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I-45

IKEA gets self-driving trucks

Not for home delivery. Not yet, anyway.

California-based self-driving big rig firm Kodiak Robotics is teaming up with IKEA to deliver ready-to-assemble furniture and home furnishings to the Swedish retailer’s store in Frisco.

It marks Kodiak’s first time delivering goods directly to a store, said Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of Kodiak Robotics. The 300-mile pilot routes on Interstate 45 from IKEA’s Baytown distribution center to Frisco will operate through November with a safety driver behind the wheel to oversee deliveries.

Kodiak has been making daily trips since early August between the distribution center and the store. Kodiak and IKEA are discussing a long-term, multiyear commitment to work together, Burnette said.

“The purpose of this is to get a better understanding of Kodiak’s autonomous driving technology and how it can contribute to increased road safety and ultimately determine how to improve the quality of life for drivers,” Burnette said.

So far, so good for Kodiak. Burnette said the company hasn’t had any safety issues on its Interstate 45 routes, even though its trucks encountered everything from construction to stalled vehicles.

“Our autonomous driving technology is able to handle just about everything that the highway can throw at it,” Burnette said.

Just adding this to the pile of other self-driving trucks on I-45. At some point I suppose this won’t be news any more.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

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

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

Below is a high-level list of issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another story about driverless trucks on I-45

The driverless trucks start coming and they don’t stop coming.

Waymo will partner in coming weeks with manufacturer Daimler Truck to put self-driving 18-wheelers on the road, further expanding the technology company’s autonomous testing between Dallas and Houston.

The big rigs will travel between the state’s two largest metro areas on Interstate 45, a corridor that’s become one of the country’s key testing grounds for driverless trucks.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., creates the technology that can be attached to trucks and other vehicles to make them fully autonomous. Its partnership with Daimler
began in 2020.

“We’re very excited to share this really big milestone for this trade partnership with Daimler and Waymo,” said Boris Sofman, director of engineering and head of trucking for Waymo. “We knew from the very beginning it would be very critical for us to partner with the right group of experts.”

The Waymo Driver technology is touted as a way to eventually eliminate the need for a human driver. Trucks equipped with it don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or to sleep overnight, making them a more efficient way of getting goods from one place to another.

Waymo Via is used for transporting commercial goods, and it combines the driving capabilities of the Waymo Driver with the redundant systems of the Daimler trucks. Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia has been specifically designed for autonomous trucking, with redundant steering and braking systems, as well as increased battery storage to power the autonomous features.

[…]

The trucks are ready for the road after what Waymo and Daimler described as rigorous testing.

“We will be putting the first batch of these trucks into autonomous testing on public freeways in the upcoming weeks across Dallas and Phoenix, and that is an incredible milestone that both teams have been working a number of years toward,” said Waymo’s Sofman.

Waymo partnered with Uber Freight in June to move goods along the I-45 corridor, building on a February partnership on the same route with C.H. Robinson, a company that moves 20 million shipments annually. Waymo also partners with J.B. Hunt and UPS in Texas.

Waymo has been mentioned before, with that second story mentioning the C.H. Robinson partnership. I don’t think there’s anything really new with this one, it’s more of what we have already seen with the note that Waymo is a significant presence in the market. I wish there were an easy way to identify these autonomous trucks on the road, so we could get a more intuitive feel for how common a presence they are. For now, all we have are the news accounts. The Chron has more.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you really need to avoid the 59/610 interchange

Welcome to hell.

Starting this weekend, Texas’ worst bottleneck is going to be an even bigger pain for drivers as the rebuild of the Interstate 69 and Loop 610 interchange turns a corner and takes out a key connector ramp.

Crews will close the ramp from southbound I-69 to southbound Loop 610 at 9 p.m. Friday, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The ramp will not open for two years.

Yes, two years. The new ramp will be among the last pieces of the new interchange to open, shortly before work wraps up in late 2024, based on the latest estimates.

“The work is just to the point we have to do it,” said Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman for the interchange project, which started in 2017. “The upcoming work is going to have an effect, but it is also going to allow us to move toward completion.”

During the ramp closing, TxDOT encourages drivers seeking southbound Loop 610 to continue south on I-69, exit at Fountain View, U-turn and take northbound I-69 to access the southbound Loop.

See here for an earlier warning. Look at it this way: If TxDOT finally gets the go-ahead to start tearing up I-45, then no one will be on 59 between downtown and the Loop because no one will be able to get onto it at either end. Traffic problems solved! CultureMap and the Press have more.

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

Rules that can’t be enforced are just suggestions

This is ridiculous.

Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman’s dual roles as a member of the Houston region’s transportation planning board and consultant at an engineering company will not receive further scrutiny by the local board after staff concluded the panel cannot police its own ethics policies.

A three-month examination of questions raised by opponents of the massive Interstate 45 rebuild in Houston concluded Friday with only minor changes for the Transportation Policy Council, a subcommittee of the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The opponents had accused Zimmerman of having a conflict of interest in supporting the project while his employer, Halff Associates, is under contract with the Texas Department of Transportation for work on the project.

Asked to analyze the accusations, staff and H-GAC lawyers concluded that while they had rules, they do not have mechanisms to enforce them.

“Neither the TPC, nor the staff, have authority to investigate ethics complaint,” said Craig Raborn, transportation program manager for H-GAC.

Because the local board cannot investigate the conflict of interest complaint, it also cannot say whether one occurred, Raborn said. In its report, the agency said no further action on the matter was needed, and recommended only minor changes in policy so officials are of aware of and can report conflicts of interest.

[…]

Members of the transportation council, as is common on many boards across Texas, are expected to police themselves and report conflicts so they can abstain from voting. The TPC ethics policy is mostly verbatim the state’s ethics guidelines, which make violations either a criminal or civil complaint.

While the policy has ethics rules about conflicts of interest, they are rarely, if ever, applied. In the past decade, no disclosure form has been filed by a member of the transportation policy council based on prior open records requests and the recent analysis. Conflict of interest disclosures have been filed by H-GAC board members, however, including Zimmerman in that capacity.

The analysis has led to changes internally, meanwhile, for the policy council. Meetings now include a reminder at the beginning for members to submit declarations of any conflicts of interest.

Three separate parts of state codes outline conflict of interest, as it could be applied for transportation council members. State law requires an elected official to declare a conflict if they have a “substantial interest” in a business, defined as owning 10 percent of the company’s stock or deriving 10 percent or more of one’s gross income from the company. Another portion of the law requires any member of a board to abstain from voting on an item that includes something in which they have a business relationship.

Texas Transportation Code, meanwhile, sets out specific ethics rules for metropolitan planning organizations. In that section, it says board members may not “accept other employment or compensation that could reasonably be expected to impair the member’s or employee’s independence of judgment in the performance of the member’s or employee’s official duties.”

The provision, however, only allows for someone to file a complaint with the district attorney’s office, which can — if it thinks the allegation has merit — ask for assistance from the Texas Ethics Commission.

I make no judgment about the merits of the accusations here – I’d not heard of this before now, and I don’t know enough to say anything substantive. You can read the rest of the story and draw your own conclusions. What I will say is that as much as I’d like to crap on H-GAC, the real problem here is the Legislature and its longstanding allergy to ethics and ethics enforcement. On the list of priorities the Lege should have, I can’t say this is up there. It still boggles the mind that there isn’t even a mechanism to force a clearly unethical member of a body like H-GAC to resign. Yes, a criminal complaint can be filed – that would be the case regardless of what the statutes relating to these rules say – but there’s a significant gap between what’s illegal and what’s merely unethical. What we’re left with is an unsatisfactory mess for all involved. We deserve better.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Be Someone” to “Vote or Die” to “No War Know Peace”

The latest version of Houston’s most widely seen public art/public forum.

Credit: Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Chandrika Metivier considers themselves fearless.

Two weeks ago, Metivier was taking a personal safety risk on a bridge above I-45, painting the words ‘No War Know Peace’ in protest of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine where the infamous “Be Someone” graffiti lived for years.

This is the third time the mid-twenty-year-old made the risky decision to change the sign and hopes that by claiming their name to the alteration, along with their recent viral TikTok moment, the Houston-based multidisciplinary artist will control the direction their artistic career will go.

“There’s probably no other way I wanted to emerge into the public eye,” Metivier said. “There have been opportunities to go in a very corporate industry route.”

“I never wanted that.”

Metivier has always been interested in grassroots organizing and calls to action, one of the reasons they first changed the ‘Be Someone’ graffiti to read ‘Vote or Die’ before the 2020 presidential election.

“I really just wanted to empower people to vote,” Metivier said. “I wanted it to be as neutral as possible but also enough to spark conversation. Something about using that slogan, which was coined by Diddy, gets the conversation going. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Metivier said they are fully aware of the risks of vandalizing the bridge. According to the Houston Police Department, the city does have a graffiti ordinance that treats the crime as a misdemeanor if the damage is less than $500, and a felony if damages are more than $500. A spokesperson for the Houston Police Department said that the legality of the ‘Be Someone’ bridge graffiti is tricky because the railway is owned by Union Pacific. The Chronicle reached out to Union Pacific about the graffiti but did not receive a response.

Aside from the legal ramifications, it’s also dangerous, from the painting process to getting there in the first place. “There’s like a two foot gap where the highway is. So you could fall,” Metivier said.

For Metivier, the point of painting messages like “No War Know Peace” is to make a difference.

“There have been times when there have been meaningless messages on the bridge,” Metivier said. “So I’m like, I’m gonna get my message up there because no one else is going to go up there and do it.”

The bridge in question is near where I live – I’ve driven under it a million times. In case you missed it, here’s Vote or Die from 2020. The original “Be Someone” message, which had been there for a long time and which was restored after the 2020 election, has been moved to a new location after being vandalized one time too many. You can see the artist’s Instagram post about the current message. I’m still hoping to read a story about how they get up their and actually do the painting. It’s obviously not for the faint of heart. Whatever the case, I salute you, Chandrika Metivier. Thank you for making Houston a more visually interesting and engaging place.

The hotly contested SD15 primary

This may be the most compelling primary race in the county.

Sen. John Whitmire

On the last day for candidates to file for the 2022 primary in Texas, things were looking good for state Sen. John Whitmire.

The longtime Democrat, sitting on an $11 million campaign war chest, had recently announced his plan to run for mayor of Houston in 2023. The more pressing matter — Whitmire’s re-election to the state Senate in 2022 — seemed a mere formality, with the filing deadline hours away and no other Democrat running in his deep-blue district.

Instead, Whitmire drew a last-minute challenge from Molly Cook, an emergency room nurse and progressive activist who appears to be the incumbent senator’s most formidable opponent in decades.

The longest-serving member of the Senate, Whitmire is heading into Tuesday’s election with clear-cut advantages over Cook, having outspent her roughly 3-to-1 and represented the district since nearly a decade before she was born. Still, Whitmire’s declared — and potential — mayoral opponents are keeping a close eye on the contest, which poses a fresh test of the senator’s electoral strength in a district that takes in a large chunk of the Houston electorate.

Whitmire said he takes “each and every opponent very seriously,” including Cook. He has shaped his re-election bid around his 39 years of experience in the Senate, arguing that his knowledge of the legislative process and presence on key committees — as chair of the Criminal Justice Committee and a member of the budget-shaping Finance and Business & Commerce committees — give him clout even in the Republican-dominated chamber.

“I think my chairmanship of Criminal Justice is reason alone for people to support me,” said Whitmire, 72. “Experience matters. … I don’t even think it’s a close call on who is prepared, from Day One, to represent Houston.”

Molly Cook

Though Cook, 30, is making her first run for elected office, she entered the race after spending more than a year as a lead organizer behind Stop TxDOT I-45, the group opposing the state transportation agency’s controversial $7 billion plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston. She said her deep ties to grassroots organizing would shape her approach to serving in the Senate, vowing to seek input from community advocates through “bottom-up planning.”

At the same time, Cook argues that Whitmire — who was elected to the House in 1972, while a senior at the University of Houston, before moving to the Senate a decade later — has lost touch with the district through his nearly half-century in office. She has also accused Whitmire of “running for two offices at once” by way of his early mayoral announcement.

At a forum in late January, Cook said Whitmire’s “way of doing things is no longer serving our district or our state. She touted her own “fresh perspective and public health and policy expertise.”

“Sen. Whitmire has been in the Legislature since he was 23,” Cook said. “I have the experience of being a health care worker, making sacrifices to afford my health care, renting my home, and grassroots organizing. Sen. Whitmire is weighed down by experience, decades of campaign contributions, backroom deals and protecting personal political capital.”

Whitmire insists that he is completely focused on his current election, and dismissed charges from Cook that he would already have one foot out the door during the 2023 legislative session. He noted that Mayor Sylvester Turner also ran for re-election to the state House in 2014, even as he was gearing up for a mayoral run the following year.

“Nothing matters more to me right now than the Senate race. Any future race, we’ll take up after this race. I see no conflict,” Whitmire said. “So, that’s just a smokescreen. My opponent had to say something. She’s not going to say I’m a good guy. She should, but, you know, there’s no core Democratic issue to talk about. I voted nearly exactly like (state Sens.) Borris Miles and Carol Alvarado. We work very closely as a delegation.”

As a reminder, my interview with Sen. Whitmire is here, and my interview with Molly Cook is here. There are a lot of Molly Cook signs in my neighborhood. I wouldn’t claim we’re indicative of anything, but it’s interesting to me anyway. I know Cook has blockwalked here – she knocked on my door a few weeks ago – and as far as I know Whitmire has not. That can make a difference, especially in a neighborhood like mine that is often not visited by canvassers. It’s also the case that the I-45 expansion plan is very unpopular here – we have been dreading TxDOT’s plans for I-45 for at least the last 20 years – and I suspect that Cook has found more than a few supporters by talking about her involvement in the opposition to TxDOT.

I also think that Whitmire’s announcement of his Mayoral campaign last November didn’t do him any favors. Whitmire has noted correctly that Mayor Turner ran for re-election in 2014 and then served ably in the Legislature in 2015 before his successful Mayoral campaign. I don’t remember Turner announcing his Mayoral candidacy that early, though it was hardly a secret that he intended to run. It may just be that things are different now, and people feel differently about that. It also may be that the backlash to Whitmire’s dual candidacy announcement is totally overblown and nothing more than a tempest in the teapot-sized world of the very inside and very online local politics contingent. Ask me again after the election results come in.

One more thing:

Even if Cook loses, a strong showing could establish her as a frontrunner in what would likely be a crowded race to replace Whitmire if he wins the November 2023 mayoral race, said University of Houston political science associate professor Jeronimo Cortina.

“Perhaps what she wants to do is get on the ballot early and claim that particular space that is going to be opened,” Cortina said. “I think it’s a smart move on her behalf.”

If she comes up short next week, Cook said she would likely run for the seat again if the opportunity arises in 2024.

“I don’t like to make promises or commitments looking forward, because anything could happen,” Cook said. “But I would say that there’s a high likelihood.”

I fully expect that Cook has an eye on 2024, because winning this race was always going to be tough, and because there is an opening for someone to get in front of the field for that potential special election. One step at a time, obviously. We can talk about this after the election as well.

Here comes Waymo on I-45

They’ve actually been on this road for a couple of months, but now they’re doing more.

Waymo will begin hauling freight for North America’s largest logistics firm on autonomous big rigs traveling between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45.

The California-based subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., announced the partnership Wednesday with C.H. Robinson, which moves 20 million shipments a year. The self-driving trucks will carry a safety driver in the front seat.

Waymo spokesperson Julianne McGoldrick said pilot runs will start in the coming months on what is becoming a common Dallas-to-Houston testing ground. Waymo has been hauling freight between the Texas cities with self-driving trucks since last year for other partners like J.B. Hunt and UPS.

[…]

In partnership with France-based public transport company Transdev, the Texas routes will create hundreds of jobs at Waymo’s new 9-acre hub in South Dallas. The new hub was built specifically for Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous trucking operations and accommodates hundreds of trucks from its carrier partners.

In June, Waymo began testing self-driving freight runs between Fort Worth and Houston on Interstate 45 in partnership with trucking company J.B. Hunt. The company reported zero accidents or speeding events involving the vehicles, concluding that the trials were a success. This led to a long-term partnership with the trucking company.

McGoldrick said Texas’ reputation as one of the biggest freight hubs in the U.S. makes it a key spot to test the vehicles. The Dallas-to-Houston route on Interstate 45 is especially important because it connects freight arriving at major cargo airports such as DFW International and AllianceTexas and at railroad yards in southern Dallas with Houston’s busy shipping port.

“We can test our Waymo Driver on highly dense highways and shipper lanes, further understand how other truck and passenger car drivers behave on these routes, and continue to refine the way our Waymo Driver reacts and responds in these busy driving regions as we advance our operations,” McGoldrick said.

As noted, driverless trucks love I-45. That post mentioned Waymo’s entry into I-45 trucking, but I didn’t have a post specifically about it. Just another thing to watch out for if you’re driving that same route. The Dallas Observer has more.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians.

Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

[…]

After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Specifically, Rogers said FHWA “is not prepared at this time to allow TxDOT to resume any right-of-way acquisition in Segment 3.” TxDOT, he added, could acquire properties from owners who approach it on a case-by-case basis “rather than relying on eminent domain.”

See here and here for some background; the story also references the lawsuit filed by Harris County that has been temporarily paused to allow the discussion that led to this agreement. It seems like the intent was to keep I-45 on the TxDOT project list for at least a little longer, to see if an agreement among all the parties can be reached. I don’t know how likely that is, but it never hurts to talk.

Though there is concern about the project’s impacts in Midtown, Third Ward and Eado, the most vocal opposition to the project emanates from north of downtown where TxDOT proposes to add two managed lanes in each direction to I-45. That widening, which requires the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses adjacent to the freeway, has drawn scorn and accusations that highway officials are perpetuating decades of carving freeways through low-income and minority communities to the detriment of those neighborhoods.

“Wider highways are not an appropriate or effective intervention to expand commerce opportunities, and they do not expand opportunities for those bearing the greatest burdens of the expansion,” more than 15 groups wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, released Tuesday. “Highway construction and expansion interrupt lives, displace people from their homes and businesses, and decimate generational wealth, especially in communities of color.”

The letter, a response to a letter sent by seven Houston-area Congressman urging Buttigieg to not impede the project, was drafted by Stop TxDOT I-45, which formed to oppose the project, along with Air Alliance Houston and 14 environmental, community or left-leaning groups.

See here for more on that, and here for the response letter, which also observes that the people who want to get the I-45 project going don’t represent those who will be affected by it. I doubt there’s an agreement that satisfies everyone, but there are definitely options that do a better job of minimizing harm and promoting equity. That’s what we need to aim for.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans want to get the I-45 project going again

We all want things.

Seven Republican members of Congress from the Houston area are urging federal transportation officials to quickly wrap up a review of Texas’ planned Interstate 45 rebuild, arguing that much of the opposition to the project is “disingenuous” and has come from national environmentalist groups.

In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls and six of his GOP colleagues criticized the Federal Highway Administration’s move to study the I-45 project’s effect on low-income and minority communities, which has put the rebuild on pause since June.

The Republican congressmen said the project would help alleviate traffic congestion, “establish I-45 as a viable hurricane evacuation route” and expand “commerce opportunities,” among other benefits for the Houston region. And while Buttigieg has sided with local officials and advocates who say the plan overly disrupts low-income and minority communities, the GOP officials said the federal halt on the project “will place the people you purport to be concerned about at a severe economic disadvantage and endanger their safety.”

Nehls, R-Richmond, was joined in signing the letter by U.S. Reps. Brian Babin, Kevin Brady, Michael Cloud, Dan Crenshaw, Michael McCaul and Randy Weber. They also argued that “a disturbing amount of opposition to the project is coming from outside of Texas,” noting that the Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement are backing a local group’s efforts to halt the project.

“While we support and appreciate local communities engaging in government and the decisions that impact them, it is disingenuous to cloak radical environmentalism with the alleged local considerations,” the letter reads.

See here and here for some background – basically, the Federal Highways Administration is following up on a request to investigate the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities and its environmental toll; they’re also reviewing an agreement with TxDOT that allows the state agency to approve its own projects. Both of these will take some time, and while it’s reasonable to ask how long they may take, sometimes the answer’s gonna be “as long as it takes”. There’s also a lawsuit filed by Harris County to make TxDOT review the environmental review of the project, which needless to say would set things back a long way. I don’t know that Secretary Buttigieg could give these guys an answer that would satisfy them even if he wanted to. It’s fine by me if he just tells them they’ll need to be patient.

By the way, in the current Congressional map, Reps. Cloud, McCaul, and Babin have districts that do not include any piece of I-45. In the new map, the piece of Rep. Nehls’ district that crossed I-45 is now in Rep. Babin’s. I guess when their buddy asks them to sign a letter, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with them for it to get signed.

Still more driverless trucks

A familiar story by now.

Some trucks hauling FedEx deliveries from Dallas to Houston may soon be missing a key feature: drivers.

Autonomous vehicle company Aurora announced this month it has partnered with FedEx and truck-manufacturer PACCAR to begin testing driverless big rigs along the 250-mile stretch of I-45 between Texas’ two largest cities. While the trucks will make the trek with a safety driver up front until at least 2023, almost all of the roadway decision-making and driving will be left to Aurora’s software systems and location-sensing hardware.

Gerardo Interiano, VP of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Aurora, said Texas seemed like an obvious place to test their trucking service.

“Trucking is the backbone of our economy, and Texas moves more goods by truck than any other state,” he said. “The weather is favorable and it’s a welcoming state for new technologies, both of which are advantageous as we refine and deploy our technology and service with a trusted transportation company like FedEx.”

[…]

Aurora’s trucks will deal exclusively with “middle mile” applications, which usually involve shipping goods between large cities. They will not yet experiment with last-mile deliveries, which deliver products directly to stores and doorsteps, or cross-country trips. The trucks will pick up loads at a delivery facility on the outskirts of Dallas and drop them off at a FedEx facility north of Houston, avoiding the more congested and urban stretches of the freeway.

The new trucks will use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar, which uses reflected light and the Doppler effect to detect traffic conditions about 1,000 feet up the road.

The story notes some autonomous car rollouts in various Texas cities, but does not note that there have been announcements of driverless trucks in Texas before, with Otto supposed to be on I-45 and TuSimple on I-10. I have no idea if they are actually doing the things they claimed to be ready to do in 2019, but they did claim them, and now they have more company. Mashable and TechCrunch have more.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 effect on Metro

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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