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Too many bicyclists die on the roads around here

We should be more upset about this.

More than 100 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation.

A Chronicle analysis of TxDOT roadway crash data found that 103 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads since 2017. Aside from a slight dip in 2018, the annual total has risen each year.

The data reviewed by the Chronicle comes from vehicle-related crash reports involving a bicyclist. It includes fatalities that occurred within 30 days due to injuries sustained from a crash.

[…]

Only crashes with running motor vehicles that result in injuries, deaths or personal property damage over $1000 are required to be reported, according to TxDOT guidelines. If none of those things occurred, it’s usually up to the discretion of the responding agency.

According to a Sept. 1 news release from TxDOT, Texas crashes involving bicyclists claimed the lives of 92 people total in 2021. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths accounted for 20 percent of the 4,490 fatalities on Texas roadways last year, according to TxDOT.

[…]

According to the data, some of the contributing factors to Harris County’s fatal crashes include:

  • Drivers failing to control their speed
  • Drivers disregarding stop signs or lights
  • Drivers failing to drive in a single lane or changing lanes when it’s unsafe
  • Drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Pedestrians failing to yield the right of way to vehicles

TxDOT is currently undergoing it’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign aimed at reminding Texans to know and follow laws for safe driving, walking and biking. The laws include the Lisa Torry Smith Act, which went into effect in 2021 and requires drivers to stop and yield the right of way to people in crosswalks. Drivers must also required to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicyclists when turning.

Did you know that we had such a law in Texas now? I admit that I did not. That was SB1055, and here’s some background on it, the short version of which is that it was named for a Fort Bend woman who was killed while in a crosswalk by an apparently inattentive driver. She was walking her 6-year-old son (who was badly injured as well) to school at the time. There are now criminal penalties for this, including felony charges if the driver injures or kills the person in the crosswalk. Good to know, and I’m glad it passed. Now if we could make sure everyone else knows about it.

Anyway. There were 24 bicyclists killed on Harris County roads last year, up from 14 in 2017 and 13 in 2018. There’s a chart with the totals in the story, along with maps showing all crash locations and all fatal crash locations in that time. The number so far for 2022 is 11, which would reverse the trend of increases but would likely still end up higher than 2018 and is still too many. Between initiatives like Vision Zero and the general investment in non-automotive transportation, things are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. And maybe we should prioritize reducing the number of people who die this way a bit more.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the projects drawing alarm:

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

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

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

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

More on A Tale Of Two Bridges

After I wrote about the effort to get two new bike and pedestrian bridges built in the Heights area, with the intent of making some new connections across the White Oak Bayou and to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail, I realized that I didn’t have a good image in my head of where these proposed sites would be. The map on the A Tale Of Two Bridges page helps, but the conceptual pictures they have on the home page didn’t really put in context for me. (*) So I decided to head out on my own over a recent weekend, on my bike of course, to find the future landing spots and take some pictures.

(Note: you might also find it useful to bring up a Google map of the general area – here’s one centered on the Heights Bird Sanctuary, mentioned below. Later in the post I talk about points of interest farther south, and I found it helpful to see where I was on this map as well.)

The first place I visited was the junction of Allston and 5th streets – you should probably refer to that map as I go along. Basically, 5th street runs for one block west of Yale, then ends at Allston, which also ends there. At this little two-street cul-de-sac, there’s a mini-dog park on 5th and the Assembly at Historic Heights apartments on one side of Allston and more apartments on the other. There’s also a small grassy field that overlooks the bayou, with some people-made walking trails that take you into the nearby Houston Heights Bird Sanctuary. This is what you see from the cul-de-sac:

Ashlandat5th

I walked from there to the steep (and on a wet day, slippery and treacherous) dropoff to the bayou. It was far enough down that I couldn’t really see it, and with the ground as slick as it was I wasn’t going to chance getting any closer. But you could easily see the bike trail from there:

ViewfromAshlandat5th

You can see a bicyclist and a runner catching a breather if you zoom in. A bit to the east is an entrance to the trail from Bonner Street, but unless you live there or continue on to the I-10 service road, you can’t really get anywhere else from there. But you can easily get to the Yale and Heights Blvd ramps from the trail. Or you could continue west towards Patterson. The current alternative to get there is to go back to the Heights Bike Trail, two blocks north on Allston, then take it all the way to Bayou Greenways Park, just over the MKT Bridge by Studewood, and pick up the White Oak trail from there. It’s a long damn way that way.

Speaking of Patterson, here’s the view of about where a Patterson bridge would connect on the north side. There’s no specific feature here, just a stretch of 6th Street between Waverly and North Shepherd. It had started to rain by the time I got here, and I took temporary refuge under a stairway at The Standard apartments. Not the view I would have preferred to show, but you can at least see the new Patterson Park bar from here:

ViewofPattersonfromTheStandard

As I said, the landing point is this stretch of 6th Street, which now features MKT Heights as a destination. From Waverly you can get back to the Heights trail, which will connect back to the White Oak trail west of Durham; you can also get to the northern spur of the Heights trail on Nicholson.

That was the end of that day’s journey – I still had a rain-soaked ride home. By Sunday it was clear enough again, so I headed to the White Oak trail to see the perspective from the other side. I can’t say exactly where on the trail the bridge to 5th and Allston would be, but it’s in this vicinity, where you can see the Assembly apartments:

TrailSideAshland5th

Part of that clearing I mentioned is where that utility pole is just left of the photo’s center. I was to the right from there, peeking out from the smaller trees, when I took the first picture.

The dead end of Patterson Street at the trail is a lot more obvious, and that’s where I took these last two pictures, one facing slightly east towards The Standard, and the other facing slightly west, in the general direction of MKT Heights.

PattersonBridgeEast

PattersonBridgeWest

I think the construction you can see in the west-facing picture on the bottom may be the back end of the East Bend apartments, which front onto North Shepherd. Patterson, on the side where I was, will have an on-street bike trail built soon per that Chron story. It will take you over I-10 to Washington Avenue. From there, you can eventually get to the Buffalo Bayou bike trails between Memorial and Allen Parkway either via Jackson Hill Street a couple of blocks east, or via Feagen to Spotts Park. You do have to cross Waugh to get there, which is dicey, but perhaps that will be addressed at some point as well. It’s still an amazing extension of the existing bike trail network, all thanks to two bridges and a new street trail. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see it all happen. Hope you enjoyed my little photo tour of what is to come.

(*) I did come across a better picture in this Axios Houston story as I started writing this post, but by then I’d already taken my own pics, and this one still wouldn’t have made sense to me without my own visit to the locations.

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

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

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

Below is a high-level list of issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, let’s build more bike trail bridges

It’s all about connectivity.

Stopping for a water break on the normal blistering-hot Houston day, bicyclist Reagan Smithers, 33, can see the tops of the trees along her street from the White Oak Bayou Trail.

As the grackle flies – this is Houston, so there’s more of them than crows — she’s maybe four blocks from home, and a circuitous 1.1-mile bike ride.

“You get used to it, but it is a pain,” Smithers said.

Cycling advocates, supported by local developers and with some initial encouragement from city and state officials, however, might just have the cure: Two crossings of the bayou that could bridge a small distance that’s always existed between the Heights and Rice Military.

“It really shows what we could have but don’t,” said Emmanuel Nunez, one of the leaders of the push for two bridges at Patterson and Rutland.

The proposal cobbles together an open space the Texas Department of Transportation acquired for stormwater detention north of Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou, current plans for a bridge where Rutland dead ends north of the bayou, and apartment and commercial development on both sides of the bayou at Patterson. Nunez and other supporters of the proposal, called a Tale of Two Bridges, argue that a complete plan to use the detention area for wetland trails and a little parking – combined with the spans – eases access for cyclists and runners and makes natural connections that will be critical as nearby changes to transit and bike lanes occur.

“We want to make sure we have connectivity from every angle,” Nunez said.

TxDOT, with federal money doled out by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has a $2.4 million plan to build the Rutland bridge, set to start construction in fiscal 2024. Advocates behind the two bridges project are hoping another entity or entities – Houston, Harris County, Houston Parks Board, Metropolitan Transit Authority, area management districts, developers and practically anyone with the money and political muscle – will step in and support a Patterson span at the same time under the same construction contract.

“We want two for the price of one,” said Kevin Strickland, another organizer of the effort and members of CURBS Houston, an advocacy group in the Heights that has supported bicycling amenities in the area.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The image on the ATOTB page shows how much bang for the buck having both bridges would mean. Farther down in the Chron story is a listing of other projects in the area that would further enhance the effect. There’s a lot of apartments and a lot of destinations that would be easily reachable by bike from them in the area. Enabling that connectivity means fewer people resorting to cars for these short trips. That’s a big win for everyone, all for a very reasonable price tag. We should all want this to happen.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

TxDOT sued over its enviromental impact assessments

Very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

Our electric car charging stations future

Lots more are coming.

Texas is planning to add enough electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state to support 1 million electric vehicles with dozens of new stations to allow for easier long-distance travel.

In a draft plan released this month, the Texas Department of Transportation broke down a five-year plan to create a network of chargers throughout the state, starting along main corridors and interstate highways before building stations in rural areas.

The plan is to have charging stations every 50 miles along most non-business interstate routes.

In most other areas in the state, there will be charging stations within 70 miles, according to the plan. Each station is designed to have multiple stalls so there will likely be one available whenever someone stops to charge.

The chargers will be high-powered at 150kW, able to bring most electric vehicles from 10% to 80% in about half an hour, according to the report.

The funding is coming from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, which is estimated to allocate about $408 million over five years to Texas for the purpose of expanding its electric vehicle charging network. No funds from the state budget will be used. Nationally, the goal is to create a network of 500,000 convenient and reliable electric vehicle chargers by 2030. In total from the infrastructure act, Texas is expected to receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects.

[…]

Chandra Bhat, a University of Texas transportation engineering professor and the director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Center on Data-Supported Transportation Operations and Planning, said the additional charging stations are a welcome upgrade to Texas transportation. Some of Bhat’s research has been funded by TxDOT.

Bhat said there are several barriers to electric vehicle adoption by consumers: the upfront cost, anxiety over how far a driver can travel and the wait times for charging.

This new plan addresses range anxiety by providing many options only 50 miles apart — however, it doesn’t address cost or fully address wait times, he said. Although the planned chargers will be high speed, it still takes around half an hour, he said. A driver might not know how long they may have to wait if someone else is already using the stalls.

That uncertainty can cause consumers to pass on purchasing electric vehicles altogether, he said.

This is a good thing. There aren’t many electric cars in Texas right now, but the number is growing, and making it easier to charge them will help people overcome whatever concerns they have in considering them. I mean, with gas prices what they are right now, who wouldn’t be thinking about going electric?

Are road signs that warn about highway fatalities a danger?

Could be.

Driving along Texas highways, drivers will likely see electric signs that provide real-time traffic alerts, weather information or unique public safety announcements. While these signs are designed to increase public safety, new evidence suggests that one type does more harm than good.

recent study from Joshua Madsen and Jonathan D. Hall outlines how dynamic message signs (DMSs) displaying the year-to-date number of fatalities actually distract drivers and cause more accidents.

“The intention of these messages is to hopefully reduce crashes and encourage safe driving, and our findings are showing that it’s backfiring,” said Madsen, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’re finding an immediate increase in crashes, very small, but its clearly going in the wrong direction.”

After analyzing data on 880 fatality signs and all crashes occurring in Texas from 2010 through 2017, Madsen and Hall found that the number of crashes increased as drivers got closer to the signs.

The number of crashes increased by 1.35% within 10 kilometers of the signs, and raised to 1.52% within five kilometers of the signs. Those numbers only increased in areas with complicated road segments.

“What’s the cost of a two-second distraction?” Madsen asked. “If I’m on a straight highway between Austin and Houston, there’s not many consequences to a two-second distraction. If I’m dealing with an interchange, there’s five lanes of traffic. I need to be switching lanes and getting out. That would be a much more complicated road segment and having a two-second distraction could certainly be more costly.”

The research suggests that the signs cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 fatalities every year in Texas, with an annual cost of $377 million. The study says the effects of displaying fatality messages are comparable to raising the speed limit by 3-5 miles per hour or reducing the number of highway troopers by 6-14 percent.

[…]

In a statement to the Chronicle, a TxDOT spokesperson said the “real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and people not wearing seat belts.”

“We appreciate any focus on safety and the critical need to inspire drivers to make the best decisions behind the wheel,” the statement reads.” In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions, to include assumptions made by the study authors regarding driver psychology and behavior.”

“We continually evaluate the effectiveness of our safety messages, and for quite some time now, we have not shared fatality numbers on the dynamic messaging signs (DMS). We look for every way to make our roads as safe as possible, and to use effective measures to remind drivers that most of the time they have the power in their hands to help prevent fatalities on our roadways.”

The study is here. I read through the abstract, and if I’m reading this correctly they are comparing collisions during the weeks that TxDOT is displaying these dynamic messages (called “campaign weeks”, which as the authors note has been one week per month since August 2012) to the weeks when it is not. The comparison is for the areas near the signs in the campaign weeks to the off weeks. The method seems reasonable to me, and the time span is long enough that there ought to be enough data to draw conclusions, but I don’t fully buy it. The large area in which the crash data was measured, which I presume is to allow for a sufficient number of crashes to measure, is broad enough that I don’t think you can assume enough of these drivers even saw the signs in question on the journey that included the crash.

I don’t want to speculate about what else might be in play here. The way they defined the data sets does a pretty good job of eliminating a lot of randomness, and the hypothesis that the signs can be distractive has merit. I just feel like this is a broad conclusion to make from inferential data. I can certainly believe that the signs don’t have any positive effect, and I can believe they could have a negative effect. I’d just like to see some more data before I’m convinced.

Now you really need to avoid the 59/610 interchange

Welcome to hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our deadly roads

It was a bad year last year.

Last year was the second deadliest on record for vehicle fatalities on Texas roads, reflecting a lethal trend here and throughout the nation, especially in large urban areas.

In 2021, 4,480 people died in collisions on Texas highways, the most since 1981, and a 15 percent increase in fatalities over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, which has tracked vehicle deaths since 1940.

Nationwide, fatal vehicle crashes in the first half of 2021 were up 18.4 percent over 2020. These statistics include crashes in which pedestrians are killed.

Traffic safety engineers say there are a multitude of reasons for the increase – some obvious, some almost counterintuitive, and some embedded in drivers’ habits and attitudes, making them harder to measure.

Driving under the influence of alcohol continues to be the second most common factor in deadly highway collisions in Texas, just behind “failed to stay in single lane” and ahead of speeding.

Robert Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, is one of many experts who noticed an alarming trend in transportation safety during the coronavirus pandemic. As more people stayed home and roads emptied, lonely highways became more enticing for those who like to speed.

When vehicles collide, “just a ten percent increase in speed, say from 60 mph to 70 mph, results in a 38 percent increase in fatal crashes,” he said.

“It’s just physics and the dissipation of energy and what that does to the human brain in a crash,” he said. “People have simply got to slow down. People should enjoy the journey more and not try to arrive five to 10 minutes earlier.”

Put another way, some cities may have experienced the same number of crashes year over year, but during the pandemic many of the crashes occurred at significantly higher speeds, making them more deadly, both for vehicle occupants and, obviously, for any pedestrians involved.

In 2021, at least 821 pedestrians died in auto collisons in Texas, up 15 percent over 2020 totals — the same increase seen in auto-bicycle deaths — though both years were influenced by the pandemic.

Freeway crashes are not the biggest problem, and researchers often wryly point out that urban traffic jams at rush hour slow down traffic and demonstrably save lives.

Rush hour or not, city expressways have the best safety performance per vehicle mile primarily because people are traveling in the same direction and freeways usually have more safety features in place, Wunderlich said.

“What we’re more concerned about is that person driving 70 on a two-lane, undivided rural road with no shoulders,” said Wunderlich, adding that single car collisions under those conditions result in a “disproportionately high number” of deaths in Texas.

[…]

A more surprising development in the recent increase in road fatalities is that fewer drivers are wearing seat belts. Wunderlich and his researchers have confirmed this with “observational studies” in the field, not just surveys.

One theory suggested by some researchers is that the people who have stayed at home during the pandemic are generally better educated, more risk-averse and less likely to reject government-imposed safety protocols, such as face masks and seatbelts.

Wunderlich isn’t saying that the state’s increase in fatal car crashes has been driven by unmasked, blue collar guys in pickups speeding to their jobs, but he suggests it’s a hypothesis that might deserve some study.

“There are definitely more risk-takers on the road, more people, perhaps, who said, `I don’t need to wear a mask, I don’t need to wear a seatbelt, to hell with all that,’” he said.

Can’t say I’m surprised by that last observation. Texas’ population increase, which is fueled by people moving here at least as much as the birth rate, is also a factor, as a lot of the new people are also drivers. Vehicle size isn’t cited in the story, but we know that bigger vehicles are more deadly – again, it’s a simple matter of physics – and we have a lot of those in the state. That may be more of a perennial factor than a reason for the recent increase, though. I don’t have a good prescription here. Cities like Houston have taken and are taking steps to lower speeds within their limits and to encourage walking and biking and transit, but there’s an awful lot to do to make a dent in the car culture here, and non-car transportation options are vastly outspent and out-prioritized overall. Be careful out there.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 project gets a wee bit more expensive

Eh, what’s another $750 million?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, traffic is worse than before

You’re not surprised, are you?

By most measures, traffic is back to pre-COVID congestion levels — or even more clogged in some cases. What seems to have changed, based on a handful of studies that looked at different facets of how drivers moved around American cities and locally, is who is logging all those miles.

“There are still a lot of people who are not driving like they used to, but those that are driving are driving more miles,” said Jeff Schlitt, director of sales engineering for Arity, which tracks driver behavior.

As they log more miles, however, drivers are not letting up on the gas pedal, not keeping their eyes on the road and often not driving safely.

“Our trend is definitely going in the wrong direction,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said during a Sept. 30 update on road safety at the commission’s monthly meeting.

Arity, a spinoff business of insurance giant Allstate, follows drivers via smartphone apps that meticulously track location, allowing the company to measure numerous patterns, including trip routes, speed of travel, mobile phone use and sudden stops. Through data from third-party apps — the company says it receives data from 60 percent of U.S. drivers — the company then studies changes in trends.

In its latest report, released last month, Arity said overall U.S. vehicle travel is 8 percent higher than 2019 levels before the pandemic. Travel varies by state, however, with Texas up 10 percent and Massachusetts up 1 percent.

In Houston, COVID dropped freeway traffic volumes by about 45 percent in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, before congestion crept back up and remained about 10 percent below 2019 averages for most of last year, according to data compiled by Houston TranStar.

When fears of a winter surge in COVID cases sent many back into isolation last December, traffic volumes dipped again, then eased. By March, when the first wave of Texans were fully vaccinated, traffic volumes had risen above pre-pandemic levels.

Traffic dropped off in the summer, as is common when schools are out of session, something Schlitt and others said was a sign of normalcy.

“I think what we are seeing is a return to seasonality patterns,” Schlitt said.

Drivers said they are also seeing people moving back into their old habits of going to stores rather than relying on deliveries or choosing to eat in restaurants rather than cook at home.

[…]

With roughly three months left in the year, 3,278 people have died on Texas roadways, according to the state’s crash reporting system. Typically some reports can take weeks to appear in the system, and Ryan recently said the daily average of deaths has increased to 13 per day for September.

Unless the roadway carnage rapidly slows, Texas is on pace for more than 4,000 deaths. That would be the highest since 1982, when the per-mile fatality rate was three times higher, cars lacked airbags, drivers and passengers were far less likely to wear seat belts and aggressive enforcement of drunken driving was rare.

During the early months of the pandemic, highway and traffic safety officials said fewer drivers on the road left more room for unsafe motorists, who used less-congested lanes to accelerate. That meant that even though Texas had fewer collisions, they were happening at faster speeds, leading to tragic results.

Now, safety observers said with drivers accustomed to those 75 mph and 80 mph speeds, freeways are more crowded and collisions are increasing. For the first nine months of 2020, Texas police logged 393,919 crashes. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, at least 459,972 crashes have occurred, a roughly 15 percent jump.

I have done so much less driving over the past 18 months, thanks to working from home. It’s contributed to a significant reduction in stress for me, and I’m not a nervous driver. I’m just much happier not having to drive on our miserable freeways day in and day out. Some number of commuters are taking advantage of more flexible or hybrid work schedules these days to be on the road more in the middle of the day, which is better for them but maybe not as good for the people who are normally on the road at those times. All I know is, the longer I can go as a mostly non-driver, the better.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans want to get the I-45 project going again

We all want things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

Built on top of tree-lined East Avenue, the road opened in 1962, cutting off Black and Mexican-American East Austin from Downtown. Like urban renewal projects in other American cities, the road’s destructive legacy has recently been reconsidered in racial terms.

But unlike with similar projects in Syracuse and New Haven, the question in Austin is not how to tear down the highway but how to expand it. Those cities are not growing; Austin is. Just as the Texas capital embarks on its generational transit investment, the state is planning to spend almost $5 billion to expand eight miles of I-35 through Downtown to a whopping 20 lanes wide. Four new “managed lanes” (for high-occupancy vehicles or other restricted uses) will join the mainlanes and frontage roads, stretching the highway’s width to nearly 600 feet in places, and erasing almost 150 properties.

With their latticework of ramps, bypass lanes, and flyovers, the blueprints have the look of one of those historical timelines that shows warring empires dividing and combining in endless permutations. It’s a testament to America’s highway designers that this tangle, hard to follow with one finger, will one day be navigable at 70 miles per hour.

[…]

Last month, the mayor and nearly the entirety of the Austin City Council signed a letter addressed to the I-35 team at the Department of Transportation with some requests: Change the design to narrow the right-of-way. Build more crossings. Make frontage roads into pleasant local streets. Design, fund, and build highway decks—suspended parks over the road—to knit together neighborhoods that were severed in 1962. And delay the project until Austin can complete its transit lines.

“It’s something we have to do something about. It’s deadly, it’s dirty, it divides our community,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, a City Council member who has denounced the plan. “I-35 is the poster child for our car-choked congestion problems, and their solution is just to make it bigger. They tell us the life span is 75 years. That means 2100. When I think about 2100, I don’t see a sprawling Houston, but a city that helps people move around without cars.”

There are alternate proposals, such as the one drawn up by the Urban Land Institute at the behest of Downtown interests. That design proposes a narrower right-of-way, cantilevered frontage roads, highway decks to support green space, and new housing alongside it all. A similar highway cap, Klyde Warren Park, opened in Dallas to much fanfare in 2012.

A local group called Reconnect Austin wants to bury the highway entirely and build a surface-level boulevard, in the style of Boston’s Big Dig. Divert intercity traffic to State Highway 130, a road built east of Austin two decades ago for just this purpose. Give the city’s transit network a chance to make its mark, they argue, before you undermine its offerings with a brand new (free) highway.

See here for the background. I wanted to highlight this article for two reasons. One was because it referenced an Austin Politics report that showed how TxDOT’s predictions for future traffic on I-35 are basically the same as they were 20 years ago, and that the levels of traffic they were predicting then have not come close to being accurate. Makes me wonder what a bit of similar investigation into claims about traffic on I-45 would yield.

The other is for this diagram, taken from TxDOT’s renderings for the proposed expansion, and included in the piece:

I’d say I’ve never seen anything more ridiculous than that, but then I have seen TxDOT’s plans for I-45, so. Anyway, check it out.

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

In May 2019, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) unveiled a $7.5 billion plan to expand the abhorred stretch of I-35 that snakes through the center of Austin. Dubbed the Capital Express Project, the proposal’s potential changes were drastic: In addition to adding two levels of tunnels, it would widen the highway on each side by several lanes and significantly increase the interstate’s footprint. State officials proclaimed the proposition, still in its infancy, as the long-awaited answer to the capital city’s notorious traffic woes.

“This is a huge choke point for the entire state of Texas,” Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said of the plan. “We now have a solution on the table. The time for talk is over. The time for action is now.”

On its face, the proposal seemed like a promising offer for Austinites who spend countless hours idling on the most congested stretch of road in all of Texas. But in reality, it was the blueprint for an ineffective, outdated strategy that would only spur sprawl, transportation advocates argued. In fact, they pointed out, studies show that roadway buildout actually increases congestion because it fuels the need for car-centric transit.

All of this was on the mind of Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison as she drove up to Dallas later that fall. Born and raised on the capital city’s East Side, she knew the impacts of highway expansion all too well. The place where Black residents had been subjected to decades of systemic racism and financial redlining after being forcibly moved to in 1928, East Austin was effectively cut off from the rest of town by I-35. As a result, the interstate wasn’t just a hulking mass of concrete and asphalt, she said: It was oftentimes the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots.

Given these experiences, Harper-Madison was eager to explore alternative transportation solutions when she first learned about TxDOT’s proposal. Enter Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre public space that was established atop a downtown stretch of Dallas’ Woodall Rodgers Freeway in 2012. Witnessing the vibrant, tree-lined area was nothing short of revelatory, Harper-Madison said. The complex, once consumed by concrete and traffic congestion, had been converted into a natural gathering ground for people from all walks of life.

[…]

That trip couldn’t be more pertinent for Harper-Madison and her fellow Austin officials these days. That’s because TxDOT is now on the verge of pushing forward plans to expand I-35 — a painstaking endeavor that leaders worry could result in a big-money boondoggle if not handled correctly. For context, there are three community-drawn proposals that would limit the highway’s existing footprint, downsize it to an urban boulevard, or even incorporate Klyde Warren–inspired green spaces, but the state has shown little interest in entertaining them. Instead, TxDOT has prioritized two “build alternatives” that would simply demolish the I-35’s upper decks and widen the thoroughfare considerably.

Such proposals (which are eerily similar to those being contested in Houston) run in direct opposition to the town’s long-term transportation plans because they double down on a car-centric model less than two years after Austin voters approved a $7 billion mass transit bond. Residents don’t want bigger highways, Harper-Madison said. They want smarter, forward-thinking ways to get around their city.

If allowed to move forward, TxDOT’s proposed expansion will engulf nearly 150 homes and businesses along the interstate. Many of these, like the Stars Cafe and the Austin Chronicle building, are local institutions. Others, such as the Escuelita del Alma day care center, Taqueria Los Altos, and Hector the Barber, are popular utilities whose erasure would leave a glaring absence in nearby communities. With Austin already struggling to combat skyrocketing costs of living and growing suburban sprawl, now isn’t the time to push people out, Council Member Greg Casar said.

I don’t live in Austin, and I don’t have to deal with I-35, which by any definition is a mess and a hellhole. But when I hear about a $7.5 billion plan to widen and add capacity to I-35, I don’t see a solution, I see an even bigger nightmare of construction-induced worse traffic, neighborhoods and existing businesses being displaced and destroyed, and an even bigger traffic problem a few years down the line. I wonder what a $7.5 billion investment in mass transit might look like. And if you do live in Austin and have similar thoughts about this, I say raise hell and fight it with all you’ve got, because they will steamroll you otherwise. Good luck, you’re going to need it.

I-45 remains in the funding plan

For now. Ask again in 90 days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Back to the public input phase for I-45

They hear, but will they listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feds tell TxDOT to slow down on I-45

On pause for however long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Traffic deaths are way up

Not good, y’all.

With traffic levels returning to normal levels post-COVID, Texas is on track for more than 4,000 deaths on state roads, a total unseen since the mid-1980s when the state had millions fewer residents and far deadlier streets, according to partial estimates from the first five months of 2021.

In the Houston region, sharp increases in pedestrian and bicycling deaths, along with impaired driving in 2020 have continued unabated into 2021.

“We are going the wrong way,” Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said. “It is heartbreaking, it is frustrating, and we have got to do something about it.”

[…]

With some fatal wrecks likely not yet logged in the state’s crash database, the first four months of 2021 are the most deadly start to a year at least in the past decade, according to an analysis of Texas Department of Transportation data. Statewide, at least 1,368 people have died on Texas roads, a 24 percent increase over last year and 19 percent jump from 2019 when traffic levels were unaffected by COVID. In the eight-county Houston area, roadway deaths were up 27 percent from last year, with 256 confirmed fatalities, including 183 in Harris County, which saw deaths increased by 36 percent from 2020 and 30 percent compared to 2019.

Comparisons to both 2020 and 2019 show that the spike is not simply COVID, though safety officials think some of it could be based on changing conditions. The pandemic significantly dropped daily traffic counts, which opened up Texas’ wide freeways for abuse.

Now with traffic teetering on a return to normal pre-pandemic levels – in some spots, vehicle volumes are already back to 2019 totals or more – some of those speedy trips are ending tragically.

Many drivers said the risks are easy to see, both from a combination of unruly motorists and streets that favor speed over safety.

“If you build a street like a highway, people will use it like a highway,” said Richard Ward, 55, who lives in Sugar Land.

As the story notes, it’s not just Texas – road fatalities are up nationally, too. There are plenty of long-term issues in the state and around Houston – car-centric road design, higher-than-safe speeds allowed on residential streets, insufficient enforcement of speeding ordinances, etc – but no single cause for the current increase. It seems likely that some people got used to being able to drive more recklessly when the roads were less crowded, and maybe there’s some pandemic stress in there as well. Whatever the case, be careful out there.

(The story notes that there was little action taken by the Legislature to address road safety issues this session. All things considered, we should probably be grateful, because the way things were going someone was sure to propose eliminating drivers licenses and traffic lights as the solution.)

Cybersecurity insurance for TxDOT

Not an optional thing these days.

Pending final approval from the legislature, the Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend about $100,000 annually on cybersecurity insurance aimed at repaying the state should it incur expenses related to loss of business or recouping costs related to correcting a cyber attack. To buy the insurance, TxDOT needs some minor language changes to state law. HB 3390 by State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, would make those adjustments, clearing the way for the transportation agency to buy a policy.

Thompson’s bill passed the Texas Senate on Wednesday and now goes to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, who sponsored an identical bill in the Senate, said the premium on the insurance would cost TxDOT about $100,000 annually.

The insurance comes about a year after the department was the victim of a ransomware attack on its systems that cost about $10 million to correct and prevent future invaders.

“It was pretty bad,” said State Sen. Robert Nichols, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

A number of state agencies, smaller public entities and major businesses in Texas have faced internet assaults, including school districts, the Houston RocketsTexas’ court system and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Neither TxDOT nor its insurance company paid a ransom, officials at the time said, but spent weeks working with consultants and companies, such as AT&T, to identify the issue and install new hardware related to stopping infiltrations. James Bass, TxDOT’s executive director, said analysts believe the breach happened when a contract employee clicked a link disguised as coming from an internal source.

[…]

Bass said the need for the insurance at this time is somewhat confusing, since last year’s attack was covered by insurance. To satisfy bond holders, who lent money for the state to build toll roads, TxDOT purchased cyberattack insurance on its tolling systems about a decade ago. At that time, the insurer allowed TxDOT to add all of its operations free of charge.

Now that the state has been attacked, however, Bass said it likely will need separate insurance, which requires the change in law so TxDOT can use state money — not toll revenue — to pay the premium.

TxDOT is an obvious candidate for needing this kind of insurance, since drivers license data is a lucrative target, but surely they’re not the only state agency that would need it. The Department of State Health Services comes to mind, for example. A better question is what are we doing as a state to better protect these agencies and their data from being ransomed in the first place? Putting my professional hat on for a minute, I can tell you this is a big problem, one that requires a significant and evergreen investment to mitigate against it, and a lot of places are woefully ill-equipped for the fight. And as we saw last year, it’s not just DPS and other state agencies we have to worry about, it’s also the firms they do business with. (It’s also not just hackers, but pure human incompetence that can be at fault as well.) I’m sure there’s plenty the Lege could have done this session to improve things, but they had other priorities.

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.