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Metro

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.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out it’s not great debuting a transit service in a pandemic

What are you gonna do?

The future of Houston transportation is not moving many people, even as traffic rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and ridership returns to many Metropolitan Transit Authority lines. The Silver Line, billed as a viable alternative to light rail using its own lanes and stations along Post Oak through the heart of Uptown, carried fewer riders in January than 40 of Metro’s bus routes. The line, which comes every 12 minutes and avoids Galleria-area congestion, is a vital route for those using it, but carrying less than 10 percent of the riders it was built for on opening day.

“Every bus that goes by, it’s empty,” said Mike Riley, 61, who lives and works in Uptown. “After all that work, you see maybe three people waiting for a bus.”

Despite stark use of the Silver Line — Houston’s first bus rapid transit project — transit officials are not pushing the panic button, on Post Oak or any of the other 75 miles of bus rapid transit planned in the region.

“These are 50-year projects,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging the line has lower-than-projected ridership but has faced near-constant headwinds since opening in August 2020.

After Uptown officials spent $192 million rebuilding the street to develop the line, operated by Metro, to carry 12,000 riders per day, bus drivers are ferrying fewer than 800 on many work days.

The 60-foot vehicles use a dedicated busway along Loop 610 and their own lanes along a 2.3-mile stretch of Post Oak to deliver bus service more like light rail, stopping only at stations between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 and then Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center near Interstate 69 along Westpark Drive.

Every expectation of Houston transit in the coming years makes those two transit centers major transfer points for buses within the urban core. The Silver Line, built to connect them, is projected to carry more than 30,000 trips daily in 2030 — more than the Red Line light rail does today.

Currently, however, it does a fraction of that, even as the routes around it see a resurgence of use.

[…]

The first few months of Silver Line service have been unprecedented, with a combination of factors hurting transit ridership in general and the Silver Line in particular. COVID dropped transit use, along with most driving, by half in the Houston area. Riders were advised to stay off transit at the exact time Metro otherwise would have offered free rides and a blitz of advertising. Park and ride service, which was expected to be a big lure for commuters into Uptown to hop the Silver Line, dropped from 33,000 trips on a typical day in the region to fewer than 4,000 when the BRT began operating on on Post Oak.

In many cases, those park and ride commuters still are not back. Kastle, a building security data firm that has been tracking office use, estimates only 51.3 percent of office workers in the Houston area have returned to their pre-pandemic desks. In Uptown, where park and ride use long has been tied to tight parking limits in office garages, fewer workers and staggered shifts make it more convenient for some to drive, at least until traffic turns terrible again or plentiful parking dries up.

Not really a whole lot to say here – those last two paragraphs really sum it up. Let’s see what the numbers look like when the park and ride is back to something like full strength. The Silver Line, which will always be the Uptown Line to me, will eventually connect with the Universities and Inner Katy lines, and that should be a boost as well. The timing of its debut could not have been more unfortunate. All we can do is wait it out.

Metro electric bus update

Some new details here.

Within the next year or so, you’ll see electric-powered buses buzzing around Bayou City.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) recently awarded a $22 million contract to Saint-Eustache, Canada-based Nova Bus for the production of 20 battery-powered electric buses. The contract includes an option for another 20 buses.

The first 20 buses, to be manufactured at the Nova Bus factory in Plattsburgh, New York, are expected to be on local roads sometime in in late 2022 or early 2023. They’ll run on the 402 Bellaire Express (Quickline) and 28 OST-Wayside routes.

METRO also plans to test three to five electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Furthermore, METRO is a member of the Automated Bus Consortium, a national organization of transportation agencies working toward development of a full-size, electric-powered automated bus.

METRO is moving toward the purchase of only zero-emission buses by 2030. It eventually wants to operate more than 1,200 electric buses throughout its system. All types of buses account for 1 percent of transportation-caused greenhouse gases in Houston, according to METRO.

See here and here for the background. The late 2022/early 2023 timeline is new information, as is the designation of the routes. The bit about testing hydrogen fuel cell buses is also new, and sent me scurrying off to Google to look for other information.

Battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have similar propulsion systems. Both store energy to power an electric motor. However, in the latter, energy stored as hydrogen is converted to electricity by the fuel cell, rather than being stored in a rechargeable battery.

Electric car sales reached 3 million in 2020, up 40 percent from 2019, with some 10 million electric cars now on the world’s roads. Registrations of hydrogen cars remain three orders of magnitude lower than this, and there are just 26,000 on the road globally, concentrated in three countries: Korea, the US (largely California), and Japan. While there remain several hydrogen fuel cell cars available on the market, made by the likes of Toyota and Hyundai, they tend to be more expensive than battery electric cars and can currently be difficult to fuel: Hydrogen is costly to buy, and there are far fewer refueling stations than recharging points in most places.

But when it comes to larger vehicles, the picture is not quite so clear. As vehicles get bigger, it becomes harder to electrify them, with increasingly large batteries needed. For energy-intensive applications like long-haul trucks, some experts say hydrogen may be the best option.

Buses lie somewhere in between cars and trucks on this spectrum. “The massive issue is the mass of the buses,” says James Dixon, a researcher in modeling energy and transport systems at the University of Oxford. “Batteries have an energy density that is comparatively small: The energy density is around 1/40th of the energy density of a liquid hydrocarbon fuel, like petrol or diesel.” Hydrogen also has a relatively low energy density (the amount of energy that can be stored per unit volume mass or area)—around four to five times lower than petroleum fuels, but far higher than electric batteries, he adds.

China already has around 5,300 hydrogen fuel cell buses on its roads, the vast majority of the global fleet, but other countries are investing in the technology. Neil Collins, managing director of Northern Ireland-based bus manufacturer Wrightbus, says his company is technology agnostic and is making both battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses. It feeds journey data from its bus operator customers into a tool to model different driving cycles for its vehicles, to help them find the best technical solution for that particular route.

Advantages of hydrogen include shorter refueling times and an often larger tank range. But hydrogen technology and infrastructure is more expensive, says Collins, while the skill sets in the industry for using electric buses are also likely higher than for hydrogen. Dixon also notes that one concern about hydrogen has always been its safety. “It’s got quite wide flammability limits, and it’s notoriously difficult to keep in a pressurized container without it leaking,” he says. “In terms of infrastructure, electricity is a lot easier, because you don’t need liquid fuel trucks driving around.”

Still, hydrogen may be a better option in a city with lots of hills, like Hong Kong, where it’s also very warm and humid, says Collins. “That’s going to be a problem for electric buses, because the cooling and the hills are just going to drain the batteries,” he says. “But if the city is relatively flat, and the journey times are relatively short, and it’s not either significantly warm or significantly cold, battery electric can do a very good job.”

The, uh, flammability issue sounds like a concern, but otherwise it seems like there may be good reasons to at least try this out and see how they work. I’ll be very interested to hear more.

Ambassador Patman

This was a pleasant surprise.

Carrin Patman

President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Houston lawyer and Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman as the nation’s next ambassador to Iceland, according to a White House statement.

“I am presuming nothing. It is up to the Senate,” Patman said, referring questions to the State Department.

In the meantime, Patman, 65, said she has picked up some basic Icelandic.

“Just a little,” she said.

In the statement, Patman said she hoped to “strengthen our cooperation and understanding between the governments of the United States and Iceland.”

[…]

All ambassadorial nominations require Senate confirmation, which for Patman would begin in the Foreign Relations Committee. No timetable has been announced for her confirmation.

Some Biden administration nominees from mid-2021 still are awaiting any movement on their appointments, including Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was renominated last month to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his nomination last year lapsed.

Patman has done a fine job as Metro chair, and Iceland’s gain will be our loss if she is confirmed. I was thinking I should do an exit interview with her, to follow up with the one I did in 2019, to see where we are now that some of those big Metro projects are finally moving, and where we might go from here, but according to an email I got from TAG Houston on Thursday, Mayor Turner has appointed current Board member Sanjay Ramabhadran to be the new Chair. Guess I should be asking him those questions then. Anyway, congrats to Carrin Patman, and best of luck with the confirmation process.

Get ready for more construction in 2022

Happy New Year! Here are the places you’ll want to avoid driving in 2022.

Flush with green, Houston area transportation officials have a whiteboard full of highway and transit projects poised to start in 2022, but rolling out all that blacktop will mean drivers see many more orange cones and construction zones, leaving some feeling blue.

Texas Department of Transportation construction spending is expected to top $2.2 billion for the Houston region for fiscal 2022, which began Sept. 1, nearly double the 2021 total. The projects that money pays for are spread across the region, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, during a discussion with local transportation officials.

“(2022) is going to be a very big year for our region, for the contractors and whatnot,” Koch told members of the Houston-Galveston Council’s transportation advisory committee on Dec. 9. “You will see a lot of barrels and cones out.”

Among the major projects set to break ground in the year are new bridges across Texas 288 to remove many at-grade crossings from the highway and transition more of it to a freeway-like form. Across five different projects, TxDOT has teed up $135.6 million worth of work on overpasses in Brazoria County, along with a $70.9 million planned widening of Texas 36.

[…]

Upcoming construction, meanwhile, does not reflect work spurred by the recently approved federal infrastructure bill. The federal framework, which continues many of the same methods for funding highways and transit, is likely to jump-start a litany of other projects, officials said. Tapping those federal dollars, however, will mean as drivers see more construction zones, local and state officials — along with the engineering and planning firms they hire — will be preparing for even more work.

Much of that work is already planned for Metro, which received voter approval for $7.5 billion in new projects and upgrades in 2019, weeks before COVID changed commuting patterns worldwide. Since, Metro officials have prepped for many of the projects to proceed, with some of the earliest work likely unveiled this year.

Metro is likely to choose a preferred route and potential station locations for a planned busway along Interstate 10 in the next two or three months, allowing transit officials to get in line for federal transit money by mid-2022 as they continue design.

The project is the linchpin in Metro’s expansion of rapid transit from downtown west into Uptown, which is crucial to park-and-ride service in western and northwestern parts of Harris County, officials said.

“The benefits extend beyond those seven miles,” said Amma Cobbinah, a senior transit planner with Metro overseeing the project, noting how the lanes connect downtown to the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, a major stop for park and buses.

Now past the transit center, those commuter routes crawl along I-10 with car and truck traffic to and from downtown, making them far less efficient and timely.

Provided the project stays on pace, officials said they hope to begin construction by late 2023 and start service in 2027.

Work on the so-called Inner Katy is just one of two major bus rapid transit projects Metro is moving forward on in 2022. Transit officials in December unveiled an online open house outlining plans for the University Corridor project, a 25-mile BRT line planned from the Tidwell Transit Center north of Kashmere Gardens, south through Fifth Ward and the Eastside. The line then turns west through Third Ward and Midtown and then through Greenway Plaza and south of Uptown where it connects to the Silver Line that runs along Post Oak.

Eventually, the University Corridor will connect to the Westchase Park and Ride near Westpark and Beltway 8.

And all this also includes the ongoing projects like the 610/59 interchange and I-10 widening out west around Brookshire, not to mention some non-freeway zones. I’m excited about the two BRT projects, both of which will be with us for a couple of years. If we can live through it all, the end results should be well worth it. Drive safe, y’all.

Still no Metro redistricting

Check again in 2031.

Growth in western Harris County outside Houston’s boundaries was not enough to tip Metro’s board to 11 members during the 2020 Census, transit officials said

“It didn’t occur, so we have the same board composition,” said Carrin Patman, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro’s board seats are set by state law. Houston appoints five members to the board no matter the size of the board. As the area outside Houston grows, members are added. Currently, Harris County appoints two members, and the 14 smaller cities that are part of Metro appoint two members.

[…]

When 75 percent of the county population not covered by Houston is in Metro’s coverage area, then the county is entitled to another seat on the transit agency board. Also at that time, the rules shift from Houston’s mayor appointing the chairperson, to the ten-member board — five by the city, three county appointees and the two smaller city designees — picking an 11th member to act as chair.

Using 2020 Census population data, transit agency staff and consultants concluded 2.4 million people live outside Houston in Harris County, with 1.6 million of those within the Metro service area.

The story pegs that at 66.3% for the ratio, so assume there’s some rounding in the total population numbers given. I was pretty sure that I had blogged about this topic before, and sure enough, I did. If anything, the “portion of non-Houston Harris County that is within Metro’s service area” has declined at bit since 2011; at best, it stayed about the same as before. Harris County is growing faster than the city of Houston, but apparently more of that growth is in the non-Metro parts of the county.

I noted back in 2019 that Harris County provides some transit services for the non-Metro parts of the county. This is a subject I feel like I want to know more about, and one that I feel deserves more attention. I realize that right now is not a great time for any transit agency, but we will eventually get past that. To me, all of Harris County should be part of Metro’s service area, including the cities like Pasadena that have not wanted to be included in the past. Indeed, and I have mentioned this before, the longer term goal should be to expand Metro out into Fort Bend and Montgomery and other places where there’s a need, or failing that to ensure better integration between the differing transit agencies and their services. Given the number of governments that would need to be involved, including the Legislature if we want to change what Metro covers, that’s a huge and unwieldy task. All I’m saying here is that the greater region would be much better served with more comprehensive access to transit. Whatever the best way is to get there, let’s start moving in that direction.

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

Get ready for some major construction, but the end result will be well worth it.

Beginning next month, those who travel along North Shepherd Drive and Durham Drive in the Heights are going to have to cope with road construction – for at least the next five years.

For decades after that, though, driving down the parallel, one-way thoroughfares figures to be smooth sailing. And the same goes for walking and cycling.

Construction is expected to start in late January on the Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project, which will overhaul the two north-and-south streets between North Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to the south while adding bicycle lanes, new and wider sidewalks, landscaping and new underground infrastructure for water, wastewater and stormwater drainage. The project could take at least five years to complete, according to president Sherry Weesner of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the $115 million initiative and providing a significant portion of the funding for it.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us, but it’s going to be worth it,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights as part of District C.

[…]

Protected bike lanes have been part of the plan for the TIRZ 5 project between 610 and I-10, where they will be on the east side of both Shepherd and Durham, according to Weesner. METRO bus stops on Shepherd also will be on the east side of the street because there is room to accommodate both, she said, while the bus stops on Durham will be on the west side.

New, wider sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Shepherd and Durham, where vehicular traffic lanes will be reduced from four to three on both streets with the addition of designated turning lanes at select intersections with typically heavy traffic, such as West 11th Street. Weesner said two different traffic studies showed that congestion on Shepherd and Durham was caused mostly by the absence of turn lanes at busy intersections, so there does not figure to be a negative impact on traffic flow even with the overall reduction in lanes, she said.

In addition to the work on Shepherd and Durham, the project also calls for improvements on several of the cross streets that connect them – 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th streets.

Weesner said two other features of the project are city-owned street lights and an underground bio-retention system – called the Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater Management System – that will be beneath the trees planted on each side of Shepherd and Durham. The idea is to capture stormwater to help drainage and promote the growth of large trees.

“This is a really great project, because it can do so much,” Weesner said. “The area is really changing. The area has lots of new restaurants and other facilities, and people want to be able to walk there. People need to be able to walk from one business to the next business. Improving all modes of transportation is very important.”

I like this a lot. There’s been a ton of mostly residential construction in the area, and there are now a lot of places to eat along both Durham and Shepherd. Making it easier to get around by non-car means will be a big difference maker, and will be a boost for bus riders as well. I hope they figure out a way to connect the bike lanes directly to the Heights bike trail as it passes underneath. It will be a pain going through five years of construction, but I can’t wait to see what the result looks like.

Here comes that Universities BRT map

Show me the route!

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

See here for the previous update. I reiterate everything I said then about my mixed feelings, but I remain excited about finally getting this off the ground. We’ve needed this for a long time.

Metro approves electric bus purchase

We should have them in a few months.

Metro is charging ahead with its plan to add electric buses to the local transit fleet.

Board members Thursday approved a $22 million contract for 20 new buses and chargers that will operate along two routes that cross at the Texas Medical Center. They will be the first all-electric buses the Metropolitan Transit Agency has added to its roughly 1,200-bus inventory.

“Getting the ball rolling is important,” board member Chris Hollins said.

Officials will spend the next few weeks finalizing the contract, and barring any delays or a lack of progress on a federal grant that could pay most of the cost, the new buses will arrive and start carrying passengers in late 2022, officials said.

Ten buses will operate on Route 28 along Old Spanish Trail and Wayside, and 10 would be deployed to the Route 402 Bellaire Quickline. The buses are built by NOVA, one of four vendors that submitted proposals to Metro.

“We are going to get some real-world operating experiences,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

Importantly, Lambert said, the buses are going to routes that serve communities where improving air quality is critical.

The routes were chosen because they operate at the right distances for testing electric buses and both stop at the Texas Medical Center Transit Center for drivers to take breaks, said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

Metro is buying the buses but could defer its own costs so federal money picks up most of the tab. The agency has a $20 million grant proposal in the process with the Federal Transit Administration that, if approved, would virtually pay for the new buses.

See here and here for the background. Electric buses currently cost about twice as much as diesel buses, but the grant will mostly offset the purchase of these buses, and with future investment spurred by the infrastructure bill and the need to fight climate change, the price gap will narrow. I look forward to seeing these buses in action.

Here come those electric buses

Here comes the commitment to buy them, anyway.

Local transit officials no longer are blowing hot air about the emissions coming out of Metro buses.

Board members Thursday approved a plan for all new Metropolitan Transit Authority buses to produce zero emissions by 2030, setting one of the largest bus fleets in the nation on a path to pull away from diesel engines and toward electric, hydrogen or some other alternative.

“It could not be more vital to take this step forward,” Chairwoman Carrin Patman said. “We have the capability to do it and the expertise to do it.”

The commitment came with the board’s approval of the purchase of 20 electric buses — part of a pilot to further test battery-driven buses and how well they perform in the heat of a Houston summer. Setting a goal is part of Metro’s work to create an agency climate action plan, which will be written by a committee led by former Harris County Clerk and Metro board member Chris Hollins.

[…]

The change will not happen overnight, transit officials acknowledged. Metro, with a fleet of more than 1,200 buses, typically buys about 100 new buses a year.

Board members said in the interim they expect Metro to move aggressively but deliberately to new engines, either more natural gas, which is cleaner than diesel, or hundreds of new electric or hydrogen buses.

“Every step in that direction will be helpful,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said last week during a discussion of agency’s goals.

See here for the background. A bit of wiggle room in that commitment, which is more about phasing out diesel than onboarding a particular technology, but that’s fine. I look forward to seeing which way they wind up going.

Metro moving forward on new BRT line

As they should.

Even with fewer riders hopping aboard and a more dour financial outlook, Metro officials say the agency is full steam ahead on a host of projects aimed at adding buses to scores of routes and neighborhoods.

That includes an approval scheduled for Thursday by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board to commit $40 million to development of a planned bus rapid transit line from around Tidwell and Interstate 69 to Westchase, via Denver Harbor, downtown, Midtown, Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

The project, similar to the Silver Line along Post Oak that opened a year ago and uses dedicated bus lanes to deliver service to stations akin to light rail, is one of dozens in Metro’s $7.5 billion long-range plan. That plan, approved by voters in November 2019, relies heavily on federal grants, which could come quickly if Washington lawmakers approve budget and infrastructure bills in the coming weeks or months.

“If we can get our ducks in a row on as many corridors as we can, that is good for the agency,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Metro submitted a preliminary application for funding related to the so-called University Line bus rapid transit project to the Federal Transit Administration in late July. Houston transit officials heard back from their federal counterparts in one week, a quick turnaround for a first series of questions, said Shri Reddy, executive vice-president of planning, engineering, and construction at Metro. Among the issues raised by federal officials was more assurance that Metro had committed money for developing the project, prompting Thursday’s vote.

That story was published on Wednesday; on Thursday, the board approved the money as planned, while giving me a bizarre sense of deja vu.

Seriously, Afton Oaks? After all this time? I mean, it’s all residential on that stretch of Richmond, so I doubt any stops there would be busy, but geez. Anyway, Metro is projecting less revenue now than it had originally planned for and that could lead to some uncomfortable decisions about service levels down the line if actual revenue is in line with that, but that’s a concern for later. For now, this is a good start.

Metro seeks electric buses

Proof of concept for now and contingent on a competitive federal grant, but hopefully the start of something bigger.

Transit officials in the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world are recharging their attempts to wean Metro off fossil fuels.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, sensing both the technology and federal interest in funding are ripe, are preparing to buy up to 20 all-electric buses that would operate along two routes.

Though Metro has tried and failed to find an electric bus that can handle the hot Houston summer in the past, officials said they are growing more optimistic newer batteries have the necessary juice to keep the vehicles moving and riders cool.

Fears the region may not have much time before drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change with lower vehicle emissions, are prompting Metro to move faster on flipping the switch on its fleet, albeit gradually.

“Some of the recent weather events have made this a more urgent matter,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro, referring to the increasing frequency of major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and flooding in the Houston area.

In addition to buying zero-emission buses, Metro officials also are forming a task force, led by board member and former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, aimed at modernizing Metro’s operations to meet local climate change goals.

The changes for Metro are likely to vary in scope and size. Some, such as replacing lighting with more energy efficient LED options, already are underway. Others, such as encouraging more transit use and less solo car and truck trips by travelers by offering more convenient bus routes or adding bus rapid transit lines, are included in the agency’s long-range plans.

[…]

The viability of the vehicles, however, remains uncertain. That is why Metro officials — who manage about 1,200 buses — plan to start with 20. Previous attempts to test electric buses in Houston did not lead to purchasing any because the buses could not pass a test to see if they could drive and keep air conditioning running enough to cool the interior at the same time.

The a/c test can be one of the most challenging parts of operating in Houston, Metro Chief Operating Officer Andrew Skabowski said.

“A bus, every corner, opens its doors,” Skabowski told Metro board members last week, explaining that taxes the components when it is 95 degrees with 96 percent humidity.

“It takes a lot of power, and it will remain a concern until we put a vehicle into service and see how they perform,” Skabowski said.

He said though the technology is emerging and advancements in the battery power and improved HVAC system made some of the newest electric buses meet Metro’s specs on paper, the true test will be when they hit the road.

As noted, there’s a federal grant that would cover most of the cost of those buses, but there’s no guarantee Metro would get it. It’s not clear if they would still pursue this at this time if not – there may be further opportunities for such funding after the infrastructure bill passes, for example. That previous attempt was from 2016, and it’s reasonable to think that the technology has improved enough to try again. Metro is right to have a plan to reduce emissions, and buses are their biggest source by far. It’s good they’re being proactive about it.

Can you tell me how to get (safely) to Memorial Park?

Safety is nice.

A $200 million-plus plan to improve [Memorial Park] is aimed at making it a signature destination for all Houstonians. With that success, though, will come the same challenges anything popular in Houston faces: How will people get there, where will they park and what can be done to give them an option other than driving?

A variety of projects are planned or proposed to offer safer or additional options, including new bike paths, wider sidewalks, even a possible Metropolitan Transit Authority hub to rapid buses. All of the ideas, however, are years away and still face some public scrutiny that could alter the plans.

Efforts to create or expand trails follow what has been the largest park investment in a generation — a $70 million land bridge that creates a hillside through which Memorial Drive passes, connecting the park’s north and south sides.

[…]

One of the biggest challenges to improving access to Memorial is the big roads that border it: Loop 610 and Interstate 10. Running along the west and north edges of the park, the freeways are a barrier where the freeway intersections with Washington Avenue to the northeast and Memorial and Woodway to the west can be chaotic for cyclists and pedestrians.

“What we want is a safe, easy, biking solution,” said Bob Ethington, director of research and economic development for the Uptown Houston District.

Ethington said along Loop 610, officials are considering how best to get runners and cyclists as far away from cars as practical. Those plans include a connection from the south, parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as far south as San Felipe.

The trail skirts a rail line south of the park, in the River Oaks area dotted with some of the most expensive homes within Loop 610. Other projects could follow, taking the trail as far as Brays Bayou and creating what could become a freeway of sorts for bicyclists between two popular bayou routes.

The key connection to the heart of Uptown, on the other side of Loop 610, is a planned trail running near the top of Uptown Park Boulevard, where it curves into the southbound frontage road, that will follow Buffalo Bayou beneath the clatter of 16 lanes of traffic above.

That connection, which could include a new bridge strictly for the trail across the bayou, would eliminate a stress-inducing street crossing for cyclists and runners at Woodway.

“The corner is terrible and the (Loop 610) underpass is not great,” said Randy Odinet, vice president of capital projects and facilities for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The Uptown work, which follows Briar Hollow in the neighborhood south of Buffalo Bayou, recently received a boost, when $4 million of the $5.3 million price tag was included in the House version of a federal infrastructure bill at the request of Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, who represents the area.

For travelers headed to the park from the east, two planned projects could help. Construction is set to start in about 20 months on a new bike lane spliced through a narrow piece of public land on the south side of Interstate 10. The Texas Department of Transportation project would eliminate a broken link between the Heights and Shepherd corridors and Memorial Park, caused by I-10.

Now, cyclists can use the Heights Hike and Bike Trail and White Oak Trail to access the Cottage Grove neighborhood north of I-10, then a pedestrian bridge atop I-10 at Cohn. About a half-mile from the park at the end of the Cohn crossing, however, is where the easy access stops. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks and nearby streets force runners back to TC Jester, which many avoid because of the heavy traffic and truck volumes and high speeds.

Design of the TxDOT project is not finalized, but the work likely will include a trail along the south side of I-10 from Cohn to Washington, through a slice of state-owned right of way and beneath the UP tracks. At Washington, it is expected to cross at the intersection and into the park.

The project also will replace the Cohn bridge with a wider span and assorted street-level improvements north of I-10 along the frontage road.

Most Houston residents and travelers, however, cannot simply hop on a bike and get to the park. Current transit offerings are limited to three bus routes, two of which come every 30 minutes. The third, the Route 85 Antoine/Washington that skirts the eastern edge of the park, is the only frequent route, coming every 15 minutes. More than a dozen bus routes pull into the Northwest Transit Center less than 2,500 feet away from the park, but those 2,500 feet are impassable because of the I-10 interchange with Loop 610.

A planned bus rapid transit route along I-10, however, could radically improve access if Metro were to include a stop at the park. Metro officials, while not committing, said they are considering a possible stop at Washington on the park’s boundary.

The idea of a Memorial Park station has drawn interest from transit riders and officials. Often, transit is built and discussed in terms of moving people solely to jobs and schools, Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

“It is also about getting us to recreation facilities, parks,” Ramabhadran said.

Plans for the BRT line include an elevated busway along I-10 so large buses can move in their own lanes from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston. Transit officials plan various public meetings before any station decision is made.

“You cannot order a BRT corridor on Amazon and have it delivered next week,” Ramabhadran said.

It all sounds good to me, and you can see each of the planned items in the embedded image. Years ago, when it was still possible to dream about more light rail lines being built in Houston, I proposed a rail line that was a combination of Inner Katy/Washington Avenue and the current Uptown BRT line, which would have included a Memorial Drive segment. That was included for the purpose of making it easier for more people to get to one of Houston’s biggest parks and premier destinations. That idea will never happen, but seeing a proposal for a Memorial Park-accessible stop on the now-proposed Inner Katy BRT line makes me smile. It really is kind of crazy that the only way to get to Memorial Park for nearly everyone is to drive there, especially considering how impossible it used to be to park. There’s more parking now, but we could get a lot more people into Memorial Park if they didn’t have to drive to get there. I very much look forward to seeing these projects take shape.

Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

Feel the excitement! No, seriously, we’ve waited a long time for this.

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

Planning and technical work alone could take the next two years, with Metro set to approve a consulting agreement with engineering firm AECOM, paying it $1 million to start the initial designs. The total cost of the University Line is likely to exceed $1 billion.

As noted before, Metro is moving quickly to try to get federal funds so that design and construction can begin on the timeline indicated above. I support that and hope they’re successful, but I have to admit this all leaves me feeling bittersweet. Remember, the original Metro referendum passed in 2001. The Main Street line opened in 2004. We were talking about designs for what would have been the Universities light rail line in 2005. A combination of some cranky Afton Oaks residents, former Congressman John Culberson, the former Metro board’s incompetence, and the 2008 economic crash have all led to this, where we’re trying again to build something that in another universe might be celebrating its ten year anniversary by now. I feel pretty good about the current plan coming to fruition maybe five years or so from now, but the amount of time that was wasted with nothing to show for it is staggering and nauseating. Let’s please never do that again.

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

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 infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.

[…]

That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

“Normal” bus service is on the horizon

Isn’t it great to imagine the return of “normal”? It’s coming for Metro riders.

Having sharply reduced service and staffing during the pandemic, Metro officials now are readying for higher demand when school populations return to normal and downtown businesses call workers into the office.

“They are expecting a major return in August,” said Jim Archer, director of service planning and scheduling for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

That means Metro will spend the spring and early summer hiring bus operators and mechanics as it prepares to resume full service even as many realities of mass transit remain uncertain.

One looming concern is how to meet rising demand as daily trips increase from about 125,000, based on February numbers, to the 280,000 or more Metro carried prior to the COVID pandemic, while still providing for social distancing.

The issue is one of space on buses, if existing distancing requirements remain. Buses that could ferry 40 seated riders now have available space for 16.

As a result, meeting pre-pandemic demand under COVID conditions would be impossible with Metro’s fleet of approximately 700 40-foot buses and 90 60-foot articulated buses.

“There is a point at which we run out of buses and run out of operators,” Archer said.

Metro officials said it remains unknown how many drivers and mechanics the agency would have to hire and when they would be needed.

“Our operations team is still evaluating what ‘normal’ service will look like in August, given the many public health protocols that will, no doubt, still be in place,” Metro spokeswoman Tracy Jackson said.

August is targeted both as a reasonable point at which to expect a significant level of vaccinations, and thus maybe offices opening again, and also because it’s when school starts up. It’s hard to say exactly how much bus service will be needed – Metro has basically been running weekend schedules for the past year – but it’s safe to say that it will be more than what is needed now. No matter how you look at it, it sure is nice to think about.

Are you ready for some I-10 construction?

Well, ready or not

State highways officials set out in 2004 to develop a plan to remake Interstate 45 and add managed lanes, only to face increasingly stiff opposition in the past three years from elected officials and community activists that its plan was out of step with future travel needs.

New plans to add managed lanes along Interstate 10 along a corridor inside Loop 610 took only days to get that same response.

The Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority are jointly presenting plans for a so-called Inner Katy Corridor, a project to remake the 10-lane freeway — five lanes in each direction supported by frontage roads and entrance and exit ramps — by building dedicated bus lanes, adding two managed lanes in each direction and upgrading drainage along depressed portions of the freeway.

“The commitment remains to moving the same number of single-occupant vehicles at high speed,” said Neal Ehardt, a freeway critic who advocates a more urban-focused approach that includes downsizing major highways. “We are keeping the same number of single-occupant car lanes and we are adding managed lanes. This is not the mode transition we want. It is more like mode bloat.”

Officials counter that it is a necessary step — and an unconventional one for TxDOT — to stay within the existing freeway footprint as much as possible but meet demand. They understand there are some that believe no additional lanes are needed, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT’s Houston office.

“That is a nice goal to have, but where we are today, we are not there,” Koch said. “We still have traffic and congestion today and we are dealing with those things. I understand the passion those folks have, but not everybody wants to get on the bus.”

Comments for this phase can be submitted to TxDOT or Metro until March 31. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, officials created a virtual meeting room, also available until March 31.

Planners have three objectives for the eventual project along the I-10 corridor:

  • Building dedicated bus lanes along the freeway to extend Metro’s bus rapid transit from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 to downtown Houston.
  • Improving drainage along the segment where I-10 is below local streets, from Patterson to Loop 610.
  • Adding two managed lanes in each direction and improving carpool access by eliminating any gaps where HOV drivers mingle with general traffic.

Those objectives would be broken up into multiple projects, likely with different timelines.

Metro’s bus lanes, for example, already are funded via the transit agency’s capital budget and money controlled by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which distributes some federal highway funding. Provided Metro is ready to proceed, construction of the $227.5 million bus lane project is set to begin in 2023 and open in 2025, according to H-GAC’s five-year plan.

TxDOT’s managed lanes are not included in upcoming spending plans, with officials saying the current timeline would be to start construction in 2027. The goal, Koch said, is for TxDOT to have some idea of what people prefer so the Metro bus lanes can be built without interfering with what the state constructs in the future.

[…]

The transit lanes have a chance to radically improve the quality of bus rides in the corridor and the region, said Christof Spieler, an urban planner and former Metro board member.

Relative to past freeway discussions, he said, TxDOT is part of a larger conversation about how various projects are coming together, ultimately to determine how Houston grows.

“There are signs in there of TxDOT being more creative than in the past,” Spieler said.

I’m going to wait and see on this one, based on Spieler’s comments. The Metro bus lanes, which were part of the 2019 Metro referendum, are a must-have. I think everyone would like to see drainage improved for this stretch of highway. It’s adding the managed lanes that are going to cause the heartburn, since that either means widening I-10 (which would take up to 115 more feet of right-of-way, according to the story), or adding elevated lanes (which would still need 45 feet) and adding concerns about noise and visual blight. My advice is to attend any public meetings and give your input while you can, because it’s going to be time to start building before you know it.

What can we expect from the maskless mandate?

More COVID, obviously.

The Centers for Disease Control is increasing pressure on Republican leaders in states like Texas that have eased COVID restrictions, publishing a study on Friday showing evidence that the measures — such as the mask requirement that Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded this week — clearly decrease COVID cases and deaths, while opening up restaurants causes them to spike.

“We have seen this movie before: When prevention measures like mask mandates are rolled back, cases go up,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “I know the idea of relaxing mask wearing and getting back to everyday activities is appealing, but we’re not there yet.”

[…]

On Friday, Walensky continued to sound the alarm. She said that COVID cases and deaths have started to plateau for more than a week at levels similar to the late summer surge — just as some states are easing restrictions that helped drive those cases down.

White House officials said Friday the trend is concerning, especially as progress has been made on vaccinations. Nearly 55 percent of people 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, up from just 8 percent six weeks ago, senior White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said.

More than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 2 million have been fully vaccinated, out of a population of 29 million. Still, the state ranks among the lowest for the percentage of people vaccinated, at 13 percent.

“It’s better to spike the football once you’re safely in the end zone, not once you’ve made a couple of completions,” Slavitt said.

The CDC released a new report on Friday that showed COVID cases and death rates decreased within 20 days of the implementation of state mask mandates. That progress was quickly reversed with the opening of restaurants, however, the report said. COVID cases rose between 41 and 100 days after states allowed dining in restaurants and daily death rates rose between 61 and 100 days after.

“Policies that require universal mask use and restrict any on-premises restaurant dining are important components of a comprehensive strategy to reduce exposure to and transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the study said. “Such efforts are increasingly important given the emergence of highly transmissible SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.”

I think what’s so infuriating about this is that we really are in the home stretch now. Texas is at the back of the pack in terms of vaccination rate (though Harris County is doing reasonably well), but we are making steady progress. Anecdotally, I know so many more people now who have gotten at least their first shot compared to just a month ago. It would have been so easy to say that we just need to hold on until (say) Memorial Day or something like that, when we can expect to have a significant number of people who have been vaccinated, then we can really begin to ease up. We can emphasize outdoor events first, and be clear about when masks aren’t needed (when everyone involved has been vaccinated) versus when they should still be worn. We’ve come this far, we can see where we want to be, we just need to finish the job. Why was that so hard?

You may say, as Abbott was quoted in the story, that we haven’t actually enforced the mask mandate in Texas that just urging people to wear them while explicitly not requiring it isn’t all that different. I’d say first that the reason we haven’t enforced it is because Greg Abbott was so frightened by the likes of Shelley Luther that he cowardly backed down from any kind of official enforcement. What that has meant in practice is that responsibility for mask requirements falls squarely on the shoulders of frontline workers, who at least had the backup of an executive order when confronting some maskhole. But now even that is going away, which means we’ll have a lot more of this:

Fidel Minor, a Houston Metro bus driver, said Gov. Greg Abbott’s mask rollback will incite “mass chaos” on city buses as drivers like him try to enforce federal mask requirements for transit.

“It’s already a hard enough job as it is without having conflicting directives,” said Minor, a driver for Houston Metro.

Abbott relaxed requirements on businesses Tuesday, lifting statewide mask mandates and reducing capacity restrictions on restaurants and retailers. The order, effective March 10, sent chills through frontline workers across the region who say they still face risks on the job.

Asking customers to wear masks means being met with a daily dose of attitude, said Stacy Brown, bakery manager at Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a grocery store on the ground floor of One Park Place downtown. Now she fears that attitude will spread.

“We’re gonna have people come into the store, not wanting to comply just because of what (Abbott) says,” she said, noting she feels it’s especially important that her customers wear masks because as a diabetic she’s in a high-risk group.

[…]

David Lee, a deli manager at Kroger in Galveston who got sick with the virus in December, said it’s scary to know he and his colleagues will be surrounded by more of the maskless customers he believes exposed him to the virus in the first place. “I think (Abbott) should wait at least two more months,” he said. “It’s going to be scary now.”

For its part, the family-run Phoenicia will keep its mask mandate at its two Houston stores and restaurants, said owner Haig Tcholakian. Requiring masks inside his stores is about health and safety for staff and customers, first and foremost, he said. But also because when workers get sick or exposed, it affects business, too.

“It disrupts operations quite a bit, and if there are multiple (illnesses) across all businesses that would probably limit us and make us scramble to make up for that,” he said.

Tcholakian said he and his employees have to ask people to leave a handful of times a week. Like Brown, his bakery manager, he’s concerned that enforcement will get more difficult now. “We’ll have to prepare for it.”

For Teresa McClatchie, an escalator monitor at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the governor’s policy change seems at odds with the facts on the ground. She said her coworkers are still ill with the virus — one may need to stay on oxygen on an ongoing basis because of damage the virus did to her lungs.

“We still have some employees out,” she said, “and some, they may not be back.”

The number of restaurants and other businesses that will continue to require masks is inspiring and may just help blunt the effect of Abbott’s foolishness, but it still shouldn’t fall on these people to ensure that the jackasses out there don’t endanger them or others.

And for those of you who may be mad at HEB for urging but not requiring masks at their stores, it’s exactly with this in mind that they made this call.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland has the explanation why the store won’t require customers to wear masks in light of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday announcement.

While it has the power to require customers to wear masks before entering, McClelland said H-E-B won’t take that step – in part because of belligerent customers who have caused nearly 2,000 in-store incidents surrounding masks at Houston stores alone.

If a customer walks into the store without a mask, a worker will ask them to put one on, McClelland said. If they don’t have one, they will be offered a mask.

If they still refuse to put one on, McClelland said “we are not going to escalate.”

“What’s important to me is, I’ve got to ensure for the physical safety of both my employees and customers in the store,” McClelland said. “That’s what we have been doing, and frankly it’s the same thing we’ll continue to do.”

I confess, I recently yelled at one dipshit at HEB who was walking around with his mask on his chin. It wasn’t smart, and it wasn’t considerate of the other customers in the yogurt aisle who had to be wondering if something was about to go down, but I was so mad and I felt like someone needed to do something. McClelland is right about not escalating, and I will just have to keep that in mind. And I have already spent more time and energy thinking about this than Greg Abbott ever will.

Reactions to the maskless mandate

Let’s start with the doctors, since clearly they weren’t consulted.

Houston-area doctors and medical professionals reacted with dismay to Gov. Greg Abbott’s Tuesday decision to roll back the state’s mask mandate and other precautions against COVID-19.

“I had a pretty strong visceral reaction — like PTSD,” said Dr. Matt Dacso, an internist at the University of Texas Medical Branch. “I can think of no other word but incomprehensible… Everybody is hurting, but gosh, man. The masks were doing a lot for us.”

Dacso said the order was a huge hit to morale, coming almost exactly one year after the first recorded case in New York. His team had been celebrating the progress made since then — until they heard about Abbott’s order.

[…]

“It’s true that Texas has been vaccinating people,” said Peter Hotez, vaccine researcher at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “But after the recent freeze, we rank at the bottom of states in the percentage of people we’ve vaccinated: Only 13 percent of Texans have had their first dose.

“I would have preferred to wait a couple of weeks to reopen while we see how these new variants play out here, and so that we could catch up to the rest of the country in terms of vaccinations,” Hotez continued.

While people who have been vaccinated may feel tempted to go out without their masks, they shouldn’t, said Dr. Diana Fite, president of the Texas Medical Association.

A vaccination means they’re less likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, not that they’re less likely to catch it and infect others. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are still studying the rate of transmission and infection in people who have been immunized, and trial data may not be available until the spring.

“Fully vaccinating 1.8 million people is still a huge number, but it’s far from getting anywhere near where we say things are going to be contained,” Fite said.

Local hospitals say they are not planning to change their masking requirements.

“The COVID-19 virus and its effects will be with us for a long time,” St. Luke’s Health officials said in a Tuesday afternoon statement. To ensure the safety and health of our communities, we urge people to continue to wear masks and practice other precautions like hand washing and social distancing, in addition to getting vaccinated. Wearing a mask is one of the most effective ways to limit the spread of the virus, which is why masks are still required at all St Luke’s Health facilities.”

See here for the background. Local health officials were equally vehement.

Keep wearing your mask and taking COVID-19 safety precautions, local health experts said Tuesday, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on businesses.

“Despite the impending removal of the state mask mandate, we must continue our vigilance with masking, distancing, and hand washing,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Travis County Interim Health Authority. “These remain critical in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”

Expressing concerns about highly contagious variants of the virus and the need for local health officials to maintain some authority over their local situations — which vary widely from county to county — doctors and health officials cautioned that Texans should not take Abbott’s announcement as a signal to relax the behavior that has lead to a recent decrease in coronavirus case rates and hospitalizations.

[…]

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority, said it’s premature to abandon safety precautions and hopes Texans can stay patient even in the absence of statewide rules.

“I think that people have a lot more common sense than we give them credit for, but … it’s very hard for human beings not to start socializing and to stop wearing masks,” he said.”I understand they are looking for any sign they can go back to the old ways, but I would just remind them that we’re in the bottom of the ninth, two runs out, and we’re almost there. This isn’t the time to put the bench in. This is the time to continue with the A-Team. Very soon, we’ll be there.”

Others said that while they’re glad Abbott did stress that Texans should stay cautious, the mandate provided an important function that the state may not be ready for yet.

“I think it’s a little bit early, in my opinion, to be removing the masking requirement,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “I would have preferred to see our numbers lower, and I would have preferred to see more people vaccinated before we took that leap.”

Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the state medical association’s COVID-19 task force, agreed it was too soon for Texans to relax their safety practices, adding he is especially concerned about the increasing spread of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which is thought to be more contagious and perhaps more deadly.

None of this should be a surprise. I’m sure there are some doctors out there who are Team No Mask, but as a group this is obvious. The Texas Medical Association took a diplomatic path:

Restaurants were also cautious, though they have clear reasons to be happy about the full reopening stuff.

Operators wondered if they would be ready to return so quickly to full service; if they could hire workers fast enough to accommodate full capacity; if their purveyors would be ready to service increased orders for food and other goods. And, most crucially, how mask wearing would be handled by workers and a dining public no longer required to cover up.

There were no clear answers Tuesday.

“Personally, I didn’t expect him to say that today. I thought we wouldn’t see it until sometime in the summertime,” said [Levi] Goode, whose restaurant portfolio also includes Goode Co. Seafood, Goode Co. Kitchen & Cantina and Armadillo Palace. “We’ve adopted some great practice from the safety standpoint during the pandemic, and many of those will remain intact until we feel comfortable we can move in another direction.”

But without a state mandate that masks are required, next Wednesday will bring uncertainty.

Ricardo Molina, president and co-owner of Molina’s Cantina restaurants, said that he probably will not enforce masks for his servers, but that those who choose to wear one will be able to do so. He added that customers will ultimately dictate how the staff will come down on masks.

“We’re probably going to find the vast majority (of customers) are ready to see masks go away,” Molina said. “If people are ready to go all-out business as usual, we’re ready to do that as well.”

Paul Miller, owner of Gr8 Plate Hospitality which includes The Union Kitchen and Jax Grill restaurants, anticipates a gradual return to practices that existed before COVID-19.

“Our primary concern is for our staff and our guests, and while we certainly appreciate the opportunity to go back to 100 percent and the governor has removed the mask mandate, we are going to continue to uphold our safety and sanitation protocols as we slowly but surely move into this new phase of our business,” he said.

How the restaurant industry will negotiate that new phase wasn’t clear on Tuesday. While the Texas Restaurant Association celebrated Abbott’s announcement, it was quick to say that Texas restaurants must “remain vigilant so we do not slide backward.”

“Consumers will only go where they feel safe, and so restaurants must continue to be very thoughtful and implement the safety protocols that will enable them to maintain and build trust with their consumers and employees,” the association stated.

Yeah, that. It’s a thing I’ve been saying for months – you have to beat the virus if you really want to reopen. People will not want to patronize businesses if they don’t feel safe doing so. That as much as anything is why I would have expected a more gradual reopening, one that takes into account the fact that we still have a lot of vaccinations to administer, and still have a lot of people getting sick and going to the hospital. Just declare your intention to take the victory lap. What was the rush?

Personally, I’ve been eating at a couple of places that have outdoor seating, and also doing takeout. I will continue to do that for at least the next few months. The Chron’s Alison Cook is surveying restaurants around town to see what their response is; her initial story on that is here. Quite a few are currently planning to stay with what they’re doing now, which surprises me a little, but in a good way. I’ll be very interested to see how the wider public reacts. For the record, the subset of barbecue joint owners and brewery owners were not impressed and seem to be determined to keep doing what they’ve been doing for now.

School districts have a choice to make.

Local school boards will have the authority to decide whether to require students over the age of 10 to wear masks under current Texas Education Agency health guidance, after Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday he was lifting the state’s mask mandate and reopening businesses at 100 percent capacity.

In the governor’s executive order, which takes effect March 10, he wrote that public schools “may operate” under minimum health protocols found in Texas Education Agency guidance, and that private schools and colleges are “encouraged to establish similar standards.”

Under the previous mask mandate, all students older than 10 were required to wear masks on school property.

TEA’s most recent guidance, issued in December, says that outside the soon-to-expire mask mandate, school systems “may require the use of masks or face shields for adults or students for whom it is developmentally appropriate.”

Houston and Fort Bend ISDs issued statements Tuesday afternoon saying they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all schools and district facilities.

“This requirement is consistent with the advice of health professional and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” HISD officials said in a statement.

We got a robocall from HISD Tuesday afternoon informing us of this. It’s the clear and obviously correct call, and as someone whose kids are attending school in person, I’d have been massively pissed if they had done otherwise.

Metro riders will need to keep their masks on.

Despite state officials loosening restrictions related to COVID, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said requirements for face coverings on riders and employees will continue.

“Metro has no plans at this time to drop the mask requirement for people riding our system,” transit agency spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Since June, Metro has required masks for anyone using the system. Last month, the Federal Transit Administration issued guidance that all transportation providers — buses, trains, ferries and planes — prohibit anyone from riding without a mask.

For those who do not have a face covering and want to hop on a bus, Metro drivers will offer them a mask. Bus drivers and others have handed out 2 million masks along the Metro system, agency officials said.

Good call. This, not so much.

H-E-B will urge, but not require, customers to wear masks inside its grocery stores in Texas after Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded his statewide mask mandate Tuesday, the company said.

The grocer and retailer, however, will still require employees and vendors to wear masks in the stores.

“Although there is no longer a statewide mask order, H-E-B believes it is important that masks be worn in public spaces until more Texans and our Partners have access to the Covid-19 vaccine,” Lisa Helfman, the retailer’s local public affairs director, said in a statement.

I’ve already seen a few people react negatively to this on Twitter. I try to do my HEB shopping early in the morning, to avoid larger crowds. I may need to push it a little earlier now. Yes, we could order curbside – we have done it a couple of times – but I like the in store experience. Or at least, I have liked it. Don’t make me regret my choices, HEB.

What are your expectations? Will you avoid or patronize places that lift their mask requirements? The Texas Signal and Dos Centavos have more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Metro security robot

Looks like this is finally getting rolled out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike lanes for the Red Line

I approve.

The belief that Northside Houston residents will bike to buses and trains if it is safer to do so is bringing more curb work to Cavalcade, paid for out the same pot of federal money that brought the neighborhood trains.

Metropolitan Transit Authority on Nov. 19 approved the use of nearly $1.3 million left over from building the Red Line light rail extension — which opened nearly seven years ago — to add protected bike lanes to Cavalcade from Irvington to Elysian.

The upcoming work will extend bike lanes along Cavalcade from Airline to Irvington, adding about a half mile of protected lanes. Tikon Group won the contract with Metro, which includes altering the road where needed and striping for bike lanes in each direction, installing rubberized bumps — often called armadillos — to separate cyclists and motorists, and building new curbs at major bus stops.

The curbs and intentional curves force bicyclists to slow at spots where people will be standing for the bus, while making sure biking through “will not have a conflict with the buses,” said Bridgette Towns, vice president of project management and engineering at Metro.

The extension will connect bike lanes already in use along Cavalcade between Irvington and Airline to bike lanes along Hardy and Elysian that act as a major spine for cycling through Northside.

I’m a longtime proponent of combining bike capacity with transit capacity, so this makes a lot of sense to me. Fixing sidewalks is also a good way to make transit more attractive, as well as just being a general boon to the area. This work is being funded by some leftover money from the original Red Line expansion – it’s a bit of a story, read the article for the details. As we know, there’s more work coming from the 2019 bond referendum, but for obvious reasons things are taking their time getting started. There’s still other stuff in the meantime.

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.

Metro moving forward with its construction plans

As well they should.

Carrin Patman greeted the supporter by grabbing both of his hands in a packed downtown Houston event space above a bustling sports bar. The buffet laid out for Metro’s 2019 election night watch party was thoroughly picked through and waiters and waitresses were bringing out more.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but everything is looking great. It’s going to pass,” Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board, told the man among a throng of celebrants clinking glasses and talking about the big win for buses and trains. As she let go, Patman said she was looking forward to starting the “real work” of building Houston’s future transit system.

A year later, Metro has to work its way through a pandemic that took away more than half its ridership and still is roiling its financial outlook before it can tackle more than a decade of rail, street and transit stop construction.

Nonetheless, transit officials are moving ahead with millions of dollars in engineering and design of new lines and services, confident they can plan now for major projects that riders eventually will demand.

“We don’t want to lose that time,” said Roberto Treviño, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction. “We don’t want to wait. Now is the time to plan.”

After months of discussion, contracts for design oversight and preparation of the lengthy federal environmental process for a major bus rapid transit line could be solicited by the end of the year, as Metro starts the work Patman predicted.

You can read the rest. Some projects have been de-prioritized for now, which is fine. The people voted for doing this work, and it would be a dereliction of duty to not do it. Unless you think we’re never going to get back to the level of activity and traffic we had before, there’s no reason to put this off. Keep moving forward.

Uptown BRT officially opens

Meet the Silver Line.

T.J. Buttons is used to a bus ride in Houston giving him plenty of time to check his phone. On that front, Houston’s first bus rapid transit route failed miserably.

“It’s so fast,” Buttons said as he bumped along on opening day Sunday of the Silver Line, operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority through Uptown.

More than four years of work — some a source of frustration for critics who called the project unnecessary along the car-centric corridor — preceded the opening, muted by COVID’s constraints on travel in the area. Nonetheless, officials and transit supporters said the opening was cause of celebration, and an indication of the changes coming as Metro plots 75 more miles of bus rapid transit in the region.

For Buttons and other riders, it means a much faster trip than the Route 33 buses it replaces along Post Oak, with fewer stops and less competing with traffic.

“It’s really like the train,” Buttons said.

That’s exactly what officials wanted with the project designed by Metro and the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the street and sidewalks as part of a $192.5 million project. Fourteen 60-foot buses will operate the route, traveling along an elevated busway along Loop 610 and then in dedicated transit lanes in the center of Post Oak.

The Silver Line operates between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 through Uptown mostly along Post Oak to the new Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center south of Interstate 69 near Bellaire. Fifteen bus routes connect directly to the service, via the two transit centers.

Metro and Uptown officials have said the buses will deliver service similar to light rail with boardings via platforms in the middle of the street. Trips will be faster, transit officials said, because the buses are not inching along in regular traffic. Compared to Houston’s light rail system, the buses might outpace trains because traffic is not in front of them or turning from the same lanes, improving both speed of trips and safety.

“If we don’t have shared left turn lanes, that knocks a lot of our issues out,” said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

[…]

Getting the timing right in Uptown, especially at key intersections such as Richmond, is critical to not having the buses obstruct others. In downtown Houston, shortly after the Green and Purple lines opened in 2015, Houston Public Works and Metro spent months tweaking the traffic signal timing to find the right routine.

Skabowski said if there is a silver lining to opening the Silver Line during a pandemic, it is that lower traffic demand because of fewer commutes and shopping trips gives officials a grace period to get things right.

“We still don’t have normal conditions, so that gives us a little window to get there,” he said. “We have the perfect time period to tweak it.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a good Twitter thread showing what the ride experience looks like. As far as that goes, it looks really good, and the service will be frequent (every ten minutes during the day) and reliable. Everything we know about transit ridership says that a comfortable and convenient experience will draw riders, so we’ll see what we get here, especially once people start returning to something like a normal routine. And as Christof Spieler pointed out, this line will connect to multiple high-frequency east-west bus lines, thus really expanding the network in Houston. Later on, this will be extended to connect to the Texas Central station. It’s an exciting development, and next up should be the BRT replacement for the Universities light rail line.

Merging transit fare systems

There’s a frustratingly small amount of information in this story, but the basic idea, as best I understand it, is great.

Federal transit officials will spend $14.8 million making sure Houston area transit riders can have more options for how to pay their own way and have seamless options between local bus agencies.

As Metropolitan Transit Authority revamps its aging fare collection system to add options for how and where transit users can pay for rides, officials said making it easier to hop on a bus or train was paramount. That’s why board members said options such as paying with a smart phone was vital, along with adding multiple places such as corner stores where cash-paying transit riders could add money to Q cards.

Part of efforts to ease transit access was adding bus systems such as Fort Bend Transit and Harris County Transit to the system. Metro, by far the largest transit agency in the region, could incorporate the smaller systems in, provided either federal or local money could be found.

Metro will receive the grant from the Federal Transit Administration, the second-largest award in this year’s round of money from Washington, announced Tuesday. Officials selected 96 projects totaling $464 million. The money covers replacing aging buses and related infrastructure such as maintenance centers, transit centers and bus stops.

I’ve been an advocate for having a broad regional one-fare-system-for-all-transit-networks approach. This is very much a baby step in that direction, but it’s a step nonetheless. If you’re wondering, Harris County Transit runs bus service in some cities that are not part of Metro, so folding them into the same fare collection system makes perfect sense. I wish there were more to this story, or that there were a Metro press release I could read to see what else there may be to this, but this is all we have for now. All I can say is, make it a goal to expand this outward until there’s nowhere else in the region to expand to.

Time for your regularly scheduled announcement that the Uptown BRT line opening has been pushed back

Maybe for the last time, though. We hope.

Rapid bus service is coming to Uptown next month, a couple weeks later than Metro first said this summer and two years later than expected when construction began in 2016.

Service will start along the Silver Line on Aug. 23, along with other bus route changes planned by Metropolitan Transit Authority, CEO Tom Lambert said. Officials pushed back opening day a couple weeks from an earlier estimate to make all the changes at once.

“This allows us to be consistent,” Lambert said.

[…]

“There are four critical traffic signals to getting this done,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction, outlining the remaining work.

City officials, Trevino said, pledged to have the signals in place by the end of the week. The lights are vital to giving buses their own signal to enter and exit the lanes at key such intersections as Westpark and the Loop 610 southbound frontage road.

See here for the previous update, when July was the target month. I will say, this time we have an actual date, which is a step forward. Also, if the term “Silver Line” has been used elsewhere, I’ve missed it. I look forward to a day when the virus is under control and I can feel free to take what would be a joyride for myself on this new line. I hope the date for that doesn’t have to keep being rescheduled.

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.