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B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

Three I-45 updates

From The Highwayman:

Texas Transportation Commission members on Thursday approved a $3.6 million contract with Main Lane Industries, based in Houston, to replace the entrance ramp from Allen Parkway to southbound I-45. The ramp, which whips drivers through a steep curve before they merge into the fast lane of the southbound freeway, is a well-known bottleneck. Many drivers consider it hazardous.

“It is a confusing entrance and doesn’t work very well,” Jeff Weatherford, Houston’s deputy public works director, said in January.

The project shifts the entrance to the right lanes of southbound I-45 and creates a dedicated lane from Allen Parkway to prevent traffic from backing up. Work is set to begin on the new ramp later this year, and numerous closings and changes to freeway access are planned as work proceeds. The exit ramp from I-45 southbound to Dallas and Pierce could also close. As of earlier this month, the details of the closings were still being worked out.

See here for the background. This work will be done in conjunction with the other work being done on Allen Parkway. As someone who takes the Dallas/Pierce exit to get to work, I’m a little leery of that penultimate sentence. I hope there’s a “temporarily” in there somewhere.

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition on Facebook:

There was a meeting Monday 8/24 & TxDOT showed some updates! This is a work in progress BUT it appears that TxDOT may be listening! NONE OF THESE CHANGES ARE COMPLETE! However, there are indications that TxDOT is listening to the citizens and several changes are planned. Here is a summary of some of the changes, all for Segment 2 (between North of I-10 & South of 610)

1. Houston Ave is back to being 2 way! TxDOT is proposing a ‘roundabout’ (similar to the one at Washington Ave & Westcott). (see drawing)

2. TxDOT has added back the Southbound entrance to I-45 at Houston Ave (TxDOT had deleted it at the April meeting). (see drawing)

3. TxDOT has added an U-Turn lane from the feeder street Southbound to Northbound just before N. Main. (see drawing)

4. TxDOT has removed the proposed connection / roadway from Houston Ave to North Street nearest to I-45.

5. TxDOT has added back the Northbound entrance to I-45 from Quitman.

6. TxDOT WILL NOW provide the crossbeams on the section of I-45 that will be below grade. This is GREAT! Now we just need the ‘slab’ that goes on top of the crossbeams. If we can convince TxDOT to include that, it will be much easier to create green space in this area.

7. TxDOT will create a service road on the East side of I-45 from Quitman to N. Main.

8. The North St. bridge might NOT be replaced. TxDOT does not know yet if there is sufficient clearance for a vehicular bridge. If not a vehicular bridge, then a pedestrian/bike bridge will replace it the existing bridge.

9. Traffic from the Southbound exit from I-45 near 610 was exiting at Link Rd – TxDOT has changed that to Cavalcade exit instead.

The changes, which will generally be welcomed by folks in my neighborhood, have not yet been posted to the TxDOT website, but they will be. The comments on the post indicate there were notes on the other segments of this proposed project, so if you’re affected by it you might want to keep an eye out on the webpage, or find someone who attended that meeting.

And finally, a Chron story about the potential effects of I-45 construction in downtown.

The owner of a 375-unit upscale multifamily complex stands to have a third of its apartments taken for the project. And a nearly century-old building that just this week received a designation from city preservation officials as a protected historic landmark appears to be around the edge of the project’s proposed right of way.

Unveiled by the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this year, the freeway project proposes to add managed lanes to Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway in north Houston to U.S. 59 south of downtown. Additionally, plans call for removing the Pierce Elevated and realigning I-45 to be parallel to U.S. 59 east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. It is expected to cost more than $6 billion and take years to complete.

Some freeway segments have been designed as depressed roadways with local street traffic flowing above them. Plans show green space above the freeways east of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets.

TxDOT is still in the analysis and environmental impact assessment phases of the project and its plans are subject to change. Spokesman Danny Perez said it would not begin acquiring property until TxDOT had “officially determined the recommended alternative, completed the environmental impact review and have a record of decision.”

“We are working toward getting environmental clearance in 2017,” Perez said in an email. “The date of clearance would be the earliest we could start acquiring right of way.”

[…]

David Denenburg recently bought the historic red brick building, a sliver of which is behind the red line on the map, and he’s already started restoring the five-story structure at the corner of Preston and St. Emanuel.

David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, said federal and state projects take precedence over local historic designations.

“We feel confident we can work around a matter of a few feet to save one of Houston’s historic buildings still standing,” said Denenburg, who owns the property with other investors.

Another block within the proposed right of way contains a large apartment building, one of three structures that make up the Lofts at the Ballpark complex.

Stacy Hunt of Greystar, which manages the property, said the project appears to be a long way off, but the owner of the complex, a pension fund adviser out of Boston, is aware of the possible repercussions.

“The people we represent are very concerned,” Hunt said.

It’s a big change, though as we have seen there are still a lot of pieces to it that are not yet finalized. The environmental impact assessment is where much of those details will be worked out. I’ll say again, this is something all the Mayoral candidates should have an opinion about, because whatever happens will take place on their watch. What kind of changes, good and bad, do they want to see or are they willing to accept in downtown? We need to know.

So can we call the Metro bus system reimagining a success yet?

If no news is good news, then Metro is swimming in good news, because I haven’t seen much coverage of its new bus system rollout since the opening days. Perhaps all that concern (expressed by one person) about disaster and mass firings was a tad bit overblown. I don’t want to jinx anything, but if there’s a disaster out there in the bus lanes, it’s an awfully under-reported disaster.

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

Just northeast of downtown, in Houston Fifth Ward, it’s difficult to find a fan of the new network.

There are few shaded bus stops here. At the corner of Jensen and Lyons, what appears to be a temporary bus stop sign is attached to a pole on a yellow stand. A rider took cover in the shade of a nearby tree — a shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“They need to do something out here,” said Sherry Green, waiting on the #11 Lyons bus to take her to work in the med center.

The lack of shelters is a problem, according to Joetta Stevenson, of the Fifth Ward Civic Association and the Super-Neighborhood Council. But there is more, she says, that needs to be addressed.

The area depends heavily on public transit and has for generations. “Buses aren’t an amenity, they’re a necessity,” she said. And some of those bus routes by which people would set their watches have changed. “We knew where the buses would take us and now it’s total chaos and confusion. People don’t know and they don’t understand,” Stevenson said.

Outside the community center, seniors whose day revolves around the activities inside, complain that they’ve waited longer for buses for two days. One man said he boarded the bus he always took, but suddenly it took him to somewhere he’d never been before.

The makeover is a change for METRO, and it appears, for a lot of people in Fifth Ward. A METRO app that explains what buses will take you where and when is available, but few seniors at the community center have a smartphone or the interest in using an app.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said the agency met with Fifth Ward community groups earlier this year. He said new bus shelters are in the works for the area — nearly 40 by the end of next year. He sees the shelters as a way to encourage more ridership in Fifth Ward.

In response to the complaints and confusion expressed about the new routes, Lambert said METRO is addressing the issues constantly, refining and correcting to make it work for those who use it.

So two issues – the lack of shelters, and some people not liking the new system and/or not knowing about it beforehand. The lack of shelters isn’t actually related to system reimagining. It’s a longstanding issue that Metro plans to address (as noted above) thanks to the additional sales tax revenue it receives thanks to the 2012 general mobility provision referendum. Perhaps that could be accelerated a bit, but those shelters weren’t there before system reimagining and wouldn’t be there today if the old map were still in place. I guess if you’re doing a story about people being unhappy with Metro you go with what they tell you, but this is a tangent and not actually germane to the issue.

As for people complaining about waiting longer for buses, it’s hard to know what to make of that without knowing any details. How long are we talking, and how long were they used to waiting? Which bus line are we talking about? Maybe there was a problem that day, maybe it was a matter of good or bad luck with timing, maybe it was a perception issue more than anything else, or maybe there used to be more than one line that ran along the street in question and now there’s just one so your odds of getting lucky on the timing have diminished. Perhaps if the reporter doing this story had checked on any of that she could have attempted to answer some of those questions objectively, or at least provided the information I’m talking about so someone else could look it up. Without it, all I can do is speculate.

I don’t want to minimize the confusion issue. If you’re not on the Internet, I expect the change would be especially confusing, since you wouldn’t have been easily able to try and figure it out beforehand. I don’t know how much engagement Metro had in the Fifth Ward – one meeting? more than one? – but it would be a good idea to schedule a few more, to make sure everyone now understand how the new system works. We always knew this was going to be hard. The fact that things seem to be going well overall doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t get anyone off the hook for fixing the problems that remain. This is fixable, and I do believe that the people in the Fifth Ward and elsewhere will find that the system overall is better and more useful to them. But we do have to get over the initial bumps first.

That’s it for negative stories that I’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, since the Fifth Ward is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and since there have been questions about how Metro’s service will change in areas like that that are transit-dependent but not heavily populated, I checked a couple of the African-American news sites to see if they had anything my Google searching might not have picked up. Both the Defender and the Sun Times had Day One stories about the unveiling of the new network, but nothing after that that I could see. Make of that what you will. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen anything about the often-controversial flex zones, either. Again, maybe there’s stuff happening that isn’t being reported, but I can’t know what I can’t find.

Other stories: Kyle Shelton rode the bus on Day One with his one-year-old, and came away impressed.

We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.

I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.

We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.

Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.

As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.

We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.

In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.

The 56 runs along Montrose/Studemont/Studewood, which makes it the closest bus route to my house. I have to say, I’ve seen a bunch of these buses go by as I’ve been going about my business. Reading this account made me realize that my best bet for getting to the Art Car Parade next year is likely going to be hopping one of these buses. The possibilities here are definitely intriguing.

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

I am a daily rider and I happened to benefit from the irrational inefficiency of the old system. Two different and relatively frequent buses passed by my house on the way to Downtown. In the new system, only one relatively frequent bus serves my street. Wasted resources like the doubled-up bus lines by my house were distributed to a grid that brings high-frequency lines to our multiple job centers and densely populated areas. I am willing to give up a little service to my street if the whole system works better for me.

The morning of my first ride I experienced some confusion. The bus blew by me as I tried to find a stop on a long, previously unserved stretch by my kids’ school. (Note to METRO: Please put a stop for the 44 at Houston Avenue and Bayland.) It was a minor inconvenience. I waited in a shady spot, the next bus arrived in about 15 minutes, and I transferred to the train at the Downtown Transit Center.

At a table of friendly if harried METRO representatives, I picked up a copy of the new METRO system maps. Designed by Asakura Robinson, METRO, and Traffic Engineers Inc., the new maps are a huge improvement. One bus rider claimed that the old maps were deliberately designed to confound you. Living carless in Houston can be so alienating that you start to believe that METRO’s failures are a nefarious plot. I never looked at the old maps. Taking the bus was a form of mysticism for me. You relied on your intuition. The new maps are so clear they are a revelation. Houston almost makes sense.

The old bus lines were like coils that had been pulled out and stomped on. The ends spiraled around neighborhoods and the middles jogged back and forth across the street grids. Having every bus converge Downtown doesn’t make sense when our city is a multi-nodal conurbation, as Rice School of Architecture professor Albert Pope puts it. Why should I have to travel Downtown from the Heights to get to Uptown?

The new maps are beautiful to behold because the designers had a far more rational and orthogonal set of lines to work with. The Frequent Network map is the piece de resistance. Job centers, parks, freeways, and bayous are shown with the right line weights and opacities at a legible scale. You see our key assets with transit links in the foreground — a view I much prefer to the decontextualized spiderweb of freeways normally used to represent Houston. (The clarity of the map also reveals the service gaps on the east side.)

The Park & Ride, Express, and Key Local Routes map is also gorgeous. Finally, you can see that we already have a commuter system to build on. This new map would have been helpful when I rode the 292 from Missouri City to Rice University for a year, and when I figured out how to get to Galveston by bus.

The 44 is an alternate option for me to get home from work – the 30 would drop me closest to home, but the 44 would do in a pinch. Reading Raj’s story made me look again at the very useful interactive service map and realize that if I wait at Capitol and Smith for a bus going home, I’d actually have three options – the 30, the 44, and the 85 down Washington, connecting to the 56. Given that the 30 is the least frequent of these, that makes my odds of a reasonably short bus trip home on the days when I don’t have the car after work (I carpool with Tiffany, and she sometimes needs to make other trips before going home) are quite a bit better than I thought, and better now than they were before reimagining. Not too shabby there. Oh, and the rest of the article is a really nice story about a rider Mankad met on the way home. Do be sure to read it.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll keep an eye on this in case it falls apart tomorrow. Have you tried the new bus system yet? If so, what do you think?

Downtown post office has a buyer

Redevelopment, here we come.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Lovett Commercial, a Houston-based developer of neighborhood shopping centers and urban redevelopments, is under contract to buy the downtown post office property and potentially turn it into an urban complex of shops, offices, housing and perhaps a hotel.

“It’s extremely rare to find a 16& acre parcel in any major U.S. downtown,” the company said Monday in a statement emailed to the Chronicle by vice president Burdette Huffman.

Conceptual plans are still being devised, but the company said it expects “to attract multiple uses such as retail, creative office, residential and/or a boutique hotel. Tenants that we have visited with are extremely excited about the project, its location and the possibilities.”

Lovett is also exploring ways to reuse portions of the site’s existing buildings, which sit on the northwestern edge of downtown, just north of Buffalo Bayou and across from the Theater District.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, was pleased to hear of the company’s plans.

“I think Frank Liu is a real visionary,” Olson said of Lovett’s president, who also develops urban housing. “I think he’s willing to think outside the box.”

She said the plans are in line with the type of mixed-use development the partnership recommended more than a decade ago in a comprehensive master plan for the bayou.

Olson recalled several years ago during a bayou-related focus group when multiple prominent developers called the downtown post office property “the key site for development along the bayou.”

See here, here, and here for an abridged history of this site. It has always seemed to be destined for some form of mixed-use development, with a bit of speculation about it as a transit hub thrown in for flair. There’s not a whole lot immediately around it, so it will be interesting to see if this project spawns other development, or if this project is executed as something that is intended to be a stand-alone destination. What would you like to see in this space?

TOP calls for changes in construction incentives

From Prime Property:

Members of the Texas Organizing Project stood with signs across from a 40-story building under construction at Preston and Milam just off the park on downtown’s north side.

The group was hoping to draw attention to the Downtown Living Initiative, a program that offers $15,000 per unit in tax rebates to developers building new housing units in the city center.

Many of the developers receiving the incentive are building projects with high-end amenities and charging rents well above $2,000 per month.

Only wealthy people can afford to live in these units, “furthering economic segregation of our city,” said Tiffany Hogue, a spokeswoman for TOP, an advocacy group that promotes social and economic equality for low-income and working class Texans.

[…]

The city’s program, which could result in up to $75 million in subsidies, is meant to lessen the hurdles to developing downtown, chiefly high land costs and the complexity of construction.

The group hopes Houston’s next mayor hold developers to higher standards.

“Our mayor should hold private multi-million dollar developers accountable to real standards if they want our tax dollars, standards like creating affordable housing, generating good, sustainable jobs for Houston families, and investing in neighborhoods that need it most,” TOP leader Bishop David Pittman said in a statement.

See here for some background. I’m not averse to the arguments for encouraging downtown residential development. Downtown is a better place than it was 20 years ago, and its improvement has been a key in the renaissance of Midtown and EaDo and other areas nearby. All that said, this is a lot of money being used to subsidize high-end development, which is exactly the sort of thing that ought to be able to stand on its own. If the city were reaping a full economic benefit from this that would be one thing, but in a revenue cap world, the marginal benefit of another high-end high-rise are limited. We need to pay attention to making Houston affordable again. As I’ve said many times over the past few months, we need to know how the Mayoral candidates feel about this.

I got those reverse commuting blues

The Woodlands is growing as en employment center, which means it is also seeing a lot more traffic in what used to be the reverse commute direction.

There is no longer a simple drive to this onetime bedroom community, which has turned into an economic powerhouse and upended the flow of traffic in the process. These days, it can be nasty in both directions during rush hour, with just as many people driving to The Woodlands for work as residents leaving for jobs in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The movement is unique in the eight-county Houston region, where commuters mostly have followed the same paths from the suburbs into the city for decades. The rapidly growing ranks of reverse commuters have created new challenges for those responsible for keeping the area out of gridlock.

“I-45 North is congested in both directions every morning and afternoon,” said Thomas Gray, chief transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “It’s because there are so many jobs in The Woodlands now, and people can’t or don’t want to move for them.”

[…]

Houston Transtar data shows the 21-mile stretch from the northern edge of The Woodlands to Beltway 8 takes about 34 minutes on average at 6 p.m. – up from 21 minutes just four years ago.

That’s in part because of road construction south of The Woodlands. But it’s also because there are more vehicles using I-45 than it was designed to handle.

For example, the stretch between Rayford Road and Woodlands Parkway is carrying 253,000 cars a day, which is 18 percent over capacity, officials said. The Texas Department of Transportation expects some 390,000 vehicles a day to be passing through that stretch by 2030.

Some people also worry about increased traffic within The Woodlands, with several high-rises sprouting in the town’s center, giving it a look that’s similar to Houston’s Galleria, a place where traffic routinely backs up throughout the day.

“There’s just so much volume that congestion starts early,” said Gavin Dillinghman, a scientist who commutes some 40 miles from west Houston to the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands. “You’re not beating anyone by leaving at 6 a.m. anymore. We just leave earlier and earlier, and it’s worse and worse every day.”

One problem is a lack of options for those with the reverse commute, which has existed for decades in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Washington that are ringed by mini-cities.

For Houstonians with jobs in The Woodlands, though, there are no buses going their way, no park-and-ride lots and no high occupancy vehicle, or HOV,lanes for relief. The only alternative is the Hardy Toll Road, which can cut down on drive times but does nothing to reduce the number of cars making the daily trip to and from the suburb.

That could change. The Woodlands is considering introducing bus service for reverse commuters. The township already provides express bus service for residents working downtown and at the Medical Center and Greenway Plaza.

“We’re looking at it very closely,” said Chris LaRue, transit program manager for The Woodlands. “The questions are, what’s going to make it viable and how soon should we do it?”

Three things:

1. Most of this is happening north of Beltway 8, where I-45 is six lanes wide – this is the portion of the freeway that has been improved by TxDOT already. There’s also three lanes’ worth of the Hardy Toll Road that can get you to the Woodlands. It’s not a lack of road capacity that’s a problem here, is what I’m saying. When TxDOT does whatever it’s going to do to I-45 between the Beltway and downtown, it will only get worse, just as I-10 inside the Loop got congested after it was widened out west.

2. It’s good to hear that the Woodlands is considering bus service from Houston into their township. There’s clearly a need for it. I would hope that they work with Metro on this, mostly to ensure there aren’t any egregious gaps where there should be overlaps. Ideally, they will work to integrate the two to extend the reach of their own service, and possibly save themselves some money on facilities. I’m thinking they should aim to have at least a few stations for their service at Metro transit centers, and provide a subsidy for for their riders to take a Metro bus or rail line to get there.

3. Ultimately, the only real solution here is going to be to get fewer cars to use the road. As we should surely have learned by now, adding highway capacity doesn’t solve highway traffic problems, and does a lot to exacerbate traffic problems on surface streets. More transit, more carpooling, more people living close enough to work to be able to walk or bike – all these things need to be in the mix. The idea that Something Must Be Done to enable you as a single-occupancy-vehicle-driver to get to work faster needs to be put to rest, because at some point that just ain’t gonna be possible any more. The sooner we all accept that, the better off we’ll all be.

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

[…]

6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

Let’s wait for a normal week before we judge ridership numbers

From The Highwayman:

HoustonMetro

Two new light rail lines have gotten off to slow start, according to early ridership figures from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, but officials and riders still hope the Green and Purple Line will meet expectations.

The two lines, connecting downtown with the East End along Harrisburg and with the Third Ward and southeast Houston neighborhoods along Scott, Wheeler and Martin Luther King, opened May 23.

With May 25 a holiday and May 26 commutes and jobs affected by Houston area flooding, officials didn’t have a normal commuting day until May 27. This provided the first opportunity for officials to gauge typical demand on a day when businesses are open and people are commuting for jobs, shopping and appointments.

For May 27-29, the ridership averages failed to meet expectations, Metro officials confirmed. According to early figures, there were an average of 4,600 boardings per day along the Green and Purple lines as well as the downtown area where the two routes share tracks. The three stations along Harrisburg for the Green Line combined averaged 861 boardings each day.

Ten of the Red Line stations each have more average daily boardings than the three shared downtown stations for the Green and Purple lines.

Prior to the lines opening, officials projected about 5,900 daily boardings, with many more riders flocking to the lines once the remainder of the Green Line past Altic opens next year, adding stations at 67th Street and the Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Officials said a number of factors contributed to the less-than-expected use.

“Heavy rain throughout the week combined with the absence of classes at Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, along with the absence of the highest ridership station on the Green Line, Magnolia Park Transit Center, had a dampening effect on overall ridership, pun intended,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

I would argue that there were no “normal commuting” days last week. I was actually in the office three days out of four that week, and downtown was seriously underpopulated. Most of my coworkers worked from home all week, on the advice of the corporate folks. I know we weren’t the only ones sitting it out. I don’t know how much of an effect that all had on the new lines’ ridership numbers, but it had to have had some effect. Let’s wait till we’ve had a truly “normal” week or two and then see what the tally looks like.

Mayoral candidate forum season gets underway

Gentlemen, start your oratorical engines for these upcoming Mayoral candidate forums.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The events, which will focus on arts and culture, economic development, and labor and community concerns, kick off a months-long cycle in which the candidates will appear before various interest groups, speaking to their specific concerns.

Wednesday’s arts forum at the Asia Society comes two days after the conclusion of this year’s legislative session in Austin and is expected to be the first time the candidates appear together since former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia entered the race.

The forum hosted by Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Museum District, Theater District Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be moderated by KTRK reporter Miya Shay.

[…]

Thursday’s forum hosted by SPARC Growth Houston, a coalition of economic development groups, will focus on the city budget and economic development. It begins at 6 p.m. at the University of Houston.

[…]

Then, on Saturday, the candidates are set to appear before area labor and community organizations for a 9 a.m. forum at Talento Bilingue.

I realize that these particular forums are tightly focused, subject-wise. Nonetheless, as a public service, I offer to the moderators of these forums and any and all future forums, the following questions that I think these candidates should be asked.

1. What is your opinion of the plan TxDOT has put forward to remake I-45 from Beltway 8 into downtown? Have you taken the opportunity to submit feedback to them via their website? The deadline for such feedback is today/was May 31.

2. During the legislative session there was a bill by Rep. Chris Paddie that would have provided a regulatory framework for “rideshare” services like Uber and Lyft to operate anywhere in Texas. In the bill’s initial form, these regulations would have superseded local rideshare ordinances, though after pushback from cities Rep. Paddie agreed to make some changes. What was your opinion of Rep. Paddie’s rideshare bill? Should the state of Texas be the one to regulate these services? Did you contact Rep. Paddie and/or your own Representative to express your opinion on this bill?

3. Texas Central Railway is currently going through the federal environmental review process to get clearance to build a privately-funded high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. One of the things they are trying to decide is where to put the Houston terminal for this line. Their original plan was for it to be downtown, but they have encountered strong resistance from the neighborhoods that it might have to pass through (there are two possible routes), who object to elevated trains so close to their homes. An alternative now being discussed is for the station to be located at the Northwest Transit Center, though downtown and some other possibilities are still on the table. Where do you believe the Houston terminal for this high speed rail line, for which construction may begin as soon as 2017, should be? Have you gone to any of TCR’s public meetings, or provided feedback to them in any form?

4. As you know, the city received several proposals in response to its RFP for a “one bin for all” solution for solid waste management. These proposals, which are still being evaluated by the city, would require new technology and a substantial investment by a private company. The city has said that if the idea turns out to be infeasible, it will not pursue it. Mayor Parker has said that one way or another, this will be a task for the next Mayor to finish. What is your opinion of the “one bin for all” idea? Would your preference be for the city to pursue it or drop it?

I really really look forward to hearing some answers to these questions, whether next week or sometime soon thereafter.

I-45 Coalition gives its feedback to TxDOT

Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition sent the following feedback to TxDOT regarding their plans for remaking I-45 in and around downtown.

Through-out all Segments:

1.1 – All existing sound barrier walls must be replaced. Past agreements to install sound barrier walls, must be installed as part of this project.

1.2 – Sound Mitigation – There must be noise barrier walls for residential neighborhoods that are adjacent to the freeway, with landscape/beautification included. Consider a design that is appropriate for some of the oldest districts of Houston. Consider both vertical and horizontal caps and a slight inward angle towards the freeway instead of vertical walls to further remove sound from entering neighborhoods.

1.3 – Utilize ‘quiet pavement’ techniques and materials to lower the sound decibel levels generated from the roadways.

Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8)

1.1 Proposed plan has additional R.O.W. taken from the east side of I-45 south of Crosstimbers. This east side is populated by well-developed and thriving businesses, while the west side has many vacant or closed businesses. It is more desirable to utilize the additional R.O.W. from the WEST side in this section, instead of the east. Conflicts with floodway can be mitigated by retention / detention basins, channel adjustments and by building above grade.

1.2 There need to be curb cut entrances from frontage roads so customers can gain access to businesses.

Segment 2 (I-10 to 610)

2.1 – All bridges removed and rebuilt (Cottage St., N.Main, North St.) should be rebuilt as architectural-styled bridges that have physically (concrete barrier, for example) separated, wide pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. They should have pedestrian friendly lighting. This section of I-45 passes thru some of the oldest districts of Houston and the bridges should reflect that character. They should give our neighborhood a visual identity (similar in concept to the “red-ball” bridges over US-59 at Mandell, Dunlavy, Woodhead, Hazard). Perhaps an artist design competition?

2.2 – Houston Ave. must continue to be a two-way street. Otherwise, it will force additional traffic onto neighborhood streets. Keep Houston Ave two lanes southbound, two lanes northbound and then a designated barrier-separated entrance ramp (at grade level) to I-45 south. This separated entrance ramp can be merged with additional vehicles from Houston Ave north bound (similar to current). This layout completely eliminates the dangerous cross-traffic intersection that is currently in place.

[…]

Segment 3 (Downtown) West

3.1 – I strongly support the Pierce SkyPark concept and request that TxDOT incorporate this concept at the Pierce Elevated. In particular, I would like to be able to use existing portions of the Pierce Elevated infrastructure for a hike-and-bike connectors, green spaces and parks. This will also provide a reduction in demolition costs to the project for TxDOT.

3.2 – I want connectivity from I-45 to and from Memorial Drive. Memorial Drive is an important East-West connector and needs to have connectivity with I-45. Without Memorial connectors, west side inner-loop residents will be adding to congestion on I-10, 610 and or US-59 while accessing I-45 North or South.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. The deadline for submitting feedback to TxDOT on this project is tomorrow, May 31. This deadline has already been extended once thanks to a request from Rep. Jessica Farrar, so don’t blow it. Go here to submit your feedback. TxDOT can’t know what you do or don’t want if you don’t tell them. It would also be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, wouldn’t it? I wonder if any of them submitted feedback to TxDOT about this. That’s a question that may show up in a future interview.

Still debating where to put the Houston high speed rail terminal

While people in the rural counties are trying to kill the proposed high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, some other people here in Houston are thinking about where a station should be.

[Lynn] Hardwin was among a few dozen people attending an open house held by Texas Central Partners on April 23 at the venerable Tin Hall dance hall, situated on a quiet 40 acres in Cypress since 1890. TCP is the development arm of the project and would own and operate the rail service.

Members of Houston High Speed Rail Watch, a coalition of central Houston neighborhoods that includes Super Neighborhoods 12, 22 and 51 as well as other groups, also attended the event, which focused on dispelling misconceptions that have erupted since the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation began an environmental review process of the privately-funded project last summer.

It will be months before new details emerge about the proposed rail’s exact route and where it might terminate in Houston. From 290 and Loop 610, TCP is eyeing an alignment on Interstate 10 into downtown, but Union Pacific lines in the Washington Avenue area have been considered, too.

The coalition is advocating a path that avoids residential neighborhoods, says spokesman Mark Klein, who is president of Super Neighborhood 12 along the North Loop east of U.S. 290.

The group argues that only a small percentage of Houston residents will use the new rail service – not enough to justify the potential impact to well-established neighborhoods located in its path to the Central Business District downtown.

“We envision a rail terminus located northwest of the 610 Loop, such as at the Northwest Mall, or routing the line to a downtown terminus along freeways or through industrial areas,” Klein said.

[…]

Details about the exact route and how much property will be needed outside of existing rail or other public rights-of-way won’t be known until the draft environmental impact statement is completed, by early 2016. Two station locations are being eyed in Dallas, but TCP has not settled on a Houston station location. While it hopes to put a station downtown, officials say the line could terminate elsewhere.

Jersey Village might be another option for a station location, says City Manager Mike Castro, who also attended the Cypress open house.

The city created a transit-oriented development district on U.S. 290 at Jones Road in its master plan in anticipation of commuter rail a few years ago, Castro said, adding that the zone could accommodate a station for the high-speed rail service, too.

“We’ll wait for the environmental review,” Castro said. “Noise impacts are always a concern of ours, but overall, I see a very positive impact for Jersey Village, particularly if there is potential for a station location there.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The original idea was to have the high speed rail line come into downtown, since that is likely to be a common destination for business travelers and it’s also well connected to other transit options. That means routing the line through residential neighborhoods, which is a big problem if you’ve got these elevated tracks. Having the terminal be farther out, such as at the Northwest Transit Center, solves these problems but creates others, since an isolated terminal is less useful to someone who doesn’t want to have to park at it or doesn’t want to rent a car. Having the Uptown Line in place would help with that, and having the Uptown Line plus at least one other line that connects to it – the Universities Line and/or an Inner Katy Line – would help a lot more. Maybe Metro’s peace treaty with John Culberson can help make these things happen. Who knows? There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of possibilities here, some more promising than others. We’ll know more as the environmental impact statement process concludes.

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Downtown post office set to close

The end of an era approaches.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Thousands gathered at 401 Franklin Street in downtown Houston to celebrate the opening of a new facility trumpeted as an “ultra-modern” marvel, the hub for the mail that would flow in and out of one of America’s fastest growing cities.

Inside the rugged Brutalist building, a lattice-like grid of thin masonry, postal workers were expecting to sort through the millions of pieces of mail that would pass through the facility every year. Engineers touted the building’s efficient heating and cooling system, and employees zipped across the facility on electric buggies. The city’s postmaster said then, in 1962, that the facility “would establish a criterion for other post offices to copy.”

But on Thursday, 53 years after the ballyhooed opening of the Houston Post Office, the lunch hour traffic was sparse – a few police officers mailing Mother’s Day packages home, a lawyer, a family seeking passports and a few others.

On May 15 at 7 p.m., retail operations at the facility will cease permanently, yet another effect of the United States Postal Service’s struggles with rising debt and a sharp decline in business as clients turn to the Internet and private mail couriers.

[…]

Six other post offices were targeted for relocation in Houston in the past, including the Third Ward’s historic Southmore Station, University Station, Greenbriar Station, Julius Melcher Station, Memorial Park Station and Medical Center Station, and cuts have also slowed delivery times. A massive outcry prompted the postal service to halt its plans to shutter the Southmore Station facility, which stands at the address of Houston’s first sit-in demonstration.

But agency critics and Houstonians said Thursday they would be mourning the loss of the building and the move.

“Every time a post office closes, big or small, I think it’s a loss to the community and country,” said Steve Hutkins, creator of Savethepostoffice.com. “If it’s a big one, like the Houston one, it’s clearly a big (loss), and it’s about diminishing quality of postal service in the country.”

The downtown post office has been on the block since at least 2009. The city considered putting in a bid for it last year, possibly as a new location for HPD and the municipal courts, but dropped the idea shortly thereafter in the wake of wailing and gnashing of teeth by developers who had been eagerly awaiting its appearance on the market. The Urban Land Institute hosted a design contest for the site in 2012 to generate some ideas about how to use the space – at one point, a transit center was envisioned as an anchor for it – but I rather doubt we’ll get anything other than high-end apartments or condos, possibly with some retail/restaurant space on the bottom, like with the Rice Hotel. But first, it needs to be sold. I’ve no idea when that might happen. Swamplot has more.

One hundred days till the new bus network

And counting down.

Metro on Friday began the 100-day countdown to sweeping changes in local bus service, conceding that months of work ultimately will be judged by the level of confusion – small or large – that happens Aug. 16, and its effects on riders left with longer trips.

“We cannot miss this mark, and we won’t,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

To make the change new signs must be hung at around 10,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops across the Houston region. Officials, starting soon, must also hang new route information at each one, along with an aggressive outreach campaign and reprinting bus schedules.

Though it’s taken more than two years to develop the system, the countdown Friday represents that push starting in earnest, officials said. “We’ve jumped off the cliff,” board member Allen Watson said.

Nearly every bus route in the system, which carried an average of 266,000 people daily in March, will be affected by the redesign. Board members in February approved changes that refocus Metro on attracting new riders and restructuring service to better reflect where people live and work in Houston.

As a result, the bus network – which largely relied on routes that weaved through the area and focused on downtown Houston – was revised to create more north-south and east-west routes that operate more on a grid pattern around the region.

Proponents say the system is a vast improvement, noting a Metro analysis found that it connected more riders to more jobs. Combined with two new rail lines set to open May 23, Metro board member Christof Spieler said the new system gives transit riders three rail lines and 22 bus routes that operate every 15 minutes or less.

“That is freedom,” Spieler said, referring to the benefits of faster trips and easier access to the region via transit.

[…]

Practically every Metro rider – most of whom have at least one transfer – will have a new routine. To address the potential confusion, Metro will offer side-by-side online comparisons of routes starting June 1, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The comparison will let someone look at their current route and compare it to the best option along the new network.

When the new system begins, Wendler said Metro will also offer information by text message, so someone standing at a bus stop can use their phone to receive a text telling them when the next bus on their route is coming to that bus stop.

“That will be a prominent part of the information campaign,” Wendler said.

Metro has a big job ahead of it, not just communicating the changes to existing riders and helping them understand how their routines will differ, but also to new riders, the people they want to start taking the bus now that it will be more convenient for them. A big part of this is to increase ridership, and that means converting some number of non-riders into riders, at least for some of the time. I’m a roughly once a week rider – my route will change in August, but it won’t be that much different though I will have a longer walk to a bus stop – and I have to say, a bus that lets you off close to your destination is often a lot more convenient than navigating a downtown parking lot and walking in from there. Cheaper, too. Have you looked at the new bus system map and considered your options?

More I-45 stuff

From The Highwayman:

Public meetings meant to debut the massive plan to remake Houston’s downtown freeway system might be coming to an end, but it’s hardly the last chance residents will have to poke and prod the plans.

Years of work remain on the $6 billion-plus project that shifts Interstate 45 to the east side of the central business district and sinks I-45 and U.S. 59 so the freeways act as less prominent barriers. By moving the freeway, Texas Department of Transportation officials are also eliminating the elevated portion of I-45 along Pierce. The Pierce Elevated would then be removed, or perhaps turned into a park or green space as some are suggesting.

[…]

A fifth set of meetings — the first public meetings on I-45 were held in 2011, though some discussions date to 2003 — is likely next year, when officials will unveil their draft of the technical plan for the freeway.

Despite a lot of attention on the major components of the plan, such as moving the freeway, some important details are tiny (in comparison) fixes to local intersections. A sweeping ramp from Chartres Street that connects to I-10 and I-45 is an example, officials said. The ramp, which makes a high arc with tight curves, slows traffic and leads to a difficult merger with the freeway.

Redesigning that ramp helps move traffic, which helps all lanes flow more effectively.

There is a similar potential ripple effect from the new design that will ease congestion throughout the Houston region, said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office. After looking at some of the proposals, he said he is confident traffic on U.S. 59, Texas 288 and Interstate 10 will improve because of a better connection to I-45.

“Every one of these legs is getting something fixed on it,” he said.

Swamplot has a TxDOT-produced video that shows what the new highways will look like; a few stills plus typically snarky comments are here, and the full slidewhow from whence that came is here. It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around all of it; doing a before-and-after might have been more helpful. Purple City has a good explanation of why traffic through downtown is so bad now. I can only imagine what it will be like during the construction. Even with that, the downtown real estate set is all in. Be careful what you wish for.

I’ll close with a bit from the most recent email from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

For Segment 2 – (610 to I-10) – I suggest that you understand clearly some of the proposed changes:
1) Houston Avenue will no longer connect from White Oak to N. Main – Won’t that force a substantial increase of traffic thru Woodland Heights for no reason?
2) Why does TxDOT remove the current highway entrance from Houston Ave and reroute it to North Street? That will destroy acres of trees and route more traffic thru Germantown Historic District for no reason.
3) TxDOT says that the “Main Lanes will be elevated” between 610 and Cavalcade – What does elevated mean? The Main Lanes are currently at ground level.

Public comments will be accepted through May 31. Go to http://www.ih45northandmore.com/ and tell them what you think.

Pierce Skypark

How’s this for a big idea?

“Imagine something big,” says John Cryer, an architect at Page Southerland Page. “Really big.”

He’s talking about the Pierce Elevated Freeway, the raised stretch of I-45 that hooks around the west side of downtown Houston. With an eye toward improving traffic flow, the Texas Department of Transportation is proposing to re-route I-45 — and to do so in such a way that would leave the roughly two miles of the Pierce Elevated out of a job.

And that, say Cryer and other urban dreamers, could be a huge opportunity for Houston. What if, instead of tearing down the Pierce Elevated at an enormous cost, the freeway structure became the base for an elevated linear park — a Houston version of New York’s High Line or Paris’s Promenade Plantée?

Pierce Skypark,” Cryer and two other Page architects call the idea. He, Tami Merrick and Marcus Martínez have been working on it pro bono, hoping that a powerful public or private entity would take the idea and run with it. Their presentations have been received warmly: Pierce SkyPark’s Facebook page has more than a thousand “likes.”

Martínez’s dream-big conceptual sketches give a sense of the proposal’s size and potential. The park that he and the rest of his team imagine would be 1.97 miles long, and cover 37.7 acres — an astonishing swath of parkland so near downtown. By comparison, New York’s High Line, built atop an unused freight-rail line, is significantly shorter (only 1.45 miles) and much, much skinnier (13 acres).

Besides the obvious paths for bikes and pedestrians, Martínez says, there’d be room atop the Pierce Elevated to install all sorts of attractions. Maybe a golf range; or a bike-in theater; a conference center; gardens; or a greenhouse for native plants to be installed along Buffalo Bayou.

It sounds a little crazy, but as the story notes, such things do exist elsewhere, with the High Line in New York being a prominent recent example. I would think the main objection to this would be that if the Pierce were to be torn down when TxDOT rebuilds I-45 is that downtown would gain a huge swath of newly developable real estate, which in today’s market would be worth a ton of money. But Piece Skypark as envisioned could be a truly massive amenity for the city, and it wouldn’t necessarily preclude development on or underneath it. I’d at least like to see the idea get discussed and taken seriously. We have two years or more before anything starts to happen. What’s to lose by considering all options? Check out Pierce Skypark’s Facebook page and give it a like if you’re interested.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

System reimagining is hard work

Jarrett Walker, who consulted with Metro on bus system reimagining, wants you to know that it was harder than it looked.

These no-new-resources restructurings always involve cutting some low-ridership services to add higher-ridership ones, and these can be incredibly painful decisions for boards, civic leaders, and transit managements. Civic officials can come out looking better at the ends of these processes, because the result is a transit system that spends resources efficiently in a way that reflects the community’s values. But during the process they have every reason to be horrified at the hostility and negative media they face.

If you’re on a transit board, here’s what these transformations mean: Beautiful, sympathetic, earnest people — and large crowds of their friends and associates — are going to stand before you in public meetings and tell you that you are destroying their lives. Some of them will be exaggerating, but some of them will be right. So do you retain low-ridership services in response to their stories, and if so, where does that stop? I’m glad I only have to ask these questions in my work, not answer them.

For a decade now I’ve been helping transit agencies think through how much of their service they want to devote to the goal of ridership and how much they want to devote to a competing goal that I call coverage. Ridership service should be judged on its ridership, but coverage service exists to be available. Coverage service is justified partly by the political need for everyone (every council district, member city or whatever) to have a little service, because “they pay taxes too,” even if their ridership is poor. But it’s also justified as a lifeline, by the severity with which small numbers of people need it.

In the early stages of the Reimagining project, I facilitated a series of METRO Board and stakeholder conversations about the question: How much of your operating budget do you want to spend pursuing ridership? I estimated that only about 55-60% of existing service was where it would be if ridership were the only goal, so it wasn’t surprising that the agency’s ridership was stagnant. I explained that the way you increase ridership is to increase the percentage of your budget that’s aimed at that goal. And if you’re not expanding the total budget, that means cutting coverage service — low ridership service, but service that’s absolutely essential to some people’s lives.

In response to a series of scenarios, the Board told us to design a scenario where 80% of the budget would be devoted to ridership. That meant, of course, that in a plan with no new resources, we’d have to cut low-ridership coverage service by around 50%. Mostly we did that not by abandoning people but certainly by inconveniencing some of them. But there was no getting around the fact that some areas — areas that are just geometrically unsuited to high-ridership transit — were going to be losers.

We didn’t sugarcoat that. I always emphasize, from the start of each project, how politically painful coverage cuts will be. The stakeholder committee for the project actually had to do an exercise that quantified the shift of resources from low-ridership areas to high-ridership ones — which was also a matter of shifting from depopulating neighborhoods to growing ones. They and the Board could see on the map exactly where the impacted people were.

And exactly as everyone predicted, when the plan went public, those people were furious. Beyond furious. There really isn’t a word for some of the feelings that came out.

This was written in response to a story in Vox that praised Metro for getting this done at no monetary cost (not totally true, as it turns out, but close enough). Walker’s point is that not all cost is fiscal, and that kind of cost is painful and not easy to deal with. Overall I think Metro did about as good a job with that part of the task as they could have, but the process isn’t really over yet. There will be more refinements as they get feedback from riders on the new system. With that, perhaps these costs can be minimized further.

Metro’s new rail station

Houston Central Station is finally open, though in a much less impressive form than it might have been.

Houston’s first new rail station in nearly 14 months [opened] Wednesday, but it won’t serve its main purpose – connecting riders on multiple lines – until Metro overcomes persistent delays in expanding its service.

Central Station Main, as the stop is called, is the link between the existing Red Line along Main and the upcoming Green and Purple lines that will start service in April. The station is on Main Street between the new tracks on Capitol and Rusk.

Metropolitan Transit Authority spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have already seen rider interest in the station as it neared completion. Opening it adds another stop to the Red Line in the bustling downtown area.

“People, I’m sure, are looking forward to it,” Gray said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

[…]

Central Station Main is a scaled-down version of what officials first proposed. The winner of a design competition was a bold proposal by the international firm Snohetta, spearheaded by a New York-based designer, Craig Dykers, a UT Austin grad whose parents live in Houston.

As officials worked to reconcile cost concerns with Dykers design, they feared running out of time to build the station and scrapped the Snohetta proposal in favor of a generic, albeit expanded, station.

See here and here for the background. It’s a shame the design was scaled back, but it’s still good to see tangible evidence of progress. I’ve been seeing trains running along the east-west tracks at the western end of downtown lately. The official opening date appears to have crept back a little, to the end of April, but we’re getting there. It’s only two months away. I’m ready for it, and I’m sure they are, too. Write On Metro has more.

Another I-45 public meeting should be scheduled soon

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

TxDOT will soon be holding another public meeting!

TxDOT has been working for years to come up with a plan to ‘relieve’ the congestion on I-45. After several years, TxDOT is getting closer to come up with a “plan”. The I-45 Coalition is a group of neighborhood volunteers that monitors TxDOT and makes sure that the affected neighborhoods are fully aware of their plans.

You can look at all of the Public Meetings information by going to TxDOT’s website www.IH45Northandmore.com.

Let me give you some brief history.

In 1998, TxDOT announced plans to widen I-45. They conducted a study, were stalled for a while and then started holding public meetings. In Nov 2005, TxDOT released the North-Hardy Planning Study that said 4 managed lanes were needed. The estimated cost at that time (in 2004 dollars) was $2.1 BILLION . According to TxDOT, AFTER doing the project, in the year 2025, the peak speeds in the main traffic lanes would be 35 mph instead of 32 mph if we did nothing (between 610 & I-10)!!

Public meeting #1 was in Nov. 2011. TxDOT wanted to know where the public preferred to put the 4 managed lanes. TxDOT said they would consider Hardy Toll Road as well as tunnels.

TxDOT broke the project into 3 Segments. Segment 1 = Beltway 8 to 610; Segment 2 = 610 to I-10; Segment 3 = Downtown “loop”.

Public Meeting #2 – in Oct. 2012 -TxDOT came up with 6 alternatives per 3 segment. They asked the public for input to identify the choices. TxDOT would narrow the 6 choices down to 3 per segment. Then after PM #3, TxDOT would narrow the 3 choices down to the final 1 per segment

Public Meeting #3 – in Nov. 2013 – TxDOT announced the results from PM #2. TxDOT eliminated almost all of the public’s preferred choices!

For Segment 1 – Almost ½ the comments wanted TxDOT to put the additional 4 lanes on an expanded Hardy Toll Road (Alt 3,3c); the other top 2 picks were taking an additional 30 feet right-of way (ROW) from both sides of 45 (Alt 7, Alt 8). Instead, TxDOT substantially increased all ROW demands and said the public had to select from taking an additional 200-225 feet ROW from either the West side (Alt 4)or East side of 45 (Alt 5) or 81’ from both sides of 45 (Alt 7).

For Segment 2 – The 3 picks the public wanted were 1) 4 lanes in a tunnel (Alt 14); 2) 4 lanes on Hardy (Alt 15); and (3) cover the below-grade section of 45 and make green space above(Alt 10). TxDOT eliminated the Tunnel option and the Hardy option and responded with 1) Put the 4 lanes on a double-decked structure in middle of road (Alt 12)…NO one in the public picked that! 2) 4 lanes on an elevated structure in middle of roadway (Alt 11) and 3) no cover for the below-grade area & no green space (Alt 10).

For Segment 3 – 98% of the public selected tunnels (Alt 4, Alt 6 & Alt 5) that TxDOT had proposed! TxDOT’s response … they eliminated ALL tunnels and came up with 2 new alternatives that the public had never seen before (Alts 11, 12 & Alt 10). They provided inadequate detail on any of the options they proposed, so the public could not make an informed decision.

When I asked the TxDOT engineer why TxDOT didn’t consider the Public’s input, he responded with “we did consider it, but this is not a popularity contest”! The next meeting has NOT been announced yet. I have been told it would be in Winter or Spring. We are quickly leaving Winter & entering Spring, so an announcement will likely be soon. I just wanted you to keep this on your radar, because you need to be involved. If we don’t remain vigilant, TxDOT will do what they want, where they want … and that usually involves pouring more & more concrete!

The I-45 Coalition has 3 main goals:

First – We want TxDOT to stay within its existing Right-of-Way (ROW). We do not want to increase the “footprint” of the existing roadway and we do not want our neighborhoods and our homes destroyed by an ever-increasing slab of pavement.

Second – We want TxDOT to investigate other modes of transportation, other than more and more concrete for more and more vehicles.

Third – We do not want our Quality-of-Life and our neighborhoods affected adversely by increased air pollution, noise pollution, flooding, increased neighborhood traffic, etc.

If you would like to be on I-45’s notification list for TxDOT meetings and updates, please go to our website at www.I-45Coalition.org and sign up OR/and go to our Facebook page and join. Thank you & PLEASE be involved!

I noted last month that in a longer story on the state of transportation projects around Houston, TxDOT spokesperson Raquelle Lewis alluded to the “next round of meetings” regarding I-45 and that 2015 would be a busy year for planning. Get ready to get involved, and be sure to let your preferred candidate(s) for Mayor know where you stand on this as well.

System reimagining time

Big day today, hopefully.

A once-in-a-generation change to Houston bus service – shifting from a downtown-focused, hub-and-spoke design to a broader network reflecting new ways people move around – could receive final approval by Metro’s board Wednesday.

Officials say the “reimagining” may represent a make-or-break moment in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s efforts to boost lagging ridership.

“If we screw it up, rolling this out, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” board member Cindy Siegel said.

The board will consider authorizing staff to revise the entire local bus system. None of the changes apply to park and ride service.

The final plan, however, scraps one of the biggest changes originally proposed in several northeast neighborhoods – on-demand “flex” service as opposed to fixed routes. And the redesign won’t take effect until August, two months later than planned, giving officials more time to transition to changes that could affect most of Metro’s 290,000 or so daily riders.

Cost estimates reflect Metro spending $9.3 million more annually than it does now on bus service, a roughly 3 percent increase. The higher costs would be covered by additional fares – officials predict the revised routes will increase ridership by 20 percent – and sales tax revenue tied to the 2012 referendum that allows Metro to keep more of the region’s 1-cent transportation sales tax.

See here, here, and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I’m one of the six percent that will be negatively affected by this, as the #40 route that I take the most often will no longer pass through my neighborhood. From what I can tell, I’ll either have to take two (high-frequency) buses to get downtown with a minimum of walking, take a lower-frequency route that’s farther from my house than my current stop is, or take a high-frequency route (the Washington Avenue one) with a long walk; this latter option is something I do now occasionally on my way home. As someone once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so I’m okay with this as long as it meets the stated objectives. I look forward to seeing what final changes Metro has made as they move forward with this. Houston On The Go has more.

UPDATE: System reimagining was unanimously approved, according to a Metro press release. The approved map can be found here.

Opposition to the high speed rail line gets organized

You had to figure something like this was coming. I was recently informed of NoTexasCentral.com, and I’ll let them introduce themselves:

Texas Central Railway (TCR), a Japanese funded Texas-based private railroad company, is set to build and operate a high speed train system from Dallas to Houston. With stations slated only at the ends of the line, the train will run at over 200 mph through some of Texas’ most beautiful farmland, marring the landscape and tranquility of our great state, as well as displacing families and disrupting farming and ranching operations. Closer into the terminating cities, historic neighborhoods and small businesses will be affected in irreparable ways. Property value loss, probable tax hikes to offset lost revenue from lowered property values, property loss, environmental impacts, lack of economic benefit and noise/vibration disruptions will all impact the lives of so many Texans.

We all oppose the current primary and secondary routes being selected by Texas Central Railway. Help us save our homes and farmland from this high speed train by voicing your opposition!

Their Facebook page is here. While rural counties have been resistant to the high speed rail line for some time now, the focal point of the opposition appears to be in Montgomery County, as This story linked from the Facebook page illustrates:

More than 800 people packed the Lone Star Community Center in Montgomery Monday night to learn what they can do to stop a proposed multibillion-dollar high-speed rail route that would cut through West Montgomery County and connect Houston with Dallas.

According to local legislators and county elected officials, the Texas Central Railway, a private company planning the high-speed rail, has the power of eminent domain to make the project happen.

“This is one of the biggest threats to the county I have seen in years,” former Montgomery County Judge Alan B. Sadler told the crowd. “It’s extreme, ladies and gentlemen.”

[…]

“I am not a happy camper,” said state Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, adding he is frustrated by the lack of transparency on the project. “They are moving forward and we need your help.

“I don’t believe private enterprise should have eminent domain power. In regard to the 10th Amendment, I talked a lot about this during my campaign; we are living it here today. Federal overreach, they are bypassing us at the state, the county, and that is not OK.”

Metcalf urged residents to contact U.S Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

“When Montgomery County is joined together, we are unstoppable,” Metcalf said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley told the crowd that even though the project would cut through his precinct, he has not been contacted by TCR about the rail line. He said he is determined to stop the project.

“Whatever we need to do to stay united and stay strong, we will support it to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Riley said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said while Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution late last year that it did not support the project, he added it is time for the court to readdress that resolution and “toughen it up.”

I’ve discussed the Montgomery County issues before. At one point, Montgomery County Commissioners Court passed a resolution saying they would oppose any alignment that didn’t include the I-45 corridor. The impression I get now is that the locals there would prefer to try to kill project altogether. They’ve started collecting the support of elected officials to back them up. A story in the Leader News from a couple of weeks ago that as far as I know never appeared online mentioned three State Senators that have signed a letter to TxDOT opposing the use of eminent domain and any state funds for this project – Sen. Lois Kolkhorst was one, Sen. Brandon Creighton was another, and (oops!) I can’t remember the third. There’s a great irony here in that one of the selling points of the TCR approach has been that by not seeking public money for the rail line they can avoid a lot of the political battles and streamline the process. That sure doesn’t appear to be the case any more.

Meanwhile, the Houston-based opposition is still looking for alternate routes.

So what is the alternative? Civic leaders from the neighborhoods under threat from the two proposed routes have joined together to chart a better way forward, seeking solutions that will allow high-speed rail to serve Houston without blighting residential neighborhoods – theirs or anyone else’s. This inter-neighborhood working group has put forward two suggested approaches.

The first is to terminate the line outside Houston’s central business district, at a location such as the Northwest Transit Center, an idea that Texas Central Railroad itself has floated. Unlike many other cities, Houston has multiple commercial centers, and much of the potential ridership here is located west and northwest of downtown. An express bus service or a light-rail line could connect the terminus with downtown; at a public meeting last fall, a METRO spokesperson embraced the idea of providing such a connection. And terminating the high-speed rail line outside the Central Business District would avoid exacerbating traffic and parking problems the way a downtown terminus would, with riders from around the city having to travel downtown to reach it.

Alternatively, if a downtown terminus is deemed necessary, the approach to downtown should be routed not through residential neighborhoods but down highway or industrial corridors. A route along I-45 was one of the routes examined and rejected by the Federal Railroad Administration, but deserves reconsideration. A route along I-10, which Texas Central Railroad representatives have acknowledged as worthy of consideration, should also be investigated as a way to reach central Houston. Several other variations, involving the Hempstead/290 corridor, I-610 North Loop, and/or the Harris County Hardy Toll Road corridor, are worth looking into.

See here for the background. The actual route has not been determined yet, and as this statement from Texas Central, posted on the No Texas Central Facebook page, makes clear, even the two “preferred routes” that have been highlighted so far are really just corridors. We won’t have a clear idea of what we might get until the Federal Railroad Administration posts the scoping report to its website. In the meantime, there’s still a lot of opportunity to affect things. I’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

Small fix, big (we hope) effect

This would be nice.

Take the entrance ramp from Allen Parkway to southbound Interstate 45. Everyone from drivers to transportation officials knows it is a problem.

“At this location there are entrance ramps from both Memorial Drive and from Allen Parkway which merge onto the freeway on the right and left sides, respectively, at the same location,” said Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation. “This is an unusual arrangement and is unexpected from a driver’s perspective. This configuration is the cause of nearly constant congestion at this location as main lane traffic slows to accommodate merging traffic on both sides of the freeway.”

Entering and exiting freeways to street traffic from the left long ago fell out of favor as a design option, and is largely a holdover only in metro areas. Studies have shown left entrances and exits cause drivers to make hazardous, split-second aggressive moves, for example.

[…]

Toward the end of 2015, work will start to redesign the entrance ramps so Memorial and Allen Parkway both merge from the right side of the southbound lanes. It’s a fix, at $2 million, that is much cheaper than more lanes or some gigantic rehabilitation of the freeway. The effect, however, might be greater than $2 million usually buys.

Like the alterations to I-45 south of downtown, this project is funded by the mechanism created by the adoption of statewide Proposition 1 last year. I presume what they’ll be doing here is rerouting the Allen Parkway ramp to the other side of the freeway, so there will be just one entrance on the right. That will help, but my guess is it won’t make that much difference. In my experience, the vast majority of entering traffic comes from there already, and the often steady flow of vehicles on the short merge lane is a big cause of the bottleneck there. (I would also note that it’s not that long ago there was no merge lane at all – on either side at that juncture, you were pretty much entering from a stop.) The bigger problem is that I-45 narrows down to two lanes at the exit for US59/SH288. The solution to that, if there really is a viable one, isn’t going to be that cheap or that easy.

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

How does a 25 MPH speed limit for downtown Houston grab you?

Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:

Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.

Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

[…]

It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.

Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.

Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.

You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.

Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.

When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.

There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.

I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?

How about high speed rail plus light rail?

Now here‘s an interesting idea.

More than 200 people turned out Thursday to voice their concerns over the proposed track of the High-Speed Rail (HSR) train that would take travelers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes.

“I think that the HSR is a great solution for inter city travel but I believe it doesn’t really have to go into the Central Business District,” said opponent Tammy Merrick. “I believe we’re too congested in the routes they’ve selected.”

As of now, one of the two proposed routes cut through the heart of the city near Memorial Park.

“Our neighborhoods would be further separated by this massive infrastructure that is necessary to put in to track a high speed rail system,” said Super Neighborhood 22 President Tom Dornbusch.

[…]

Opponents of the plan even offered an alternative route, suggesting that the tracks stop at the Northwest Transit Center outside the loop.

“We’re really urging Metro to step up and take a light rail line over to the Northwest Transit Center. That would take more folks to this high-speed rail train and would not disturb the urban neighborhoods.”

There are some big advantages to taking this approach instead of running the high speed rail line all the way into downtown. First, it turns one group of opponents into supporters. As this route runs west of Montgomery County it avoids that county’s demands, though that may trade one set of problems for another. The presence of the Uptown BRT line means that this station would be transit-connected to more than one business district; a downtown station would not be connected to the Galleria area unless the Universities line gets built. The presumably lesser right-of-way needs for light rail should make its construction less expensive than HSR would be along the same route.

How it gets constructed, and who pays for it is where things get complicated. An Inner Katy line more or less along this same corridor was on the 2003 Metro referendum, but it’s never been actively pursued and as things stand right now Metro would not have the resources to do it on their own. This corridor is also a possible route for a commuter rail line, meaning that there are three entities with a stake here – Texas Central HSR, Metro, and the Gulf Coast Rail District. There’s also a Super Neighborhood 22-produced Transportation Master Plan that gives possible design specs, though it’s now four years old and might need some updating. If the stars align, this could work very well and provide a lot of benefit. The question is whether Texas Central would be willing to finance, in part or in whole, something that wouldn’t be theirs but which would make what they’re building more valuable. I’d like to think there’s a way to make this work, and I hope there will at least be some discussion about it. If Texas Central prefers a different route that would make this moot, but if they do prefer this route then I hope this possibility will be on the table. I like it a lot, that’s for sure.

A very brief I-45 update

Way at the bottom of this overview of transit projects and milestones for 2015 are these three paragraphs:

The freeway project likely to attract the most attention in the Houston area – widening Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to the central business district – is years away from construction but will also have a busy 2015 for planning.

“Our next round of meetings will produce the single preferred alternative for the project,” [Raquelle Lewis, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office] said. “In my mind that is huge.”

The project, estimated in current dollars at $1.1 billion, isn’t expected to start construction until 2025. Officials expect years of planning because some of the proposals have suggested lowering the freeway or adding elevated toll lanes, which have run into opposition from some neighborhoods.

I like that phrasing – “estimated in current dollars at $1.1 billion”. Remember how the I-10 widening was once “estimated” to be $1 billion? If the cost of this monstrosity comes in at less than double that amount, I’ll be impressed. I believe this description is for the entire North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which as you may recall “involves evaluation of the IH 45 North corridor from near downtown Houston to Beltway 8 North, Beltway 8 North from IH 45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, the Hardy Toll Road from IH 610 North Loop to Beltway 8 North, IH 610 North Loop from IH 45 North to the Hardy Toll Road, and portions of IH 10 and US 59 near downtown Houston”. Among other things, that means it includes the downtown roundabout proposal, the thought of which still makes me shudder. At least we know that 2025 is a long way off and Lord knows what could happen in the interim to divert or alter these plans. In the meantime, let’s keep working to build better transportation alternatives.

HSPVA groundbreaking

Looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

A slab of cracked cement painted over with yellow parking lines sits at the corner of Rusk and Austin – with downtown skyscrapers looming overhead.

Come Tuesday, the cement will be ripped up and construction will begin on a new five-story, 168,000-square-foot building for the Houston ISD’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts.

The sleek, $80-million project will include a 200-seat mini-theater, 200-seat black box theater, 150-seat recital hall, rooftop garden and outdoor art studio. The centerpiece will be an 800-seat main theater, complete with a balcony, that will fit the prestigious magnet school’s entire faculty and student body with room to spare.

“We’re downtown and so close to the arts district, you can just feel the energy down here. It’s going to be amazing to have the kids down here,” said HSPVA principal R. Scott Allen, who was among the dignitaries to help break ground on the site Sunday at a celebration that included several student and alumni performances. “We already have great partnerships with the (local) arts organizations, but us being so much closer now, I think it makes it easier to make those even stronger. … To be able to even connect with businesses that don’t have an arts focus would give some kids some opportunities. That’s a dream of mine.”

The new space, approved by voters in a 2012 bond, will allow the school to move from its current Montrose campus. It will also provide room for the new creative writing program, whose students currently take classes in the library and in portable trailers.

See here and here for some background. HSPVA is one of HISD’s crown jewels, and this project sounds like it’s going to be awesome. It’s not far from where I work, I should wander over periodically and see how it’s going. It’s possible one of my kids could wind up going there, so we’ll just call it research. Anyway, I can’t wait to see what it winds up looking like.

A chance to help the sobering center

It’s a good cause.

When the Houston Recovery Center turns to the public in coming months for the first time and asks for help, the request will likely seem small and perhaps odd: The city-backed sobering unit wants to raise funds to pay two van drivers.

But it’s a request that says a lot about the direction of the center, a place for those whose only crime is public intoxication and who, a year and a half ago, would have gone to jail. The center offers a place to sober up with medical supervision and get help with addiction.

The vans are part of what substance abuse professionals call the “warm handoff” principle, the idea that a person who agrees to get help should be quickly shepherded to a detox or treatment center, whatever the next step might be, without pause and with the help of a familiar face. It’s a critical decision easily derailed.

“It’s huge,” Houston Recovery Center director Leonard Kincaid said. “For that moment, you have them. It’s this window of opportunity and you have to do everything right.”

And so the center will make its first donation call for about $320,000 to cover drivers, maintenance, insurance and gas for two vans that will transport clients to medical and social services 24/7. Adding the van service would mark a significant milestone in what staff says is an effort to expand the reach of the over-night sobering center the city opened in spring 2013 to reduce jail crowding and free up police officers.

[…]

Seeing the daily need for addiction services in the city, Kincaid said, has inspired the center to try to offer more long-term care; there are 369,000 people age 12 and older with substance disorders in Houston and fewer than 10 percent currently have access to treatment, according to the most recent National Survey on Substance Abuse and Health.

The center’s 18-month treatment program, for those with addiction, is tracking about 150 people through recovery. Of those enrolled in the program, 87 percent are homeless.

“The responsibility and the burden is becoming very real for us,” Kincaid said.

See here, here, and here for the background. By all accounts, the sobering center has been a welcome addition to the landscape, and clearly there’s no shortage of need for it. To a large degree, you can’t deal with homelessness without also dealing with addiction. We need to make sure the center gets the funding it requires to keep doing what it does and do as much of it as it can.

More concerns about the high speed rail route

Some people who live not far from me are not very happy about the high speed rail line possibly running through their neighborhood.

The prospect of a high-speed train crossing through First Ward into downtown Houston has residents scrambling to weigh in on the proposal.

“I’m completely opposed to this project. I believe we can work collaboratively, but I don’t think the infrastructure of our neighborhood should be destroyed,” says Alexandra Orzeck, whose home is next to existing rail right-of-way eyed as a potential route for Texas Central Railway’s “bullet train” between Houston and Dallas. Property she owns in Rice Military also could be impacted.

Many of her neighbors agreed during a recent meeting to discuss the project with TCR President Robert Eckels, who is a former Harris County judge and state legislator, and David Hagy, the company’s community outreach director.

[…]

Ideally, the train would enter Houston’s central business district and connect riders with other local transit, maybe even other high-speed routes. But the train route might end elsewhere, like on Loop 610 or even further out on Beltway 8, Eckels said. A draft environmental impact statement being devised now by the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation will factor into those decisions.

[…]

Local neighborhoods are particularly concerned since the rail company would have eminent domain authority to acquire property needed to build the high-speed rail.

Over the past decade, First Ward has enjoyed a residential and artistic renaissance. New, multistory townhomes continue to wedge their way into the neighborhood, which has a recently designated historic district. The well-known Winter Street and Silver Street artist studios helped establish a state Cultural Arts District here. More studios are coming soon.

Stakeholders say one of two preferred routes for the TCR project could bisect the Washington Avenue corridor on existing rail lines, either on Winter Street or Girard, where rail right of way is squeezed to 50 feet in some place. TCR has said it needs 80 feet.

Local leaders hesitate to support the other preferred route, too, because it impacts Near Northside neighborhoods. TCR should continue to investigate a third route that follows the Hardy corridor into downtown, they said.

Similar concerns are expressed in this Leader News story. A route along the Hardy corridor would make a Woodlands station feasible, so the folks here will have at least one set of allies in that quest. As we’ve discussed before, these are the same issues that will have to be dealt with if a commuter rail line moves forward as well. Of course, commuter trains don’t move at 200 MPH, so there’s that. At the very least, you’d want to review the Super Neighborhood 22 transportation master plan from 2010 that called for putting the existing freight rail tracks in that corridor into a trench to avoid at grade street crossings. It should be noted that Tom Dornbusch, one of the architects of that study, doesn’t think trenching would be sufficient to accommodate the high speed line; among other things, the corridor is too narrow, by Texas Central Railway’s own design specs.

Eckels mentions other possible locations for the line’s terminal, but putting it downtown really needs to be the goal. Just from a connectivity perspective, it makes the most sense. If that makes a Woodlands-friendly I-45/Hardy Toll Road approach the best option, then so be it. Someone will need to convince TCR and the state and federal officials of that.

The process of drafting an environmental impact statement will require TCR to respond to concerns including social and cultural impacts.

The process has been extended to Jan. 9. First Ward residents are asking that the railway administration schedule a public meeting in Houston.

That sounds sensible to me. Give everyone who would be affected the chance to have their say.

The Woodlands wants to be on the high speed rail route

Can’t blame ’em.

The Woodlands Township is urging federal and state officials to take another look at the potential benefits of adding a high-speed rail corridor along Interstate 45.

Last month, the Federal Railway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation revealed two potential routes for a proposed bullet train that could one day connect Dallas and Houston by rail, but neither of the routes under review would come down I-45 in fast-growing Montgomery County.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs and transportation manager for The Woodlands, said there is still time for it and surrounding communities to have some influence on the direction of the project.

“We’ve taken and written a letter asking them to reinstate the I-45 corridor for consideration and to think about it one more time and at least assess it before condemning it,” he said.

State and federal transportation officials recently narrowed the list of potential routes from nine to two. The excluded lines seemed a bit longer, which could prove more costly for a project that already has a price tag of more than $10 billion.

The route that local leaders wants transportation officials to explore is referred to as the Green Field Route. It would begin in Dallas and travel along I-45, passing through Huntsville and Montgomery County before ending in downtown Houston.

The interstate highway runs the length of Montgomery County, whose population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040.

Given the growth of the area, McKinney said, it may be wise to ask transportation officials leading the project to consider adding a rail station north of Houston, near the Grand Parkway and The Woodlands.

See here for the background, and click the embedded image to see all of the proposed routes. I can’t argue with the logic, and in fact in past conversations I’ve had with the Texas Central Railway folks, I myself have suggested that a Woodlands-area station might make sense for them. The two “recommended” routes were chosen because they were the lowest cost, which is a non-trivial consideration in a $10 billion project. A big complicating factor is how routing the trains along I-45 might effect the cost and feasibility of bringing the trains to downtown Houston, where the terminal ought to be and is most likely to be. One possible route into downtown involves the same corridor as a proposed commuter rail line along 290, which obviously isn’t compatible with a Woodlands-friendly location. I don’t know what the best answer is, and unfortunately not everyone can be accommodated. Good luck figuring it all out.

By the way, the Central Japan Railway Company, one of the backers of Texas Central Railway, recently began test runs of a maglev train that can reach 300 miles per hour. By the time this line is finished, it could provide an even quicker ride between Dallas and Houston. Yeah, I’m excited by the prospect.

Bringing the high speed rail line downtown

Building that high speed rail line from Dallas to Houston is one thing. Bringing it to a centrally-located terminal is another.

Plans for a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas are moving relatively quickly beyond a recent initial round of public meetings. Questions about the route are dominating discussions.

Though still years away – a 2021 launch is predicted under the best of circumstances — backers of the privately funded train are making the rounds to drum up support. Thursday, they met with the Houston City Council’s transportation and infrastructure committee.

Based on preliminary maps, one of the two likely routes for the train within the Sam Houston Tollway has residents on edge. The option follows property near an electrical transmission line, then parallels U.S. 290 before hugging the Union Pacific Railroad line along Washington Avenue.

What has residents, and by extension their council members, worried is what the elevated tracks — one for each direction of travel — would do to nearby properties. Residents are concerned about whether buildings will be bulldozed to make way for the train.

“I do not see how that is accommodated in the existing right of way,” said Tom Dornbusch, president of the Super Neighborhood 22 Council.

Dornbusch and others have grave concerns about what the train would do to the Washington Avenue corridor, which has seen rapid residential and commercial growth over the past decade.

Northwest of Washington Avenue, council member Brenda Stardig said, the high-speed line could have far-reaching effects on the rural landscape along U.S. 290.

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, president of Texas Central High-Speed Railway, said backers are conscious of the worries. Previous high-speed rail plans have been doomed by opposition, something Eckels said the current team is trying to avoid.

Eckels stopped short of making any assurances, saying the company would have to balance many factors in finding the best route. He acknowledged that any route within Loop 610 would prove complicated and costly.

See here and here for the background. No question that downtown is the right place for the Houston terminal, but getting the train those last few miles into downtown is no easy task. We’ve discussed this in the context of commuter rail, and the issues here are the same but bigger since the trains in question would (presumably still) be moving a lot faster. That existing track along Washington Avenue crosses major thoroughfares such as Shepherd and Heights at grade, which would have to remediated given the obvious safety risk. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I’m fairly certain that there is no answer that doesn’t upset someone.

Downtown dedicated bike lane delayed a bit

Aiming for the end of the year now.

Conversion of a traffic lane on Lamar into Houston’s main bike route through downtown has been delayed as officials finalize plans and wait for in-demand humps known as “armadillos” to arrive.

Department of Public Works and Engineering officials initially said work would start on the lanes in September and finish in a few weeks. Now they hope to have cyclists cruising the green lane along Lamar by the end of the year, said Jeff Weatherford, the city’s traffic operations director.

One of the last steps will be installing “armadillos” – rubberized humps that separate vehicle lanes from the nine-foot-wide bike path. A European company is the only supplier of armadillos, and with their growing popularity they are on back-order, Weatherford said.

[…]

Creating the lane required some tough choices, Weatherford said, and weeks of work remain. Officials chose Lamar because other streets from Discovery Green to Sam Houston Park either had higher traffic volumes or posed greater risks for cyclists because of drivers entering and exiting Interstate 45 and Allen Parkway.

The bike lane will occupy the southernmost lane of Lamar, a space now used for parking except during peak commuting periods.

The conversion to a two-way bike lane will take about six or seven weeks, Weatherford said, with work occurring on weekends to avoid commuting traffic. Because the bike lane is on the south side of the street, new street crossings are planned near the two parks. City law prohibits cyclists from riding in crosswalks – technically, they should dismount and walk the bike across – though the law is rarely enforced.

“Still, I want it to be something that doesn’t force someone to break the law,” Weatherford said.

See here for the background. I work near where this work is going to be done, and I’m looking forward to it. I plan to take some pictures once the lane has been painted green and those “armadillos” have been installed.

Food trucks arrive downtown

Welcome.

Houston’s foodie community rejoiced Friday as Mayor Annise Parker welcomed propane-fueled food trucks downtown after a years-long ban, but more plans to loosen the city’s mobile unit rules are not likely to meet the same fanfare at City Council in the coming months.

Parker bypassed council to remove the restriction on propane-fueled food trucks downtown, citing a fire marshal opinion that tanks weighing up to 60 pounds are safe.

“It may not seem like the most important issue the city could address,” said Parker, standing in front of a colorful food truck, The Modular, across from City Hall on Friday. “But believe me, if you invest in a food truck, you want to serve great food to Houstonians, this absolutely makes a difference.”

Two other industry changes on Parker’ food trucks agenda – letting the trucks use tables and chairs and removing 60-foot spacing requirements between mobile units – need to go through council members, whose opinions on food trucks vary by district.

[…]

Council Member Brenda Stardig has proved a particularly vocal critic, calling for more food truck inspectors.

“I’m not against food trucks,” Stardig said. “There are some really cool ones. But some of the ones that historically we’ve had in District A, they set up shop permanently. Until we have the ability to have more inspectors, less regulation and opening it to a broader market is a concern.”

Council Member Robert Gallegos also said he would like to ramp up enforcement before loosening the rules. Gallegos’ district runs from downtown to the East End.

“I’m not opposed to food trucks,” he said. “But I’m not talking about food trucks outside of bars on Washington Avenue. I’m talking about little hole-in-the-wall cantinas and whether the trucks there are going to be regulated. That’s a problem to me.”

See here for the background. CMs Stardig and Gallegos have valid concerns, and the city says they are working to address those concerns. It should be noted that the city has more food truck inspectors per capita (three for 800 trucks, or one for every 267) than it does restaurant inspectors (30 for 13,000, or one for every 433). I hope we can agree on what needs to be done to address the issues that have been raised so we can move forward on this.