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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.

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.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

[…]

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.

What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

Typically, $750 million is the total cost for a major highway project, one that would take years to spend that kind of money. In the case of TxDOT’s plans for a mammoth rebuild of Interstate 45 and the downtown freeway grid, however, that is just the estimated cost increase so far.

Officials last week confirmed new estimates showing an increase of $477.7 million in planned work, while another $274 million in added costs are likely for projects delayed by the roadblocks the project has faced. Combined, it means rebuilding the aging freeway, which already has divided local leaders and various community groups, likely will cost well more than $9 billion. More than half of those increases would go toward the downtown portions where the intersections and changes are most dramatic.

“The rising costs are unfortunate as delay does not meet anyone’s goals,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

[…]

The latest estimates, part of the four-year plan updated annually by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council show rebuilding key pieces of the freeway around downtown will cost considerably more than previously projected.

Based on the updated estimates, costs are jumping for some of the first segments slated for construction. Rebuilding I-69 between Spur 527 and Texas 288, once expected to cost $260 million, now has a projected price tag of $460.6 million, an increase of 77 percent. The next segment of I-69, from Texas 288 to I-45, increased in price from $260.7 million to $456 million, a hike of 75 percent over original estimates.

Some of the increase simply is baked into updating construction costs as major projects await construction.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said planners typically factor in costs rising about 4 percent annually, meaning the longer they sit on shelves the more expensive the projects become.

The I-45 cost increases are larger than many other projects — the entire rebuild of the Loop 610 and I-69 near The Galleria is set to cost $270.9 million — but increases as projects wait for work to begin are not uncommon.

“We are seeing some due to inflation,” H-GAC manager of project planning and delivery Adam Beckom told transportation policy council officials last week.

Four percent of $9 billion is $360 million, a lot of money but not quite half of the expected increase. That’s not exactly how the math would work here, but the point is simply that it’s more than just inflation. You may recall, as I documented extensively here years ago, the final cost of the I-10 widening west of 610 wound up costing way more than the initial (and extremely sunny) estimates claimed it would. That’s just how these things go, and we just tend to accept the ginormous amounts we spend on them. I doubt anyone’s mind will be changed by these numbers, but there they are anyway.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

Metro officials Thursday settled on the route for a busway along Interstate 10 that they predict will improve transit for urban and suburban travelers, whether they hop on board or not.

The elevated busway planned along the southern side of I-10 between Uptown and downtown will allow park and ride buses and bus rapid transit to avoid freeway traffic between the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and I-10 and Houston’s central business district. Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the route Thursday, keeping the $400 million-plus project on pace for construction starting late next year and buses speeding along it by 2027.

“It takes us a long way in my judgment to having a rapid transportation system that Houston can depend on as it grows in the 21st century,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

As part of Metro’s long-range plan, approved by voters in 2019, the agency expects to build 75 miles of of bus rapid transit — large buses that operate similar to rail, using a separated lane to bypass traffic and stop at stations. Though a major component of the region’s transit plan, the first BRT line in Houston, the Silver Line along Post Oak through Uptown, so far has struggled to attract riders as park and ride service to Uptown and office occupancy in Uptown have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

By 2045, officials expect about 30,000 commuter bus riders and 12,000 rapid transit riders to use the busway daily. A trip from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown would take 19 minutes — less than many peak-time commutes by car or truck take now.

[…]

In addition to setting the route, the plan approved Thursday calls for three new stations along I-10 at Memorial Park, Shepherd-Durham and Studemont. Those stations line up with anticipated demand from nearby neighborhoods and expected improvements to major bus routes as part of the agency’s long-range transit plan, said Amma Cobbinah, a Metro senior transit planner overseeing the project.

Within the central business district, the BRT vehicles will use the existing light rail platforms along Capitol and Rusk. Two other stations, at St. Emmanuel and Franklin at Bagby, will be built for the buses.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have not decided if the BRT along I-10 will be an extension of Silver Line service, or a separate line.

Still unresolved, however, is how buses will transition from the elevated busway along I-10 to Franklin and Bagby. Metro’s preference is to use the existing high occupancy toll lane connector into downtown, but the future of that link is in jeopardy because of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 near and around downtown.

There are some more details in the preview story, which ran on Thursday morning before the Metro board meeting, including the “recommended alignment” document and an embed of this video, which shows the proposed route; there is one option in there, which depends on the existing HOT lanes that may be taken out by the I-45 project.

I’ve discussed this project, which was part of the 2019 Metro Next plan, a couple of times. The idea of a Memorial Park stop has come up before, and I think having it in this project makes a lot of sense. And though the Chron story doesn’t mention it, this Inner Katy route has been an implicit part of the plan to have the Texas Central terminal at or near the Northwest Transit Terminal.

As someone who lives about a mile from the future Studewood station, I very much approve of this plan. I will note that to really make this effective, some work will need to be done on the sidewalks on Studemont/Studewood, both north from I-10 into the Heights and south towards Washington Avenue. There are a couple of large residential properties being built on the west side of Studemont, plus whatever is to come on the old Party Boy site, and this station will be close to an entry point to the White Oak bike trail, for further connectivity and easy access to the Sawyer Heights developments, which includes another large new apartment building. The potential is very much there for a lot of people to use this, if it’s easy and safe to walk or bike to it. I’ll never drive to the Galleria again if they do this right. Construction is set to start later this year, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing it all take shape.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

Harris County will pause its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over the proposed Interstate 45 widening in hopes that it leads to a consensus that has eluded them for more than four years.

The pause, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court at a special meeting Monday, instructs County Attorney Christian Menefee to seek a stay on the lawsuit in federal court as he negotiates with TxDOT to resolve differences between the changes the county seeks to the project and the current plan.

The project, estimated to cost at least $9 billion, would rebuild and widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including the freeway’s interchanges with Interstate 69, Interstate 10 and Loop 610 in Independence Heights.

The stay and pause, officials said, would give an opening to officials to work out details of the planned freeway widening without backing off their opposition to what TxDOT is proposing.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Menefee said he will ask the court for a stay of 30 days, and then potentially extend that for an additional 30 days if the discussions are “fruitful.”

“The pause is a show of good faith by the county to remind TxDOT that we’re in this to find solutions and address community concerns,” Menefee said in a statement. “We expect TxDOT to work alongside us to achieve the same. If that does not happen, the county will resume the suit and we’ll let the courts decide.”

[…]

Skepticism remains high among project opponents that TxDOT can be a willing participant. Jeff Peters, a member of the Stop TxDOT I-45, said backers consistently have bullied people into accepting their design with the threat of doing nothing if they do not get their way. He urged the county to proceed with the lawsuit, rather than relent.

“This is a critical piece of leverage that can bring TxDOT to the bargaining table,” Peters told Commissioners Court before it approved the pause.

Highway officials, however, have said since March that the federal review and lawsuit leave them no choice but to stop talking. At an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said the pause by the Federal Highway Administration and county lawsuit were more of an obstacle to open dialogue because they impede TxDOT from designing alternatives.

“We can’t spend money to design and we can’t spend money to do those things,” Ryan said at the forum, which drew criticism because it was for paying guests only at an event sponsored by various engineering, construction and planning firms.

See here for the background. As noted recently, there are other obstacles to the project, though perhaps if Harris County and TxDOT can settle their differences, those can be handled as well. I’m fine with this approach – if there’s a path to meeting the needs of the many people and groups that have been objecting to the design of this project, then sure, let’s go for it – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. There’s already been a lot of time for talk, and I don’t know how much latitude TxDOT has to give. There’s some risk here for Harris County as well, as the opponents of this project aren’t likely to be happy with half a loaf. But hey, lawsuits are time- and resource-intensive, and they often end in settlements anyway, so why not give this a try. You never know.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

Interstate 45 still is on a road to rebuild after Texas transportation officials on Tuesday kept the controversial project in the state’s 10-year construction plans, but warned that failing to get federal highway officials to remove their hold on it could halt the plan altogether later this year.

The Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday approved the state’s 2022-2031 unified transportation program, keeping the I-45 project listed in it. The unified program is the guidepost for freeway construction in Texas, as only projects included can receive state funding.

That approval, however, is contingent on settling a dispute between the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Federal officials told TxDOT in March to stop work on the project until concerns related to its impacts on minority and low-income communities and how TxDOT addressed those effects is completed.

“It is not the local support that’s the problem. It’s Washington, D.C., (that) is the problem, impeding our ability to go forward with this project,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We will give FHWA 90 days and we will come back and revisit this,” Bugg said. “After the 90 days have expired we will discuss what to do with the project.”

He said if the issues have not made progress, the commission could start the process of removing the project from the long-term plan. TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said removing the project would require another 60-day public comment process.

Williams said discussions with federal officials are constructive and continuing, but he would not speculate whether it is practical or possible for federal officials to operate on the commission’s timeline.

[…]

As part of the UTP public comment process, TxDOT received 12,700 comments, 8,170 of them related to the I-45 project. The response, which included an online poll, was a record-breaking amount of public engagement for a TxDOT program, officials said.

Of those comments related to I-45, TxDOT said 5,529 — around two-thirds — supported keeping the funding in place.

Critics, however, questioned the process TxDOT used to solicit comments. The online poll, opponents said, set up a “take it or leave it” choice of either TxDOT’s vision or nothing at all.

“It is your responsibility as stewards of taxpayer dollars to engage the public in productive ways and you have failed to do so,” said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINKHouston.

See here, here, and here for some background; the version of this story from before the meeting is here. I might suggest that the issue here is not with the FHWA and its timelines, but if we had agreement on that point we probably wouldn’t be here right now. Not much else to say here, we’ll see where we’re at after we catch up with that can we just kicked.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

Supporters of state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston northward trekked to Austin on Thursday to keep the imperiled project on pace, fearing the region could be stuck with an aging freeway and no sign of relief.

Urging state officials to stay committed to the project — and, most importantly, pay for it — supporters said it is up to highway officials to deliver the benefits they say will help heal issues of racial and income inequity raised by opponents.

[…]

Fifteen years in the planning, the project to rebuild I-45 around the central business district and north to Beltway 8 near George Bush Intercontinental Airport is estimated to cost $9 billion but can start construction only if the Texas Department of Transportation keeps its money on the project. Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who oversee TxDOT’s spending, are considering removing all phases of the project from the state’s 10-year plan, essentially shelving it until Houston-area leaders and highway planners can come to agreement.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners will hold a public comment session Monday and accept input via mail, phone, email and online forms until Aug. 9. The commission is scheduled at its Aug. 31 meeting to decide whether to remove the project from the annually updated 10-year plan. If removed, the rebuild would need to be reinserted into the plan, allowing TxDOT to redirect the money to other highway expansions or rebuilds in the meantime. Most of the money would have to remain in TxDOT’s Houston region that covers Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller counties.

Yes, that is the infamous I-45 survey. You still have time to fill it out.

Critics said the pause gives officials ample time to rethink the design but that a last-ditch online survey with a yes-or-no vote is not a way to come to agreement.

“Honestly, we are on the same team and we want the same things for all of the communities,” said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Stop TxDOT I-45 group opposed to the project. “We want economic development, we want to reduce flooding, we want safety, people to be able to move through the region freely. This is not the answer.”

Cook was one of two speakers Thursday among about a dozen opposed to the project. Transportation officials limited public comment to one hour as part of their meeting.

A larger turnout of opponents is expected for the full public hearing Monday. Stop TxDOT I-45 has continued walking door to door in affected communities where hundreds of homes and businesses could be impacted, as community business groups mounted an aggressive online campaign in support of TxDOT.

“You can find a way to connect this project with something someone cares about,” said Ben Peters, a Stop I-45 volunteer, as he walked in Fifth Ward on Saturday.

Opponents, Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have said that rather than widen the freeway, more of it should be converted to accelerate Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, replacing two managed lanes with, perhaps, a transit-only lane and dedicated stations along the freeway.

TxDOT, while incorporating some changes from more than 300 public meetings over the past decade, has not wavered from the managed lanes plan, saying some of the suggested changes are too significant and would set the design process back years. Regional officials repeatedly approved those designs, TxDOT leadership noted.

“I-45 is established as one of the most pressing candidates in our region for TxDOT to make improvements to address safety, traffic delays and potential emergency evacuations,” said Craig Raborn, director of transportation services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal transportation money in the region.

H-GACs Transportation Policy Council supports the project but has encouraged critics and TxDOT to keep addressing differences. The policy council’s chairman, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, urged his county leadership this week to write a letter in support of the project.

I kind of have a hard time believing that TxDOT would pull the money from this project – which would not kill it but would move it to the back of the line while the current funds were used on other projects – but I can imagine them getting a little antsy. We’ll know soon enough.

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 effect on Metro

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Downtown kiosks

I’m not sure yet how I feel about this.

City Council on Wednesday will consider a plan to install up to 125 interactive digital kiosks around the city, a proposal that has drawn support from city officials who tout the advertising revenue benefits and opposition from some who equate the kiosks to sidewalk billboards.

If approved by council, the city would have Ohio-based IKE Smart City LLC install at least 75 kiosks within the next three years, focusing on commercial areas with heavy pedestrian traffic. The kiosks, which are designed to resemble massive smart phones, would display dining, transit, event and lodging options and provide free Wi-fi and 911 access, among other features.

The city would receive 42 percent of the revenue generated from digital advertisements displayed on the kiosks, providing an estimated $35 to $50 million over the course of the 12-year contract, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development. Under the agreement, IKE Smart City would guarantee a minimum payment to the city of $11 to $16 million over the 12 years, depending on the number of kiosks installed.

City officials would have the option to extend the contract for another 10 years, in two five-year increments, if IKE Smart City meets certain performance goals. The company would pay for installation of the kiosks without using any public dollars.

Opponents of the kiosk proposal include Scenic Houston, a nonprofit that helped push for the city’s 1980 sign code that bans any new billboards. In a letter sent Friday to Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, Scenic Houston Executive Director Heather Houston said the board “strongly feels that the digital kiosks constitute digital billboards with a primary purpose to advertise.”

Icken disagreed, arguing Houstonians and tourists would find the kiosks helpful in navigating the city.

“I just don’t think of this as a digital billboard,” Icken said. “I believe they are interactive display screens, much like your iPhone, that allow people to get information.”

The kiosks also would display local job listings, arts and culture options, such as museums and theaters, a list of government buildings and services in the city, and a list of homeless shelters. Advertisements could not include racially derogatory, political or sexually explicit content, nor any ads for tobacco products.

Cooke Kelsey, chair of Scenic Houston’s advocacy committee, said the group also is concerned that business owners would lack the ability to prevent kiosks from being placed on sidewalks in front of their establishments.

Additionally, Kelsey argued the kiosks would defy the purpose of the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which he said generally is supposed to be used for traffic-related street signage, such as stop signs.

“That’s what a right-of-way or easement is, an understanding that they use it for those types of purposes,” Kelsey said. “So, putting an 800-pound smartphone in front of your front door, even if it’s a map, that’s stretching it. If they’re starting to broadcast messages that have nothing to do with traffic, you’ve gone way outside of that.”

The embedded image is of one of these things in San Antonio, from a Scenic Houston action page to email your opposition to City Council. I get the concerns, especially about sidewalk space, and I agree that business owners should have a say in whether one of them is on their sidewalk. There are already colorful direction-oriented signs around downtown, which these would either supplement or supplant. I guess this would feel like less of a big deal if our bus stops had advertising on them, as they do in many other big cities. Honestly, my reaction is a shrug, perhaps because I just don’t see these things on the same level of ugliness as billboards. Maybe I’ll change my mind later, I don’t know. CM Sallie Alcorn is on record in the story as being opposed, while CM Ed Pollard is in favor. I predict someone will tag this, and then we’ll see what the rest of Council thinks. What’s your opinion? Campos, who does not like them, has more.

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

A new downtown park

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TxDOT plows ahead with I-45

What did we expect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating on the street

This makes a lot of sense.

Main Street bar owners are expected to take to the streets now that the city has given them the OK.

City Council on Wednesday approved, after some delay, plans for the More Space Main Street program which would close the road to automobiles and allow bars and restaurants to create outdoor seating spaces in the street.

If all goes well, revelers willing to head out could celebrate some Christmas cheer on the road.

“I’m very hopeful we could be up and running for the holiday season,” said Scott Repass, owner of Little Dipper, a bar along Main, and a champion of the proposal to allow outdoor spaces.

The program, which city officials approved as a pilot until March 2022, includes possibly closing Main downtown from Commerce to Rusk, depending on which businesses seek to participate. Rules and regulations for the areas bars and restaurants could carve out on the street are being developed by officials across several city departments, including planning, public works, police, fire and the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Barriers would be placed to close Main Street off to traffic, while allowing cross streets to continue for vehicle use.

[…]

Aimed at helping the bars and restaurants weather the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan to close Main builds on the More Space program Houston’s planning department created to allow restaurants to use their parking lots to provide al fresco dining.

Main Street establishments do not have parking spaces, so business owners and the Houston Downtown Management District pushed to use the street.

“We had about 15 businesses that expressed a strong interest in taking part as soon as they are able,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing for the downtown district.

See here for more about the dining-in-parking-lots plan. Main Street already has limited vehicular traffic – it’s one lane each way, you can’t make left turns, and it’s already got a couple of blocks closed off at Main Street Square. Houston can support some form of outdoor dining pretty much all year – you need shade in the summer, and portable heaters at times in the winter, but it’s almost never too cold to be outside, and that’s the key. We’re doing this now out of COVID necessity, but we should have done this a long time ago because it’s a good idea. The Press has more.

Can downtown survive COVID-19?

So depressing to read.

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

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

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

But that was all so 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rooftop park at the downtown post office

Very cool.

Photo by Houston In Pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who gets displaced by I-45?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye, Greenlink

Another version of Metro’s downtown trolley system is shut down due to coronavirus, and likely won’t come back, at least not in that format.

Downtown Houston’s free shuttle may have hauled its last passenger, a victim of the central district’s stop-and-go traffic, as well as changes in how residents and visitors move around town.

GreenLink, shuttles that pick up and drop off at Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops along various streets in the downtown district, stopped March 23 as transit officials and the downtown district reduced service because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The timing could accelerate what already was a planned discontinuation of the service on May 31, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District, which owned the shuttles that started circling the city’s center in mid-2012, operated by Metro with funding from the downtown district.

Eury said given the weeks of isolation orders likely ahead, it is possible GreenLink shuttles never get a green light ever again, at least in their present form.

[…]

Metro on March 24 agreed to buy the seven buses used on the route for $264,439, their estimated value due to depreciation.

Officials said it is possible they will not go far, however. Metro board member Jim Robinson said the transit agency is exploring quick routes across the central business district to connect workers on the eastern side to the park and ride service largely focused on the west side.

“I’ve had a number of people who live in northern or western park and ride areas tell me they would use the service if they didn’t have to walk from the west side of the (central business district) to the east side in Houston weather,” Robinson said.

Robinson said a decision will come within a comprehensive look at the entire commuter bus system, and how it can serve jobs spreading across the downtown area and into EaDo and Midtown.

That makes sense. The Greenlink buses were low-capacity to begin with, and to some extent they were an alternative to walking, which when downtown streets were jammed was often at least as quick a way to go. Uber and Lyft also competed with Greenlink. I worked two different stints downtown, for two years in the mid-90s when the previous trolley system was in place, and for four years in the 2010s with GreenLink. I never used either service, mostly because I’m a fast and impatient walker who doesn’t mind a little recreational jaywalking. In my second time downtown, I made use of B-Cycle when I had to take a trip that was just a bit too far to walk. As Metro redesigned its local bus system a few years ago, it makes sense to rethink what GreenLink is about, and to ensure that it’s providing the kind of rides that most people really need. After we’re all able to get out of the house and use it again, of course.

City responds to busking lawsuit

And I’m not thrilled with it.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit Friday that the city is beholden to keeping its streets and sidewalks safe, and that striking down the decades-old ordinance limiting where buskers — musicians who play in public places — can set up shop is not in its best interest. The law became the target of a lawsuit in January when Houston musician Anthony Barilla contended it violates the First Amendment.

While busking — the performing of music in public places — is mostly unrestricted in cities, such as Seattle, New York City, lawyers argue Houston is not that kind of town.

“Houstonians have a noted tendency to congregate in areas indoors, or even underground, to ‘avoid the heat of the summer, traffic, and inclement weather,’” the motion states.

Another worry to Houston is that loosening the ordinance would condone “unregulated competitors, obstructions of access, or objectionable noise.”

[…]

The city’s lengthy response to Barilla’s lawsuit goes as far to suggest how he could make money outside the Theater District — without soliciting tips, such as encouraginh pedestrians to “subscribe to his podcast or YouTube channel, asking them to purchase his music online, or asking them to attend upcoming concerts for which he will be compensated.”

See here for the background. The bit about “obstructions of access, or objectionable noise” I can understand, though surely those could be addressed by less-restrictive means. The rest, I don’t quite get what point the city’s attorneys are trying to make. For that matter, I don’t quite understand the principle that is being defended by the city here. What is the harm the city is trying to mitigate? I really don’t see how allowing street musicians to set up in non-downtown locations is going to cause chaos. Let’s please work towards a settlement and an amendment of that 1991 ordinance. We have better things to do than fight this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better way to do I-45

From Michael Skelley on Facebook:

Here’s a new vision for I-45.
-saves money
-no displacement in low income areas
-no destruction of White Oak Bayou
-prevents TxDOT vandalization of EaDo
-downtown amenities if we want to fund those ourselves

This vision addresses the fundamental problem with this project – we should not be sending thru traffic through the heart of Houston, especially at the expense of low income communities, our kids’ health, and our bayous.

Almost half the traffic on I-45 is not going downtown. Let’s use Beltway 8 and 610 for thru traffic.

Please let us know what you think!

I like this a lot. I’d need to see some numbers, but I’m willing to bet there’s a lot of spare capacity on the east sides of Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As someone noted in the comments on this post, the 45-to-610-to-45 route is only about five miles longer than the 45-all-the-way route, and once you factor in the potential time savings from traffic that flows better, it would probably be no slower than the average trip along 45 is now. This would cost a lot less because there would be a lot less actual construction, and it would be less disruptive because the main construction needed would be at the two interchanges between 45 and 610, rather than the enormous integrations of I-45 into US59 and I-10 that are being proposed today. It would also allow the reclamation of a bunch of downtown real estate now being taken up by the existing I-45 – no more Pierce Elevated, as the current plan allows, but also no more gulf between the Heights and the Near Northside and Lindale. Much of 59 south of downtown was put below grade during its last major renovation, in response to public demand. This makes so much sense I’m kind of surprised no one had proposed it before now. I hope it’s not too late to make TxDOT consider it. What do you think?

Metro’s robot security guards

Not a character from a dystopian action movie, I promise.

Robot security guards are coming to a Houston-area transit center, park and ride lot and rail station in the coming months, after the Metropolitan Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 test of the techno-police Thursday.

“They have been shown to be deterrents,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.

Wendler said Metro’s agreement with Knightscope is a one-year test, from which it could expand beyond the three locations. Citing the need to provide more security to petty crimes without stretching police resources, officials sought information on the robotic rangers.

Agency officials, in consultation with the company, will decide which parking lots, transit centers and rail stops get a robot in the first year, Wendler said.

Security sentinels are becoming a familiar sight in shopping malls and some developments. In downtown Houston, a robot patrols the grounds of Allen Center.

Though many users nationally have said they are a cost-effective crime deterrent, the devices have raised alarms with some privacy concerns about a robot roaming public spaces recording everything and broadcasting back to private and public entities. Fears of hacking also have been raised.

Metro officials are likely to use a K5 robot — a 400-pound, 5’2” bullet-shaped bot that moves at a maximum speed of 3 mph — at a transit center and park and ride lot. Though a sleek R2-D2 does not sound that intimidating, its ability to record video and relay it to police is its real threat to thieves and others.

“What they have seen is people move away from it because they do not want to be videoed,” Wendler said.

If you’re thinking you might have seen one of these things before, you may have. I don’t feel like digging through my archives for this, but there was a big discussion in Houston a bit more than a decade ago about the usefulness of installing a bunch of closed-circuit cameras downtown as a crime deterrent. That was eventually scrapped, partly for cost reasons, partly for privacy reasons, partly for a general lack of evidence that the cameras did serve as deterrents. It’s possible that data is different now – for sure, camera and surveillance technology is a lot more advanced, for better and worse – but even then the one good use case for the closed circuit cameras was in enclosed spaces – parking lots, subway trains, that sort of thing – and that’s more or less what is being proposed here. So we’ll see how they work. I do hope Metro is forthcoming with data about the experience, and I hope they will admit it and move on if they don’t have much effect.

The busking lawsuit

Interesting.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

A Houston accordionist is feeling squeezed by an obscure city law aimed at restricting where musicians can play for tips.

Anthony Barilla, also a composer whose work can be heard on the radio program “This American Life,” lodged the lawsuit in federal court recently in hopes of striking down the decades-old Houston ordinance, contending that it violates the First Amendment.

As the law stands, a performer — regardless of their talent or instrument, be it a guitar, violin or their voice — must have a permit to serenade the streets with any hope of making a buck. And that permit confines them to the Theater District.

Barilla does not consider himself solely a busker, a musician who performs in public places — often with a belly-up hat or an open instrument case to invite a toss of the coin. But he traversed Houston’s permit process in 2018 to see what would happen and to brush up on the accordion.

[…]

For most of the 20th century, musicians were barred from public street performances in Houston. Chronicle archives show that musicians began wooing the city for permits in the 1980s, but nothing serious happened until 1990, when the G-7 Summit was predicted to draw visitors to Houston.

City officials OK’d an experimental program to allow street performers — in the Theater District only. The program, if it worked and were then made permanent, would lure more people downtown, especially during conventions, then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire hoped. According to reports, only five permits were issued during the pilot.

The following year, City Council signed off on the ordinance.

Unlike Houston, some cities do not require permits. Musicians don’t need one to entertain straphangers amid the roar of New York City’s subway system. Busking has been street legal in most areas of Seattle for more than 40 years

“Houston is such a business-friendly town. This is my business,” Barilla said. “You’d think Houston, given our pro-business climate, that we wouldn’t be that way. The law is archaic. We haven’t caught up to other world-class cities.”

Let me say up front that I agree with the basic premise of this lawsuit, that the ordinance in question is overly restrictive and at the very least needs an overhaul. Busking isn’t going to be viable in many parts of the city, but there’s no reason to restrict it to the Theater District. Let people busk, as long as they’re not blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic, and as long as they’re not disturbing the peace. It would be wise for the city to offer a settlement and fix this law.