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I-45

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.

Bike lanes coming to Shepherd/Durham corridor

Nice.

Houston officials with some regional help have nearly solved funding a $100 million rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that adds bike lanes, wider sidewalks, improved drainage and new concrete to one of the most car-centric corridors within Loop 610. Regional officials Friday approved committing $40 million of the cost, using locally controlled federal highway funds.

All those additions, however, come with the loss of a driving lane on each street, reducing them to three lanes each.

Work is scheduled to start on the northern segment in fiscal 2022, from Loop 610 to 15th Street. Construction is expected to move south of 15th about a year later to Interstate 10.

It is the latest major effort by city officials to add cycling amenities along bustling and traffic-logged corridors that officials said will not significantly choke drivers and offer others crucial links to trails and upcoming transit projects.

“It is critical we have inter-modal transportation,” said Houston District C Councilwoman Abbie Kamin.

She said the rebuilds of Shepherd and Durham — planned since 2013 — were among her priority projects when she took office in January because of the rapid redevelopment happening along the two streets. Car sales lots, warehouses and other businesses are being replaced by mid-rise apartment buildings and new commercial centers between I-10 and Loop 610.

“We have so many great places coming in but people can’t walk or ride to get there,” Kamin said.

[…]

The southern segment is vital because I-10 at Shepherd/Durham is also where Metropolitan Transit Authority plans a new stop on a future bus rapid transit line along the freeway from its Northwest Transit Center near Uptown to downtown. A completed bike lane would provide a direct link so someone could bike to a bus depot where they could hop on transit that would connect them to the two largest clusters of jobs in the region.

“It gives people a way to get to transit without driving their cars,” said Maureen Crocker, deputy director of transportation planning in the Transportation and Drainage Operations Department of Houston Public Works.

Support for funding the street redesign came from a wide swath of elected officials. Texas Republicans Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose zig-zagged district includes the Shepherd-Durham corridor as well as Kingwood, wrote letters of support along with Houston-area Democrats led by Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“It just shows the importance of this project,” Kamin said.

Aside from the bike benefits, officials said the rebuild restores streets that have waited years for repairs, including cross streets such as 20th that are riddled with chipped-away pothole patches. By eliminating the fourth lane of traffic, federal officials said in their grant award last year, the street project also improves safety by shortening the distance drivers and pedestrians must travel to safely cross the streets.

With phase two funded, Kamin said that leaves a small segment from I-10 south to Washington unpaid for, but she said officials are optimistic they can work to get the final pieces in place.

I’m glad to see this. CM Kamin is exactly right about the changing nature of this corridor. Among other things, there are a lot of new restaurants in that area, which should draw customers from the immediate area. Ideally, those folks would be able to walk or bike there, as they would in other neighborhoods that don’t have what are basically four-lane freeways running through them. This is a big step towards making that happen, and that will be a real boon for the area. It’s also important to remember that even in Houston there are a lot of folks who don’t have cars, and a project like this is going to make how they travel, whether by foot or bike or bus, safer as well.

I feel compelled at this point to confess that fifteen years or so ago, during an earlier phase of the “rebuild and expand I-45 south of Beltway 8” project, I advocated for turning this corridor into a better and faster automotive alternative to I-45 – basically, using the Shepherd/Durham corridor as extra capacity for I-45, so we could maybe get away with adding less capacity to that freeway. I’m sure there’s a blog post to that effect somewhere in my archives, because I definitely remember writing something along those lines, but I don’t feel like spelunking for it. Point is, that was a bad idea that I’m glad no one took seriously. I was myopically concerned about one thing, and didn’t consider how it would affect other people and places. It’s crazy to think what this area might look like now if Shepherd and Durham had been modified to be even more highway-like. What we have now is so much better and about to be even more so. It’s good to remind myself sometimes that I’m as big an idiot as anyone else.

Who gets displaced by I-45?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The city’s vision for I-45

I like the way this is shaping up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro slows its roll on system improvements

Not a surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better way to do I-45

From Michael Skelley on Facebook:

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

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

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

Please let us know what you think!

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

Crunch time for I-45

The rubber is meeting the road, as it were.

Three Houston Planning Department meetings scheduled for this week, days prior to a key state deadline, could prove pivotal in shaping how Interstate 45 is rebuilt — with ramifications for years to come.

The meetings, which start Thursday, will be the first chances for residents opposing the $7 billion-plus project to realign and widen I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway to view the city’s proposed adjustments, which Houston will convey to the Texas Department of Transportation this spring.

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner tasked Houston planning officials to develop a set of recommendations to TxDOT aiming to address community complaints and how the projects can overcome them. Those recommendations and TxDOT’s response, city officials said, will determine their next steps.

“He is prepared to say ‘thanks but no thanks if that is what the decision is,’” District H Councilwoman Karla Cisneros said of Turner.

In the meantime, TxDOT is moving ahead in its environmental process on the project, releasing 641 pages of its draft environmental report outlining community impacts along the roughly 18-mile route, including the removal of 1,079 homes — including 433 apartments and 486 units deemed low-income or public housing — 344 businesses, 58 billboards, five churches and two schools.

The two reports, available for public comment until Feb. 7, are the final two pieces of the draft environmental analysis TxDOT must complete before a final environmental report is released.

As state officials proceed, however, there is a growing sense that opponents — who have spent the past year vocally urging changes — are transitioning from improving the project to opposing it.

“I have come to the conclusion talking to TxDOT is a waste of time,” project critic Michael Skelly told the Jan. 11 gathering, encouraging people to lean on city and state officials to apply pressure.

Well, lots of people have concluded that the I-45 project is more bad than good, though the TxDOT plan is supported by Metro because of HOV capacity increases, which factor into its mobility plan. I would encourage you to review those city recommendations and try to attend one or more of these meetings – you can find the time and place information at either the city link or the story link. I still don’t think there’s any stopping this behemoth, but there’s still time to try to change it.

What can we really do about I-45?

Urban planner Jeff Speck is once again warning us about the negative effects of widening I-45.

TxDOT cites three principal motivations for advancing the I-45 project: reducing traffic congestion, improving driver safety, and improving air quality. These laudable goals are apparently considered important enough to outweigh the significant costs discussed above. And they might be — if they were achievable.

Sadly, each one is a false promise. Decades of similar state projects around the U.S., each with its own ample justification, teach a simple lesson: highway widenings do not reduce congestion in the long run, and make both driver safety and air quality worse.

[…]

If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure.

This need not happen. Houston has the ability to stop the I-45 expansion in its tracks, just as Dallas stopped the Trinity Parkway. That proposed roadway was called “the worst boondoggle imaginable” despite costing only one-fifth of the current I-45 plan. It took a 10-year fight, but the good people of Dallas rose up and killed it.

Meanwhile, Houston’s fatalistic response to its TxDOT incursion has been to just “make I-45 better.” The well-resourced but cautious Make I-45 Better Coalition has proposed a collection of modifications, all good, that unfortunately do not begin to question the underlying folly of fighting congestion, car crashes, and tailpipe emissions by welcoming more driving.

Here’s how to make I-45 better: first, fix the parts that need repair, without making them any wider. At the same time, introduce congestion-based pricing on the entire roadway to maximize its capacity around the clock. Invest the proceeds in transit, biking, walking, and in those poor people who truly have no choice but to keep driving.

Unlike highway widenings, congestion-based pricing reduces traffic, driving deaths, and pollution, all while earning billions rather than wasting them. It has worked wherever it’s been tried, including London, Stockholm, and Sydney, and it is about to become law in New York City. Even Dallas has been experimenting with congestion-based pricing for years.

Speck has addressed the I-45 expansion plan before, and I find him very compelling. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that there is no current mechanism in Texas to do the things he advocates. TxDOT, as the name implies, is a state agency, with leaders appointed by the Governor. Houston has no authority to impose any kind of pricing on I-45, and TxDOT also has no authority under current law to do congestion pricing, because TxDOT does not operate the toll roads and toll-based HOV lanes that do have that kind of authority. The now-dead Trinity Parkway project was not a TxDOT project but a local project under the auspices of a regional toll road authority.

What I’m saying is that the fight over I-45 isn’t in Houston, it is – or it needs to be – in Austin, in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. You want TxDOT to have a different mission, one that emphasizes transit over highway widening, you need a different Legislature and a different Governor. You want cities to have the authority to impose congestion pricing rules, with the revenue to be used to boost non-automobile mobility, you need to get that new Legislature to pass a law allowing for it, and a Governor to sign it. We can take one step towards those goals next year, but the Governor and the Senate aren’t up for grabs till 2022 (yes, there are Senators on the ballot in 2020, but only one Republican-held seat is a realistic target, and that won’t be enough). What do we do till then? The Make I-45 Better Coalition may be a limited response to a big problem, but at least their goals are achievable in the current time frame. If we want to think big – and we should! – we also have to play the longer game.