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Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

Today’s the day for the TIP

That postponed Transportation Policy Council meeting to determine how to allocate unprogrammed federal transportation funds happens today.

A proposal before the regional Transportation Policy Council last month could have clawed back $12.8 million in funding set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects and directed those dollars to road and freight rail work. At the urging of advocacy groups, the proposal was tabled to allow for more discussion.

The TPC — an appointed body of mostly elected officials that directs federal transportation funding in the eight-county region — will take up the issue at its meeting Friday.

“I’m hoping we can reach a compromise to where all of the (bike and pedestrian) funding is not lost, yet certainly understanding the need for roadway and rail funding,” said Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell, a TPC member.


In its 2011-14 transportation plan, the council has direct discretion over just $346 million in federal funds, $266 million of which already is allocated.

Some TPC members have proposed setting percentage guidelines on how the remaining $80 million should be spent: 1 percent on planning studies, 9 percent to 13 percent for alternative modes such as biking, walking and mass transit, and for air-quality projects, and the remaining 75 percent to 82 percent on roads and rail.

“I think there are going to be a lot of people in the broader community who aren’t in a particular interest group who say, ‘Wait a minute, of course, we ought to be giving 80 percent of mobility funds to actual mobility projects,’ as opposed to sidewalks or hike-and-bike trails,” [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said.


Advocacy group Houston Tomorrow has suggested spending 55 percent of the funds on roads and rail, and 34 percent on alternative modes.

They lay out their case here, with David Crossley adding more here. The meeting is this morning at the TPC’s office at 3555 Timmons, 2nd floor, room A. It’s open to the public, and the public comment period begins at 9:30, though there will be a TPC workshop beginning at 8:45 that you can also attend but not participate in. I look forward to seeing what happens.

HGAC hearing on TIP

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council will host a public hearing to discuss citizen priorities for the use of discretionary funds in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program on March 25, 2011 at 8:45am at the H-GAC building in the 2nd Floor Conference room at 3555 Timmons.

The Technical Advisory Committee will meet Wednesday, March 16, 2011 to discuss, amongst other things, a proposal to pursue “option 4” for allocating the remaining funding, as well as a H-GAC staff report on “the TIP Call for Projects.”

Houston Tomorrow has published a primer on the TIP funding issue.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m impressed by the amount of attention this has received. Take advantage of the opportunity to affect the outcome while you can.

TPC delays vote on TIP

Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’sTransportation Policy Council (TPC) unanimously voted on Friday morning to delay by thirty days its vote on a full $79.8 million allocation of unprogrammed federal transportation funds toward Mobility – roadway and freight rail – projects and a reallocation of $12.8 million from already committed pedestrian, bicycle, and Livable Centers projects to Mobility projects.

The 30-day delay will allow the public and elected officials to further explore how potential money from the federal Surface Transportation Program Major Metro (STP MM) and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) funds should be allocated within the Houston-Galveston region’s2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The decision came after elected officials heard from more than 20 business, bicycle, pedestrian, and political advocates in attendance, plus thousands of citizens who signed petitions and called officials’ offices during the week to voice their concerns regarding the manner in which federal funds were being distributed toward various transportation modes.

Rather than push a vote through, City of Houston Council member Sue Lovell requested that the TPC delay voting on the issue for 30 days so that elected officials could more carefully examine the options on the table and hear from their constituents.

See here and here for some background. Houston Tomorrow has an online petition that calls for roadway spending to make up no more than 55% of regional transportation infrastructure spending, which it says in accordance with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I don’t know enough about the 2035 RTP to comment on that, but I am glad there will be more time to discuss this issue. A press release from CM Lovell about the requested delay to the vote is beneath the fold.


City to ask Census for a do-over

Very interesting.

The city of Houston will ask the U.S. Census Bureau to change its official count, raising questions about whether some apartment complexes or even entire neighborhoods were missed.

Houston’s population is 2,099,451, according to Census data released last week. That’s more than 100,000 fewer people than earlier estimates, and slightly below the 2.1 million that triggers an expansion of City Council to 16 members.

The expansion is still on, as city planners and independent researchers try to determine what went wrong.

“I think we’re all very disappointed in the Census Bureau’s ability to actually count the immigrant populations, and (other) hard-to-count populations,” said Jerry Wood, a consultant hired to review census results for the city. “The bureau had a great story about how they were going to do a better job this time, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that it didn’t work.”

Census maps show a huge section of east Houston — most of the area inside Loop 610, east of Interstate 45 – lost population, as did sections of southwest and northeast Houston.

Those areas are predominantly Latino and African-American, populations that historically are most likely to be missed by the census.

Some census tracts reported only small losses, but the widespread area that was affected caught people by surprise.

“That almost doesn’t seem right,” said Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “That strikes me as odd.”

In fact, the 2006 population estimate for Houston pegged it at 2,144,491 residents, so you can see why the official 2010 figure was so surprising. That represented 8.8% growth from the 2000 Census total of 1,953,631, and at that same rate over ten years would have led to a 2010 figure of 2,248,488. I’d guess that the growth rate would have slowed somewhat over the last four years, on the assumption that the 2006 total included a spike resulting from Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but even if you assume a rate half as large from 2006 to 2010 as you had from 2000 to 2006, you still top 2.2 million residents. Which is probably what the earlier estimates were based on.

Obviously, this matters for City Council redistricting, which as Greg notes should and will proceed. It also matters for legislative redistricting, both because Harris County is slightly under the total needed to maintain 25 seats, and because an awful lot of legislators need to add population to their districts, a task that will be easier to do if there’s more of it to spread around. Revising the count upwards will also temper somewhat the necessary westward shift of the legislative districts, since so much of the “missing” population is east of I-45. To put it in Bidenesque terms, this is a big effing deal. Keep an eye on it. A video report from KTRK can be seen here.

More on H-GAC and the TIP

I received some feedback from Judge Ed Emmett’s office regarding this post about H-GAC’s Friday Transportation Policy Council (TPC) meeting, at which funding in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) will be discussed and voted on. There’s some context missing from what Houston Tomorrow and Bike Houston wrote about this.

Let me start by pointing you to the TPC agenda item concerning the TIP. The original allocation of funds, with $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” monies remaining, was determined by the TPC to be short of their goal for project type Mobility, which includes “added capacity roadways; traffic operations/Intelligent Transportation Systems, transportation systems management, roadway rehabilitation/maintenance, grade separations/interchanges and freight rail projects”. To meet their goal of 78% allocation for Mobility, all unprogrammed funds plus an additional $12.8 million were designated for that type, with the extra money coming from the Alternative Modes type (“bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements”); a third type, Air Quality, had no flexibility in its allocation, and the Planning/Studies type was already at zero. Alternative Modes is still getting $38.9 million, or 11.2% of the $345.6 million total, down from $51.6 million, which would have been 14.9%.

What Judge Emmett told me was as follows:

– The $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” funds came from a variety of sources, including the federal and state governments. This is money that was going to be spent but hadn’t been attached to anything yet.

– The TPC had decided to set ranges for the share of each project type’s allocation. Mobility’s range is 75-83%, Alternative Modes and Air Quality is 9-13% for each. The original TIP had Mobility below that range, and Alternative Modes, which Judge Emmett referred to as “hike and bike trails”, above it.

– No Alternative Modes project that already had funding lost funding as a result of this. There were some projects that had been approved but not yet funded that were pushed back to the 2015 TIP. These projects will retain their approval – in other words, they will not have to got through the approval process again and as the Judge put it “will be at the front of the line” for funding.

– In addition, as noted on page 3 of the agenda item, if there are any Mobility funds left over, unfunded but approved Alternative Modes projects would be eligible for them.

– The TIP covers a three year time frame, and most of the Alternative Modes projects that have been approved for funding have already had those funds allocated, and this is why there’s little of such funding allocated after this year.

I hope all this helps you understand it a little better, as I now do. I appreciate Judge Emmett taking the time to answer my questions. Please note that none of this is intended to discourage you from attending the TPC meeting on Friday if you were thinking about it. By all means, if you think the target ratios for Mobility and Alternative Modes are wrong, if you think that there are approved but unfunded Alternative Modes projects that shouldn’t have to wait till 2015, or if you have some other opinion about any of this, you should attend. That’s what it’s all about.

Why aren’t we investing more in non-road transportation?

Houston Tomorrow has some disturbing news.

A proposal to limit bike, pedestrian, and livability funding in the 2011 Transportation Improvement Program will come before the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) this Friday, February 25, at a public meeting in the H-GAC building at 3555 Timmons on the 2nd floor in Conference Room A.

The proposal calls for increasing road and freight spending while limiting projects that would improve pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, transit access, livable centers studies, and other projects listed as “Alternative Modes.”  Particular projects to be eliminated from the TIP are not yet determined, but all proposed projects are presumably listed in the Preliminary Project Scoping (pdf) provided by H-GAC.  Projects to be cut would include things like walkability projects in Midtown and a pedestrian realm project to provide better sidewalks and neighborhood access to light rail along the future East End Light Rail Line.

The proposal for shifting spending in the TIP does not appear to match the objectives or spending targets of the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan.  Further, the code of federal regulations governing the RTP and TIP process mandates public involvement both early and continuously in key decisions in the programming process, but no such opportunity seems to have been presented to the public on this proposal.

Sections of the Houston Area Survey on transportation priorities and spending priorities to better plan for growth indicate that the priorities of residents of the Houston region are not aligned with the proposed changes to the 2011 TIP.

Bike Houston is organizing local opposition to this plan as well as other groups expected to publicly oppose the changes over the coming days.

I don’t see how this makes any sense, and for it to happen with so little fanfare is just wrong. I realize that we’re all up to our necks in action items and things to fight back against these days, but take a moment to look at Bike Houston‘s writeup of what this means, and consider joining in the call to rethink this. Hair Balls has more.

TxDOT to take on primacy for Grand Parkway

From Houston Tomorrow:

“There are potential opportunities to help advance [the Grand Parkway] in its entirety over the short term,” according to John Barton, assistant executive director for the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) engineering operations, told the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) of the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on Friday, according to Guidry News.

Barton said the Texas Transportation Commission had voted on Thursday to “accept primacy” for the Grand Parkway, or State Highway 99. This came after Harris County Commissioners Court had earlier voted to ask TxDOT to take on the project and to reimburse the County for its expenses to date.

See here for some background, and click the links above to see more of what was said about this. You have to wonder how an agency that’s basically broke can do this, but you’ll go crazy trying to make sense of it.

Department of rail-related corrections

Council Member Sue Lovell writes a letter disputing certain aspects of the recent story about Galveston commuter rail being off track.

Barry Goodman blames lack of a regional transportation policy as a big obstacle. The eight-county transportation planning region represented at TPC has begun review of commuter rail options with the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study that analyzed existing freight rail lines for their commuter service potential.

More importantly, Harris County and Fort Bend County joined with the city of Houston in 2007 to create the Gulf Coast Rail District. Since then, Galveston County and Waller County have joined, and Montgomery County Commissioners Court is expected to approve membership.

Each of these entities understands that the region cannot continue to rely on roadways for movement of goods and commuters. H-GAC estimates that the exceptional regional growth will double freight truck traffic, causing significant increases in congestion for all vehicles. New capacity will be required, and even the Texas Department of Transportation will admit that it cannot all be on roadways.

I disagree with Bill King, who was incorrectly identified as a current member of the TPC, when he asserts that rail projects “don’t add any extra capacity for cost.” Freight rail lines represent existing capacity that could be used for commuters.

It is incumbent upon regional officials to determine if, where and at what cost partnership with the railroads is a viable option. The Gulf Coast Rail District is charged with that responsibility for the region. Only when those costs have been determined can there be real discussions about how to pay for these projects.

Elsewhere, the Chron story that was the basis of this post about a more suburban Metro has been amended to include the following:

Correction: A story on page B1 of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle incorrectly stated the manner of appointment of new board members if the Metropolitan Transit Authority board were to expand from nine to 11 members as a result of the federal census. The Texas Transportation Code calls for one new member to be appointed by Commissioners Court and an 11th member, who would be the chairman, to be appointed by a majority of the 10 other members.

As we know, currently five members, plus the Chair, are appointed by Houston’s Mayor, with two members being appointed by Commissioners Court and two by the other cities. The change described, if and when it happens, isn’t quite the seismic shift that Commissioner Steve Radack made it out to be. The relevant statute is 451.502 of the Transportation Code, in particular subsection (e):

(e) In an authority having six additional members, the additional members are appointed as follows:

(1) two members appointed by a panel composed of:

(A) the mayors of the municipalities in the authority, excluding the mayor of the principal municipality; and

(B) the county judges of the counties having unincorporated area in the authority, excluding the county judge of the principal county;

(2) three members appointed by the commissioners court of the principal county; and

(3) one member, who serves as presiding officer of the board, appointed by a majority of the board.

So now you know.

Bumpy roads

This story is mostly about how Houston ranks against other cities in road conditions. Of interest to me is the reasons why we’re not likely to get any better:

At the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the transportation planning body for Harris and seven surrounding counties, roughly $50 billion has been trimmed from a $157 billion, 25-year regional transportation plan. Those funds would have been used for new construction and a variety of improvements and repairs.

The cuts come as the metro area’s population is expected to grow to 8 million by 2035.

At Houston’s Public Works Department, where about 350 workers care for nearly 6,000 miles of streets, the asphalt street repaving effort this year has been cut by almost a fifth. Repairs to concrete streets also are being reduced, said spokesman Alvin Wright.

Patricia Waskowiak, an HGAC transportation planning manager, reported highway and road departments are getting hammered . Short term, she said, agencies face the economic downturn. Long term, the increase in high-mileage vehicles on the roads will lead to drops in the state’s motor-fuels tax — a prime source of revenue for TxDOT.

Further, federal aid for local roads is uncertain. Since its insolvency in 2009, the federal highway trust fund has been bolstered by infusions of general funds money. “What the future holds in the short term is very uncertain,” Waskowiak said.

While traffic gurus count their nickels and dimes, 18-wheelers, endemic to Houston’s highways, keep pounding the pavement.

As has been the case so often recently, the theme is that we get what we pay for. We could afford better roads if we wanted to, but in an environment where rich people whine about a $5 monthly fee that’s dedicated to road and drainage improvements, there’s not much of a push for that. Maybe someday that will change.

Commuter rail along US 90A

Here’s an update on a piece of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum that has been largely quiescent till now, the proposed commuter rail line from the Fannin South station to Fort Bend County.

Though efforts soon stalled after a 2003 referendum in which voters approved a light rail expansion, the project has seen renewed political support, in particular from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who has been working closely with Fort Bend mayors to revive the project, and U.S. Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who have thrown their weight behind congressional efforts to secure the needed funding.

The 90A rail project is anticipated to cost $250 million, with the hope that half of that amount will be funded by the federal government. Officials are reluctant to give an estimated completion date due to the uncertainty of federal funding, which is typically a long process. Adding to that challenge is the state of the U.S. economy.

“The question is when will the federal money be available, and how quickly can we do it after that? said George Greanias, Metro’s recently-appointed acting president and CEO. “The moment the federal funds come in, we will move forward into construction as fast as we can.”

Greanias also reaffirmed Metro’s support for the project.

“We’re very committed to this,” he said. “We think it’s an essential part of building a network of rail.”

The planned four-stop, 8-mile rail would extend from the city’s existing Main Street Line to a terminus in Missouri City, with stops at Fannin South, Buffalo Center, Chimney Rock and Missouri City. The ride would be 30 minutes start-to-finish, and connect many of Texas Medical Center’s employees who live in Missouri City to their work.

Metro expects initial ridership for the line to be 12,000; with that population expanding to 23,000 by 2030. The train cars would likely be the same Siemens cars used by Metro’s existing rail lines, with the capacity to run 65 miles per hour, Grenais said.

Additionally, Sugar Land, which has voiced concerns in the past of how a rail would affect traffic flow in their neighborhoods, recently passed a city council resolution supporting Metro’s 90A rail proposal to extend the rail from Main Street to Beltway 8, with the caveat that “support … does not necessarily constitute support for extensions of commuter rail further west to Sugar Land.”

Link via neoHouston, who analyzes the proposed route and suggests an alternative, which goes right into Sugar Land. He’s not the first person to come to the conclusion that extending such a line into the population center of Fort Bend, which has a regional airport and will soon have a baseball stadium, makes all kinds of sense. Christof Spieler, now a Metro board member, came to the same conclusion back in 2008. He was critiquing the original 2004 H-GAC study that drew up a 15-mile line into Rosenberg, but the same idea holds true: Put the line where the people are. Seems so easy when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it’s more complicated than that. As neoHouston notes, Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend, which is why this proposed line ends at Beltway 8. Support out there is steadily increasing, but it’s still early days. And of course there’s the money issue. Rep. Green has moved the ball forward, and with help from his Democratic colleagues but no interference from Tom DeLay, there’s reason to hope. Maybe if Sugar Land sees that this is really coming, they’ll begin to want to be a part of it. We can hope, anyway.

H-GAC Transportation Survey

Make your preferences known.

This is a brief survey about funding for roadway and transit improvements. For decades our community relied on state and federal dollars to supplement local dollars that are used to grow and maintain the region’s Transportation system; unfortunately the funds from these sources have not kept pace with our region’s population growth. The result is that we can no longer afford to build everything that is planned.

We need your input to decide what must be done: find new funding sources, change or reduce the number of planned transportation projects or maybe a combination of both.

We need your opinion. Your responses will only be used to help gauge what the public would support. Responding to this poll will not result in changes to current policies. Please make your opinion count and complete the survey. Thank you for your participation.

It’s short, so go do it.

H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station Area in Midtown

Tomorrow night at 7 PM at the Trinity Episcopal Church located at 1015 Holman Street at Main (map) is a public meeting for the H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station area in Midtown. You can click on the flyer for the details, but the basic idea is to figure out how to enable pedestrian-friendly development around there – more comfortable sidewalks, building regulations that actually allow good urban buildings, holistic parking solutions, that sort of thing. If urbanism is your bag, this is the sort of thing you’ll like, so check it out.

The Mayorals on mobility

Carolyn Feibel discusses the Mayoral candidates’ plans for transportation and mobility.

Two candidates, City Controller Annise Parker and Councilman Peter Brown, disagree on what Metro’s main focus should be. While supporting light rail, Parker said buses should remain the “heart” of the transit system.

“I have been increasingly concerned that in their efforts to build out the light-rail lines, which I support, that they are neglecting the current bus system,” Parker said. “When we cut back our routes, when we run the fares up, we’re hurting people that have no other choice.”

Brown said, “You can’t serve a low-density city like Houston with a bus system.” He did not specify what he wants Metro to focus on instead, but called for the bus and rail systems to be “integrated.”

“We’ve got to have a rationalized plan for rail, and bus to feed the rail,” Brown said. “We’ve got to encourage people to live closer to where they work.”

Former city attorney Gene Locke knows Metro well. Until January, he worked as special outside counsel for the agency, defending it from litigation and consulting on a number of projects. He helped draft the language of the 2003 voter referendum to build new light-rail routes.Locke said Metro should expand express bus service along major corridors and consider putting a circulating trolley or bus through downtown and retail areas like the Galleria. He also proposed a pilot program to eliminate fares at special times, such as during sporting events or festivals.

Acknowledging that finding money for new services could be a problem during a recession, Locke said Metro will need to “consider programs in the context of budget.”

All three candidates — Brown, Locke and Parker — said they would work closely with city engineers to make sure the rail construction goes smoothly as city streets are torn up and repaved.

Brown, who says he’ll give the Metro board a complete makeover, and Locke have detailed plans on their websites; Parker does not have an Issues page specific to this. I’ve asked every candidate I’ve interviewed about Metro and where they should go from here, and you’ll hear more about that from the Mayoral candidates in my interviews with them next week.

As for poor ol’ Roy Morales, there’s a reason why he doesn’t get to sit at the grownups’ table:

Morales also distinguished himself from the other three candidates by not knowing the answer to the question “What is the Transportation Policy Council?” Houston’s mayor gets two appointments to the 24-member regional body, which decides how to spend millions in federal transportation funds throughout the eight-county metropolitan area.

Pop quiz: Who are those two representatives from the city of Houston on the TPC? Answer here, if you don’t already know. Poor Roy.

Interview with Council Member Sue Lovell

Sue LovellCouncil Member Sue Lovell is running for re-election to her third term in At Large #2. She chairs the Quality of Life committee, from which the recent ordinances about billboards, signage, and attention-getting devices originated, as well as the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Aviation committees, and she also serves as Mayor Pro Tem. Oh, and she’s Houston’s representative on the Houston-Galveston Area Council, and serves on H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council. She’s had a full plate, to say the least. Lovell has four opponents in November, including perennial candidate Griff Griffin, who collected 47% of the vote against her in 2007 when she didn’t run an active campaign but put a lot of effort into helping several other Council members get elected. She’s running a vigorous campaign this year, and that was one of many things we discussed in this interview.


Download the MP3 file

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

How to uncrowd the jails

Defense attorney Rob Fickman makes the case for dealing with Harris County’s jail overcrowding problems.

Jail overcrowding creates unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Locking up the wrong people does not leave sufficient room to lock up the right people, those who are truly dangerous. It also exposes the county and the taxpayers to expensive lawsuits. The jail overcrowding has gone on far too long in this county.

Finally, however, there is some good news. The county has wisely taken the step of appointing former state District Judge Caprice Cosper to be jail czar. She will have a tough job. People don’t just happen to be in jail. Someone puts them there. Those responsible for overflowing our jails to the point where we have to export humans will need to change. Behaviors long entrenched will have to be modified.

Those responsible for putting people in jail must recognize that the jail is not theirs’ alone. Jail space is a county resource paid for by the citizens. The overcrowding is a direct result of people spending that resource without any accountability, often for all the wrong reasons.

There are three groups of people directly responsible for overcrowding our jails. If they are made to be accountable for spending our resource, for wasting jail space, then they will change their behavior and our overcrowding problem will be solved.

Our 37 criminal court judges, the district attorney’s office and the defense bar are all accountable for the jail overcrowding. We all play a hand in the problem. We must all play a hand in formulating and implementing the solutions.

He then lays out a plan for how to do this, which pretty much boils down to “Stop being needlessly and wastefully harsh about setting bonds”. The role he envisions for the District Attorney and the defense bar is basically to stop being complicit in the outlandish bonds that the judges set. Guess he sees one of these groups as being perhaps a tad bit more responsible for the problem than the others. I presume convincing her former colleagues to be more reasonable will be Jail Czar Caprice Cosper’s main task if she wants to achieve a good result. Which makes me wonder what her bond-setting practices were like when she was on the bench. Anyone with insight into that want to comment on it?

On a tangential note, read about the three person commission that was appointed by the local judiciary to review requests to retest DNA evidence filed by defendants. This bit from the Q&A, answered by “veteran appellate defense attorney Bob Wicoff” was interesting:

Q: Are there good reasons to operate a regional crime lab?

A (Wicoff): One good reason, and we’ve seen this on the serology project, is when you have a lab as a part of a law enforcement agency, it becomes rather incestuous. And we have found instances in the serology review of lab technicians actually changing the result to fit what we can only surmise has been told to them as to what the right result should be. We got a confession here, this guy is good for the crime, now we need objective scientific testing. A regional lab would, presumably, solve that.

I think having such a lab be independent of law enforcement is more likely to produce that kind of outcome than having it be regional, but I suspect Wicoff was assuming that a regional lab would necessarily be independently run. My point is simply that there’s no reason you couldn’t have such a lab that only serviced Houston or Harris County; the reason to make it regional is to get more bang for the buck. Houston or Harris by itself might not be able or willing to pay for this, but if you added in all the H-GAC counties, for instance, that might do it.

Commuter rail update

Christof has some surprisingly good news for those who want to see commuter rail in the Houston area.

There hasn’t been much public movement on commuter rail since the HGAC’s study was released a year ago. But quietly, gears are meshing, and we may have commuter rail to Galveston and Hempstead as early as 2012.

On Thursday, the North Houston Association hosted a high-powered group: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, METRO CEO Frank Wilson, Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) Chairman Mark Ellis, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation (THSRTC) chairman (and former Harris County Judge) Robert Eckels, and Union Pacific’s Joe Adams. Introducing them was former Harris County Judge and State Senator Jon Lindsey, father of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. If there was ever a visual demonstration of the political will that’s aligning behind commuter rail, this was it.

Color me pleasantly surprised. As Christof notes, there are still some big questions to be answered about things like who would implement and run it, how much it would cost and how it would be paid for, and where it would connect to the existing Metro system and the city’s core, but just knowing that all these players are on board and pointing in the same general direction is reason for a lot of hope. From the interviews I’ve done so far, I feel confident that Houston City Council at least would be ready to work on this. Getting it in place would greatly enhance the existing Metro system, and would give momentum for the case to expand further. Keep yout fingers crossed.

Just how viable is the Grand Parkway anyway?

So it’s official, Commissioners Court has voted to seek stimulus funding for the Grand Parkway Segment E despite numerous concerns about the way they went about it. Houston Tomorrow explores a facet of this that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Proponents of Segment E have come under fire in recent months for waiving a detailed financial analysis of the project, and the current proposal appears to be an attempt to mute that criticism. However, it comes four months after the Commissioners Court approved 30 engineering contracts worth almost $22 million, and five months after the seven counties voted to waive the market valuation process. The language of Tuesday’s agenda provides some flexibility, so it is unclear how detailed the viability study will be. The commissioners will also vote on increasing the value of one of the existing contracts, as well as purchasing two tracts of land to develop Segment E. The full agenda items are available at the bottom of this page.

Videotaped testimony from last summer’s terms and conditions negotiating process, which is no longer available online, revealed that the entire Grand Parkway is revenue-negative. Art Storey, executive director of the Harris County Public Infrastructure Department, agreed with that assessment, telling the Commissioners Court in February, “The whole highway is demonstrably a loser.“ However, Storey insisted that Segments E and F, by themselves, are toll-viable.

At the same time, Storey and others hope that the $181 million for Segment E will jump-start the rest of the $5 billion, 180-mile project, including the non-toll-viable portions. Three days after saying that the Grand Parkway will lose money, Storey, who sits on the regional Transportation Policy Council (TPC),spoke in support of the Grand Parkway at a TPC meeting, saying that “the doing of it [building Segment E] will make the doing of the rest of it more likely and more feasible.” He was supported by TxDOT commissioner Ned Holmes, who does not sit on the council but made a special trip to Houston to lobby for the project and said that the stimulus money could “induce the entire Grand Parkway to be built.”

I don’t know that I have anything to add to this. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone complain about the cost of building rail lines.

More on the SUPERTRAIN

Are the stars really aligning to bring a SUPERTRAIN to Texas? Maybe so!

Current plans for a Texas system envision a “T-bone” track shape connecting Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and other towns. But much remains vague: where exactly the route would go, who would build it, the price and funding sources.

“We clearly don’t have a project that is ready,” said Alan Clark, transportation programs manager for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There’s no alignment, no one has done any environmental work. It’s all a concept right now.”

The federal government has not yet issued guidelines for how to apply for the money, and it’s unclear if the Texas Department of Transportation — or another agency or group — would lead the project. Plans are further along in other states, including California and Florida.

Nevertheless, Texas has natural advantages conducive to high-speed rail, advocates say. The terrain is relatively flat and land is cheaper than in California and Florida.

“We have the ability to produce a system that is reasonably priced,” said David Dean, a former Texas secretary of state. Dean is working as a consultant for the main advocacy group, the Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp.

Dean estimates the T-bone would cost $10 billion to 20 billion and could be completed by 2020. It would ease highway congestion and pollution, attract more Fortune 500 companies to the state, and help in an Olympics bid, he said. The Houston route could even help during hurricane evacuations, he added.


In 1994, state plans to bring high-speed rail to Texas collapsed after a French company could not get sufficient funding for a system that would have linked Dallas, Houston and San Antonio in a triangular track pattern.

The T-bone shape, requiring 440 miles of track, would be 40 percent smaller than the triangle plan. Technology has also advanced, making construction and operation easier and less expensive, Dean said.

[Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who is chairing the High Speed Rail and Transportation Corp,] said airlines operating in the state, which vigorously lobbied against the 1994 plan, are now open to the idea, provided the routes connect to major airports.

So I wouldn’t look to buy the Texas version of a Eurorail pass just yet, but prospects are brighter than they’ve ever been. I think the prospects for the HSRT Corp will improve if the big cities on the endpoints have more robust rail systems for its passengers to connect to, including commuter lines like what’s been proposed for Houston to Galveston. Being able to leave the car at home when traveling this way will be a huge boon. I have my doubts that they can really make anything happen in the next decade, but I’ll be more than pleased to be proven wrong about that.

Regional crime lab

This has been talked about for some time, and not unexpectedly it’s starting to move forward.

After years of scandal at crime labs across the state, local officials have proposed opening a regional lab based at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Previous debacles include three Houston exonerations, which occurred because of flawed forensics, questions about conditions at state labs and concerns about mounting backlogs of cases never tested.

To restore public confidence in the Houston Police Department, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and Police Chief Harold Hurtt plan to halt DNA testing at HPD and use the regional lab, which could grow to serve the entire Houston-Galveston Area Council region.

Some small counties see no need for a new facility. They already use outside labs such as those operated by the Department of Public Safety.

“It is more wishful thinking than a reality to think that the 13-county region would want to be involved,” said Judge A.G. Jamison, of Colorado County, who chairs the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “There is zero interest in our county.”

However, larger players, such as HPD and DPS, support the proposal. DPS analyzes DNA at its Houston lab but cannot keep up with requests for testing. Last year, DPS’ local lab received more than 1,700 cases with DNA evidence. It completed work on just 1,040, and the total backlog of cases exceeds 1,200 cases.

“There is plenty of forensic DNA demand,” said Tela Mange, a DPS spokeswoman.

The idea of creating an independent regional crime lab has been discussed since the first signs of problems at the HPD crime lab, where the DNA division was shuttered in 2002 after auditors uncovered widespread problems with the quality of work.

Plans gained new momentum in recent months with the election of Lykos.

Three things:

1. Not to sound cranky, but this idea was a plank in C.O. Bradford’s platform for District Attorney as well. As with many other changes Lykos has been implementing since her election, Bradford was speaking about them before she was even a candidate. I’m glad to see this happening, but these plans would be going forward regardless.

2. While I agree with this concept, there are many questions that need to be settled. What jurisdiction would this lab have? Would it operate independently, or would it be aligned with the prosecution, as it the default now? What governance would it have? Maybe we’re too early in the process to have the answers to these questions, but those answers will determine whether this is indeed better than what we have now or not.

3. And of course, there’s the matter of funding. Will the creation and/or funding of this lab require legislative intervention? If so, it may already be too late for this session, though perhaps a budget appropriation is still doable. I realize nothing could really have been done until a new DA was in place, but that does make it hard to get something going in a timely fashion.

I’m not asking these questions because I’m skeptical of this idea. I like this idea, and I want to see it done right. I just want to know more about what they have on the drawing board.


Andrew continues the ongoing discussion of transit options in Houston with a look at multiway boulevards.

Basically, a multiway is an urban thoroughfare combining express through lanes in the middle with local access lanes on the sides. These local lanes are where the real magic is, they provide parking and a space for pedestrians and cyclists that is separated from the rush of traffic in the middle. They also help keep the main lanes flowing by keeping them clear of turning movements.

It’s a long post, with illustrations, so click over and read. I think this is in general a good idea, and while there apparently aren’t any such plans on the H-GAC drawing boards right now, I know they have been discussed before – the 100 Percent Plan from 2003 included, among other things, a call to convert roads like SH6 and FM1960 into Allen Parkway-like “super streets”. While I think that has merit, it’s not clear to me if there would really be the room to convert, say, Kirby Drive to this format. Cost is a big factor as well – the entire 100 Percent Plan had a massive $21 billion price tag on it back then, but I have no idea how much of that was for just this kind of project. Still, those same things could be said about any suggestions for new light rail routes, so let’s just put that aside and consider it at a conceptual level. Check it out.