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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

HISD to get funding for electric school buses

Some good news.

Houston Independent School District is hopping on the city’s net-zero carbon emissions bus, so to speak, thanks to more than $6.2 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The funds are part of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program Fiscal Year 2022 rebate competition, which will award nearly $51 million in funds from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Texas school districts, and $965 million in total to districts around the country.

Houston’s $6.2 million will go toward 25 new school buses, according to a statement from the EPA. Fifteen of the vehicles will be brand-new electric buses.

[…]

HISD must now submit Payment Request Forms with purchase orders that shows the district has ordered the new buses and eligible infrastructure.

The district is among 13 Texas school districts to receive funding. Dallas ISD, the second largest school district in the state behind HISD, was awarded roughly $7.6 million. Killeen ISD and Socorro ISD received the largest sums among the districts, totaling nearly $9.9 million in funding each.

The first – and last – time I blogged about electric school buses was a decade ago. It’s fair to say this has been a long time coming. There will be another billion dollars in federal funds available for applicants next year as well, so hopefully HISD can bump up that number. Metro has used a different pot of money to get their own electric buses. The more, the better.

New rules for hot air balloon operators

This caught my eye.

More than six years after 16 people died in a hot air balloon crash in Central Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration has started enforcing new rules on commercial balloon pilots that were devised because of tragedy.

The new FAA rules require hot air balloon pilots to hold medical certificates while they are flying with paying passengers. That means pilots would need to submit to medical exams.

The new rule was proposed by Texas lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, after the July 30, 2016, balloon crash in Lockhart. Sixteen people were killed after a balloon crashed into a high-voltage power line. It was the deadliest crash involving a commercial hot air balloon in U.S. history An investigation after the crash found that the pilot, Alfred “Skip” Nichols was under the influence of prescription drugs and suffered from medical ailments that should have raised red flags at the FAA.

Before the new rule, balloon pilots weren’t required to undergo medical screenings.

The new rule was approved by Congress in 2018, as part of legislation that funds the FAA. However it took more more four years for the aviation regulator to implement the rules. In a statement, Doggett said the FAA “inexcusably delayed and delayed for years” before finalizing the rules.

“For the many who prayed and mourned the loss resulting from this unnecessary tragedy, know that you have been heard,” Doggett said. “We cannot bring these precious lives back. But, now that this is finally implemented, we hope no more families will be exposed to the horror of a crash from an impaired pilot.

I remember this incident but didn’t blog about it at the time. Apparently, the FAA just started on the rulemaking process in November of 2021, which is why this is just happening now, six-plus years after the incident and four years after the law was passed. Whether the delay was at least partly about Trump-era dysfunction or something else is not explained in the story. All I can say is that I for one would like to know that my hot air balloon pilot is in good health and capable of doing the job that day, in the unlikely event I ever take a hot air balloon ride. The fact that we shouldn’t have taken that as a given before that tragedy is the real problem. We’ve addressed this instance of it, but I worry there are more out there. But at least you can go up in that balloon now with more safety than before.

Electric trucks and the power grid

Very interesting.

Next month, Tesla Inc. plans to deliver the first of its electric Semi trucks—able to haul a full 40 ton-load some 500 miles on a single charge. These massive batteries-on-wheels may accelerate the transition to electrified transport, but those responsible for delivering the power are starting to ask: Are we ready for this?

Probably not, according to a sweeping new study of highway charging requirements conducted by utility company National Grid Plc. Researchers found that by 2030, electrifying a typical highway gas station will require as much power as a professional sports stadium—and that’s mostly just for electrified passenger vehicles. As more electric trucks hit the road, the projected power needs for a big truck stop by 2035 will equal that of a small town.

Even the authors who planned the study were caught off guard by how quickly highway power demands will change. A connection to the grid that can handle more than 5 megawatts takes up to eight years to build, at a cost tens of millions of dollars. If power upgrades don’t start soon, the transition to electric vehicles—let alone electric trucks—will quickly be constrained by a grid unprepared for the demand, warned Bart Franey, vice president of clean energy development at National Grid.

“We need to start making these investments now,” Franey said in an interview. “We can’t just wait for it to happen, because the market is going to outpace the infrastructure.”

The key bit of information from the rest of the story, which you should read, is that we don’t need to add very much grid capacity to handle all of the EV charging stations we will soon require. It’s that this new infrastructure will take some time to build out, and we need to get started on it ASAP to stay ahead of the demand for it. If we don’t, it will likely slow down the rollout of electric vehicles, with all of the knock-on economic and climate effects that would have. So keep an eye on that, it’s a big deal.

IKEA gets self-driving trucks

Not for home delivery. Not yet, anyway.

California-based self-driving big rig firm Kodiak Robotics is teaming up with IKEA to deliver ready-to-assemble furniture and home furnishings to the Swedish retailer’s store in Frisco.

It marks Kodiak’s first time delivering goods directly to a store, said Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of Kodiak Robotics. The 300-mile pilot routes on Interstate 45 from IKEA’s Baytown distribution center to Frisco will operate through November with a safety driver behind the wheel to oversee deliveries.

Kodiak has been making daily trips since early August between the distribution center and the store. Kodiak and IKEA are discussing a long-term, multiyear commitment to work together, Burnette said.

“The purpose of this is to get a better understanding of Kodiak’s autonomous driving technology and how it can contribute to increased road safety and ultimately determine how to improve the quality of life for drivers,” Burnette said.

So far, so good for Kodiak. Burnette said the company hasn’t had any safety issues on its Interstate 45 routes, even though its trucks encountered everything from construction to stalled vehicles.

“Our autonomous driving technology is able to handle just about everything that the highway can throw at it,” Burnette said.

Just adding this to the pile of other self-driving trucks on I-45. At some point I suppose this won’t be news any more.

Shepherd/Durham construction update

Good long story in the Chron.

When the workers clear — still months away — Shepherd and Durham, along with some major side streets, will be remade, and in many ways reformed. The streets, dual thoroughfares that funnel traffic between Memorial Drive and Loop 610, will remain major commuting corridors, but with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and spruced-up trees and intersections.

“It certainly could look a lot better,” Heights resident Christie Aycock said. “As it is, there is all this building going on, but you cannot get to it without a car.”

Lack of viable options beyond automobiles is a constant in many Houston neighborhoods, to which the city, various management districts, Harris County and other entities are taking a piecemeal approach to correcting. Some projects, including the $120 million plan for Shepherd within Loop 610, also have federal funding attached.

When completed in sections between 2024 and 2028, the work along Shepherd and Durham will have added sidewalks and a separated bike lane to both streets. The sidewalk redo also will bring the entire route up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a huge improvement for those who use wheelchairs or other assistance.

To make room for cyclists and walkers in the same right of way, the four-lane streets will be trimmed to three lanes, with some dedicated turn lanes at major intersections.

Analyses showed traffic congestion on both streets was due to turns, so losing a lane but gaining turn areas should help drivers proceed more efficiently.

“Both our study and the city’s show it improves congestion,” said Sherry Weesner, president of the redevelopment authority.

[…]

South of Washington Avenue to Memorial Drive, Houston Public Works is more than halfway through a rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that resurfaces both the streets atop new drainage pipes, along with rebuilding six smaller streets between the two thoroughfares. The $12 million project also is adding lighting and bike lanes, and like the northern segment, will trim vehicle lanes from four to three to make room for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“While the contractor has faced supply and staffing issues due to the pandemic, they have a plan in place to finish in the spring,” said Erin Jones, spokeswoman for Houston Public Works.

Farther south, between Westheimer and Richmond, a $27 million rebuild of Shepherd has frustrated businesses and travelers for months, but promises better drainage for the western Montrose and Upper Kirby neighborhoods nearby. Shepherd, meanwhile, will get similar sidewalks and rebuilt intersections aimed at making the street less chaotic, but with the same two lanes in each direction for drivers.

Once the Shepherd work moves to the next phase south of 15th, the bike lanes will connect with bike lanes being developed along 11th Street through the Heights.

Though controversial with some residents, the 11th Street lanes form an east-west route from Shepherd that feed into other trails closer to downtown Houston.

Another east-west route, meanwhile, could carry many more commuters into downtown. Metropolitan Transit Authority’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line includes a proposed stop at Shepherd-Durham on the south side of Interstate 10. As Metro creates the line, it has said connectivity by bike and on foot is crucial, along with improved bus service along the entire Shepherd corridor so residents as far north as Acres Homes have access.

See here and here for more on this project; the 11th Street makeover and the Inner Katy BRT line are also mentioned. As noted before, I’m driving this stretch of road pretty regularly now as part of school pickup duties. It’s not been too bad so far, and I’m excited to see what the finished product looks like. That area is so much more residential now than it was 20 years ago, it just makes sense to redo those roads in a way that fits in with a neighborhood. We need to do this in more parts of the city.

White Oak bike trail extension: The final polish

I haven’t seen a news story or press release to say that the White Oak bike trail extension is now fully open, but what I have seen is bicyclists using the trail. So open it must be. And since the last update a month ago, there have been a couple of finishing touches. Observe:

HeightsTrailExtensionDone

HeightsTrailExtensionFullViewDone

If you zoom in, you can see bike riders in each of those photos. I have not yet had the opportunity to use the trail myself yet, but it’s on my to do list.

One more thing: All the construction equipment is gone, and I was wondering if there had been a finishing touch added to the Frasier Street entrance to the MKT Trail. Alas, that is still a no:

MKTTrailFrasierEntranceDone

Maybe I can will it into existence someday.

Since I’m sure you’re all wondering what public works project in my neighborhood I’ll obsessively chronicle now that this one is finally in the books, well, it looks like work is about to begin on 11th Street. These signs appeared about a month ago:

BigChangesComingTo11thStreet

And hopefully there will be some action on the A Tale Of Two Bridges project. So don’t you worry, there will be more pictures soon.

Texas Central insists they’re still alive

It’s something, I guess.

A lawyer for nearly 100 property owners who are living with the threat of their land being seized said he will seek legal action against Texas Central, the company that for a decade has promised to build a bullet train between Dallas and Houston, if the company does not provide more details about the looming project.

Landowners whose property could be in the path of the train track have petitioned the company to answer their questions. Patrick McShan, the lawyer representing property owners, said he’s prepared to ask a judge to allow him to depose the company — which has said little about the project — to get answers for his clients.

[…]

McShan’s list of questions included inquiries about the company’s leadership and permits for the project.

Robert Neblett, Texas Central’s attorney, said the company spent a “considerable sum” of money acquiring property for this project. Neblett added the company owns hundreds of tracts of land purchased for this project, but he did not confirm The Texas Tribune’s analysis of property owned by Texas Central.

“Texas Central’s chief executive is Michael Bui. Texas Central is not currently looking for a CEO to replace him nor is it looking for a new Board of Directors,” Neblett said in an emailed statement to the Tribune.

Neblett added that Texas Central plans to obtain any and all federal Surface Transportation Board certifications required to construct and operate the project.

Bui is a senior management consultant with FTI Consulting, a business advisory that lists corporate recovery as one of his qualifications. Bui also served as an adviser to a private energy company that provided power to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas following its court-ordered restructuring after the February 2021 freeze that caused hundreds of deaths while knocking out power and heat to millions of people.

According to a news release Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office released Thursday, unnamed representatives of Texas Central said, “the landscape changed since March 2022, when the company underwent a restructuring effort, and the future of the high-speed train remains bright.”

Houston and Dallas leaders have long championed the project that would connect the two cities. Turner said the bullet train would be an economic stimulant for the entire state.

“We had some very productive and constructive discussions about the train in Japan,” Turner said. “The leadership in Houston is very supportive and wants it to happen. I look forward to working with Texas Central and our state and federal partners to advance this project. If you build it, people will take full advantage of it.”

Still in contention is how much land the company has acquired in the 10 years since the project was announced, and how much land is still needed for the bullet train.

See here, here, and here for the background. As noted in the story, the Texas Central Twitter page had its first new post since July, so that’s something. I’d like to see more activity than that, but at least the mirror test shows that there’s still some breath in there. For now, I’ll take it.

If we can’t get high speed rail in Texas…

… At least we can maybe get some more Amtrak service.

San Antonio residents finally may get new rail service connecting them to Dallas, Houston and Austin, according to a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) filing.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams requested federal funding for the expansion of several railroad corridors, including “new and enhanced, conventional intercity options” along traffic-clogged Interstate 35, which runs north-south through the state.

The proposed projects outlined in the letter include an increase in service on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line connecting San Antonio and Dallas and additional hauls on the Sunset Limited between the Alamo City and Houston. Currently, the Texas Eagle only runs four days a week, while the Sunset Limited operates on a tri-weekly basis, according to the rail operator’s website.

The proposal also includes expanding the Texas Eagle Line south, connecting San Antonio with the Rio Grande Valley and adding a new station on the Sunset Limited Line in Flatonia — located between San Antonio and Houston — to expand rural service.

Williams’ request is in response to the FRA’s establishment of the Corridor Identification Program. That is funded via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the U.S. Senate in November 2021. Not one Texas Republican in the U.S. House or Senate voted in favor of the measure.

The FRA is excepted to decide which projects to fund based on criteria including projected ridership, revenues and capital investment, among others.

See here for some background. The Texas Rail Advocates post on which this story is based also mentions the revival of the Dallas-to-Houston-via-College Station line that was ended in the 1990s, which is to say maybe bringing back a slower and presumably less frequent version of Texas Central. (Pause while I heave a deep and dramatic sigh.) The letter doesn’t mention ridership, and I’d assume that the Dallas-Houston line if and when it got built would be a couple of times a week deal, which is to say it would all be pretty limited. But at least it would be a thing, if indeed it does happen.

Another depressing story about the existential future of Texas Central

It’s sad, y’all.

People in the path of a proposed but floundering high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas last week filed a letter that in many ways labels Texas Central Railroad the little engine that will never be.

They think it can’t. They think it can’t. They think it can’t.

“Granted, Texas Central appears to be doing things,” attorney Patrick McShan said in the letter sent to the company on Sept. 29. “But none of the things Texas Central is now doing suggest in any manner whatsoever that it does, in fact, intend to construct the project.”

The planned rail line, once touted as mere months from construction, now is more paperwork than planning. Since its former CEO left in June, the company has said it is securing financing, but shown little other signs of life, beyond a July 8 statement after the Texas Supreme Court affirmed its right to use eminent domain to acquire property.

“Texas Central has made significant strides in the project over the last several years and we are moving forward on a path that we believe will ensure the project’s successful development,” the company said then. “We look forward to being able to say more about this at an appropriate time in the near future.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Citing various examples, McShan’s letter said it appears Texas Central is operating as a shell of a corporation, paying property taxes it owed in eight of the 11 counties where it owns property, but still owing HOA dues for numerous locations and property taxes in Ellis County.  It reportedly, McShan said, has lost investment from Japan once considered necessary for the project, and has sold some of the properties it acquired during six years of planning and design.

The company never has applied for any construction permits related to construction of the line, though it has certain federal clearances.

“We believe Texas Central has not filed, nor will it ever file, an application for a construction permit for two reasons,” McShan wrote. “One, Texas Central does not want to make these required financial disclosures; and two, it knows that if it did make these disclosures its application would be summarily denied.”

See here and here for the previous depressing examples. I note that the last post on the Texas Central Twitter page was July 8, in response to that last story. If you can’t even issue a pro forma denial to this sort of thing, it is eminently reasonable to wonder what the heck is going on over there, and if anyone is doing anything. I’d love to find some reason for a bit of optimism, but right now that just ain’t there. Please prove me wrong, guys.

White Oak bike trail extension: I think we’re done now?

When we last looked about a month ago, it was clear that the construction on the White Oak Bike Trail extension was almost done, as there was just a small amount of concrete to be poured to connect the trail to the existing MKT Trail. As of last weekend, when these pictures were taken, it seems that at least the concrete work is now finished.

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

You can see two things of interest in this picture. One is that the concrete trail is now farther along – more on that in a minute – and two is that there is no longer a dirt trail dug for construction equipment to access the more southern parts of the extension. What you see to the left (south) of the trail is the dirt (and eventual grass that will cover it) being smoothed back into place. This has a much more finished look to it than what we saw a month ago.

That picture was taken from the overpass on Studewood. I moved over to the MKT Trail to get a better look from the other side. Here’s the last bit of concrete that was poured:

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

And as of the previous weekend, here’s the last bit that was still to be poured, at least as far as the trail itself was concerned:

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

The Heights Trail extension connects with the MKT Trail just west of the MKT Bridge, To my left as I took this picture there was a box about eight or ten feet square that had rebar in it and was clearly awaiting some concrete. It was not attached to either trail and it had workers all around it so I didn’t get a picture. Maybe next time. I couldn’t say offhand what that box was for, but once it’s done it may be obvious to me.

In case you’re wondering where all the construction equipment was at that time:

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

As you can see, that dirt path is parallel and right next to the MKT Trail, and it is curving onto Frasier Street, which we have discussed before. The fate of that connection to Frasier Street was still not clear to me at that time, but I’m a little worried:

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

Initially, and even as of a month ago, that looked like a connection from Frasier Street to the MKT Trail, which I assumed from the beginning would eventually be paved over and become a part of the trail system. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not vital – you can still get there even if you have to cross over grass or mud or whatever, and a block farther west you can access the trail directly from Oxford Street. It’s just that this is a little closer to Studewood, so if you’re coming from that side it’s more convenient. From my perspective as someone who lives on the other side of Studewood, I would just use the Heights trail extension now if I intended to get onto the MKT Trail. All I’m saying is we’re here, we have the equipment, adding just a little more concrete would make it just a little easier for some folks to access the trail, so why not do it? I’ll see what it looks like once it’s clear that the construction is officially over. I hope there will be a ribbon-cutting of some kind to celebrate the completion of this task. If not, I’ll just celebrate it here.

Metro looks beyond parking lots for its park and rides

I like the idea. It will need some careful thought and planning, but the idea seems to be on the right track to me.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority spent decades developing a network of parking lots where drivers could leave their cars and trucks and take transit to work. Now, its leaders are wondering whether those parking lots would be a attractive places for developers who may view those commuters as potential customers.

Metro officials are soliciting proposals for transit-oriented design, in which developers can submit proposals to synch transit center and bus depots with new apartments and shops.

“This is about bringing quality of life to areas adjacent to transit centers, to park and rides,” Metro Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

Metro’s interest extends to both properties it owns and those it leases from private developers. A number of park and ride lots are conventional bus shelters, with parking available in a commercial lot normally used by a grocery or department store that does not have high volumes during the work day.

The agency is starting slowly, after making some headway with a 2015 study to assess potential uses around park and ride locations. The board in August created a subcommittee tasked with joint development and land use, which met for the first time Sept. 14. Staff, meanwhile, issued a request for information to developers, the first step in seeing if any have ideas for using Metro spaces.

“I like the approach that we are asking the market to come to us,” said Diann Lewter, the Metro board member appointed to chair the new committee.

Though possibilities are just now beginning to take shape – a first round of proposals are due at the end of the month, followed by months of analysis and public meetings – some board members said they were eager to move ahead.

“I am really anxious to see it work as fast as possible,” Lewter said.

[…]

Metro already is sitting on very desirable land in the medical center. Located across Fannin from MD Anderson Cancer Center and across Pressler from UT Health’s health science center, the transit center has drawn interest for major projects, all willing to maintain its bus access.

When approached in 2018 with an unsolicited offer that later drew a competing proposal, however, Metro opted to keep things as they were because neither project, officials concluded, would improve transit access for existing riders. Instead, both projects had the potential to encourage hundreds of daily vehicle trips into the crowded medical center.

“Although both proposals provided estimated revenue streams and various amenities, the potential issues related to the customer experience was the overriding factor in … the decision to not move forward with this solicitation” Metro staff wrote in a summary to cancel the discussions.

As land becomes more scarce in key locations, though, Metro at the very least may have to rethink its current use of wide-open, flat parking lots.

“If you build structured parking, you free up a lot of land that can be used for workforce housing, said Barry Goodman, a former Metro president who now consults with Houston-area governments on transportation matters through his company, The Goodman Corporation.

It’s a long story, so read the rest. Not everyone on the Metro board thinks this is a great idea, there are some comparisons to other transit agencies that go both ways, and there’s the unfortunate return of a longtime anti-transit troll who’s back to spew some baloney. As I said, I like the general idea and think it’s worth a long look, but it’s fine if we take things slowly and conservatively.

Too many bicyclists die on the roads around here

We should be more upset about this.

More than 100 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation.

A Chronicle analysis of TxDOT roadway crash data found that 103 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads since 2017. Aside from a slight dip in 2018, the annual total has risen each year.

The data reviewed by the Chronicle comes from vehicle-related crash reports involving a bicyclist. It includes fatalities that occurred within 30 days due to injuries sustained from a crash.

[…]

Only crashes with running motor vehicles that result in injuries, deaths or personal property damage over $1000 are required to be reported, according to TxDOT guidelines. If none of those things occurred, it’s usually up to the discretion of the responding agency.

According to a Sept. 1 news release from TxDOT, Texas crashes involving bicyclists claimed the lives of 92 people total in 2021. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths accounted for 20 percent of the 4,490 fatalities on Texas roadways last year, according to TxDOT.

[…]

According to the data, some of the contributing factors to Harris County’s fatal crashes include:

  • Drivers failing to control their speed
  • Drivers disregarding stop signs or lights
  • Drivers failing to drive in a single lane or changing lanes when it’s unsafe
  • Drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Pedestrians failing to yield the right of way to vehicles

TxDOT is currently undergoing it’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign aimed at reminding Texans to know and follow laws for safe driving, walking and biking. The laws include the Lisa Torry Smith Act, which went into effect in 2021 and requires drivers to stop and yield the right of way to people in crosswalks. Drivers must also required to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicyclists when turning.

Did you know that we had such a law in Texas now? I admit that I did not. That was SB1055, and here’s some background on it, the short version of which is that it was named for a Fort Bend woman who was killed while in a crosswalk by an apparently inattentive driver. She was walking her 6-year-old son (who was badly injured as well) to school at the time. There are now criminal penalties for this, including felony charges if the driver injures or kills the person in the crosswalk. Good to know, and I’m glad it passed. Now if we could make sure everyone else knows about it.

Anyway. There were 24 bicyclists killed on Harris County roads last year, up from 14 in 2017 and 13 in 2018. There’s a chart with the totals in the story, along with maps showing all crash locations and all fatal crash locations in that time. The number so far for 2022 is 11, which would reverse the trend of increases but would likely still end up higher than 2018 and is still too many. Between initiatives like Vision Zero and the general investment in non-automotive transportation, things are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. And maybe we should prioritize reducing the number of people who die this way a bit more.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.

The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.

The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.

A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston’s $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.

The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.

[…]

Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:

  • EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
  • Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
  • Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
  • Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
  • Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen’s Town to the southwest.
  • Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
  • Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
  • Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
  • White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
  • Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.

“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”

It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”

Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.

“We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it,” Douglas said. “What we called ‘civic opportunities,’ they called ‘mitigation factors.’ They said, ‘We like what you’re proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.’ We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand.”

The Axios Houston story is here, and the full proposal from Central Houston is here. I haven’t had a chance to fully review that, so I don’t have a good picture of what these proposals would actually mean. I will note that the Stop TxDOT I-45 folks are not in favor of this, so that should tell you something. We could have a world in which we got these improvements and an I-45 project that was acceptable to the people who will be directly affected by it, I’m just saying. By the way, my headline was written before I got all the way to the end of that HPM story and saw that Allen Douglas of Central Houston was quoted saying their proposal was “not lipstick on a pig”. Great minds do think alike.

More on the DeLorean reboot company and its interesting legal history

Another prestige podcast in the making, I suspect.

Six months after DeLorean Motors Reimagined, the startup seeking to produce a new incarnation of the 1980s sports car, said it would put is headquarters in Texas, a lawsuit filed against the company has thrown a potential wrench in its gears.

In the lawsuit filed this month, Karma Automotive, based in Irvine, Calif., and owned by a Chinese conglomerate, alleges that DeLorean Motors Reimagined was created based on intellectual property that its founders stole while working for Karma.

While the plaintiff’s claims could be difficult to prove, the timing of DeLorean Motors’ founding in relation to its lead executives’ tenure at Karma could appear suspicious enough to compel attempts to negotiate a settlement, a legal expert said.

And that’s not the only red flag surrounding this DeLorean entity, which is intertwined with a similarly named Humble-based company — DeLorean Motor Co. — founded about 30 years ago with its own history of being sued over intellectual property claims. The Humble company’s claim to the DeLorean name is key to the two companies’ joint venture.

DeLorean Motors Reimagined, which located its headquarters to San Antonio, has a cloudy background to go with a somewhat muddled identify. It hasn’t disclosed information about its investors or working capital even as San Antonio and Bexar County officials granted the company more than $1 million in incentives and tax breaks,. And while DeLorean Motors Reimagined is incorporated separately from DeLorean Motor Co., the former generally identifies itself as the latter, such as on its website and in a Super Bowl ad that accompanied its launch.

So far, the only plans DeLorean Motors Reimagined has announced involve producing 88 models of its pricey Alpha5 coupe two years from now. Still, CEO Joost de Vries said the startup will soon become a publicly traded company.

It’s also not clear whether the combined DeLorean entity ever bought the intellectual property rights of John Z. DeLorean’s original 1970s-era company, although a 2014 settlement agreement has apparently shielded it from lawsuits.

See here and here for the background. At this point, I’d be leery about the prospect of any cars actually mike it off their production lines. But if they do, they will come with quite the backstory. Read the rest and see for yourself.

Nuro keeps on expanding in Houston

Someone must be using these services. I’m not, but someone must be.

Houstonians will soon be able to get completely autonomous delivery of their dinners, groceries, and more thanks to a new 10-year partnership.

Uber Technologies, Inc. and Nuro have cut a deal that will provide autonomous, electric vehicles for food deliveries in Houston and Mountain View, California, beginning his fall, according to a news release. A Bay Area expansion will follow, but Houston’s no stranger to Nuro-powered deliveries. California-based Nuro has launched five delivery pilot programs in Houston since 2019 with partners KrogerWalmartCVSDomino’s, and FedEx.

With this new partnership, users will have access to meals, groceries, and other goods available on the Uber Eats platform — as well as the opportunity to support local businesses.

[…]

The company tapped Houston as its first full-scale operational city. Nuro previously told InnovationMap that was because the city offered a wide range of variation in the infrastructure across Houston’s neighborhoods.

“Houston is our first full-scale operations city,” Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, told InnovationMap in January 2020. “All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston.”

As the story notes, Nuro is now licensed to operate these autonomous vehicles in Texas, Arizona, and California. I’ve followed Nuro’s advances in Houston as it’s moved from groceries to pizza to pharmacies and more. I see their mapping cars in my neighborhood all the time. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an actual delivery from one of their vehicles, but as I said someone must be using them. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

The slow but steady march of Houston’s non-car transportation infrastructure

Good story.

When he arrived in Houston two years ago, what David Fields saw belied what he had heard.

The nation’s fourth-largest city has long been known as car-centric and geared toward commuting, with a web of wide freeways that stretch from the heart of town to the far-flung suburbs. Driving, and fighting rush-hour traffic, could be considered part of Houston’s culture.

But Fields, a native New Yorker who also worked in the San Francisco area before taking a job as Houston’s chief transportation planner, saw a city in flux in terms of how its residents get around. Public transit options have expanded in recent years, and so has Houston’s network of sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.

Fields, who has lived in the Heights and Montrose areas and works downtown, said last week he has yet to drive to his office, instead relying on buses and occasionally his bicycle.

“I think Houston has a reputation because it grew up around the car for many years, but the reality on the ground is not the historic reputation,” he said. “I did not realize how much was going on here until I got to spend some time.”

Although highway expansion continues in the region and driving remains the primary mode of transportation for most Houston-area residents, the city continues to inch away from its reliance on personal cars and trucks while expanding its infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users. The idea, according to Fields, is to make the city safer, to more adequately accommodate more residents and their preferred transportation options and also to combat climate change.

The city recently was awarded a $21 million federal grant for a transformative project on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in the southeast part of town, where vehicle lanes will be reduced while bike lanes, wider sidewalks and improved connections with METRO – the region’s public transit provider – will be added. Similar projects have been completed in recent years on Austin Street in the Midtown area and Kelley Street on the north side, and many more are underway or in the pipeline.

A federal grant also is buoying an infrastructure project along Shepherd and Durham drives in the Heights area that calls for fewer vehicle lanes and an expanded pedestrian realm, and the city is doing much the same on a stretch of West 11th Street. Among the projects in the works at METRO, for which voters approved a $3.5 billion bond in 2019, is a 25-mile University Line that will stretch across the southern and eastern parts of town while connecting three universities.

Many of those projects have come to light under the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was elected in 2015. Fields said the city has added 400 miles of bike lanes under the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and meeting the needs of non-drivers is now part of the planning for every infrastructure initiative.

“The mayor has said over and over again we are in a transportation paradigm shift, which means moving people by all the different modes, making it safer for all the different modes and really rethinking our right-of-way space,” Fields said. “I can’t imagine any project the city is leading that is not looked at through a multimodal lens.”

[…]

Houston also is grappling with long-held perceptions and attitudes about how to get around the city and how its transportation resources should be invested. Fields said residents have expressed reservations about projects that will increase drive times and require prolonged construction – even if the tradeoff is improved safety – while Cutrufo said opponents of expanded cycling infrastructure often point to the city’s low number of bike riders compared to car drivers.

But [Joe] Cutrufo, whose BikeHouston organization has about 12,000 members, said Houston is “overbuilt for car traffic” and doesn’t require the lane capacity that exists on its roads. So there is plenty of space, he said, to accommodate those who prefer alternative modes of transportation.

“Nobody’s taking away your option to drive,” Cutrufo said of lane-reduction projects such as the ones in the Heights and on Telephone Road. “We’re gaining so much more than we’re losing. We’re not just gaining some space on a specific corridor that had to be quote-unquote taken away from drivers. We’re gaining a significant transportation option that we didn’t have before without losing the option to drive.”

It’s a long story, so go read the rest. Among other things, it name-checks the new bike bridges story, with the West 11th Street project implicitly included. Couple points to mention here. One is that the increased density of the greater Heights/Washington/Rice Military/Memorial areas is really only feasible with this kind of increased bike-and-pedestrian infrastructure. Both in terms of street traffic and parking space, you really want to encourage people who can get around these areas via walking or biking to do so, because there just isn’t the literal space for everyone to drive everywhere. This is a subject I’ve talked about before, in the context of increasing parking for bikes. Again, the key thing here is that making it easier for those who can walk or bike to get places really benefits those who have no choice but to drive.

The other thing to note, which gets only a passing mention in this story, is how much Metro has done lately in this space as well, from the big bus route redesign to more bike racks on buses, integrating with B-Cycle, and working to improve sidewalks around bus stops. The redesign of the local bus routes made a huge difference for me when I was working downtown and carpooling with my wife. It was much easier for me to get to and from work when our schedules didn’t overlap, and it was much easier to get to other places as well thanks to the frequent routes. I go downtown less frequently now that I don’t work there, but I rarely drive there when I do need to go. For those of you who rarely if ever take Metro, remember that every time I do, it’s one less car clogging up I-10 or I-45. You’re welcome.

West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

City staffers are finalizing a plan to add protected bike lanes along 11th Street in the Heights and reduce the number of driving lanes, despite pushback from some residents in the area.

Crews will begin work rehabilitating 11th Street this month, with plans to start construction on the bikeway part of the project in October, said Erin Jones, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.

“The bikeway design is still being finalized to include METRO bus stop improvements/relocations,” she said.

[…]

“When Mayor Turner announced the 11th Street project would move forward after that short pause, he said something that struck me,” said Joe Cutrufo, the director of BikeHouston. “He said that, ‘we’re not building the city for where we are now, but building the city for where we are going.’ And I thought that was really well-phrased.”

Bike lanes will be added on both sides of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street, where there will be one vehicular lane in each direction with a center, left-turn lane along the stretch between Yale and Studewood streets. The plan also calls for bike lanes along Michaux between 11th and Stude Park to the south as well as protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections such as 11th and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th, and Michaux and White Oak Drive.

There now are two vehicle lanes in each direction on 11th between Shepherd and Michaux, and no center turn lanes.

The project will cost about $600,000, with funding coming from capital improvement dollars for bikeways, according to the city.

See here, here, and here for some background. I fully support this and I am excited to see what the finished project looks like. I also recognize that the construction will be inconvenient, and it will directly affect me. Like most people in this neighborhood, I regularly drive all of those named streets. The carpool we have for getting Daughter #2 to and from high school also involves taking on kid home north of Garden Oaks, for which I take Shepherd already under construction) via 11th. It’s going to suck for awhile, no two ways around it. But hey, I’ve survived more highway renovations than I can count. I will survive this, too. And in the end, the neighborhood will be a better place. Let’s do this.

Still wondering about the existential future of Texas Central

I really hoped this would be a thing. If it isn’t, it’s a great wasted opportunity.

Ten years ago, a company calling itself Texas Central High-Speed Railway announced plans for a trailblazing bullet train that would whisk passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. Company leaders exuded confidence that the trains would be running up to 205 miles per hour by 2020.

The potential for an American high-speed rail line captured the imagination of Texans and national train enthusiasts alike. At one point during an event celebrating the unbuilt high-speed rail line, then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Dallas crowd, “You’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation.”

But a decade on, there are still no new tracks between Dallas and Houston.

Through multiple business entities who often use some version of the Texas Central moniker, developers of the project spent years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, fighting conservative lawmakers’ attempts to dampen their plans and buying land needed to lay the tracks. Perhaps the biggest battle, though, came from legal challenges to the company’s claims that state law allows it to forcibly purchase property when owners aren’t willing to voluntarily sell.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter and handed the company what could be a watershed victory, ruling that Texas Central can use eminent domain for its high-profile project. By the time the court ruled, though, Texas Central’s board had reportedly disbanded and its CEO and president had resigned. The project’s original timeline had already gone off the rails (at one point the construction was slated to begin in 2017). And land acquisition seems to have all but stopped in the last two years, according to land records reviewed by The Texas Tribune.

A spokesperson for the company, who is employed by a consulting firm that handles Texas Central’s media requests, says the project is still in the works.

But the company and Becker have declined to answer specific questions about the leadership exodus, apparent slump in land acquisition, funding prospects and status of permits Texas Central would need to move forward. A federal transportation agency says it hasn’t had contact with the company in two years. The portion of Texas Central’s website that once listed executive leaders is now blank — as is the list of current job openings.

Texas Central’s relative silence on the recent developments has left supporters of the project, who would like to see two of the state’s largest economic engines more easily connected, in limbo. Opponents, who have long railed against the idea of a private company using eminent domain to seize Texans’ land, are cautiously hoping Texas Central won’t rebound.

Even if the company resurges, there remain major obstacles ahead to acquire land and finance an increasingly expensive project described as “shovel ready” as recently as 2020. The stakes of the high-speed rail project extend beyond the company and Texas. The 240 miles of relatively flat land between Dallas and Houston has long been heralded as the ideal location for what Texas Central and its supporters say could be the first leg of a national high-speed rail system that transforms the country.

There are few infrastructure projects in the country that can compare in size to the Texas rail line. A California high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco also faces significant political, financial and legal hurdles. But Michael Bennon, the program manager at Stanford University’s ​​Global Infrastructure Policy Research Initiative, hangs a lot of hope on the Texas project given the relatively short distance, estimated frequency of travel and the landscape between the two cities.

“If you can’t do high-speed rail in that corridor, it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else,” Bennon said.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. This is not the first possible elegy to what might have been with TCR. I’m of the belief that nothing is truly dead until you see the body, but I’m not feeling very optimistic right now. The damn shame of it all is that this was a great idea, and it should have worked. Lots of factors combined to make it not work – again, if this is indeed the end, which I still hope it isn’t – and I have no idea what could make something else work in its place. Honestly, at this point I’m not sure I’d live to see whatever that might be, given the ponderously long times these things take, whether or not they ultimately go anywhere. All I can say is that I hope the reports of TCR’s death are exaggerated. But I don’t have much faith that they are.

More on A Tale Of Two Bridges

After I wrote about the effort to get two new bike and pedestrian bridges built in the Heights area, with the intent of making some new connections across the White Oak Bayou and to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail, I realized that I didn’t have a good image in my head of where these proposed sites would be. The map on the A Tale Of Two Bridges page helps, but the conceptual pictures they have on the home page didn’t really put in context for me. (*) So I decided to head out on my own over a recent weekend, on my bike of course, to find the future landing spots and take some pictures.

(Note: you might also find it useful to bring up a Google map of the general area – here’s one centered on the Heights Bird Sanctuary, mentioned below. Later in the post I talk about points of interest farther south, and I found it helpful to see where I was on this map as well.)

The first place I visited was the junction of Allston and 5th streets – you should probably refer to that map as I go along. Basically, 5th street runs for one block west of Yale, then ends at Allston, which also ends there. At this little two-street cul-de-sac, there’s a mini-dog park on 5th and the Assembly at Historic Heights apartments on one side of Allston and more apartments on the other. There’s also a small grassy field that overlooks the bayou, with some people-made walking trails that take you into the nearby Houston Heights Bird Sanctuary. This is what you see from the cul-de-sac:

Ashlandat5th

I walked from there to the steep (and on a wet day, slippery and treacherous) dropoff to the bayou. It was far enough down that I couldn’t really see it, and with the ground as slick as it was I wasn’t going to chance getting any closer. But you could easily see the bike trail from there:

ViewfromAshlandat5th

You can see a bicyclist and a runner catching a breather if you zoom in. A bit to the east is an entrance to the trail from Bonner Street, but unless you live there or continue on to the I-10 service road, you can’t really get anywhere else from there. But you can easily get to the Yale and Heights Blvd ramps from the trail. Or you could continue west towards Patterson. The current alternative to get there is to go back to the Heights Bike Trail, two blocks north on Allston, then take it all the way to Bayou Greenways Park, just over the MKT Bridge by Studewood, and pick up the White Oak trail from there. It’s a long damn way that way.

Speaking of Patterson, here’s the view of about where a Patterson bridge would connect on the north side. There’s no specific feature here, just a stretch of 6th Street between Waverly and North Shepherd. It had started to rain by the time I got here, and I took temporary refuge under a stairway at The Standard apartments. Not the view I would have preferred to show, but you can at least see the new Patterson Park bar from here:

ViewofPattersonfromTheStandard

As I said, the landing point is this stretch of 6th Street, which now features MKT Heights as a destination. From Waverly you can get back to the Heights trail, which will connect back to the White Oak trail west of Durham; you can also get to the northern spur of the Heights trail on Nicholson.

That was the end of that day’s journey – I still had a rain-soaked ride home. By Sunday it was clear enough again, so I headed to the White Oak trail to see the perspective from the other side. I can’t say exactly where on the trail the bridge to 5th and Allston would be, but it’s in this vicinity, where you can see the Assembly apartments:

TrailSideAshland5th

Part of that clearing I mentioned is where that utility pole is just left of the photo’s center. I was to the right from there, peeking out from the smaller trees, when I took the first picture.

The dead end of Patterson Street at the trail is a lot more obvious, and that’s where I took these last two pictures, one facing slightly east towards The Standard, and the other facing slightly west, in the general direction of MKT Heights.

PattersonBridgeEast

PattersonBridgeWest

I think the construction you can see in the west-facing picture on the bottom may be the back end of the East Bend apartments, which front onto North Shepherd. Patterson, on the side where I was, will have an on-street bike trail built soon per that Chron story. It will take you over I-10 to Washington Avenue. From there, you can eventually get to the Buffalo Bayou bike trails between Memorial and Allen Parkway either via Jackson Hill Street a couple of blocks east, or via Feagen to Spotts Park. You do have to cross Waugh to get there, which is dicey, but perhaps that will be addressed at some point as well. It’s still an amazing extension of the existing bike trail network, all thanks to two bridges and a new street trail. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see it all happen. Hope you enjoyed my little photo tour of what is to come.

(*) I did come across a better picture in this Axios Houston story as I started writing this post, but by then I’d already taken my own pics, and this one still wouldn’t have made sense to me without my own visit to the locations.

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

That’s my neighborhood, and this is the email they sent out on Thursday about it.

In recent weeks the WHCA has challenged TxDOT on their plan to elevate I-10 near our neighborhood between Heights Blvd. and I-45. Due to the lack of transparency, engagement, and overall dubiousness around the project, the WHCA cannot support this project. The project, in its current form, seems to be a waste of taxpayer money and jeopardizes the tranquility and worth of our community.

Below is a high-level list of issues:

  • TxDOT has defined the need, designed, and funded this project to start in 2024 without first considering the impact to the surrounding communities and ecosystems or engaging the public.

  • TxDOT should halt this project until Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) completes its evaluation of a plan to build 8 massive tunnels that would divert and store water underground. A study should be done to determine whether the I-10 elevation would be needed if the tunnel system goes forward.

  • This finished project would not withstand a Hurricane Harvey level event and traffic would still need to be re-routed as it is now and would be through the construction period. Any tax-payer funded project that purports to address flooding should be built to take on a 500-year flood.

  • The elevation of I-10 would add significant noise pollution to already very loud highway noise. The increased noise will impact property values along White Oak and surrounding streets.

  • The construction will last a minimum of four years and will be a burden to our community. In that time we will have limited access in and out of the neighborhood which will cause congestion within the neighborhood. That could lead to homeowners leaving, depressed home values, and homes sitting on the market longer.

  • TxDOT should consult local organizations to define parameters of the environmental impacts to be studied for ecosystems along White Oak and Little White Oak bayous and into our neighborhoods which are nesting sites for important birds like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, the official bird of Houston and formerly endangered Bald Eagles.

  • TxDOT should not take away any greenspace along White Oak Bayou.

  • TxDOT should not disturb the forested area slated to be a detention pond. This provides important sound mitigation, natural habitat and aesthetic beauty.

  • TxDOT should not break the Inner Katy project into smaller projects.

    • We are concerned that TxDOT’s decision to split the Inner Katy Corridor into segmented projects will mean that the full environmental impacts are not captured under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
    • We support other communities like Cottage Grove who are fighting a separate I-10 project threatening their parks and further dividing their neighborhood.
    • Impact analysis should be combined with the current I-45 impact analysis as they will affect the same neighborhoods and bayous

Here’s how you can help stop TxDOT’s I-10 Plan: 

  • Submit a pre-written email to TxDOT and elected officials: click here.

  • Submit your own comment on the TxDOT.gov website and reference project number: CSJ 0271-07-326

See here for the background. Some of these concerns may be more parochial than others, but at the very least the concerns about flooding and maybe playing games with the environmental impact are universal. While the subject of the email was “The WHCA Stands Against TxDOT’s I-10 Plan”, the word “oppose” doesn’t appear in the message body. It is possible that TxDOT could address these concerns. Given the I-45 expansion debate there’s not a huge amount of trust and goodwill, but it could happen. For now, there are a lot of questions that the folks in my neighborhood have.

Another story about driverless trucks on I-45

The driverless trucks start coming and they don’t stop coming.

Waymo will partner in coming weeks with manufacturer Daimler Truck to put self-driving 18-wheelers on the road, further expanding the technology company’s autonomous testing between Dallas and Houston.

The big rigs will travel between the state’s two largest metro areas on Interstate 45, a corridor that’s become one of the country’s key testing grounds for driverless trucks.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., creates the technology that can be attached to trucks and other vehicles to make them fully autonomous. Its partnership with Daimler
began in 2020.

“We’re very excited to share this really big milestone for this trade partnership with Daimler and Waymo,” said Boris Sofman, director of engineering and head of trucking for Waymo. “We knew from the very beginning it would be very critical for us to partner with the right group of experts.”

The Waymo Driver technology is touted as a way to eventually eliminate the need for a human driver. Trucks equipped with it don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or to sleep overnight, making them a more efficient way of getting goods from one place to another.

Waymo Via is used for transporting commercial goods, and it combines the driving capabilities of the Waymo Driver with the redundant systems of the Daimler trucks. Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia has been specifically designed for autonomous trucking, with redundant steering and braking systems, as well as increased battery storage to power the autonomous features.

[…]

The trucks are ready for the road after what Waymo and Daimler described as rigorous testing.

“We will be putting the first batch of these trucks into autonomous testing on public freeways in the upcoming weeks across Dallas and Phoenix, and that is an incredible milestone that both teams have been working a number of years toward,” said Waymo’s Sofman.

Waymo partnered with Uber Freight in June to move goods along the I-45 corridor, building on a February partnership on the same route with C.H. Robinson, a company that moves 20 million shipments annually. Waymo also partners with J.B. Hunt and UPS in Texas.

Waymo has been mentioned before, with that second story mentioning the C.H. Robinson partnership. I don’t think there’s anything really new with this one, it’s more of what we have already seen with the note that Waymo is a significant presence in the market. I wish there were an easy way to identify these autonomous trucks on the road, so we could get a more intuitive feel for how common a presence they are. For now, all we have are the news accounts. The Chron has more.

White Oak bike trail extension: Getting close to done

It’s been a bit more than a month since the last update, and as you can see a lot has gotten done.

WhiteOakTrailExtensionAlmostDone

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnd

As you can see, the trail itself is about 90% done, with only the far west end still needing to have concrete poured. The retaining wall appears to be complete as well. I assume there will be some groundskeeping work done before they declare victory – something needs to be done with all that exposed dirt, and maybe some small trees will be planted. But the heavy construction part is nearly finished.

Here’s a closer look at that western end:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnding

As you can see from the other pictures, all of the big excavation machines are gone. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to come back, but one way or another there will be more concrete poured. You can see a bike rider on the finished part of the trail already. I’ve seen some people walking the trail, and I did so myself a few days ago. Had to trudge through some mud at the end of it, but it was otherwise usable. The question I have at this point is how this trail extension is actually going to connect to the existing Heights Bike Trail. This is how it looks from where you can hop onto the Heights trail from Frasier Street:

MKTTrailFrasierEntrance

MKTTrailHeightsTrailJunction

I’ve shown a version of that first picture before. At the time, the stones connected to the existing trail, and I had assumed that was a planned piece of the project. I still think it is, but I’m not sure what will be done with that extended mud trail that now runs parallel to the bike trail. Obviously, that was used to get equipment on and off of the construction site, and I assume something will be done with it before the work is completed. The sensible thing would be for the White Oak extension to connect to the Heights trail at the closest location, and for that bit of path from Frasier Street to the trail to be filled in with concrete. Hopefully we’ll see the answers to those questions in the next couple of weeks. I will of course let you know.

Yes, let’s build more bike trail bridges

It’s all about connectivity.

Stopping for a water break on the normal blistering-hot Houston day, bicyclist Reagan Smithers, 33, can see the tops of the trees along her street from the White Oak Bayou Trail.

As the grackle flies – this is Houston, so there’s more of them than crows — she’s maybe four blocks from home, and a circuitous 1.1-mile bike ride.

“You get used to it, but it is a pain,” Smithers said.

Cycling advocates, supported by local developers and with some initial encouragement from city and state officials, however, might just have the cure: Two crossings of the bayou that could bridge a small distance that’s always existed between the Heights and Rice Military.

“It really shows what we could have but don’t,” said Emmanuel Nunez, one of the leaders of the push for two bridges at Patterson and Rutland.

The proposal cobbles together an open space the Texas Department of Transportation acquired for stormwater detention north of Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou, current plans for a bridge where Rutland dead ends north of the bayou, and apartment and commercial development on both sides of the bayou at Patterson. Nunez and other supporters of the proposal, called a Tale of Two Bridges, argue that a complete plan to use the detention area for wetland trails and a little parking – combined with the spans – eases access for cyclists and runners and makes natural connections that will be critical as nearby changes to transit and bike lanes occur.

“We want to make sure we have connectivity from every angle,” Nunez said.

TxDOT, with federal money doled out by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has a $2.4 million plan to build the Rutland bridge, set to start construction in fiscal 2024. Advocates behind the two bridges project are hoping another entity or entities – Houston, Harris County, Houston Parks Board, Metropolitan Transit Authority, area management districts, developers and practically anyone with the money and political muscle – will step in and support a Patterson span at the same time under the same construction contract.

“We want two for the price of one,” said Kevin Strickland, another organizer of the effort and members of CURBS Houston, an advocacy group in the Heights that has supported bicycling amenities in the area.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The image on the ATOTB page shows how much bang for the buck having both bridges would mean. Farther down in the Chron story is a listing of other projects in the area that would further enhance the effect. There’s a lot of apartments and a lot of destinations that would be easily reachable by bike from them in the area. Enabling that connectivity means fewer people resorting to cars for these short trips. That’s a big win for everyone, all for a very reasonable price tag. We should all want this to happen.

DeLorean reboot company hit with intellectual property lawsuit

Here’s a plot twist I didn’t see coming.

Mere months after the city and county coughed up nearly $1.1 million in incentives to attract the revamped DeLorean Motor Co., the venture has been hit with a lawsuit alleging its founders engaged in intellectual property theft.

A suit filed in federal court in Houston accuses four former employees of California-based electric car maker Karma Automotive of stealing design and engineering information to launch their venture resurrecting the ’80s-era DeLorean sports car as an electric vehicle.

In its petition, Karma Automotive maintains that four of its employees were assigned to an initiative dubbed “Project 88,” which aimed to electrify the original DeLorean DMC-12 popularized by the Back to the Future film franchise.

The suit names current DeLorean CEO Joost de Vries, Chief Operating Officer Alan Yuan, Chief Marketing Officer Troy Beetz and Vice President Brand and Creative Neilo Harris as those employees and asks the court to stop their use of Karma’s technology. The pleading also seeks monetary damages.

While DeLorean officials didn’t respond to the Current’s request for comment, de Vries did offer the following comment to the San Antonio Express-News, which first reported on the suit: “This car has a very specific, unique DeLorean lineage that has no relation to Karma Automotive from a design, engineering, supply chain or manufacturing perspective. We remain committed to the future of our company.”

The suit accuses de Vries and the three other former Karma employees of hiding information on their plans for the DeLorean from executives while they were still on staff.

“They actively concealed information from Karma to keep Karma from pursing the project or from finding out what [the] individual defendants were doing,” the legal filing reads. “Then, one by one, they left Karma.”

According to the suit, the defendants conspired to quit Karma Automotive after executives began questioning the viability of the project due to the lack of details provided by the former employees working on the vehicle.

“Within Karma, concerns were raised among Karma’s executives that [the] individual defendants’ proposals for Project 88 were not sufficiently detailed and raised open questions,” the petition reads. “[The] individual defendants repeatedly promised to provide additional details and information, but failed to do so.”

See here for the background. That Express News story is paywalled, so this is the best I can do. I blogged about the origin of the San Antonio-based DeLorean reboot because who doesn’t love a good homage to a classic 80s movie. I don’t know how closely I’ll follow this part of it, but I’m sure there will be an update or two at some point in the future. Texas Public Radio has more.

Metro gets electric bus money

Good.

Metro’s plan to gradually get rid of gasoline-powered buses took a step forward this week, when federal officials awarded the transit agency nearly $21.6 million to replace 20 diesel buses with electric ones, and the equipment needed to keep them charged.

“These essential funds will help our region transition to lower-polluting and more energy-efficient transit vehicles quicker,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement announcing the award from the Federal Transit Administration. “I look forward to watching the positive impact this brings to Houston Metro and residents.”

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials applied for the money in May, citing the grant as a part of overall efforts to replace its diesel fleet. Federal officials, as part of the transportation bill passed last year, increased funding for zero emission buses from about $182 million to $1.1 billion, allowing transit agencies to compete for the funds with a greater likelihood of winning funding.

[…]

Board members one year ago approved a plan for Metro to purchase only zero-emission vehicles by 2030, giving the agency years to convert its fleet of more than 1,200 buses away from diesel.

So far, Metro has made plans to purchase 50, including the 20 covered by this week’s grant. The agency earlier this year received funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money in the area, for 20 electric 40-foot buses — those that typically operate local routes — and ten smaller shuttles that often operate MetroLift paratransit routes.

See here for the most recent update. It’s obviously going to take awhile to replace the whole fleet, but you have to start somewhere. Hopefully, there will be more federal funds available in the future to help. Kudos to all for getting this going.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

A state proposal to elevate Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou is raising concerns among neighbors, who worry about the effects a higher freeway would have on noise and drainage.

The $347 million project, unveiled Tuesday by the Texas Department of Transportation, would raise I-10 between Interstate 45 and Heights Boulevard, a distance of less than two miles. Where the freeway is now, slightly up the slope from White Oak Bayou, would become drainage and open space in some spots, while the lanes would be rebuilt atop concrete pillars.

More detailed designs of the proposal are expected later this year, with an environmental review planned in 2023. Construction would start in summer 2024, according to TxDOT, which opened a public comment period until Aug. 12 on the plan. An in-person meeting is scheduled for Thursday, at TxDOT’s Houston district headquarters near I-10 and Washington.

In their initial presentation, TxDOT officials said the area is too prone to flooding from heavy rains, and too important to regional travel. More than 200,000 vehicles used that area of the freeway on the average day last year, according to TxDOT.

All of that comes to a halt when White Oak tops its banks in heavy rain, however, something that happened during Tropical Storms Allison and Imelda and Hurricane Harvey. Those storms sent water onto the freeway, making it impassable.

Any change to the current design, however, is going to draw intense scrutiny from the neighborhood, residents said.

“We’re skeptical, especially with TxDOT’s track record of valuing exurb commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Brad Snead, a member of the Woodland Heights Civic Association and head of the club’s infrastructure committee, wrote in an email. “That said, our biggest ask at the moment will likely be more time to comment and see the data. We’re not immediately opposed, but we don’t know enough.”

If built, the project would keep the freeway at roughly the same elevation as it goes over Heights and Studemont, and raise it again between Taylor and I-45 to around the same height as the current HOV lane into downtown Houston.

[…]

The proposed elevation, however, is among several changes envisioned along I-10 within Loop 610. TxDOT has proposed adding managed lanes — similar to the Katy Managed Lanes outside the loop — to the freeway, likely elevated above the existing lanes.

Metropolitan Transit Authority, meanwhile, has its own plan to add bus rapid transit along elevated lanes from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Post Oak to downtown Houston. Plans for the busway rely on using the existing HOV ramp into the central business district or building the lanes south of the freeway through First Ward.

This story is from last week, so the public meeting has already happened. You can see a video of the presentation, in English or in Spanish, here. Also on that page are the exhibit boards, which are also the PowerPoint slides from the video, and the schematic, among other things.

I get the reason for this, and I’m glad to see the project if it goes forward as is would not require any taking of residential or commercial property. The construction would be a major pain, and would make a significant part of the Heights bike trail inaccessible (I assume there would be some alternate route, though I don’t know what that would be yet) while construction was ongoing. The noise concern is real – I can’t imagine how loud it might be to have all that traffic up in the air like that, with nothing to block the noise emanating from it. I’m a big proponent of building these elevated lanes for Metro’s Inner Katy BRT line, but that’s far less traffic, and would really only require two lanes so it would be much smaller in scope. After years of fighting the I-45 expansion, I don’t think there’s much goodwill for TxDOT in this area, whatever the benefits of this plan may be. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

More on the planning for the University BRT line

Yes, Metro has to make some predictions about where transit will be needed. Building a line that goes through some of the densest parts of town probably helps with that.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials told voters in 2019 “we have a plan for traffic,” and more than two-thirds of those who cast ballots bought in.

Now that the plan is coming into focus, agency officials will need more than just good ideas to make the lines they have drawn on a map a reality.

The challenge for Metro is picking routes and lines for the future when travel patterns constantly change and economic factors can upend commutes. Even with $7.5 billion in local and federal funding plotted, Metro can only do one or two major projects at a time. Picking the first steps in some ways influences whether the agency can avoid lingering concerns about transit leaders’ ability to deliver big projects.

Officials admit much of their plan is an educated guess, but still a guess about how Houstonians will want to get around in the years to come.

“It is not possible for us to be future-proof, but it is possible to be future-ready,” Metro board chair Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

The long-range plan for transit in Houston, estimated to cost $7.5 billion, spans the entire region, including 75 miles of bus rapid transit, two-way HOV or HOT lanes for park and ride buses along all major freeways and plans for extending light rail to Hobby Airport.

While things such as shelters at hundreds of Metro’s 8,900 bus stops and improved sidewalks along major routes already are in progress, the first big-ticket project on Metro’s list is the University Line. It is among the longest bus rapid transit lines planned in the nation, connecting a dozen of the region’s major transit hubs and roughly 20 neighborhoods, using large buses that stop at stations and act more like light rail than conventional bus service.

The buses use their own lanes along major streets, in some cases taking lanes now open to car and truck drivers, to avoid traffic and offer access to about 40 stops along the 25.3 mile route. It is about one-third of the dedicated lanes Metro wants to build, and along with a planned BRT line along Interstate 10 forms the two east-west transit backbones that join the light rail system downtown and the Silver Line BRT through Uptown.

Transit advocates have called the line critical to linking Houston neighborhoods clamoring for better, faster transit to the job centers and educational opportunities abounding in the region.

“If we can get 5 to 10 percent of the region using transit, that is going to make life better for the 90-95 percent,” Ramabhadran said.

See here for some background, and look for a detailed description of the route embedded in the story. This BRT route will connect with all of the existing light rail lines as well as the Uptown BRT line, and will later connect with the Energy Corridor BRT line that’s also on the drawing board (see page 2). I will never get over the fact that we could right now already have an operational Universities light rail line, but there’s nothing to be done about that. I do see the same old critics making their same old tired arguments in this story, and all I can say is that I hope they have a lot less influence this time around. We’re still a long way out from a ribbon-cutting, and I know I’ll be worried about things that can go wrong until we get to that. In the meantime, learn what you can about this and show your support. We’re going to need all the good transit options we can get.

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

After college, Michael Moritz got a job in Houston analyzing fatal car crashes. Moritz, a 27-year-old native of San Antonio, stood on Interstate Highway 45, one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the country, and documented how cars collided. One day in the fall of 2019, he learned that the Texas Department of Transportation intended to expand I-45, supposedly to fix congestion and make the highway safer.

“More lanes just doesn’t equal safety,” he said.

And then he learned about all the other negative impacts of the $7 billion expansion project, which would remake Houston’s downtown and demolish more than 1,000 homes, nearly 350 businesses, five churches and two schools.

He got involved with a grassroots group called Stop TxDOT I-45 and started spending nights and weekends fighting the expansion. Gradually, he met people fighting freeway expansions across the state, including in the capital city of Austin, and joined a regular Zoom call to discuss strategy. He signed up for automated emails from TxDOT to find out when new projects were proposed and approved.

In 2021, just a few days before Christmas, he got two emails from TxDOT. The agency had issued a “finding of no significant impact” — or FONSI, pronounced like Fonzie, the “Happy Days” character — for two segments of a $6 billion project to rebuild and expand Interstate Highway 35, which passes through the heart of Austin. “Really?” he thought. “No impact?”

Moritz was alarmed by the idea that adding lanes to an interstate running through one of the fastest-growing cities in the country was considered to have no environmental impact. The expansion of the north and south segments of I-35 would consume 30 acres of land, affect more than a dozen streams and creeks, and add millions of metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere over the coming decades.

Moritz called up a few activists he knew in Austin. Together, they wondered: How often was TxDOT declaring that its projects had no impact on the human or natural environment? Moritz decided to find out. He searched TxDOT’s online archives for every environmental review published since 2015, as far back as TxDOT’s records extend.

Moritz quickly noticed that many projects that were physically connected had been spliced into segments, as I-35 was in Austin. Loop 88 in Lubbock, notably, had been evaluated in four segments stretching across 36 miles. Collectively, those segments would consume 2,000 acres of land, displace nearly 100 residences and 63 businesses, and cost almost $2 billion. Yet all four segments received findings of no significant impact, three on the same day.

Overall, Moritz discovered that between 2015 and 2022, 130 TxDOT projects were found to have no significant impact after an initial review, while only six received full environmental analyses detailing their impacts. Cumulatively, those 130 projects will consume nearly 12,000 acres of land, add more than 3,000 new lane miles to the state highway system, and displace 477 homes and 376 businesses. The total projected cost of those projects was nearly $24 billion, almost half of what TxDOT spent on transportation projects during that time and twice as much as the amount spent on projects that received full environmental reviews.

“It can’t be argued with a straight face that these big, multihundred-million-dollar projects don’t have significant impact,” says Dennis Grzezinski, an environmental lawyer in Wisconsin who has worked on National Environmental Policy Act cases for three decades and who was not involved in Moritz’s study. He called Moritz’s analysis “a giant red flag” that TxDOT was approving projects in violation of NEPA.

“If TxDOT is producing environmental assessments that result in FONSIs over and over and over again, on large-scale interstates and major highway expansion projects, there is clearly something major that’s wrong and not in line with NEPA requirements,” he says.

Now, a group of activists is suing TxDOT, saying that the agency split the I-35 project into segments in order to obscure its full impacts and “circumvent” the requirements of NEPA. The case, filed in U.S. district court, raises larger questions about the federal government’s decision to give TxDOT the authority to approve its own environmental reviews.

“I think the words ‘no significant impact’ have meaning,” Grzezinski says.

Under NEPA, a 1970 law, any state agency receiving federal funding for a project must document how the project impacts the human and natural environment. That documentation is categorized in one of three ways, depending on the project’s perceived impact. Actions that “significantly affect the environment” require a comprehensive environmental impact statement, which quantifies those impacts, includes specific ways the agency would mitigate them and asks for significant public feedback. (The final environmental impact statement for the Houston highway expansion exceeded 8,000 pages.)

On the other end of the spectrum, relatively minor projects — like repaving an existing road or repairing an interchange — can receive what’s called a categorical exclusion, essentially an exemption from NEPA. Everything in between is considered through an environmental assessment, a relatively concise document, typically a few hundred pages. An environmental assessment leads to either a full environmental review or a finding of no significant impact, which allows the agency to proceed with land acquisition and construction.

But because NEPA covers a broad array of government actions, the law doesn’t define what makes an environmental or social impact “significant” — whether it’s acres of land taken or people displaced — and thus what triggers a full environmental review.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest; the story was originally published by Grist. I’ve blogged a couple of times about the proposed I-35 expansion, the design for which makes I-45 look almost sedate. It would not be surprising to me if TxDOT had been playing fast and loose with the impact assessments under NEPA – they are allowed some discretion in coming to their assessments, and it would be a lot easier on them and everyone involved with the subsequent construction if they gave certain projects the “no significant impact”. It’s more than a little hard to believe that could be the case with I-35, and if the end result is a full and rigorous examination of TxDOT’s operations, that’s fine with me. This is a federal lawsuit so expect it to take years to come to some kind of resolution, but I’ll try to keep an eye on it.

If the only choices are “take it or leave it”, well…

Leave it doesn’t sound so bad given the alternative.

One year ago, opponents of the state’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston criticized the “take it or leave it” option state officials offered regarding amending plans for the mega-project.

Tuesday, as part of a public hearing on the state’s long-range plans, opponents opted for leave it, telling the Texas Department of Transportation to drop the 1-45 widening off its list.

“Adding huge swaths of concrete is the opposite of what Houston needs,” Houstonian Joy Fairchild said during a public hearing for TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Program.

The latest UTP, updated annually by the Texas Department, outlines a record $85.1 billion in transportation spending across the state from 2023 to 2032. Though not a guarantee of funding or a commitment to build the projects listed, it details what the state plans to do.

The Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve the UTP at its Aug. 30 meeting. All public comments received by Aug. 8 will be submitted to the commission, including comments from Tuesday’s midday virtual public hearing. People also can comment online, via phone or at local TxDOT offices.

For Houston, more than $6 billion of the plan’s spending centers on I-45, masking it nearly half of the $12.5 billion Houston’s TxDOT district has to spend over the next decade. Estimated to cost at least $9.7 billion, the project would rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, adding two managed lanes in each direction. Some of the project’s cost comes from other non-TxDOT sources, while some of the money dedicated on the project will not be spent until later parts of the construction, likely to stretch beyond 2032.

Though planned for nearly 20 years, concerns intensified five years ago, when groups such as Air Alliance Houston, LINKHouston and Stop TxDOT I-45 organized to argue highway officials should focus more on improving transit and avoid any additional freeway widening.

As the story notes, the I-45 project is on pause while a complaint filed with the Federal Highway Administration over the projects effects on communities of color are investigated. As far as this goes, I don’t think anyone is making any new arguments, and there continues to be a large gap between what activists and local governments want out of the project and what TxDOT is willing to give. I don’t think TxDOT will pull I-45 widening off their list, and if I’m right then I still don’t know what happens next. As things stand now, a whole lot of people will be mad at the outcome, whatever it is.

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Look! Concrete!

A few days after the Fourth of July, I saw this on the White Oak Bike Trail extension:

WhiteOakTrailExtension_NewBuild1_070922

See here for the previous update. That’s the view from where the current trail had ended. I actually saw this bit of progress from above on Studewood, but wanted to get a closer picture to put it into some context. Since then, there’s been quite a bit more progress, as you can see from the Studewood perspective:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudewood_071622

You can also see where the next batch of concrete will be poured on the west side of the culvert, up against the retaining wall. Turns out that the project plan diagram was pretty accurate and this path will be mostly straight, with the curve happening on the west side. Here’s a closer view of the coming attraction:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionZoomedViewFromStudewood_071622

I’m keeping an eager eye on this because they’re clearly moving along, and the last word was that they should be finishing up about now. I’m thinking it’ll be more like late July or early August, but at this point you can see it from here. And I can’t wait to take a picture on this new piece of the trail from my bike. Stay tuned!

Time to meet the University Line BRT plans

A big step forward, but there are many miles yet to go.

The biggest of Metro’s big bus offerings is about to turn from lines on a map to a full-fledged discussion for Houston residents, as transit officials prepare for the first round of public meetings over the planned University Line.

Just don’t expect fast action on what could be the spine of Metro’s east-west mass transit system. A host of hurdles remain for the bus rapid transit planned between northeast Houston and Westchase, including segments similar to those proposed 15 years ago that ran into a buzzsaw of opposition in some Houston neighborhoods. Elected officials at the time took that opposition and clamped off funding for the project.

Public meetings start Tuesday, with two evening events planned. Nine more meetings follow, where residents can look at display boards of where the Metropolitan Transit Authority proposes widening local streets to allow for bus-only lanes and dedicated stations similar to rail where passengers will enter and exit the 60-foot buses that operate the line.

The meetings are not detailed designs, but a chance for the community to evaluate the plans and offer suggestions of where and what Metro should build to best serve riders, who might not hop onto the buses for a decade or more in some spots. Construction is not likely to happen before 2025, if then, with opening day in 2029 at a cost of $2 billion or more.

“This is a complicated engineering project. It’s going to take some time,” Metro chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

The line, likely built in five phases, would be among the largest BRT lines in the nation, stretching more than 25 miles from the Tidwell Transit Center near Loop 610 and Interstate 69 to Westchase. Metro’s preferred route uses Lockwood to travel through Denver Harbor and Fifth Ward to the Eastwood Transit Center, then jogs through Third Ward with stops at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Following Alabama and Wheeler, the line crosses Midtown at the Wheeler Transit Center using Richmond before turning south at Edloe. From there, the buses would use their own lanes along Westpark Drive to Westchase.

The length, combined with the complexity of building practically anything in the densest parts of the Houston region, makes the project monumental to plan but also critical to tying together a growing but gap-riddled reliable bus network across an area built for the automobile.

“There are multiple pieces to the puzzle,” Ramabhadran said. “We are going to be crossing every highway in the region with the exception of (U.S.) 290.”

Information about the public meetings can be found here. The goal is to submit a proposal for funding to the Federal Transit Administration by August to get in line for funding. After that, we’ll see. Just remember as you look at all this, if we lived in a world where John Culberson never existed, we might already have a light rail line in this corridor right now. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can at least get this project on track, as it were. Attend a meeting if you can, and show your support for making it a little easier to get around town.

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.