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Houston to spend more fixing water pipes

Seems like a good idea.

The city is poised to at least double its annual spending on water line repairs, citing two years of pipe breaks and leaks driven in part by ongoing drought conditions.

Houston lost nearly 20 billion gallons of water from January to August of this year, according to records obtained through a public information request. That represents about $75 million in potential revenue for the city’s water utility system.

City Council on Wednesday approved six emergency purchases related to water infrastructure maintenance totaling $21 million. In the previous five fiscal years, the city spent $9 to $10 million annually to repair broken water pipes, city records show.

Such emergency purchases are common during a drought, when extreme heat and dryness put pressure on the pipes around shrinking soils, Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones said.

In June, record temperatures and a significant drop in rainfall prompted the city to issue a drought advisory — which remains ongoing — asking residents to limit outdoor watering and routinely check for water leaks. The last time Houston issued such restrictions was during a more severe state-wide drought in 2011, Jones said.

“All those warmer months without rain in April and May, that’s causing like a domino effect of more heat and more breakage,” she said. “It’s not as bad as what it was in 2011, but it’s important to remember that we were and still are in a drought.”

Houston has an aging underground infrastructure, Mayor Sylvester Turner said during Wednesday’s council meeting. Combined with more extreme weather conditions brought by climate change, spending more money on contractors to fix the main lines is unavoidable, he said.

“We were being overwhelmed, and so we ended up bringing on more contractors to address the situation. That has helped, and it does come with an expense,” Turner said. “We have to recognize the changing conditions and the infrastructure that’s going to be required in order to mitigate more water main leaks.”

From January to May, the amount of water lost to leaks each month nearly doubled, from 1.8 billion gallons to 3.1 billion gallons, data show. The largest water losses occurred in March, April and May, when they accounted for more than 20 percent of the city’s total treated water, slightly less than the 25 percent at the height of the 2011 drought.

That’s a lot of water, and getting the pipes fixed is not just sensible environmentally it’s also a good idea financially. I think the city has been a bit lax on this historically because we’re in a pretty wet climate and generally haven’t had to worry about having enough water. It’s very clear now that that is not a safe assumption any more.

One more thing:

Councilmember Mike Kubosh said the city should ask the state for more support, noting Texas was to receive an estimated $35 billion over five years from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress in November 2021.

“Some of the cities have crumbling infrastructure, like ours,” Kubosh said. “Thirty billion dollars just sitting there…It’s the people’s money. It doesn’t make sense that they’re not using it.”

By all means, feel free to pick up the phone and call Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and tell them that. I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor.

Concept Neighborhood’s Second Ward project

Sounds really cool. I hope they can pull it off, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Plans to turn a swath of the East End into a walkable district are getting larger and more ambitious – setting the groundwork for what could become Houston’s next 15-minute neighborhood — where everything a resident needs is within 15 minutes of walking distance.

Houston real estate firm Concept Neighborhood – a group of entrepreneurs that include some of founders of the Axelrad beer garden — previously unveiled plans to convert the former W-K-M warehouse complex in the East End into a mixed-use destination with hyperlocal businesses and walkable streets.

Now, the scale of the project — estimated at $350 million — has grown to 17 acres, and developers plan to incorporate up to 1,000 mixed-income apartments with 250,000 square-feet of retail and office space over the next decade. Working with global architecture firm Gensler on a master plan, Concept Neighborhood is expanding its vision for the district after purchasing additional land from Union Pacific Railway and a handful of other property owners over the past few months.

While some neighbors are nervous about gentrification, the developers, if successful, could achieve what urban planners say could be the first project of its kind in the city: a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of adaptive reuse buildings where low- and middle-income residents can live affordably, and where owning a car would be optional.

“Houston does not have a neighborhood for people that want to rely on micro mobility, biking and transit,” said Jeff Kaplan, principal with Concept Neighborhood who lives in the district he’s helping to redevelop. “People can choose to have a car if they want to, and if they want to live car-free, they can.”

In the project called The Plant/Second Ward, developers are stitching several parcels together to create a nearly mile-long corridor of streets lined with small businesses, restaurants and housing across a mix of about 21 old and new buildings — starting from Harrisburg Boulevard in the south and extending north to Navigation Boulevard, a critical thoroughfare in the East End a few blocks south of Buffalo Bayou. Concept Neighborhood also plans to convert a section of a former Union Pacific railway into a hike-and-bike trail running one-third of a mile through the development from Commerce Street to Navigation Boulevard.

Concept Neighborhood’s website is here and a website for this project, called The Plant/Second Ward, is here. The southeast end of this neighborhood abuts the Coffee Plant/Second Ward light rail stop on the Harrisburg (Green) line, as you can see in the embedded image. One of the bigger issues they’ll be dealing with is maintaining affordability for the mostly lower-income residents already in the area. It’s safe to say that if this succeeds it will be the first of its kind in Houston. I’m rooting for them, but I also know that we often hear of large planned real estate projects that seem to go nowhere. I hope this one achieves its vision. (And boy do I wish Swamplot was still around to have a take on it.)

Shepherd/Durham construction update

Good long story in the Chron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Oak bike trail extension: The final polish

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

HeightsTrailExtensionDone

HeightsTrailExtensionFullViewDone

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

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

MKTTrailFrasierEntranceDone

Maybe I can will it into existence someday.

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

BigChangesComingTo11thStreet

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

Texas Central insists they’re still alive

It’s something, I guess.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another depressing story about the existential future of Texas Central

It’s sad, y’all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

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

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

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

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

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

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

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

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

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

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

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

Metro looks beyond parking lots for its park and rides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Still wondering about the existential future of Texas Central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

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

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

Below is a high-level list of issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Oak bike trail extension: Getting close to done

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

WhiteOakTrailExtensionAlmostDone

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnd

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

Here’s a closer look at that western end:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnding

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

MKTTrailFrasierEntrance

MKTTrailHeightsTrailJunction

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

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

More on the planning for the University BRT line

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Look! Concrete!

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

WhiteOakTrailExtension_NewBuild1_070922

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

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudewood_071622

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

WhiteOakTrailExtensionZoomedViewFromStudewood_071622

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

There’s no cheap housing in Houston any more

What are we going to do about that?

In the sprawling Houston region, those who could not afford homeownership in the city’s urban core always had options. They could trade proximity for affordability.

But as rising home prices and mortgage rates push homeownership further out of reach for the average renter, the suburbs within Harris County are losing their reputation as an affordable haven, said Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research — just one example of how access to homeownership and quality housing has grown more difficult over the past decade, with challenges accelerating during the pandemic.

The Kinder Institute and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies released Tuesday morning their annual reports on the state of housing in the Houston area and the nation. Together, they painted a picture of a deepening divide between the prospects of current homeowners, whose equity has been buoyed by record-breaking home price appreciation, and renters, who have seen the monthly costs of buying a home rise far more quickly than wages.

The median-priced home in the suburbs of Clear Lake and Jersey Village, for example, were priced between $162,000 and $175,000 in 2011, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. They now go for $300,000 to $317,000.

“You have to go farther and farther out until you find a home that’s affordable,” explained Stephen Sherman, a researcher at the Kinder Institute. “The whole saying is drive until you qualify. We’re finding that people will have to drive even more” — a development which will have rippling implications on traffic and the way floodwaters drain.

And no matter how far out you look, it’s difficult to find a home priced below $200,000 in Harris County these days, where the median home price is on track to soon surpass that in Houston, according to the Kinder report.

Nationwide, four million renters in the past year have been priced out from buying homes, the Joint Center for Housing Studies report found. That’s a concern, said Daniel T. McCue, senior research associate at the center, because “if the door is closing on homeownership, it would lock in some significant inequities in housing.”

[…]

Home prices have outpaced incomes because of a confluence of issues including the chronic underbuilding of homes (the building of which has failed to keep up with population growth for years), the increased demand for homes as millennials enter the homebuying market, surging construction costs as the pandemic interrupted supply chains around the country and the fact that most new construction is focused on the high end of the market.

“Suburban Houston — and new homes in suburban Houston — used to be extremely affordable,” said Lawrence Dean, the Houston regional director for Zonda, which does market research related to new home construction. Since then, the costs of land, materials and labor have all shot up. These days, it’s near impossible to build a home for less than $200,000, he explained.

Wood, fiber-cement siding and even land that’s ready for new homes became harder to come by and labor became scarce during the pandemic. According to the federal government’s producer price index, which measures the average change in selling prices, residential construction materials saw costs rise more than 30 percent in January 2022 from March 2020, when the pandemic began to disrupt businesses in the United States.

The Kinder report is here. This is a regional problem, but it’s also a national problem. It’s partly pandemic-induced, and so may ease up a bit over time, but it’s also driven by other factors, including some lasting effects of the pandemic such as working from home. The point about housing within the city of Houston now being generally less expensive than in the non-Houston parts of Harris County is interesting, as a lot of the population growth in the unincorporated areas has been driven by affordable housing. We’re still cheaper than many other parts of the country (though not by as much now) so some of that will continue, but some of it will be pushed into other counties, and perhaps some of it will come back within the city of Houston. I’d like to see what the demographers think about that.

In the meantime, this is a real problem for a lot of people, and it’s going to take some big ideas to fix. Which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t exactly fill me with hope. The abundance of available land, the lack of restrictions on building, and the general attractiveness of Texas as a place to live has been a huge driver of growth in the area. What do we do when the first two aren’t making a difference and the third is no longer true?

Time to meet the University Line BRT plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Over the culvert we go

We have a bridge from one side of the construction to the other:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertOverpass062622

You can see the outline of the overpass in my previous photos; you can also see how quickly an expanse of blank concrete can get graffitied. I assume we’ll start to see more work on the east (closer to Studewood) side of the extension, though there’s still a lot of work to be done on the west side, where that retaining wall has to be finished. So does the overpass itself – one presumes there will be railings and probably some lights installed before all is said and done.

You can now begin to see the path of the trail on the east side:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide1_062622

That looks a bit curvier than the project plan diagram would suggest, but whatever. I suppose it’s possible the plan is to excavate more into the hill on the north side, to make the trail more of a straight path, but it may also be that that is unsound from an engineering perspective. The tenants at the 401 Studewood building might have some questions about that.

A closer look right at the east end of the overpass:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide2_062622

It’s hard to judge from these photos how much room there is to dig into the hill. I will of course continue to keep an eye on it.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Is Texas Central in trouble?

This story sure questions its stability.

The departure of Texas Central Railway’s CEO has critics of the proposed bullet train between Houston and Dallas optimistic the controversial project has reached its last stop, far short of ever starting construction.

“Texas high-speed rail is collapsing before our eyes,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a longtime skeptic of the plan, said in a social media post. “Today, with no leadership, no funding, no permits and no Washington bail-out from taxpayers, this project is dead.”

Carlos Aguilar, who stepped in as CEO in December 2016 as Texas Central said it was closing in on construction approvals, announced Saturday that he was leaving the company.

“While I could not align our current stakeholders on a common vision for a path forward, I wish the project the greatest success and remain convinced of the importance of this venture for the safety and prosperity of ALL Texans,” Aguilar wrote in a post on the career development site LinkedIn.

Texas Central did not respond to a request for comment.

Aguilar’s departure follows a moribund few months for the company, which dramatically slashed its staff early in the COVID pandemic, while saying it still planned to break ground soon on the 240-mile line between the two metro areas. The Federal Railroad Administration in September 2020 approved plans for the line, mostly along a utility corridor through 11 Texas counties, with a stop near College Station.

While a major step forward, the announcement was among the last significant moves for the proposed train line that was to use Japanese Shinkansen railcars assembled in the United States to whisk travelers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes.

For nearly two years, Texas Central announced various reiterations of previous agreements, shed more staff and fought critics who sought to strip it of its condemnation rights.

The issue of whether the company can acquire property via eminent domain remains unresolved, with a ruling pending from the Texas Supreme Court.

CEOs come and go – this one’s departure doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The lack of news is more troubling – TCR had hoped to start construction in 2020, and while we can all understand why that didn’t happen (seriously, look at the date on that post), the fact that they haven’t announced a new target date to start isn’t encouraging. I continue to believe that this project makes a lot of sense, but if nothing else the original contention that a privately-owned and funded railroad could get lines built and trains running in a faster and more efficient manner than a government-run entity has been sorely tested. I hate to think that all of this work could be thrown away and we’d be back at square one, but that outcome is in play. I sure hope to see something contrary to that soon.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

OK, now I know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension will look like

In my last post about the construction of the White Oak Bike Trail extension, I said that I couldn’t quite envision what the finished product would look like. That was partly because there were three things that looked like they might be part of that finished product, partly because it wasn’t yet clear how the trail was going to get across the little bayou culvert that separated the construction area, and partly because there hadn’t been any construction on one side of that culvert yet. Without any further information, I was just going to have to wait until later in the process, when hopefully the final shape would become clear to me.

Turns out I needn’t wait that long. I was tipped off by Alex Bunin via email about the project plans online. The best view is from this document, which is labeled “Rendering” under the “Exhibits” folder. Here’s a screenshot:

I actually took that from this PowerPoint presentation of the full project, which is the “PowerPoint Presentation” link under “Meeting Materials”. From this, it’s clear that what I had interpreted as a stairway/pedestrian path on the north side is actually the start of a retaining wall, and what I had seen as the path itself closest to the bayou is just a path for the construction equipment, with the actual trail-to-be in between the two. There will be a bridge over the culvert, but it will be farther away from the bayou, over an area that wasn’t originally dug out – if you look at this Construction Phasing Map, you can see that the bridge will be over an extension of that culvert that has been excavated as part of the first phase. You can see the pictures I took of that from April.

Just driving past the construction this week, I see what looks like the beginning of the bridge over that culvert extension. I suspect that when I take the next batch of pictures, it will be much more apparent. And that’s exciting! It’s both real progress, and it should be easier to gauge how much left there is to do once that is in place. Indeed, if you look at the feedback to questions about the project, the official word is that they expect to be finished in mid-July. I’ll keep you up to date as we go.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

I don’t really know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension is going to look like

There’s not a whole lot of change since the last update a month ago, at least in terms of how things look and what the final shape of the update might be. There are two particular areas of question for me, and that’s what this update will focus on. First things first, what exactly are the building on the west side of the extension?

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudwood_060522

This picture looks a lot like the one from last month’s update, and I’m still not sure what they’re doing with the part on the right. The difference in color and the shape of the brock wall make me think this will eventually be a stairway, but the more I look at it the less I understand why. There’s not really anything analogous to this elsewhere on the trail, and it’s far enough away from what looks like the actual trail that I wonder what the reason is for the separation. Could it be leading to something other than back to the trail and its junction with the MKT Trail? I have no idea, and if it is I don’t know what it would be leading to. I guess I could approach this from the MKT Trail side, but I’m leery of entering the construction area, which I’m sure would be viewed as trespassing.

I also note the flat surface immediately to the left of the maybe-stairs, which is now used by the construction machinery. Is it possible this will remain like that and serve as a path as well? What in the world would be the purpose of it if it does? All we can really do is wait for the construction to get to a point where it all makes sense. In the meantime, it’s making me a little crazy.

The other item is the connection across that culvert that I’ve noted before:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertView_060222

The concrete retaining walls, and whatever that tunnel for bayou overflow water is, appears to be the main focus of the construction lately. The question I had before still remains, which is how the extension to the west of that culvert will connect to the still-to-be-laid-out extension to the east of it. At this point, the only way forward appears to be over the culvert, but as yet there’s no indication what the plan to accomplish that is. While there’s more dirt piled up on the east side of it now, there’s no actual construction activity over there yet. Like I said, the anticipation is killing me.

With the completion of the MKT Bridge repairs, this is the only construction project to complete. Maybe that will move things along faster. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on it and letting you know what I see.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

The MKT Bridge has reopened

This pleasant surprise came out on Thursday evening.

A vital and long-unused bridge in a buzzing Houston neighborhood is set to reopen.

The M-K-T Bridge, located in The Heights near White Oak Bayou, will be accessible to users on Friday, May 27, the Houston Parks Board announced. A key artery for walkers and joggers, the bridge spans over the bayou at I-10 near Studemont Street. Out of use since it was significantly damaged by a fire in August 2020, the bridge reopens after repairs began in March.

This reopening is actually ahead of schedule, as the bridge was set to open this summer, as CultureMap previously reported. It provides a pivotal outlet for those who use the M-K-T Trail, which connects The Heights to Sawyer Yards and the Washington Avenue Corridor area.

See here for the background, and here for the Houston Parks Board’s announcement. As you know, I’ve been following the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, which connects up on the west side of the bridge. I have not seen any construction activity myself, but either I haven’t known where to look or it’s been happening when I haven’t been looking. In any event, the bridge is now open, and here’s the press release I got about it on Friday:

Houston Parks Board is excited to announce MKT Bridge is now open to the public!

An essential component of the trail system in the Heights connecting to White Oak Bayou Greenway, MKT Bridge has been fully restored just in time for summer. Working closely with the City of Houston, owner of the bridge, and Harris County Flood Control District, Houston Parks Board worked diligently to repair the bridge after it sustained extensive damage due to a fire in August 2020.

Initial repairs to MKT Bridge began in summer 2021. While conducting this repair work in August 2021, contractors and structural engineers found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment of the bridge’s condition. It was determined further repairs were needed before the bridge could safely reopen, which was disappointing to the community users.

Following expedited approval of the additional design plans from the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District, on site construction to MKT Bridge resumed in March 2022.

The recently completed repair work included adding steel channels and bracing to the timber piling, transferring weight from the bridge to the ground.

Houston Parks Board is thrilled to have this essential connector reopen in time for summer. Thank you for your understanding as we worked as quickly as possible to make MKT Bridge safely accessible once again, and to the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for the partnership in this effort.

That’s from the email, which also has a link to a bunch of photos, from the ribbon-cutting event and from the construction, which I find fascinating because I just never saw any of it while it was happening. Just goes to show me, I guess. I can’t wait to give it a go myself. I’ve also got some more pix from the bike trail construction that I’ll run shortly. For now, hooray! The MKT Bridge is back, and many bicyclists in the area will be delighted. The Leader News, Community Impact, and the Chron have more.

Yes, you can use toll road funds for non-road projects

Who knew?

Surplus revenues from Harris County’s toll road system for years have paid for improvements to nearby roads and infused funds into street rebuilds around the county.

Now, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is about to go off-road. Under a plan unveiled Tuesday, the tolling agency will spend $53 million connecting existing cycling, running and hiking trails and building new ones. The projects, sketched out in a sweeping plan presented to Commissioners Court, aim to reconnect neighborhoods on opposing sides of the county’s tollways and leverage county money with that of management districts and other local agencies aiming to add trails.

“The toll road for a long time has been focused on finishing its system,” Executive Director Roberto Trevino said. “That’s changing to how do we manage it, and provide better mobility and connectivity even if you are not on the toll roads.”

The court approved the plan on a 3-2 vote, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voting against it.

If fully built, the plan envisioned by HCTRA officials is a network of 236 miles of trails, usable by cyclists, runners and others, mostly adjacent to the sprawling county toll road system, primarily the 82-mile Sam Houston Tollway that rings the metro area. Made up of longer “network spine” projects of 5 miles or more, smaller community connectors that link local neighborhoods and targeted projects to build onto existing trails proposed by others, the total cost of all the links could reach $600 million or more and take years to build.

The effect, Trevino said, would be a much more inclusive transportation system.

“We are putting a focus on the areas around the toll road and putting back quality of life,” he said, noting the safety challenges some areas face because of the region’s large roads and the “divisive” discussions about how to integrate bicycle and pedestrian safety without compromising automotive travel.

Actually, we appropriated toll road funds for flood mitigation projects just last year, so we did actually know this. That won’t stop some heads from exploding at the thought of spending this money on (gasp!) BIKE TRAILS, but who cares? It’s legitimate transportation infrastructure, it will help mitigate road traffic a little by giving people safe options for not driving when they just have a short distance to go, and it will absolutely be a boon to quality of life. People use the heck out of the White Oak and Heights bike trails in my neighborhood. A lot of it is leisure travel rather than commuter or task-focused travel, but that’s fine. Quality of life is a big deal, and it’s a big return on the investment. It’s about time we used some of this money for this purpose. Stace has more.

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

The White Oak Bike Trail extension starts to come into focus

When last we visited the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, we were puzzling over what the deal was with whatever they were doing next to the trail itself. I couldn’t tell where it was going or why it was there. A couple of weeks later, from the same view that I normally get looking at it from Studewood to the east, I could see that it was coming along but still couldn’t decipher what it was for.

BikeTrailExtensionWalkingPath

Fortunately, I finally had the time to try to find some alternate perspectives. Starting from the new little parking lot for the Bayou Greenways Park on Studewood just north of I-10, I crossed the bridge over Studewood into the little park, which extends north of the trail just before the MKT Bridge, and walked the park trail along its north end, which gave me a side view of the trail extension instead of just the front-on view I’d been getting. And lo, it all made sense.

BikeTrailExtensionSplitFullPicture

You may need to click on the photo to see it on Flickr so you can zoom in. What you see on the left (the west end) is a connection from whatever that parallel thing is to the bike trail. Here’s a zoomed-in view of it that I took:

BikeTrailExtensionSplit

What that says to me is that the parallel structure is likely an alternate path for walkers, with stairs on the east end leading to a flatter surface, instead of the deeper slope that the bike trail has. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. I can sort of see the stairs taking shape at the other end, though it’s still early for that. I suppose there’s a design document somewhere that can confirm or contradict my hypothesis, but if this isn’t what is happening then I’m really at a loss. I expect this will become more obvious over the next few weeks.

So far all of the construction activity is on the west side of that little culvert from the bayou, which creates a bifurcation in the planned path. While I was using this perspective, I got a picture of the gap between the two halves, so you can see what will need to be bridged:

BikeTrailExtensionChasm

I have no idea what the plan is for that. And given what we’ve just seen here, I may not be able to make sense of it when I do see it, at least at first. I’ll let you know when that happens.

(Still no sign of construction on the MKT Bridge itself. I have no idea what’s going on with that, either. The previously reported estimate for that to be fixed was “late summer”, so we still have almost five months. But they sure are taking their time about it.)

Ashby Highrise 2.0

It’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Did you miss me?

Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.

Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.

Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.

[…]

When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.

The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.

But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.

Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city’s legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.

The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.

The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.

See here for all my previous blogging in this epic saga. The photo I’m using in this post, which I’ve used many times before, is of a sign that parodied the iconic and ubiquitous “Stop Ashby Highrise” signs from the height of that controversy. I took that picture in 2007, to give you some idea of the time span. As far as I can tell, the old stopashbyhighrise.org domain is kaput; there’s still a Facebook group whose last post was in 2013, and a #StopAshbyHighrise hashtag, which gave me a chuckle when I clicked on it:

Well, Big Tex Storage is mostly built now, so maybe that’s a positive omen for The Langley, which will always be on the Ashby site as far as I’m concerned. Will the neighborhood residents rise up against it? Will I be forced to undertake another decade-long blogging quest to document it? Tune in and find out. CultureMap has more.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.