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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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.

Texas Central picks builders

Noted for the record.

Backers of a Texas bullet train are moving to the next stop, selecting a team to build the Houston-to-Dallas line, despite not having a clear shot – yet – at construction.

Texas Central on Monday morning announced it reached agreement with Irving-based Fluor Enterprises and The Lane Construction Corporation, based in Connecticut, for further refinement and study of the proposed route. Once financing for the project, expected to cost at least $12 billion, is secured and federal approvals are obtained, the companies would then be the primary design-builders of the line.

[…]

Texas Central, which despite some opposition emerged from the state legislative session unscathed, is also awaiting a federal environmental process necessary to proceed. Company officials are also lining up financing for the project. Any construction will have to wait for those outcomes.

In 2014, officials predicted work would start by 2017. Based on typical timelines for federal review, the earliest construction could start on the line would be late 2018, meaning a 2023 completion, according to Texas Central’s previous timelines.

The company also continues to face opposition, especially in rural areas of Texas where some landowners remain steadfast in not selling their land, and local elected officials have said the project provides little benefit.

I post this not because it’s particularly interesting but to put a pin in where we stand today. Texas Central survived the legislative session without anything bad happening to them, and if all goes more or less as they say, they will have started construction on the line by the time the 2019 Lege gavels in. Will that be sufficient insurance against further legislative meddling? Maybe, I don’t know. On the one hand, a project in progress ought to be harder to kill, but on the other hand since this project will necessarily involve some taking of land, that may just amp up the urgency. Ask me again in January of 2019.

Assuming the legislative field is clear for now, the remaining hurdles are as noted the draft environmental impact statement, and the ongoing legal skirmishes regarding whether or not Texas Central qualifies as a “railroad” and thus can exercise eminent domain. I don’t expect anything weird from the DEIS though one never knows. What I really don’t know is what happens if individual landowners can keep TCR away from their property. If they don’t have any legal leverage, I’m not sure how this thing gets built. I’m sure TCR has its best people working on that, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

From the “we don’t want those people coming here” files

Stay classy, Spring.

The headline wasn’t subtle: “Stop Metro from coming to Spring.”

The article,published July 15 on the website Spring Happenings, warned that bus service would “give criminals an easy way in and out” of the north Harris County suburb.

A range of experts I interviewed this week agreed that little evidence supports the “buses lead to crime” idea. (This is also true of its cousin, “Low-income housing leads to crime,” the subject of a column I wrote last year.)

Yet the perception persists that mass transit is the first step in the ruination of a community. It’s an attitude that could complicate the challenge of meeting the mobility needs of the vast, rapidly growing Houston region.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is holding public meetings to gather input on a new regional transit plan. Metro officials say the plan is needed to prioritize options for adding bus and rail service, along with van pools and potentially bus-only lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes.

More than 300 people showed up Tuesday night at a Metro meeting in Spring. My colleague Dug Begley, who attended, said many residents expressed the same concerns as those reflected in the Spring Happenings article.

[…]

Notwithstanding the concern on the near north side, suburbs are where opposition to mass transit seems to find its fullest expression. Transit researcher Todd Litman has an idea about why this is the case.

“Automobile dependency has been used for generations as a moat to keep poor people away from certain areas,” said Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization.

Crimes involving vehicles – car thefts, vandalism, road-rage violence – are far more common than those associated with public transportation, Litman said. Imagine the reception a campaign to keep cars out of a neighborhood would receive in Houston.

Nonsequieteuse says what needs to be said about this. I’ll just add one thing, which is that if the people of Spring are that concerned about evildoers coming in from the outside world and defiling their pristine community, then they’re not thinking big enough. If they really want to defend their borders, they’ll need to petition TxDOT and HCTRA to tear up the exits to Spring from I-45, the Hardy Toll Road, and the Grand Parkway. I mean, that’s how everyone gets around in these parts, and that includes the bad guys as well as they good guys. If Spring wants to isolate itself, then let it isolate itself. Just as long as there are no half measures employed, that’s all I’m saying.

The process for I-45

This time it’s different, more or less.

The region’s largest looming highway project – a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to downtown Houston – has a lot of people looking into the rear-view mirror, pressing officials to make sure the job does not come with some of the downsides of its predecessors.

Even with the worries, however, the mega-project planned by the Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t been like many others, from the time it has taken to develop to the types of new lanes proposed.

Though often characterized as a bureaucratic behemoth, the state transportation agency has gone to unprecedented levels of public engagement the past three years, taking the designs for adding two managed lanes in each direction to public meetings, community groups, even sitting down with interested stakeholders for one-on-one meetings.

“We’re doing a lot of listening,” said Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT. “We want to be a good partner, with others, in every sense of the word.”

[…]

Though the goal of many of the proposed changes is to tear down barriers, notably the Pierce Elevated, previous Houston freeway projects around downtown – including Interstate 10, Loop 610 and U.S. 59 – have left some neighborhoods cleaved. The north side, also divided by Buffalo Bayou, has not enjoyed downtown-centered investment as much as Midtown and the Fourth Ward. Bellaire residents and leaders still have bad feelings over how Loop 610 cut through the small city.

Drivers do not want that to happen with the I-45 project, which officials have called a generational project that commuters still could be using 40 years from now. Cutting off neighborhoods or restricting transit options could have devastating consequences.

“The easiest way to destroy a neighborhood is to divide it,” said Seth Hopkins, who lives at Emancipation and Polk, where residents worry they will lose easy access to downtown if Polk and other streets are cut off by the freeway.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I’ll agree that TxDOT has done a pretty good job taking its time and listening to feedback about the project. I suspect one difference between this and the Katy Freeway widening of 15 years ago is that project had a lot of pressure, from John Culberson and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to get it done, while the pressure in this one is to slow down and not break anything. But for all that, at some point ground will be broken and people who live and work in the targeted area on the east side of downtown will be affected in ways we don’t know yet. It’s going to be a huge mess, one that may take a decade from start to finish. I appreciate what TxDOT is doing now, but there’s only so much that can be done to soften the impact of this kind of project.

Culberson does his Culberson thing to Metro again

It is what it is. But maybe, just maybe, there’s now a sell-by date on it.

Houston may have stopped building light rail lines, but the fight over them rages on — right to Washington where Rep. John Culberson again has inserted language keeping tracks off Richmond and Post Oak.

For the fifth consecutive year, Culberson, R-Houston, added language to the draft of the House appropriations bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, specific to the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Section 163 of the THUD bill, as it’s called, bars federal officials from spending money that “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

The area in question is within Culberson’s district, and he vigorously has opposed any light rail projects along Richmond, citing resident opposition and his belief that Metro deceived voters when it narrowly won approval for a “Westpark” rail line in 2003.

[…]

In the draft bill released Monday, the language provides for Metro to regain federal funding if it wins voter approval that specifically identifies a route along Richmond and Post Oak as part of a region-wide comprehensive plan for transit.

“The ballot language shall include reasonable cost estimates, sources of revenue to be used and the total amount of bonded indebtedness to be incurred as well as a description of each route and the beginning and end point of each proposed transit project.

Metro, meanwhile is working on a regional transit plan, holding the first of 24 community meetings on Monday night in Cypress. That leaves Metro a long way from any work along Richmond, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“I think, quite frankly, we’re at a point in time right now where we need to see what we should be doing,” Lambert said.

We are familiar with the drill by now. Metro is working on that regional transportation plan, and I feel reasonably confident that a Universities Line 2.0 will be part of it. It just makes sense. We may get to vote on a new referendum next year, at a time when Culberson will be facing his most competitive race in a decade. I have to assume there will be some public discussion about this between now and then. Let’s just say that I welcome the debate.

SH130 operator emerges from bankruptcy

Good for them.

The firm that oversees a stretch of highway with the country’s fastest speed limit says it is on better financial footing and under new ownership.

The SH 130 Concession Company, which operates a 41-mile stretch of the State Highway 130 toll road north of Mustang Ridge, announced Wednesday that it has exited bankruptcy a year after filing for it, while removing over a billion dollars in debt and attracting $260 million in new financing.

“SH 130 Concession Company has emerged from the Chapter 11 process as a much stronger company,” Andy Bailey, the company’s new CEO, said in a release.

[…]

Brian Cassidy, an Austin-based lawyer for Locke Lord, one of many firms that helped SH 130 navigate its bankruptcy, noted that the company kept the highway open while it restructured its debt. The $260 million in new financing comes in the form of a loan, which represents the restructured company’s only current direct debt, according to company spokeswoman Kate Miller Morton.

“One of the criticisms that you hear periodically about public-private partnerships is that they somehow put the public at risk of having to cover private sector obligations,” Cassidy said. “The fact is, if the agreements are structured correctly — and this is an example of one that was — then that risk to the public sector doesn’t really exist.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad that this all happened without the taxpayers getting stuck with the check, but none of this makes SH 130 a better idea. There’s nothing in the story to indicate whether usage of the road has increased or not. I’m not surprised that some entity was willing to make a bet on this thing, but let’s be clear, that’s what it is. It may never have any better odds of making a profit.

Uber drivers sue over employment status

This will be worth watching.

Lawyers for 19 Texas drivers for Uber on Friday filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Houston, claiming the ride-hailing app company’s oversight and control of supposedly independent drivers is so pervasive, they should be considered employees.

If successful, the lawsuit could mean the thousands of local drivers for the company suddenly would be Uber workers instead of independent contractors, upending what some have considered an innovative business model and others have called modern-day servitude.

“The primary issue is, are these guys employees or independent contractors,” Houston lawyer Kevin Michaels said. “Uber tracks every move that a driver makes… As long as they are on the app, they are under Uber’s control.”

Uber officials Friday afternoon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lawyers said in the filing to the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Texas, the drivers made less than minimum wage when their time awaiting fares is calculated, despite the company’s claims in promotional materials that drivers could earn $100,000 a year.

“Given the current fare structures, an individual would have to drive an exorbitant number of hours on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to even approach gross fares totaling this amount, much less earn this amount,” the lawyers wrote. “Uber knew such statements were fraudulent and misleading and also knew that individuals would rely on such misrepresentations when deciding to become Uber drivers.”

[…]

The lawsuit filed Friday makes claims similar to those in various courts across the nation. A number of cases in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and other states already have drawn wide attention that could put the question on a path to the U.S. Supreme Court, should various circuit courts rule in different ways.

“It is definitely going to be years,” said Wilma B. Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board.

It is the second lawsuit filed on behalf of drivers by Michaels. The first, filed by three drivers, prompted Friday’s filing, which adds claims that drivers should be considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

As noted, there are several of these lawsuits around the country. I think the California one is the oldest, but none have had any decisions rendered as yet. I can’t say I actually believe the drivers will win, but who knows what could happen. The DMN has more.

RideAustin tries to hang on

I wish them luck.

The return of Uber and Lyft to Austin has put the city’s only ride-hailing nonprofit in a fight for survival.

RideAustin, one of several small companies that started operations in Austin after the ride-hailing giants left the city in May 2016, is now seeing its ridership cut in half since the two returned to town. The company is slashing expenses and cutting staff, said CEO Andy Tryba.

“We always knew that at some point Uber and Lyft were going to come back. So we’ve always prepared for it,” Tryba said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, adding that RideAustin expected a big drop in rides — but didn’t think it would happen so fast.

[…]

RideAustin, which began operating in June 2016, was notable as the first ride-hailing company to run on a nonprofit model that promised better pay for drivers and allowed riders to donate to local charities through the app. It’s seen ridership steadily increase over the past year — which spiked to more than 110,000 weekly rides during the South by Southwest festival.

But RideAustin’s fortunes turned during the Legislature’s 85th regular session this year, when lawmakers passed a statewide regulatory framework for ride-hailing companies that supersedes local ordinances — including Austin’s. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on May 29, and Uber and Lyft returned to Austin the same day.

The drop in ridership for RideAustin was swift and dramatic: last week, the company provided 22,000 rides — less than half of the 59,000 rides it operated in the week before Uber and Lyft returned. Tryba attributed part of the loss to UT-Austin students leaving town for the summer, but he also acknowledged that a large share of rides was recaptured by Uber and Lyft.

[…]

RideAustin is working to avoid the same fate as Fare, a Phoenix-based ride-hailing company that shut down operations in Austin just a week after Uber and Lyft’s return. In an email to customers, the company said it couldn’t “endure the recent loss of business.” Other ride-hailing services that had started operating in the initial vacuum have also gone out of business over the past year.

The city’s ride-hailing market changed significantly after Uber and Lyft left. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and other universities conducted a study about how Uber and Lyft’s departure changed riders’ behavior in Austin. They found that only 40 percent of respondents transitioned from Uber or Lyft to other ride-hailing companies, while 60 percent started making similar trips using other transportation, like biking, walking or driving a personal vehicle.

Chris Simek, a researcher at the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute that authored the study, said that among those who chose another service, “about half reported using RideAustin most often to make that type of trip. About a third reported using Fasten most often, and about one in 10 reported using Fare most often.”

Simek said the research team plans to do a follow-up study to analyze the market now that Uber and Lyft are back.

See here and here for some background. I had hope that the Uber-less Austin model of multiple firms actually competing to be better or at least different than each other would successfully fill the void, but either there wasn’t enough time for people to adjust or they just liked Uber and Lyft too much. That survey suggests there was something to the latter point. Be that as it may, I hope RideAustin can hold on and develop into something that could be replicated elsewhere. Anything that provides a better way for the drivers to earn a living is worth having.

Smarter streets

They’re coming soon to Houston.

Houston City Council on Wednesday will consider a $33.6 million contract – partially funded by a $10 million federal grant – to add hundreds of traffic-tracking devices across the city so officials can receive better up-to-date information, respond by adjusting traffic signals and provide current conditions to drivers more quickly.

Freeways in most major cities have traffic detection, cameras and changeable message signs to warn drivers of tie-ups around the area. Some cities also have used the systems along specific corridors.

Houston is taking that approach citywide, optimistic an integrated system can improve traffic, and show drivers their best route choices via signs and traffic maps.

“The ability to visually verify incidents and alert drivers to travel times on parallel alternate arterial and freeway routes will be a benefit,” said Tony Voigt, a Texas A&M Transportation Institute researcher based in Houston. “The ability to better detect vehicles at signals and use that data for signal timing updates at more frequent intervals – and in real-time, if necessary – will be a benefit.”

Proving that, however, can happen only after the devices are in place.

“We have ‘before’ data and we will get ‘after’ data,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance. “No one has really done this on this large of scale. That is part of why the federal government gave us this money.”

Voigt, whose office assisted with some of the research for the grant proposal, agreed.

“Will the benefit be as large as compared to freeway (traffic systems)?,” Voigt said. “I would say maybe not, but the benefits should still be considerable.”

Based on federal data, he noted about half the miles traveled in urban areas happen on local roads – not freeways or major highways – so anything aimed at more accurate data for those roads naturally will benefit drivers.

All of the new technology will be integrated into existing traffic operations controlled by Houston TranStar, which combines resources from the city, Harris County, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

This is all good, and I’m sure it will help. Having more and better realtime data about traffic incidents and tie-ups will improve life for lots of people. It’s just that data can only do so much – it can’t improve capacity, it can just move it around. As long as we’re clear on that and realistic about what this can achieve, it’s fine.

Texas Central survives the session

It looked bad for awhile there. but in the end no significant bill that would have obstructed the high speed rail line was passed.

In the recent Legislature, over 20 bills were filed that took aim at a high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston, including some that may have killed the plan. Ultimately, just two bills passed — one ensuring the state won’t pick up any costs for the train and the other requiring adequate safety measures.

Texas Central Partners, the group developing the rail line, didn’t object to the bills.

[…]

[Texas Central has] always pledged to not seek state or federal grants, a key selling point. That’s one reason conservative groups have praised the project and warned against government overreach.

The state has an opportunity to innovate and lead the nation, wrote a chief strategist for the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“To realize a boon to taxpayers, Texas merely has to allow the free market to operate by not expanding government in the form of discriminatory legislation,” Bartlett Cleland wrote in an April report.

There’s still a long way to go before we can travel from Dallas to Houston in a 90-minute train ride. Federal regulators are working on a draft environmental impact study, expected to be finished this year. More public meetings and revisions will follow, and when construction of the 240-mile line begins, that’s expected to take about five years. That would make the train operational by around 2023.

Long beforehand, Texas Central has to raise billions, and Austin represents a potential roadblock.

“We talk to investors all the time, and one of their questions is, ‘What’s going to happen in the Legislature?’” said Holly Reed, managing director of external affairs for Texas Central. That question has been answered, she said. But only for now.

Some landowners along the potential routes have opposed the project all along, insisting that a bullet train would disrupt their rural way of life and bring few benefits. They’re well organized and have clout with their elected representatives.

They pushed for eminent domain limits and a financial bond from the rail company. While those bills died, opponents aren’t backing off, said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail. They plan to fight all along the route, especially attempts to use eminent domain to acquire right of way. “They have to win every case — all we have to do is win one,” Workman said. “They’re gonna have to fight the battle in all these rural counties. Good luck.”

The number of landowners opposed to the train is dwarfed by those who could benefit from it. But opponents are more energized, said Mark Jones, political science fellow at Rice University. And that enthusiasm gap matters in local elections. “That small vocal minority is intensely opposed and more likely to vote in the Republican primary — and vote against anyone who’s not working to stop the train,” Jones said. “Until it’s built, Texas Central is gonna have to worry about this every two years.”

See here for the last update I had during the session. I suppose the death of the anti-high speed rail bills wasn’t newsy enough to draw attention, or maybe I just missed it. In any event, nothing bad happened for TCR, so barring a late addition to the special session agenda, they can move forward for now. The draft environmental impact study will be a big deal, as will the ongoing eminent domain litigation. With a bit of luck, Texas Central will be far enough along in construction in the spring of 2019 that there will be fewer opportunities to cut them off at the knees legislatively. That part is up to them.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

No Metro vote this year

One less to worry about.

Agency officials expect to begin public meetings to gather input on where expanded bus and rail lines might go in late June.

But the critical public response – the money to fund preferred projects via a voter referendum – likely is 18 months away, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

“The community input process is going to take a lot of time,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board, calling the chances of asking voters to approve a bond issue this year “unrealistic.”

“My guess is it would not be before November 2018,” Patman said.

The timeline is less rosy than predicted when the regional transit plan was rolled out in February, when Patman and others said a vote this November remained a possibility.

The regional transit plan, meanwhile, could be approved by the Metro board next summer, after a series of meetings with riders and those who rarely interact with transit.

[…]

Metro officials held 13 meetings with agency employees to solicit ideas from bus and rail operators about what improvements are most needed. That feedback, CEO Tom Lambert said, confirmed what many officials already have said about the need to improve bus stops and shelters and make minor adjustments to routes to improve service.

Also key to the plan as officials prep for meetings in late June is soliciting comment from people in places where bus service is nonexistent, board members said.

“Historically, the meetings have been held in places where Metro is already operating service,” said vice-chairman Jim Robinson.

Attracting suburban interest for transit, and properly prioritizing it with other needs, is an important part of the plan, officials said.

See here, here, and here for some background. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred to see this ready to go this November, as there are a lot of needs to plan for and the sooner we begin the better. But I’d also rather get this right than rush it, and there’s certainly a case for not putting this on a ballot that will be dominated by the revenue cap referendum. Which is not to say that 2018 will be better – there will be far more races on the ballot, if nothing else – but it is a reasonable choice. Let’s get the best plan we can, with a compelling vision for the future, and begin selling it with an eye for next year. KUHF has more.

Senate passes statewide rideshare bill

It’s a done deal.

After a debate among lawmakers over the best way to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, the Texas Senate on Wednesday backed a proposal that would override local regulations concerning ride-hailing companies.

House Bill 100 would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

“Regulating them at the city level will always be challenging,” the bill’s Senate author, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said. “Transportation, by nature, is a regional concern.”

His bill passed in the upper chamber in a 20-10 vote on its third and final reading. The measure now heads to the governor’s desk.

Though the vote on the bill was originally announced as 20-10, senate records later showed it actually passed 21-9, meaning more than two-thirds of the Senate supported the measure. That distinction matters because of a provision in the bill that allows it to go into effect immediately after the governor signs it instead of on Sept. 1 if it receives support of two-thirds of the members in both chambers. As the measure passed the House in a 100-35 vote, it means ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft could potentially return to cities like Austin as early as this summer.

You know the story on this one. The offensive “definition of sex” amendment is still in there, which I have to hope winds up not meaning much in the grand scheme of things. And I agree with mayor Turner that this is “another example of the legislature circumventing local control”, but all things considered it’s less of that than it could have been. I know I’m rationalizing, but such is how it is these days. Expect to see the pink Lyft mustache in town again, as they have been recruiting drivers in anticipation of this. Maybe some other services will come to town as well. Whatever you think of this soon-to-be-law, there will be one fewer obstacle to entry.

Try to wrap your mind around what I-45 will look like post-construction

Swamplot is here to help.

HAVING TROUBLE SIFTING through some of the massive freeway jumbles in the latest plans for that major I-45 reroute between Downtown and the Beltway? This new video (making the rounds this month as TxDOT hosts a set of public meetings to chat about the project) may or may not help you out. The 10-minute animation shows off what the project plans look like in multicolored, car-spangled 3D action, dragging viewers slowly along the entire project route from Spur 521up to Beltway 8.

The project plans pull 45 over to the east side of Downtown, to line up alongside US 59 and dive underground behind the George R. Brown convention center. Various flavors of new express lanes, managed lanes, managed express lanes, and connectors weave into and out of a massive new 45-59-10 junction as shown above, all labeled by color.

[…]

There’s lot more to parse in the designs — including TxDOT’s estimate that the whole thing will “displace approximately 168 single-family residences, 1,067 multi-family residences, 331 businesses, 4 places of worship, and 2 schools.

There’s a ton of documents and downloadable videos, some of which are embedded at the linked post, at the I-45 project website. About the only thing I’m grateful about my upcoming office move out west is that I won’t have to deal with this horror on a daily basis. Personally, I have a hard time believing that any gains in improved traffic flow will outweigh the costs of executing this massive boondoggle, but maybe that’s just me. Additional views of this colossus from Swamplot are here, and the Chron has more.