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Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Are you ready for some I-10 construction?

Well, ready or not

State highways officials set out in 2004 to develop a plan to remake Interstate 45 and add managed lanes, only to face increasingly stiff opposition in the past three years from elected officials and community activists that its plan was out of step with future travel needs.

New plans to add managed lanes along Interstate 10 along a corridor inside Loop 610 took only days to get that same response.

The Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority are jointly presenting plans for a so-called Inner Katy Corridor, a project to remake the 10-lane freeway — five lanes in each direction supported by frontage roads and entrance and exit ramps — by building dedicated bus lanes, adding two managed lanes in each direction and upgrading drainage along depressed portions of the freeway.

“The commitment remains to moving the same number of single-occupant vehicles at high speed,” said Neal Ehardt, a freeway critic who advocates a more urban-focused approach that includes downsizing major highways. “We are keeping the same number of single-occupant car lanes and we are adding managed lanes. This is not the mode transition we want. It is more like mode bloat.”

Officials counter that it is a necessary step — and an unconventional one for TxDOT — to stay within the existing freeway footprint as much as possible but meet demand. They understand there are some that believe no additional lanes are needed, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT’s Houston office.

“That is a nice goal to have, but where we are today, we are not there,” Koch said. “We still have traffic and congestion today and we are dealing with those things. I understand the passion those folks have, but not everybody wants to get on the bus.”

Comments for this phase can be submitted to TxDOT or Metro until March 31. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials created a virtual meeting room, also available until March 31.

Planners have three objectives for the eventual project along the I-10 corridor:

  • Building dedicated bus lanes along the freeway to extend Metro’s bus rapid transit from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 to downtown Houston.
  • Improving drainage along the segment where I-10 is below local streets, from Patterson to Loop 610.
  • Adding two managed lanes in each direction and improving carpool access by eliminating any gaps where HOV drivers mingle with general traffic.

Those objectives would be broken up into multiple projects, likely with different timelines.

Metro’s bus lanes, for example, already are funded via the transit agency’s capital budget and money controlled by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which distributes some federal highway funding. Provided Metro is ready to proceed, construction of the $227.5 million bus lane project is set to begin in 2023 and open in 2025, according to H-GAC’s five-year plan.

TxDOT’s managed lanes are not included in upcoming spending plans, with officials saying the current timeline would be to start construction in 2027. The goal, Koch said, is for TxDOT to have some idea of what people prefer so the Metro bus lanes can be built without interfering with what the state constructs in the future.

[…]

The transit lanes have a chance to radically improve the quality of bus rides in the corridor and the region, said Christof Spieler, an urban planner and former Metro board member.

Relative to past freeway discussions, he said, TxDOT is part of a larger conversation about how various projects are coming together, ultimately to determine how Houston grows.

“There are signs in there of TxDOT being more creative than in the past,” Spieler said.

I’m going to wait and see on this one, based on Spieler’s comments. The Metro bus lanes, which were part of the 2019 Metro referendum, are a must-have. I think everyone would like to see drainage improved for this stretch of highway. It’s adding the managed lanes that are going to cause the heartburn, since that either means widening I-10 (which would take up to 115 more feet of right-of-way, according to the story), or adding elevated lanes (which would still need 45 feet) and adding concerns about noise and visual blight. My advice is to attend any public meetings and give your input while you can, because it’s going to be time to start building before you know it.

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

Texas highway officials [last] Thursday gave themselves the green light to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, a crucial step in the process, despite lingering concerns from critics that the proposed $7.5 billion widening project is out of step with the region’s future needs.

The record of decision, essentially a declaration that the project met all the steps laid out in federal transportation rules, clears the way for construction of the revamped freeway, but also allows for changes, Texas Department of Transportation officials said.

In a statement, Houston District Director for TxDOT Eliza Paul said the decision “is a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested.”

Those proposed changes, which critics have sought for more than three years as the project moved through its environmental process, include significant revisions in more than a dozen neighborhoods.

“‘Refinements’ is a blatant mis-characterization of the critical changes requested by Harris County, the City of Houston, and other elected officials representing the people of the directly impacted communities,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has worked with local neighborhoods to oppose the project.

See here for the background. I don’t know what to expect from here, but I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic. Still, the only way to get something like what you want is to keep asking for it. I don’t know how much better it’s possible to make this, but there’s only one way to find out.

There’s a real lack of consensus about the I-45 project

It seems unlikely that TxDOT could just throw up its hands and walk away from this, but it’s at least a possible scenario.

A proposed agreement devised to bring planners and critics of a massive redesign of Interstate 45 together has left officials in many ways further apart and opponents with a chance to convince more people the $8 billion project is stuck in the past.

No one is pulling the plug on the freeway rebuild or its design, but transportation officials said the lack of consensus between the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, Houston and the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council has the region’s largest-ever freeway rebuild at a crossroads. It is a hurdle a proposed memorandum of understanding was intended to clear, but the various agencies could not even agree on the agreement.

Transportation Policy Council members tabled a resolution last Friday after TxDOT said that even voting on an agreement that had no legally binding effect could complicate the project. That left some officials struggling to understand how various concerns about the project can even be addressed.

“I think it is a huge black mark on TPC and H-GAC that after all of this work and all of this community involvement nothing happens,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and a member of the committee that worked on the now-scuttled agreement. “I just can’t imagine this thing foundering at this point and how it will affect the public’s perception.”

[…]

The Transportation Policy Council, which doles out federal money for highways and must include the project in its spending plans for the next decade, brought TxDOT and others together in June 2020 to create an agreement outlining what each hoped to gain from the project and some outline of the design’s goals. A committee was formed to develop a memorandum of understanding, an agreement between the entities outlining what they jointly commit to and who is responsible for certain particulars. The committee was headed by Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Transportation Training and Research.

Lewis said the various groups achieved a lot, developing what she called a framework from which to build consensus even with “extremes of positions” among TxDOT and the project’s critics.

“The opinions were not necessarily all aligned but we got to a good place,” Lewis said.

TxDOT’s legal review, however, called for sweeping changes, eliminating any part of the proposed agreement that conflicted with the current environmental plan. Otherwise, lawyers concluded, TxDOT would not able to sign a deal that differs with what it proposed to federal officials.

Unable to get a firm, binding agreement, Lewis said the committee sought a resolution that would go to H-GAC’s transportation council. The reasoning was that a resolution could at least serve as a guidepost of what everyone wanted to achieve.

Even that ran into opposition from TxDOT. The concern, state officials said, is a resolution would send mixed signals that the project did not have regional support, although the transportation council’s 10-year plan has set aside money for it.

In a statement some said boded ominously, [TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza] Paul noted if the Houston area slowed or stopped its support of the project, it could lose its place in line for state funding.

“I know TxDOT is not going to let the $8 billion sit around until we know what we are going to do,” Paul said.

I don’t know what to make of that, so go read the rest. As noted in the last update, Harris County and the city of Houston oppose the design as it is now but still want to see the project work. Other groups like LINK Houston, Air Alliance Houston, and Stop I-45 are firmly in opposition, and there’s some hope among them that this could be a way to kill the project. I have a hard time believing that, but given how long this idea has been in the works, I could imagine it being delayed for another few years, with the current pot of money being re-apportioned. The TPC has another meeting in late February to try again with this resolution, so we’ll see if they’ve made any progress on it by then.

More bike riders, more bike fatalities

We should try to do something about this.

The COVID pandemic sparked a surge in bike sales and bike riding across the Houston region at a time when pedaling — and driving — area streets is deadlier than ever.

A sharp drop in driving could not stop road fatalities from reaching a record high based on data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation.

That lack of safety was especially true in 2020 for bicyclists, who represent a fractional number of road users but 5 percent of those killed. Last year 31 men and three women died on area roads. The annual total of 34 exceeds that of 2019, which also was a record at 27 for the region in a single year.

Based on a preliminary analysis — reports can take weeks to enter the state’s crash database maintained by TxDOT — crashes involving bicycles are down 15 percent while deaths are up 26 percent from 2019.

Safety researchers and cycling advocates, however, were reluctant to draw too many conclusions from the early numbers or begin laying blame for the jump on any single cause. In fact, where crashes occurred and who died does not align with the noticeable increase in recreational cycling but, rather, the same factors present before the pandemic: a lack of safe space for bicycles, inadequate or absent lighting, and street design choices that enable drivers to speed.

“These aren’t accidents,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of BikeHouston, a local advocacy group. “Our streets were intentionally designed to accommodate one mode, and only one mode.”

[…]

Yet, despite bicycle use for recreation and commuting being higher in neighborhoods within and around Loop 610, that is not where fatalities are happening. Deaths of bicyclists within Loop 610 dropped from seven in 2019 to one last year.

Instead, it is suburban areas where crashes are happening in larger numbers, such as in Houston along U.S. 90 and major streets nearby within the Sam Houston Tollway and along FM 1960 near Bush Intercontinental Airport, which were not built with bicycles in mind.

The number of fatalities always has fallen off the farther from central Houston one gets, but this year some suburban counties logged increases, notably in Brazoria County where five bicyclists lost their lives in 2020. The county’s previous high was three in 2011.

[…]

Last year’s rise in bicyclist deaths mirrors the increase in overall road deaths despite the pandemic-induced economic slowdown that has resulted in fewer vehicles on freeways and streets.

In the 11-county Houston area, 710 roadway deaths were reported by police in 2020, with almost 60 percent being drivers or passengers in cars and trucks. Despite efforts at the state, regional and local levels to curtail crashes and a pandemic that at times cut vehicle use in half, wrecks continued to claim more lives, including a record 482 in Harris County and 263 in Houston.

The conclusion of researchers — who caution that 2020 information is preliminary — is that fewer miles of automotive travel is leading to fewer wrecks, but the resulting collisions and catastrophes occurring are more severe. As a result, few can say roads are any safer.

The connection between less traffic (due to the pandemic) and more traffic deaths was noted months ago, and seems to be the result of people driving faster on those less-congested streets. For obvious reasons, that will be especially deadly for bike riders. There’s a chart embedded in the story that shows 2020 was the highest traffic fatality year since at least 2011 in the Houston area, which I believe in this case is the 11-county H-GAC region. There’s a lot that can be done about this, and a lot that needs to be done, including more roads built for safety over speed, more bike lanes, more and better sidewalks, and just more drivers being aware of bikes and pedestrians. We can make a difference, but we have to want to.

We’re not #1, at least for now!

For the time being, probably not for very long, the most congested stretch of highway in Texas is not in Houston.

Traffic on the West Loop has always been a mess and now it has a ranking from Texas transportation experts to match: No. 2.

Loop 610 through Uptown has lost its top spot among the state’s most congested freeway segments to Interstate 35 in downtown Austin, falling to second place according to an updated list of the 100-most clogged roadways released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and Texas Department of Transportation.

It ends a four-year streak of the Loop between Interstate 10 and Interstate 69 being considered the worst in the state — a distinction the segment easily could reclaim as construction of the Loop 610 and I-69 interchange continues and slows traffic.

“Somebody has to win and somebody finishes second,” said David Schrank, senior research scientist at TTI one of the list’s authors. “It’s just math.”

This year, Schrank said, the math was razor-thin by TTI’s standards, using hours of delay per mile annually as the measurement. I-35 and Loop 610 were separated by fewer than 20,000 hours of delay, each topping 1.6 million total hours stuck behind the wheel.

[…]

Schrank and others have said COVID gives them a rare glimpse into what happens when commutes are curtailed and the effects that can have on traffic. In the Houston area, while some segments of highways are back to their pre-pandemic levels, others remain about 10 percent of the typical traffic volume compared to 2019.

The effect has been segments that came to a standstill for six or seven hours a day — three hours in the morning and evening — are at their worst instead for three or four hours. Traffic experts who look at telework and flexible times to travel to offices say that demonstrates their potential.

“We can potentially take those peak periods and whittle the shoulders off them,” Schrank said.

Still, in many cases congestion is always evolving, Schrank said. A few decades ago most trips into the office in Houston meant a trip from a suburban spot to a parking garage in the central business district. Now, tens of thousands of office jobs are in Uptown along Loop 610, at I-10 west of Houston in the Energy Corridor and sprouting up along the Grand Parkway and Sam Houston Tollway ringing the city.

“They might not have the truck traffic delays you see in the top 15, but those core commute routes are still on the list,” he said. “One can go up and one can go down, but they stay there.”

Yeah, don’t worry, Houston still dominates the list, even if the #1 spot is not ours, at least for now. I will just add that working from home and not contributing to any part of this problem for most of the year is something I will greatly miss when we go back to our office.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

Texas Central once more gets to deal with the Lege

They’re both farther along, and not as far along, as they might like heading into this session.

Less than two months before the Texas Legislature begins its next session, the yearslong battle over a controversial high-speed rail project is expected to spark more legislative skirmishes.

And after years of public skepticism, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support for the project in a letter to Japan’s prime minister, although his spokesperson later said that Abbott’s office will “re-evaluate this matter.”

Last month, Abbott sent a letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga saying: “This venture has my full support as Governor of Texas, and I am hopeful that final negotiations of this project with Japan can be concluded so that construction can begin. Public support and momentum are on our side, and this project can be completed swiftly.”

The Oct. 2 letter also included a significant error. Abbott told Suga that the company developing the high-speed rail line had “all the necessary permits to begin construction.”

The Texas Tribune found that Texas Central, the Dallas- and Houston-based company in charge of the project, is far from receiving all permits needed to build the 240-mile line, which would stretch from Dallas to Houston and cost around $20 billion, according to the company. When contacted by the Tribune with this information, Abbott’s office said it would review the matter.

“From the beginning of this project, the Governor made clear that he could support this project if, and only if, the private property rights of Texans are fully respected,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman told the Tribune on Oct. 7.

“The Governor’s team has learned that the information it was provided was incomplete. As a result, the Governor’s Office will re-evaluate this matter after gathering additional information from all affected parties,” Wittman added.

The governor’s office has not responded to multiple follow-up questions about the results of its review and has not explained why Abbott didn’t know the project lacked permits or who Abbott was relying upon for information about the project.

[…]

Texas Central has said that it plans to start construction by the first half of 2021 and that it has already secured sites for stations in Dallas, Houston and the Brazos Valley.

But the Tribune found that Texas Central still hasn’t applied for a key permit from the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates transportation projects, for the construction and operation of the proposed rail line, according to an STB spokesperson.

And two Texas agencies, the Texas General Land Office and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said they haven’t received all the necessary permit applications from the company, including the route proposal and a permit to discharge stormwater during the construction process.

A third agency, the Texas Department of Transportation, must approve permits for the rail line to cross state roads during construction, but a spokesperson said the agency would consider any proposals from the company only after the STB approves the project.

The company did receive two key approvals in September from the Federal Railway Administration, which provided the regulatory framework and the environmental review for the high-speed train. The railway administration explained that these rulings covered several of the permits needed by the project in areas like railroad safety, protection of parkland and protection of cultural resources.

See here for the previous update, about the approval provided by the Federal Railroad Administration. I have no idea where the other permits stand, or how long that part of it is supposed to take. We’re about to enter at least the third legislative session where I find myself saying “if they can just make it through this session, they’ll probably be okay”. They did fine in 2019, but their opponents are organized and dedicated, and even though I suspect they’re a minority, I have no idea offhand who their best champion in the Lege is. A small group of people who really care about something can often beat a larger group of people who don’t feel all that strongly about whatever it is they’re being asked to care about. TCR might also want to check in with Greg Abbott and make sure he has up to date information from them – assuming he bothers to respond to their requests, of course. On the plus side for TCR, the Lege has a pretty packed agenda, which may crowd out anything their opponents want to do. But I wouldn’t count on that.

A bad streak

Twenty years. Geez.

For 20 years, Texans have been dying to get somewhere, and there is little sign they will stop anytime soon.

Saturday marks 20 years of at least one death a day on Texas roads, a grim milestone in a long-simmering safety crisis lawmakers and local agencies have pledged to stop but have barely slowed in the past two years.

“The numbers don’t reflect it yet, to be frank,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said of efforts to eliminate roadway deaths by 2050.

They eventually will reduce dying on streets, officials said, but only through efforts on numerous fronts. Plans call for spending millions on education campaigns to change driver behavior and keep impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel. Engineers expect to use crash data to identify and then build better intersections and crosswalks. Upcoming state highway repairs include rumble strips to warn drivers when they drift from the road.

Whatever changes officials have in store, the intent is to encourage drivers to do what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, or not enable whatever it is that leads them to poor choices.

“It is the difference between life and death,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the city’s plan for eliminating fatalities on city streets will be released later this month. It is expected to recommend significant reconstruction changes at intersections and along major streets.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” Turner said. “We need to communicate the value of life over speed.”

If we couldn’t have a traffic death-free day during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, I can’t imagine how we’ll ever have one again. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, it seems impossible, barring a radical paradigm shift at some point. (Yeah, yeah, driverless cars. When were those supposed to start being regular features of our daily commute again?) There’s been a lot of work done to make roads safer, and there are more such projects in the pipeline, but those things take time, and we have zillions of miles of roads. Stay safe out there, y’all.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

TxDOT hit with ransomware

Not great.

Texas’ transportation agency has become the second part of the state government to be hit by a ransomware attack in recent days.

On Thursday, someone hacked into the Texas Department of Transportation’s network in a “ransomware event,” according to a statement the department posted on social media Friday.

The departments’ website says some features are unavailable due to technical difficulties, but it is not clear what functions were affected by the attack. Agency officials did not respond to emailed questions Sunday.

[…]

Upon detecting the hack, staff at the transportation department “immediately” isolated the affected parts of the network and “shut down further unauthorized access,” according to the statement. James Bass, the department’s executive director, said his staff is “working to ensure critical operations continue during this interruption.″ The hacks follow a ransomware attack of unprecedented size that hit more than 20 local governments in Texas last summer.

See here for more on the attack on the court system’s website. In 2019, there was a coordinated attack on the systems of multiple small cities and counties.

I can’t find much in the way of news on this, so here’s TxDOT’s statement, via Twitter:

Maybe these two attacks are unconnected – there’s not enough information, such as what type of ransomware was involved and what the vector for it was, for me to take a guess – but the fact that there were two such attacks in a short period of time on two state systems sure seems suspicious to me. If I were at the state Department of Information Resources, I would be very busy, and more than a little concerned, right now. KXAN, CBS DFW, and Bleeping Computer have more.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

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

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

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

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Les traffic, easier construction

We’ll be talking about the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come.

A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.

Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.

“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.

This is actually a great time to hit the streets and get some major work done while there are fewer folks driving, officials said. Work is accelerating or changing on a handful of projects, Lewis said. Typically during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, crews halt work on TxDOT projects in the vicinity of NRG Park. When the rodeo pulled up stakes, the highway workers returned.

The chance to disrupt fewer drivers also is changing some schedules, Lewis said.

“Work on the (Loop) 610-Interstate 69 interchange project has moved up the placement of beams for some of the new connectors,” she said.

Contractors working with TxDOT also are seeing if they can extend lane closures to expedite work while traffic volumes are low. Lewis said those are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“As events evolve, this also could change,” she said.

This all might not last too long – Lord knows, we are all hoping that the bulk of the social-distancing requirements will have a short lifespan – but road construction will be a little easier, and a whole lot less disruptive, in the meantime. I know I’ve barely been in my car over the past two weeks – my group at work was told to start telecommuting ahead of most others, and this past week was spring break. What has been your experience – are you driving less and enjoying the respite, or driving as much and enjoying the lesser traffic?

There’s still (a little) time to affect the I-45 design

There’s stuff happening this week. After that, it gets harder.

City officials and consultants will spend the coming weeks finalizing a few ways to turn the region’s largest and most controversial freeway rebuild of recent years into an Interstate 45 for commuters and inner-city-dwellers alike.

First, however, they must weigh about three dozen ideas with their costs, be it more traffic, trouble for pedestrians or added property acquisition.

“Every one of these is a set of trade-offs,” consultant Christof Spieler told a crowd Feb. 1 at Aldine Ninth Grade School. “If you make lanes narrower, that means you need less property, but it also means you might have more crashes.”

City planners and consultants said the ideas are all viable in and of themselves, but some would require the Texas Department of Transportation to seek federal waivers, such as one calling for 11-foot freeway lanes in certain areas. Others could be a choice between different interests, such as moving the freeway away from White Oak Bayou to preserve greenspace, at the cost of a “more massive” set of ramps, planners said.

The project, expected to cost at least $7 billion, will rebuild most of the downtown freeway system along I-45, Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 and assorted ramps. North of downtown, TxDOT plans to reconstruct I-45 with two managed lanes in each direction from I-10 to Beltway 8.

TxDOT is moving ahead with plans for final environmental approvals and could begin construction within 12 months.

City officials will accept comments on their proposed changes through Friday, and forward the refined ideas to TxDOT in the coming weeks.

[…]

State officials expect to release the final environmental assessment on the project, broken into three segments, in late spring or early summer. Paul encouraged people to examine the final proposal for some of the changes TxDOT already has incorporated to address some of the concerns.

That release will kick off a comment period — though the state does not plan to hold public meetings — before TxDOT can seek federal clearance. With that approval, TxDOT can proceed with construction, which is planned to begin on the southern end near I-69 and Spur 527 and move around downtown and then along I-10 and northward.

The main thing you can do is to take the City of Houston survey about the I045 project, to give them your input and thus help shape the feedback they will give to TxDOT. There are a lot of voices out there, and they don’t all want the same thing, so make your voice heard. You have until Friday, the 14th, for your answers to be included. It has 40 questions and takes a bit of time, so plan accordingly.

And in case you were wondering, this is still in the picture.

“It is a mistake to route our traffic through downtown,” said Michael Skelly, who has organized some of the efforts to change the project over the past two years.

While saying some of the city suggestions would improve the project, Skelly said Houston does not go far enough in demanding changes. Skelly said he wants officials to consider minor changes to I-45 and focus their efforts on routing traffic out of downtown along Loop 610 or the Sam Houston Tollway, through mostly commercial and industrial areas.

“If we’re going to spend $7 billion, I’d rather spend it on a big idea like this,” Skelly said.

The idea, along with opposition by a group arguing to stop the project entirely, contradicts the mandate designers had when they settled on the plan in 2015 to widen the freeway and re-route it to the east side of downtown. For years, their goal has been to increase capacity on I-45 — not move that capacity elsewhere.

“We’re not taking that for granted,” Spieler said. “If the response we get is that reducing capacity is a goal, that requires TxDOT to not fulfill what they are trying to do. Within that, we don’t know which of these are good ideas or bad ideas, but we think there are more options for change.”

I’m not exactly sure what it will take to make that happen, but at least it’s out there.

A better way to do I-45

From Michael Skelley on Facebook:

Here’s a new vision for I-45.
-saves money
-no displacement in low income areas
-no destruction of White Oak Bayou
-prevents TxDOT vandalization of EaDo
-downtown amenities if we want to fund those ourselves

This vision addresses the fundamental problem with this project – we should not be sending thru traffic through the heart of Houston, especially at the expense of low income communities, our kids’ health, and our bayous.

Almost half the traffic on I-45 is not going downtown. Let’s use Beltway 8 and 610 for thru traffic.

Please let us know what you think!

I like this a lot. I’d need to see some numbers, but I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of spare capacity on the east sides of Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As someone noted in the comments on this post, the 45-to-610-to-45 route is only about five miles longer than the 45-all-the-way route, and once you factor in the potential time savings from traffic that flows better, it would probably be no slower than the average trip along 45 is now. This would cost a lot less because there would be a lot less actual construction, and it would be less disruptive because the main construction needed would be at the two interchanges between 45 and 610, rather than the enormous integrations of I-45 into US59 and I-10 that are being proposed today. It would also allow the reclamation of a bunch of downtown real estate now being taken up by the existing I-45 – no more Pierce Elevated, as the current plan allows, but also no more gulf between the Heights and the Near Northside and Lindale. Much of 59 south of downtown was put below grade during its last major renovation, in response to public demand. This makes so much sense I’m kind of surprised no one had proposed it before now. I hope it’s not too late to make TxDOT consider it. What do you think?

Crunch time for I-45

The rubber is meeting the road, as it were.

Three Houston Planning Department meetings scheduled for this week, days prior to a key state deadline, could prove pivotal in shaping how Interstate 45 is rebuilt — with ramifications for years to come.

The meetings, which start Thursday, will be the first chances for residents opposing the $7 billion-plus project to realign and widen I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway to view the city’s proposed adjustments, which Houston will convey to the Texas Department of Transportation this spring.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner tasked Houston planning officials to develop a set of recommendations to TxDOT aiming to address community complaints and how the projects can overcome them. Those recommendations and TxDOT’s response, city officials said, will determine their next steps.

“He is prepared to say ‘thanks but no thanks if that is what the decision is,’” District H Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said of Turner.

In the meantime, TxDOT is moving ahead in its environmental process on the project, releasing 641 pages of its draft environmental report outlining community impacts along the roughly 18-mile route, including the removal of 1,079 homes — including 433 apartments and 486 units deemed low-income or public housing — 344 businesses, 58 billboards, five churches and two schools.

The two reports, available for public comment until Feb. 7, are the final two pieces of the draft environmental analysis TxDOT must complete before a final environmental report is released.

As state officials proceed, however, there is a growing sense that opponents — who have spent the past year vocally urging changes — are transitioning from improving the project to opposing it.

“I have come to the conclusion talking to TxDOT is a waste of time,” project critic Michael Skelly told the Jan. 11 gathering, encouraging people to lean on city and state officials to apply pressure.

Well, lots of people have concluded that the I-45 project is more bad than good, though the TxDOT plan is supported by Metro because of HOV capacity increases, which factor into its mobility plan. I would encourage you to review those city recommendations and try to attend one or more of these meetings – you can find the time and place information at either the city link or the story link. I still don’t think there’s any stopping this behemoth, but there’s still time to try to change it.

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.

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.

What can we really do about I-45?

Urban planner Jeff Speck is once again warning us about the negative effects of widening I-45.

TxDOT cites three principal motivations for advancing the I-45 project: reducing traffic congestion, improving driver safety, and improving air quality. These laudable goals are apparently considered important enough to outweigh the significant costs discussed above. And they might be — if they were achievable.

Sadly, each one is a false promise. Decades of similar state projects around the U.S., each with its own ample justification, teach a simple lesson: highway widenings do not reduce congestion in the long run, and make both driver safety and air quality worse.

[…]

If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure.

This need not happen. Houston has the ability to stop the I-45 expansion in its tracks, just as Dallas stopped the Trinity Parkway. That proposed roadway was called “the worst boondoggle imaginable” despite costing only one-fifth of the current I-45 plan. It took a 10-year fight, but the good people of Dallas rose up and killed it.

Meanwhile, Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

Unlike highway widenings, congestion-based pricing reduces traffic, driving deaths, and pollution, all while earning billions rather than wasting them. It has worked wherever it’s been tried, including London, Stockholm, and Sydney, and it is about to become law in New York City. Even Dallas has been experimenting with congestion-based pricing for years.

Speck has addressed the I-45 expansion plan before, and I find him very compelling. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that there is no current mechanism in Texas to do the things he advocates. TxDOT, as the name implies, is a state agency, with leaders appointed by the Governor. Houston has no authority to impose any kind of pricing on I-45, and TxDOT also has no authority under current law to do congestion pricing, because TxDOT does not operate the toll roads and toll-based HOV lanes that do have that kind of authority. The now-dead Trinity Parkway project was not a TxDOT project but a local project under the auspices of a regional toll road authority.

What I’m saying is that the fight over I-45 isn’t in Houston, it is – or it needs to be – in Austin, in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. You want TxDOT to have a different mission, one that emphasizes transit over highway widening, you need a different Legislature and a different Governor. You want cities to have the authority to impose congestion pricing rules, with the revenue to be used to boost non-automobile mobility, you need to get that new Legislature to pass a law allowing for it, and a Governor to sign it. We can take one step towards those goals next year, but the Governor and the Senate aren’t up for grabs till 2022 (yes, there are Senators on the ballot in 2020, but only one Republican-held seat is a realistic target, and that won’t be enough). What do we do till then? The Make I-45 Better Coalition may be a limited response to a big problem, but at least their goals are achievable in the current time frame. If we want to think big – and we should! – we also have to play the longer game.

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.

HGAC makes its pledge to TxDOT for I-45

Lots of pushback, but not enough to change the outcome.

Local transportation officials now have skin in the game when it comes to widening Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston, approving on Friday a $100 million commitment for the project that has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism from affected communities.

After five hours and nearly 60 residents — as well as Harris County officials — urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.

“It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive,” Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city’s support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.

“We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens,” Robinson said.

[…]

Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion-plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45.

A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.

Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.

The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.

“If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. “It is only responsible to wait.”

Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million, after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.

They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.

See here and here for the background. Allyn West live-tweeted the meeting – see here and here for his tweets, which for some reason I can’t quite seem to fully capture in one thread. If you want to know who spoke and what they said, that’s where to look. LINK Houston also tweeted from the meeting, but not in a threaded fashion, so you need to look at their timeline. They do have pictures, so there’s that. As the story notes, the purpose of this vote was to get the I-45 project on the state’s Unified Transportation Program, basically a ten-year plan for major transportation projects. Someone far geekier than I will have to explain how the timing of that works. In any event, this is not the last time HGAC will vote on this item. HGAC still has to approve adding that $100 million to its own plans, so there will be another vote or two on this in 2020 and 2021, depending on when construction is scheduled to start. TxDOT is still getting public feedback, and I suppose there’s still room for the project to be changed, up till the point where something is well and truly finalized. If you want to get involved in trying to affect, alter, or arrest the development of the I-45 expansion, I suggest you read through Allyn West’s tweets, find the organizations that spoke out and best represent your viewpoint, and contact them to see how you can help. There’s still time, until there isn’t. Don’t wait too long.

HGAC gives initial approval to TxDOT’s funding demand

Approval with concerns. There will be opportunities to revisit this.

Plans to overhaul Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston inched forward this week, but not without some hesitation and a slew of caveats by some local officials who have been asked to commit $100 million to the massive project.

Approval by the Houston-Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee came Wednesday with many members echoing lingering concerns over the project as currently envisioned by the Texas Department of Transportation. Among those are how the agency addresses environmental issues and communicates with the public.

“It is important to recognize that things TxDOT has done in the past are not going to be sufficient for this project,” said Carol Lewis, a TAC committee member and director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at Texas Southern University.

Ultimately, the technical committee approved the committal of $100 million in locally-controlled federal funds to the center segment of the I-45 project, per a request from TxDOT. The final decision rests with H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which meets July 26.

[..]

The approval is not a final word on whether the freeway project is built, and not even the last time H-GAC will have to vote on it.

Local officials must add the $100 million to the region’s short-term transportation plan, also approved by the transportation council. That approval would not happen for a project in 2024 for about another two years.

The resolution, if approved by the regional council next week, notes some of those milestones so officials could be assured they had options if TxDOT did not adequately address community concerns.

See here for the background. Two members of the technical committee, Veronica Chapa Gorczynski, president of the East End Management District, and Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, opposed the request/demand/whatever to commit the money to TxDOT. I’d still just like to know what exactly it would be used for, or at least what are the possibilities, and what would happen if HGAC said “nope”. Not today, I’m afraid.

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.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

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.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.