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The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

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.

A new downtown park

Something to look forward to, when we’re all comfortable being in crowded spaces again, even outside crowded spaces.

Houston officials broke ground [earlier this month] on a new park in south downtown that by next year will provide the area with its first addition of major greenspace since Discovery Green opened more than a decade ago.

The park will take up most of the block surrounded by Bell, Fannin, Leeland and San Jacinto streets, replacing a Goodyear Auto Service Center. It will include a central lawn area, gardens on the north and south sides, dog runs for large and small breeds, water features and art installations, and a second location of Tout Suite, the East Downtown cafe. Construction is expected to wrap up next March.

Officials have dubbed the new area Trebly Park, a nod to the three street corners surrounding the park, and the implication that “there’ll be three times as much here for everybody who lives in the neighborhood and who visits,” said Bob Eury, president of the Downtown Redevelopment Authority. The project previously had gone by the name of Southern Downtown Park.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the project is part of city leaders’ ongoing efforts to bring more parks and greenspace to the downtown area, such as the renovation Jones Plaza farther north. Those types of investments will spur further growth downtown, Turner said, adding that when he was growing up in Houston decades ago, the central business district would become “dead” shortly after everyone left work for the day.

“When I grew up in this city, there were probably, other than the hotels, I don’t think there was anybody living downtown. And now we have about 10,000 people living downtown,” he said. “The developments have led to the design and construction of this park, and at the same time, the parks are leading to residential and other transit-oriented development downtown.”

Downtown has other issues right now, but I expect they will sort themselves out one way or another. In the meantime, more park space is welcome. If like me you were scratching your head at the explanation of the “Trebly Park” name, CultureMap is here to help:

“Trebly Park is located on Block 333 of Downtown Houston, on a site defined by three city block corners. Trebly, meaning ‘three times as much,’ is fresh in spirit, rolls off the tongue, and is not moored in convention. By its definition, Trebly Park implies that the park has much to offer those who visit it in terms of experience with ‘three times as much’ fun, play, interaction, relaxation and deliciousness.”

Good to know. I’ve got it on my places to visit next spring.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

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.

HISD schools closed Monday and Tuesday

More effects of the storm.

Houston ISD plans to remain closed Monday and Tuesday, then hold online-only classes for the last three days of next week, as the district manages the fallout from water and power issues caused by freezing temperatures.

HISD officials announced the schedule Friday as employees continued to survey damage to the district’s 260 campuses and the city of Houston remained under a boil-water advisory expected to stretch to at least Sunday.

At the same time, the leaders of a few suburban Houston districts, including Katy, Klein and La Porte ISDs, announced plans to resume in-person classes Monday. While parts of those districts remain under a boil-water advisory, they are expected to face fewer water issues heading into next week compared to HISD.

In an interview Friday morning with CNN, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district officials remained “very concerned” with water problems that could impact campuses next week. HISD could use unboiled water to flush toilets and run sinks, but the district would need to boil water for drinking and food preparation.

“If the water issue hasn’t been resolved, we can’t (reopen campuses),” Lathan said.

Safety is the first priority, and if the schools can’t open safely then they can’t open. This has other effects, mostly with food service for the students who need it, but there’s no real choice. Hopefully everything will be ready for the following week. What HISD and other districts will do to make up for the lost time, I have no idea. I’m guessing there will be some guidance from the state, but we’ll see.

And speaking of the rest of the state:

The winter storm delivered another blow for parents, teachers and students already struggling to get through this academic year, as COVID-19 has destabilized the lives of many Texans. Already students were failing multiple classes learning virtually, feeling increasingly anxious and depressed, and worrying about their loved ones. Now, some families still don’t have power or water and some schools, given the damage to facilities, are unsure when they are going to be able to take students back in person.

Districts across the state are surveying their buildings and finding broken pipes, soaked classrooms and other major property damage, as rising temperatures thaw pipes. The Texas Education Agency said school districts still dealing with electricity outages and other issues next week can apply for waivers to provide completely virtual instruction or, in some cases, close completely.

The destruction may indefinitely delay in-person instruction — and more crucially may prevent schools from serving as immediate lifelines for their most vulnerable families. As temperatures plummeted over the last week, many schools could not serve as warming centers for their communities as they have done during past disasters. Some also could not distribute free meals to students, with staff members unable to leave their homes and refrigerators full of spoiled food.

The state doesn’t provide funds for building construction and repair – the districts do that themselves, via their capital budgets and bond issuances – so this is going to cause further need in many districts. The forthcoming federal COVID relief package, which will provide money for local and state governments, may help with this, but the state may need to find a way to assist as well. If this isn’t an issue in the legislative session already, it needs to become one.

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.

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.

Astrodome renovation officially on hold

Not a surprise, given everything that is going on right now.

Still here

The COVID-19 pandemic upended most aspects of normal life, but this year has clutched dearly to one bit of normalcy for Houston residents: inaction on the Astrodome.

For 12 years, the architectural triumph that put Houston on the map — or the past-its-prime hunk of steel and cement, depending on who you ask — has sat, largely abandoned off Loop 610. Harris County Commissioners Court in 2018 approved a $105 million plan to transform the facility into a parking garage and event venue.

Two years later, work has barely begun. The project is on hold indefinitely and its funding sources have dried up. Fans of the dome must face a hard truth: This plan to renovate the building appears doomed.

“The only construction we’ve done is removal of asbestos and demolition work to enable that,” County Engineer John Blount said. “There’s been no real construction toward building the parking structure.”

There are two reasons for what elected officials do or not do: money and politics. The current Astrodome plan strikes out on both, the county’s current leaders say.

Former County Judge Ed Emmett was one of the most vocal proponents of renovating the dome, which the Republican argued would be ludicrous to demolish since it is structurally sound and already paid for by the county.

Even though voters in 2013 rejected a $217 million bond proposal to convert the 55-year-old structure into event and exhibit space, Emmett convinced his colleagues to support the current, pared-down version in 2018, which he hoped to see through to its completion.

Nine months later, however, his re-election bid was denied in a stunning upset by Lina Hidalgo, who helped Democrats flip Harris County Commissioners Court for the first time in a generation. She immediately put the project on hold, concerned the project did not make fiscal sense.

Hidalgo, who was in middle school the last time the Dome hosted an event in the early 2000s, does not share the same enthusiasm for revitalizing the landmark as her predecessor. With an agenda to radically change how county government interacts with residents, through increased spending on social programs and infrastructure, Hidalgo has never seen the Astrodome as a pressing issue.

Hidalgo recognizes the Dome’s place in history but looks at the issue through the lens of what is best for the community, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.

“She’s not opposed to working to find ways to bring it to life, and we’ve been in touch with nonprofits on that,” Lemaitre said. “But right now, we can’t justify prioritizing putting public dollars or governing on it.”

[…]

Beth Wiedower Jackson, president of the Astrodome Conservancy, acknowledges there is little chance construction resumes on the 2018 plan. She said Hidalgo has said she is open to a new proposal, and agrees with the nonprofit that a repurposed Dome should produce a revenue stream for Harris County.

Jackson said that while the conservancy does not yet have a budget in mind, the group has begun searching for private funding partners and hopes to present a more expansive plan to Commissioners Court in 18 to 24 months. While frustrating to start over, she said the group instead views it as an opportunity.

“It is prudent to stop and push pause and re-center this project as many times as we need to,” Jackson said. “Do we have an opportunity now to think bigger, and more holistically, and greener and smarter about what it looks like? Hell yes. That’s exciting for us.”

The last mention I had of the Astrodome was September 2019 (“on hold for now”), and before that was January 2019 and October 2018, when Ed Emmett was still County Judge and we were looking at a March 2019 start to further construction. I wasn’t born here and don’t have the emotional connection to the Dome that some people do, but I support the Emmett-produced 2018 plan for the Dome, and agree with the assessment that the best thing to do is to find some use for it. I also agree that the county has much bigger priorities right now than this, and it won’t hurt anything to put it all on the back burner for the next year or so, when we are hopefully out of the current pandemic hole we are now in. If the plan has shifted by then from the Emmett plan to something that offloads most of the funding and responsibility to non-profits, that’s fine too. Even if we’d been working on the Emmett plan all along, it’s not like we’d have been doing anything with the Dome this year anyway. We’ll get back to it when it makes more sense to do so.

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.

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.

The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

So whatever happened to Astroworld II?

It’s still out there, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

For more than four years, Mayor Sylvester Turner has trumpeted Houston’s need for a destination theme park that would boost the region’s tourism industry and provide an outlet for families.

In the final weeks of his reelection campaign last year, he even said an amusement company was interested and that an announcement could come within weeks.

“I’ve had investors come and sit around my table to talk about it,” he said that October.

That teaser came months after the mayor appeared at rapper Travis Scott’s concert — part of the Grammy-nominated Houston native’s “Astroworld” tour, named for a theme park that sat across the South Loop from the Astrodome for 37 years before closing in 2005. Standing on the Toyota Center stage, Turner gave a beaming Scott a key to the city and drew thunderous applause when he said, “Because of him, we want to bring another amusement theme park back to the city!”

The announcement hinted at last fall never came, however. After he won reelection last December, Turner said investors had surveyed land on the north side but determined the site was not a good fit.

Still, Turner said several large parcels within the city limits could host a marquee park, and said he planned to form a task force in January of this year to focus on the idea, with the goal of having a park open by the time term limits force him from office at the end of 2023.

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said this month that the mayor was in the process of asking people to join his theme park task force when the pandemic arrived and became the administration’s main focus. Still, she said, Turner has not abandoned the goal.

“The mayor looks forward to resuming work on developing a theme park as soon as possible,” Benton said. “There is strong interest among developers who recognize the value of building a new theme park venue in Houston.”

[…]

There are many reasons why few major parks have been developed in the U.S. in recent decades, however, and that still fewer have been built without public subsidies, said Wonwhee Kim, chief intelligence officer for The Park Database, whose staff also work with developers hoping to build new parks.

“They’re a type of infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars, and once you build it, it can’t easily be changed,” Kim said. “In the 1970s you could get by with opening a theme park with 10 attractions because that was the beginning of the industry. But now because expectations are so high, a developer would have to come in and build to the level of the existing parks. It’s very risky, and so most theme parks these days are built with some kind of public-private partnership.”

See here for an early mention of this possibility. As noted, in the Chron story and in that post, only half of the original Astroworld site is available, so location is a possible issue. And, not to put too fine a point on it, now is not a great time for theme parks in any form or fashion. Maybe put that one on the agenda for the next Mayor, and review the remaining items on the to-do list for the second term.

A bad streak

Twenty years. Geez.

For 20 years, Texans have been dying to get somewhere, and there is little sign they will stop anytime soon.

Saturday marks 20 years of at least one death a day on Texas roads, a grim milestone in a long-simmering safety crisis lawmakers and local agencies have pledged to stop but have barely slowed in the past two years.

“The numbers don’t reflect it yet, to be frank,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said of efforts to eliminate roadway deaths by 2050.

They eventually will reduce dying on streets, officials said, but only through efforts on numerous fronts. Plans call for spending millions on education campaigns to change driver behavior and keep impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel. Engineers expect to use crash data to identify and then build better intersections and crosswalks. Upcoming state highway repairs include rumble strips to warn drivers when they drift from the road.

Whatever changes officials have in store, the intent is to encourage drivers to do what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, or not enable whatever it is that leads them to poor choices.

“It is the difference between life and death,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the city’s plan for eliminating fatalities on city streets will be released later this month. It is expected to recommend significant reconstruction changes at intersections and along major streets.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” Turner said. “We need to communicate the value of life over speed.”

If we couldn’t have a traffic death-free day during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, I can’t imagine how we’ll ever have one again. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, it seems impossible, barring a radical paradigm shift at some point. (Yeah, yeah, driverless cars. When were those supposed to start being regular features of our daily commute again?) There’s been a lot of work done to make roads safer, and there are more such projects in the pipeline, but those things take time, and we have zillions of miles of roads. Stay safe out there, y’all.

Metro moving forward with its construction plans

As well they should.

Carrin Patman greeted the supporter by grabbing both of his hands in a packed downtown Houston event space above a bustling sports bar. The buffet laid out for Metro’s 2019 election night watch party was thoroughly picked through and waiters and waitresses were bringing out more.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but everything is looking great. It’s going to pass,” Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, told the man among a throng of celebrants clinking glasses and talking about the big win for buses and trains. As she let go, Patman said she was looking forward to starting the “real work” of building Houston’s future transit system.

A year later, Metro has to work its way through a pandemic that took away more than half its ridership and still is roiling its financial outlook before it can tackle more than a decade of rail, street and transit stop construction.

Nonetheless, transit officials are moving ahead with millions of dollars in engineering and design of new lines and services, confident they can plan now for major projects that riders eventually will demand.

“We don’t want to lose that time,” said Roberto Treviño, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction. “We don’t want to wait. Now is the time to plan.”

After months of discussion, contracts for design oversight and preparation of the lengthy federal environmental process for a major bus rapid transit line could be solicited by the end of the year, as Metro starts the work Patman predicted.

You can read the rest. Some projects have been de-prioritized for now, which is fine. The people voted for doing this work, and it would be a dereliction of duty to not do it. Unless you think we’re never going to get back to the level of activity and traffic we had before, there’s no reason to put this off. Keep moving forward.

HISD needs a bond referendum

Easier said than done, though.

Houston ISD appeared to be on track in mid-February to put a bond election on the ballot this November, taking a critical step toward asking voters for the first time since 2012 to let it borrow money to finance major facility upgrades in the district.

Two weeks later, federal agents raided the district’s headquarters. Three weeks after that, campuses closed due to COVID-19.

Once again, an HISD bond would have to wait.

As voters in Dallas, San Antonio and parts of Fort Bend County decide in the coming weeks whether to back billions of dollars in school improvements, residents of the state’s largest district will not see a bond request on the ballot for the eighth straight year, the longest absence among Texas’ major urban districts.

Despite promising signs earlier this year that HISD finally may have weathered a cascade of embarrassments, the district remains unable to garner support needed to provide students with much-wanted improvements. After approving a facilities assessment in February, a precursor to a bond vote, HISD administrators and trustees never publicly discussed seeking an election following the raid and pandemic-induced shutdown.

In addition to grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic, HISD continues to face fallout from the abrupt departure of former Superintendent Richard Carranza, self-admitted dysfunction on the school board in 2018 and 2019, the Texas Education Agency’s ongoing effort to replace trustees and the raid tied to former high-ranking administrator Brian Busby.

“As a layperson on the outside looking in, with everything that was going on in the district, I personally would have had some reluctance supporting one,” said HISD trustee Kathy Blueford-Daniels, one of four new members on the nine-person board this year. “We’re not entangled in all that controversy now, and so it’s imperative that we look at trying to do a bond every five years. We’re way overdue.”

[…]

Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has conducted dozens of school bond polls and led a survey on voter attitudes toward HISD last year, said he would be “shocked” if the district could earn the needed majority support for a package. If a bond vote fails, HISD must cover costs associated with administering the election.

“There’s just no confidence in the district, and I have no reason to think that confidence has increased with remote learning,” Stein said. “My guess is they’re not going to pass a bond anytime soon.”

Here’s a scorching hot take: Maybe the best way to get a very necessary bond passed is to hand that responsibility to the board of managers that will (one presumes) eventually get installed by the TEA as part of its now-held-up-in-the-courts takeover. If there’s not enough faith that the elected Board members are up to the task (a proposition I’d question, but let’s go with it for now), then give the new Board a crack at it. It’s not clear to me that the appointed Board would have a net gain in public trust, since so many HISD parents and other stakeholders are deeply suspicious of (if not outright hostile to) the TEA takeover, but maybe they could earn some trust, or have a honeymoon period, or just be able to bring it up without other issues getting in the way. I’m just spitballing here. The fact remains, the schools need the capital investment. I’m open to any reasonable ideas for making it happen.

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Can downtown survive COVID-19?

So depressing to read.

When Understory opened last summer, the stylish food hall in downtown’s Bank of America Tower quickly became the go-to lunch spot for throngs of office workers who stood in line for poke bowls, gourmet burgers and fancy coffee drinks.

Across the street, a row of taxis idled in front of Chase Tower, waiting to shuttle well-dressed business travelers to their hotels or back to the airport.

At night, lights twinkled from inside Perbacco, the glass-walled Italian restaurant across from the city’s symphony hall that had become a pre-theater staple.

But that was all so 2019.

This corner of downtown Houston, once a thriving hub of commerce and culture, has become a shadow of its former self. The food hall crowds are gone. The taxis are nowhere to be found. And the restaurants that are still open are struggling to hang on. Aside from construction projects, which have continued to move forward during the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Business District is a ghost town.

It’s not just the private sector feeling the pain. With tourists and business travelers staying home, hotel occupancy tax collections, a significant source of revenue for the city, were off 28 percent through July compared with the same period in 2019.

“You’ve got to understand,” said Tilman Fertitta, who owns Vic & Anthony’s, the high-end steakhouse near Minute Maid Park, “downtown is dead. There’s nobody in the buildings. There’s no business traveler.”

While some white-collar workers have trickled back to their jobs, the office population has plunged to less than 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to a survey by Central Houston, a downtown business group. Major conventions and virtually all business travel, the lifeblood of downtown hotels, have been canceled. The performing arts are on hiatus and professional sports are being played elsewhere or without fans in their seats.

The strides developers, business leaders and city officials have made in transforming the city center from a mostly commercial district into a more vibrant neighborhood with new housing, parks and schools are being threatened by the pandemic, whose economic and societal tolls may take years to undo.

I’ve lived in Houston long enough to remember when no one went downtown unless they worked there or had some limited one-off reason, like jury duty or to see a show. I’ve seen the various efforts to bring new life into downtown, from big ticket items like Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center to Discovery Green and the resurgent restaurant scene. As a four-year downtown employee, I dodged a lot of construction and saw the culmination of many longer-term projects that made downtown a vital and thriving place. And now we see the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the lives and careers and businesses it has wrecked, and I wonder if I’ll live to see a downtown like the one I remember again. I’m hopeful by nature, but boy is this going to be rough.

The rooftop park at the downtown post office

Very cool.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The company redeveloping downtown’s former post office property will open a rooftop venue early next year as part of a five-acre park and organic farm that will top the historic building at 401 Franklin St.

Lovett Commercial said the space will host open-air weddings and other events with a dramatic skyline backdrop. The property sits on the northern end of downtown near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers.

Houston-based Lovett purchased the 16-acre site, formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office, in 2015 and is remaking the space into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm called POST Houston.

Jordan was a Houston native who was the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress. Lovett said it intends to incorporate a monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, into the property.

The campus comprises a two-story warehouse with a more than five-acre footprint and a five-story administration building facing Franklin Street.

The rooftop, to be known as the Skylawn, was designed by Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago-based landscape architects behind Houston’s McGovern Centennial Park. The 6,000-square-foot event space will be able to host up to 300 guests.

See here for the background. The photos that accompany the Chron story look delightful. I just hope we’re all able to actually experience it someday.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Time for your regularly scheduled announcement that the Uptown BRT line opening has been pushed back

Maybe for the last time, though. We hope.

Rapid bus service is coming to Uptown next month, a couple weeks later than Metro first said this summer and two years later than expected when construction began in 2016.

Service will start along the Silver Line on Aug. 23, along with other bus route changes planned by Metropolitan Transit Authority, CEO Tom Lambert said. Officials pushed back opening day a couple weeks from an earlier estimate to make all the changes at once.

“This allows us to be consistent,” Lambert said.

[…]

“There are four critical traffic signals to getting this done,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction, outlining the remaining work.

City officials, Trevino said, pledged to have the signals in place by the end of the week. The lights are vital to giving buses their own signal to enter and exit the lanes at key such intersections as Westpark and the Loop 610 southbound frontage road.

See here for the previous update, when July was the target month. I will say, this time we have an actual date, which is a step forward. Also, if the term “Silver Line” has been used elsewhere, I’ve missed it. I look forward to a day when the virus is under control and I can feel free to take what would be a joyride for myself on this new line. I hope the date for that doesn’t have to keep being rescheduled.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

Worth keeping in mind, the cost of expanding I-45 is more than just dollars.

The I-45 project’s toll on local property owners would be unprecedented for TxDOT in Houston, potentially relocating hundreds of families and businesses. Estimated to cost at least $7 billion, the project will rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, and change how it connects with other downtown freeways.

That means rebuilding — by removing — pieces of Fifth Ward, the Northside, Acres Homes and Aldine. Spots south of North Main where third-generation Latino residents help neighbors work on cars in their driveway. Or Tidwell, which bustles with activity as the commercial center and is the only place within walking distance of her apartment where Shondrae McBride, 26, can get her nails done, pick up marinated carne asada and drop off her husband’s cell phone for repair across from a Pho restaurant.

“Not everybody has a car to get around,” McBride said.

Removing some of those businesses, she said, would “add hours” to her typical errands.

The latest estimates show the rebuild would impact — the catchword for any structure or dwelling directly touched by the changing road boundary — 158 houses, 433 apartments or condos, 486 public housing units, 340 businesses, five churches and two schools. The Houston Police Department would need to relocate its south central police station and the Mexican Consulate in the Museum District, adjacent to I-69, will move to a Westchase-area location.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has called the project “transformative” but also called on TxDOT to revise the designs north of downtown to impact fewer homes and businesses while remaining on track to start construction downtown in a matter of months. Work is slated to begin north of Interstate 10 by 2024.

When the work actually begins will depend on decisions made this year and next that some, including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, worry will displace a historic number of people before getting a full public review despite more than 15 years of planning. Hidalgo and others have called on TxDOT to delay final decisions, which could push back the start of construction for months as more public meetings are planned.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 disaster, this delay would give the county and its residents more time to engage with and offer feedback,” Hidalgo wrote in May.

TxDOT officials have said they welcome the city and county’s input, with state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan, of Houston, saying the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

That still leaves the question of how many people will have to get out of the way.

There’s an illustration in the story that shows what the effects would be for the project as now planned. The city’s alternative would do a lot to mitigate that. The best thing you can do is take advantage of every opportunity to let your elected officials know what you do and don’t want to happen. I know there’s a lot going on, but stuff like this doesn’t go away when there’s too much to pay attention to.

And now a few words from our city transportation planner

Didn’t know we had one, did you? Well, we do, his name is David Fields, and he had a few things to say to Chron reporter Dug Begley in a recent Q&A:

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

There’s more, so go read it. The point of interest for me is the observation that if work from home becomes more widely adopted, it really changes traffic patterns, and potentially reduces the future need for road construction. This has always been a consideration for transportation wonks, but we’ve never seen it in action like this. I am certain that more people are going to resume commuting to work in the coming weeks – here we are hand-waving away the potential for further lockdowns – but I’m also certain that some number of people who have been working from home as a result of COVID-19 will continue to work from home going forward because they like it and it suits them. Who knows what our streets and highways will look like after that?

Again, this is not a revelation to transportation planners and their ilk. A steady increase in telework has always been factored into their calculations. The point is that this is likely to be a step increase in those numbers, which changes the shape of the curves in their models. Some plans are already in motion – the 59/610 interchange rebuild, for example – while others are not yet finalized – the ginormous I-45 project – but in either case what we once thought was true now may not be. What are we going to do about that?

On a somewhat random side note, another factor that transportation nerds have been eyeing has been the rise of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles that are shared by multiple riders are one option touted as a possible future mode for mass transit. I’ve been skeptical of stuff like this for a variety of reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing having more appeal in the future, at least as an alternative to buses, and assuming there’s a way to separate the passengers from each other. Also assuming that the ridesharing companies that would surely be among those providing this service survive the current economic environment, which, who knows. You’d think now would be the time for someone to be touting the benefits of this concept, but I at least haven’t seen such chatter.

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

The city of Houston is prepared to ask for major changes in state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 that potentially could scale back the planned widening of the freeway and put a greater focus on transit lanes than making room for more cars.

Getting the Texas Department of Transportation to focus more on moving people than automobiles, city officials believe, could quell some of the rancor over the region’s largest freeway rebuild in decades.

“There is a lot of alignment to TxDOT’s goals and the city’s goals, but they are different,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, Houston’s planning director.

Those differences, however, could have radical effects on the project based on what TxDOT has proposed and elements Houston’s planning department is pursuing as part of a response to the project from Mayor Sylvester Turner. After a year of public meetings, city officials are suggesting further study and consideration of:

  • replacing the four managed lanes in the center of the freeway with two transit-only lanes — one in each direction;
  • keeping I-45 within its current boundaries to limit acquisition of adjacent homes and businesses;
  • bus stations along the freeway so neighborhoods within Beltway 8 have access to rapid transit service;
  • and improved pedestrian and bicycle access to those stations and other access points along the freeway.

City planning officials said the request, likely in the form of a letter from Turner, is meant to continue an ongoing dialogue — city and TxDOT staff speak practically daily — but also clearly state that the project must reflect Houston’s aims if it is to enjoy city support.

[…]

TxDOT officials said that until they receive the city’s written response they cannot comment on the request or its specifics.

“We have no intentions of getting out in front of Mayor Turner, especially given the amount of effort extended to reach this point,” agency spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said in a statement.

During the monthly meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council on Friday, state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said officials are committed to working with the city. Ryan said the goal is a project that “will work, for the most part, for as many people as possible.”

Critics of the state’s rebuilding plan said they remain optimistic the city can nudge TxDOT toward improvements, but stressed they want Houston leaders to hold steady on some changes.

“I think to be effective the city has to say exactly what it wants,” said Michael Skelly, who organized opposition to the project’s design. “My view is TxDOT needs very explicit guidance from the city.”

See here for the background. Allyn West teased this on Friday, and he provided a link to the Planning Department’s presentation from April 13. It assumes some knowledge of the project and was clearly delivered by someone who was verbally filling in details, but there’s a lot there if you want to know more. It seems highly unlikely that we’re going to get the East Loop alternative to I-45 through downtown, but limiting the right-of-way expansion would be a big win. Metro, which had supported the TxDOT plan due to the addition of HOV lanes, is on board with this vision. The critical piece is the letter from the city. It’s not clear to me what the time frame is for that, but I’d expect it sooner rather than later.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

Houston-area transit officials will wait out a little more of the coronavirus crisis before soliciting bids on five of the first projects in their $7 billion construction bonanza for bus and rail upgrades.

“Moving this by a month does not hurt anything at all,” said Sanjay Ramabhadran, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member.

Board members on Tuesday delayed approval of the procedure for selecting engineering, architecture and design firms for what could be more than $1 billion in bus and rail projects along key routes. The projects are the first in the agency’s long-range transportation plan, which voters approved in November, authorizing Metro to borrow up to $3.5 billion. The remaining costs for the program, called MetroNext, will be covered by federal grants and unspent local money Metro set aside for future budgets.

Instead, officials said the requests for proposals are set for approval in April for:

  • an extension of the Green and Purple light-rail lines to the Houston Municipal Courthouse
  • bus rapid transit and a dedicated lane along Interstate 10 from Loop 610 to downtown Houston
  • rapid bus service and use of managed lanes along Interstate 45
  • a new Missouri City Park and Ride
  • enhanced bus corridors along the Westheimer and Lockwood bus routes

The time will allow Metro officials to review the specifics of the agreements, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

See here and here for some background. No mention of the Uptown BRT line, whose target opening date is now July, though Lord knows what anything means at this time. Metro has suspended fare collection for now, in part because people need all the help they can get during this crisis, and in part because ridership numbers have plummeted during the crisis. Neither of those will have much effect on Metro’s cash flow in the short term, but the concurrent decline in local sales tax revenue will. We’ll know more about that in May when the Comptroller disburses the March tax revenues.

Les traffic, easier construction

We’ll be talking about the knock-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic for years to come.

A lighter load on Houston-area freeways and COVID-19 concerns have not slowed the heavy machinery making way for more lanes or new ramps along many of the routes seeing unprecedented drops in traffic.

Some crews will even ramp up work as traffic takes a coronavirus-induced holiday.

“Lighter traffic on our roadways potentially presents some opportunities to advance some of our work, and that is being assessed on a case-by-case basis,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

All TxDOT projects remain active, Lewis said.

Houston Public Works and contractors on city jobs also remain out tying steel, pouring concrete and smoothing asphalt, Public Works spokeswoman Erin Jones said this week.

This is actually a great time to hit the streets and get some major work done while there are fewer folks driving, officials said. Work is accelerating or changing on a handful of projects, Lewis said. Typically during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, crews halt work on TxDOT projects in the vicinity of NRG Park. When the rodeo pulled up stakes, the highway workers returned.

The chance to disrupt fewer drivers also is changing some schedules, Lewis said.

“Work on the (Loop) 610-Interstate 69 interchange project has moved up the placement of beams for some of the new connectors,” she said.

Contractors working with TxDOT also are seeing if they can extend lane closures to expedite work while traffic volumes are low. Lewis said those are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“As events evolve, this also could change,” she said.

This all might not last too long – Lord knows, we are all hoping that the bulk of the social-distancing requirements will have a short lifespan – but road construction will be a little easier, and a whole lot less disruptive, in the meantime. I know I’ve barely been in my car over the past two weeks – my group at work was told to start telecommuting ahead of most others, and this past week was spring break. What has been your experience – are you driving less and enjoying the respite, or driving as much and enjoying the lesser traffic?

Texas Central hopes to start construction this year

It would be best for them if they get going before the Lege can take any action against them.

After an economic impact statement and safety rules are completed, the Texas High-Speed Train may begin construction before the end of 2020.

David Hagy with Texas Central said The Texas High-Speed Rail, a 240-mile high-speed rail line meant to make a 90-minute commute from Houston to Dallas, is expected to complete its Economic Impact Statement and safety guidelines by this summer. The train travels 200 mph between destinations, with 30-minute wait times for rides during peak times. A map on the Texas Central website shows the rail’s alignment running through northwest Harris County roughly along U.S. 290 and heads north after Hockley.

Hagy, regional vice president of external affairs for Texas Central, gave a presentation about the high-speed rail to the Government and Transportation committee of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce on March 5.

[…]

As for land acquisition, Hagy assured that the Texas Central team is attempting to avoid going through private property as much as possible while offering to buy land above its appraised value. Texas Central already has a preferred route with roughly 30 percent of parcels needed purchased.

“All of our routes that we looked at are really drawn by the Federal Railway Administration with our input and public comments and meetings,” Hagy said. “When you straighten that route out you end up impacting a lot of private property that was not only set aside environmentally for (I-45) but you also impact a lot of it. There’s also the Sam Houston National Forest and all kinds of complications.”

Just passing along the news, which was from an earlier time when we could contemplate things like this without thinking about what effect coronavirus would have on it. Texas Central still has obstacles beyond that and the Legislature – they need to acquire all the land they require, and the question about whether they can use eminent domain remains an open question – but it’s my belief that the more physical progress they can make, the harder it will be for their opponent to stop them. This will be the test of that.

There’s still (a little) time to affect the I-45 design

There’s stuff happening this week. After that, it gets harder.

City officials and consultants will spend the coming weeks finalizing a few ways to turn the region’s largest and most controversial freeway rebuild of recent years into an Interstate 45 for commuters and inner-city-dwellers alike.

First, however, they must weigh about three dozen ideas with their costs, be it more traffic, trouble for pedestrians or added property acquisition.

“Every one of these is a set of trade-offs,” consultant Christof Spieler told a crowd Feb. 1 at Aldine Ninth Grade School. “If you make lanes narrower, that means you need less property, but it also means you might have more crashes.”

City planners and consultants said the ideas are all viable in and of themselves, but some would require the Texas Department of Transportation to seek federal waivers, such as one calling for 11-foot freeway lanes in certain areas. Others could be a choice between different interests, such as moving the freeway away from White Oak Bayou to preserve greenspace, at the cost of a “more massive” set of ramps, planners said.

The project, expected to cost at least $7 billion, will rebuild most of the downtown freeway system along I-45, Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 and assorted ramps. North of downtown, TxDOT plans to reconstruct I-45 with two managed lanes in each direction from I-10 to Beltway 8.

TxDOT is moving ahead with plans for final environmental approvals and could begin construction within 12 months.

City officials will accept comments on their proposed changes through Friday, and forward the refined ideas to TxDOT in the coming weeks.

[…]

State officials expect to release the final environmental assessment on the project, broken into three segments, in late spring or early summer. Paul encouraged people to examine the final proposal for some of the changes TxDOT already has incorporated to address some of the concerns.

That release will kick off a comment period — though the state does not plan to hold public meetings — before TxDOT can seek federal clearance. With that approval, TxDOT can proceed with construction, which is planned to begin on the southern end near I-69 and Spur 527 and move around downtown and then along I-10 and northward.

The main thing you can do is to take the City of Houston survey about the I045 project, to give them your input and thus help shape the feedback they will give to TxDOT. There are a lot of voices out there, and they don’t all want the same thing, so make your voice heard. You have until Friday, the 14th, for your answers to be included. It has 40 questions and takes a bit of time, so plan accordingly.

And in case you were wondering, this is still in the picture.

“It is a mistake to route our traffic through downtown,” said Michael Skelly, who has organized some of the efforts to change the project over the past two years.

While saying some of the city suggestions would improve the project, Skelly said Houston does not go far enough in demanding changes. Skelly said he wants officials to consider minor changes to I-45 and focus their efforts on routing traffic out of downtown along Loop 610 or the Sam Houston Tollway, through mostly commercial and industrial areas.

“If we’re going to spend $7 billion, I’d rather spend it on a big idea like this,” Skelly said.

The idea, along with opposition by a group arguing to stop the project entirely, contradicts the mandate designers had when they settled on the plan in 2015 to widen the freeway and re-route it to the east side of downtown. For years, their goal has been to increase capacity on I-45 — not move that capacity elsewhere.

“We’re not taking that for granted,” Spieler said. “If the response we get is that reducing capacity is a goal, that requires TxDOT to not fulfill what they are trying to do. Within that, we don’t know which of these are good ideas or bad ideas, but we think there are more options for change.”

I’m not exactly sure what it will take to make that happen, but at least it’s out there.