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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Waymo moves forward on a self-driving car service

Get ready, because they’re coming.

Waymo, the driverless-technology company spun out of Google, has agreed to purchase as many as 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for use in a ride-hailing service set to begin commercial operations later this year.

The announcement on Thursday is the latest sign that Waymo is counting on a rapid liftoff for the service. In March, it agreed to purchase up to 20,000 compact cars for the service from Jaguar Land Rover beginning in 2019.

Both the Chrysler Pacifica minivans and the Jaguar cars will be equipped with the radars, cameras and sensors that Waymo has developed to enable the vehicles to drive themselves on public roads. Waymo plans to start its service in Phoenix, then expand to the San Francisco area and to other cities across the country.

Waymo began working with Fiat Chrysler in 2016 and has built a fleet of driverless minivans that it has been testing in Phoenix; Mountain View, Calif.; Austin, Tex.; and Kirkland, Wash.

According to the Associated Press, Waymo aims to have an automated vehicle rideshare service in Phoenix by the end of this year, so look out for that if your travel plans include Phoenix. We could begin to see them in Texas following that – one presumes initially in Austin, since that’s where the tests have taken place – as a bill to regulate automated vehicles passed the Lege last year. Waymo appears to have taken the lead in getting this technology to work, so we’ll see how this goes. Would you ride in a driverless car if one is available in the next few months? I gotta say, I’ll probably wait till version 2 is available, but maybe I’m just being a wuss. What about you?

Who’s gonna clean up that self-driving car?

Here’s a question I hadn’t pondered before.

Who will clean self-driving vehicles?

I found myself wondering this recently as my son and I tidied the family car after a road trip. We’d been driving for only five hours, but we had produced two grocery bags of trash: water bottles, parking stubs, wrappers from lunchtime hoagies, reading material, a roll of Scotch tape, and a ping-pong ball among other miscellany that had accumulated over the short time. It wasn’t unusual. In my family, I’m the one who remembers to clean out the car, so I’m all too familiar with the volume and medley of mess that can be generated in vehicle regularly used by adults and kids.

Yet with companies like Uber, Waymo, and Lyft planning to launch their first generation of self-driving cars as shared taxis, it’s not yet clear who or what will be there to clean up the half-drunk Starbucks cup, wipe down the mystery stickiness on the seat, or handle even less hygienic situations. It’s not just a trivial matter: it’s an issue of sanitation and rider well-being—one more pressing for future users than you might imagine.

Consider the many dimensions of mess. As I thought about mess in cars, I wasn’t just thinking about cleaning up the slightly gross piece of lettuce from my son’s hoagie that had fallen on the floor mats. I was thinking about cleaning up an even grosser kind of mess—the kind that you make if you are carsick.

[…]

I spoke with Molly Nix, the UX lead for self-driving Uber cars, and one of only two product designers working on what the company deems the “self-driving Uber human experience,” which includes everything from the app interface to the logistics of motion sickness. As it turns out, Uber’s haptic feedback technology might not become reality. Nix explained that the patent is a reflection of the kinds of things the Uber team is thinking about, but that, “It’s important to remember there is such a thing as overengineering a solution to a problem like motion sickness,” she said. “Nothing beats windows.” Staring outside may be the best remedy for passengers, and choosing when you need to open a window may be better than relying on a hyperdesigned haptic feedback system giving you bursts of air.

But even less thought seems to have been put into cleaning. When I asked Nix what would happen if someone made a call on a porcelain telephone in a self-driving car, she declined to answer. I asked if she and her team talk about it at the office. She again declined to answer. What will any kind of self-driving car garbage cleanup look like in reality? “We are still envisioning what it might look like,” said Nix.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said that the company doesn’t have a plan for dealing with the aftermath of people getting sick or making other serious messes in self-driving cars, in part because the vehicles Uber’s testing now still have backup human drivers. “Since we have an operator in the car, we have not really explored exactly what that looks like,” Abboud said. She added she imagines that such messes would probably be handled in the same way the company plans to handle general cleaning: dispatching the car to a facility for a human to clean it and get it back on the road. There are currently two operation centers that clean the driverless cars Uber is testing, one in Phoenix and one outside Pittsburgh. Perhaps Uber would create more of those, Abboud suggested.

The same seems to hold for other companies. Waymo, for example, has partnered with rental car titan Avis for routine maintenance of its self-driving vehicles in Phoenix—though the few available details a Waymo spokesperson sent to me simply suggest that cars will “need to be charged and refueled, cleaned, and presentable for riders.” The overview did not include information about how, exactly, this happens. (Lyft did not respond to a request for comment on the cleaning issue.)

It’s possible that companies could program cars to return to a home base for upkeep after every ride. But it’s an unlikely solution considering the potential for wasted time, wasted energy, and increased congestion. Instead, as of now, solutions still seem to rely on human intervention. Someone will likely need to alert Uber or Waymo to any mess in a car. Then someone will need to clean it. (No Roombas for car interiors yet.) Abboud alluded to a potential mechanism that might help Uber’s systems identify such messes in the future, but wouldn’t say if that would be a video camera inside the car or something else. “We don’t really have that figured out yet,” she said.

There are other categories of mess that will surely appear in the self-driving cars of the future, some of which you won’t be able to get out of your head once you’ve been forced to think about them. I apologize in advance, but these are the questions we must grapple with. Self-driving cars are supposedly going to eliminate traffic and provide a superior option to mass transit and car ownership, but not if everyone is grossed out by the user experience. If your response to that is “well, buses and rail cars are often dirty, too”, then my response to you is “yes, and that’s one big reason why many people who could use transit choose not to”. There’s more to this than just engineering, and if the companies that are vying to bring us this future don’t solve these other problems, they’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

Enabling better transit

This is great.

For less than the cost of a single bus, however, Metro might be the first transit agency in the country to take a significant step across an entire bus system that could open riding options to scores of vision-impaired customers with the use of a smartphone.

The secret is a small beacon about the size of a garage door opener, placed atop every one of those bus-stop poles.

“It is amazing when you see a need you can address it with new technologies,” said Lex Frieden, a member of the transit agency’s board and a nationally acclaimed disability-access advocate.

Users can plot their location using a mapping program, then the beacons are integrated into the directions. Often, the biggest challenge for some users is finding precisely where a bus stop is located at an intersection, or in the middle of a long block.

“It is about getting that information and getting it in your hands,” said Randy Frazier, Metro’s chief technology officer.

As someone approaches their intended stop, their phone receives signals from the beacon, which can send an alert to their phone. Alerts can be delivered either as audio instructions, such as how a mapping program gives drivers voice instructions to turn left or right, or as tactile directions that use pulsing so someone can understand the instructions via sense of touch. As they draw closer to the stop, the pulses increase until the rider knows they are in the correct spot.

[…]

The beacons are a relatively inexpensive leap that could put Metro at the forefront of making transit more accessible for many potential riders. In addition to an aging population of Baby Boomers, many of whom will need transit in the future as they lose the ability to drive, Metro and other transit agencies struggle to lessen para-transit costs.

MetroLift, which offers door-to-door service for elderly and disabled passengers, costs Metro $2.47 per mile, according to 2016 data. Providing a taxi, where applicable, reduces the cost to $1.26 per mile a passenger is carried.

Conventional transit, meanwhile, costs Metro less, about $1.11 per mile for a bus and $1.17 for light rail. When that’s considered across nearly 590 million miles of transit travel in the Houston area, shifting some of the riders to buses and trains could save millions of dollars and give elderly and disabled riders more freedom to travel without prearranged plans.

Installing a beacon at all of Metro’s roughly 9,000 bus stops is expected to cost $375,000, meaning for less than the cost of a single bus every place that a bus stops will be accessible to the visually impaired and others.

Better service for more people at a lower cost. Gotta love that. I don’t have a point to make here, I just want to make sure you keep this in mind when you hear all the blather from the usual blowhards when Metro rolls out its comprehensive transit plan later this year.

Let’s kill fewer pedestrians and bicyclists

Crazy idea, right?

Houston officials will find the 10 most dangerous intersections in the city and make safety adjustments where possible following a series of fatal bicycle crashes in 2018.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the initiative on Bike to Work Day, noting that streets need to be safer for bicyclists if the city expects to promote cycling.

[…]

The program will come as a citywide expansion of Houston’s Safer Streets initiative, a pilot project that was implemented last year in five Houston communities to make streets more friendly for bicyclists and pedestrians, Turner said.

The city’s public works and planning and development departments will work with the city’s Bicycle Advocacy Committee and bike safety nonprofit BikeHouston to identify the 10 intersections that will be adjusted.

Narrowing that list down to ten may be a challenge. Here’s a map showing the major incidents over the past two years. Most of them, anyway – as Swamplot notes, locations for about fifteen percent of crashes weren’t identified, so add another hundred dots to that map. Like I said, sure would be nice if we could reduce that number.

NASA to test Uber’s flying cars

Just simulations, thankfully.

NASA will soon begin testing in Dallas how Uber’s on-demand air-taxi concept would affect crowded areas.

Uber is in the midst of designing an air-taxi service, called UberAIR. Officials hope to conduct flight demonstrations starting in 2020 and start operating commercially in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023.

And on Tuesday, NASA announced that it would help the company “ensure a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in populated areas.”

“NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the [urban air mobility] market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smartphones have.”

Under this agreement, Uber will provide NASA with its plans for implementing this cutting-edge ride-share network and NASA will use computer modeling and simulations to determine the impact of this kind of aircraft. The simulations will take place at NASA’s research facility at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

NASA personnel will analyze safety issues that could arise from small passenger-carrying aircraft flying through the airport’s airspace during “peak scheduled air traffic,” according to the space agency.

See here for the background. There are still a lot of issues to be worked out, and there’s no real reason to think any of this is practical. But hey, we were promised flying cars, so onward we go. I just hope they remember to simulate a few falling-debris scenarios, because I’m pretty sure we’re going to need to know what to do with them.

Texas Central and Amtrak

Connectivity is good.

Amtrak and Texas Central announced a partnership Friday to link the proposed bullet train from Dallas to Houston to the national passenger rail network.

Passengers will be able to book their bullet train trips through Amtrak. The partnership also commits the high-speed rail operator to transport passengers between Amtrak’s Dallas endpoint, Union Station, to the Texas Central’s multilevel station between South Riverfront Boulevard and South Austin Street.

Texas Central will also provide similar shuttle service between the Amtrak endpoint and the former mall site it has chosen for a terminal in northwest Houston.

[…]

The agreement also makes Amtrak training, marketing and sales capabilities available to Texas Central.

See here for the press release. I don’t know how many people might take advantage of this networking between Amtrak and Texas Central, but being able to plug into Amtrak’s ticketing system instead of having to build their own is a win for TCR. And seriously, all of the connections, from the proposed extension to D/FW Airport to the Uptown BRT and whatever else Metro may build to this, they’re all good and make the overall system better. Keep it coming.

Zipcars and parking

Let’s sort this out.

A plan to allow more on-street parking spaces for cars Houstonians could rent by the hour hit a bump Wednesday, when city council members balked at moving beyond the pilot program they approved nearly two years ago.

Expansion of the city’s car-sharing program will wait at least another week, as staff address some of the concerns raised. As devised, the program would allow Houston to enter into agreements with car-sharing companies, firms that allow via smartphone app someone to check out a vehicle and then drive it wherever, which usually requires a membership that comes with a monthly or annual fee. The car could then be left at any designated location, including returning it to the original spot.

Skeptical council members struggled with the idea of reducing public parking or allowing a private company control over the spots.

“These parking spots belong to the city and to give them to private companies for their use, it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me,” At-Large Councilman Michael Kubosh said.

[…]

Though it is growing, the Houston area’s car sharing program lags other cities, such as Boston where hundreds of pickup locations dot the region, and Denver, which worked out city regulations allowing companies to purchase on-street parking spaces or buy a placard allowing cars to be parked at any public spot within a specified area.

The Houston area has about two dozen spots where cars can be accessed from a handful of companies, but only one of those firms — Zipcar — has an on-street location. The rest are located in private lots, such as Bush Intercontinental Airport and major universities in the area.

The companies have aggressively marketed to transit riders and others who would prefer not to own a vehicle in dense urban areas, while maintaining the ability to grab a car when they need it.

Zipcar leases four spots in Midtown, as part of pilot with the city that started in January 2017. Typically, the company keeps a variety of cars in the downtown area, including “Polar Bear,” a Nissan pickup and “Mayor Turner,” a Mazda 3 that on Thursday was parked in one of the on-street spots on Bagby and available for $9 per hour or $74 for the entire day.

According to a city presentation on the program, membership in car sharing programs has increased 3.9 percent since the on-street pilot began, with 16 percent of members giving up their automobiles.

While supporters say more is needed to convince increasing numbers of Houstonians to ditch their cars and choose transit, bicycles and shared cars to get around, skeptics question whether the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of lost parking spaces for vehicles that only a limited number of people can use.

Under the proposal, Houston could enter into master licenses with the various companies interested in on-street spaces, and designate which spaces could be used. As Zipcar does now, the companies would pay the city for use of the parking spaces on a monthly basis.

I must have missed the story about expansion in 2017, but there was a previous expansion in 2014. You can see their current locations here. I don’t really see a problem with leasing some parking spaces to Zipcar, as long as the city gets paid a fair price for it. I agree with Mayor Turner, one of the few ways we have available to us to combat traffic is to provide ways for people to get around without driving. Services like Zipcar allow people to get by in their daily life without needing a car all the time. We should take reasonable steps to enable that.

Self-driving car service coming to North Texas

Coming to the city of Frisco in July, a public-private venture pairing up with a California-based outfit called Drive.ai, for something that’s a little like shuttle service and a little like mass transit on a small scale.

The initial service will be available to transport the 10,000 employees working at offices at Hall Park to retail and dining options nearby at The Star in Frisco, where the Dallas Cowboys are headquartered. For many, the distance (just shy of a mile) is too far to walk but too short to warrant a trip by car.

People will be able to request a ride through a smartphone app. The service will be free during a six-month test run. Negotiations are already under way to bring a more permanent service to Frisco after that.

[…]

Safety is a priority, Andrew Ng of Drive.ai said at the Frisco event. And that’s why working with local authorities is so important. The company will be able to coordinate with first responders, help with public awareness campaigns and offer routes that add value. Local officials will also coordinate with the company when there are special events or road closures that affect traffic flow.

“Together we can make this thing as safe as possible,” Ng said.

Artificial intelligence is great at maneuvering fixed routes but has difficulty recognizing hand signals from a construction worker directing traffic, Ng explained. That’s where local leaders can step in and help.

He asks people to be aware of the bright orange self-driving vehicles, be lawful and be considerate around them — just like drivers are when they see school buses on the road. The vehicles also have four external screens to communicate with pedestrians and other drivers on the road.

Initial trips will have a human available in the driver’s seat of the orange vehicles to take over at a moment’s notice. The next stage puts the person in the passenger seat as a chaperone to answer passenger questions. The final stage lets the self-driving cars go solo with a remote operator available if needed.

Drive.ai is shouldering all of the costs involved in the pilot project. A dollar amount is not being disclosed.

“We’re invested in the region,” said Conway Chen, vice president of business strategy for Drive.ai. “We see this as a great test ground for other cities.”

James Cline, president of the Denton County Transportation Authority, said he believes self-driving vehicles have a place in public transportation and mobility. Whether that role is transporting people on that last mile from a bus stop to their house or replacing buses entirely remains to be seen.

“The challenge is going to be getting people to accept it,” he said.

This Fortune story has a bit more about Drive.ai, which I’d never heard of before now, as well as a map of the rute this car will follow. It’s not to scale, but given the description in the story my guess is that if it were more pedestrian-friendly, maybe more people would walk instead of needing a ride. Or maybe I’m just projecting. If the idea here is to make transit more feasible in these non-pedestrian-friendly places by solving the last-mile problem, that seems like a good thing. If not, we’ll just have to see. For this arrangement, Drive.ai – more likely, the venture capitalists funding Drive.ai – are paying for everything. How this might work in the real world is another question I’d like to examine. We’ll check back later in the year. The Trib and Texas Monthly have more.

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

A flock of electronic scooters descending on Austin

Not actually one of the signs of the apocalypse, though I’m sure it was annoying.

Scooter!

Seemingly overnight, Austin was buzzing with electric scooters last month. Scooter riders weaved through crowded sidewalks and traffic downtown and zoomed out of drivers’ blind spots near the University of Texas campus, catching motorists and pedestrians alike off guard.

Bird Rides, a dockless scooter company, deployed a fleet of thin, black scooters in April that quickly grew to almost 700. Then came LimeBike, which flooded the streets with their own white and green Lime-S scooter models on April 16.

Then, just as quickly, they disappeared last weekend.

The appearance of rentable scooters across the city briefly threw Austin’s political leaders into a frenzy as city government officials rushed to roll out a plan to regulate the businesses, which had started operating before a city-led pilot program could begin.

“In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, ATD recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot timeframe,” Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said in a letter to the mayor and Austin City Council members.

The council worked until after 2 a.m. Friday to change city code and prohibit leaving dockless scooters or bicycles on city sidewalks and streets until a permitting process begins. Violators can have their scooters impounded and face a $200 fine for each seized scooter.

Over the weekend, both California-based companies pulled their vehicles from Austin city streets — but not before the city’s transportation department impounded about 70 of them.

[…]

Both companies placed their scooters on sidewalks and street corners throughout the city. Customers could download a smartphone app that allowed them to see the vehicles’ locations in real time, unlock them and pay the rental fee. Both Bird and Lime-S charge a base fee of one dollar, then 15 cents per minute of use.

Austin initially planned to begin a pilot program for what it calls “dockless mobility” — meaning vehicles that aren’t kept in racks or docking stations — starting May 1, but Bird and LimeBike deployed their scooters before it went into effect.

So the city pivoted to the new permitting process, which will require a $30 fee for each vehicle and cap the initial number of vehicles per licensed operator at 500. The city plans to roll out the new process shortly.

And not a minute too soon: The Austin Transportation Department said it’s coordinating with 15 different dockless mobility companies that have expressed interest in coming to Austin.

If you’re having flashbacks to the early days of Uber in Texas, congratulations. You’re not alone. At least in this case the scooter companies were noticeably less pugilistic in their press releases. But then, both of them had done the same thing in San Francisco; as my old music teacher used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a habit. So be forewarned, Mayor Turner and Houston City Council, because these guys are coming, sooner or later. And that rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the early gestation of a lobbying effort to pass a statewide rideshare bill for scooters in the Lege. Again, don’t be caught off guard. We’ve seen this movie before.

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

Smart Cities Collaborative

It’s a thing we are part of.

Houston will join 21 other cities in a national partnership aimed at addressing persistent transportation challenges as technology and mobility choices have planners rethinking how streets, sidewalks and private spaces interact.

The upcoming Smart Cities Collaborative, organized by the Transportation For America advocacy group, will last for a year and include four gatherings of the cities selected. They will focus on the topic areas of “ride-sourcing technology, curbside delivery, dockless bike and scooter systems, and the increasing desirability of sidewalk space and some of the hottest real estate in cities.”

[…]

Houston’s participation will involve its public works and parking management departments. The goal, officials said, is to build on current projects such as the city’s flood warning and traffic management systems, while readying Houston for increased transit and vehicles that drive themselves.

“The big matzo ball hanging out there is automated vehicles,” said Russell Brooks, director of Transportation For America’s Smart Cities Initiative.

To handle self-driving cars, cities will need to rethink how streets operate, with traffic devices that could relay information to vehicles and protect pedestrians. Autonomous cars also are expected to upend parking in job centers such as downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor, while perhaps increasing the need for electric charging stations.

Here’s a report from the first meeting, which happened last week, and a Transportation for America blog post about the collaborative. The next meeting will be in July. I figure it’s never a bad idea to talk about transportation solutions, because we sure could use them.

Ellis puts up money for city’s bike projects

I like this plan.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Monday announced a one-year $10 million commitment to bicycling projects in Houston, in the hopes of jump-starting the city’s transformation into a bike-friendly place.

“Working together, we can better leverage scarce resources from governmental entities and the private sector and share our collective expertise to serve the people in this region,” Ellis said.

A year after Houston leaders approved an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of protected, safe bike trails, little progress has been made, something cycling supporters said Ellis’ pledge will change. Officials estimated the money would build at least 50 miles of protected bike lanes considered crucial to providing usable bike access to neighborhoods and jobs.

“​This really gives us a boost we needed,” Houston Planning Director Patrick Walsh said.

The money, along with city funds from its capital improvement plan, will go toward repainting bike lanes, developing safer intersections and other improvements aimed at making riding a bike in Houston easier and safer.

[…]

Projects will be chosen for their ability to start soon. Ellis stressed officials have one year to spend the money he committed, and any unspent funds will return to other priorities in his precinct.

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner said the funding, along with $1.1 million the city plans to spend in each of the next five years, will act as seed money for upcoming projects, including planned bike lanes along Austin and Caroline and new space for cyclists along Hardy and Elysian on the city’s Near Northside.

See here for some background. This is about putting up some money for projects that are already in the pipeline but have been delayed for a variety of reasons. Commissioner Ellis is an avid cyclist himself, so it’s not a surprise to see him make this a priority. Much of his precinct intersects with the city, and as you know I’m delighted to see some county investment in the not-unincorporated territories. I hope the city takes full advantage of this.

SNCF has qualms about Texas Central

Who is SNCF? They’re another passenger rail company, one that has also expressed an interest in building lines in Texas, and they have offered some negative feedback to the Texas Central high speed rail line.

One of the world’s largest train operators says that its proposal of a passenger rail network that includes the Interstate 35 corridor would be a better fit for Texas than the $15 billion Dallas-to-Houston bullet train that’s on the table.

“Look at the state as a whole. Instead of creating a link, create a network,” said SNCF America president Alain Leray, who is visiting Dallas, Austin and Waco this week on the heels of filing his company’s eight-pages of commentary on the Federal Draft Environmental Statement for the Dallas-to-Houston line.

Maryland-based SNCF America, a branch of the French National Railway, pitched its “Texas T-bone” idea to the Federal Railroad Administration in 2008 and 2016. The plan calls for “higher speed rail” service of 125 mph.

The railroad administration has instead proceeded to work with Texas Central Partners on a Dallas-to-Houston bullet line featuring speeds up to 210 mph and using Japanese technology.

[…]

If Texas Central Partners is first on the ground in the U.S., SNCF officials feel it may be game over for their firm and any other competition.

Currently, federal regulations do not address equipment requirements for train speeds above 150 mph. Texas Central Partners has petitioned for what is known as a rule of particular applicability (RPA). If the RPA is accepted and Texas Central successfully builds the nation’s first bullet line, it will be creating the standard.

“I think they have done a remarkable job. They are fighters and go-getters,” Leray said Monday of Texas Central. “Their chances of getting an RPA elsewhere becomes so much greater if they get this.”

See here, here, and here for more on SNCF, which has proposed a version of the “Texas T-Bone that would connect both San Antonio and Houston to D/FW. They have also expressed concern about that RPA in the past, which I can understand. As someone who wants passenger rail to be a success in Texas, and who wants to see as much of it built as possible, I’d say that if SNCF or some other rail company has a viable proposal for an additional line in Texas that depends on a standard that doesn’t lock them out of the market, then that should be taken into account when evaluating Texas Central’s RPA. Building the first line should not be a pathway to monopoly. On the other hand, if SNCF or whoever else doesn’t have anything remotely close to being in the pipeline, then I’m not sure what the fuss is about.

The bottom line is that I support maximizing the potential for passenger rail in Texas. It’s been my hope that if the Texas Central line is successful, it was generate demand for extensions and additions to it. Whatever furthers that goal is fine by me, and whatever hinders it should be avoided.

Just a reminder, the I-45 construction is going to be massive

I can’t quite wrp my mind around the scope of it. I suspect a lot of us feel the same way.

Birds flitting in and out of the grass and trees along this strip of marsh pay no heed to the roar from interstates 45 and 10 on the horizon, but to Houston Parks Board officials the sound is an ominous reminder of what could come.

Defenders of this long-sought “linear park” that leads from the Heights to downtown Houston now see a threat from the Texas Department of Transportation and its mammoth, once-in-a-generation project to relieve chronic congestion along I-45 and on the broader downtown highway system.

The project, already years in the making, reflects unprecedented levels of listening by TxDOT, which fairly or not has a reputation of building through communities rather than with them. Yet concerns linger over this pristine spot on White Oak Bayou, which TxDOT would criss-cross with seven new spans under the current version of its ambitious plan to build Houston’s freeway of the future.

“If that happens, the gateway to White Oak Bayou Greenway will be a freeway underpass,” said Chip Place, director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.

The parks board and a handful of other groups — joined by elected officials — have raised these and a number of other issues with the freeway redesign following the release of the project’s draft environmental report. Disenfranchised communities fear rebuilding the freeway and its connector ramps will further cut them off from economic gains so that other people can shave a minute or two from their daily commutes.

Their message is clear: Houston has one chance in five decades to remake the spine of the region’s north-south traffic movements. Good isn’t good enough. It has to address everything to the best of everyone’s abilities.

You can read the rest. We’re two or three years out from the start of construction, which is on a ten-year timeline. I’ll stipulate that TxDOT has done a good job of soliciting and incorporating public input on this thing. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any way to do this that doesn’t fundamentally change the character of every part of town the redesigned highways pass through, and not in a good way – I think the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t do much harm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for a little while.

Metro to buy buses for Uptown BRT

Another step forward.

Metro officials next week are set to spend at least $11.2 million on buses for bus rapid transit service along Post Oak, committing the agency to spending on the controversial project after years of discussion.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members discussed the purchase, and an agreement with the Uptown Management District which is rebuilding Post Oak, Wednesday. The full board meets on Feb. 20, and at that time could approve both the purchase of 14 buses and the agreement.

“This project does exactly what good transit is supposed to do,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “It goes to a crowded area and delivers service that connects conveniently to the rest of the service area.”

Many details of the bus purchase and agreement with Uptown will be worked out in the coming week, after a discussion among board members at the capital and strategic planning committee.

Despite the loose ends, Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said she expected the board to approve the requests, so the agency will be ready for the rapid transit service by May 2019. That is around when Uptown officials expect to be ready, but about a year before the Texas Department of Transportation is set to open a bus-only system along Loop 610 that will speed transit times to the Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10.

See here for the most recent update in this process. Not mentioned in the story, but definitely a consideration, is that the Uptown BRT line would almost certainly connect to the high speed rail station, if not immediately then at some point between the line’s debut in 2019 and the Texas Central opening in 2024. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense for them to not be connected. I’m sure this will be a part of the Metro referendum later this year as well. We’ll keep an eye on this going forward.

Northwest Mall will be your Houston high speed rail terminal

No surprise.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen Northwest Mall near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as their preferred site.

The company has an option to buy the land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for Texas Central.

The announcement was largely expected, as the mall site remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses. Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

[…]

Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of stores and venues with exterior entrances remain open.

City leaders also joined with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, noting they hoped the station could spur rail development from Metro’s nearby Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290 is essentially the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

“This is the best site for Houston for many reasons,” Aguilar said.

That happened on the same day that the public hearing for the draft EIS was held in Cypress. The Dallas end of the line was chosen last week. The Trib adds a few details.

The chosen location is about 1.5 miles from Northwest Transit Center, a major bus hub and the closest public transportation connection. Despite that distance, the company said in a prepared statement Monday that the station will provide “convenient, efficient and direct” connections to the Houston METRO transit system.

METRO does not currently have any light-rail lines in that part of the city. The agency is working on a long-term plan for expanded transit service.

“So we’re in a broad range of conversation and thought as to how to provide that connection,” Texas Central President Tim Keith told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

There’s pictures at Swamplot, so go check it out. It’s true there’s not much there now, but as you can see there are big plans to change that. There aren’t any transit connections yet, but we’re talking about a 2024 debut for TCR, so there’s a lot of time for stuff to happen. I feel confident the forthcoming Metro referendum will include an item to deal with this in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it.

People who oppose the high speed rail line continue to oppose the high speed rail line

The DEIS hearings go as you’d expect them to.

Meetings to discuss a proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas pulled into some of the areas most opposed to the project on Tuesday night, as federal environmental meetings continue to make their way to Houston.

Residents in Jewett – perhaps the epicenter of animosity over the 240-mile line – showed up in droves to Leon County High School. At points, with a high school basketball game next door, parking was scarce as residents and elected officials from at least five counties came to the session.

[…]

Concerned about their rural character and their property rights, many landowners said they simply didn’t want train tracks crossing the county. Leon County commissioners have passed three resolutions and numerous other items intended as roadblocks to the rail line.

Many speakers Tuesday emotionally noted how the train risks their rural charm, some of whom live on land that has been in their families for five, six and seven generations. Opponents spoke of hunting and outdoor activities that the train would disrupt, along with aesthetics and possible noise and safety fears. At least two attendees suggested feral hogs in the area would run wild because of worries of shooting near the tracks.

Tales ranged from worries about a landowner’s autistic son who reacts poorly to loud noises, decades of family campouts, emergency response times for elderly ranchers and property sovereignty.

“This land is irreplaceable to us,” Logan Wilson said, reading remarks prepared for him by his daughter. “I believe we have the right to keep what is ours.”

Of 36 people who asked to speak publicly at the session, all voiced opposition to the project. About two dozen others asked about their feelings said they were against it. No one, when asked by a reporter, said they supported the train.

See here for some background. On the one hand, I sympathize with these folks. The train line will go through all these rural counties, but there’s only one station for them. I’ve no doubt I’d be unhappy in their position. On the other hand, public infrastructure projects have taken land from people since forever. It’s a price of progress, and it’s always been this way. The people affected get a chance to affect where the project is built, they get a reasonable price for the land that they lose, and let’s be honest, in this case they’d be getting a lot less attention and consideration if the project in question were another highway. I sympathize, but I think this rail line will be good for Texas, and I want to see it happen. I want the people affected to be treated fairly, but not to the point where they get a veto.

Public meetings for Texas Central draft EIS

You got something you want to say about the proposed high speed rail line and its possible routes, here’s your chance.

Houston residents are being asked to weigh in on a plan to build a $12 billion high-speed train between the city and Dallas.

The meeting is set for Feb. 5 and will be coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, which must approve plans for the Texas Bullet Train.

[…]

Texas Central, which has support from Houston and Dallas city officials, said the line would stop south of downtown Dallas and then in Houston, near Loop 610 and U.S. 290, the Houston Chronicle’s Dug Begley reported.

Relevant info about the meetings is here. The schedule for meetings near us in Houston is as follows:

Madison County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Truman Kimbro Convention Center, 111 W Trinity St, Madisonville, TX 77864

Harris County – Monday, February 5, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Woodard Elementary School, 17501 Cypress North Houston Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Grimes County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Navasota Junior High, 9038 Highway 90 South, Navasota, TX 77868

Waller County – Tuesday, February 6, 2018, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Waller High School, 20950 Fields Store Rd, Waller, TX 77484

You can also provide feedback or sign up to receive updates on the project from the Federal Railroad Administration here. As a reminder, there are three possible locations for the Houston terminal, and one of the goals of the DEIS project is to pick a winner from those three. So speak now or forever hold your peace.

Texas Central picks its midway stop

Hello, Roans Prairie.

A proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas on Thursday announced its midpoint, even as common ground with opponents near the proposed Roans Prairie stop remains elusive.

Texas Central, the company proposing the Texas Bullet Train, said the only stop between Houston and Dallas will occur at a 60-acre site along Texas 30, just west of Texas 90. The spot is about midway between College Station and Huntsville, officials said.

The announcement comes 10 days before a round of meetings to discuss the project, coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, following the release in December of an environmental assessment of the train line. The federal agency must still approve plans for the project, estimated to cost at least $12 billion. Public meetings start Jan. 29 in Dallas and move south. A meeting in Houston is planned Feb. 5.

[…]

The so-called Brazos Valley stop acts as the only other place people can hop aboard.

“This will drive growth in Texas not only to the big cities but also to the areas around the station. It’s going to be very exciting,” said Brady Redwine, a vice president of Texas Central, in a statement.

Grimes County residents, however, have been some of the staunchest critics of the project, which has faced stiff opposition from affected landowners and many rural residents who say the line is unnecessary and ruinous to their rustic surroundings.

Roans Prairie is in fact in Grimes County. One way of looking at this is that it’s a direct response by Texas Central to the criticism that the rural areas between Houston and Dallas where some land will need to be taken for the right of way will see no benefit from the train line. If this goes as planned, then one of the hotbeds of such criticism will in fact get something potentially quite substantial out of this. That could be quite the construction project, on that large tract of basically empty land. Put in the station, some retail, a place to eat, shuttle service to College Station and Huntsville and maybe one or two other places, and now you’ve got a lively enterprise in the middle of what was once nowhere. Will it change any minds? Can’t hurt to try.

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

The most dangerous places for pedestrians in Texas

There are a lot of them.

Pedestrian safety is a priority driver safety issue in Texas – where non-motorist fatalities have steadily increased every year since 2012.

At the Hill Law Firm, we wanted to be a part of the solution. Pedestrians of any age are amongst the most vulnerable road users. Even at low speeds, a motor vehicle collision with a pedestrian can lead to catastrophic injuries. So, in order to help prevent pedestrian collisions from ever occurring, we first had to find out where exactly pedestrians are at high-risk of being struck, injured or killed by vehicles on Texas roads. We enlisted the help of data visualization firm 1Point21 Interactive and analyzed the four latest available years of crash data (2012 – 2015) from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Our study examines the issue, maps out every location where a pedestrian collision occurred and identifies and highlights high danger areas across the state.

Through geospatial analysis, we identified 73 high-risk zones in the state of Texas, where 10 or more pedestrian collisions occurred during the study period. Within these zones, there were a total of 1088 pedestrian crashes, 1044 injuries, and 41 fatalities – all disproportionately high totals.

Click over for more. There are five Houston intersections listed in their top 25, with Wheeler & Main being the most hazardous. The danger zones in most cities are concentrated in a couple of locations, but in Houston the trouble spots are more spread out. If you’ve ever had to cross one of our many multi-lane thoroughfares, where people often drive like they’re on the freeway, you know what it’s like. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

ONE OF THESE 3 spots revealed in a report from the Federal Railroad Administration will be the planned site for the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail line’s Houston terminal. All 3 are near the intersection of the 610 Loop and the BNSF rail tracks that run parallel to Hempstead Rd. just south of 290.

In the map at top, the station takes the land directly north of the Northwest Transit Center, where an industrial complex home to Icon Electric, Engineering Consulting Services, and others exists now. Hempstead Rd. is shown fronting Northwest Mall at the top of the plan.

Another proposal puts the station in the spot where the mall is now.

See here for the background, and click over to see the locations. We’ve known for some time that the station would be near the 610/290 junction, so now it’s just a matter of picking the precise spot. All three should be proximate to the Uptown line when it finally gets built, and of course there have been discussions with the Gulf Coast Rail District about connecting the line to downtown. So even after the final decision is made, there will still be a lot more to do.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

A bus guideway along Loop 610 will cost slightly more than anticipated, based on bids opened Wednesday in Austin.

Williams Brothers Construction, a mainstay of highway building in the area, was the apparent low bidder at $57.2 million, for the project to add two elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 from where Post Oak Boulevard curves beneath the freeway to a planned transit center north of Interstate 10.

The project is separate but aligned with the current construction along Post Oak that will add dedicated bus lanes along the road.

TxDOT estimated the project would cost $54.9 million, meaning the Williams Brothers bid is 4.1 percent over state predictions. Four other companies bid between $57.5 million and $64.7 million for the job.

The lanes would run atop the southbound frontage road of Loop 610 before shifting to the center of the freeway. Construction is expected to take 27 months, officials said last year, meaning an opening of mid-2020 by the time construction starts in a few months.

The rest of the project is scheduled to be finished in 2019. That sound you’re hearing is the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects, who are rending their garments at the news that the proposed cost of this piece of the project is a few bucks higher than anticipated. I find this alternately hilarious and infuriating. I mean, 290 and the Loop just north of I-10 is a multi-year and multi-billion dollar disaster area, we’re about to embark on a six-year project to rebuild the 59/610 interchange, and at some point we are going to do unspeakable things to downtown in the name of completely redoing 45 and 59 in that area. Yet with all that, some people lose their minds at the idea of adding a bus lane to one street in the Galleria area. Perspective, y’all. Try it sometime.

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s speech Tuesday may have included jabs at state lawmakers, but it was a hit with transit advocates for a single line.

“We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions,” Emmett said in his prepared remarks, alluding to freeway projects that have exacerbated flooding woes. “One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail.”

[…]

Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.

Still, the regret voiced by Emmett – whom many consider a proponent of road building as a champion of the Grand Parkway – demonstrates a shift, if only in tone, regarding regional transportation.

“I totally think what the Judge said is important,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which has pressed for commuter rail development. “Judge Emmett has always been a supporter of the rail district, but it is important when you hear him say there was an opportunity for commuter rail.”

Yes, we could have had a rail component to the I-10 expansion. It was a choice not to do that. It wasn’t hard to see that at some point after the initial expansion, the new capacity would be exhausted. Having a means to move people that didn’t rely on that capacity would have been helpful. The powers that be – read: Harris County and John Culberson – were not interested in that. We won’t have as many options going forward – it’s not like there’s a bunch of available space to build more lanes, after all.

To be sure, Metro express buses make heavy use of the HOV lanes, which move a lot of people and didn’t require a big capital investment on Metro’s part. One commenter on Swamplot thinks that’s a perfectly fine outcome.

The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can). The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.”

I agree that the park and ride experience is a good one, and a lot of people use it. But even with a rail corridor built in, there would still have been HOV lanes, so we could have had both rail and express buses. Build it as light rail and you can have local service, too. Lots of people are using I-10 for shorter trips that neither begin nor end in downtown. We didn’t know it at the time, but the subsequent local bus system redesign would have provided a lot of connections to and from this could-have-been light rail line, thus reducing the need for parking around the stations. It’s not a question of whether rail would have provided superior service to express buses, it’s that rail plus express buses would have been better. But we’ll probably never get to see that for ourselves, thanks to short-sighted decision making more than a decade ago.

Abandon hope, all ye who drive here

Just stay away. Far, far away.

Houston’s worst chokepoint is about to be a construction zone for the next five or six years, in the hopes that drivers eventually reap the rewards.

Federal, state and local lawmakers gathered Monday on the HOV ramp overlooking the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, to kick off reconstruction of the interchange. Major work is expected to start early next year, with some construction already noticeable, according to Texas Department of Transportation officials.

The interchange is the crossing point for most congested roadway segment in Texas – Loop 610 from I-69 to Interstate 10 – and the third-most-congested segment in the state, along I-69 from Loop 610 to Texas 288. As a result, officials say the interchange is Texas’ worst for slowing traffic to a crawl.

“This project is going to help change that,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT in Houston.

The interchange rebuild will make all the ramps between the two freeways in all directions two lanes, add shoulders and rebuild the main lanes of Loop 610 and make other design changes that officials said will help traffic flow through the area.

Work is expected to take six years.

Emphasis mine. My in-laws live near this interchange. We may need to tell them that they have to move. I don’t have any advice to offer the poor wretches who have to travel this way, but I do have one stray observation: It sure would be nice to have some alternate transit options through that area, which don’t depend on road capacity, wouldn’t it? You know, like the University and Uptown rail lines. Maybe next time. In the meantime, avoid if you can. If you can’t, may God have mercy on your soul.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

People who oppose the Uptown Line continue to oppose the Uptown Line

Film at 11.

A plan for faster bus service along Post Oak, the centerpiece of a larger project to remake Uptown’s Main Street, continues to divide its supporters and transit skeptics, even as work accelerates and commuters brace for limited lanes through the holiday season.

The latest dust-up over the dedicated lanes is over a request to the Transportation Policy Council of the Houston-Galveston Area Council to commit an additional $15.9 million in federal funding to the project. The Uptown Management District and its associated tax increment reinvestment zone, the agency rebuilding Post Oak, also would commit to an additional $15.9 million.

The council is scheduled to meet and decide the issue on Oct. 27.

The request has drawn ire from skeptics, who contend the two bus-only lanes planned for the center of Post Oak will ruin traffic patterns and draw few riders. Many have called it the latest transit boondoggle for the Houston area, which they say will end up costing taxpayers more and provide limited benefit.

[…]

“This project is on budget and fully funded,” said John Breeding, the management district’s president.

Breeding cast the request as a way to shift more of the funding to federal sources, freeing up local money for additional work related to the project.

The dedicated bus lanes are part of a broader remake of Post Oak. The street will continue to have three lanes in each direction with turn lanes. Officials also are adding landscaping and large trees to provide shade, new pedestrian street lighting and wider sidewalks.

The project budget remains estimated at $192.5 million, though some costs have fluctuated.

I kind of can’t really tell what the fuss is about, since the project remains on budget, but then this is a rail-like project and not a road project, which means the rules are just different. As a reminder, the I-10 explansion cost a billion and a half more than we were originally told it would, and the I-45 project is going to cost billions, with overruns certain to happen as well. Somehow, that sort of thing never bothers the people who so vociferously oppose this kind of construction. Go figure.

Hyperloop versus high-speed rail

I’ve been pondering whether our state is big enough for two high speed land-based forms of transportation, and I think the answer is “yes, at least for now”.

The Hyperloop is nearly twice as fast as Texas Central’s High-Speed Rail project already in the works to connect Houston and Dallas. To boot, the lightning-quick travel time is not even direct. The journey is routed through Austin, which would act as a hub connecting the Texas cities.

Hyperloop One could also be operational before Texas Central’s line. In its announcement, Hyperloop One declared its intent to begin shipping freight by 2020 and passengers by 2021.

One major factor will be ticket pricing. Texas Central has not released specifics but expects pricing to be on par with airline prices. That will likely be far cheaper than the Hyperloop, which is expected to be around $330 one-way.

If Hyperloop One does move forward in Texas, it will likely face many of Texas Central’s same growing pains; the company has met plenty of resistance from Texas landowners. Unlike Texas Central, which is developing its project privately, Hyperloop One will work with government agencies on development in some capacity. Though the specific arrangement has not yet been detailed, Hyperloop One is already working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation and has said it intends to continue government relationships wherever it ends up.

[…]

A spokesperson for Texas Central told Bisnow the two projects are not in competition. Hyperloop One is not building a direct line from Houston to Dallas. Texas Central sees the two different modes of transportation as complementary, similar to airlines.

See here for some background. I’m glad to hear that both Hyperloop One and Texas Central see their systems as complimentary and not competitive at this time. Things may change if they’re both successful, of course, but we’re at least a few years out from that. Unlike high speed rail, hyperloops are brand new and untested technology, so who knows what will happen with the development, but like high speed rail there is likely to be opposition from communities that this project will pass through. I have to think we’ll begin to hear more about this now that the chances of it happening here are greater. In the meantime, one of the lead planners with AECOMM on this project has been talking to the press about it – see this followup story in Bisnow and this DMN article for his thoughts. I remain excited by the possibilities, but still want to see this thing in action before I buy in all the way.

Texas remains in hyperloop competition

We’re still a long way from anything happening, but if it does it could happen here.

There’s still a chance Texans could be some of the first people in the world to whisk along in tubes at 700 mph.

Hyperloop Texas, a joint proposal of engineering firm AECOM and public agencies in the state, is one of 10 winners of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to find the best routes for the system.

Hyperloop, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, envisions vacuum tubes and travel pods making interstate travel at faster-than-flight speeds. In their proposal, AECOM estimated the trip from Houston to San Antonio could be made in 21 minutes. Getting to Austin would take another eight minutes. Houston-to-Dallas, not including the time for layovers, would take 48 minutes.

A freight component would use the Hyperloop system to ferry goods from Laredo to the Port of Houston.

[…]

Winning doesn’t mean anything will get built, but Hyperloop One said in a release it “will commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability.”

See here for the background. What I like about the proposed route is that it wouldn’t directly compete with the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line. You can get to Dallas from Houston via this route – indeed, you can get all the way to DFW Airport – but you have to go via San Antonio, so the total travel time is shown as 48 minutes, about what it would be for the Texas Central ride. Basically, this is the Texas T-Bone, with Laredo, DFW, and the Port of Houston as the endpoints. We can debate whether this technology is feasible or not, but if it is, then I hope subsequent routes include some of the spaces in between and elsewhere. Let’s add stations in New Braunfels and San Marcos and Waco, and do a similar T-Bone in the other direction, to bring in El Paso and Midland/Odessa and Lubbock and Amarillo. If it works, of course. I can dream, can’t I? KUT has more.

In defense of hyperloops

Eric Holthaus at Grist writes in defense of Elon Musk’s hyperloop idea in general, and the proposal for a New York to Washington, DC hyperloop plan in particular.

Assuming hyperloop costs of $100 million per mile, and tunneling costs of about the same, the 226-mile span between New York and D.C. might cost about $45 billion. And Musk wants to start digging as soon as possible — in months, not years.

Keep in mind that no human has yet ridden in a full-scale functioning hyperloop.

So, yeah. This is a really expensive, really ambitious idea. But just stick with me here.

Put in proper context, the hyperloop actually represents an incredible bargain. Just the proposed transit and airport improvements needed to keep New York City functioning in the coming decades would cost more than Musk’s entire project. That includes renovations to LaGuardia Airport ($4 billion), other regional airport improvements ($6.5 billion), the rest of the Second Avenue Subway line ($17 billion), improved access at Grand Central Station ($10 billion), a new Penn Station ($1.6 billion), a revamped bus station on the city’s west side ($10 billion), and repairs to the Hudson River tunnels damaged in Hurricane Sandy ($23.9 billion).

In California, construction on an eventual Bay Area to Southern California high-speed rail line approved in 2008 was initially expected to cost about $40 billion. (Its top speed would reach about 220 mph, less than one-third of the hyperloop.) A recent report found that the rail project was already about 50 percent over budget and seven years behind schedule.

There’s no reason to expect a hyperloop wouldn’t run into the same sort of cost overruns. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that a New York to D.C. hyperloop actually happens, at whatever cost: It would utterly transform the congested East Coast transit corridor.

Musk said a trip between the two cities would take just 29 minutes — less time than an average subway trip from lower Manhattan to the Upper West Side. The ease of long-distance travel along the nation’s most populous corridor would revolutionize transportation as we know it. It would inspire urban planners around the world. And it could be one of the single most-important steps to reduce carbon emissions and curtail global warming in U.S. history.

A functioning hyperloop would cannibalize air travel. It would also be a nearly ideal way to move cargo, greatly reducing the burden on the region’s highways and rails and providing new meaning to just-in-time shipping. Because aviationand shipping are projected to be the fastest-growing sources of new carbon emissions worldwide in the coming decades, the hyperloop — which could be operated entirely on renewable energy — is exactly the kind of technology that’s needed at exactly the right time.

I’m all about the hyperloops, as you know. I am also aware of the high level of skepticism surrounding the idea. Since one of the hyperloop proposals out there is in Texas, I’m more in the dreamers camp than the cynics, because this would be super cool if it happens. There are signs of progress, too. As long as we’re just spending Elon Musk’s money, why not indulge a bit?

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

At City Hall, Houston and Texas Central Partners announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which commits both sides to share environmental surveys, utility analysis and engineering related to the project and surrounding area and work together to develop new transit and other travel options to and from the likely terminus of the bullet train line.

In the memorandum, Texas Central notes the likely end of their Houston-to-Dallas line will be south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610 and north of Interstate 10. The exact site has been long suspected as the current location of Northwest Mall.

[…]

The cooperation between Houston and Texas Central is no surprise. City officials, notably Mayor Sylvester Turner, have praised the project, with the mayor citing it among examples of his goal of reducing automobile dependency.

“We also look forward to the project’s creation of job opportunities and economic development,” Turner said in a prepared statement.

Here’s the longer version of the story. You can see a copy of the MOU here. I’ve highlighted the most interesting bits below:

3. Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees to coordinate with the City, Harris County, METRO, TxDOT, and GCRD to plan and create the design of the Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees that the design of the Hempstead Corridor must preserve feasibility for high capacity commuter transit. Upon the submission of final approved design plans, and the final approved Definitive Agreements, the Mayor may present to City Council for consideration and approval a resolution or ordinance allowing Texas Central use of the Hempstead Corridor for the purposes contemplated by the Project.

4. Houston Terminal Station Intermodal Connectivity. Texas Central shall ensure the Houston Terminal Station is highly integrated with local transit systems. Texas Central will choose a location for the Houston Terminal Station for which a high level of integration with local transit systems is feasible. Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, GCRD, and other agencies as needed on the location and layout of the Houston Terminal Station and ensure the Houston Terminal Station provides convenient, efficient, and direct access for passengers to
and from local transit systems.

5. Houston Terminal Station Location. Texas Central has advised the City and the City acknowledges that Texas Central proposes to locate the Houston Terminal Station in the general area south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610, and north of I-10. Texas Central will consult with the City prior to finalizing the location of the Houston Terminal Station.

6. Connections to Major Activity Centers. In order to minimize mobility impacts on existing mobility systems and enhance local transportation options, Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, the GCRD, and other agencies as needed for the study, design and construction of connections specifically related to the Project to facilitate efficient multi-modal connections between the Houston Terminal Station and the City’s major activity centers. If Texas Central or the City engages a third party to provide services related to such study, design and construction of connections, the allocation of costs and expenses related to such study, design and construction of connections contemplated by this paragraph 6 shall be mutually agreed upon by Texas Central and the City prior to engaging the services for same.

First, this confirms what everyone basically knew, that the terminal will be at 290 and 610. Of interest is the terminal as an intermodal center, designed to connect people to other forms of transit, as well as the discussion of what those other connections will be. The Uptown BRT line will be one such connector, and then there’s the possible “Inner Katy” light rail line, which as we know from previous entries would involve all of the groups name-checked in point #6. Whether that is dependent on the next Metro referendum, which would likely be in 2018, remains to be seen, but I hope it means we start seeing some activity on possible design and routes for such a line. I’m excited by this. Swamplot and the Press have more.