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Metro

Checking on Metro’s mask mandate

I admit, I was a bit confused when I saw the earlier version of this story.

Metro wanted to make sure its mask requirement for all passengers passed legal muster, asking a Houston lawmaker to seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That request may be moot after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring Texans to wear face masks while in public, under most conditions.

State Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who represents a west Houston district just south of Interstate 10 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway, had asked the attorney general in a June 26 letter whether Abbott’s previous executive orders limiting local governments’ ability to enforce public health requirements apply to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray on Thursday said Murphy posed the question at Metro’s request. Only certain people — prosecutors, county attorneys and state elected officials — can solicit an opinion from Paxton’s office.

“Given the various back-and-forth discussions about masks we thought it prudent to get some clarity from the AG’s office regarding our ability to deny service to anyone who does not wear a mask,” Gray said. “Gov. Abbott just issued a new order regarding masks and that appears to clear up any ambiguity.”

[…]

When masks became conditional to ride, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said transit officials had no intention of imposing criminal or even civil penalties. Those without a mask will be provided one by Metro staff, and if they refuse to wear it Metro will provide alternative transportation but will not allow them to remain on the bus or train, officials said.

While riders have reported some lax enforcement of the mask requirement on some buses, transit officials have said most riders are compliant with the change and there have been few incidents.

See here and here for the background on the mask mandate. As noted, Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order kind of makes this moot, but the basic question is still there. When I saw the early version of this story, I must have missed the bit about this request being made on Metro’s behalf – my reaction was like “what does Jim Murphy have against Metro?”, which surprised me because that’s not his brand. Briscoe Cain, sure, but not an establishment guy like Murphy. This at least makes sense, though now I’m worried what the answer Metro might be. Anyway, we’ll check back on this when the opinion is given, hopefully at a time when it’s moot for better reasons.

Masks for Metro confirmed

It’s official.

Metro riders need to cover up to hop on, following a decision by the transit agency’s board Thursday to require masks on its buses and trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the requirement at their monthly meeting Thursday morning, citing the need for all residents to protect themselves — and others — in public as COVID-19 cases in the Houston area increase.

“We owe an obligation to each other to treat our neighbors as we treat ourselves,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “In order to flatten the curve we have to take prudent steps.”

The requirement means all riders must wear face coverings, unless it is medically harmful to do so, while on buses and trains and at Metro transit stations and buildings. Workers and contractors also are required to wear masks. Anyone entering a Metro building also will need to have their temperature checked.

Metro drivers will have masks to provide to customers who do not have one, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

[…]

For those who refuse to cover up, [Metro chief operations officer Andrew] Skabowski said, Metro drivers will work through a checklist, informing reticent riders that it is a requirement; if they do not wear a mask, the bus cannot proceed and a Metro supervisor will have to be called to arrange alternative transportation for them, which will take time to coordinate.

“From there, the patron typically either puts on the mask or walks away,” Skabowski said, adding that “peer pressure” on the bus can help diffuse the situation.

As drivers worked to encourage mask use over the past three days, Skabowski said only 10 refusals led to a supervisor being called. In each of those cases, the person either complied or left without seeking alternative transportation from Metro. In two cases, Metro police responded but did not take any action against the rider.

“We are not looking at civil or criminal penalties,” Lambert said.

See here for the background. How Metro has handled recalcitrant riders is exemplary and encouraging. And it really makes you wonder how much better off we’d be if this kind of social pressure to wear masks when out in public had existed at all levels of society. No point crying over spilled hydroxychloroquine, I guess.

Masks for Metro

Yes, please.

Metro riders soon may need more than their Q card or $1.25 to board buses and trains as transit officials weigh making face coverings mandatory for all bus and rail users in a new set of safety procedures.

Transit officials will resume collecting fares along all routes on July 12, as ridership rebounds and more routes return to normal, according to a briefing for Metropolitan Transit Authority board members.

When fares resume, Metro will adjust the safety protocols it set in March, said Andrew Skabowski, Metro’s chief operations officer. Those included requiring riders to enter and exit via the rear door and placing signs on some bus seats to space riders accordingly.

With the resumption of fares, riders will enter from the front again, where Metro will provide hand sanitizer.

What remains unresolved is whether riders will need a mask. Metro’s board is expected to consider on Thursday a measure that would make face coverings mandatory on all buses and trains and at Metro facilities.

[…]

Metro will install hand sanitizer stations on all buses and trains, including park and ride and MetroLift vehicles. Pumps on local buses will be just inside the front door.

“It gives you just enough to address your hands,” Skabowski said.

Liquid sanitizer will be used on buses, while officials opted for a foam sanitizer on trains, Skabowski said, to avoid liquid landing on the floor of the train and causing a slipping hazard.

Installing sanitizer pumps on Metro’s roughly 1,200 buses and trains is expected to cost $146,000. Monthly costs are estimated at $70,000, mostly the 1,000 gallons of sanitizer and 480 foam cartridges officials expect to use.

To protect drivers once the front door reopens, Metro is installing plastic shields so drivers are closed off from passengers. The barriers will consist of drapes of heavy plastic held in place with magnets. Installation is expected to cost $430,000.

See here for some background. A subsequent press release confirms that Metro will in fact ask the Board for this authorization, which they note is consistent with the recent executive order from Judge Hidalgo. It’s not clear to me how they will enforce this – perhaps that will be discussed at the Board meeting – but I hope that just having the requirement in place will greatly increase the number of riders wearing masks.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

Goodbye, Greenlink

Another version of Metro’s downtown trolley system is shut down due to coronavirus, and likely won’t come back, at least not in that format.

Downtown Houston’s free shuttle may have hauled its last passenger, a victim of the central district’s stop-and-go traffic, as well as changes in how residents and visitors move around town.

GreenLink, shuttles that pick up and drop off at Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops along various streets in the downtown district, stopped March 23 as transit officials and the downtown district reduced service because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The timing could accelerate what already was a planned discontinuation of the service on May 31, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District, which owned the shuttles that started circling the city’s center in mid-2012, operated by Metro with funding from the downtown district.

Eury said given the weeks of isolation orders likely ahead, it is possible GreenLink shuttles never get a green light ever again, at least in their present form.

[…]

Metro on March 24 agreed to buy the seven buses used on the route for $264,439, their estimated value due to depreciation.

Officials said it is possible they will not go far, however. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the transit agency is exploring quick routes across the central business district to connect workers on the eastern side to the park and ride service largely focused on the west side.

“I’ve had a number of people who live in northern or western park and ride areas tell me they would use the service if they didn’t have to walk from the west side of the (central business district) to the east side in Houston weather,” Robinson said.

Robinson said a decision will come within a comprehensive look at the entire commuter bus system, and how it can serve jobs spreading across the downtown area and into EaDo and Midtown.

That makes sense. The Greenlink buses were low-capacity to begin with, and to some extent they were an alternative to walking, which when downtown streets were jammed was often at least as quick a way to go. Uber and Lyft also competed with Greenlink. I worked two different stints downtown, for two years in the mid-90s when the previous trolley system was in place, and for four years in the 2010s with GreenLink. I never used either service, mostly because I’m a fast and impatient walker who doesn’t mind a little recreational jaywalking. In my second time downtown, I made use of B-Cycle when I had to take a trip that was just a bit too far to walk. As Metro redesigned its local bus system a few years ago, it makes sense to rethink what GreenLink is about, and to ensure that it’s providing the kind of rides that most people really need. After we’re all able to get out of the house and use it again, of course.

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

Houston-area transit officials will wait out a little more of the coronavirus crisis before soliciting bids on five of the first projects in their $7 billion construction bonanza for bus and rail upgrades.

“Moving this by a month does not hurt anything at all,” said Sanjay Ramabhadran, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member.

Board members on Tuesday delayed approval of the procedure for selecting engineering, architecture and design firms for what could be more than $1 billion in bus and rail projects along key routes. The projects are the first in the agency’s long-range transportation plan, which voters approved in November, authorizing Metro to borrow up to $3.5 billion. The remaining costs for the program, called MetroNext, will be covered by federal grants and unspent local money Metro set aside for future budgets.

Instead, officials said the requests for proposals are set for approval in April for:

  • an extension of the Green and Purple light-rail lines to the Houston Municipal Courthouse
  • bus rapid transit and a dedicated lane along Interstate 10 from Loop 610 to downtown Houston
  • rapid bus service and use of managed lanes along Interstate 45
  • a new Missouri City Park and Ride
  • enhanced bus corridors along the Westheimer and Lockwood bus routes

The time will allow Metro officials to review the specifics of the agreements, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for some background. No mention of the Uptown BRT line, whose target opening date is now July, though Lord knows what anything means at this time. Metro has suspended fare collection for now, in part because people need all the help they can get during this crisis, and in part because ridership numbers have plummeted during the crisis. Neither of those will have much effect on Metro’s cash flow in the short term, but the concurrent decline in local sales tax revenue will. We’ll know more about that in May when the Comptroller disburses the March tax revenues.

Metro suspends fare collections

Among other things.

Transit in Houston will be free starting Monday and passengers will use the rear door to board and exit buses to limit exposure to drivers and other riders, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Friday.

The changes are aimed at providing some social distance for passengers and employees while also offering some savings for Houstonians facing job and wage losses during the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“Everyone is facing economic hardships, so we are going to adjust the system,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

While necessary for many to access jobs, crowded buses and trains complicate efforts for riders to keep a distance between themselves and others as medical experts advise to reduce the spread of the coronavirus or the COVID-19 illness it causes. Though Metro has seen sharp declines in ridership, it remains fully functional, agency leaders said.

Generally, only the back doors of local buses will be used so fewer people have to walk from the front of the bus to a seat, Lambert said. Anyone who needs a ramp or lower step to enter and exit the bus still will be able to use the front door, he said.

Dropping fares is one of several changes to Metro’s operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Along many high-use routes, Metro has added buses and put placards on seats encouraging people to distance themselves from other passengers.

You can see the full press release from Metro here, and their coronavirus resource page is here. San Antonio’s VIA has taken the same step. Metro is also running more buses on certain routes to help people maintain social distancing. There’s still a lot of people that have to go to work, and they deserve all the care we can give them. Like traffic in general, Metro’s ridership is down at this time, and they will have to deal with the financial fallout from that when this is over, but in the meantime they’re still providing service. I’m glad for that.

Improved bus corridors are coming

Sounds promising.

Metropolitan Transit Authority is set to upgrade a pair of Houston bus routes, hoping that raising the quality of bus service will prove the key to increasing transit use.

The 54 Scott and the 56 Montrose/Airline routes will be the first put to the test of as part of Metro’s “Bus Operations Optimized System Treatments” — aka BOOST. The corridors will be decked out with spruced-up bus stops and shelters, bike racks and better sidewalk and trail access where practical. Digital signs at bus stops will give real-time information about when the next bus is coming.

Some of the most striking improvements, however, will be less about what riders can see and more about the technology that will provide buses an advantage by communicating with traffic signals. That could in some locations give the bus extra time to make a changing green light, or hurry through the red-light cycle to decrease the time the bus spends at an intersection.

“Getting through that intersection, if we can hold the green light a little longer, improves our travel time,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Less time sitting at stoplights could make transit more attractive.

“What they are trying to do is drive bus ridership,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director for Houston Public Works, which is working with Metro along the corridors.

Construction along the corridors is expected to start in the coming months and take 18-to-24 months to complete, transit officials said.

[…]

The Scott and Airline routes were chosen as the first of 17 BOOST routes because both follow bustling commercial corridors, have high ridership — both typically average around 6,000 daily boardings — and development along the routes is walk-able by Houston standards, officials said. Both lines also cross other core routes in the Metro system, such as the Red and Purple light rail lines and the Route 82 Westheimer, Route 2 Bellaire and Route 4 Beechnut bus lines.

We first heard about this last January as the first details of the MetroNext referendum started coming out. Traffic lights are a big variable in bus travel times, so adding some predictability, which in turn should allow for more frequency, is welcome. I used the 56 a lot when I was working downtown, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing this in action.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

Metro’s robot security guards

Not a character from a dystopian action movie, I promise.

Robot security guards are coming to a Houston-area transit center, park and ride lot and rail station in the coming months, after the Metropolitan Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 test of the techno-police Thursday.

“They have been shown to be deterrents,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.

Wendler said Metro’s agreement with Knightscope is a one-year test, from which it could expand beyond the three locations. Citing the need to provide more security to petty crimes without stretching police resources, officials sought information on the robotic rangers.

Agency officials, in consultation with the company, will decide which parking lots, transit centers and rail stops get a robot in the first year, Wendler said.

Security sentinels are becoming a familiar sight in shopping malls and some developments. In downtown Houston, a robot patrols the grounds of Allen Center.

Though many users nationally have said they are a cost-effective crime deterrent, the devices have raised alarms with some privacy concerns about a robot roaming public spaces recording everything and broadcasting back to private and public entities. Fears of hacking also have been raised.

Metro officials are likely to use a K5 robot — a 400-pound, 5’2” bullet-shaped bot that moves at a maximum speed of 3 mph — at a transit center and park and ride lot. Though a sleek R2-D2 does not sound that intimidating, its ability to record video and relay it to police is its real threat to thieves and others.

“What they have seen is people move away from it because they do not want to be videoed,” Wendler said.

If you’re thinking you might have seen one of these things before, you may have. I don’t feel like digging through my archives for this, but there was a big discussion in Houston a bit more than a decade ago about the usefulness of installing a bunch of closed-circuit cameras downtown as a crime deterrent. That was eventually scrapped, partly for cost reasons, partly for privacy reasons, partly for a general lack of evidence that the cameras did serve as deterrents. It’s possible that data is different now – for sure, camera and surveillance technology is a lot more advanced, for better and worse – but even then the one good use case for the closed circuit cameras was in enclosed spaces – parking lots, subway trains, that sort of thing – and that’s more or less what is being proposed here. So we’ll see how they work. I do hope Metro is forthcoming with data about the experience, and I hope they will admit it and move on if they don’t have much effect.

Uptown BRT pushed back to July

Sigh.

Opening day for Houston’s first bus rapid transit line has been pushed back to mid-summer as construction enters the final steps along most of the route before reaching a three-month testing period.

Service is expected to start no earlier than July, said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority. That is four months later than the March opening officials predicted in mid-2019, the result of some construction delays and the desire to test more of the system at once.

“Until you get the whole corridor lined up, you really can’t deliver the service the way it is intended,” Lambert said.

[…]

Though riders will experience the bus service as a single rapid transit route from Metro’s Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10 to a new transit center along Westpark Drive — primarily along bus-only lanes along Loop 610 and in the center of Post Oak — the path involves five different projects, built by different public entities.

That includes the new transit center taking shape along Westpark, now expected to finish in March, that Uptown and transit officials view as a major hub for buses.

Work on the Post Oak lanes mostly is complete, according to John Breeding, executive director of the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the road and led efforts to add transit to the area.

Construction continues, however, on the elevated busway that will carry the BRT service from Post Oak north along Loop 610 before reconnecting the buses with North Post Oak. Work on the $58 million busway, developed by the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to finish by the end of March, TxDOT spokeswoman Emily Black said.

Testing in earnest can only happen along the line with the Post Oak and busway portions complete, Lambert said.

The previous update, which did note that there were these other parts that weren’t done yet, still had March for the grand opening. So much for that. If this means it will all open at once and not in a piecemeal fashion, I suppose that makes more sense. But as with all construction projects, you just want it to be over with.

No free fares

For the best, I’d say.

Free fares appear to be a hard sell for Houston area transit officials, who said while they are open to exploring discounts, people boarding buses and trains will need to fork over $1.25 for the foreseeable future.

After a comprehensive analysis by Metropolitan Transit Authority staff, transit board members said removing fares from the system actually would increase agency costs by creating a need for more buses and operators, potentially to the tune of $170.6 million annually.

“It is just not feasible to do free fares,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said, echoing others on the board and in the transit agency.

[…]

Metro’s analysis concluded that ridership would jump from 86 million trips a year to an estimated 117 million if fares were eliminated altogether. Even offering free rides only during peak hours could boost ridership to around 100 million, the study found.

Those new riders, however, would come at a big cost, said Julie Fernandez, the transit agency’s lead management analyst. To handle the demand, Metro would need nearly 500 more vehicles, mostly buses, and 415 new operators. Such a sizable jump in vehicles and employees would require the agency to build a new bus operating facility to complement the existing six bus depots.

Even preparing the transit system for free rides would take four years, Fernandez said, adding, “it takes time to order new buses.”

The cost of going free prompted many Metro board officials to conclude it was not likely.

“It is easy to look at it and say ‘OK, it is such a small part of our budget’ but it is really more complicated than that,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for the background. Metro says it will consider some other options like free fares for schoolchildren (they get discounted fares now), and Metro Chair Carrin Patman said this was a useful exercise while free-fare-advocate Tory Gattis said he was satisfied with the study Metro did. I agree this was worth considering, but in the end this was clearly the right call. Maybe a smaller version of this makes sense, maybe sometime in the future it makes sense, but for now Metro should focus on other things.

Despite the benefits of increased ridership, many of those urging Metro to expand service oppose the elimination of fares.

“When people don’t pay for something, there’s no value to it,” Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, told Metro board members in December.

LINK works with low-income and minority communities to increase transit offerings, something Blair said could be stunted if Metro were to give up the roughly $70 million in annual fare revenues. Such a move also could delay efforts to expand service or add routes long-sought by some voters that overwhelmingly supported Metro’s $3.5 billion transit plan in November.

“Metro will risk the overwhelming support you have earned,” Blair said.

I agree completely.

Back to the no-fares question

I remain skeptical, but we’ll see.

As it stands right now, most of METRO’s operating funds don’t come from the fares. The transit agency gets most of its money from a one-cent sales tax, which caught the attention of Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack recently spoke before the METRO board on why the agency should consider free or reduced fares. He said that people are already paying for the transit service through the sales tax and a financial incentive for riding could get more people on board.

“And so if we just keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to build more freeways, we’re going to continue to do other forms of transportation, but at the end, it makes no sense to have buses only partially full running around,” said Radack.

[…]

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said while fares aren’t a huge part of their budget, they’d have to figure out a way to make up that money if they stopped charging riders.

“I think what people don’t realize is there are unanticipated consequences of a free fare policy that we just need to fully consider before we went to it,” Patman told News 88.7.

And those consequences are what concern Oni Blair. She heads the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. Blair said to get more riders, METRO needs to put its focus on other issues.

“It’s the little things we take for granted,” said Blair. “Does the bus come on time? Because if I’m trying to schedule my day I need to get there on time and know what to predict. Does the bus come frequently, so people don’t have to wait half an hour to an hour for the bus to come? Can I wait in dignity at a shelter that is accessible and safe for me?”

And Blair said that all those things cost money.

“The loss of revenue from the fares METRO currently has would undermine their other access to improving operations, improving customer service, improving all of those things,” said Blair. “If they don’t have that revenue they can’t address the things that people want.”

See here for my previously-stated concerns. Metro may not get much money from fares, but it does get some money from them, and that would have to be made up elsewhere, which is where I fear that political pressure, or interference from the state, could undermine this whole rationale. I’m of a similar mind as Oni Blair – the top priority needs to be making transit more accessible to more people. We also need to recognize that there’s a limit to how much we can grow transit ridership in this region as long as driving cars is the vastly-catered-to default. That’s a much bigger question, one that will take more than Metro to work out. For now, let’s try to make Metro the best it can be. Maybe that involves reducing or eliminating fares, but I think there are other options to work on first.

Bus service in new places

This is a good first step, which I hope begets a second step.

Harris County has extended bus service to Channelview, Cloverleaf and Sheldon, using $3.8 million in Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery money to jump-start the new routes.

Service started Dec. 2, quickly getting about 500 riders in the second week along roughly 65 miles of new service.

“When you have that freedom to ride a bus, that opens up so many more services to you,” said Daphne Lamelle, executive director of the Harris County Community Services Department.

The need is especially pronounced in eastern Harris County after Harvey led to the loss of thousands of cars and trucks, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Wednesday as he and other county officials dedicated the five new routes.

“We don’t think about these things until we need them,” Garcia said, lamenting the need for cars in rangy parts of the county.

[…]

Future money to operate the service will come from federal sources, doled out locally by the Houston Galveston Area Council, said Ken Fickes, transit services director for Harris County.

The new county service operates every 30, 60 or 90 minutes, depending on the route, and many connect to Metro at the Mesa Transit Center along Tidwell and along Uvalde at Woodforest Boulevard.

Transfers to Metro, at least for the foreseeable future, will be free, said Metro Vice-chairman Jim Robinson, who represents Harris County on the transit agency board.

“We have pulled out all the stops to make this a going thing,” Robinson said of the desire to extend transit to more places.

You can view the routes for existing and new bus services here. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t realized any of this existed. I knew that Metro’s service area did not include some number of non-Houston cities within Harris County, and many of those cities are in the eastern part of the county, I just either didn’t know or had forgotten that the county provided some limited transit service for them. I guess I have mostly thought of this in terms of transit-less Pasadena, which remains a stubborn island of car-only transportation.

Commissioner Garcia and Metro are both interested in extending Metro’s services out to these cities – I touched on this in my recent interview with Metro Chair Carrin Patman, though again I was more Pasadena-focused than I might have been – which is a great idea and something that will require both legislative action and local voter approval, to add a penny to their sales tax rate. That means that even in a best-case scenario, we’re talking at least two years for such a thing to happen. The main thing to do to facilitate that in the meantime is get as many people as possible using the service, and making the case to everyone else in those cities that it benefits them as well even if they’re not riding those buses. And please, do bring Pasadena into this – there’s really no reason why Metro’s service doesn’t include all of Harris County. Houston Public Media has more.

Uptown BRT line update

It’s coming, it’s coming. Hold your horses.

The new year will come with a new sight in Houston: Big gray buses bounding along a dedicated lane on Post Oak through Uptown.

For the first few weeks, however, people will not hop aboard, as transit officials test the new buses and routes to ready it for a March 2020 opening.

Testing could start sooner, but Christmastime in Uptown means a slight wait for the debut of bus rapid transit in the region.

“Because of all the activity surrounding the Christmas decorations going up in that area, we can’t begin testing now,” said Tracy Jackson, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Transit Authority. Testing, she said, will start in January.

[…]

Getting full use out of the BRT service along Post Oak, however, requires a handful of other projects that will not be finished when buses start rolling. That will lead to detours on the north and south ends of the service for months.

Where the Post Oak lanes end near Loop 610, the Texas Department of Transportation will take over with an elevated busway that rises in the middle of the freeway and then swings over to the southbound side along its own overpass.

The busway, expected to cost $58.4 million, will give the large buses continuous dedicated lanes from Richmond to North Post Oak. It remains on track to open along with the Post Oak lanes because it has not faced the lengthy delays of the street-level work.

Meanwhile, Metro last month approved a $10.9 million project to connect the end of TxDOT’s busway with the Northwest Transit Center, which also is being rebuilt.

The 1.4 mile extension of the dedicated bus lane along North Post Oak is expected to be completed in about a year, around the same time as the new transit center, said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

The new lanes will replace the existing median along North Post Oak on the bridge spanning Interstate 10, then continue south. To fit the lanes on the existing bridge, Metro would take up some of the space now used for a bike lane along the span.

“We are going to come back with a separate structure for that use,” Trevino said, noting TxDOT is still assessing plans for the new pedestrian bridge.

See here for the previous update, in which we were introduced to the term “MetroRapid”. Note that the expected opening date then was also March of 2020, so everything remains on track, as it were. I had a training class in the Galleria area a few weeks ago and got a good up-close look at the stations at Post Oak and Westheimer. I wish I’d taken a picture of it. If this had been in operation, I’d have had more lunch options readily available to me, I’ll say that much. Getting those extensions built will be nice, but I think the big deal will be when the BRT line that is the successor to the Universities light rail line gets built. That will be the connection of this line to the Main Street line, and will finally provide something like what the 2003 referendum once promised, before cost concerns and John Culberson got in the way. I don’t know what the time frame is for that yet – Metro Chair Carrin Patman is quoted saying this is a priority, but that’s all we know right now – but I can’t wait to see it happen. Not having to drive into the Galleria would be awesome.

Precinct analysis: 2019 Metro referendum

The one election of interest within Harris County that wasn’t mostly or entirely within Houston was the Metro referendum. Let’s have a look at how that vote went.


Dist     Yes      No
====================
A     18,795  10,648
B     15,120   4,037
C     32,384  12,659
D     19,304   4,823
E     15,912  12,942
F      9,357   3,699
G     20,985  14,163
H     11,049   4,065
I      8,439   3,282
J      5,208   2,063
K     14,987   4,509
		
A     63.84%  36.16%
B     78.93%  21.07%
C     71.90%  28.10%
D     80.01%  19.99%
E     55.15%  44.85%
F     71.67%  28.33%
G     59.70%  40.30%
H     73.10%  26.90%
I     72.00%  28.00%
J     71.63%  28.37%
K     76.87%  23.13%

Where        Yes      No
========================
Houston  171,540  76,890
Not Hou   51,323  28,676

Houston   69.05%  30.95%
Not Hou   64.15%  35.85%

I’ve said before that blowout elections lead to boring precinct analyses, and here you can see a good example. The referendum passed by big margins everywhere, inside Houston and out. It helped that advocates had plenty of money while opposition was sparse. I doubt it would have mattered much in the end – the 2003 referendum passed despite much fiercer resistance, after all – but you have to think that the absence of a vocal and powerful Congressional adversary had to make this a lot easier for Metro. And that’s just fine by me.

Metro moves towards cashless fares (maybe)

We started with this.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday will consider the first in a series of agreements to revamp its fare payment system that eventually could offer riders the option of using smartphones, credit cards and electronic wallets to hop aboard its buses and trains.

In a nod to the changing ways consumers use to pay for services, the transit agency is expected to spend nearly $100 million to remake its collection of bus and train fares for the next 15 years. That future could lead to cash being kicked off the bus as transit officials weigh whether to replace aging fareboxes.

Metro is among a handful of large American transit agencies giving some thought to how to reduce the number of riders tossing coins and convert them to tapping a card, which could help speed up bus trips.

“Metro would be in the first wave of agencies making this transition but won’t be doing it alone,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group.

The first step for Metro is a seven-year $37 million contract with INIT, Innovations in Transportation Inc., for new software and management of its fare collection system, including new validators — the cinder block-sized devices people tap with their Q cards.

Two-thirds of the initial cost, more than $24 million, would go toward equipping buses and installing computer systems in Metro offices to handle fares.

With the new gear will come new options for riders. Currently, riders can use Q cards, cash or Metro’s smartphone app to hop aboard.

The new machines will accept the current Q cards, along with such options as contactless credit cards that allow customers to pay by tapping a card reader and Apple Pay and Google Pay that store credit card info on mobile phones.

“The system will let us use mobile wallets,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro. “It transitions very nicely with our old system and new opportunities.”

[…]

Many transit agencies are looking to reduce or avoid cash payments altogether for a variety of reasons, including speeding up transit and eliminating the cost of handling money.

“Boston has made cashless bus fare collection an explicit goal, and the (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in New York has eliminated cash payment on express buses, intimating that regular buses could go cashless in the next few years (the earliest would be 2023),” Fried said.

Paying cash typically takes a few seconds longer than tapping a Q card, with those seconds adding up along a route. The faster people can board, the faster the bus can get moving again — improving the efficiency of trips and getting people to their destinations faster.

Eliminating cash fares also could give transit agencies better use of bus space by allowing passengers to board at the front and rear doors. In Houston, Metro riders can only exit from the back door, but must enter in the front to tap their cards or pay cash.

San Francisco opened its buses and trains to all-door boarding in 2012, and checks fares now with fare inspectors, similar to Metro’s enforcement of light rail payments in Houston. A 2017 study showed San Francisco’s bus speeds increased 2 percent and ridership on buses increased 2 percent.

As the story notes, it would probably not be till 2022 when we see something like this happen. About twenty percent of Metro fares are paid in cash, so ensuring that those riders would not be left behind is a priority. The benefit for Metro is clear – better and more efficient boarding, which means buses can run on a more dependable schedule, which boosts service and ridership overall.

The story then got this reaction from Tory Gattis:


On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Fare collection revenue is a very small part of Metro’s budget. Free fares would make boarding even more efficient, would certainly ensure that cash-paying riders are taken care of, would increase ridership further, and would free up capital for buying more buses. Seems like a win all around, right?

It appears that argument had an effect.

Metro on Thursday delayed consideration of a $37 million contract for a new fare system so transit officials can ponder how it would affect efforts to eliminate fares altogether for some riders.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors was scheduled to approve the seven-year agreement, but the item was pulled from the agenda in the morning, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, “in light of the fact we are also doing a free fare study.”

The transit agency is researching options for eliminating fares, or eliminating them for certain groups of riders, such as schoolchildren and college students.

[…]

Though fares make up a small percentage of Metro’s budget — $67.6 million, or 11.1 percent, of its 2017 operating revenues, according to federal data — eliminating them entirely can be tricky. Transit agencies must follow federal laws, which require fares to be fair and equitable for all users, based on the type of service offered. Removing fees for bus or rail use likely would mean Metro also would have to remove fares on paratransit for disabled and elderly passengers, an increasingly costly part of the agency’s budget.

Eliminating fares also could complicate federal funding for major agency projects if officials in Washington worry that Houston is not bringing in enough money to share the costs of projects.

[…]

Though some transit agencies offer free rides in partnerships with schools or within certain fare-free zones to encourage bus use in urban areas, Chapel Hill, N.C., is the only large transit agency to entirely remove fares in the U.S. That transit system is heavily subsidized by the University of North Carolina, the main campus of which is in Chapel Hill. Several small systems in college towns offer free transit.

Free ride programs have faced ups and downs in other cities, with transit systems similar in size to Houston. Portland, Ore., offered free trips within a special zone for nearly 40 years and saw huge gains in transit ridership as a result. The free zone, however, also led to complaints of increased crime and vagrancy, and it made enforcing fares difficult in a larger region around the zone. Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, abolished the fare-free zone in 2012.

Metro Chair Patman said in this story that she had spoken to Gattis, and that the fare box contract would be taken up in December, after a free fare study had been conducted. I think Tory’s argument has merit, but I worry about the politics of it. If public transportation were completely fare-free, a significant portion of the population will come to see it as an entitlement, something that “poor people” get that “the rest of us” pay for with our taxes. Once that happens, there will be political pressure to cut funding for transit, since after all it only “benefits” a small number of people. Republican legislators in Texas are already scheming to siphon off city sales tax revenues. Don’t think for a minute that making Metro rides free wouldn’t increase their incentive to do that. And yes, I am fully aware that this is a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt way of thinking about transit. But it’s there, and it will be even more there if we eliminate fares. Which is a shame, but this is the world we live in. We’ll see what the result of Metro’s study is.

2019 election results: Houston and Metro

Unfortunately, we have to start with this:

Results of Tuesday’s election could take until 2 a.m. Wednesday after the Texas Secretary of State issued a new regulation that upended plans by the Harris County Clerk’s Office to speed vote counting.

The first tubs containing electronic ballot cards from across Harris County arrived at central count just before 9:30 p.m., where election judges and poll watchers waited to see the vote count in action.

Dr. Diane Trautman said she had hoped to have votes come in from 10 countywide drop-off locations, fed in through a secured intranet site, leading to faster results on election night.

Instead, Secretary Ruth R. Hughs ordered on Oct. 23 that law enforcement officers would instead escort the ballot box memory cards from each of the 757 polling sites to the central counting station.

That change, made nearly two weeks before Election Day, led to a major delay that left voters wondering for hours how races up and down ballot would turn out.

Early election results trickled in shortly after 7 p.m., but remained virtually unchanged for hours Tuesday.

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about that order. I don’t know what was behind it, but it sure did gum things up. In the end, final results were not available till quite late, with no more partial results after midnight because producing those was slowing down the input process. Here’s the later statement on when results would be expected. Suffice to say, this was a mess, and no one is happy about it all. Expect there to be an extended fight between the County Clerk and SOS offices.

Anyway. I’m still groggy from a late night, so I’m going to hit the highlights, and we’ll get final results later. Here we go.

Mayor: Turner leads, is close to a majority.

Mayor Sylvester Turner held a wide lead over Tony Buzbee in limited early returns late Tuesday and was within striking distance of an outright re-election win, though it was unclear at press time if he would secure enough votes to avoid a runoff.

Buzbee, a millionaire trial lawyer, jumped out to an early second-place lead that he appeared likely to retain over Bill King, an attorney and businessman who narrowly lost a 2015 runoff to Turner but struggled this time to compete financially with Buzbee, his main rival for conservative votes.

With a small share of Election Day precincts reporting, Turner remained a shade under the majority vote share he would need to avoid a December runoff against Buzbee.

Councilman Dwight Boykins, who competed with Turner for the support of Democratic and black voters, trailed in fourth place, while former councilwoman Sue Lovell was further behind in fifth. Seven other candidates combined for the remaining share of the vote.

Adding in the Fort Bend results, and we get the following:


Turner     63,359  47.28%
Buzbee     39,361  29.37%
King       17,878  13.34%
Boykins     7,848   5.86%
Lovell      1,433   1.07%
The Rest    4,121   3.08%

Three things to think about: One, Turner has at this point more votes than Buzbee and King combined, so if we do go to a runoff that’s not a bad position to start with. Two, the Election Day results reported so far came mostly from Districts A, C, E, and G, so they would be more favorable to Buzbee and King than the city as a whole. And three, the election polling was pretty accurate, especially at pegging the support levels for Boykins and Lovell.

Oh, and a fourth thing: Tony Buzbee’s drunken Election Night speech. Yowza.

Controller: Incumbent Chris Brown leads

It’s Brown 62,297 and Sanchez 54,864 adding in Fort Bend, and again with mostly Republican votes from yesterday (Sanchez led the Election Day tally by about 1,700 votes). Barring a big surprise, Brown has won.

City Council: Most incumbents have big leads, and there’s gonna be a lot of runoffs. To sum up:

District A: Amy Peck has 44.3%, George Zoes 16.8%
District B: Tarsha Jackson 21.0%, Renee Jefferson Smith 15.1%, Cynthia Bailey 13.7%, Alvin Byrd 10.7%
District C: Abbie Kamin 30.8%, Shelley Kennedy 15.8%, Greg Meyers 14.4%, Mary Jane Smith 14.0%
District D: Carolyn Evans-Shabazz 19.0%, Carla Brailey 12.3%, Brad Jordan 11.9%, Rashad Cave 11.4%, Jerome Provost 10.4%, Andrew Burks 10.3%
District E: Dave Martin easily wins
District F: Tiffany Thomas 39%, Van Huynh 24%, Richard Nguyen 18%
District G: Greg Travis easily wins
District H: Karla Cisneros 38.9%, Isabel Longoria 27.5%, Cynthia Reyes-Revilla 24.0%
District I: Robert Gallegos easily wins
District J: Edward Pollard 32.4%, Sandra Rodriguez 26.4%, Barry Curtis 19.7%
District K: MArtha Castex-Tatum easily wins

At Large #1: Mike Knox 38.1%, Raj Salhotra 21.1%, Yolanda Navarro Flores 16.3%, Georgia Provost 14.7%
At Large #2: Davis Robinson 38.9%, Willie Davis 28.8%, Emily DeToto 18.8%
At Large #3: Michael Kubosh 50.8%, Janaeya Carmouche 20.6%
At Large #4: Anthony Dolcefino 22.9%, Letitia Plummer 16.4%, Nick Hellyar 12.8%, Ericka McCrutcheon 11.3%, Bill Baldwin 10.5%
At Large #5: Sallie Alcorn 23.2%, Eric Dick 22.0%, no one else above 10

Some of the runoff positions are still very much up in the air. Michael Kubosh may or may not win outright – he was only at 46% on Election Day. Name recognition worth a lot (Dolcefino, Dick) but not everything (both Provosts, Burks). Not much else to say but stay tuned.

HISD: Davila and Lira are going to lose

Dani Hernandez leads Sergio Lira 62-38, Judith Cruz leads Diana Davila 64-36. Kathy Blueford Daniels is close to fifty percent in II but will likely be in a runoff with John Curtis Gibbs. Patricia Allen, Reagan Flowers, and Matt Barnes in that order are in a tight battle in IV.

HCC: No story link on the Chron front page. Monica Flores Richart leads the execrable Dave Wilson 47-34 in HCC1, Rhonda Skillern-Jones leads with 45% in HCC2 with Kathy Lynch-Gunter at 26%, and Cynthia Lenton-Gary won HCC7 unopposed.

Metro: Headed to easy passage, with about 68% so far.

That’s all I got for now. Come back later for more.

So what do we think final 2019 turnout will be?

Let’s take the numbers we have so far and try to hone in a bit more exactly on what to expect tomorrow, shall we? I’m going to go back a little farther into the past and establish some patterns.

2019
2015
2013
2011
2009
2007


Year    Early    Mail   Total   Mailed
======================================
2019  137,460  15,304  152,764   26,824
2015  164,104  29,859  193,963   43,280
2013   87,944  21,426  109,370   30,572
2011   49,669   8,676   58,345   15,264
2009   71,368   9,148   80,516   20,987
2007   43,420   6,844   50,264   13,870

Year    Early    Final   Early%
===============================
2015  193,963  421,460    46.0%
2013  109,370  260,437    42.0%
2011   58,345  164,971    35.4%
2009   80,516  257,312    31.3%
2007   50,264  193,945    25.9%

Couple of points to note up front. One is that the early vote totals I report above are the totals as of the end of the early voting period. Mail ballots continue to arrive, however, so the mail ballot results you see on the election return pages on the County Clerk website are a bit higher. I’m basing the calculations here on those as-of-Friday results, for consistency’s sake.

Second, note that while early voting in even year races is now a large majority of the total vote – in 2018, for example, about 71% of all votes were cast before Election Day – in municipal elections, it remains the case that most voters take their time and do their business on Tuesday. The early vote share has steadily increased over time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re at least at 50-50 now, but the bottom line is that there are very likely still a lot more votes to be cast.

Note also the increase in mail ballots over time, both in terms of mail ballots sent out and mail ballots returned. The HCDP has made a priority of this since Lane Lewis was elected Chair in 2012 and continuing under Lillie Schechter, and you can see that reflected in the totals beginning in 2013. I’m not exactly sure why the numbers took a dip this year, but they remain well above what they were prior to 2013.

All this is a long preamble to the main question, which is what to expect tomorrow. Here are three scenarios for you:

2019 at 45% early = 339,476 in Harris County, 231,862 in Houston.
2019 at 50% early = 305,428 in Harris County, 208,676 in Houston.
2019 at 55% early = 277,753 in Harris County, 189,705 in Houston.

The second number in each of those lines represents the fact that the numbers we have are for all of Harris County, while per Keir Murray about 68% of this year’s turnout is from the city of Houston. I used his figure in projecting the Houston numbers. Sixty-eight percent of Harris County votes coming from Houston is a bit higher than it was in 2015 and 2013, which were in the 64-65% range, but it’s well within historic norms, where the city vote percent has topped 70% in some years.

My best guess is that we’re headed for something like the middle scenario. I see no reason why the trend of an increasing early vote share wouldn’t continue, so I’d expect it to notch up a couple more points. For what it’s worth, in the 2017 election, when there were no city of Houston races, about 41.3% of the vote was cast early. That race doesn’t fit this pattern so I’m not taking it into consideration, but I figured someone reading this would be wondering about it, so there you have it.

Beyond that, I expect the Mayor’s race to go to a runoff, with Turner getting in the low to mid-forties and Buzbee getting in the mid to upper-twenties. There is a 100% certainty that I will keep the remote close at hand to avoid being subjected to any further Buzbee commercials when I’m just trying to watch a football game. I expect the Metro referendum to pass. I have no idea what else to expect. Feel free to leave your guesses in the comments.

Metro Wi-Fi

Cool.

Metro riders now can access free Wi-Fi on select buses and trains through a pilot program funded by Microsoft, the transit agency announced Monday.

Buses on Route 54, which passes by the University of Houston and Texas Southern University along Scott, and the Route 204 park-and-ride from downtown Houston to Spring will offer the service, as well as the Green and Purple lines.

The routes were chosen because of their proximity to universities and other schools, Metro officials said. The service eventually may expand to all Metro routes, Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said Monday.

“Connecting our riders means we can make our services more visible and more accessible to them, and it’s also more efficient and sustainable,” Patman said.

Here’s the Metro press release, which notes that the pilot will run through mid-January. It’ll be somewhat like a hotel Wi-Fi offering – choose the “ridemetro-wifi” network, enter your email address, accept terms and conditions, and you’re in. I figure this will be more useful to folks with longer rides, like on the commuter lines, but everyone likes Wi-Fi, so even for a short ride it’ll get used. Hopefully, a system-wide expansion will follow.

Endorsement watch: For the Metro bond

All of the candidate endorsements have been done by the Chron, but there remain the endorsements for ballot propositions. Which is to say, the Metro referendum and the constitutional amendments. I’ll address the latter tomorrow, but for now here’s the Chron recommending a Yes vote on the Metro bond.

Houston Metro is asking voters’ permission to borrow a busload of bucks to add a robust bus rapid transit network, new rail service to Hobby airport and badly needed bus improvements.

It’s a big ask, and if voters agree, the agency will add up to $3.5 billion in debt to its balance sheet.

But Houston needs a better set of transit options. Metro has promised to add the borrowed billions to a giant plan for the future, dubbed MetroNext, and all together the $7.5 billion spending plan is an enormous step forward for the agency and for the city. We strongly urge Houston voters to support this first step, by voting yes on the ballot proposition to give Metro permission to issue the bonds it needs.

Voters should know that the proposal won’t add a dime to the taxes all of us already pay for Metro. Our penny in sales tax is already committed, and the additional borrowing won’t change that. Metro simply wants to sell bonds so it can leverage its future sales taxes to pay for projects right now, rather than wait for the accumulation of annual revenues to grow large enough to finally pay for them. By pooling future revenues, it can fast-track improvements for which users in Houston would otherwise have to wait years, or even decades.

It’s a reasonable argument — so long as the plan to spend the money is sound. We’ve looked at the details of the proposal and heard from those who support it and from those who loathe it. On balance, we think voters should readily support it.

See here for more details about the referendum, and give a listen if you haven’t already to my interview with Carrin Patman, in which we explored many aspects of the plan as well as broader transit topics. You know that I’m all in on this, and the one piece of polling data we have looks good. Either we want more and better transportation choices in the greater Houston area, or we want everyone to be stuck in traffic forever. Your call.

30 day finance reports: Metro referendum

There may be some opposition to the Metro referendum, but so far no one’s putting their money where their mouths are on that.

Supporters of a $3.5 billion transit bond election less than four weeks away have a sizable — but not unexpected — advantage over critics, who plan a grass-roots campaign to counter what has been flurry of educational campaigns using taxpayer dollars and aggressive catering to the Houston area’s business community.

Moving to the Future, the political action committee backing the bond amassed more than $437,000 in money or in-kind contributions, according to its financial report field last week, which includes fundraising until Sept. 26. The group is campaigning to support Metropolitan Transit Authority’s long-range transportation plan, the first phase of which will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The fundraising by supporters gives them a roughly 73-to-one money advantage to the opposition Responsible Houston political committee, which has collected $6,000 from two donors, according to its Oct. 7 campaign report.

The disparity continues in terms of what each is spending money on. Responsible Houston, the PAC formed to oppose the bonds on the grounds it is wasted spending and unwise to give Metro a blank check for rail and bus projects without more specifics, spent most of its money, about $5,250, on website development to push a grass-roots online message.

See here for the background. Here are the relevant finance reports:

Moving To The Future (supports)
REsponsible Houston (opposes)


PAC     Raised   Spent   On Hand
================================
MttF   437,606  69,844   402,694
RH       6,000   5,795       204

As the story notes, Metro can use other funds to run ads that inform of the election and issues, without advocating a vote either way. That’s always controversial – the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not is fuzzy and often hinges on “magic words” like “support” or “oppose” – but it’s what we get. Either way, I’d expect to see a lot more Metro ads between now and November 5 – I’ve seen plenty of them already. Whether you see any anti-Metro ads remains on open question. It will be fine by me if that effort fizzles out, but we’ll take a look at the 8-day report when it comes out.

Someone is opposing the Metro referendum

I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the Metro referendum would not get any organized opposition.

Opponents of Metro’s $3.5 billion bond referendum have formed a political action committee to lead a grass-roots campaign to curtail what they say is wasteful spending by the regional transit agency.

“To ask for $3.5 billion is irresponsible,” said Bill Frazer, one of the organizers of the Responsible Houston PAC and a former Houston city controller candidate.

[…]

Opponents used the Post Oak project as the backdrop for their announcement Tuesday, noting that Metro is asking for money to build 75 miles of bus rapid transit in the region despite having nothing to show Houstonians are eager to hop aboard. Critics also noted Metro’s newest light rail lines have never delivered the ridership officials promised when they started construction and failed to build many of the things promised voters in 2003 — as they used the $640 million voters approved to build three rail lines and did not add the park and ride locations and increased bus service promised by the ballot item.

“Before we do another blank check, someone needs to hold someone accountable for the past,” said Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant that helped organize Tuesday’s announcement.

With so many areas in need of improved street drainage, Frazer said transit officials should invest their money there — something he said is possible because Metro’s agreement with cities promises 25 percent of the transit sales tax for street and drainage projects. Nothing, Frazer said, prohibits Metro from spending more than a quarter of the money for streets.

Note that “organized” does not mean “coherent”, or “logical”, or “sensible”. Last I checked, Houston already had a funding system in place for street and drainage improvement, which as I recall from his campaigns for Controller Bill Frazer opposed. Drainage is certainly a vital thing, but it doesn’t improve mobility. I’m also old enough to remember the 2012 election, in which there was a referendum that not only reaffirmed Metro’s one quarter share of the transit sales tax, it granted Metro a full share of the revenue growth on top of what was then being collected. The rest of this is largely unsupported claptrap, which will appeal to the kind of person who thinks any of this makes sense, and nobody else. I’ll be sure to look for their 30-day and 8-day finance reports.

KHOU/HPM poll: Turner 37, Buzbee 20, King 10

We must be getting into the serious part of Houston Election Season, because we have our first public poll of the Mayor’s race.

Mayor Sylvester Turner leads trial lawyer and businessman Tony Buzbee by 17 points, according to a KHOU/Houston Public Media poll released Wednesday.

The survey of 516 registered likely voters found Turner well ahead of the 12-candidate field with 37 percent, followed by Buzbee at 19.6 percent and Bill King at 9.5 percent. The poll’s margin of error is 4.3 percent.

[…]

The poll shows Turner running far ahead of everyone else but with nowhere near enough support to win outright, said Bob Stein, a Rice University political science professor who conducted the poll from Sept. 3 to Sept. 15. Stein surveyed about two-thirds of respondents by cell phone and the rest by landline.

Councilman Dwight Boykins received 3.5 percent support in the poll, while 0.4 percent of voters said they likely would vote for former city councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Otherwise, 3.3 percent of respondents said they likely would support a candidate other than Turner, Buzbee, King, Boykins or Lovell. Another 21.5 percent were undecided, and 5.2 percent refused to respond.

Early voting starts Oct. 21, with election day on Nov. 5. If no candidate finishes with 50 percent plus one vote, the race will be decided in a December runoff between the top two finishers.

In a potential runoff matchup, the poll found Turner beating Buzbee 54.6 percent to 40.2 percent, and King by 56.8 to 34.1 percent.

The KHOU story is here and the Houston Public Media story is here, along with an interview with Bob Stein. Stein says he’s a little surprised that King is polling third; he attributes this to Buzbee spending a crap-ton of money so far. I’d say that’s mostly true, with the additional note that King has the charisma of a soggy corn flake, and basically has no issue to run on this year. Buzbee has no issues either, and even less of a clue, but he does have a lot of money, and that does help.

If you look back at the Mayoral polling from 2015, it was reasonably accurate to a first approximation. Adrian Garcia polled better than Bill King, but King finished ahead of him in the race. Steve Costello, Chris Bell, and Ben Hall were in the next tier, though in the end Hall finished above the other two. The polling on HERO was exactly wrong, and that may have been the result of skewed turnout assumptions, which in the end may have also helped King. Every election is different, and Turner is an incumbent this time, so be very careful in drawing conclusions. The point I’m making here is that the most recent polling examples we had were fairly decent snapshots of the race.

Another way to look at this: Thirty-seven percent of respondents named Sylvester Turner as their choice. Adding up the other numbers, a smidge more than thirty-six percent of respondents named someone else as their first choice. Make of that what you will.

One more thing:

The poll also found 58.5 percent of respondents support Metro’s $3.5 billion bond proposal, which would authorize the transit authority to move forward on a menu of projects that includes light rail extensions and the expanded use of bus rapid transit. Only 10.5 percent are opposed to the proposal, the survey found, while 31 percent were undecided.

This is where I point out that people who do not live in Houston will also be voting on the Metro referendum, so this poll is not fully representative. The city of Houston is generally between 65 and 70 percent of total turnout in Harris County in these odd-year elections, and here is where I note that the Metro service area excludes some parts of Harris County, mostly the city of Pasadena. If the Metro referendum is polling this well in the city, it’s likely headed towards passage, but there are non-city votes out there as well, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Interview with Carrin Patman

Carrin Patman

I’ve talked a lot about the METRO Next referendum on the 2019 ballot. The referendum, the first time METRO has gone to the voters to ask for bonding authority since 2003, is intended to fund a significant expansion of transit services, including light rail, BRT, HOV, and local bus. There’s a lot to take in, and while METRO will be running a campaign to inform voters about the referendum, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the details. METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman was the person to talk to about that, and I had questions for her about all aspects of the plan. We also delved into bigger picture issues of how METRO fits into the region, connecting with bicycles, future expansion, and how autonomous vehicles will affect things. Have a listen and let me know what you think:

I’ll be back to candidate interviews next week. I’ve got HISD, HCC, more from the city of Houston, and some ungodly number of HD148 contenders in the queue.

Campaigning for the Metro bond

Our campaign finance laws can be a bit weird.

Transit officials spent the past 18 months developing a plan to add $7.5 billion in new bus lines, rebuilt transit centers and rail expansion.

They have nine weeks to sell it to voters.

“We’re in campaign mode now,” said Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman.

With election season, however, comes some complications. Patman and other officials can stump for the plan, but cannot use Metro money or staff to directly campaign in favor it.

The agency, however, is almost guaranteed to be the biggest spender during the campaign because it is allowed to educate voters on the plan to add 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and nearly $600 million in local bus system enhancements ranging from road and bus station improvements along key routes to new or restored sidewalks to bus stops.

[…]

Metro, based on its 2020 budget, will spend $6.7 million to educate voters on the long-range plan, another $1.8 million for public engagement and $800,000 on legal expenses related to the plan.

The key distinction is Metro staff can talk about the plans for new projects and the benefits all they want: They just cannot encourage people to support them in November or spend any public money to solicit people’s vote for the ballot item in an official capacity.

“As a body, as a group, they cannot take action to in effect campaign for an issue,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said.

Board members, however, can campaign individually, with Patman and others already making the rounds without Metro staff in tow. Supporters started a political action committee, Moving to the Future, aimed at passing the bond. The campaign initially was led by Ed Wulfe, the Houston real estate tycoon active in local politics for the past 50 years. After Wulfe died July 28, engineer Wayne Klotz stepped in as treasurer.

I believe the same stricture exists on ISD and community college boards when they put capital bonds up for a vote. I confess, I don’t quite understand the rationale for it, but everyone seems to be able to play the game, so it’s not worth worrying about. I’ll have an interview with Carrin Patman for you to listen to next week – we talked about lots of things, from bikes to autonomous vehicles to I-45 – which I hope will help clarify the referendum a bit. As the story notes, there is no organized opposition as yet, though a couple of Mayoral candidates and one of the lesser At Large candidates are against it. Barring anything strange I expect this to pass, and the campaign for the referendum will boost overall turnout.

Checking in on the Mayor’s race

Remember the Mayor’s race? Yeah, that.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“The candidates have been running for months but were focused on fundraising and defining their message,” said Nancy Sims, a Houston political analyst. “Labor Day is when people tune into the election.”

The stretch-run of the race follows months of campaigning from Buzbee, a businessman and trial lawyer who announced his candidacy last October. King, also a businessman and lawyer, joined the race in February, then the field expanded in June with the candidacy of District D Councilman Dwight Boykins and, weeks later, former At-Large Councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Seven other lesser-known candidates also are running.

Despite vigorous campaigning from Turner’s opponents, the race has yet to reach its loudest pitch, in part because Turner only has appeared at campaign events without other mayoral candidates. Earlier this week, Buzbee and King criticized the mayor for not yet attending any candidate forums.

A Turner campaign spokesperson said he was not invited to the Wednesday forum or to a prior forum held in June by the Lake Houston Pachyderm Club, which Buzbee and King attended.

Even as the race heats up, mayoral candidates are battling with a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates for the attention of Houston voters, who typically do not tune into city elections en masse until September.

“I think the challenge for the city candidates this year is that they are greatly overshadowed by the 2020 race,” Sims said. “They are struggling to get the attention they need for people to focus in on the city elections.”

Even without distractions, such as the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, municipal candidates often struggle to drag voters to the polls: Just 27 percent of registered Houston voters turned out in the 2015 race, the first time since 2003 that turnout was more than 20 percent.

Still, the candidates are entering the critical part of the race with ample resources to draw out voters. Buzbee is self-funding his campaign and as of June 30 had contributed $7.5 million of his personal wealth. He had spent more than $2.3 million at the same point, and recently made a six-figure TV ad buy through the end of September.

“Tony Buzbee is a very unique candidate because of his ability to self-fund, so the normal rules and strategies regarding TV don’t really apply to him, because he effectively has a bottomless wallet,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “For other candidates who have to keep their powder dry, we’re unlikely to see major media buys until the first or second week of October.”

We’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder what drives turnout in city elections is a high profile referendum on the ballot. Contested Mayoral races are a factor too, but the addition of a referendum is the difference between 2003 (381K votes, Metro light rail referendum) or 2015 (286K votes, HERO repeal) and 2009 (181K, no referendum). Even without a contested Mayor’s race, a sufficiently hot ballot item can bring a lot of voters out – see, for example, 2005 (332K, anti-gay marriage Constitutional amendment). The Metro referendum this year isn’t nearly as controversial as the 2003 one was, and there may not be any astroturf opposition effort to it, but Metro will be pushing voters to the polls as well as the candidates are, and that should boost turnout a bit.

I would also push back against the notion that no one pays much attention to the Mayoral races before Labor Day, and I’d point to the last three open Mayoral elections as evidence. Bill White was running those white-background ads in 2003 early on in the year. Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown were releasing position papers and talking about ideas for traffic, crime, neighborhoods, economic development, and a whole lot of other things well before September. The pension issue, HERO, and the Adrian Garcia will-he-or-won’t-he tease dominated 2015. Maybe it was just the more engaged voters tuning in, but speaking as one of those engaged voters, there was a lot more happening in those past elections than there has been in this one.

Why might that be? Well, let me summarize the campaigns of the main Turner opponents so far.

Bill King: I’m a rich old guy who was once the Mayor of a town with fewer people than most HISD high schools, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Tony Buzbee: I’m a rich guy who’s buddies with Rick Perry, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Dwight Boykins: I’m not Sylvester Turner, and I supported Prop B.

Sue Lovell: I’m not Sylvester Turner, I supported Prop B, and unlike these other guys I also supported HERO.

I mean, you tell me why the excitement level has been set to “Meh”. I don’t see a whole lot changing from here, and it will be turned up to 11 in the runoff. Welcome to election season, y’all.

City moves forward on Vision Zero

Good.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday adopted a plan that aims to end traffic fatalities and serious traffic injuries in Houston by 2030.

The “Vision Zero Houston” plan is considered a significant step in the city’s mobility strategy and will change how officials design roads and sidewalks, according to a city news release. The plan, adopted as part of an executive order, will prioritize “engineering, education, enforcement, equity and evaluation,” the release said.

“Some will say this goal is unachievable,” Turner said in the release. “But I say, no loss of life is acceptable on our roadways, None, ZERO.”

Many cities that have adopted the plan reported steady declines in traffic deaths and injuries over the last few years, the release said. The mayor will establish an executive committee of leaders from city departments, surrounding counties, METRO and the Texas Department of Transportation to devise the strategy by this time next year.

See here and here for more on Vision Zero as it pertains to Houston, and here for further blogging. While Vision Zero has been adopted by San Antonio and Austin, but it’s been awhile since we’d heard much here. The Mayor’s press release is here, and if you want to do a deeper dive on what this means, see here, here, and here. This is a long-term process that’s going to involve things like lower speed limits, more and better sidewalks, and a bunch of other changes big and small that will be phased in, with new construction being done to the Vision Zero standard. You’ll be hearing plenty more as we go along.

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

Still tweaking the Metro referendum

Extending one rail line to Hobby Airport instead of two has generated some savings in the projected cost, which can then allow for other things to be done.

The expected price of extending the Green Line and Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport, by combining the two lines and focusing on a route along Broadway, dropped from $1.4 billion to about $1 billion, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Friday.

Metro’s board is nearing a final vote on asking voters for permission to borrow $3.5 billion for a suite of transit projects, the first portion of the agency’s MetroNext long-range plan. Officials must approve a plan by mid-August and call for an election, in order to have it appear on the November ballot.

Likely projects for the ballot proposal include extensions of the Red, Purple and Green light rail lines, 75 miles of proposed bus rapid transit and various park and ride additions or expansions.

Because of the estimated $400 million savings, those projects could be joined by a $336 million extension of the light rail line from Hobby to the Monroe Park and Ride lot near Interstate 45, and relocating the Kingwood Park and Ride closer to Interstate 69, at an estimated cost of up to $60 million.

Both projects were popular with respondents during Metro’s year-long public meeting process about a long-range transit plan, and also have support from local elected officials.

The Kingwood site was an obvious choice, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, because it was affected by flooding when Tropical Storm Harvey deluged Houston. The existing site along Kingwood Drive also is time-consuming for buses to navigate, compared to a location closer to the freeway.

The Monroe rail extension, meanwhile, would provide a place for suburban residents to park and then ride the rail to various job centers.

“I think we have some conservative votes we won’t get if we don’t do it,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, who has pressed for more investment in park and ride locations.

I have no opinion at this time about extending the rail line beyond Hobby. I’d be very interested to see what that does to the ridership projections, which to me are the most important factor. I’m also a little curious as to why this extra rail could be added at such a late date but the proposed Washington Avenue extension couldn’t be. Maybe because there was always going to be something at the one end and we were just trying to decide the details, I don’t know. I will admit to some self-interest in asking this question. Anyway, we should have the final proposition soon, and from there the real campaign can begin.

Meet MetroRapid

That’s the new, official name for the Uptown BRT line.

Station names along the Post Oak dedicated bus lanes will have a familiar ring for riders, transit and Uptown officials decided, as they inch toward opening the region’s first foray into BRT in the coming months.

Eight stations along Post Oak will have mostly non-commercial names, aimed at helping travelers navigate the new bus line. Uptown Houston Management District is building the $192 million project, which started work in 2016 to add a dedicated bus lane in each direction in the center of Post Oak from Loop 610 to south of Richmond.

The southern end of the project will be a new transit center, which will re-route buses from the existing Bellaire Transit Center. The new site, which Metropolitan Transit Authority officials are likely to approve July 31, along with the station names, will be called the Uptown/Westpark Transit Center. It is located at Westpark Drive, just west of Loop 610 where a new ramp is under construction along Interstate 69 as part of the total rebuild of the freeway interchange.

Officials also said they have settled on MetroRapid as the name of the service, which will use large buses but offer trip times and frequencies similar to rail. The Post Oak line will not have all the elements of bus rapid transit, such as priority at all traffic lights, but will be, for most purposes, rapid service.

Though the bus project was devised and supported by officials with the management district, the board of which are major landowners or work for developers along Post Oak, station names largely avoided commercial ties.

“Where possible, the street is the major defining characteristic of a station name,” said John Breeding, president of the management district.

As a result, the stations mirror the names of cross-streets, such as San Felipe, Westheimer and Richmond.

[…]

Tentative plans call for the Westheimer and Alabama stops to have “Galleria” as part of their names, as both are within walking distance of the mall. Breeding said Uptown officials also are working with The Galleria to enhance pedestrian access from the stations to various entrances.

Service is now expected to begin in March of 2020, which is a year later than it was expected to begin the last time an opening date was announced. The HOV lane part of this project is also moving along, also with a 2020 start date. I’m ready to see what it all looks like.