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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether.

“A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

Many fear the state — if it does not get full-throated support — simply will pull the project and leave one of the spines of the local freeway system a crumbling mess.

If removed from the state’s 10-year unified transportation program, updated annually and approved by the commission, the planned rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 would be shelved. That would leave drivers and residents waiting months, maybe years longer than promised for two managed lanes in each direction, updated and additional rainfall detention, wider frontage roads and upgrades bringing some aging parts of the freeway up to current standards.

See here for the previous entry. My first thought in reading this story was “SurveyMonkey? Really? How sure is everyone that this can’t be hacked or spammed?” But Mayor Turner in his full statement and Michael Skelly on behalf of the Make I-45 Better Coalition articulate a different problem: The survey doesn’t have enough choices. From Skelly’s email:

The worst part is that the only two options on the public comment form are both flawed:

  1. Supporting the I-45 expansion exactly as it’s designed — despite the many flaws we’ve previously discussed, or
  2. Rejecting the I-45 expansion entirely and removing all funding for it

What about keeping the funding, but building a redesigned project that actually supports the residents and environment of the City of Houston? We could “make I-45 better” by—for example—following the alternative designs that the City of Houston Planning Department unveiled after listening to many, many public comments. The City of Houston pushed for a Vision C which would have accommodated transit, reduced rights of way impacts, and saved money, but TxDOT completely ignored the City’s suggested plan. If TxDOT truly cared about the public, they would allow for a better, safer project to be built.

Just to be clear—despite a new public comment period opening, the I-45 project has not changed since the last comment period in 2020, following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Having a third choice would risk not getting a majority in favor of any one option, but it would be a better gauge of what the public actually wants. As configured, there’s an even higher risk of “be careful what you ask for”.

In the meantime, you have until August 9 to submit your comments, and there’s an online public engagement on August 2. See the Skelly email for all the details. I have no idea what might happen here, but you should make your voice heard while you can.

Is it a car that flies or a plane that drives?

It’s a little of both.

Photo from Klein Vision

A prototype flying car has completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The hybrid car-aircraft, AirCar, is equipped with a BMW engine and runs on regular petrol-pump fuel.

Its creator, Prof Stefan Klein, said it could fly about 1,000km (600 miles), at a height of 8,200ft (2,500m), and had clocked up 40 hours in the air so far.

It takes two minutes and 15 seconds to transform from car into aircraft.

The narrow wings fold down along the sides of the car.

Prof Klein drove it straight off the runway and into town upon arrival, watched by invited reporters.

He described the experience, early on Monday morning, as “normal” and “very pleasant”.

In the air, the vehicle reached a cruising speed of 170km/h.

It can carry two people, with a combined weight limit of 200kg (31 stone).

But unlike drone-taxi prototypes, it cannot take off and land vertically and requires a runway.

I’ve blogged about flying cars a few times before – what can I say, the subject is fascinating, and also somewhat terrifying – with the first entry in 2017, when Uber was talking about having an “intra-urban flying vehicle network” available in 2020, with Dallas and Fort Worth being its target. Didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned – they’re now talking 2023 as a more realistic date – but that’s the way it goes. This particular model is basically a car with retractable wings; other models we have heard about include flying motorcycles and something that looks like a drone capable of carrying multiple humans. That latter model is likely a few more years off, but who knows with any of this.

There are a lot of concerns about these things, including noise, safety, and of course the climate effect, but so far that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. As with driverless cars, which are still in their infancy and still have some major engineering challenges to solve, I think it’s a matter of when and not if for these things. We ought to at least think about how we want to integrate them into society, rather than react when they do show up. You can see more pictures and videos for this particular flying car at the Klein Vision website. CNet and Yahoo have more.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

Hemmed between a request for a pause by federal highway officials and an outcry from opponents, planners of a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 in Houston are taking their plans back to the public in what may be a last effort to keep the project on pace.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Wednesday said more public scrutiny is needed of the plan for remaking I-45 north from downtown Houston to Beltway 8.

“Basically, let’s take this project and put it back out for public comment … then we will see where we go from there,” Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

Additional public input on the I-45 project — at least the seventh time state officials have asked for comments — will be accepted via the month-long comment process for the Texas Department of Transportation’s 10-year plan, set to start July 7. The decision to seek more public comment, should it lead to the project being delayed or removed from the plan, was viewed as a necessary but unfortunate step by commissioners.

“I think it is very sad that we are at the point we are at with this particular project with regard to the amount of work and the amount of public engagement,” said Commissioner Laura Ryan, who lives in Houston.

Tying the project to the long-range plan is significant because as costs increased to a current estimate of $9 billion for the work, it represents about $1 of every $8 Texas will spend on highways during the next decade.

Officials estimate TxDOT has spent $503 million developing the project to this point. Delaying or significantly redesigning the project could make it the costliest highway hiccup in Texas history, far exceeding the $15 million spent on the Trans-Texas Corridor more than a decade ago before the planned tollway got the heave-ho.

[…]

The Federal Highway Administration in March asked TxDOT to pause development activities on the project. That was clarified in a June 14 letter to include any property acquisition and final design efforts after opponents found people still were receiving property offers.

“We’re frustrated that it’s taken the federal government stepping in to get TxDOT to do the right thing,” said Molly Cook, a Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer.

The right thing, however, is what remains in dispute. Supporters have increased their pressure in recent years, as local elected officials have changed. For more than 15 years to the present, Bugg noted there has been strong regional support for the project because I-45 is a crucial travel corridor for all of southeast Texas. Sixteen times, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the local regional planning agency made up of various elected and appointed officials, unanimously backed the project.

Many local officials still do, including state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, who urged transportation officials meeting Wednesday in Austin to charge ahead.

“I do firmly believe this corridor needs to be completed and if TxDOT can push on that they ought to,” Thompson said.

Citing the importance of I-45 to trucking and evacuation of the Gulf Coast in case of disaster, Thompson said delays in construction come with consequences opponents might not recognize.

“I do understand their concerns, but this is also vital to our entire region,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. As the story notes, there are competing interests here, as the city of Houston and Harris County and a bunch of neighborhoods and residents have serious concerns about the many effects of the project, while people who are mostly from far outside of Houston and the affected area want this built yesterday. It’s on TxDOT to balance those interests, and the opponents are not going to meekly roll over. It’s not my problem that TxDOT has spent a ton of money on this project without being able to deliver something that is acceptable to those who will be the most directly affected by it.

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

In two letters released Wednesday — one to the Texas Department of Transportation and another to Harris County leaders — the Federal Highway Administration said it expected Texas officials to halt work [on I-45], including the purchase of needed property, on the $7 billion-plus rebuild of the freeway until more scrutiny of the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll can be completed.

“This is an incredibly rare step, but it is a rare set of circumstances,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said of the federal decision, noting how TxDOT, in his opinion, cut corners on its environmental assessment.

In a statement, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the decision to slow development by FHWA “indefinitely suspends key steps” on a project state and local officials have sought for more than 15 years.

“It’s unfortunate there is an expanded delay on this project, but TxDOT remains fully committed to working with FHWA and local officials on an appropriate path forward ,” Kaufman said. “We know that many in the community are anxious to see this project advance.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Menefee said Wednesday the county remains committed to redesigning the proposal.

“We do need and our community deserves an I-45 project, Hidalgo said. “We also need a project that respects the wishes of the community.”

She said TxDOT for the past two years has ignored suggestions from local officials and groups to make the project more transit-focused and displace fewer people.

“You can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input,” Hidalgo said. “You cannot bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act.”

[…]

The letters reaffirm a request from federal officials in March that work on the controversial project halt until the concerns over equity and the freeway’s design are addressed. Federal officials sent TxDOT the letter after Hidalgo raised objections in May that the highway agency was acquiring property through purchases and eminent domain.

“We share the concerns raised by your recent letter suggesting that TxDOT is not engaging in the pause and may be proceeding with other aspects of the I-45 project,” wrote Achille Alonzi, FHWA’s division director for Texas.

In a letter to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams, FHWA officials said any pause applies to “right-of-way acquisition, including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain, and final design activities.”

Further, federal officials said they are reviewing its agreement with TxDOT signed in December 2019, that allowed the state transportation agency to approve its own environmental impact study and move forward on the project. Texas and California have authority to approve their own projects, provided they show they complied with federal law. The review, which critics have called an audit, means federal officials will double-check Texas’ process, which could take months.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the letters. I’ve been wondering lately if we’re going to see the likes of Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton get involved in this. I mean, we have local Democratic officials brazenly telling TxDOT that they can’t do their job and build their highway like they’re supposed to, and surely this cannot stand. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been some pushback from the “only Republican governance is legitimate” crowd before now. And I hope I’m wrong to be worried about this. We’ll see how this goes. The Press has more.

Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

Feel the excitement! No, seriously, we’ve waited a long time for this.

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

Planning and technical work alone could take the next two years, with Metro set to approve a consulting agreement with engineering firm AECOM, paying it $1 million to start the initial designs. The total cost of the University Line is likely to exceed $1 billion.

As noted before, Metro is moving quickly to try to get federal funds so that design and construction can begin on the timeline indicated above. I support that and hope they’re successful, but I have to admit this all leaves me feeling bittersweet. Remember, the original Metro referendum passed in 2001. The Main Street line opened in 2004. We were talking about designs for what would have been the Universities light rail line in 2005. A combination of some cranky Afton Oaks residents, former Congressman John Culberson, the former Metro board’s incompetence, and the 2008 economic crash have all led to this, where we’re trying again to build something that in another universe might be celebrating its ten year anniversary by now. I feel pretty good about the current plan coming to fruition maybe five years or so from now, but the amount of time that was wasted with nothing to show for it is staggering and nauseating. Let’s please never do that again.

Supreme Court agrees that Texas Central is a railroad

Or at least, they declined the opportunity to say otherwise.

Texas Central Railroad, according to the Texas Supreme Court, is a railroad, ending a five-year legal battle over the controversial high-speed rail company’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

The ruling, unless a federal court intervenes or stops the company in another way, clears the path for backers of the Houston-to-Dallas bullet train to acquire land over the objections of landowners unwilling to sell.

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to review the Texas 13th Court of Appeals ruling last year that upheld Texas Central’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

“The court’s denial of review should put an end to over five years of contentious litigation and clear the path for Texas Central to bring the high-speed train to Texas,” Texas Central said in a statement.

[…]

At issue in the case, brought by Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles, was whether Texas Central was classified as a railroad by state law. Despite claiming to be a railroad, Miles’ lawyers noted the company owns no trains, has no track and does not operate any service. Texas Central remains, after more than nine years, still in the planning stages, and continues to face stiff opposition from rural residents.

Being considered a railroad is important because only a railroad has a right to acquire property under eminent domain for a private purpose. Otherwise landowners simply could refuse to sell. Now, Texas Central must offer property owners fair market value, but can go to court to condemn land.

See here and here for the background. With the manufacturing contract, the final federal environmental approvals, surviving the legislative session, and now this, it’s been a few good months for Texas Central. Opponents still have some arrows in their quiver – they are challenging the environmental approvals, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Greg Abbott is asked to add consideration of eminent domain to a special session agenda – but the path forward is a lot clearer for them now than it was a year ago. Once they start actually laying track – and I know I’ve said this before, but it’s still true – they will be hard to stop.

Texas Central signs construction deal

Sure seems like they’re getting close to actually laying track.

The developer of a long-planned — and controversial — high-speed rail line that would get passengers from Dallas to Houston in 90 minutes announced Tuesday that it signed a $16 billion contract with an Italian company to build the project, in what could be a step toward realization.

Webuild, based in Milan, will oversee heavy construction of the planned 236-mile (380-kilometer) project for developer Texas Central, the companies said in a news release. Webuild will operate through U.S. subsidiary Cheshire, Connecticut-based Lane Construction Corporation.

Nearly half the distance the bullet train will cover — at speeds up to 200-mph (320-kph) — will be elevated to reduce the impact on property owners, the companies said.

[…]

Webuild CEO Pietro Salini said the project brings further focus to the company’s work in the U.S., its single biggest market.

“Being part of such a challenging project as leader of the design and construction of the railway is a unique experience that we are extremely proud of,” Salini said.

Webuild was created in 2020 from Salini Impregilo, a leading player in major infrastructure projects that acquired Lane in 2016 and more recently Italy’s Astaldi engineering firm. Building the project will employ 17,000 people directly, Webuild said. The rail link itself would use Japanese bullet train technology and would employ 1,500 people once completed.

As it happens, Texas Central had signed a manufacturing deal with Salini Impregilo in 2019. Texas Central got their final federal approvals in September, and made it through yet another legislative session intact, which looked a little shaky to me going it. Is this finally The Year That It Happens? We’ll see. See the press release for more.

Study claims Uber has reduced drunk driving in Houston

Of interest.

Paid rides have saved lives and lessened drunk driving convictions in Houston, according to a new study released Wednesday by local researchers that claimed a direct link between more folks hailing an Uber and fewer wheeled into emergency rooms.

“The data shows that ridesharing companies can decrease these incidents because they give young people an alternative to driving drunk,” said Dr. Christopher Conner, a neurosurgery resident at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston and lead author of the report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s surgery periodical.

Conner and the other researchers compared trip information from Uber — which supplied the data — in Houston between 2014 and 2018 to emergency room visits to Houston’s two Level I trauma centers during the same period and four years prior to Uber’s debut.

Vehicle-crash visits to the ERs at Ben Taub and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center dropped 23.8 percent after Uber arrived in February 2014 during the peak Friday and Saturday night periods, researchers found. The decline was even more pronounced among people below age 30, where researchers reported a 38.9 percent drop in hospital visits as a result of wrecks.

The authors also found a decrease in drinking and driving convictions in Harris County during the same period.

Back in the early days of Uber and Lyft, when they were trying to get licensed to operate in all the cities (and seeking to pass a bill in the Lege to mandate their approval), there were studies conducted that showed similar results in other locations, and at least one study that disputed such effects. What we have now that we didn’t have then is a lot more data. I thought at the time that the connection between ridesharing services and a reduction in DWI made intuitive sense, and I still think that now even as I find the overall case for Uber and Lyft to be less compelling. I do think it’s easier, and more the societal norm, to get a drunken friend or colleague or whoever into an Uber or Lyft than it was in the older days to persuade them to call a cab. More work should be done to better quantify that, but that such a trend is visible is no surprise to me.

Update on the bike trail bridge

We have an estimate for repairs.

Weather-permitting — and the sky this weekend likely will not look that permitting — runners and cyclists along a popular Heights trail will have a key connection back by September.

Houston Parks Board officials said repairs to the MKT Bridge along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail will start in the coming days, potentially Friday. The $193,000 job will take 60-to-90 days, officials said. In the meantime, runners and riders should continue to detour along the White Oak Bayou Greenway and Heights Boulevard.

The bridge closing came after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of the bridge, supported by large wooden beams and latticework. The span dates back decades, part of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line rebuilt a decade ago as the Heights Hike and Bike Trail.

The fire, which might have been set inadvertently, remains under investigation. A fireman and arson investigator reported minor injuries as a result of the blaze, which took about three hours to extinguish because it charred the thick wooden beams.

The effects, however, linger for trail users, who since have been unable to use the bridge — a key connection in the bayou trail system, just feet from the park board’s new signature greenway park.

See here for the background. The Friday in question was this past Friday, June 4, but I don’t know offhand if work has started – the rain probably put them off for now. As noted before, there is a detour that allows you to get around the disabled bridge, but it takes you a long way to do it. As it will have been a year since the fire by the time this is set to reopen, I’m sure everyone who uses this path will be very happy to see it be available again.

And more good news:

Some of the frustration, runners and cyclists said, is how close other usable trails are to the bridge, but remain inaccessible. The White Oak Trail ends at Stude Park within sight of the bridge, but does not connect to it, blocked by a flood control channel.

Unrelated to the bridge fire and repairs, that could soon change. Houston Public Works, after years of planning, is preparing to start construction on extending the trail. If work starts in August as expected, the $950,000 job to make the connection could be completed by the end of the year or early 2022, officials said.

I’ve looked at the end to this trail for years and wondered what it would take to make that obvious connection. I’m delighted to see that it is finally on the verge of happening.

Traffic deaths are way up

Not good, y’all.

With traffic levels returning to normal levels post-COVID, Texas is on track for more than 4,000 deaths on state roads, a total unseen since the mid-1980s when the state had millions fewer residents and far deadlier streets, according to partial estimates from the first five months of 2021.

In the Houston region, sharp increases in pedestrian and bicycling deaths, along with impaired driving in 2020 have continued unabated into 2021.

“We are going the wrong way,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said. “It is heartbreaking, it is frustrating, and we have got to do something about it.”

[…]

With some fatal wrecks likely not yet logged in the state’s crash database, the first four months of 2021 are the most deadly start to a year at least in the past decade, according to an analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data. Statewide, at least 1,368 people have died on Texas roads, a 24 percent increase over last year and 19 percent jump from 2019 when traffic levels were unaffected by COVID. In the eight-county Houston area, roadway deaths were up 27 percent from last year, with 256 confirmed fatalities, including 183 in Harris County, which saw deaths increased by 36 percent from 2020 and 30 percent compared to 2019.

Comparisons to both 2020 and 2019 show that the spike is not simply COVID, though safety officials think some of it could be based on changing conditions. The pandemic significantly dropped daily traffic counts, which opened up Texas’ wide freeways for abuse.

Now with traffic teetering on a return to normal pre-pandemic levels – in some spots, vehicle volumes are already back to 2019 totals or more – some of those speedy trips are ending tragically.

Many drivers said the risks are easy to see, both from a combination of unruly motorists and streets that favor speed over safety.

“If you build a street like a highway, people will use it like a highway,” said Richard Ward, 55, who lives in Sugar Land.

As the story notes, it’s not just Texas – road fatalities are up nationally, too. There are plenty of long-term issues in the state and around Houston – car-centric road design, higher-than-safe speeds allowed on residential streets, insufficient enforcement of speeding ordinances, etc – but no single cause for the current increase. It seems likely that some people got used to being able to drive more recklessly when the roads were less crowded, and maybe there’s some pandemic stress in there as well. Whatever the case, be careful out there.

(The story notes that there was little action taken by the Legislature to address road safety issues this session. All things considered, we should probably be grateful, because the way things were going someone was sure to propose eliminating drivers licenses and traffic lights as the solution.)

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

Tesla crash update

Interesting.

Federal investigators on Monday released their preliminary assessment of a deadly crash in Spring involving a Tesla, though many details of the incident remain under scrutiny, including whether anyone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.

In the two-page update, the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway. NTSB officials said security camera footage shows Varner getting into the driver’s seat and Talbot getting in the front passenger seat.

Both were killed in the fiery crash, which took firefighters hours to extinguish because the car’s battery reignited several times.

Where Varner was when the crash happened is a point of contention between local crash investigators and Tesla officials. In the days after the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators are confident no one was in the driver’s seat.

Tesla founder Elon Musk and other company officials have disputed that, saying evidence points to someone being in the seat, based on the damage to the steering column.

NTSB investigators in the report do not make a final determination.

“The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but sustained fire damage,” investigators said in the report. “The restraint control module was taken to the National Transportation Safety Board recorder laboratory for evaluation.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the NTSB report. The key bit is this:

The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. Using Autopilot requires both the Traffic Aware Cruise Control and the Autosteer systems to be engaged.[2] NTSB tests of an exemplar car at the crash location showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.

As the footnote indicates, Traffic Aware Cruise Control handles acceleration and deceleration, while Autosteer keeps you in your lane. Autosteer requires lane markers to be utilized, which that stretch of road did not have. My takeaway from this is that the guys in the car would not have been able to engage the Autopilot, as Tesla has claimed. The investigation is ongoing, and as noted the NTSB has not yet determined a cause, so we still don’t really know what happened. I remain curious about this and look forward to the final report.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.

Tesla disputes official account of that autopilot crash

Can’t say I’m surprised.

Tesla officials are disputing numerous assertions of local police related to a recent deadly crash in the Spring area, reiterating statements by founder Elon Musk that autopilot was not engaged on the vehicle.

Further, company officials contradicted officials in Houston, saying the car did not have a driver during the crash.

“The steering wheel was indeed deformed, leading to the likelihood that someone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the crash,” said Lars Moravy, vice president of vehicle engineering for Tesla.

The comments, the company’s first statements on the incident aside from Musk’s tweets, came during a Monday evening conference call related to the company’s first quarter financial performance.

The crash, which has drawn national attention because it involved a Tesla, is under investigation by Harris County Precinct 4 as well as the National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

[…]

Moravy said a review of the car’s data and the conditions on the street – which lacked painted lines – make use of autopilot impossible.

Further, he said the vehicle’s cruise control only accelerated to 30 mph because of the street’s speed limit as set in Tesla’s traffic computers, and that when the driver unbuckled it slowed.

All of the seat belts in the car were unbuckled at the time of the crash, Moravy said.

Reached Monday evening, Herman said local police were aware of Tesla’s claims but would not comment on them.

“Our case is still under investigation,” he said.

See here for the background. I mean, maybe Tesla is correct, but given their overall track record with the NTSB and the clear demonstrations of how to fool the autopilot system into thinking there’s someone in the driver’s seat, I’m not inclined to take their word for it. Let’s have a full investigation and see where that takes us. The Washington Post has more.

Your driverless pizza delivery is finally on its way

Still not sure what the allure of this is.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

Autonomous cars will begin delivering Domino’s pizzas to Houstonians through a new partnership between the pizza chain and Nuro, a California startup, the companies announced Monday.

Domino’s is rolling out Nuro’s first driverless model this week at its Woodland Heights location on Houston Avenue.

Nuro first ventured into Houston through a partnership with Kroger, which began using its fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses to make grocery deliveries in 2019. It expanded its delivery footprint in Houston last year with a prescription delivery service through CVS as demand for delivery services soared during the pandemic.

Now, Domino’s customers in the Heights who have prepaid for delivery online will be able to select the driverless option, according to a Domino’s news release. They will then receive a text with a location for the robot vehicle, called the R2, and a PIN number to enter into the vehicle’s touchscreen once it arrives. The PIN unlocks the R2’s doors so customers can retrieve their order.

The delivery service will cost the same as Domino’s existing delivery options, the company said. Delivery charges vary from store to store, but are $3.35 per order at the Woodland Heights location.

The Nuro/Domino’s partnership was supposed to happen in 2019, but for whatever the reason got delayed. I’ve written plenty about Nuro, and my questions about why anyone would choose this option as opposed to the old-fashioned person-delivery option remain the same. I get that contactless delivery has its appeal in times of pandemic, but we are steadily moving out of those times. I could see the appeal if Domino’s charged you less to retrieve your own pizza from its vehicle instead of having it brought to your front door, but that isn’t the case either. I guess you get to save a couple of bucks on the tip, but if that’s what would motivate you to do it this way, I have to question your priorities. Someone help me out here – what exactly is the appeal of this option? I do not get it.

What’s up with that Tesla autopilot crash?

I assume you’ve heard about this.

Woodlands Fire department, Montgomery County Hospital District and Cypress Creek EMS were dispatched around 9 p.m. Saturday to a fire in the woods in the Carlton Woods Subdivision on Hammock Dunes Place.

Several neighbors had called reporting a fire in the woods, and that a car had crashed and exploded, Palmer Buck, the Woodlands Fire Department chief said.

When the responding units arrived at the scene firefighters discovered the bodies of two males in the 2019 Tesla Model S, according to the Montgomery County Police Reporter. One male was in the front passenger seat and the other in the rear passenger seat.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told the Associated Press on Monday that investigators are “100% sure” that no one was driving the car.

Federal investigators are on the scene to find out what happened. The claim that no one was driving the car at the time is of course of interest, for all the obvious reasons. Elon Musk has publicly disputed this assertion, claiming that it’s not possible because the Tesla’s autopilot function will shut down if no one is in the driver’s seat. It turns out that’s not exactly true.

Consumer Reports engineers easily tricked our Tesla Model Y this week so that it could drive on Autopilot, the automaker’s driver assistance feature, without anyone in the driver’s seat—a scenario that would present extreme danger if it were repeated on public roads. Over several trips across our half-mile closed test track, our Model Y automatically steered along painted lane lines, but the system did not send out a warning or indicate in any way that the driver’s seat was empty.

“In our evaluation, the system not only failed to make sure the driver was paying attention, but it also couldn’t tell if there was a driver there at all,” says Jake Fisher, CR’s senior director of auto testing, who conducted the experiment. “Tesla is falling behind other automakers like GM and Ford that, on models with advanced driver assist systems, use technology to make sure the driver is looking at the road.”

Our demonstration comes as federal and local investigators continue to probe the cause of a fatal crash Saturday in Texas in which an apparently driverless 2019 Tesla Model S struck a tree, killing the vehicle’s two occupants. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, who was on scene at the crash, told CR that he’s almost certain that no one was in the driver’s seat when the vehicle crashed. (The Model S in the crash and our Model Y are different models, but they both have Autopilot.)

We tried to reach Tesla to ask about the Texas crash but did not hear back. Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted Monday evening that data logs recovered from the crashed Model S “so far show Autopilot was not enabled,” and he suggested that it would not be possible to activate Autopilot on the road where the crash took place because of the lack of painted lane lines. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, which occurred on a winding road in Spring, Texas, outside of Houston.

CR wanted to see whether we could prompt our own Tesla to drive down the road without anyone in the driver’s seat. So Fisher and Kelly Funkhouser, CR’s program manager for vehicle interface testing, took our 2020 Tesla Model Y out on our test track. Funkhouser sat in the rear seat, and Fisher sat in the driver seat on top of a buckled seat belt. (Autopilot will disengage if the driver’s seat belt is unbuckled while the vehicle is in motion.)

Fisher engaged Autopilot while the car was in motion on the track, then set the speed dial (on the right spoke of the steering wheel) to 0, which brought the car to a complete stop. Fisher next placed a small, weighted chain on the steering wheel, to simulate the weight of a driver’s hand, and slid over into the front passenger seat without opening any of the vehicle’s doors, because that would disengage Autopilot. Using the same steering wheel dial, which controls multiple functions in addition to Autopilot’s speed, Fisher reached over and was able to accelerate the vehicle from a full stop. He stopped the vehicle by dialing the speed back down to zero.

“The car drove up and down the half-mile lane of our track, repeatedly, never noting that no one was in the driver’s seat, never noting that there was no one touching the steering wheel, never noting there was no weight on the seat,” Fisher says. “It was a bit frightening when we realized how easy it was to defeat the safeguards, which we proved were clearly insufficient.”

There’s video at the link, and I also recommend listening to Friday’s What Next TBD podcast, which discusses this crash, Tesla’s spotty record with its autopilot feature, AI and the driverless car question, and more. Tesla is not currently cooperating with NTSB on this, which has drawn some ire from Rep. Kevin Brady, who represents The Woodlands. I probably won’t follow this obsessively, but as driverless cars are an interest of mine I will keep an eye on it.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

Houston has scuttled scooter rentals along city sidewalks, and kicked riders of the two-wheel transports in busy areas into the street.

City Council on Wednesday approved changes to Houston’s codes outlawing any rental activity that impedes public sidewalks or blocks a city-controlled parking spot, a move aimed at eliminating businesses that use temporary trailers and the public walkway to offer rental scooters. The businesses have grown in popularity, but critics complain they block sidewalks and encourage novice riders to rocket along crowded sidewalks.

“They ride them recklessly, they don’t have helmets on,” District G Councilman Greg Travis said. “It is a disaster.”

In addition to banning scooter rental companies, the council revised existing rules to outlaw scooter use on sidewalks in a business district, effectively moving them off walkways in downtown, Uptown and the Texas Medical Center.

Scooter rental companies earlier this month complained they are being singled out for offering a popular activity where customers want them. Forcing them them onto private property, such as parking lots, or to permanent locations limits where people can find and use the rentals, the owners say.

[…]

Though they approved the measure, council members said shifting the scooters to the streets comes with its own challenges. Pedestrians will not have to share space with the motorized two-wheelers but scooter users now must contend with vehicle traffic.

The scooter rules are identical to those for bicycles, which also are banned from sidewalks in business districts.

Despite the need to ensure safety, some observers lamented the council’s actions limited mobility but did not improve the on-street conditions that make some of those interactions calamitous.

“A truly pro-business city might see this as not just an opportunity but a duty to build safe rights-of-way on our downtown streets so people can get around efficiently, and to create an environment that supports entrepreneurship,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said he will discuss additional safety needs in an upcoming Quality of Life Committee meeting, “so we can do what we can to keep (scooter users) safe, as well.”

Advocates said those discussions should include the addition of amenities, including dedicated bikes lanes similar to those along Lamar, Austin and Gray in downtown and Hardy and Elysian north of the central business district.

See here for the background. No question, these things do not belong on sidewalks, for the same reason that bicycles don’t – they’re a hazard for pedestrians. As noted before, the “leave your scooter on the sidewalk when you’re done with it” method for returning them is an extra hazard for people with disabilities. This was the right call.

I do think there should be a place for electric scooters in the overall transportation ecology in Houston. As with B-Cycle, the scooters can be an alternative to driving for people who need to take a short-but-not-short-enough-to-walk trip in the cited locations – downtown, Uptown, the Medical Center. It’s a question of doing it safely. I’ve ridden B-Cycle bikes downtown, and I generally felt fine riding in the right-hand lane on the one-way downtown streets. For the most part, the right lane is for buses and right turns only anyway, so you’re generally not being trailed by a car that’s dying to pass you. There are more bike lanes downtown now as well, and I too would like to see more of them. I think scooters and scooter riders will be fine doing this. Maybe it’s not as great an idea for entertainment purposes, but that’s the way it goes.

“Normal” bus service is on the horizon

Isn’t it great to imagine the return of “normal”? It’s coming for Metro riders.

Having sharply reduced service and staffing during the pandemic, Metro officials now are readying for higher demand when school populations return to normal and downtown businesses call workers into the office.

“They are expecting a major return in August,” said Jim Archer, director of service planning and scheduling for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

That means Metro will spend the spring and early summer hiring bus operators and mechanics as it prepares to resume full service even as many realities of mass transit remain uncertain.

One looming concern is how to meet rising demand as daily trips increase from about 125,000, based on February numbers, to the 280,000 or more Metro carried prior to the COVID pandemic, while still providing for social distancing.

The issue is one of space on buses, if existing distancing requirements remain. Buses that could ferry 40 seated riders now have available space for 16.

As a result, meeting pre-pandemic demand under COVID conditions would be impossible with Metro’s fleet of approximately 700 40-foot buses and 90 60-foot articulated buses.

“There is a point at which we run out of buses and run out of operators,” Archer said.

Metro officials said it remains unknown how many drivers and mechanics the agency would have to hire and when they would be needed.

“Our operations team is still evaluating what ‘normal’ service will look like in August, given the many public health protocols that will, no doubt, still be in place,” Metro spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said.

August is targeted both as a reasonable point at which to expect a significant level of vaccinations, and thus maybe offices opening again, and also because it’s when school starts up. It’s hard to say exactly how much bus service will be needed – Metro has basically been running weekend schedules for the past year – but it’s safe to say that it will be more than what is needed now. No matter how you look at it, it sure is nice to think about.

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

A plan in Houston to prohibit vendors from renting motorized scooters on city sidewalks has suppliers of the two-wheel contraptions revved up, and city officials holding the line to have scooters clear the way.

To address what it says are growing issues along sidewalks, especially in the central business district, Houston’s administration and regulatory affairs department plans to ask City Council to amend three codes that would push vendors off public spaces around parks and other gathering spots and move scooters off downtown sidewalks into the streets.

“These vendors at times become a nuisance or even a threat to public safety,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the regulatory affairs department and head of ParkHouston, which operates the city’s paid parking and parking enforcement systems.

Rental companies said they have tried to work with the city to develop rules that would allow them to stay, but the city has scooted past that to an outright ban.

“Instead of coming up with a permit for us, like they did with ice cream trucks or the (Houston B-Cycle) bikes, they say we are blocking the right of way,” said Juan Valentine, owner of Glyderz, which started setting up by Discovery Green in May.

The rule changes would outlaw parking a vehicle or trailer on public property for the purposes of renting a good or service, ban the parking of motor-assisted scooters on sidewalks, streets and any rights of way, and outlaw the blocking of any part of a sidewalk that makes it impassable.

“The sidewalk exists for pedestrian use,” Irshad said. “It is not set up for a business.”

Separately, Irshad said officials want to tweak the rule that applies only in the central business district related to sidewalks so scooter riders would have to use the street. Bicycles are banned from downtown sidewalks and only may operate legally in the streets — the proposed change would add language putting scooters on an equal footing and out in the road.

[…]

Customers rent scooters and return them to the same location. Scooters are powered by a small electric motor, with many models capable of speeds around 20 mph. Valentine said most scooters have a range of around 40 miles before running out of power.

Not all vendors, however, opposed the city rules while reacting cautiously to the city code changes. Randy McCoy, owner of ScootsTx that operates in Midtown and Galveston, told city officials in a letter that he only set up near Discovery Green when other vendors appeared on the street.

“I would not want to limit my scooters just to give street vendors a competitive advantage over me,” McCoy wrote.

Others say they went where the customers wanted them. In less than a year, Glyderz has gone from 20 scooters operating out of a trailer to 100. Valentine is preparing to open a permanent location, but said staying on the street is smart business, especially at his location just off Discovery Green.

“You swing by here at 9 or 10 at night and we have a bunch of people renting scooters,” he said.

He questioned why officials allowed Houston B-Cycle to install kiosks on sidewalks, but will not allow him to park a trailer at nights and operate off the sidewalk.

A variety of businesses can obtain permits for street vending, including food trucks, ice cream vendors and sellers during special events.

Irshad said there are no plans to establish permits for scooter companies.

I’ve been following scooters for awhile. There seemed to be a brief moment for bringing scooters to Houston in 2019, but that never went anywhere. Other cities have had a more extensive relationship with them. San Antonio banned them from sidewalks, while Dallas has banned them entirely. The Chron article for that story, from last September, had no mention of Glyderz or ScootsTx, so I haven’t missed much. These things may be here now, but they haven’t been here for long.

For what it’s worth, I favor banning them from the sidewalks, and not just downtown – anyplace these things are going to be viable as a rental business, there will be a high concentration of pedestrians. I would either ban them from hike and bike trails or require them to cap the top speed for trail-use scooters at 15 MPH, which is about the speed of a pedal-powered bike being driven by a normal person. There should be some kind of enforced mechanism to ensure the scooters are picked up quickly and not left scattered on sidewalks, which is a hazard to all but especially to people with disabilities. With all of those caveats in place, I’d find a way to establish permits for these companies, and let them park a trailer in the same way that a food truck vendor can. We’re lucky we didn’t have to serve as the beta testers like other cities (Austin very much included), but now that we have their experience, let’s try to make them happen in a way that prioritizes safety but still lets them operate. If you have any thought about this, the city was soliciting feedback from the public here, though it’s past their stated deadline now. You can also reach out to your Council member and the At Large members. What would you prefer to see happen with scooters in Houston?

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Are you ready for some I-10 construction?

Well, ready or not

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More bike riders, more bike fatalities

We should try to do something about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

Typically, when a security guard weighs 400 pounds, it means they are not well suited for foot patrols. K5, however, was built for it.

Soon the spaceship-shaped sentries will roll into action at transit stops and continue keeping watch on a parking garage at Bush Intercontinental Airport, under tests to see if more mechanized monitoring can help people navigate places and provide a bit more security in spaces that could use an extra set of eyes.

Airport officials deployed two K5s, built by Silicon Valley-based Knightscope, in early December. In the coming weeks, once they are properly branded with logos, Metropolitan Transit Authority said it will roll out K5s at a park and ride lot and a transit center in the area. A stationary K1, also built by Knightscope, will be installed at a rail platform. Metro’s board approved a $270,000 contract with Knightscope about 11 months ago.

Robots likely will hit the beat in a few weeks, transit agency spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said. Officials have not confirmed the locations where the units will be deployed.

The intent at Bush, airport parking director Walt Gray said, is to see if the robots prove helpful addressing minor issues that come up in the garage, such as someone who cannot find their car or a traveler who returns with a trip to find a flat tire. A button on the robot can be pressed to speak directly with someone, with the robot able to pinpoint the exact location.

Gray said the robots are supplemental tools to on-site security, though airport officials could have bigger plans to let K5 loose in the terminals to help travelers with directions.

See here for the background. That contract was approved about a month before COVID shut everything down, so I presume that that is the reason why it took so long to get from contract approval to actual pilot test. I don’t have anything to add to what I said back then, I just look forward to the day when I can find myself on a rail platform and encounter one of these things.

Waiting for our bike trail bridge to be fixed

Of interest mostly in my neighborhood, but it’s my blog, so.

Bike riders who pedal through the Heights will need to keep burning calories past a key connection closed by fire in the region’s growing trail system.

Just in time for winter, however, parks officials at least have a plan to reopen the MKT bridge in place, news welcomed by local cyclists eager to cross easily over White Oak Bayou again.

“It’s just a killer to lose that bridge,” said Craig Arthur, 29, who bikes recreationally at least four days a week, often along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail. “I know a lot of people are wondering when it will reopen.”

The closest answer officials could give now is, probably in the spring. A glimmer of hope but also a long wait as cycling interest in the area grows.

As soon as Houston public works and engineering officials clear construction permits and verify the repair work, crews can repair abutments and slopes on the sides of the bridge, said Beth White, president and CEO of Houston Parks Board. Repairs would take between 45 and 60 days and cost about $100,000, paid for by the nonprofit parks board, which oversees the $220 million Bayou Greenways program.

The MKT bridge closed Aug. 19, when Houston firefighters responded to a call about a brush fire affecting the bridge. Crews arrived to find a small wooded area ablaze and charring the wooden beams of the bridge.

This Houston Architecture Forum thread has some pictures and other info from the fire – it was pretty dramatic, and it is still under investigation. The bridge and that part of the trail was opened in late 2009 – before that, the bridge was basically an abandoned former railroad bridge. It became part of the bike trail network as part of the “Rails to Trails” program, and I can tell you it is quite heavily trafficked when it’s open. As the story notes, and as you can see in the embedded image, there is a detour available, but it’ll take you a bit out of your way. I’m sure I speak for many people in my part of town when I say I can’t wait for this to be fixed.

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

Is Greg Abbott now an obstacle for Texas Central?

This Texas Monthly story suggests that maybe the answer to that question is Yes.

Earlier this year, after six years of legal battles brought by property owners and local governments, the rail project finally looked to be chugging along. Texas Central, the company behind it, had purchased six hundred parcels, or 40 percent of the land needed to build the project. In May, a victory at the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals asserted the business’s status as a railroad company with the power to exercise eminent domain—meaning that it can require owners to sell portions of their land in return for a “reasonable” price—though that ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court. This fall, the project received approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration, and Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the Japanese government, a key investor in the project, voicing his support. The potential benefits of the rail seemed manifold. It would offer travelers a ninety-minute alternative to the four-hour drive between Dallas and Houston and relieve highway congestion that’s projected to double by 2035. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And it would create thousands of high-paying jobs at a time when Texas is suffering from both a pandemic-related recession and an oil-price bust.

“The Texas High-Speed Train will be the first truly high-speed train in Texas and the United States, connecting North Texas, Houston and the Brazos Valley in less than 90 minutes, using the safest, most accessible, most efficient and environmentally friendly mass transportation system in the world today,” Texas Central spokesperson Erin Ragsdale wrote in a statement.

Abbott’s letter, however, sparked a firestorm among some of his longtime supporters. Even before the governor expressed support for the rail project, Meier said, her circle of friends had become increasingly wary of him because they believed he was pandering to liberal interests by imposing restrictions on some businesses during the early days of the pandemic. “I was the only one I know of that was still basically supporting him,” Meier said. “If he continues to support the [train], he will not get my vote, and I will passionately spread the word.”

Four days after Abbott penned his letter, his staff walked back his support, telling the Dallas Morning News that the governor intended to reevaluate his position out of concern for Texans’ property rights and because he was provided with “incomplete” information about the project. (His initial letter had indicated the railway had already obtained all the necessary permits to proceed, but, in fact, it still needs to receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency.) Abbott’s office did not make clear whether staff, pro-rail lobbyists, or another party had provided the information that allegedly misled him, nor did it respond to multiple requests for an interview about why he wrote the letter and later walked it back. Texas Central also declined multiple requests for interview about Abbott’s reversal. With the loss of the governor’s support, the train’s future faces new hurdles. Texas Central now lacks a strong advocate to ward against pending anti-high-speed rail bills in the upcoming Legislative session, and the company has lost a prominent voice asking investors to keep money flowing.

See here for the background. It’s hard to know what Abbott is thinking, but what is clear is that the strongest opposition to TCR comes from rural Republicans, who are the base of the party. While I think that on a philosophical level this project likely appeals to Abbott – indeed, TCR was designed from the beginning to appeal to Republicans, with its private-enterprise, no-government-funding ethos, and with Republican stalwarts like Robert Eckels among its leadership – he is for sure aware of which way the wind is blowing, and after a summer of vitriol from the wingnut faction he’s probably wary of starting another fight. What that means in terms of the upcoming legislative session is unclear, but we already know that TCR was playing defense. They may be facing a more potent offense than originally expected.

We’re not #1, at least for now!

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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