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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Over the culvert we go

We have a bridge from one side of the construction to the other:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertOverpass062622

You can see the outline of the overpass in my previous photos; you can also see how quickly an expanse of blank concrete can get graffitied. I assume we’ll start to see more work on the east (closer to Studewood) side of the extension, though there’s still a lot of work to be done on the west side, where that retaining wall has to be finished. So does the overpass itself – one presumes there will be railings and probably some lights installed before all is said and done.

You can now begin to see the path of the trail on the east side:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide1_062622

That looks a bit curvier than the project plan diagram would suggest, but whatever. I suppose it’s possible the plan is to excavate more into the hill on the north side, to make the trail more of a straight path, but it may also be that that is unsound from an engineering perspective. The tenants at the 401 Studewood building might have some questions about that.

A closer look right at the east end of the overpass:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide2_062622

It’s hard to judge from these photos how much room there is to dig into the hill. I will of course continue to keep an eye on it.

That’s an awful lot of tunnels

I’d say the over/under for the number of these that actually gets built is 1, and I’d bet the under.

On Monday, May 30, Bloomberg reported that it had obtained documents that showed Elon Musk’s Boring Company had pitched eight plans for projects in Texas. The documents, which stretch back over a year, included plans for connecting I-35 and MoPaC; a tunnel between Tesla’s Giga Texas factory, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and downtown; and multiple tunnels in Pflugerville, where the Boring Company is now headquartered.

But a newly obtained document outlines an August 2021 Boring Company pitch for an even more ambitious project: plans to connect Austin and San Antonio via a system of underground tunnels. As of now, it is unclear how far the proposal reached, or which segments of the plan are being actively pursued.

Chap Ambrose, a man who lives next door to the Boring Company test site in Bastrop County, received the document as part of a public information request via the City of Kyle and posted it to Reddit. In the two emails between Boring Company business development lead Brian Gettinger and a Kyle official whose name has been redacted, they discuss involving the suburb south of Austin in its larger plan.

The plan, as outlined by Gettinger, is three-fold:

  • The Boring Company would “deploy individual systems in San Antonio and Austin.”
  • A connection between the cities, “likely collaborating with TxDOT” would follow I-35
  • Different city utilities would create segments to connect to the San Antonio to Austin system as follows:
    • Kyle to Austin
    • New Braunfels to San Antonio
    • San Marcos to Kyle
    • New Braunfels to San Marcos

In April, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg expressed his displeasure over a proposed plan to construct a Tesla-exclusive tunnel connecting San Antonio International Airport and downtown.

“We have a lot of transportation issues that we want to solve here in Texas and in San Antonio, frankly. That doesn’t solve any of them,” Nirenberg said on Inside Texas Politics.

[…]

Ambrose has spoken in front of city officials in his hometown and in Kyle about the opacity with which he believes the Boring Company operates in Central Texas.

“Business as usual for TBC,” he tells MySA via text message. “Trying to pull strings in the background. I think they’d catch more fish with transparency.”

In a reply less than two hours later, the Kyle official asks for cost specs so that they can find a location and consider funding.

“We would love a connection into downtown Austin AND ABIA,” the official writes.

On May 3, Kyle City Council approved a professional services contract to build a railroad pedestrian underpass to connect to its Vybe trail network.

Good luck with that. You may recall this all started with a proposal to build a tunnel from the San Antonio Airport to downtown SA, which later on morphed into a possible San Antonio to Austin tunnel project. There’s a lot of skepticism about how this could possibly work, and so far all of the price tags I’ve seen for this seem suspiciously low. We’re in the Elon Musk Zone here, it doesn’t have to make sense. The full list of projects includes one in our backyard, a drainage tunnel for groundwater under SH 288, as well as the first mention of hyperloops I’ve seen in a couple of years. Good times. Tune in at some unspecified point in the future to see if any of this has moved from the conceptual phase to something else. The Current has more.

Supreme Court confirms that Texas Central is a railroad

Hope it’s not too little, too late.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday gave the go-ahead to beleaguered plan to build a bullet train connecting Houston and Dallas, ruling that companies behind the project have the power to acquire private property through eminent domain. .

In a 5-3 ruling issued Friday, the high court said that Texas Central Railroad and Texas Logistics could indeed be considered as an “interurban electric railway companies” under state law, even though they have yet to build a railroad, and may never do so.

The decision culminates a years-long legal battle, launched by landowners along the bullet train’s route shortly after project was proposed. One of them, Leon County rancher James Fredrick Miles, filed suit in 2016, after Texas Central sought to survey the roughly 600 acres he owns along its “preferred” route—land which would be bisected if the bullet train is built.

The case turned on what it means to be a “railroad company” or “interurban electric railway company,” which have eminent domain authority under the state Transportation Code.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Critics say the idea of a Houston-Dallas bullet train could be over

Miles, along with other property owners argued that Texas Central didn’t qualify because it wasn’t operating a railroad and may never do so. Texas Central has yet to build any tracks or train stations, or acquire the Japanese Shinkansen railcars called for in the project proposal.

The project’s proponents, however, argued that this line of reasoning yielded a chicken-and-egg problem that would make it impossible to ever build a rail line.

A trial court sided with Miles. A court of appeals in 2020 overturned that ruling, leading Miles to petition the Texas Supreme Court for review. Friday’s ruling affirms the appellate court’s ruling.

See here for the previous update, and here for the majority opinion; there were two concurrences and two dissents, and you can find all of those documents here. As the story notes, this ruling comes at a time of turmoil for Texas Central. It’s not clear if this will finally enable them to move forward with construction, or if the only beneficiary will be whatever tries to resurrect the idea of a privately-run high speed railroad following their downfall. But in the end, they were indeed a railroad. That has to mean something.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Our electric car charging stations future

Lots more are coming.

Texas is planning to add enough electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state to support 1 million electric vehicles with dozens of new stations to allow for easier long-distance travel.

In a draft plan released this month, the Texas Department of Transportation broke down a five-year plan to create a network of chargers throughout the state, starting along main corridors and interstate highways before building stations in rural areas.

The plan is to have charging stations every 50 miles along most non-business interstate routes.

In most other areas in the state, there will be charging stations within 70 miles, according to the plan. Each station is designed to have multiple stalls so there will likely be one available whenever someone stops to charge.

The chargers will be high-powered at 150kW, able to bring most electric vehicles from 10% to 80% in about half an hour, according to the report.

The funding is coming from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, which is estimated to allocate about $408 million over five years to Texas for the purpose of expanding its electric vehicle charging network. No funds from the state budget will be used. Nationally, the goal is to create a network of 500,000 convenient and reliable electric vehicle chargers by 2030. In total from the infrastructure act, Texas is expected to receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects.

[…]

Chandra Bhat, a University of Texas transportation engineering professor and the director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Center on Data-Supported Transportation Operations and Planning, said the additional charging stations are a welcome upgrade to Texas transportation. Some of Bhat’s research has been funded by TxDOT.

Bhat said there are several barriers to electric vehicle adoption by consumers: the upfront cost, anxiety over how far a driver can travel and the wait times for charging.

This new plan addresses range anxiety by providing many options only 50 miles apart — however, it doesn’t address cost or fully address wait times, he said. Although the planned chargers will be high speed, it still takes around half an hour, he said. A driver might not know how long they may have to wait if someone else is already using the stalls.

That uncertainty can cause consumers to pass on purchasing electric vehicles altogether, he said.

This is a good thing. There aren’t many electric cars in Texas right now, but the number is growing, and making it easier to charge them will help people overcome whatever concerns they have in considering them. I mean, with gas prices what they are right now, who wouldn’t be thinking about going electric?

Is Texas Central in trouble?

This story sure questions its stability.

The departure of Texas Central Railway’s CEO has critics of the proposed bullet train between Houston and Dallas optimistic the controversial project has reached its last stop, far short of ever starting construction.

“Texas high-speed rail is collapsing before our eyes,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a longtime skeptic of the plan, said in a social media post. “Today, with no leadership, no funding, no permits and no Washington bail-out from taxpayers, this project is dead.”

Carlos Aguilar, who stepped in as CEO in December 2016 as Texas Central said it was closing in on construction approvals, announced Saturday that he was leaving the company.

“While I could not align our current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward, I wish the project the greatest success and remain convinced of the importance of this venture for the safety and prosperity of ALL Texans,” Aguilar wrote in a post on the career development site LinkedIn.

Texas Central did not respond to a request for comment.

Aguilar’s departure follows a moribund few months for the company, which dramatically slashed its staff early in the COVID pandemic, while saying it still planned to break ground soon on the 240-mile line between the two metro areas. The Federal Railroad Administration in September 2020 approved plans for the line, mostly along a utility corridor through 11 Texas counties, with a stop near College Station.

While a major step forward, the announcement was among the last significant moves for the proposed train line that was to use Japanese Shinkansen railcars assembled in the United States to whisk travelers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes.

For nearly two years, Texas Central announced various reiterations of previous agreements, shed more staff and fought critics who sought to strip it of its condemnation rights.

The issue of whether the company can acquire property via eminent domain remains unresolved, with a ruling pending from the Texas Supreme Court.

CEOs come and go – this one’s departure doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The lack of news is more troubling – TCR had hoped to start construction in 2020, and while we can all understand why that didn’t happen (seriously, look at the date on that post), the fact that they haven’t announced a new target date to start isn’t encouraging. I continue to believe that this project makes a lot of sense, but if nothing else the original contention that a privately-owned and funded railroad could get lines built and trains running in a faster and more efficient manner than a government-run entity has been sorely tested. I hate to think that all of this work could be thrown away and we’d be back at square one, but that outcome is in play. I sure hope to see something contrary to that soon.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

OK, now I know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension will look like

In my last post about the construction of the White Oak Bike Trail extension, I said that I couldn’t quite envision what the finished product would look like. That was partly because there were three things that looked like they might be part of that finished product, partly because it wasn’t yet clear how the trail was going to get across the little bayou culvert that separated the construction area, and partly because there hadn’t been any construction on one side of that culvert yet. Without any further information, I was just going to have to wait until later in the process, when hopefully the final shape would become clear to me.

Turns out I needn’t wait that long. I was tipped off by Alex Bunin via email about the project plans online. The best view is from this document, which is labeled “Rendering” under the “Exhibits” folder. Here’s a screenshot:

I actually took that from this PowerPoint presentation of the full project, which is the “PowerPoint Presentation” link under “Meeting Materials”. From this, it’s clear that what I had interpreted as a stairway/pedestrian path on the north side is actually the start of a retaining wall, and what I had seen as the path itself closest to the bayou is just a path for the construction equipment, with the actual trail-to-be in between the two. There will be a bridge over the culvert, but it will be farther away from the bayou, over an area that wasn’t originally dug out – if you look at this Construction Phasing Map, you can see that the bridge will be over an extension of that culvert that has been excavated as part of the first phase. You can see the pictures I took of that from April.

Just driving past the construction this week, I see what looks like the beginning of the bridge over that culvert extension. I suspect that when I take the next batch of pictures, it will be much more apparent. And that’s exciting! It’s both real progress, and it should be easier to gauge how much left there is to do once that is in place. Indeed, if you look at the feedback to questions about the project, the official word is that they expect to be finished in mid-July. I’ll keep you up to date as we go.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

I don’t really know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension is going to look like

There’s not a whole lot of change since the last update a month ago, at least in terms of how things look and what the final shape of the update might be. There are two particular areas of question for me, and that’s what this update will focus on. First things first, what exactly are the building on the west side of the extension?

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudwood_060522

This picture looks a lot like the one from last month’s update, and I’m still not sure what they’re doing with the part on the right. The difference in color and the shape of the brock wall make me think this will eventually be a stairway, but the more I look at it the less I understand why. There’s not really anything analogous to this elsewhere on the trail, and it’s far enough away from what looks like the actual trail that I wonder what the reason is for the separation. Could it be leading to something other than back to the trail and its junction with the MKT Trail? I have no idea, and if it is I don’t know what it would be leading to. I guess I could approach this from the MKT Trail side, but I’m leery of entering the construction area, which I’m sure would be viewed as trespassing.

I also note the flat surface immediately to the left of the maybe-stairs, which is now used by the construction machinery. Is it possible this will remain like that and serve as a path as well? What in the world would be the purpose of it if it does? All we can really do is wait for the construction to get to a point where it all makes sense. In the meantime, it’s making me a little crazy.

The other item is the connection across that culvert that I’ve noted before:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertView_060222

The concrete retaining walls, and whatever that tunnel for bayou overflow water is, appears to be the main focus of the construction lately. The question I had before still remains, which is how the extension to the west of that culvert will connect to the still-to-be-laid-out extension to the east of it. At this point, the only way forward appears to be over the culvert, but as yet there’s no indication what the plan to accomplish that is. While there’s more dirt piled up on the east side of it now, there’s no actual construction activity over there yet. Like I said, the anticipation is killing me.

With the completion of the MKT Bridge repairs, this is the only construction project to complete. Maybe that will move things along faster. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on it and letting you know what I see.

The limits of Vision Zero

A long read about a tough problem.

Los Angeles was not the first U.S. city to sign on to Vision Zero: Chicago (2012), New York City (2014) and San Francisco (2014) had already adopted the Scandinavian-born safety movement. But L.A. moved quickly, revamping 18 corridors — including the Hollywood and Highland intersection — with “Vision Zero safety countermeasures” like curb extensions and protected left turn signals. In 2017 the prestigious Transportation Research Board cited the city’s effort as national model, producing a report intended “as a guide to help cities develop their own robust, data-driven Vision Zero process.”

But since 2015 the streets of Los Angeles have grown more deadly, not less. In 2021, 289 people died on L.A. roadways, a 20-year high. “Is Vision Zero a failure?” a headline in the Los Angeles Times recently asked.

Residents of other American cities might pose the same question. In New York City, traffic deaths in 2021 were the highest since committing to Vision Zero seven years earlier. Portland, Oregon, saw more traffic deaths last year than it had since 1990, and Austin set a new all-time record (both became Vision Zero adherents in 2015). Deaths are surging in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., as well. In fact, it’s hard to find any Vision Zero cities where traffic deaths have declined. (A rare exception is Hoboken, New Jersey, which went three years without a single fatality.)

While some have blamed Covid-19-related societal disruption for the growing toll, U.S. cities were already struggling to keep traffic fatalities from rising, let alone reducing them, before the pandemic hit.

Vision Zero’s track record in the U.S. contrasts sharply with Europe, where road deaths have been drifting downward for years. In 2019, Helsinki had exactly three traffic fatalities — and none was a pedestrian or cyclist. For comparison, the capital of Finland has roughly as many residents as Las Vegas, a Vision Zero city where 304 people died on the road that same year.

Despite Vision Zero being one of the hottest ideas in traffic safety, its European success has not translated across the Atlantic. Current trends suggest that is unlikely to change, absent a fundamental rethink around policy implementation.

“Vision Zero had something of a honeymoon phase,” said Leah Shahum, director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network. “Now we’re butting up against the system.”

The system, for US cities and road networks includes streets designed to maximize automotive traffic flow, national vehicle safety standards that don’t take pedestrian safety into account, local obstacles to implementing various traffic-calming projects (see, for example, the resistance to the West 11th Street project), a lack of speed and red light cameras, and more. The predictable result is more traffic fatalities than we should have. Go read the rest.

The MKT Bridge has reopened

This pleasant surprise came out on Thursday evening.

A vital and long-unused bridge in a buzzing Houston neighborhood is set to reopen.

The M-K-T Bridge, located in The Heights near White Oak Bayou, will be accessible to users on Friday, May 27, the Houston Parks Board announced. A key artery for walkers and joggers, the bridge spans over the bayou at I-10 near Studemont Street. Out of use since it was significantly damaged by a fire in August 2020, the bridge reopens after repairs began in March.

This reopening is actually ahead of schedule, as the bridge was set to open this summer, as CultureMap previously reported. It provides a pivotal outlet for those who use the M-K-T Trail, which connects The Heights to Sawyer Yards and the Washington Avenue Corridor area.

See here for the background, and here for the Houston Parks Board’s announcement. As you know, I’ve been following the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, which connects up on the west side of the bridge. I have not seen any construction activity myself, but either I haven’t known where to look or it’s been happening when I haven’t been looking. In any event, the bridge is now open, and here’s the press release I got about it on Friday:

Houston Parks Board is excited to announce MKT Bridge is now open to the public!

An essential component of the trail system in the Heights connecting to White Oak Bayou Greenway, MKT Bridge has been fully restored just in time for summer. Working closely with the City of Houston, owner of the bridge, and Harris County Flood Control District, Houston Parks Board worked diligently to repair the bridge after it sustained extensive damage due to a fire in August 2020.

Initial repairs to MKT Bridge began in summer 2021. While conducting this repair work in August 2021, contractors and structural engineers found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment of the bridge’s condition. It was determined further repairs were needed before the bridge could safely reopen, which was disappointing to the community users.

Following expedited approval of the additional design plans from the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District, on site construction to MKT Bridge resumed in March 2022.

The recently completed repair work included adding steel channels and bracing to the timber piling, transferring weight from the bridge to the ground.

Houston Parks Board is thrilled to have this essential connector reopen in time for summer. Thank you for your understanding as we worked as quickly as possible to make MKT Bridge safely accessible once again, and to the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for the partnership in this effort.

That’s from the email, which also has a link to a bunch of photos, from the ribbon-cutting event and from the construction, which I find fascinating because I just never saw any of it while it was happening. Just goes to show me, I guess. I can’t wait to give it a go myself. I’ve also got some more pix from the bike trail construction that I’ll run shortly. For now, hooray! The MKT Bridge is back, and many bicyclists in the area will be delighted. The Leader News, Community Impact, and the Chron have more.

Are road signs that warn about highway fatalities a danger?

Could be.

Driving along Texas highways, drivers will likely see electric signs that provide real-time traffic alerts, weather information or unique public safety announcements. While these signs are designed to increase public safety, new evidence suggests that one type does more harm than good.

recent study from Joshua Madsen and Jonathan D. Hall outlines how dynamic message signs (DMSs) displaying the year-to-date number of fatalities actually distract drivers and cause more accidents.

“The intention of these messages is to hopefully reduce crashes and encourage safe driving, and our findings are showing that it’s backfiring,” said Madsen, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’re finding an immediate increase in crashes, very small, but its clearly going in the wrong direction.”

After analyzing data on 880 fatality signs and all crashes occurring in Texas from 2010 through 2017, Madsen and Hall found that the number of crashes increased as drivers got closer to the signs.

The number of crashes increased by 1.35% within 10 kilometers of the signs, and raised to 1.52% within five kilometers of the signs. Those numbers only increased in areas with complicated road segments.

“What’s the cost of a two-second distraction?” Madsen asked. “If I’m on a straight highway between Austin and Houston, there’s not many consequences to a two-second distraction. If I’m dealing with an interchange, there’s five lanes of traffic. I need to be switching lanes and getting out. That would be a much more complicated road segment and having a two-second distraction could certainly be more costly.”

The research suggests that the signs cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 fatalities every year in Texas, with an annual cost of $377 million. The study says the effects of displaying fatality messages are comparable to raising the speed limit by 3-5 miles per hour or reducing the number of highway troopers by 6-14 percent.

[…]

In a statement to the Chronicle, a TxDOT spokesperson said the “real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and people not wearing seat belts.”

“We appreciate any focus on safety and the critical need to inspire drivers to make the best decisions behind the wheel,” the statement reads.” In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions, to include assumptions made by the study authors regarding driver psychology and behavior.”

“We continually evaluate the effectiveness of our safety messages, and for quite some time now, we have not shared fatality numbers on the dynamic messaging signs (DMS). We look for every way to make our roads as safe as possible, and to use effective measures to remind drivers that most of the time they have the power in their hands to help prevent fatalities on our roadways.”

The study is here. I read through the abstract, and if I’m reading this correctly they are comparing collisions during the weeks that TxDOT is displaying these dynamic messages (called “campaign weeks”, which as the authors note has been one week per month since August 2012) to the weeks when it is not. The comparison is for the areas near the signs in the campaign weeks to the off weeks. The method seems reasonable to me, and the time span is long enough that there ought to be enough data to draw conclusions, but I don’t fully buy it. The large area in which the crash data was measured, which I presume is to allow for a sufficient number of crashes to measure, is broad enough that I don’t think you can assume enough of these drivers even saw the signs in question on the journey that included the crash.

I don’t want to speculate about what else might be in play here. The way they defined the data sets does a pretty good job of eliminating a lot of randomness, and the hypothesis that the signs can be distractive has merit. I just feel like this is a broad conclusion to make from inferential data. I can certainly believe that the signs don’t have any positive effect, and I can believe they could have a negative effect. I’d just like to see some more data before I’m convinced.

Is that San Antonio airport tunnel really going to happen?

Reality check:

In March, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority unanimously approved a feasibility study for a proposal from billionaire Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to build subterranean “public transit” from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown.

At the meeting, RMA Board Member Michael Lynd Jr. and Bexar County Director of Public Works Renee Green affirmed that the Boring Co.’s proposal — a nine-mile underground tunnel that would transport passengers in Teslas from the airport to the Pearl and downtown — was the most feasible option among the bids it considered.

Questions have swirled about what problem Musk’s $247 million-plus overture would solve, whether it qualifies as public transit and whether transportation dollars would be better spent on better-proven, if less-flashy, solutions to San Antonio’s traffic woes.

As the Boring Co.’s $247 million bid undergoes a feasibility evaluation, it’s worth considering whether Musk’s latest pie-in-the-sky venture has any prospect of working. According to local experts across a variety of disciplines, the project is doomed from the start.

See here, here, and here for the background. You should read the rest, but I’ll summarize it as concerns about water and other environmental issues (more on that here), property rights, and the fact that the San Antonio transit agency VIA is already in the process of implementing an express bus service from the airport to downtown; this would happen before the Musk tunnel and would directly compete with it. I’m also deeply skeptical of the price tag, which just seems awfully low to me. But hey, we’ll see what that feasibility study says. Maybe we’re all wrong.

Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

Legal pot may mean less driving while stoned

So says one study.

A new study has determined that people in states where cannabis is legal are less likely to drive while stoned than people in states where weed remains criminalized.

The study, published this month in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, analyzed self-reported data from a national survey on cannabis use. Respondents in states where cannabis has been legalized for medical or recreational use said they were less likely to get behind the wheel within three hours of consuming the substance than those in states where pot is legally prohibited.

The results appear to contradict claims that decriminalizing weed will lead to upswings in impaired driving, a criticism sometimes voiced by anti-reform lawmakers.

The study considered Texas a state where cannabis is illegal since researchers collected their survey data between August 2016 and May 2017, a time before the legislature expanded its medical marijuana program to include more than a narrow range of ailments.

Researchers said the results suggest that states with legalized cannabis have done a better job educating residents about potential dangers of driving while impaired. Labeling requirements on legal cannabis also may help by providing warnings that deter people from getting behind the wheel.

“In legal states, cannabis users may receive more information about the risks of cannabis use from sources like physicians who issue medical cannabis cards or dispensary staff than users living in neither states,” the study’s authors wrote.

One exception in the findings was that medical cannabis patients who report frequent use had driving behavior on par with pot users in states where pot is illegal.

The study is here, and it’s too wonky for me to try to evaluate. It is just one study, and it is of self-reported behavior, though as they note in the study that has statistical validity. But it’s still just one study, and there’s clearly a lot of room for more analysis. It’s a starting point for the inevitable claims that legalizing pot will unleash countless stoned drivers on the roads.

The White Oak Bike Trail extension starts to come into focus

When last we visited the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, we were puzzling over what the deal was with whatever they were doing next to the trail itself. I couldn’t tell where it was going or why it was there. A couple of weeks later, from the same view that I normally get looking at it from Studewood to the east, I could see that it was coming along but still couldn’t decipher what it was for.

BikeTrailExtensionWalkingPath

Fortunately, I finally had the time to try to find some alternate perspectives. Starting from the new little parking lot for the Bayou Greenways Park on Studewood just north of I-10, I crossed the bridge over Studewood into the little park, which extends north of the trail just before the MKT Bridge, and walked the park trail along its north end, which gave me a side view of the trail extension instead of just the front-on view I’d been getting. And lo, it all made sense.

BikeTrailExtensionSplitFullPicture

You may need to click on the photo to see it on Flickr so you can zoom in. What you see on the left (the west end) is a connection from whatever that parallel thing is to the bike trail. Here’s a zoomed-in view of it that I took:

BikeTrailExtensionSplit

What that says to me is that the parallel structure is likely an alternate path for walkers, with stairs on the east end leading to a flatter surface, instead of the deeper slope that the bike trail has. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. I can sort of see the stairs taking shape at the other end, though it’s still early for that. I suppose there’s a design document somewhere that can confirm or contradict my hypothesis, but if this isn’t what is happening then I’m really at a loss. I expect this will become more obvious over the next few weeks.

So far all of the construction activity is on the west side of that little culvert from the bayou, which creates a bifurcation in the planned path. While I was using this perspective, I got a picture of the gap between the two halves, so you can see what will need to be bridged:

BikeTrailExtensionChasm

I have no idea what the plan is for that. And given what we’ve just seen here, I may not be able to make sense of it when I do see it, at least at first. I’ll let you know when that happens.

(Still no sign of construction on the MKT Bridge itself. I have no idea what’s going on with that, either. The previously reported estimate for that to be fixed was “late summer”, so we still have almost five months. But they sure are taking their time about it.)

Texas misses the train

Greg Abbott’s border hostage-taking has a cost.

The Mexican government said it intends to shift long-range plans to build a trade railway connection worth billions of dollars from Texas to New Mexico in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s stepped-up border inspections last month, which were widely criticized as being financially damaging and may now leave a lasting impact on relations between Texas and its No. 1 trading partner.

Mexican Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier said a planned rail and ports expansion — known as the T-MEC Corridor — to connect the Pacific port of Mazatlán to the Canadian city of Winnipeg would not use Texas, but instead the rail line would be routed along the far edge of West Texas up through Santa Teresa, N.M., about 20 miles west of downtown El Paso.

“We’re now not going to use Texas,” Clouthier said at a conference April 28 in Mexico City. “We can’t leave all the eggs in one basket and be hostages to someone who wants to use trade as a political tool.”

Clouthier was referring to what Mexican and U.S. officials and business leaders on both sides of the border have described as chaos generated by Abbott’s April 6 order requiring that all commercial trucks coming from Mexico to Texas go through “enhanced” safety inspections. Abbott said the move was necessary to crack down on human and drug smugglers.

Critics pushed back, saying the governor’s move was motivated by politics and noting that commercial trucks are already checked by U.S. federal authorities. They also noted that border security is a federal responsibility, and that while DPS officials can conduct vehicle safety inspections, they have no authority to conduct searches.

[…]

During a visit to Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s Foreign Minster Marcelo Ebrard told Milenio TV Sunday night that the stepped up inspections were “an extortion scheme, or rather it is extortion: I close the border and you have to sign whatever I say. That’s not a deal, a deal is when you and I are in agreement on something.”

Abbott’s office didn’t return a request for comment.

Jerry Pacheco, president of the Santa Teresa-based Border Industrial Association, called Clouthier’s announcement “a very positive step for New Mexico,” but cautioned that such a project will take years to complete and “anything can happen in that time.”

“I don’t think they’ve even gotten to finish a design yet,” Pacheco said. “So this is very much in the preliminary stages, but the very fact that we’re being discussed in the early stages is a positive thing. If this particular project doesn’t work out, there’ll be other projects that the Mexican government will have and they’ll speak favorably of New Mexico because they know we want to work with them in a constructive way.”

Pacheco said he’s already seen a sea change from the business community in Mexico and the United States.

“It’s been very interesting, but since Gov. Abbott’s truck inspections went away, our traffic numbers remain higher than normal in terms of northbound cargo shipments, which leads me to believe that what I thought would be a temporary fix is actually going to stick in the long term,” he said. Ciudad Juárez and El Paso business leaders “are referring to us now as a ‘very effective delivery route.’ ”

[…]

In many ways, Abbott’s inspections only boosted Santa Teresa, an already thriving community with a port of entry where companies also produce materials and components for factories in Mexico that assemble everything from computers, wind blades, consumer electronics and processed foods to automobiles and industrial equipment that they then ship back to U.S.-based businesses.

Industrial parks in Santa Teresa house big warehouses for products constantly crisscrossing the border, backed by a transportation network that includes an airport and railroad and distribution firms that manage the constant movement of goods in all directions. The entire industrial zone operates as one of the nation’s largest inland ports for truck-and-train transshipments across North America, although Laredo is the No. 1 crossing point for commercial rigs.

The Santa Teresa port has long offered a rapid alternative to congested border crossings in El Paso, where it generally takes two hours or more for northbound trucks to enter the U.S. In contrast, it takes it can less than 20 minutes in Santa Teresa, according to Pacheco.

“For businesses who haven’t used Santa Teresa Port of Entry, think of this alternative as a great, necessary idea,” said Franz Felhaber, president of Felhaber and Company Inc., a customs brokerage company that serves clients on both sides of the border.

I believe the technical term for all of this is “fuck around and find out”. Do things that are bad for business and business will look for opportunities elsewhere – that’s just Capitalism 101. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans cared about that sort of thing, but culture wars and identity have supplanted those values, so this is what we get.

Bloomberg News adds on:

It’s hard to quantify the economic impact of shifting a single rail line, it’s unclear what authority Mexico’s government has to dictate where the crossing would be, and the entire project is still in the very early stages and would take years to complete if it does come to fruition. And to be sure, Mexico has a history of announcing massive infrastructure projects that never get off the ground. But the minister’s comments underscore the frustration the government has with Abbott and the risk of jeopardizing a tight trading relationship.

Mexico is Texas’ largest trading partner, with more than $400 billion of goods crossing annually, everything from avocados that get turned into guacamole to chassis that get turned into pickup trucks. Exports from Texas are equivalent to 17% of the state’s economy, and about one-third of Texas exports go to Mexico.

The significance of the minister’s announcement is that “it’s not just necessarily them being hostile, but them taking a concrete step,” said Nitya Pandalai-Nayar, an economics professor at University of Texas at Austin. “Firms all over the country trade with Mexico, and many of them use Texas as the base for shipping to Mexico.”

You know the old joke about getting a donkey’s attention. Maybe this will get Greg Abbott’s.

Or maybe not. I have no doubt that Abbott and his minions will rabble-rouse over this – they’ll complain about “woke” companies and continue to throw billions of dollars at the border for the purpose of rounding up traffic violators and other misdemeanants, all for the purpose of ginning up the base. It’s been a successful electoral strategy for the most part (2018 being a notable exception), and they’re not going to change course now, or anytime soon without a strong reason to. That reason is, and can only be, losing a bunch of elections. The lesson that the business community needs to internalize is that the Republicans aren’t on their side any more. If they want their daddy’s Republican Party back, they need to get this current incarnation out of office. You and I know what they need to do, it’s just a matter of if they can figure it out. TPM, the Dallas Observer, Reform Austin, Daily Kos, the Current, and Dos Centavos have more.

In Houston, the trucks drive you

Yet another driverless truck story.

Autonomous freight trucking company Embark will make Houston the hub for its new Texas operations and launch an autonomous trucking route along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

The San Francisco-based company this month said it will begin hiring “aggressively” in Houston at the start of 2022 as the company begins to expand across the southern U.S., said Stephen Houghton, chief operations and fleet officer at Embark.

“Texas is the center of America’s trucking industry, and it’s the perfect home for Embark’s expanded operations. We’re excited by the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that Houston has to offer,” he said.

[…]

In previous interviews, officials with both Waymo Via Trucking and Aurora said Texas was an obvious choice to test their technology thanks to the favorable regulations, relatively mild weather, major population centers and vast stretches of monotonous highways.

Officials with Embark said Houston will prove to be at the nexus of the industry’s development and growth because it sits at the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways that human drivers can’t complete in a day because of regulations limiting the number of hours they can drive. While it usually takes a human driver about 22 hours to complete, autonomous trucks could do it in about 12 hours, Embark officials said.

The region is also home to research institutions that have been studying autonomous vehicles for years, with Embark officials citing Texas A&M University’s work in the field. A cornerstone of its Texas operations will be an extensive partnership with Texas A&M University, Houghton said. Embark will use the university’s Engineering Experiment Station test track to pilot its technologies, and company engineers will work with the university’s mechanical engineering faculty and Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, or CANVASS, to prepare for a driverless trucking test program in 2023.

See here for some broad background on the subject of driverless trucks in Texas. I fixated on that bit about Houston being at “the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways” for awhile, and eventually concluded that they meant the stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to (more or less) Biloxi, MS, as Google tells me it’s just over 600 miles, and Houston is close to the center of it. I can tell you that I have driven that far on I-10 by myself in the past, but I was much younger and a whole lot dumber back then.

I don’t believe I had heard of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems before – there’s nothing in my archives about them. Sounds cool, I’ll keep an eye on it. And also on that 2023 date, since it seems like other autonomous vehicle promises that have been made in the past have been a bit overly optimistic. We’ll see about this one.

(Note: This is one that has sat in my drafts for awhile, and I decided to publish rather than let it go to waste. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this exclusive look behind the curtain of my editorial process.)

Now you really need to avoid the 59/610 interchange

Welcome to hell.

Starting this weekend, Texas’ worst bottleneck is going to be an even bigger pain for drivers as the rebuild of the Interstate 69 and Loop 610 interchange turns a corner and takes out a key connector ramp.

Crews will close the ramp from southbound I-69 to southbound Loop 610 at 9 p.m. Friday, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The ramp will not open for two years.

Yes, two years. The new ramp will be among the last pieces of the new interchange to open, shortly before work wraps up in late 2024, based on the latest estimates.

“The work is just to the point we have to do it,” said Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman for the interchange project, which started in 2017. “The upcoming work is going to have an effect, but it is also going to allow us to move toward completion.”

During the ramp closing, TxDOT encourages drivers seeking southbound Loop 610 to continue south on I-69, exit at Fountain View, U-turn and take northbound I-69 to access the southbound Loop.

See here for an earlier warning. Look at it this way: If TxDOT finally gets the go-ahead to start tearing up I-45, then no one will be on 59 between downtown and the Loop because no one will be able to get onto it at either end. Traffic problems solved! CultureMap and the Press have more.

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

Our deadly roads

It was a bad year last year.

Last year was the second deadliest on record for vehicle fatalities on Texas roads, reflecting a lethal trend here and throughout the nation, especially in large urban areas.

In 2021, 4,480 people died in collisions on Texas highways, the most since 1981, and a 15 percent increase in fatalities over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which has tracked vehicle deaths since 1940.

Nationwide, fatal vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021 were up 18.4 percent over 2020. These statistics include crashes in which pedestrians are killed.

Traffic safety engineers say there are a multitude of reasons for the increase – some obvious, some almost counterintuitive, and some embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane” and ahead of speeding.

Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, is one of many experts who noticed an alarming trend in transportation safety during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people stayed home and roads emptied, lonely highways became more enticing for those who like to speed.

When vehicles collide, “just a ten percent increase in speed, say from 60 mph to 70 mph, results in a 38 percent increase in fatal crashes,” he said.

“It’s just physics and the dissipation of energy and what that does to the human brain in a crash,” he said. “People have simply got to slow down. People should enjoy the journey more and not try to arrive five to 10 minutes earlier.”

Put another way, some cities may have experienced the same number of crashes year over year, but during the pandemic many of the crashes occurred at significantly higher speeds, making them more deadly, both for vehicle occupants and, obviously, for any pedestrians involved.

In 2021, at least 821 pedestrians died in auto collisons in Texas, up 15 percent over 2020 totals — the same increase seen in auto-bicycle deaths — though both years were influenced by the pandemic.

Freeway crashes are not the biggest problem, and researchers often wryly point out that urban traffic jams at rush hour slow down traffic and demonstrably save lives.

Rush hour or not, city expressways have the best safety performance per vehicle mile primarily because people are traveling in the same direction and freeways usually have more safety features in place, Wunderlich said.

“What we’re more concerned about is that person driving 70 on a two-lane, undivided rural road with no shoulders,” said Wunderlich, adding that single car collisions under those conditions result in a “disproportionately high number” of deaths in Texas.

[…]

A more surprising development in the recent increase in road fatalities is that fewer drivers are wearing seat belts. Wunderlich and his researchers have confirmed this with “observational studies” in the field, not just surveys.

One theory suggested by some researchers is that the people who have stayed at home during the pandemic are generally better educated, more risk-averse and less likely to reject government-imposed safety protocols, such as face masks and seatbelts.

Wunderlich isn’t saying that the state’s increase in fatal car crashes has been driven by unmasked, blue collar guys in pickups speeding to their jobs, but he suggests it’s a hypothesis that might deserve some study.

“There are definitely more risk-takers on the road, more people, perhaps, who said, `I don’t need to wear a mask, I don’t need to wear a seatbelt, to hell with all that,’” he said.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that last observation. Texas’ population increase, which is fueled by people moving here at least as much as the birth rate, is also a factor, as a lot of the new people are also drivers. Vehicle size isn’t cited in the story, but we know that bigger vehicles are more deadly – again, it’s a simple matter of physics – and we have a lot of those in the state. That may be more of a perennial factor than a reason for the recent increase, though. I don’t have a good prescription here. Cities like Houston have taken and are taking steps to lower speeds within their limits and to encourage walking and biking and transit, but there’s an awful lot to do to make a dent in the car culture here, and non-car transportation options are vastly outspent and out-prioritized overall. Be careful out there.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

Texas Central owes some property taxes

deep sigh

A planned high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, backers say, would allow travelers to avoid costly and time-consuming freeway traffic.

Before it can deliver that relief, however, the company behind the high-speed rail project will have to stop avoiding its own costly property tax bills for dozens of properties across Texas.

At least $623,000 in property taxes owed by Texas Central Railroad are delinquent, according to a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court in an ongoing condemnation lawsuit, filed by county attorneys from nine of the 11 counties through which the train is planned to run.

“If (Texas Central) cannot afford to pay less than $1 million in property taxes, how will it ever be able to raise the $30-plus billion it needs?” the brief states, referencing what some claim will be the total cost of the project.

Texas Central officials did not respond to a request for comment.

I’m hard pressed to think of a non-embarrassing reason for this. If it was just an administrative screwup, it’s bad but survivable. If it’s something else…hell, I don’t want to know. Just pay your damn taxes already.

White Oak bike trail extension update

I drive by the construction work being done to extend the White Oak bike trail so that it connects to the Heights bike trail on the north side of the MKT Bridge. I’ve been keeping an eye on its progress and occasionally taking some pictures to document it – see here for the previous update, about a month ago. Here’s what I saw in mid-March:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress031822

Most of the work appears to have been done to the side of where the actual trail is – see the second photo in the link above for comparison. That became even more apparent two weeks later, when I took this picture:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress040522

I don’t honestly know what’s going on to the right of the trail-to-be. My daughter and I were speculating about it when I pointed it out to her, but neither of us came up with something that sounded plausible to me. I assume it will become evident at some point, but for now I’m scratching my head.

Meanwhile, for that closer view in the back, where that little culvert is:

NewDrainageDitch

That part is surely an extension of the bayou, perhaps to make it slightly less likely that Studemont will flood out at the I-10 underpass. I’m just guessing here. It’s not a lot of capacity if that is what it is, but I suppose every little bit helps. Note that the dug-out stuff next to the trail is above where this is.

One more thing, on the side where the Height bike trail approaches the MKT Bridge, coming from White Oak Drive. There has never been an official entry point to the trail from the neighborhood there. You can access it from White Oak Drive, or from where the trail crosses Oxford Street next to White Oak, where the Golden Bagel shop had been, but if you’re approaching the trail from the east side of Studewood, which is to say from the Woodland Heights, that’s some extra redundant distance to go if what you want to do is go towards downtown, maybe using the trail to get to Target or something else in that area. I spotted this in mid-March while out on a Sunday dog walk:

BikeTrailConnectionAtFrasier

That is what I figure will soon be if it isn’t already a paved connection from Frasier Street to the Heights bike trail, making this the closest entry point to the trail from the Woodland Heights that doesn’t involve biking on Studewood itself (you can access the trail from the little parking lot they put in just north of I-10) or on Watson/Taylor, which requires dodging traffic that’s trying to enter I-10. It’s the closest point that I personally feel safe using to access, in other words. We didn’t need this bit of pavement to get there, but this not only makes it easier when it’s been raining and you now get to avoid biking over mud, it also just seems more inviting, like there’s finally recognition that someone would want to do this. Whatever the motivation, I approve.

I’ll post another update as merited. Still no evidence that the bridge itself is being repaired, which remains a source of frustration. But at least this is making progress.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

[…]

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.

What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

Typically, $750 million is the total cost for a major highway project, one that would take years to spend that kind of money. In the case of TxDOT’s plans for a mammoth rebuild of Interstate 45 and the downtown freeway grid, however, that is just the estimated cost increase so far.

Officials last week confirmed new estimates showing an increase of $477.7 million in planned work, while another $274 million in added costs are likely for projects delayed by the roadblocks the project has faced. Combined, it means rebuilding the aging freeway, which already has divided local leaders and various community groups, likely will cost well more than $9 billion. More than half of those increases would go toward the downtown portions where the intersections and changes are most dramatic.

“The rising costs are unfortunate as delay does not meet anyone’s goals,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

[…]

The latest estimates, part of the four-year plan updated annually by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council show rebuilding key pieces of the freeway around downtown will cost considerably more than previously projected.

Based on the updated estimates, costs are jumping for some of the first segments slated for construction. Rebuilding I-69 between Spur 527 and Texas 288, once expected to cost $260 million, now has a projected price tag of $460.6 million, an increase of 77 percent. The next segment of I-69, from Texas 288 to I-45, increased in price from $260.7 million to $456 million, a hike of 75 percent over original estimates.

Some of the increase simply is baked into updating construction costs as major projects await construction.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said planners typically factor in costs rising about 4 percent annually, meaning the longer they sit on shelves the more expensive the projects become.

The I-45 cost increases are larger than many other projects — the entire rebuild of the Loop 610 and I-69 near The Galleria is set to cost $270.9 million — but increases as projects wait for work to begin are not uncommon.

“We are seeing some due to inflation,” H-GAC manager of project planning and delivery Adam Beckom told transportation policy council officials last week.

Four percent of $9 billion is $360 million, a lot of money but not quite half of the expected increase. That’s not exactly how the math would work here, but the point is simply that it’s more than just inflation. You may recall, as I documented extensively here years ago, the final cost of the I-10 widening west of 610 wound up costing way more than the initial (and extremely sunny) estimates claimed it would. That’s just how these things go, and we just tend to accept the ginormous amounts we spend on them. I doubt anyone’s mind will be changed by these numbers, but there they are anyway.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

Metro officials Thursday settled on the route for a busway along Interstate 10 that they predict will improve transit for urban and suburban travelers, whether they hop on board or not.

The elevated busway planned along the southern side of I-10 between Uptown and downtown will allow park and ride buses and bus rapid transit to avoid freeway traffic between the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and I-10 and Houston’s central business district. Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the route Thursday, keeping the $400 million-plus project on pace for construction starting late next year and buses speeding along it by 2027.

“It takes us a long way in my judgment to having a rapid transportation system that Houston can depend on as it grows in the 21st century,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

As part of Metro’s long-range plan, approved by voters in 2019, the agency expects to build 75 miles of of bus rapid transit — large buses that operate similar to rail, using a separated lane to bypass traffic and stop at stations. Though a major component of the region’s transit plan, the first BRT line in Houston, the Silver Line along Post Oak through Uptown, so far has struggled to attract riders as park and ride service to Uptown and office occupancy in Uptown have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

By 2045, officials expect about 30,000 commuter bus riders and 12,000 rapid transit riders to use the busway daily. A trip from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown would take 19 minutes — less than many peak-time commutes by car or truck take now.

[…]

In addition to setting the route, the plan approved Thursday calls for three new stations along I-10 at Memorial Park, Shepherd-Durham and Studemont. Those stations line up with anticipated demand from nearby neighborhoods and expected improvements to major bus routes as part of the agency’s long-range transit plan, said Amma Cobbinah, a Metro senior transit planner overseeing the project.

Within the central business district, the BRT vehicles will use the existing light rail platforms along Capitol and Rusk. Two other stations, at St. Emmanuel and Franklin at Bagby, will be built for the buses.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have not decided if the BRT along I-10 will be an extension of Silver Line service, or a separate line.

Still unresolved, however, is how buses will transition from the elevated busway along I-10 to Franklin and Bagby. Metro’s preference is to use the existing high occupancy toll lane connector into downtown, but the future of that link is in jeopardy because of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 near and around downtown.

There are some more details in the preview story, which ran on Thursday morning before the Metro board meeting, including the “recommended alignment” document and an embed of this video, which shows the proposed route; there is one option in there, which depends on the existing HOT lanes that may be taken out by the I-45 project.

I’ve discussed this project, which was part of the 2019 Metro Next plan, a couple of times. The idea of a Memorial Park stop has come up before, and I think having it in this project makes a lot of sense. And though the Chron story doesn’t mention it, this Inner Katy route has been an implicit part of the plan to have the Texas Central terminal at or near the Northwest Transit Terminal.

As someone who lives about a mile from the future Studewood station, I very much approve of this plan. I will note that to really make this effective, some work will need to be done on the sidewalks on Studemont/Studewood, both north from I-10 into the Heights and south towards Washington Avenue. There are a couple of large residential properties being built on the west side of Studemont, plus whatever is to come on the old Party Boy site, and this station will be close to an entry point to the White Oak bike trail, for further connectivity and easy access to the Sawyer Heights developments, which includes another large new apartment building. The potential is very much there for a lot of people to use this, if it’s easy and safe to walk or bike to it. I’ll never drive to the Galleria again if they do this right. Construction is set to start later this year, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing it all take shape.

San Antonio airport tunnel approved for feasibility study

This crazy idea keeps finding a way to move forward.

A plan by Elon Musk’s Boring Company to build a tunnel between San Antonio’s airport and downtown was selected Wednesday by the local regional mobility authority for a feasibility study.

Board members serving the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), an agency tasked with improving transportation in Bexar County chose Boring over a bid from a local consortium, SAK/Bexar Automated Transport, to enter into a development agreement to study the feasibility of the project.

County staff used a scoring system with eight criteria to evaluate the two bids. The estimated project cost and potential revenue were at the top of the scoring matrix.

As proposed by Boring, the rideshare system would use Tesla’s electric-powered cars traveling in a tunnel 30 feet below ground to ferry passengers the 9 miles between the airport and downtown. The total estimated cost is between $247 million and $289 million.

Boring’s bid includes an option for the company to fully finance phase one of the system, a tunnel between the airport and the Pearl to start, at a cost of $27 million to $45 million.

Boring estimated revenues to the RMA of $25 million a year.

“What we don’t know is whether it’s financially viable at this point because, at the end of the day, the reason we’re doing this is to generate a revenue stream for the RMA, so that we can build even more infrastructure projects,” Michael Lynd, the RMA board’s presiding officer who recently was reappointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

[…]

To pay for the tunnel project, the RMA would issue revenue bonds that would be backed solely by the project’s revenue, Lynd said. That could come from ride fares and advertising throughout the system.

Entering into the development agreement is the first step toward determining where and how the tunnel system would be built and whether it would pay for itself.

No timeline has been set for the process to determine the project’s feasibility. The RMA will hire an investment advisor to study the project and determine more precise revenue streams, which will be needed in order to sell bonds that would finance the project.

“This is not your only bite at the apple as we go forward with this,” said Renee Green, director of public works and county engineer. “We’ll be coming back obviously to the board over a number of different things.”

The board’s unanimous approval of Boring’s bid gives the RMA the green light to pursue answers to questions about the system Boring proposed and its viability. It’s not an OK to build the system.

“I don’t even think we’re biting at the apple, we’re pointing at the apple,” said board member John Agather.

“This is approval to take the next step to enter into conversations and discussions about where we go from here — whether this is financially viable, et cetera,” Lynd said. “There’s still a lot of vetting to happen and locating of the lines.”

See here and here for the background. I’ve expressed my incredulity before, so I’ll spare you the repeat. At this point, I’d very much like to see what that feasibility study says. Maybe this really can work! I mean, I feel like a fool even expressing that as a hypothetical, but what do I know? Bring it on, prove me wrong, turn me into a cheerleader. Worse things have happened to me.

One more thing:

Lynd called the project a “proof of concept” that could determine whether the tunnel system is expanded to connect San Antonio to other cities.

“I’m sure there is ambition to connect Austin and San Antonio,” he said. “Everybody in San Antonio I think would love to see that happen. But something like that would be in the future.”

At this point, it’s hard to argue that the Elon Musk Memorial Tunnel is less viable than Lone Star Rail. It’s totally crazy-making, but here we are. May as well embrace it. The Current has more.

Turns out it’s not great debuting a transit service in a pandemic

What are you gonna do?

The future of Houston transportation is not moving many people, even as traffic rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and ridership returns to many Metropolitan Transit Authority lines. The Silver Line, billed as a viable alternative to light rail using its own lanes and stations along Post Oak through the heart of Uptown, carried fewer riders in January than 40 of Metro’s bus routes. The line, which comes every 12 minutes and avoids Galleria-area congestion, is a vital route for those using it, but carrying less than 10 percent of the riders it was built for on opening day.

“Every bus that goes by, it’s empty,” said Mike Riley, 61, who lives and works in Uptown. “After all that work, you see maybe three people waiting for a bus.”

Despite stark use of the Silver Line — Houston’s first bus rapid transit project — transit officials are not pushing the panic button, on Post Oak or any of the other 75 miles of bus rapid transit planned in the region.

“These are 50-year projects,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging the line has lower-than-projected ridership but has faced near-constant headwinds since opening in August 2020.

After Uptown officials spent $192 million rebuilding the street to develop the line, operated by Metro, to carry 12,000 riders per day, bus drivers are ferrying fewer than 800 on many work days.

The 60-foot vehicles use a dedicated busway along Loop 610 and their own lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of Post Oak to deliver bus service more like light rail, stopping only at stations between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 and then Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center near Interstate 69 along Westpark Drive.

Every expectation of Houston transit in the coming years makes those two transit centers major transfer points for buses within the urban core. The Silver Line, built to connect them, is projected to carry more than 30,000 trips daily in 2030 — more than the Red Line light rail does today.

Currently, however, it does a fraction of that, even as the routes around it see a resurgence of use.

[…]

The first few months of Silver Line service have been unprecedented, with a combination of factors hurting transit ridership in general and the Silver Line in particular. COVID dropped transit use, along with most driving, by half in the Houston area. Riders were advised to stay off transit at the exact time Metro otherwise would have offered free rides and a blitz of advertising. Park and ride service, which was expected to be a big lure for commuters into Uptown to hop the Silver Line, dropped from 33,000 trips on a typical day in the region to fewer than 4,000 when the BRT began operating on on Post Oak.

In many cases, those park and ride commuters still are not back. Kastle, a building security data firm that has been tracking office use, estimates only 51.3 percent of office workers in the Houston area have returned to their pre-pandemic desks. In Uptown, where park and ride use long has been tied to tight parking limits in office garages, fewer workers and staggered shifts make it more convenient for some to drive, at least until traffic turns terrible again or plentiful parking dries up.

Not really a whole lot to say here – those last two paragraphs really sum it up. Let’s see what the numbers look like when the park and ride is back to something like full strength. The Silver Line, which will always be the Uptown Line to me, will eventually connect with the Universities and Inner Katy lines, and that should be a boost as well. The timing of its debut could not have been more unfortunate. All we can do is wait it out.

Metro electric bus update

Some new details here.

Within the next year or so, you’ll see electric-powered buses buzzing around Bayou City.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) recently awarded a $22 million contract to Saint-Eustache, Canada-based Nova Bus for the production of 20 battery-powered electric buses. The contract includes an option for another 20 buses.

The first 20 buses, to be manufactured at the Nova Bus factory in Plattsburgh, New York, are expected to be on local roads sometime in in late 2022 or early 2023. They’ll run on the 402 Bellaire Express (Quickline) and 28 OST-Wayside routes.

METRO also plans to test three to five electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Furthermore, METRO is a member of the Automated Bus Consortium, a national organization of transportation agencies working toward development of a full-size, electric-powered automated bus.

METRO is moving toward the purchase of only zero-emission buses by 2030. It eventually wants to operate more than 1,200 electric buses throughout its system. All types of buses account for 1 percent of transportation-caused greenhouse gases in Houston, according to METRO.

See here and here for the background. The late 2022/early 2023 timeline is new information, as is the designation of the routes. The bit about testing hydrogen fuel cell buses is also new, and sent me scurrying off to Google to look for other information.

Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have similar propulsion systems. Both store energy to power an electric motor. However, in the latter, energy stored as hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, rather than being stored in a rechargeable battery.

Electric car sales reached 3 million in 2020, up 40 percent from 2019, with some 10 million electric cars now on the world’s roads. Registrations of hydrogen cars remain three orders of magnitude lower than this, and there are just 26,000 on the road globally, concentrated in three countries: Korea, the US (largely California), and Japan. While there remain several hydrogen fuel cell cars available on the market, made by the likes of Toyota and Hyundai, they tend to be more expensive than battery electric cars and can currently be difficult to fuel: Hydrogen is costly to buy, and there are far fewer refueling stations than recharging points in most places.

But when it comes to larger vehicles, the picture is not quite so clear. As vehicles get bigger, it becomes harder to electrify them, with increasingly large batteries needed. For energy-intensive applications like long-haul trucks, some experts say hydrogen may be the best option.

Buses lie somewhere in between cars and trucks on this spectrum. “The massive issue is the mass of the buses,” says James Dixon, a researcher in modeling energy and transport systems at the University of Oxford. “Batteries have an energy density that is comparatively small: The energy density is around 1/40th of the energy density of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, like petrol or diesel.” Hydrogen also has a relatively low energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored per unit volume mass or area)—around four to five times lower than petroleum fuels, but far higher than electric batteries, he adds.

China already has around 5,300 hydrogen fuel cell buses on its roads, the vast majority of the global fleet, but other countries are investing in the technology. Neil Collins, managing director of Northern Ireland-based bus manufacturer Wrightbus, says his company is technology agnostic and is making both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses. It feeds journey data from its bus operator customers into a tool to model different driving cycles for its vehicles, to help them find the best technical solution for that particular route.

Advantages of hydrogen include shorter refueling times and an often larger tank range. But hydrogen technology and infrastructure is more expensive, says Collins, while the skill sets in the industry for using electric buses are also likely higher than for hydrogen. Dixon also notes that one concern about hydrogen has always been its safety. “It’s got quite wide flammability limits, and it’s notoriously difficult to keep in a pressurized container without it leaking,” he says. “In terms of infrastructure, electricity is a lot easier, because you don’t need liquid fuel trucks driving around.”

Still, hydrogen may be a better option in a city with lots of hills, like Hong Kong, where it’s also very warm and humid, says Collins. “That’s going to be a problem for electric buses, because the cooling and the hills are just going to drain the batteries,” he says. “But if the city is relatively flat, and the journey times are relatively short, and it’s not either significantly warm or significantly cold, battery electric can do a very good job.”

The, uh, flammability issue sounds like a concern, but otherwise it seems like there may be good reasons to at least try this out and see how they work. I’ll be very interested to hear more.

The White Oak bike trail extension is officially under construction

Actual photo of the construction activity, from this past Thursday:

See here for the background. I first noticed some construction equipment in place maybe two weeks before that, and actual activity the following week, which is to say the last week of February. I don’t know yet what they plan to do with that little culvert they’ve bumped up against, but I guess we’ll find out soon.

That picture was taken from the Studewood overpass. I managed to get a closer view from Threlkeld Street, a block west of Studewood:

The yellow crane is the original equipment I had spotted at the location. What you see here is behind the big white crane, below the tangle of trees on the right side of the photo above. Not sure if they were just clearing more space for the equipment or if there’s some other purpose planned.

Anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this and post some more pics as this progresses. As yet, I have not seen any sign of repair work on the MKT Bridge, but maybe the plan is to finish this piece first. Like I said, I’ll post more pics when I see more stuff happening.

“You put an electric engine…in a DeLorean??”

Everything old is new again.

Hold onto your flux capacitors: The DeLorean Motor Company is back and making San Antonio its home.

Economic development officials announced Monday that the once-defunct 1980s-era car manufacturer, whose gull-wing car was best known as a time-travel machine in the Back to the Future movies, will establish its reconstituted headquarters at Port San Antonio as it seeks other locations for manufacturing operations.

The brand is staging a comeback in the realm of electric vehicle (EV) production, a plan the car company teased in a 15-second spot during the Super Bowl LVI game Sunday.

[…]

Electric vehicle manufacturing is a new venture for DeLorean, known best for its stainless steel sports car that debuted in 1981.

First established by auto industry executive John DeLorean in 1975, the car company produced about 9,000 cars at a plant in Northern Ireland between 1981 and 1982 before the company went bankrupt and its founder was arrested for drug trafficking. The cars have lived on in pop culture lore thanks partly to their distinctive design and starring role in three Back to the Future films beginning in 1985.

British-born mechanic Stephen Wynne purchased the rights to the DeLorean name and remaining parts inventory in 1995. Since then, the company has provided service to the 6,000 DeLorean cars still in existence from its home in Humble, north of Houston.

Its entry into electric vehicle manufacturing will be the company’s first go at building cars since the original plant closed in 1982. DeLorean joins a list of at least 17 automakers planning to electrify their models in coming years.

Why not do it with some style, right? I have no idea if this will be a success or if it’s even worth trying, but I don’t care. The thought that there might someday be electric DeLoreans out on the street someday makes me smile.

We can’t end this post without the proper homage:

I hope that’s enough to distract you from the realization that “Back To The Future 2” was set in that mystical far-off year of…2015. Missed it by that much on the Cubs winning the World Series, too.

Here comes Waymo on I-45

They’ve actually been on this road for a couple of months, but now they’re doing more.

Waymo will begin hauling freight for North America’s largest logistics firm on autonomous big rigs traveling between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45.

The California-based subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., announced the partnership Wednesday with C.H. Robinson, which moves 20 million shipments a year. The self-driving trucks will carry a safety driver in the front seat.

Waymo spokesperson Julianne McGoldrick said pilot runs will start in the coming months on what is becoming a common Dallas-to-Houston testing ground. Waymo has been hauling freight between the Texas cities with self-driving trucks since last year for other partners like J.B. Hunt and UPS.

[…]

In partnership with France-based public transport company Transdev, the Texas routes will create hundreds of jobs at Waymo’s new 9-acre hub in South Dallas. The new hub was built specifically for Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous trucking operations and accommodates hundreds of trucks from its carrier partners.

In June, Waymo began testing self-driving freight runs between Fort Worth and Houston on Interstate 45 in partnership with trucking company J.B. Hunt. The company reported zero accidents or speeding events involving the vehicles, concluding that the trials were a success. This led to a long-term partnership with the trucking company.

McGoldrick said Texas’ reputation as one of the biggest freight hubs in the U.S. makes it a key spot to test the vehicles. The Dallas-to-Houston route on Interstate 45 is especially important because it connects freight arriving at major cargo airports such as DFW International and AllianceTexas and at railroad yards in southern Dallas with Houston’s busy shipping port.

“We can test our Waymo Driver on highly dense highways and shipper lanes, further understand how other truck and passenger car drivers behave on these routes, and continue to refine the way our Waymo Driver reacts and responds in these busy driving regions as we advance our operations,” McGoldrick said.

As noted, driverless trucks love I-45. That post mentioned Waymo’s entry into I-45 trucking, but I didn’t have a post specifically about it. Just another thing to watch out for if you’re driving that same route. The Dallas Observer has more.