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April 30th, 2014:

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Everybody wants to help the judge rule on the Ashby lawsuit

I really don’t envy Judge Randy Wilson the task he has.

Sue me!

Lawyers aren’t the only ones peppering the judge in the Ashby high-rise case with last-minute paperwork. A former city councilman, a pro-developer interest group and residents who live near the planned tower have all submitted pleas in hope of influencing his decision. One arrived in an email addressing the judge in the case by his first name and closing with, “Sent from my iPad.”

In addition to formal correspondence from the lawyers who participated in the monthlong trial that resulted in a jury verdict that favored opponents, four other letters and a friend-of-the-court brief from a Houston attorney also have been entered into the official court record since state District Judge Randy Wilson heard their final arguments to a week ago.

[…]

Peter Brown, director of Better Houston, a nonprofit urban planning group, sent a letter to the court also. In the letter, Brown, who was on City Council from 2006 to 2010, also sided with the residents.

“A ruling in favor of the developers in this case would perpetuate the unplanned, hap-hazard, inefficient development patterns which negatively impact city life,” Brown wrote in part. “A ruling in favor of the developers would unnecessarily limit the authority of the City to enact reasonable rules, standards and incentives to promote important initiatives now underway.”

He recommended downsizing the tower to seven stories or 90 feet and to require a public space. He also suggested the judge mandate a basic overhaul of city development regulations to ensure more security for developers for future projects.

The Houston Real Estate Council took the side of Buckhead in its statement to the court. The group noted that an earlier friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers, which argued against a permanent injunction for a project that otherwise complied with city regulations and state law.

See here, here, and here for the background. I truly have no idea what Judge Wilson should do, or what he might do. The only thing I feel confident about is that someone will appeal his ruling, whatever it is.

SCOTUS upholds CSAPR

Some very good news for people who like to breathe.

Greg Abbott approves of this picture

The question was who should pay for air pollution that crosses state lines. The answer, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, is blowing in the wind.

States in the Midwest and South whose polluted air flows north and east must comply with a federally imposed solution, a 6-2 majority of justices ruled.

The decision, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a boon for the Obama administration and its environmental regulators, who have proposed a rule requiring some 28 upwind states to slash ozone and fine particle emissions by varying amounts because of their downwind effects. Most of those states have rebelled against the one-size-fits-all solution.

The case focuses on air currents miles overhead but has down-to-earth consequences. The EPA blames exposure to ozone and fine particles in the air for one in 20 deaths in the United States, 90,000 hospital admissions, 200,000 non-fatal heart attacks and 2.5 million cases of aggravated asthma.

Attorneys for the objecting states and industries argued that the EPA was imposing a solution on the states before they could devise their own emissions control plans. As a result, Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell said during oral arguments in December, “they have to overshoot and over-control and over-regulate.”

[…]

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the rule last year, ruling that EPA didn’t give states enough time to devise their own emissions reduction plans. It also said the agency did not limit the fix to each state’s “significant contribution” to the overall problem.

But the court’s majority ruled that with air pollution blowing in the wind, it would be nearly impossible to apportion blame precisely, making a federal solution based on costs and other factors more palatable.

The justices also noted that mid-Atlantic and Northeast states cannot meet federal emissions control standards without help from their neighbors to the west and south. Maryland, which spent $2.6 billion on its own emissions control efforts between 2007-10, estimates that 70% of its air pollution floats in over its borders.

See here, here, and here for the background. I confess, I wasn’t too optimistic about this at the time of the appeal, but I’m glad to have been proven wrong. Also proven wrong: Greg Abbott, who was of course one of the 14 AGs to pursue this litigation. Just another bad day at the office for you, Greg. Well, this latest loss by Greg Abbott is a big gain for a lot of people.

The Trib notes that SCOTUS isn’t done with this issue.

The Supreme Court is also expected to issue a ruling in the coming months in a case on federal greenhouse gas permitting rules. Justices had heard arguments in February from Texas and other states against the rules.

I believe that’s this case, and if they uphold the EPA’s actions again it’ll be quite the clean sweep for the Obama Administration. As always, however, you never know what SCOTUS might do, so let’s keep the anticipation in check for now. A copy of the SCOTUS decision is here, a statement from EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy is here, and a statement from the Texas League of Conservation Voters is here. Texas Clean Air Matters, the Texas Green Report, and Daily Kos have more.

Yik Yak

News flash: A new app that enables the posting of anonymous unfiltered thoughts can cause headaches for school administrators. Film at 11.

Not that Yik Yak

A recent bomb threat alerted many Memorial High School parents and administrators to something that many Houston-area students already knew about: Yik Yak, a smartphone app that functions as a kind of cyber-bathroom wall, allowing users to post anything at all anonymously.

The posts – “yaks” – are visible to other users within 1.5-mile radius. On Friday morning, a sampling of yaks from the Houston area included a parent-appalling mix of bullying, racism, sexism, profanity and drug references – not to mention blatant disregard for grammar and capitalization. Some were funny. Some were plain mean.

Late Wednesday night, a yakker threatened to bomb Memorial High School. A student reported the post to Memorial’s swim coach, who alerted the principal, who called in the Spring Branch ISD’s police department.

“We went straight into protocol,” said Jennifer Blaine, the district’s associate superintendent for administration and operations. The police department, including its drug and bomb dogs, swept the building twice, determining it to be safe at 4 a.m. School opened Thursday, with nothing unusual on the campus but a heavy presence of police and dogs.

Yik Yak threats of violence have spread as quickly as the app: High schools in Massachusetts and California have investigated threats, and just Tuesday morning, the University of Alabama investigated a yak that claimed someone was coming to “shoot up campus.”

Such threats appall the app’s creators, says Tyler Droll, one of the company’s young co-founders. He and Brooks Buffington, another 2013 graduate of Furman University in South Carolina, designed Yik Yak as a way for college students to reach each other in large numbers – “to say things like, ‘Free donuts at the library.'”

Yik Yak is also being blamed for the defeat of a ballot initiative at SMU to create an LGBT Senate seat. As someone who is old enough to have participated in Usenet discussion groups, color me unsurprised by any of this. Enabling people to say what’s on their mind has a lot of value, but it also means enabling those who don’t have anything worthwhile to say. The sooner you learn how to deal with it, the better. The HuffPo has more.