Shepherd-Durham project halted

It’s like deja vu all over again.

Houston city officials have put the brakes on the middle piece of a planned redesign of Shepherd and Durham drives along the edge of the Heights, a decision that community officials and others say puts millions of dollars destined for the city at risk.

Rumored for weeks, and predicted by critics of Mayor John Whitmire’s transportation policies, the city’s decision to not support any plan that removes lanes along the parallel, four-lane-wide corridors is likely to leave a gap in bicycle lanes along the streets between Interstate 10 and 15th Street.

For the segment from near White Oak Bayou to north of 14th Street, it may also mean that no repairs other than routine maintenance happen in the coming months or years.

“The potential exists for the project to be canceled entirely and for its associated federal funding to be reallocated somewhere else in the region,” Anne Lents, chairwoman of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, told board members, according to a printed copy of a monthly report she delivered Thursday. “At this point, this is out of our direct control as a redevelopment authority. Ultimately, we are an entity of the city and are reliant on the (mayoral) administration and city permitting and approvals to advance projects.”

Marlene Gafrick, a senior adviser to Whitmire and former city planning department director, confirmed that she told the redevelopment authority, which is building the project with local and federal funds, that it would receive city support — and permits — only if it redesigned the project.

The two criteria Gafrick gave the redevelopment authority, which also operates a tax increment reinvestment zone, is that the project “maintain the original lane widths and number of lanes” and maintain only 6-foot sidewalks.

That conflicts and makes the fully designed project impossible unless the redevelopment adds the cost and complexity of acquiring land, and even then turns planned 10-foot paths into smaller sidewalks that meet minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.


The phase north of 15th won $25 million in federal funds, which officials in 2020 credited to U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, who until redistricting represented the area north of 14th as part of his oddly shaped district in northeast parts of Harris County. In 2020, a wide swath of officials — including U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, then-Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and then-state Sen. Whitmire — submitted letters in support of the project.

“The reconstruction of Shepherd and Durham are critical components of the transportation infrastructure of the City of Houston,” Whitmire’s letter said.

Still, construction has frustrated some businesses and drivers, as the work has kept Shepherd and Durham limited to two lanes at times, cut off some local streets and led to abrupt loss of electricity and water as lines are repaired or replaced.

What is uncertain, Lents told board members, is the way ahead for the center segment. Officials planned to ink a deal with a construction company by the end of September.

If the work does not proceed, she said, the redevelopment authority and the city would have to go back to the Houston-Galveston Area Council to revise its funding plan. That means the region’s Transportation Policy Council would need to reapprove the project, at a time when Houston is sparring with the regional board about its representation on the council.

“In other words, triggering additional H-GAC action creates risk for the project’s existing federal funding,” Lents said.

That regional process, she said, could end with Shepherd-Durham unable to spend its money on time, H-GAC sending the money to another project in the Houston area and Shepherd-Durham at an indefinite standstill.

Effects, however, might move far from the Shepherd-Durham corridor, as Whitmire officials pause other projects that could face the same challenges. A major rebuild of sidewalks in Kashmere Gardens and Gulfton also relies on potentially narrowing some streets, as does a planned redesign of Telephone Road and many of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus and light rail projects.

Those projects either have or hope to receive competitive federal funds, which because of the Biden administration’s focus on climate and infrastructure are available. Drawing a hard line and not eliminating any vehicle lanes, however, might make Houston less competitive, said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress.

“Federal grant programs are very competitive,” DeGood said. “And the Biden administration is naturally going to prioritize projects that align with their vision and goals.”

I would have written about this sooner but I had a very full weekend of family business, so here we are. You can start with what I said about the Montrose project being delayed and then turn that up to eleven to get the basic picture. I mean, I really don’t think that a campaign slogan of “I promise to turn down federal dollars for a road renovation project I used to support and in doing so jeopardize future federal infrastructure funds for other projects” is a winner, but what do I know.

The story covers a lot of ground, so let me just add a couple of things. It’s not clear who is actually opposing this phase of the larger project. The story mentions some grousing by businesses but doesn’t provide any names or quotes to go along with that grousing, which is a feature of literally every road construction situation that has ever existed in Houston. Is there an organized opposition or just a collection of malcontents? Or does that even matter and this is all being driven by Mayor Whitmire’s personal preferences, the will of the affected residents be damned? It would be nice to explore that in more detail, for this project and any others that are now subject to mayoral whim.

As for the traffic, I gotta tell you, I spent an entire school year carting home one of my daughter’s classmates, who was in our carpool and who lives in the Garden Oaks area, and I did all of this driving not only while Durham/Shepherd was under construction, but also West 11th at the beginning of it. And honestly, as annoying as any trek through construction is, it just wasn’t that bad from a travel time perspective. Both Shepherd and Durham were down to two lanes for the construction, and that usually meant it took a couple of cycles to get through the traffic lights, but that was about the extent of it. Compared to any of our favorite freeway segments, it was a stroll in the park. I get that it was a pain for the businesses, and for people who lived on some of the side streets when their intersections were closed off, but that’s road construction for you. You live with the mess and get a better driving experience afterwards.

And hey, if you’re at all familiar with the stretch of Durham/Shepherd from, like, Allen Parkway all the way to 610, you know what a moonscape it was before the renovations. It’s so much better now, and your suspension thanks you for it. If you can tell the difference between the three-lane experience and four lanes, I congratulate you on your superior sense of perception. I sure can’t tell.

You know who I bet can tell the difference? The people who live in those surrounding neighborhoods, especially the ones right on Durham and Shepherd. There’s new apartments on Shepherd, and new townhomes and houses on the nearby streets. There were always residents in the area, though I’d guess there are more now, and there are now a lot more places for them to go, places to eat and drink and shop. These streets are now safer for them and their kids to cross, and it’s a lot easier to imagine walking to these places instead of getting in your car to drive a quarter mile and hunt for parking. Funny thing, people who live in neighborhoods like doing things like that. They don’t like cars zooming by at highway speed. If I were living south of 15th Street and saw what my neighbors a few blocks north were getting that I was now not going to get – even just the nice, smooth main streets – I’d be pretty pissed about it. Direct your feedback to the Mayor, y’all.

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22 Responses to Shepherd-Durham project halted

  1. C.L. says:

    Only thing I can think of is that Whitmire has Fed Reserve paper stock in the back room and ready to run some of it through his office Xerox machine so that the City can pay to remove all the (local citizens much welcomed) beneficial road and sidewalk work that’s been done on Shepherd/Dunham over the last two years so it can be turned back into Hennessey’s inner city racetrack.

    Sounds like Dan Crenshaw needs to have a chat with J. Whitmire and the rest of the City Council folks.

  2. J says:

    It would be nice if Prop A could be used to undo all of this cancellation chaos the Mayor is unleashing.

  3. Sounds like Mayor Whitmire is fine adding more sidewalks, crossings, and bicycle paths provided it isn’t at the expense of reducing vehicular lanes (causing more traffic). The fewer vehicular lanes, the longer it takes everyone to get through all the lights, get around obstructions (e.g. accidents, disabled cars), and the more pollution in the air from all the exhausts (vehicles sitting in traffic).

    We already discussed the limited feasibly of people picking up their kids from school, shopping for groceries, running errands, etc. via walking or bicycle (especially in hot/cold/bad weather). Whitmire probably sees facilitating vehicular traffic as a “need”, while bicycle paths are a beneficial “want” (more recreational than essential). Compared to the huge volume of people traveling daily in cars, buses, trucks, etc., relatively few people choose to regularly get around on a bicycle or walking. Due to weather, distance, time, space needed for kids & cargo, physical issues, etc., most people are going to need/prefer vehicles no matter how many bicycle paths we build.

    Before you guys go nuts, I support adding more bicycle paths, but just not at the expense of causing more traffic congestion.

  4. Ross says:

    Greg, removing one lane from Shepherd and Durham will have zero impact on traffic other than making people slow down a bit. I drive those streets multiple times every day and they are far better than before, even with construction continuing.

    With your logic, the City should eminent domain a bunch of property and make the streets 8 lanes each with a 70mph speed limit. And then do the same for 11th.

  5. Robin Holzer says:

    Friendly teaching point regarding traffic: when we oversize city streets with more capacity than needed, that neither reduces nor improves traffic. Instead, it allows the most aggressive drivers to race ahead and weave from lane to lane around the majority of sensible drivers, causing crashes. The overwhelming majority of crashes are experienced by drivers. These crashes are preventable through safer street designs. Building streets wider than needed also lengthens crossing distances for people walking and biking, which exposes them to crash risk, and also requires longer (slower) traffic signal cycles to let them get across.

    The new design for Shepherd & Durham right sizes these important community streets: three lanes is enough for all current drivers as well as forecasted future drivers. Three lanes also matches nicely with the three-lane bridges over White Oak Bayou. Right sizing these streets to three lanes will make them safer for all users.

  6. Ross and Robin, I agree with you that the number of vehicular lanes needs to be right-sized, based on the projected street volume (including peak and off-peak times of the day/week). I assume Mayor Whitmire’s staff has that data and acted accordingly to prevent future traffic congestion. If those vehicular lanes aren’t needed, then there would be no need modify the project, right?

  7. J says:

    The requirement to not reduce the number of traffic lanes zeroes out all future bike lanes, there just isn’t room. So that requirement is an easy way to kill bike lanes (and many sidewalk improvements) without explicitly doing so.

    Have you looked at your insurance bill lately? Car insurance rates are going up fast, and more people are going to have to find alternatives to cars because they simply cannot afford them. I do everything on my bike, all seasons, and I am old by anyone’s standards. I do this by choice, but many will have to do so by necessity.

  8. J says:

    Greg, I doubt that there was any analysis, just the mandate. Whitmire seems to have made a promise to some donor or group to kill off all green initiatives. I hope I am wrong, but things aren’t looking good. I think it will get to the point that the City Council will have to intervene.

  9. C.L. says:

    I thinq we’re going to end up finding out that John Whitmire is just as in-tune to the whispering in his ears by his donors (natch), just as swayed by money and special interests, as the CoH folks in past, past, past Administrations, in past, past Administrations, and in the (most recent) past Administration. All hopes that he would be different that those before him have been dashed, for all intents and purposes. He seems to have no compass at this point. He’s the Trump of Houston with his ‘All things before me were bad, I’m here to save you ’cause I know better’ modus operandi. #Sad

  10. mollusk says:

    The hell of it is, this is the stretch of Shepherd where there have been pedestrian deaths, not just because of the surplus width but also the lack of traffic lights from south of White Oak Bayou all the way to 11th, compounded by the shopping center between Shepherd and Durham.* Oh, and let’s not forget the elementary school just south of 15th.

    *except for a walk signal on Shepherd, installed after a particularly gruesome incident. IDK how many people actually stop for it.

  11. ilk says:

    TxDOT traffic counts show this section of Shepherd and Durham has between 8,000-20,000 cars daily, below what, e.g., Montrose is carrying in the West Gray area of between 23,000-25,000 cars daily–and that’s with two lanes each way. Seems like 3 lanes should have drivers more than covered.

  12. Jason Hochman says:

    The project is also improving the drainage, so there is the hope that this would help reduce flooding. Whitmire, is of course, not super intelligent, but lucky for us that he got in there instead of Sheil J. Lee who thinks that the moon is a gas giant. (She has a degree from Yale. Let that sink in.)

    Nevertheless, I would like to see the city converted to a 15 minute city, with 19th St. in the Heights changed to a pedestrian mall, like Charlottesville has. Those who can’t get around can stay at home and get a Uber delivery. It’s time to move to the future of the American City model, not some 1950s suburbia style model.

  13. Meme says:

    Jason, she misspoke.

    So, where is your degree from, Jason Hochman?

    Your best friend, Ted Cruz, has a Harvard degree.

  14. Meme says:

    This is a test of the new moderation that was placed.

  15. Meme says:

    There must be certain words that trigger the moderation. Wonder if a list could be published?

  16. C.L. says:

    The Sun is a mighty powerful heat…

    “In a press release promoting the congresswoman’s appearance at the school, her office pointed out that Jackson Lee had previously “served as a member of the Science Committee and the Ranking Member on the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee,” and that she would be there to “highlight the experience” of the eclipse.”

    “The sun is a mighty powerful heat, but it’s almost impossible to go near the sun,” Jackson Lee continued. “The moon is more manageable, and you will see in a moment—not a moment, you will see in a couple of years—that NASA is going back to the moon.”

    “A full moon is that complete, rounded circle which is made up mostly of gases, and that’s why the question is why or how could we as humans live on the moon? Are the gases such that we could do that?”

    She went on to say: “We have yet to know whether you can live on the moon. But I don’t know about you, I want to be first in line to know how to live and to be able to survive on the moon—that’s another planet which we’re going to see shortly.”

    “Strangely, this isn’t the first time Jackson Lee has made a public gaffe related to the moon. While serving on the House Science Committee in 1997, she reportedly asked if the Mars Pathfinder rover had managed to capture images of an American flag planted on the red planet by Neil Armstrong, presumably incorrectly referring to the flag Armstrong planted on the moon in 1969.”

  17. J says:

    In a story today from the Channel 13 website I read this- ““ All projects are on hold that reduce the number of general purpose traffic lanes or lane widths,” Mayor John Whitmire’s transportation advisor, Marlene Gafrick, said in a written statement to ABC13.”

    Reduced lane widths do not cause congestion so this policy is specifically crafted to kill off bike lane and sidewalk projects, no question.

  18. Evan Mintz says:

    If the issue was just removing lanes, then why is City Hall also pausing the Montrose plan, which maintains the same number of lanes?

    Either there’s a different motivation or they’re just being inconsistent.

  19. Well, Mayor Whitmire definitely sees reducing vehicular traffic/congestion as a higher priority than adding more bicycle lanes. HC Commissioner Rodney Ellis recently indicated he will withhold Pct. 1 funds for Houston street projects that focus only on cars (see link below). Whitmire doesn’t appear concerned, probably because he knows Commissioners Court is committed to investing in historically underserved communities located inside the City of Houston. Given that reality, Whitmire knows a large amount of county money will continue to flow into Houston no matter what he does (if not a street project, then something else). The other option would be for Ellis/Commissioners Court to shift that money to projects in the unincorporated areas of Harris County, which now mostly fall under Republican Tom Ramsey (PCT 3). Folks, everybody knows that isn’t going to happen.

  20. C.L. says:

    re: “Well, Mayor Whitmire definitely sees reducing vehicular traffic/congestion as a higher priority than adding more bicycle lanes. ”

    John Whitmire must have an active medical marijuana license if he thinks increasing lane counts from 2 to 3 or 3 to 4 is going to, LONG TERM, ease vehicular traffic on any City street.

  21. Meme says:

    Source C.L.

    I would not be surprised that whoever wrote the press release may have heard some loud words.

  22. C.L. says:

    @Manny… Google it up. SJL even responded to the gaffs, stating “Obviously I misspoke and meant to say the sun, but as usual, Republicans are focused on stupid things instead of stuff that really matters. What can I say though, foolish thinkers lust for stupidity!”

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