Full speed ahead.

The head of the Federal Transit Administration on Monday signed $900 million in grant agreements to help pay for two Houston light-rail lines under construction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The grants, the first federal funds ever provided for rail in Houston, were formally approved in a ceremony attended by the FTA chief, Peter Rogoff, Mayor Annise Parker, Metro officials, local members of Congress and others. They will pay half the costs of the North and Southeast lines, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will extend Houston’s light-rail network by 12 miles.

Local officials have been trying to secure the federal funds since voters approved a plan to expand Metro’s rail network in 2003.

It took a hell of a long time, and it nearly got derailed thanks to the previous Metro regime and its Buy America foolishness, but it got done. And remember, some people said it would never happen.

Here’s Metro’s press release:

METRO Inks Houston’s First Ever Full Funding Grants for Light Rail

Houston’s light-rail expansion is now cleared to receive $900 million dollars as part of two federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).  A special signing ceremony for the grants was held [Monday] morning at a rail expansion construction site overlooking downtown. The observation at 800 Burnett St. brought METRO officials together with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and a host of elected officials to sign long-awaited FFGAs for the North and Southeast rail lines.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the New METRO’s Board of Directors says, “The rail expansion team, METRO Board members, past and present and our entire staff, past and present, should be proud of accomplishing an enormous task. We’ve never lost sight of the prize and finally it is Houston’s. We thank all the community patriots for all their help in making this day happen. This is a major investment in the region that will not only create jobs but boost economic development.”

METRO President & CEO George Greanias says “The $900 million federal grants more than double the local dollars being used to construct the 5.3 mile North (Red) extension* and the 6.6 mile Southeast (Purple)* lines and mark the first time rail projects here have received FFGAs. This is a great example of how we can leverage our local dollars to improve mobility in the region.”

The total construction cost for the two lines is $1.6 billion dollars. Each line is receiving a $450 million dollar FFGA. The federal government has already set aside $484.5 million dollars for the two projects as part of the FFGAs. Of that amount, METRO has received $84.5 million dollars. The transit agency expects to continue receiving the federal funding over the next few years.

More than 30 percent of commuters heading into the downtown area and the Texas Medical Center ride METRO. The rail expansion approved by Houston voters in 2003 includes the North (Red) Line and extends the current Main St. Line starting at UHD to the Northline Transit Center, Houston Community College and Northline Commons Mall. The Southeast (Purple) Line connects downtown with local universities including Texas Southern University and the University of Houston central campus. The two federally funded lines and a third, locally funding East End (Green) Line currently under construction, are all expected to be completed by 2014.

For PDFs of work being performed see: METRORail North Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF) METRORail Southeast Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF)

The Harrisburg line is also under construction, but it is using only local funds. Still out there waiting their turn are the Universities line, the Uptown line, which will also be built with local funds but is entirely dependent on the completion of the Universities line to be feasible, and the Inner Katy Line, which was on the 2003 referendum but was not officially part of the 2012 Solutions plan. The Universities line received a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Universities line last July, and now awaits final design approval, which had been hung up to a degree by the other Metro projects in the queue ahead of it and now is waiting for Congress to get its act together and pass an adequate transportation bill so there will be more New Starts funds to grant. An Inner Katy line will likely be part of a larger next phase project – Metro Solutions 2020 or some such – that may be packaged together for another vote. I’m mostly speculating here, but such a line makes all kinds of sense and is already supported by the neighborhood. What it needs now is a funding source.

That’s something farther out to look forward to. For now, we have the North and Southeast lines and their historic funding agreement. It’s a good day for Metro and for Houston. The Metro blog and Dallas Transportation have more.

Signing date for Full Funding Grant Agreement announced

From the Metro blog:

On Monday, Nov. 28, METRO will be joined by federal officials, along with members of Houston’s congressional delegation, to sign the long-awaited Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) for the North and Southwest light-rail lines.

President & CEO George Greanias announced the signing date [Wednesday] at the Greater Houston Partnership’s luncheon.

This is the first time rail projects in Houston have received FFGAs. These are matching federal funds that help us leverage local dollars to complete the construction of the North Line (extension of the Main St. Red Line) and the Southeast Line (Purple Line).

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And they said it couldn’t be done. Well, some people said it wouldn’t be done, anyway. Here’s one of those people, who’s been saying it for a long time:

Local attorney and light-rail critic Bill King said it’s foolish to bank on that money, given the tenuous status of the federal budget, especially New Starts funding.

“With what’s going on in Washington, can you see that they’re going to come down here and say, ‘Here’s $1 billion to go build light rail in Houston?’ ” King said. “That seems so fanciful to me, and I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.”

And you would have lost that bet if you’d made it, Bill. You were wrong, and on November 28, we’ll get to see the FTA and a bunch of other people prove it. In the meantime, you can see video of Greanias’ speech here, and the accompanying presentation, which includes some cool time-lapse photography and video of the rail line expansions, here.

Construction pains

I feel for the people and businesses that are being affected by Metro’s light rail construction. I wish that these large construction projects could be done without that kind of disruption, but it happens, and it sucks. What amazed me in reading this story was what some of those folks had to say about it:

Despite his troubles, Townley supports the rail project.

“Metro has not lied to me,” he said. “The fact that (construction) is killing me doesn’t change the fact that it’s for the greater good.”

Greanias and other Metro officials have met with various business owners. The agency is discussing whether to adjust the assistance fund guidelines, but no decision will be made before the November board meeting.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said Metro is sensitive to business owners and is trying to finish the rail lines as quickly as possible.

Sochia Muschia told the board Thursday that her family’s Cuz-N-Laws Wholesale restaurant supply business at 3510 Leeland has applied twice for the $25,000 award but doesn’t qualify because its pre-construction revenue exceeded the allowed maximum.

“People at Metro have been very kind, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has nearly destroyed us,” she said.

It’s easy to joke about the exuberance of the “New Metro”‘s branding campaign, but this is what it’s all about. They’ve been honest brokers with the community, and that makes a big difference even if the financial support they’ve been able to give has fallen short. Think about how this story might have been written a couple of years ago. Quite the difference, no?

On spending and jobs

What exactly was the point of this story?

About 600 workers already are on the job building the North, Southeast and East End lines, according Metro.

“This is an opportunity for Metro to create thousands of jobs in Houston for local contractors, construction workers, and engineers,” Mayor Annise Parker said in a recent blog post on her re-election campaign website.

In addition to direct hires for construction, Metro says light-rail projects will create other jobs as workers spend money, a process economists call a “multiplier effect.” Citing research by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Metro President and Chief Executive Officer George Greanias said the agency’s $900 million in federal grants, nearing approval in Washington, is expected to create 18,000 jobs over six years ending in 2014.

“According to the bureau, for every $1 million you spend, you will create 20 jobs over the life of the project,” Greanias said.

But Barton Smith, University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said the multiplier effect doesn’t apply to local tax funds, which will pay for all of the East End line and part of the other two.

“We have to recognize the tax money you and I are spending to cover the cost of (locally funded) projects is money that won’t be spent on other things in Houston,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that any public investment ought to be judged on its own merits and not whether it’s a job creator.”

Where to even begin? First, Dr. Smith is specifically talking about local tax funds, but Metro is talking about federal grant money, which whatever else you may have to say about it didn’t have to be spent in Houston. Second, even if we were talking about local tax funds, not all such spending is equal from a job creation perspective. To cite a ridiculous example, we could take the money Metro is spending on the Harrisburg line, as that one is not receiving any New Start grant money, and use it instead to purchase artwork from the Menil Collection so they could be hung at City Hall. I’m pretty sure building the Harrisburg line would do more for employment than that would. Finally, since we are talking about spending money on new infrastructure, the benefit goes on past the time when the money is being spent on construction. That’s dicier to calculate, and less important when your focus is getting people back to work now, but it’s still an important consideration.

It’s also a consideration that Dr. Smith mentions subsequently in the story. My quibble isn’t with him, it’s with the bizarre way this article is framed. But there is another consideration that neither Dr. Smith nor the story’s author mentions:

Also, Smith said, this is a good time to do public-sector investment that’s needed because there’s a ready labor supply and construction costs are low.

One reason why construction costs are low is that interest rates are at historically low levels. It may never be this cheap to borrow money again. That makes the case for federal infrastructure spending stronger than for local infrastructure spending, since the federal government is not bound by artificial accounting deadlines for “balancing” its budget, but if you have any need for building new stuff or repairing old stuff, now is the time. And if you do it by floating debt instead of dipping into general revenue, you avoid the made-up conflict that was the basis for this story. See how easy that was?

City asks Metro for Harrisburg underpass

From the Inbox:

Houston Mayor and METRO Seek Common Ground on East End Line

Resolution of Harrisburg/Hughes Streets Over/Under Question Becomes a Milestone

The city of Houston has concluded there is “strong sentiment” within the East End community for an underpass at Harrisburg/Hughes St. and has requested METRO’s Board of Directors vote in support of a plan to create a grade separated betterment for light rail and vehicular traffic. This “All-Under Option,” according to Houston Mayor Annise Parker, is intended to “promote pedestrian and vehicular safety in the area and encourage community development, and enhance overall mobility in the East End.” The city has committed $20.6 million in financial support for the project.

Although the underpass route is influenced by numerous considerations, the decision of whether or not to support the request will ultimately rest with the METRO Board of Directors. METRO Chairman, Gilbert Garcia, hopes to bring the complex matter up for vote by the directors this Thursday.

“We appreciate Mayor Parker’s efforts to build consensus in this lingering community debate. I congratulate the Mayor, Council members, Ed Gonzalez, James Rodriguez, and Melissa Noriega, as well as community representatives, the Mayor’s staff and METRO’s staff for working together on this issue.” said Garcia.

METRO President & CEO George Greanias said the “all under option” will take longer to build, possibly two years longer, and the extra cost of $20-23 million does not cover a pedestrian tunnel. “Despite the hurdles ahead, this request is a good example of community partnerships. We look forward to working with the city in seeing this project to completion.” said Greanias.

Of the $20.6 million in financial assistance being offered by the city:

  • $10.0 million – CIP funds previously committed to this issue
  • $4.9 million – Postponement of the Fulton Paving and Drainage Project (Dist. H)
  • $3.2 million – Postponement of the Telephone Road Reconstruction (Dist. I)
  • $2.5 million – Harrisburg TIRZ funds

METRO’s original design for the crossing accommodated light-rail only. The city of Houston, after extensive dialog with the community, commissioned a study on the feasibility of constructing an underpass. The betterment will require collaboration with Houston Belt and Terminal (HBT) Railroad, and creation of a new and temporary terminus at Altic.  Offsetting the higher cost, however, is an added value to railroad operations – the new design, according to the city, will ease flooding impairments. In return for METRO’s support, the city of Houston has offered to make funds available in a timely fashion, as well as collaborate to seek more funds and support METRO in negotiations for necessary concessions from HBT. The matter will go before the full METRO Board of Directors, at its regular monthly meeting Thursday, July 28th.

See here and here for some background. This sounds like the better way to go, and I’m glad to see it happen. Swamplot has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

George Greanias, Metro’s president and chief executive officer, said the need for detailed design work means the underpass likely won’t be complete until 2016, two years after the scheduled completion date for the East End, North and Southeast lines. However, trains will run from downtown to the station nearest the underpass by 2014, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

To help pay Metro’s share of the cost, Greanias said the agency would look to Harris County as well as railroads that benefit from the grade separation. The East End line is not federally funded.

[…]

Council member Sue Lovell, chairwoman of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, said the decision to build the underpass represents the city’s and Metro’s shared response to a community request.

“Metro could have just built the overpass, but they decided to listen to the community,” said Lovell, who initially opposed the underpass. “They presented to the community that it would cost more, and the community overwhelmingly said they wanted to have the underpass.”

Also, she said, a bigger variety of businesses can be built along an underpass than in the shadow of a viaduct.

“The advantages to economic development in the long run for the neighborhoods more than make up what they may sacrifice right now in the CIP,” she said.

Marilu de la Fuente, president of the Harrisburg Heritage Society and a member of the East End Chamber’s rail committee, said the underpass decision showed the community’s power.

“Finally we got everyone involved,” she said. “They started listening to us and they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.”

No question about that. There was a lot of opposition to the overpass in the community, and a lot of grumbling at that time about Metro ignoring the feedback they were getting. This change of direction says as much about Metro as it does about the power and persistence of the residents.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Dynamo Stadium deal finally struck

Took ’em long enough.

The city of Houston and Harris County have struck a potential deal on a new stadium for the Houston Dynamo and Texas Southern University’s football team, agreeing to jointly pay for $20 million in infrastructure upgrades if the soccer team follows through with a commitment to foot the bill for the $60 million stadium construction costs.

The deal, outlined today in a City Council committee meeting, ended years of negotiations that began when the city purchased a $15 million parcel of land in January 2008. The county has agreed to pay for half those costs to finance the stadium, which would be built, pending approval from City Council and Commissioner’s Court, on land just east of Downtown bordered by Texas Avenue, Walker Street and Dowling Street.

So in the end it took a lot longer than it should have to wind up with what everyone thought it would be at the beginning. In other words, a lot like the health care reform bill, but with fewer Armageddon references and no frivolous lawsuits. Yet.

There are things that still need to be done.

Among the items on the to-do list:

• The Dynamo have to negotiate a lease;

• A new tax increment zone must be created, and the county must join it;

• The stadium’s parking must accommodate Astros parking as well.

“There are about 10 different agreements,” [City of Houston Chief Development Officer Andy] Icken said.

First things first, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority must agree to take on the role of negotiating with the Dynamo, which will be addressed at the board meeting on March 25.

Then the stadium could come back on the council agenda next week and Harris County Commissioner’s Court in two weeks.

There’s also the tricky matter of routing the East and Southeast light rail lines around the stadium site, but I suppose that’s a job for Metro. Good thing they have someone on the board who’s already thought of a good solution to that. If all goes well, the pieces should all be in place for construction to start in October and be finished in time for the Dynamo’s 2012 season opener. Assuming other factors have worked themselves out, anyway. Rick Casey has more.

Interview with Council Member James Rodriguez

James Rodriguez

James Rodriguez

Next we have Council Member James Rodriguez, who is serving his first term in District I. He’s been busy on a number of fronts, including the construction of the Harrisburg light rail line and the pending Dynamo Stadium deal, as well as becoming a father for the first time in August. Rodriguez is unopposed this November.

Download the MP3 file.

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2
Carlos Obando, At Large #5
Richard Sedita, District G
Jack Christie, At Large #5
Dexter Handy, District G
George Foulard, District G
Alma Lara, HISD Trustee District I
Anna Eastman, HISD Trustee District I
Linda Toyota, HISD Trustee District I
Council Member Ed Gonzalez, District H
Council Member Wanda Adams, District D
Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, District C
Progressive Coalition candidates
Council Member Mike Sullivan, District E

Eastwood art deco facade saved

The art deco facade on the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co. on Harrisburg in Eastwood, which had been marked for demolition as part of the construction of the Harrisburg line, has been saved. From the inbox:

Vice Mayor Pro Tem Sue Lovell, District H Council Member Ed Gonzalez, and At-Large Position 3 Council Member Melissa Noriega are pleased to announce that a historic structure in Houston’s East End-the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co. façade at 4819 Harrisburg Blvd.-has been saved. This was accomplished through an effort between the Council Members, METRO, and leaders of the surrounding neighborhood. The façade will be saved and then relocated to Eastwood Park, where it will remain a part of the streetscape on Harrisburg, as it has been since 1935.

As chair of the City of Houston historic preservation committee, Vice Mayor Pro Tem Lovell thanks all the partners who have participated in saving this historic structure. “These are the kinds of partnerships that are needed to save our history as the city continues to grow and develop.”

Details will follow as to the timing of the façade removal and relocation.

All things considered, that was probably the best outcome possible. Swamplot has some snarky fun with the idea, but if the neighborhood is okay with it, who am I to argue?

Metro and its art deco demolition debacle

I saw this Swamplot report yesterday and I thought “Why, Metro, why? Why are you pissing off your supporters so?”

This timely building at 4819 Harrisburg in Eastwood, built in 1935 for the Sterling Laundry & Cleaning Co., showed up in yesterday’s Daily Demolition Report. The architect was Sol R. Slaughter, who also designed a home on the bayou in Idylwood the same year.

The building faces Metro’s new East End Corridor light-rail line. Rice University project manager Spencer Howard writes in with a few details, but isn’t exactly sure what’s going on:

The building was renovated as an artist live/work/gallery just a few years ago.

METRO pledged to save the facade of the building with the clock on it, across from Eastwood Park. They preferred to have someone else buy it and move it, but if that didn’t happen, they were going to move it back on the property and reattach it behind the new setback. Yesterday they sent out the demolition list for next Monday and it was on it. The neighborhood has alerted their gov’t reps.

This building is in the same style as the Alabama Bookstop and River Oaks Theater, in case it’s not clear. I can say on good authority that their government reps have heard the neighborhood’s cries. I am told that one of the permits Metro needed to do this demolition has had a temporary hold placed on it, and that they will need to explain just what the heck they think they’re doing, and why they didn’t bother to tell anyone why and how they went from “move the facade” to “tear the building down”, before anything else can happen. In the meantime, perhaps they can give some serious thought to how they can quit acting like idiots.

Metro gets FTA final design approval for North and Southeast lines

Another step forward.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) gave METRO permission today to enter into Final Design on Houston’s North and Southeast light-rail lines.

The FTA’s approval is the final prerequisite toward entering Full Funding Grant Agreements on both lines, which signals the federal government’s commitment to fund its part of the projects.

The approval authorizes METRO to undertake construction preparation activities such as utility relocation, right-of-way acquisition, development of detailed specifications and preparation of final construction plans.

In its letters, the FTA noted that METRO has adequately defined the North and Southeast Corridor’s project scope, cost estimate, schedule and potential risk areas. It also states that METRO has demonstrated the technical capacity and capability to construct and implement the projects and has sufficient technical and management resources to enter into final design work.

The FTA also notes that it is working with METRO to finalize items pertaining to METRO’s Title VI program and the implementation of a detailed operational analysis of rail-car headways when the project is completed.

That’s good news for these lines, obviously. It’s also good news for the Universities line, for as I understand it, one reason why that process is taking so long is because Metro has three other lines in the queue ahead of it, and the FTA doesn’t like dealing with too many requests from the same agency at once. Or something like that. In any event, getting the North, Southeast, and Harrisburg lines all the way through the process will help move the Univerisities line along as well, is what I’ve heard.

On a related note, here’s some info about construction activities on the Harrisburg line.

Metro light rail groundbreaking

Asa we know, today was groundbreaking day for Metro on the North and Southeast lines. Here’s the coverage I could find: an oddly negative story from KTRK, stories from Fox and KHOU, and a story from Texas Cable News that has something near and dear to my heart, namely numbers.

Metro estimates that by 2030 about 129,000 people will be using Metro light rail. Here is the breakdown:

Light Rail 2030 projections

North Corridor 29,000

East End Corridor 14,950

Southeast Corridor 28,750

Uptown Corridor 8,500

And University Corridor 49,200

That doesn’t include the Main Street line, which I might add has far exceeded its initial ridership projections. The projection for the Uptown line feels low to me, but I’ll leave that to the experts to comment on. We don’t have a set route for the Uptown line in any event, and the possibility of the Universities line having multiple routes – one to Gulfton, the other along the Uptown track – is still out there, so these numbers are even more up in the air than usual. But they’ll be something to look back on in another five or ten years, so file them away for later. Urban Houstonian was at the ceremony and posted these pictures for your perusal.

The squiggle

So now we know that the new soccer stadium is likely to happen, even though Commissioners Court continues to take its sweet time about it. We know that the new light rail lines, including the Southeast and Harrisburg lines, are on their way soon as well. And we know that these two things together will cause a break in the downtown traffic grid that needs to be addressed. The good news is that there’s a way to do this that will benefit both rail and automotive traffic. Christof has the details.

Metro approves contract with Parsons

Good.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors on Wednesday unanimously approved a $1.46 billion contract for four new light rail lines, which would add 20 miles to its lone seven-mile line along Main Street.

Under the contract, which came after almost a year of negotiations, Parsons Transportation Group is responsible for designing, building, operating and maintaining the new East End, Southeast, North and Uptown lines at an average cost of $73 million a mile. Metro has said the lines will be complete by 2012.

A fifth rail line, the University line, and an intermodal terminal near downtown still are planned, but are not included in the contract.

Metro officials said the agency intends to spend $632 million on the initial phase of the project, primarily on the East End line along Harrisburg as it is further along in the planning than the others.

“Today is obviously a very significant milestone in our building of the Metro Solutions program,” board Chairman David Wolff said moments before the vote. “Our objective is to improve transit in Houston.”

It would have been nice, of course, if the process that had gotten us here had been more open. Maybe this time that lesson will sink in. Be that as it may, after all this time I’m just glad we finally got here.

The contract includes $50 million in incentives for Parsons and the other contractors to complete the project early. Parsons and Veolia Transportation, which operates systems in 150 cities in the United States and Canada, will team up as the operations and maintenance contractor. Parsons also will be responsible for any design defects for five years after completion of the rail lines.

[…]

Jeff Moseley, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, told the Metro board that Houston’s business community was pleased with the inclusion of community input to help determine whether incentives should be awarded.

Under the contract, the community and Metro leaders will “score” contractors on their ability to maintain physical access to neighborhoods and businesses during construction of the light rail expansion.

At least they learned that much from the Main Street experience. Progress!

Construction on the initial phase of the project likely will begin no earlier than June, a Metro spokesman said.

After all the delays, roadblocks, and do-overs, I’ll say again that I’m just glad we’ve finally cleared this hurdle and can even talk about a start date for construction. Now let’s make sure it doesn’t start slipping so that 2012 completion goal remains plausible.