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Metro

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.

Another manifesto against I-45 expansion

They’re fun to read, and my heart is with them, but we all know how this works.

The I-45 project is likely to do irreversible damage to our city’s finances and ecology. It will reduce the city’s tax base by eliminating existing businesses that affect 25,000 jobs. This includes approximately 20 city blocks in EaDo, a thriving entertainment and residential neighborhood with massive unmet potential. It will wipe out homes, churches and businesses in neighborhoods including Independence Heights, Near Northside and Fifth Ward, repeating the sins of the past by building highways through historical African American and Latino neighborhoods.

This project represents a major transfer of wealth from the city to the suburbs, trading actual city of Houston homes, land, and businesses for the promise of faster trips through Houston. Researchers say that promise won’t pan out long-term: As Houston’s own history with I-10’s expansion demonstrates, adding lanes doesn’t improve freeway congestion for long.

Adding insult to those injuries, the expanded freeway will likely lead to further development on our shrinking forest and prairie lands north of Houston. That open land currently buffers neighborhoods downstream from flooding, and it filters rainwater, improving our area’s water quality.

I have been part of many of the “Make I-45 Better” discussions, hosted with the idea that, if TxDOT would come to the table with resources and an openness to new design approaches, the damage caused by the project could be offset by the benefits it could create. I no longer think this trade-off makes sense.

To move people without the putting an undue burden on the neighborhoods along the I-45 corridor, we need a better regional approach.

What might be possible if we work together on a different vision? Imagine if the state legislature allowed TxDOT act like a true department of transportation — not just a highway department. Imagine leaders from TxDOT, METRO, the city of Houston and others sitting together and figuring out how we can best connect people to the abundance Houston has to offer. Imagine a safer, sustainable and more equitable Houston, where people had choices to avoid congestion. Imagine if we implemented projects that strengthen our city instead of undermine its competitiveness.

That approach shouldn’t be limited to freeways. Given the funds dedicated to I-45 and other roadways, METRO’s METRONext plans, Harris County flood bond projects and Harvey Recovery funds, tens of billions of dollars will soon be spent on infrastructure to remake our city. We need a vision for how all this investment fits together.

See here and here for some previous point/counterpoint, and read the whole thing for the author’s suggestions. I basically agree with everything he says, but it’s all for academic interest, because there’s no mechanism to make any of what he says happen. The truth of the matter is that what we should have been doing is spending the last decade or two working to change the laws on how transportation dollars are allocated by the Lege. That wouldn’t have worked, of course, because there’s very little interest in the Republican legislature for anything other than road building, but at least it would have had a chance of success. It’s still a worthwhile goal, even if it’s too late to do anything about I-45. Lobbying Congress to appropriate more money to transit grants would also be useful. None of this is pretty or easy, but it’s the best we can do.

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

In defense of the I-45 expansion

Jeff Balke rises in opposition to the anti-I-45-expansion clamor.

We have seen comments on social media and rantings about how our city should be more bike friendly and pedestrian safe. How we need commuter rail, better bus service and rapid transit like expanded METROrail. In fact, we could not agree more. We have written time and time again that we must be open to alternate methods of transportation if we are going to grow intelligently as a city over the next two decades.

However, one area where differ quite sharply is the idea that we should do nothing. That the only way to solve the problem is to force motorists to change their habits, give up their cars, and one way to do that is to make traffic worse.

Here is our biggest issue with that: size. Houston is massive. This isn’t New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles. We are 600-square miles inside the city limits alone. Add the entire region and it’s more than double that. Our centers of commerce are all over the place from downtown skyscrapers to medical center hospitals to office towers in the Galleria to warehouses and refineries on the east end to tech companies well north.

It would be virtually impossible to entirely give up a vehicle unless you were able and willing to live close to your job, and that isn’t often possible thanks to our lack of zoning and the far flung nature of our region.

We have seen many suggest projects like these are for the benefit of suburbanites who use our city resources and then retreat to the comfort of their neighborhoods outside the city limits while we are left to deal with the fallout. That is not abnormal. Most big cities deal with the very same issues. Space comes at a premium and not everyone can afford to live inside the Loop.

More importantly, there are things like hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicle movement that must be considered. The fact is we cannot solve our traffic problems in Houston with one thing. Rail, biking, walking, urban planning, wider freeways, none of those things will save us alone. We need a massive, concerted effort with a lot of growing pains to re-build the city the way it probably should have been designed 100 years ago.

Jeff didn’t single out anyone who argued for doing nothing, but as I was one who examined that idea, I’ll give him equal time. My post was more about considering the alternate universe in which we spent the same amount of money on transit as we do on highways – spoiler alert, we could have much better and more expansive transit if we did that – but that’s not how this works. And I did suggest that doing nothing might be better than going forward with this plan, so I’ll own that. Jeff is right, we can’t improve mobility on the wildest dreams of transit alone, and I-45 is a critical evacuation route for hurricanes, so there is a critical need to improve it. (And hope like hell we don’t need that evacuation route while it’s all torn up.) For sure, we will need multiple modes of travel to improve mobility in Houston. I just wish, and I’m sure Jeff agrees with me, that we put some more emphasis on, and resources into, those other modes.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Metro’s driverless shuttle finally debuts

Nice to have good weather.

TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

[…]

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

See here, here, and here for the background. I approve of this kind of usage, with the shuttle acting as a connector between the campus and (right now) a bike trail and (eventually) a light rail stop. That’s how you make it easier for people to not use their cars for short trips. I’ll be very interested to see how many people use this thing, and how many of them come from or go to other non-car modes of travel.

Metro still talking how to get to Hobby

At some point, we gotta make a final call.

Transit and city officials took turns Tuesday trading barbs over the best way to route light rail from Houston’s East End to Hobby Airport.

In a sometimes-testy back and forth, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos and Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman sparred over various scenarios to route rail from the Green Line’s terminus along Harrisburg near 75th to Hobby.

“You are destroying the East End and I am letting you know now I will not support it,” Gallegos said of one plan that would use 75th Street. “If you are going to do this, do it right.”

Patman later fired back that transit officials had gone out of their way to address the concerns, but some compromise was required.

“I have tried to draw them and it has blown up in my face,” Patman said of efforts to find alternatives.

See here and here for the background. There are a lot of considerations to balance, including how much property would need to be taken, what ridership numbers might look like, and how to connect to employment centers. There’s no solution that satisfies everyone, but Metro wants the best plan it can get that will not lose votes for the overall project. I wish them luck.

As rail in the East End remains under review, officials cooled on proposed plans for light rail along Washington Avenue to Heights. The proposal, advocated by the Houston Downtown Management District, would have extended rail service from Houston’s municipal courthouse near Memorial Parkway and Houston Avenue farther west, mostly via Washington Avenue.

The idea generated wide support among transit advocates, but Patman said it may be too late to add more rail to the plan voters will approve.

“We haven’t had a chance to fully vet it and I am not comfortable going to the community with something that is not fully vetted,” Patman said, noting some people have raised concerns.

I hope it’s not too late. This idea makes a lot of sense. Honestly, the biggest problem may be that just ending the line at Heights Boulevard will leave people clamoring to extend it further, and that may be too much to do right now. I’m okay with putting this off for a little while if what we can get in the end is the maximal extension that can be done. Table this for now if we must, but by all means get back to it ASAP.

The driverless shuttle at TSU is ready to roll

I spotted this on Twitter earlier this week.

You may have heard the term autonomous vehicles. These are vehicles that can guide themselves down the road on their own. This technology is being adapted for public transportation. A 2017 statute approved the operation of autonomous vehicles on Texas roads.

METRO has partnered with Texas Southern University for a pilot program in which an autonomous vehicle will operate on a 1-mile, closed loop route along TSU’s Tiger Walk beginning Wednesday, June 5.

To ensure customer safety, an attendant will be on board the shuttle during this pilot program but will not actually be operating it.

The all-electric vehicle seats 6 people, with standing room for 6 others and will operate on weekdays only during these times:

• 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
• 5 – 8:00 p.m.

How to Ride
The vehicle is intended for usage by TSU students, faculty, staff and campus guests. Rides are free, with riders required to show a current TSU ID or valid METRO Q® Fare Card.

All riders must be 18 years of age or older. All mobility devices (including wheelchairs) and service animals are welcome. But please note: the vehicle doesn’t have wheelchair securements.

See here and here for the background. According to a subsequent press release I received, there will be a ribbon-cutting at the Leonard H.O. Spearman Technology Building at 2 PM, if you want to be there. This is later than originally promised, but better late than never. I can’t be there for the grand opening, so I need to take a day off from work later on and make my way over to TSU so I can try this thing for myself. I’ll report back when I do.

UPDATE: This event has been postponed due to the weather. No word yet on when the makeup date will be.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.

HOV for Uptown BRT update

Checking in on this long-time project.

Uptown’s bet on buses is getting a lift from TxDOT in a first-of-its-kind venture that has state highway dollars going to a mass transit project along one of Houston’s most clogged freeways.

Come next year, buses traveling in their own lanes will ascend to the middle of the West Loop 610 for traffic-light trips between Post Oak and Metro’s Northwest Transit Center via a busway that will swing over the southbound freeway and then parallel to it.

Making all the pieces fit along what by many measures is the busiest freeway segment in the state has taken some engineering creativity, as well as a change in policy for the Texas Department of Transportation that many critics say remains too focused on being the “highway department” in a Houston area that is increasingly urbanizing.

“It is a tremendous recognition of how mobility in this region is changing,” said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The $58 million project, which is becoming more visible along the Loop by the day, adds two lanes in each direction specifically for buses. Though other projects around Houston have benefited buses in the past three decades, such as the Katy Managed Lanes along Interstate 10, this will be the first Houston-area transit-only project using highway money since TxDOT was created in 1991 by merging the aviation and highway departments with the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission.

Just for some background, it was six years ago that City Council voted to approve the Uptown TIRZ plan that included the BRT lane construction on Post Oak as well as the HOV construction on 610. A bit more than a year later came the no-light-rail-conversion conditions, which still chap my rear end. The Post Oak construction started in 2015. If we’re really on track to have everything done by next year (woo hoo!), then among other things that would prove how prescient Uptown Management District President and CEO John Breeding was when he told me in a 2010 interview that it would take five to ten years to finish the project. Based on that timeline, we’re more or less on schedule. Have patience, y’all.

Still working on the light rail options for MetroNEXT

The most interesting part of this discussion of where a proposed extension of the Green and/or Purple lines to Hobby Airport may go is unfortunately not on the drawing board at this time.

Speaking before the METRO board, District I City Council Member Robert Gallegos said he’s heard a lot of objections to one proposal that would take the train down 75th Street. He said he worries a rail line would interfere with a big park improvement project.

“We have a beautiful green space, Mason Park,” said Gallegos. “We have a master plan. I’ve met with community three times. They’ve had input on what they’d like to see at that park.”

Other proposals for the Hobby line would put the train on major thoroughfares like Broadway Street and Telephone Road. Board Chairman Carrin Patman said the challenge is finding the most efficient route along existing streets.

“The time to get to airports matters for people using it for that purpose,” said Patman. “The more zigs and zags you have the more time is added.”

At their May meeting, board members also viewed a proposal for light rail on Washington Avenue between downtown and Heights Boulevard, but that plan was presented only for discussion.

The Chron story has some more details.

The long-range plan already includes a 0.2-mile extension of the Green and Purple Lines from their western end in the Theater District of downtown to the Houston Municipal Courthouse. The new proposal, suggested by officials with the Houston Downtown Management District, would continue that extension further, likely by taking the line along Houston Avenue and then west on Washington Avenue. Additional stops would be at Sawyer and Studemont.

“I would be really curious what the ridership models will show,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Officials stressed the proposal is being evaluated and is not part of the plan, yet.

“We’re looking at it,” Patman said.

With few specifics outlined, many residents of the nearby Sixth Ward, bordered by Buffalo Bayou and Washington Avenue, and the Heights cheered the possibility.

See here for the background. Dug Begley of the Chron tweeted what a Washington extension might look like. I like the idea, but I agree with the commenters who ask why stop there. I proposed what was then a stand-alone and now would be an extension of the existing Green and Purple lines all the way to the Galleria way back in 2009. None of this is remotely feasible now, and there would be engineering challenges even if it were politically and financially doable, but it would be high-quality transit through a part of town that could easily support it, and would offer multiple connections to high frequency bus lines as well as to the Uptown BRT line, which in turn could get you to the high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610. The idea is free if you ever decide to use it, Metro.

How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

The state of the city 2019

There are still things to do that don’t have to do with the endless fight over Prop B.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner used his fourth annual State of the City address Monday to announce a plan aimed at drawing private investment to city parks in underserved areas, while casting the state of the city as “strong, resilient and sustainable,” a depiction his mayoral opponents swiftly rejected.

Turner, who is up for re-election in November, also renewed his call for a multimodal transit system with rail and bus rapid transit, urging residents to give Metro borrowing authority for its long-term plan in November. The agency is expected to put a multi-billion-dollar bond request on the ballot.

“This is not the city of the 1990s,” Turner said. “This city has changed. The region is changing. People are demanding multimodal options, and we have to give it to them.”

[…]

Speaking to a packed crowd of elected officials, city staff and the business community, the mayor pitched Houston as a prime location for technology startups, touting steps the city has taken to expand its tech presence. He acknowledged that “Silicon Bayou” has played catch-up to other cities that were faster to attract talent.

“It makes no sense why the (tech) ecosystem in Houston should not be No. 1 in the world,” Turner said, pointing to the city’s large medical center, multiple universities and reputation as the world’s energy capital.

Several minutes into his address, delivered at the Marriott Marquis hotel downtown, Turner announced a “50-for-50” plan aimed at revitalizing city parks “primarily in communities that have been underserved.” Under the plan, Turner said, 50 companies would each “partner” with a city park, volunteering to “take ownership” of the park and maintain it for about five years.

[H-E-B President Scott] McClelland, who chairs the Greater Houston Partnership, committed onstage to participate in the program.

You can see the text of the Mayor’s address here. There’s some stuff in the story about the other Mayoral candidates, which, whatever. I’m more interested in seeing Mayor Turner give full-throated support to the Metro referendum, which we are very much going to need. We can go from a city and a region that has okay transit to a city and a region that has good transit, if we want to. The only person running for Mayor that I trust with that is Mayor Turner.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.