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Medical Center

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

Patrick’s blackmail bill goes to the House

The assault on the will of the voters takes another step forward.

The Texas Senate voted 30-1 for Sen. Dan Patrick’s bill to broaden the exemption from Houston’s drainage fee to cover non-profit groups and expansion by churches and schools.

The City Council on Wednesday agreed to exempt existing church and school facilities, and most county government facilities.

“They didn’t exempt new churches and schools in the future, or if a school or church were to expand. They call it a fee. It’s a tax,” Patrick said. “Their bill didn’t include exempting non-profits. This is a time when we need our non-profits to be spending their money on services as government is cutting back.”

Patrick said the Texas Medical Center had testified that it believed a non-profit medical center should be exempt from the fee.

“The city has said this is a local control issue. Had they just gone the next step in their bill yesterday, there wouldn’t have been a need for this legislation,” Patrick said.

First of all, what do non-profits have to do with this? Far as I know, they weren’t even brought up during the election, certainly not to the extent that schools and churches and county-owned buildings were. You’d think that the Medical Center, which suffered terrible flooding losses, including a couple of deaths, during TS Allison back in 2001, would be eager to do what it can to help the city improve its drainage capabilities. And the richness of Dan Patrick, who is doing his level best to increase the burden on charities by cutting off all other forms of social support, piously telling the city to cut them some slack is enough to make my head explode. Does the man have any self-awareness at all?

So now it’s off to the House, where its prospects are unknown to me. If it does get passed, there will surely be expensive and time-consuming litigation to follow. And when Rick Perry signs it into law, I hope Annise Parker tells him to take that meaningless unfunded mandates commission of his and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Midtown development

The Sunday Chron had a look at some new development coming to Main Street near the Ensemble/HCC station. In it was this observation about what had previously been built in the area:

When the Main Street light rail line opened in 2004, there were hopes that transit-oriented developments would follow, particularly at rail stops, but there has been relatively little growth.

One notable exception is the block next door to the soon-to-open shops at 3600 Main, at the Ensemble/HCC stop: 3700 Main, which houses the Continental Club, the Breakfast Klub, T’Afia, Julia’s Bistro and Mink bar. Four businesses on the 3700 block — the Continental Club, Tacos A-Go Go, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Top Lounge — were developed by Bob Schultz and his partners Steve Wertheimer and Gordon, and investors. Some of those businesses, including the Continental Club, predate light rail.

[…]

Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a group aiming to enhance the street, offered reasons why only a relative few blocks have been developed along the rail line: land speculation, which causes real estate prices to soar and makes development less desirable; the lack of incentives to encourage development; and the recession.

It all depends on how you look at it. Christof Spieler documented in 2007 a whole bunch of new construction and renovation work done along and nearby the Main Street Corridor. The vast majority of it was downtown or in the Medical Center, though there were a few things in Midtown. My own observation is that much of what I’ve seen happen in Midtown, before and since the construction of the light rail line, has happened on the streets near Main Street, but not so much on Main Street. For whatever the reason, that’s been a much tougher nut to crack.

More on the city-county TIRZ deal

The Chron does a kind of big picture overview story of the city-county TIRZ deal that we heard about earlier this week.

If successful, the months-long negotiations between the city and Harris County could provide a solution for problems that have vexed both sides for years, including redevelopment of the Reliant Astrodome, construction of a new jail and a new professional soccer stadium.

But that could be a very big if, according to numerous city and county officials. All the factors that led the two bodies to disagree before are still at play, as well as a new wrinkle: that the success of the plans would depend on the use of tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, a financing vehicle typically used more to generate economic development than pay for major capital projects.

“I’ve never been a big fan of the TIRZ,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, who said he will wait to see the completed proposal before deciding whether to support it. “It assumes that property values are going to go up and are going to be worth a certain amount, but as we’ve seen with the downturn in the economy, maybe it doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to work out.”

Emmett said the public must be assured that the use of TIRZs is not just a means to circumvent a public bond election, given that one of the possible projects that could come from the negotiations — a new jail — was rejected by voters last year.

[…]

The city-county proposal involves four TIRZs: two that already exist near downtown and two the city would create for use by Harris County. City and county officials stressed that the negotiations have been dynamic and that the TIRZs are really more of a mechanism for development possibilities.

The first step, and the most advanced in the negotiations, would be for the county to join the East Downtown TIRZ near the George R. Brown Convention Center. Using TIRZ tax money and bond proceeds, the city and county would pay $20 million for the infrastructure improvements around a new soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamo that also could be used by Texas Southern University. The stadium itself, which would be jointly owned by the city and county, would be built by the Dynamo with $60 million in private funds.

The second element involves the county joining one existing TIRZ and the city creating another, both in the general downtown area. Tax revenue and bond sales would not be committed to any specific project but eventually could be used for a new county administration building or joint booking facility that would allow the city to close its two jails. The city has budgeted $33 million for the joint booking center in its five-year capital improvement plan.

The last element would be the creation of a TIRZ around the area of Reliant Stadium that eventually could include the redevelopment of the Astrodome. The area, close to the booming Texas Medical Center, is likely to see numerous major development projects when the economy picks up steam again, city and county officials said.

The Dynamo Stadium deal, which has been in the works for over two years now, should be straightforward and non-controversial. If Commissioners Lee and Garcia, in whose precincts the affected area is, want this to happen, it will happen. The jail stuff, you know the score. If it’s simply a replacement facility, I’m okay with the idea; if it’s an expansion, I’m not. Who knows what the Dome stuff will be about, but I do agree that the area, which has already seen a lot of new development projects, will continue to be very active. We’ll see what the details are and what they do with it.

Bonding Metro

It wouldn’t be Metro if there weren’t drama.

Metro has not obtained performance or payment bonds to cover all the planned construction of four new light rail lines, and some officials say that could put taxpayer dollars at risk.

Metro President Frank Wilson said the transit agency has not made a final decision, but tentatively plans to use a different form of risk management, called parent guarantees, to make sure the four major companies fulfill their obligations and pay their subcontractors on the $1.46 billion contract.

The four companies are Parsons Transportation Group, Granite Construction Co., Kiewit Texas Construction L.P. and Stacy and Witbeck Inc. They have formed a joint venture known as “Houston Rapid Transit.”

Wilson’s announcement at a July board meeting aroused the concern of the national surety industry, which provides the bonds for construction projects by public agencies. Some local officials also questioned the decision.

Texas statute requires public agencies to obtain performance bonds on construction contracts larger than $100,000 and payment bonds on contracts larger than $25,000. Metro did use performance bonds during the construction of the Main Street rail line.

“By Metro not putting these bonds in place the taxpayer is potentially liable,” said Peter Brown, a Houston City Council member and mayoral candidate. “We do these for every major project at the city of Houston. Metro has been planning the light rail project for a long time, and if they needed to find protection for the taxpayers through another means they should have taken that up with the Legislature this past session.”

[…]

Wilson said that Metro was complying with the state law but had to explore a different method because performance bonds for a $1.46 billion contract would be too expensive and difficult to obtain. “We went out and got 100 percent performance bonds, just not in the traditional way,” he said. Bond underwriters object because they can’t get business from the contract, he said.

Wilson said that the contract ensures the four parent companies share “joint and several liability” for the proper building of the new light rail system. “They have pledged their corporate assets,” he added.

[…]

A parent guarantee is written into contract language, while a performance bond is issued by a regulated, third-party underwriter with deep pockets, said Peter Linzer, a University of Houston business law professor. Although a parent company involved in a joint venture may also have deep pockets, and may pledge to make good on any disputes or failures of subcontractors, there is still some risk it could go under.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a performance bond is not the same as a parent guarantee,” Linzer said.

I’m not a finance guy, so I’m not going to try to analyze this stuff. I get that the issue is the risk that the public could wind up on the hook in the event things go south. What I don’t see in this story, maybe because it’s not possible to accurately quantify at this point, is how big this risk is. Metro is claiming their way of doing this is less expensive, and that the tradeoff in increased risk is minimal. How valid are those claims? I don’t have a feel for that based on this story.

On a tangential note, Metro and the Medical Center have settled the lawsuit filed by the Med Center over stray current from the Main Street line. One less thing for Metro to have to deal with.

A solution in search of a problem

We were out of town over the weekend, so I managed to miss this Bill King op-ed about the “need” to elevate the Main Street line on Fannin in the Medical Center area. Having now read it, I have three things to say.

Generally it only takes one trip through the Texas Medical Center (TMC) on Fannin for a person to swear off the route permanently. It is a driver’s nightmare with dozens of indecipherable signs and lights giving directions. There have been several train-pedestrian and train-auto accidents in the area. And the traffic … well, let’s not even go there.

Many have questioned the wisdom of a multibillion-dollar investment that crams a new modal system into the same horizontal plane already crowded with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Most of the great, iconic transit systems, such as the New York subway, Washington’s Metro or Chicago’s “L,” are grade separated from street traffic. Even Dallas’ DART is largely grade separated.

The problem with grade separating our rail system is, of course, the increased cost. Estimates range from twice to five times as expensive. When we built the Main Street line, we did so without any federal funds. As a result, Metro took a number of shortcuts to contain the cost. One of those shortcuts was the contorted maze through the TMC.

[…]

The line could begin a gentle incline around Hermann Park and continue above the street level to the south side of Brays Bayou. The rail line could be tied into the elevated walkways between the buildings on either side of Fannin, providing easy, ADA-compliant access. Elevating the rail line both relieves the congestion on Fannin and insulates its circuits from the surrounding infrastructure.

1. Has Bill King forgotten just how congested that stretch of Fannin was before the rail line was built? Because I haven’t. It was a mess, and it took forever to drive through. Among other things, there are bunch of traffic lights on Fannin between Dryden and MacGregor, many of which are not at intersections but at the entrance to parking garages. Those lights are all still there and would continue to impede traffic in the event that the rail line magically disappeared. And it would still be confusing to drive through, especially if you’re headed for one of those garages – I speak from the experience of turning into a garage other than the one I intended to, more than once.

2. King is completely disingenuous about the cost. For one thing, as Metro President David Wolff points out in a letter to the editor, Metro would be competing for federal dollars to do this against its other light rail lines, including those that are in the final stages of getting funding. For another, despite the approving murmurs King’s op-ed got from the anti-rail crowd at blogHouston, doing this would surely garner opposition from those who want to see more rail being built, as it would be a poor use of limited funds, and it wouldn’t make the idea of rail any more popular among the antis; if anything, this would be used as ammunition by them for their argument that rail is “too expensive”. There’s just no value proposition here.

3. Finally, perhaps King hasn’t noticed the large number of people who now park in lots well away from the Medical Center and take the train in. I work a block away from the Smithlands station, and I see people in scrubs coming out of that lot and getting on the train (or getting out of the train and going into the lot) all day long. Every one of those people represents a car that is no longer being driven on Fannin. The rail line does more to relieve traffic congestion there than anything we’ve ever done, and when there are more lines connecting to it, thus making more of the city accessible without getting into a car, that will do even more.

The new Hermann Park train

All aboard!

Hermann Park Conservancy on Saturday will formally unveil $14 million in park improvements, including a new miniature train station, dramatically landscaped grounds and a lakeside plaza featuring a restaurant, gift shop and rest­rooms.

Among other project highlights for the 6-acre tract adjoining the northeastern edge of McGovern Lake, said conservancy executive director Doreen Stoller, were the planting of 300 trees and improvement of a waterway that will drain to Brays Bayou.

Stoller likened the transformation of the area, which abuts parking for the Houston Zoo, to that at downtown’s Discovery Green.

“This is even prettier than I imagined,” she said.

The station will serve as the focal point of the expanded miniature railroad, whose route was lengthened to nearly two miles and now includes stops at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Texas Medical Center and a transfer point to Metro’s light rail system.

We go to the zoo a lot, so we’ve been watching this progress. I can’t wait to take the girls on the new train – they’ll love it. I just hope yesterday’s inclement weather didn’t put a damper on the festivities.

So much for the Fort Bend-Medical Center shuttle

Well, that didn’t last long.

After just six months, the Texas Medical Center has pulled the plug on subsidized express bus service to and from Fort Bend County.

Fort Bend County Commissioners Court members approved an agreement with the Houston medical center in July, which was touted as a way to provide cheap transportation to some of the 14,000 medical center employees in the county.

On Tuesday, court members accepted a termination notice from the medical center, canceling the agreement.

“The use of the service is not what they had projected it was going to be,” said Fort Bend County Transit Director Paulette Shelton.

In July, Texas Medical Center Senior Vice President Joyce Camp said about 14,000 people in the Fort Bend area work at institutions in the medical center, with about 8,300 living in zip codes abutting bus routes originating in Katy and Sugar Land.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Shelton said about 100 people were riding the buses from Fort Bend County to the medical center each morning, and about the same number were riding back after work.

Precinct 4 Commissioner James Patterson said the medical center was expecting 450 riders.

“Let’s face it, when gas was $4 a gallon a lot of people signed up,” he added. “When gas went down to $1.40 a gallon, a lot of people dropped out.”

Link via Hair Balls, which noted that there were a few glitches at first, but it still seemed promising. I don’t know if the concerns about being stranded during the day if an emergency arose dampened demand, or if people just preferred driving, but whatever the reason it’s not terribly encouraging for future rail prospects. I hope some kind of after-action review of customer experiences is performed, so that a potential future successor can learn from this.