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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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.

Metro begins regional transportation planning

Metro wants your input.

We want to hear your ideas for a regional transit plan for the future. METRO, led by its Board of Directors and chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services. It will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, approved by voters in 2003.

Our goals are to improve mobility, enhance connectivity, support vibrant communities and ensure a return on investment. We will be guided by these principles: safety, stewardship, accessibility and equity.

So talk to us.

What type of transit would you use? How do you feel about the goals above? If you don’t use transit today, what would convince you to use it? Can you list three important things METRO should keep top of mind as it shapes this regional plan?

Click here to learn more details. You’ll find tabs at the top of the page. One is “Share Your Vision” where you can submit your ideas online. You’ll also be able to see a presentation on our regional transit plan.

At the specified link you can give feedback, review the 2003 referendum, and read a presentation about the Regional Transit Plan. The latter is from February, and it was the first indication of the planning process, though Metro Chair Carrin Patman was talking about it well before then. The ultimate goal is for this to culminate in another referendum to specify and plan for particular projects, which may include more rail lines like the ones we voted on in 2003 but were not able to complete. Metro could aim to have something on the ballot this year, though given the likely presence of pension and revenue cap issues (and maybe another Astrodome vote), it’s not clear if they should aim for this year or next. Whatever the case, they want to hear from you, so go tell them what you want.

Where do we stand with the anti-Texas Central bills?

They’re in the House, and we’ll see what happens from there.

The four bills before the House Transportation Committee represented some of opponents’ latest efforts to stop the project in its track. But project supporters and Texas Central Partners executives told the committee that some of the bills were unusually anti-free market for Republican-backed legislation in Texas.

“’A better business environment than Texas’ is not a phrase that I’m used to saying, but that’s what this bill contemplates and it’s not how we do things here,” Texas Rail Advocates executive director Chris Lippincott said about House Bill 2104.

That legislation would require any private companies building high-speed rail lines to file a bond that would cover the cost of reverting all land bought for the project back to its previous use if train service ever stops. Texas Central leaders said such a requirement would be so costly that it would deter potential investors from putting money into the rail line.

“The project would never get built,” Texas Central president Tim Keith said.

The bills debated this week were left pending in the House transportation committee. They are among more than 20 pieces of legislation filed by 10 lawmakers in both chambers aimed at the project. But with just a few weeks left in the session, no bill that could fatally disrupt ongoing development of the rail line has passed either chamber. And legislators have so far had little traction with bills or maneuvers that would prohibit the company from using eminent domain to acquire land needed for the project.

[…]

Another bill before the House committee, House Bill 2163, would require that the bullet train tracks running through Dallas, Ellis, Waller and Harris counties be built on columns that are 40 feet high. Much of the rural opposition is rooted in fears that the train tracks will divide existing properties and form a barrier restricting the movements of people, livestock and other animals. They also say it will restrict development spilling over from the state’s major metro areas.

“The best way to protect growth and development in that area is for this train to be elevated on pylons on a viaduct,” said the bill’s author, state Rep. John Wray, R-Waxahachie.

Company officials said they can’t yet commit to building the track at 40 feet for such long distances because the project is still going through environmental review. But Keith said 60 percent of the tracks will be on viaducts. And he told Wray that expected population growth is a factor when the company considers where to raise the tracks on viaducts instead of earthen berms.

One tweak to state law pushed by opponents of the project is not currently drawing Texas Central’s opposition. House Bill 2172 would prevent legislators from spending state funds to plan, build, maintain or operate a privately owned high-speed rail line. That is the companion legislation to Senate Bill 977, which the upper chamber passed last month. Both bills have wording similar to a provision in the Senate’s proposed budget.

“As we’ve repeatedly stated, this is being built without state money,” Keith said. “The bill is consistent with our plan of finance.”

See here for the background on the Senate bills that had been passed out of committee. In addition to SB977, two more bills were subsequently passed by the full Senate, SB979 and SB975. The House bills mentioned in this story, all of which were left pending in committee on Thursday, would need to be passed out of committee today as that’s the deadline for any bill to receive final consideration. I’ll keep an eye on that and check back later. All things considered, so far things don’t look too bad for Texas Central, but as we know with the Lege, it ain’t over till sine die.

Senate passes “driverless car” bill

This is a first.

Sen. Kelly Hancock

Texas took a step toward self-driving vehicles zipping up and down its highways and streets under a first-of-its-kind measure approved Thursday by the Texas Senate.

Approved by a 31-0 vote, Senate Bill 1622 would implement minimum safety standards for so-called “autonomous vehicles” and “automated driving systems” — the first time the new technology will be regulated in the Lone Star State.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said oversight is needed to ensure the rapidly-evolving technology — some of which involve human navigators and others that are fully automated — remains safe on Texas streets and highways.

He said the legislation defines “automated driving system” to mirror current requirements of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has set nationwide safety standards.

The bill also pre-empts local officials in Texas from imposing their own rules or requiring a franchise for companies to operate autonomous vehicles — the latest such measure approved in this legislative session to curb local regulations on a variety of issues.

Owners of “autonomous” vehicles would have comply with state registration and title laws and follow traffic and motor-vehicle laws; the vehicles must be equipped with a data-recording system, meet federal safety standards and have insurance.

In the event of an accident, the “autonomous” vehicle immediately would have to stop and notify the proper authorities.

The bill number listed in the story is incorrect – SB1622 is a completely different piece of legislation, authored by Sen. Carlos Uresti, though as you can see it too passed the Senate on Thursday. The correct bill appears to be SB2205. As noted before, this is the third session in which a driverless car bill has been introduced. A bill by then-Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2015 failed to pass after being opposed by Google. Either Google has changed its tune, or this bill satisfied its objections from last time, or this time the Senate didn’t care, I can’t tell. A similar House bill has not yet received a hearing, so if this is going anywhere, it will surely be via Hancock’s SB2205.

As for the by now standard pre-emption of local regulations, at least in this case I’d say it’s appropriate. The state has been the regulator of vehicles in the past and has the infrastructure in place to deal with those regulations. My fear is that we’re creating a new norm here, and that bills that don’t contain local pre-emption clauses are going to be seen as the exceptions. Be that as it may, this bill overall seems like a good idea. We’ll see what happens to it in the House.

TxDOT public hearings on I-45 widening scheduled for May 9th & May 11th

From the inbox, from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

The I-45 Project – Planning Stage is coming to an end!  This next meeting is a HEARING –  much different from the public meetings that TxDOT has been holding.

This HEARING is the last meeting where the public will be heard!  After a short comment period following the hearing, nothing else will go on record on the project.

After the Hearing, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be completed – estimated to be complete next year – in 2018. Then a R.O.D. (Record of Decision) – also in 2018. And TxDOT will immediately start acquiring Right-of-way where needed and finish designs. 1st phase of construction will begin on Segment 3 (downtown) – estimated to start in 2020.

There are only 2 HEARINGS scheduled at this time.  You may remember that normally there were 3 meetings including one held at Jeff Davis High School (now Northside High School).  Northside is currently being renovated so no meeting can be held there.  We are asking TxDOT for a meeting that is convenient to Segment 2… but so far, no luck.

As a quick summary, there are 3 Segments involved in the project – Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8); Segment 2 (610 to I-10) and Segment 3 (the Downtown Loop).  We are currently in the final year of an approximately 12-year planning phase.   TxDOT has held 4 public meetings – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.   Part of this project, is the re-routing of I-45 at Pierce Elevated and moving it to be coincident with I-10 on the north side of downtown and coincident with US-59 on the east side of Downtown.  Directly east of George Brown Convention both US-59 and I-45 will be below-grade.  This is a major project that is estimated to cost between $6 Billion and $7 Billion, WITHOUT right-of-way costs included.

I am part of the I-45 Coalition, which is an all-volunteer group that was formed to address issues related to the planned construction of I-45 and to work with TxDOT to ensure that the pending construction comply with these 3 tenets: (1) No expansion beyond the existing right-of- way (2) Alternative means of transportation must be explored (3) No negative impact on the neighborhoods quality of life.  We have not been very successful in these 3 tenets…but we have helped improve the project.

Regarding ROW in Segment 1 – 212 acres of land will be taken; Segment 2 – 19 acres of land and in Segment 3 – 79 acres of land.

In Segment 2 – the North St. Bridge will be removed.  The main roadway of I-45 will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so it is impossible with the current engineering to have any bridge there.

If you have commented or attended any of the prior meetings before, you should have received, or will soon receive notification via USPS of the 2 meetings locations from TxDOT. Locations and dates are:

Tuesday, May 9th                                                                   Thursday, May 11th

St. Pius X High School                                   Houston Community College – Central Campus

811 W. Donovan Street                                  1300 Holman Street –  San Jacinto Building

Houston, TX  77091                                                   Houston, TX  77004

 

Displays will be available for viewing at 5:30 pm, formal hearing starts at 6:30 pm.

Please review TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com. As of today, the documents that will be shown at the hearing are NOT on the website…but they should be there soon.

I received notification of the meetings in the main on Wednesday. The images embedded in the post are from the I-45 Coalition’s Facebook group. I can’t quite make out the context, so I guess I’ll have to go to the meeting. The www.ih45northandmore.com webpage now has the meeting notice on it, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available as well, if you want a little light reading. If you use I-45 north of downtown at all, you should probably make plans to be at one of these meetings. There’s no next chance to give feedback after this.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a flying car!

Seriously.

Uber is looking to North Texas as a testing ground for its initiative to make intra-urban flying vehicle rides a reality. The company announced Tuesday that Dallas and Fort Worth are its first U.S. partner cities for what its dubbing the “Uber Elevate Network.”

The company hopes to have the first demonstration of how such a network of flying, hailed vehicles would work in three years.

Uber is also working with Dallas’ Hillwood Properties to plan vertiports, sites where the aircraft would pick up and drop off passengers. Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter is among companies partnering with Uber to help develop the actual vehicles, called VTOLs because they would vertically take off and land.

The announcement was made at a three-day Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas.

“This is an opportunity for our city to show leaders from around the world and across industries why Dallas should be a part of building a better future for urban mobility,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a prepared statement.

[…]

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Bell is developing propulsion technology to build electric airborne vehicles “that are quieter than the usual helicopter.”

“It’s not going to happen right away, tomorrow, but the technology is definitely there,” Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder told the newspaper. “We definitely believe the hybrid electric is something we could go make and fly right now. But I think full electric, to give it the range and everything you want out of it, is not quite there.”

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a prepared statement that she is “thrilled” her city is part of the Elevate initiative.

“Being in the North Texas region, which encourages innovation and responsible businesses to thrive, we trust that this will be a beneficial choice for the development of the Elevate project,” she said.

Fast Company reported that Uber is portraying Elevate as “a cheap alternative to building new roads and expanding public transit” but noted that Rawlings maintains Dallas has to provide as many transportation options as possible.

“Anytime there’s innovation in the marketplace, I don’t think anybody truly knows the results of these things, or the costs,” Rawlings told Fast Company. “We’ve got to be multimodal — there’s no question — in this city.”

Well, that’s one way to avoid traffic, I suppose. Someone should call up Avery Brooks and tell him his question may soon be getting an answer. Uber has a former NASA engineer working on this idea, for which they released a white paper last October, and they say they hope to have it off the ground (as it were) by 2020. How likely is that? Wired asked the same question.

If that sounds ambitious, you possess a basic understanding of the challenges involved here. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling customers through the air—electric, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and capable of flying 100 miles in just 40 minutes—don’t exist yet. Nor does the infrastructure to support them. The FAA, an agency not known for speed, must ensure these aircraft meet all federal safety regulations and figure out where and how they fit into a complex air traffic control system.

Instead of cracking those problems on its own, Uber plans to punt. It hopes to play the role of a catalyst, spurring manufacturers to build the aircraft, the FAA to figure out the regulations, and cities to wave them in. Company CEO Travis Kalanick apparently wants to play the role of Elon Musk, who came up with the idea for hyperloop and is letting everyone else figure out how to make it work. The reward for playing Kalanick’s game? Accessing Uber’s 55 million monthly active riders in nearly 600 cities worldwide.

And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.

Which is not to say there aren’t other obstacles.

“If there are flying cars, then well obviously you have added this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather,” [Tesla CEO] Musk said. “And of course you’d have to have a flying car [that operates by] autopilot because otherwise, forget it.”

Think weaving through traffic on a busy day is frustrating? Try adding an entirely new dimension to the mix. “Essentially with a flying car you’re talking about going 3-D,” Musk says. “There’s a fundamental flaw with cities where you’ve got dense office buildings and apartment buildings and duplexes, and they’re operating on three dimensions, but then you go to the street, and suddenly they’re two-dimensional.”

Getting your 3-D driving license from the DMV isn’t the only challenge a future of flying cars would have to overcome, Musk added. While Tesla has announced an update that promises to ease drivers’ “range anxiety,” seeing a flashing empty light while your car is in midair might cause more of a range heart attack. And just imagine being one of the poor street-bound souls if two-ton automobiles start falling out of the sky.

“Even in autopilot, and even if you’ve got redundant motors and blades, you’ve still gone from near-zero chance of something falling on your head to something greater than that,” Musk said.

So good luck with that, Dallas. I guess we may soon find out what a few billion dollars in venture capital and an utter disregard for the rule of law or the norms of society can do. The Verge and the Dallas Observer have more.

The post-Uber Austin rideshare experience

Texas Monthly notes the issues that some people faced during SxSW hailing a ride, and considers the rideshare landscape in Austin post-Uber and Lyft.

But the thesis that Austin is experiencing a crisis around ride-hailing apps is an old one, and it’s incomplete. RideAustin, which as a non-profit makes all of its numbers public, gave its millionth ride in February. Drivers are happy with the rates they make on RideAustin (which gives them the full amount of the ride) and Fasten (which takes a flat fee out of each ride, rather than a percentage like Lyft does). Most of the year, the companies’ servers can handle the load, and it’s likely that they’ll each be improving their servers based on what happened at SXSW.

Still, despite the fact that the city seems much happier with the current state of its ride app regulations than the tech fellas who come in for SXSW, things might end up getting a lot friendlier for Lyft and Uber anyway. That’s because the disruptive innovators in the tech world have an ally in the Texas Legislature, which seems increasingly likely to pass statewide regulations that would prevent cities like Austin (and Houston, which has a similar ordinance—and which keeps Lyft, but not Uber, from choosing to operate in the city) from determining what the rules that drivers and the companies through which they find passengers will have to follow will be in each city.

There are three different bills in the Lege, all of which would create a statewide rule that would supersede local regulations, and the Senate began debating them last month. (Similar legislation was proposed in 2015, though it ended up dying without a vote.) This time, though, momentum is on the side of the companies that hope to see the legislation passed—the Texas Tribune reports that “at least one of the bills is widely expected to eventually move on to the full Senate for a vote,” which, in an environment that’s increasingly hostile to the idea of local control, has a strong chance of passing.

All of which is to say that the question of whether or not Austin’s leadership “ruined” ridesharing is ultimately the wrong thing to focus on. It’s true both that Austin tends to get around pretty well without Uber and Lyft, and that the two companies are pushing hard for legislation that would change the dynamic there dramatically. Perhaps the real question, then, is what happens to Fasten, RideAustin, and the rest if Uber and Lyft come back?

That’s a tougher question to answer, but it’s the one on which the future of ride-hailing in Austin hinges. For now, RideAustin and Fasten are doing a job that satisfies customers and drivers. But if Uber and Lyft decide to cut costs to consumers for six months, eating the expense of the service, they could easily make RideAustin and Fasten seem like overpriced relics of a bizarre moment in the city’s history. It may not prove sustainable (currently, Uber’s passengers pay for only 41 percent of each ride, and the company was projected to lose $3 billion in 2016), but it doesn’t have to be sustainable: it only has to chase away the competition.

I have mostly resigned myself to the fact that the Lege is going to pass a statewide rideshare law that will forcibly overrule the ordinances passed in cities like Austin and Houston regarding these services. The bills that are being considered have some good points to them, and there is certainly an argument to be made that a uniform statewide approach makes more sense and will serve customers better. But I think that latter part will only be true if there is robust competition among multiple rideshare companies, ant not just an Uber/Lyft duopoly with a legacy cab service for a declining share of riders. As such, I have two hopes for what happens after Uber and Lyft make their mandated returns to Austin. One is that they will find a market that isn’t as into them as before thanks to the presence of many other viable services, which forces them to innovate and compete not just for riders but also for drivers. And two, if Uber and Lyft take the approach of trying to kill off their competition instead by leveraging their billions in market capitalization to subsidize their service until they’re the only players left standing, that the Legislature recognizes this anti-free market in a way that some people say taxi regulations are, and take action to correct it. Let’s just say I have more hope for the former than for the latter.

A little skepticism about hyperloops

Streetsblog isn’t having the hyperloop hype.

There are no functional, real-world examples of a Hyperloop, Tesla founder Elon Musk’s long-distance transport concept that involves shooting people through vacuum-sealed tubes in pods that travel at up to 760 mph. Anyone who believes it’s a viable endeavor is basically taking it on faith.

“Hyperloop One” — the $130 million startup promoting the idea — has built a short 500-meter test track in the desert outside of Las Vegas but has yet to construct a pod to go with the tube, much less tested the technology on humans.

And yet a surprising number of government agencies are treating the Hyperloop as a serious proposition.

[…]

Hyperloop One even sells the technology as a solution to high housing prices, by enabling, for instance, “breadwinners to build a career in Boulder’s thriving tech hubs while commuting from Greeley, where median home prices are 60% lower.” It is a promise to enable sprawl so central cities can relax and avoid the difficult politics of creating more walkable development and inclusive housing policies.

Four years ago, mathematician and transit analyst Alon Levy wrote an epic takedown about the viability of Hyperloop technology. Levy evaluated Musk’s white paper [PDF] detailing how the Hyperloop would connect L.A. to San Francisco in about 30 minutes, and he found major problems. Musk’s cost estimates for engineering and land acquisition are inexplicably low — by a factor of 10 compared with current market norms, he said. (Whether people will be comfortable under to that type of propulsion is a whole other question. Levy says the Hyperloop would be a “barf ride.”)

America has the means to reduce traffic and connect people to where they want to go in less time — but solving these problems entails politically difficult choices to shift travel away from cars and highways. Any high-tech solution that promises a shortcut around these thorny problems is probably too good to be true. Like “personal rapid transit” or the Chinese “straddling bus” — the Hyperloop could end up taking credulous believers for a ride.

See here for previous hyperloop blogging. I consider myself skeptical of this idea, but it sounds so cool that I kind of hope I’m wrong. It would be nice to see some kind of working prototype get built, so we’d have some data about the cost and practicalities. It’s a lot easier to be a visionary if one’s visions remain conceptual. If you’ve got your head in the clouds about hyperloops, this story and the aforementioned epic (and long) takedown are worth a read.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

Houston hyperlooping

How soon can this be built?

A Texas plan using the Hyperloop concept envisioned by Tesla founder Elon Musk is one of 35 proposals from around the globe competing this week in Washington for bragging rights as the best initial project for the technology. Hyperloop One, the company currently testing the idea, sponsored the contest.

“From a planning perspective and from a regulatory perspective Texas is a good first step for Hyperloop,” said Steven Duong, the team leader, based in Dallas, for Hyperloop Texas. “Population is a big part of it, but not just population, but population growth. So is the climate in Texas for development.”

[…]

Though winning the contest guarantees nothing, there is benefit to putting Texas high on the map – if only for U.S. bragging rights. A good idea that generates investment, he said, might be the first one completed. In some ways Texas is ahead of proposals in places like the West Coast where interest is high, but so are the regulatory hurdles.

“There are states and areas with a progressive reputation out there … but from our standpoint, this is the place to do it,” Duong said.

The proposal, a feasibility study, is a very early look at possibilities and includes no cost projections or analysis of site-specific needs. While many Hyperloop projects focus on buried tubes and include tunneling into the ground, the Texas pitch envisions above-ground enclosed tubes, possibly with solar panels on top that would power the system, making it energy-efficient to the point of burning no fossil fuels.

See here for past hyperloop blogging. Elon Musk has been talking about building a “test track” for hyperloops in Texas for over two years now, so I hope this contest indicates that we are getting closer to something actually getting built. I’m not getting any younger, I want the future to get here already. Hyperloop One, the company sponsoring the contest, says it hopes to announce finalists by May. I can’t wait.

Deep thoughts:

If a Hyperloop happens in Texas, however, it could bring profound change. Already, the Houston region is stretched to the point where sense of place can be tough to define. Are Sugar Land residents Houstonians? What does it mean to live in a region of many cities?

A Hyperloop that makes drinks in Austin and dinner in Houston possible stretches that to even farther limits, Duong said.

“If you could travel between all these different cities, it kind of devalues what it means to put your roots down in a community,” he said. “That’s something we think about, talk about, a lot.”

I don’t know that I agree with that. I think where you actually live and where you do things like go to church and send your kids to school will still strongly determine what people think of as their community. I admit that a world in which you can easily be in Houston, Austin, and Dallas all in the same day will be different and may well cause some definitions of neighborhood and community to change and possibly expand. But I think that at some fundamental level we will still be rooted to the things we are rooted to now. Ask me again after this thing gets built. The Dallas Observer, the DMN, and Swamplot have more.

Get ready for lots of road construction

Because a lot of money is fixing to be spent on it.

A sweeping revision of state highway plans adds nearly $9 billion in new funds for improving Texas roadways, including a $1.32 billion infusion in the Houston area for a major overhaul of Interstate 45 and nine other projects.

Projects along Texas 36 in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and Texas 105 in Montgomery and San Jacinto counties are also included in the unified transportation plan approved Tuesday in Austin by the Texas Transportation Commission.

“This is a major step forward,” said Commissioner Bruce Bugg.

The newly approved plan adds 230 projects and $8.9 billion in funding statewide.

[…]

Construction is expected to start in late 2020 on the first of seven separate projects that will realign I-45 along downtown’s eastern side, parallel to Interstate 69, also known as U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

The first projects will reconstruct I-69 between Spur 527, which leads into Midtown, and I-45, including the interchange with Texas 288. That will be followed by a rebuild of I-45 at its interchange with I-69.

Combined, the two interchanges – technically four projects on TxDOT’s books – are expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion. That is more than half the $3 billion cost of remaking I-45 around downtown, which includes removing the segment of I-45 along the Pierce Elevated.

[…]

Next month, TxDOT is scheduled to open bids on the next phase of widening I-45 in League City, continuing a decade-long slog toward Galveston, making the freeway four lanes in each direction with frontage roads.

Typically, construction begins about three to four months after bids are opened. If that timing holds, two months after I-45 work moves south, drivers frustrated on their way to Austin when westbound Interstate 10 drops to two lanes in Brookshire will start seeing orange cones. Crews will widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

Just before or after the holiday season, work will begin on a third project to reconstruct some of the connections where I-69 crosses Loop 610 near Uptown, as well as rebuild Loop 610 through the intersection.

TxDOT expects all of the projects to finish in 2021, around the time downtown interchanges will start to see construction.

Note that these are approvals for new projects, so it doesn’t include works in progress such as 290. Outside of Houston, there will be continued widening of I-45 farther south, eventually reaching all the way to Galveston. Years ago, I used to hear people joke that there had never been a day when some part of I-45 wasn’t under construction. In retrospect, I don’t think they were joking. I’m going to predict that by the end date for these projects in 2021, we’re going to be talking about if not preparing for further construction on I-10 out west, which already resembles what the Katy Freeway looked like pre-widening. Basically, there’s always going to be major construction somewhere. Get used to it.

Metro still fixing rail car issues

Someday this will all be over.

Houston’s light rail system is fully open, but closing out a complicated rail car purchase that nearly derailed the new lines remains a challenge for transit officials.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials continue withholding $12.9 million from CAF U.S.A. – the builder of the vehicles – as they debate the amount of liquidated damages owed because of delays and delivery of railcars that were overweight, leaky and halted by faulty axles, among other problems.

When those discussions could conclude and what sort of damages Metro could receive is uncertain, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “We are going to continue to work with CAF, address the issues and go from there.”

In the meantime, the Metro board on Thursday extended a contract with Parsons Transportation Group, an engineering and design firm, for oversight of the CAF purchase. The extension carries the contract beyond its previous expiration in May to April 2018 and adds nearly $700,000 to the contract, which has already paid Parsons $29.6 million.

All 39 of the new light rail cars purchased are available for service, and carried a higher-than-normal number of passengers because of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

All of the cars, however, also have a handful of fleet defects that CAF will have to correct, said Scott Grogan, Metro’s senior director of rail operations.

[…]

The cars are only part of the stumbles related to the rail lines that Metro has raced to correct. Axle counters along the line led to delays in service for months, dropping on-time performance, especially on the Red Line, which represents most rail trips.

Timing has improved significantly since a blitz of repairs prior to the Super Bowl held last month in Houston. In January, the Red Line posted its highest on-time percentage, 92.6 percent, since November 2015. For many of the months between, fewer than 80 percent of the trains arrived on time.

Officials said despite the lingering issues and unresolved matters, the system is carrying people and growing. Buoyed by heavy use for the Super Bowl week, light rail weekday ridership was 2 percent higher in February, compared to the same month last year.

On Saturdays and Sundays, use was increased 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

“This isn’t limiting our ability to provide service,” board member Christof Spieler said of the railcar repairs.

It’s annoying that Metro is still dealing with this crap, but it will eventually get sorted. I’m focusing on the fact that the Main Street line’s on time performance has returned to normal levels, and that ridership continues to be strong. I’ve done more riding on Metro – mostly bus, but some train – in the last year than in any previous year I’ve been in Houston. The bus system redesign has been great for me, enabling my wife and I to carpool to work without having to worry about it when one or the other of us needs to go in early or stay late or run an errand after work. Sure it helps that we live in the inner Loop, but that’s where transit is most needed, and it keeps one of our cars off of I-45 every day. This isn’t directly applicable to the story here, but I think it’s good to remember that while Metro has its problems, it does do a good job at what it’s supposed to do.

Bike plan finally gets approved

Long time coming.

Houston has a bike plan.

Though there’s no clear plan to pay for it and ongoing concerns with exactly where the planned trails and lanes will be located, City Council approved the bike plan on Wednesday morning.

Council members Mike Knox, Steve Le, Michael Kubosh and Greg Travis voted against the plan, citing various concerns with the force with which the city will require bike lanes in some neighborhoods and the cost, estimated at up to $550 million.

Travis said he fears the costs will be much greater, and thus far Houston lacks any way to pay for it.

“You start looking at the cost and it becomes exorbitant,” Travis said.

Even those who approved the plan acknowledged the city must respect neighborhoods that don’t want bike lanes along their streets, be willing to amend the plan and find ways to pay for it that do not reduce road spending.

“The last thing we want to do is develop a plan that pits bicyclists against the motorists,” said District J Councilman Mike Laster.

You can see the bike plan here, and the Mayor’s press release is here. The plan was approved last summer, and was tagged by Council two weeks ago. Here’s a preview story with more about what the plan means.

Developed and modified over nearly 18 months, the plan sets a goal of making Houston a gold-level city based on scoring by the League of American Bicyclists. In Texas, only Austin has been awarded a gold rating by the group, with Houston, San Antonio, El Paso and The Woodlands receiving bronze status, among others.

To improve Houston’s lot, supporters and city planners said the area needs high-comfort bike lanes where people feel safe riding.

The city has an extensive trail system popular with riders but it does not cover large portions of where people live and work in Houston.

The bike plan plots tripling the amount of off-street bike trails from the current 221 miles to 668 miles. Much of that relies on trail connections along bayous and within parks and electrical transmission utility easements. On Tuesday, city and Texas Department of Transportation officials announced construction would start soon on a long-awaited bridge spanning Bray’s Bayou.

“This is a big step in building complete communities,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the crossing helps connect neighborhoods north and south of the bayou on the east side that were often cut off from the city’s trail improvements over the last decade.

The bridge, when completed in about a year, will connect more communities to the Green Line light rail along Harrisburg, too, officials said.

Those connections are key. Without them, advocates said the only people riding – especially in non-ideal conditions – are committed, confident cyclists. Leisure riders and others are left out.

Core riders, meanwhile, said the current network of 495 miles relies heavily on 165 miles of shared space with cars along Houston streets to connect good places to ride. Those shared lanes – such as along Fairview – offer little buffer between cyclists and automobiles.

“It’s like taking your life in your hands,” said Steven Mulligan, 29, who lives in Midtown and rides daily to his job near Loop 610 and Richmond.

Just a reminder, the plan prioritizes different routes, some of which will require little more than paint to designate, and there are various funding sources available for other routes. As far as using Rebuild monies goes, if the roads in question are being redone anyway, I don’t see the problem. Reducing the number of short trips people take during the day alleviates traffic and frees up parking. Making it safer to bike, and making people feel safer while biking, is the key to getting more people to choose that option. I look forward to seeing this work.

A really dumb “Trump and the train” article

Ugh.

Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.

[…]

California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”

[…]

High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

Bike plan vote delayed

What’s another two weeks?

Houston’s long-term plan for improving bicycle routes around town will wait a couple more weeks after a handful of elected officials voiced various concerns.

City Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le, Mike Knox and Dave Martin tagged the proposed Houston Bike Plan on Wednesday morning, delaying its approval for at least two weeks.

The plan, which doesn’t commit money but does guide future projects as the city proceeds with road work, lays out an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of high-comfort bike lanes in Houston, meant to make bicycling safer and more appealing to residents.

Work on the plan began roughly 18 months ago and has been through various drafts with input from city and community officials.

See here for some background, and here for the plan itself. If you’d like a more executive-summary view of it, see this Offcite post from last year, and this Kinder Institute blog post from Wednesday. At some point, part of the solution for traffic has to be getting some cars off the road, and the best way to do that is to give more people more non-car options for their daily travels. Note that you don’t need someone to completely give up their car to have an effect here – trading in some of your car trips for non-car travel helps, too. Let’s get this done, y’all. The Chron editorial board agrees with me on this.

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

For an agency that’s spent decades guiding freeway expansion, it was a stark admission for members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation policy council.

“Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity,” the agency’s staff wrote.

Facing a future in which 14.2 million people will live in the eight-county Houston area in 2050, transportation planners are proposing a special task force that will work on the region’s long-range transportation plan so that high-capacity transit can start to gain a foothold after years – perhaps decades in some cases – without traction in car-crazed Houston.

The regional transportation plan is updated every five years, for a 25-year period. The current plan, approved in 2015, covers until 2040. The next version will reflect plans for highway, transit, bicycle and maritime projects for 2020 to 2045.

Though plans always have some bold transit components – ranging from commuter trains to major expansions of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail system – they rarely proceed in earnest.

“Some of them have been in three or four editions of our plan and they are no farther along than they were 15 years ago,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the area council, which acts as the local metropolitan planning organization responsible for doling out federal transportation funds.

On the one hand, it’s very encouraging to see official recognition of the reality that road capacity is a finite thing, and that expanding transit in the greater region is going to be vital to meeting our mobility needs. On the other hand, I’m going to be 79 years old in 2045, so my expectations are necessarily modest. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

Get ready for more I-45 chaos

Lord have mercy on our souls.

Relieving one of Houston’s worst bottlenecks will come with some lengthy complications for northbound drivers on Interstate 45 headed into Houston’s central business district, starting Friday night.

After years of delay, work is starting on a modification to Spur 5, the ramp that connects northbound I-45 traffic to downtown via Pease and St. Joseph. The spur is being rebuilt to also be the connection from northbound I-45 to Interstate 69, also U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

Though it is a major improvement, the work means seven months of construction detours for downtown-bound drivers, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Crews will close Spur 5 at Scott Street starting at 9 p.m. Friday, so they can demolish the ramp parallel to I-45.

In the interim, drivers that would normally use the spur will exit at Scott and use the I-45 frontage road to travel into downtown. More than 13,000 vehicles use Spur 5 to access downtown at St. Joseph, according to a 2015 TxDOT traffic count. More than 200,000 vehicles use I-45 in the area.

In addition to affecting downtown-bound traffic, the spur closure means drivers won’t be able to access northbound I-45 at Scott Street, said Deidrea George, spokeswoman for TxDOT in Houston.

[…]

The interchange work is hardly the end of construction along the I-45 corridor around downtown, with many considering it a precursor to potentially a decade of constant construction. TxDOT is proceeding with plans to realign I-45, I-69 and the interchange with Texas 288 as part of a $3 billion redesign of the downtown freeway network.

The first of seven projects to rebuild interchanges, widen the freeways and shift I-45 to run parallel to I-69 along the east side of downtown is scheduled to begin in 2020, about a year after the Spur 5 work is set to finish.

Allen said the Spur 5 project is being designed with the future interchanges in mind, but will require some minor modifications once I-45 moves.

This has been in the works for awhile – we first heard about it in 2014, long enough ago that I had about given up in searching my archives for something I knew I had posted about because I was sure it had been more recent than that. This construction is part of the grander plan for redoing I-45, though it would probably be worth doing on its own if that doesn’t materialize. Whatever the case, it’s going to suck. I pity anyone who will have to deal with it. The Press has more.

Interview with Holly Reed of Texas Central Railway

As you know, I’ve been following the ins and outs of Texas Central Railway and its efforts to build a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas since it was first proposed several years ago. Along the way, the proposal has picked up some dedicated opposition, mostly in rural counties where the line would pass through, and from the Representatives and Senators in those counties. Last week, a slate of bills were filed with the express intent of at least slowing down, if not killing, the train project. I’ve sort of made it a mission to talk to people involved with issues that are getting a lot of attention this legislative session, so of course I wanted to speak to someone at Texas Central about them and the bills that are aimed at them. Holly Reed is the managing director of external affairs for Texas Central Partners, LLC, so it’s her job to work with the Legislature on issues like this. I talked with her recently about how TCR is dealing with this slate of bills and other related items. One clarification, when I asked about the Surface Transportation Board, Texas Central is not seeking to ask the Board to reconsider its decision to not provide oversight during the approvals process, but that if things change then Texas Central could re-evaluate. With that, here is what we talked about:

Let me know what you think.

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

The Trib and the DMN on the train

The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News are teaming up on a deep dive into the Texas Central Railway’s high-speed rail proposal. This story, the third in their set, explains where the money to build this thing may come from.

But, really, how does a private company go about lining up the billions of dollars it needs to pay for a 240-mile bullet train line? And is it possible for it to actually turn a profit?

First, it’s important to distinguish between financing and funding a major infrastructure project, said Michael Bennon, managing director of Stanford University’s Global Projects Center.

Financing is how Texas Central will get enough money to build the high-speed rail line in the first place. Funding is the revenue that will keep the train running.

“They’re two very different things and people get them really mixed up,” Bennon said.

Financing is the more complicated side of the equation because it’s essentially a high-stakes gamble that may not pay off for decades.

Texas Central executives are confident they’ll be able to find the money, in large part because investors are hungry for “real assets” — tangible projects, basically — that could provide bigger returns than what’s available in today’s market.

Managers of huge pots of money, like private equity funds or pension funds, “have obligations to pay their plan holders and they need long-dated assets,” Keith said.

In other words, low interest rates and other factors have meant that there aren’t a lot of places to park portions of those pools that will reliably pay out to investors over long periods of time.

That’s part of why pension funds, which are supposed to be how workers get paid their retirement, are seeking out safer investments.

Upfront money from investors will pay for roughly a third of the project, Keith said. The other two-thirds will be debt.

So far, Texas Central has raised about $115 million from investors.

Keith said Texas Central is considering a range of financing options, including federal credit programs that would essentially provide cheap loans aimed at spurring infrastructure construction.

[…]

More private capital is finding its way into projects that were once the domain of government.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently noted that institutional investors — like the pension and private equity funds Keith mentioned — “seem like an obvious source of capital” in a world where increasingly urgent infrastructure projects are seriously underfunded.

Its report said institutional investors have $120 trillion to move around. Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private equity firm, is reported to be raising as much as $40 billion for infrastructure investments.

Of course, there are caveats.

“To attract these investors, governments and other stakeholders need to develop their project pipelines, remove regulatory and structural barriers, and build stronger markets for infrastructure assets,” the McKinsey report said.

Public-private partnerships, like toll roads, have had mixed success, including in Texas.

Still, the McKinsey report underscores the hunger for worthy projects.

“Insurance companies and banks recount instances in which investors outbid each other in a rush to finance the rare infrastructure deals they consider ‘bankable’ and that have appropriate risk-return profiles,” the report said.

All that goes to say there are institutions that could theoretically bankroll a high-speed rail line. But only if it’s a sustainable business.

And that points back to the second part of paying for a big infrastructure project: funding.

Infrastructure projects rely on two main sources of funding — taxes or user fees, Bennon said. For public transit, it’s usually a combination of both.

Texas Central has promised not to use tax money as funding. That leaves ticket sales, plus smaller sources of side revenue from station parking fees and concessions. Texas Central has said the project passes muster, by that measure.

“This project is fully financeable based on ticket sales,” Keith said.

That’s what experts — and critics — are skeptical about.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. If you want to read the other stories, here they are:

Texas’ rural roots and urban future are on a high-speed collision course

“Come and take it”: Eminent domain dispute at heart of bullet train battles

Here come the anti-Texas Central bills

From the inbox:

[Tuesday], a group of key state lawmakers filed a slate of legislation to push back against Texas Central Railway’s controversial proposal to construct a high-speed rail line between Dallas and Houston. Senators Birdwell (R-Granbury), Creighton (R-Conroe), Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), Perry (R-Lubbock), and Schwertner (R-Georgetown) joined with Representatives Ashby (R-Lufkin), Bell (R-Magnolia), Cook (R-Corsicana), Schubert (R-Caldwell), and Wray (R-Waxahachie) to file a total of 18 bills addressing a number of concerns ranging from protecting landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse to ensuring the state isn’t later forced to bail out the private project with taxpayer dollars.

[…]

The following bills were filed this morning:

SB 973 by Creighton/HB 2168 by Bell (Railroad Determination Before Surveys) – prohibits a private high-speed rail entity from entering private property to conduct a survey unless the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) first determines that the surveying entity is, in fact, a railroad.

SB 974 by Creighton/HB 2181 by Cook (Option Contract Protection) – voids any high-speed rail option contracts held by a high-speed rail entity upon a bankruptcy initiated by or against the entity.

SB 975 by Birdwell/HB 2169 by Schubert (Security Requirements) – provides a framework of minimum security requirements to be followed during the construction and operation of a private high-speed rail line. Requires the high-speed rail authority to coordinate security efforts with state and local law enforcement, as well as disaster response agencies.

SB 977 by Schwertner/HB 2172 by Ashby (No Taxpayer Bailout) – prohibits the legislature from appropriating new funds, or allowing state agencies to utilize existing funds, to pay any costs related to the construction, maintenance, or operation of a private high-speed rail in Texas.

SB 978 by Schwertner/HB 2104 Bell (Property Restoration Bond) – requires a private high-speed rail entity to file a bond with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) sufficient to restore property used for the rail service to the property’s original conditions if the service ceases operation.

SB 979 by Schwertner/HB 2179 by Cook (Right of Repurchase for Non-HSR Use) – prohibits an entity that operates or plans to operate a high-speed rail from using property acquired for purposes other than high-speed rail. If the high-speed rail authority doesn’t use the property for that specific purpose, the original landowner must be given the opportunity to repurchase the land.

SB 980 by Schwertner/HB 2167 by Schubert (Put Texas First) – prohibits any state money from being used for any purpose related to a privately owned high-speed rail, unless the state acquires and maintains a lien in order to secure the repayment of state funds. Requires that the state’s lien be superior to all other liens, effectively making Texas a priority creditor.

SB 981 by Kolkhorst/HB 2162 by Wray (Interoperability) – requires an entity constructing a high-speed rail line in Texas to demonstrate compatibility with more than one type of train technology.

SB 982 by Perry/HB 2173 by Ashby (High-Speed Rail Feasibility Study) – upon request of a legislator, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) must generate a feasibility study of a proposed high-speed rail project. The study must indicate whether the project is for a public use, whether it will be financially viable, and what impact of the project will have on local communities.

The full press release is here, and a Chron story about it is here. I was expecting some bills to be filed for the purpose of throwing sand in TCR’s gears, but this was more than I expected. Still, the basic dynamics of this fight have not changed as far as I can tell. The legislators leading it are primarily rural – even the ones who are based in suburban areas represent a lot of rural turf as well – and there are only so many of them. I’ve yet to see any legislator from a big urban area sign on to this. Which is not to say that at least some of them won’t go along with their rural colleagues, especially the urban Republicans, but that’s the ground on which this battle will be fought and won. If these legislators can convince enough of their urban colleagues to join them, then TCR is in a world of hurt. If not – if TCR can hold on to the urbanites – then it can survive the session and maybe get to a point where actual construction begins. Getting one or more of Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Joe Straus, and Ken Paxton to pick a side would help that faction greatly as well. Keep an eye on these bills as the committee hearings get off the ground. The DMN has more.

Metro preps regional transit plan

This could be on our November ballot as well.

A pending long-term regional transit plan, and likely voter referendum as early as November, will determine where Metro goes. More importantly, they will show what level of support people in the Houston region have for more buses, longer train routes and commuter service to increasingly urbanizing suburban communities.

What’s clear, transit officials acknowledged on Feb. 15 during their first in-depth discussion of the transit plan’s focus, is many solutions to traffic congestion will sit on transit agency shelves for years to come.

“We know we will never have enough resources to build everything,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “How do we choose which projects are most worthwhile?”

Board members during the discussion said a host of factors will influence transit project priorities, though the critical litmus test will be whether a project can reliably and quickly serve a large number of riders and solve a congestion challenge. Officials predict as the region grows freeways will clog even more with cars and trucks for more hours of the day. Expansion of many freeways is limited, so using the lanes more effectively or drawing people off the freeway will be critical.

“We’re all going to be more transit-dependent because we can’t spend two hours getting to work,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said.

Transit agency staff has started compiling a list of unfinished projects, including those left over from the contentious 2003 referendum and financial commitments from an extension of Metro’s 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.

Along with public input and ongoing discussions, Metro could have a draft of a regional transit plan – incorporating not only service in Metro’s area, but beyond its own boundaries – by April under an accelerated timetable.

[…]

There are options for starting major transit projects within the next five years, but they require transit officials to either come up with alternative sources of money or ask voters to approve more spending, which could mean more borrowing and new taxes or fees to pay off the debt.

Officials are exploring both options. Last year, officials approved soliciting interest from private firms for development of a train line from the Texas Medical Center to Missouri City. The line, estimated to cost at least $400 million, has political support from many Houston area federal, state and local officials. Questions related to the proposal pushed the deadline for companies to express interest in partnerships with Metro from Feb. 7 to March 20.

Metro leaders, after new board members were installed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year, also have said a voter referendum for more spending is likely. Transit board chairwoman Carrin Patman said the regional transit plan could lead to a vote as early as November, though the plan itself will inform what could end up in front of voters.

“It’s possible,” she said of an election in nine months. “We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to the plan and what is the best course.”

A referendum, officials said, could be approval for a single project that transit supporters consider high-priority or politically palatable. A entire suite of projects also could be put in front of voters.

See here for some background. The plan doesn’t exist yet, so it’s more than a little premature to speculate. The howling chaos in Washington doesn’t help, either. I’d prefer a bigger package to vote on than a smaller one, but a bigger one carries a lot more risk, as the opposition will be more intense. Still, we did pass the 2003 referendum against a pretty fierce and well-funded No effort, and I’d guess the Metro service area is more amenable to transit in general and rail in particular now than it was then. But even people who do support those things may vote against a referendum if they don’t think it gives them something they want. And even if Metro wants to put something up for a vote, there’s an argument to be made to wait till 2018 and do as much public engagement as possible beforehand. There’s a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll just have to see what they present when they have something to show us.

Texas Central withdraws its land access lawsuits

Interesting.

The private developer of a planned bullet train between Dallas and Houston has withdrawn more than a dozen lawsuits against Texas landowners that sought court orders allowing the company access to private property to survey land for the 240-mile project.

Texas Central Partners officials said they are instead going to try and have an “open dialogue” with landowners about letting the company onto their land.

“We’re stepping back and going back to conversations and taking some of the heat out of our process,” said Texas Central President Tim Keith.

Texas Central Partners is developing a 240-mile bullet train line intended to transport passengers between Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes with a stop near Bryan. The company has partnered with Japanese train operator JR Central to bring its bullet train technology to Texas. The project has drawn support from officials in Houston and Dallas but opposition from communities and landowners that are expected to be near the train’s route.

In court filings, the company argued that state law allows it to enter private property to survey land that may be used for a potential route because it is a railroad. A group called Texans Against High-Speed Rail have said the company shouldn’t be considered a railroad because it doesn’t currently operate any rail lines.

In one Harris County lawsuit, attorneys for a landowner echoed that argument. A trial on the merits of those legal arguments was set for July, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s office.

Keith said Tuesday that the company was confident it would have secured a ruling in its favor. Texas Central and landowners had already settled 21 other similar legal filings. The company said the decision to withdraw the remaining suits was largely based on the fact that it’s already reached access and land-purchase options with more than 3,000 landowners.

See here and here for some background. Seems a little weird to me, but I’ll take them at their word for now. The Chron adds some details.

The company planning high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas announced Tuesday it has reached preliminary agreements to buy property from nearly one-third of the landowners along the planned route, including half of those in two counties where vocal opposition has been strongest.

Texas Central said they have reached option agreements with owners of about 30 percent of the necessary parcels in 10 counties. The option agreements bind property owners to selling the right of way for the train, with the company paying them now for the right to purchase the land once Texas Central has final federal approvals and the funding to build the line, estimated to cost $12 billion.

“This is a significant step in the progress of the high-speed train and it reflects the positive dialogue we have had with landowners along the route,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement. “Texans see the many benefits of a system that will provide a safe, reliable and productive alternative to the state’s transportation demands.”

Texas Central said 50 percent of the parcels needed in Waller and Grimes counties are covered by the option agreements. Landowners in the two counties have been some of the most vocally opposed to the line, which they say will ruin the rural character of the area. Many also have accused the company of heavy handed tactics negotiating with land owners.

Grimes County Judge Ben Leman, chairman of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, said the concerns with how property owners were approached should make people doubt the support Texas Central claims.

“If you are a landowner and you are sitting in your house and someone comes to your door and says they have eminent domain, or you can sign this agreement and we’ll pay 5 percent down… are you going to use eminent domain and cross your fingers,” Leman said.

[…]

[Leman] predicted the legislative session will be the “next big battleground” as the company seeks to have state lawmakers affirm some of its rights to use eminent domain, including a remedy to counties that have voted not to issue any construction permits to any entity that doesn’t have eminent domain authority, if the entity is crossing a public street.

We definitely agree on the Lege being the next battleground. I’ve got my eyes open for relevant bills. Swamplot has more.

Another point about Metro and marketing

Metro receives a good report in its quadrennial audit, and also a good suggestion.

The public perception of vagrancy, loitering and even crime remains a challenge for Houston transit officials that has made its way into Metro’s new performance audit.

The audit, which Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board accepted Wednesday- a largely perfunctory approval – gave the agency positive marks in many respects but noted along with lagging fare collections and insufficient marketing that too many people consider the area’s bus and train system unsafe or unsightly.

“Metro needs to be a part of the discussion and ultimate solution regarding vagrancy, loitering, and panhandling on and around the transit system,” outside auditors wrote. “Metro should work with social service agencies, churches and the city to address this issue. The ultimate outcome of any collaboration to address this challenge could stem the loss of ridership.”

[…]

Still, for some riders – and especially nonriders – the lingering image of Metro’s public transit is one of loitering and problematic vagrancy.

“It’s just a rolling homeless shelter,” said Sek Pamyu, 44, who works downtown and occasionally rides the train to meetings.

Others said the perception is overblown.

“A lot of that is elitist, maybe even racist,” said Lyle Boatwright, 28, who frequently rides the Red Line train in downtown and Midtown. “Public transit is for everybody. …You don’t get to pick the other passengers.”

Patman agreed changing that image is important, though she stressed it is not a systemwide crisis.

“Certainly we do get feedback from our riders that it is a problem at some locations,” Patman said. “And we’re working with everyone involved to reduce that.”

Metro has improved cooperation with other city agencies, transit police chief Vera Bumpers said. A transit officer is now assigned to the homeless outreach team, and officers have increased their visibility in specific locations, such as Wheeler Transit Center, following complaints.

I’ve been a reasonably frequent bus rider over the past year or so, and I agree that this perception is overblown. The people I see on the bus are people going from point A to point B. I’m sure there are some problems, but none that I have seen. That said, if people think that there is a problem and it is a barrier to them using Metro, then Metro ought to take steps to combat it. I’ve advocated for Metro marketing itself before as a way to boost ridership, and I still think it’s a good idea. The people who use Metro are an asset to them, and so are their stories. Metro should take advantage of that.

Trump and the train

This could be interesting.

A privately-funded bullet train between Dallas and Houston and a passenger rail line connecting suburban North Texas are among a litany of transportation projects considered priorities by President Donald Trump’s administration, according to The Kansas City Star.

But what that means for the projects either financially or in a regulatory sense wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday.

The Star reported that the document doesn’t detail how the listed projects “would be funded, how the federal government prioritized these projects or any timeline for completion.” It is not known if the document is finalized or a draft, according to The Star.

Trump earlier in the day signed an executive order that aims to expedite the environmental review process of infrastructure projects, something that can often take years and cost millions of dollars.

[…]

In a statement, Texas Central said it was “pleased” to be considered a priority.

“Texans are looking for safe, reliable and productive transportation options,” the statement said. “The high-speed train answers that call for the region, state and country. We look forward to working with the new administration, moving ahead with the project’s free-market approach.”

To the extent that one believes Trump actually intends to push for an infrastructure bill (*), this is the sort of thing that would be appealing to him, and independent of that scaling back on environmental regulations may well help speed this along. That said, one should remember that Texas Central has some high profile opponents among Texas’ Republican caucus, and I doubt that they will be swayed by any of this. That said, TCR can use and will be happy to have all the help it can get. We’ll see what comes of it. The Press has more.

(*) – For what it’s worth, Democrats have their own infrastructure proposal, which differs in a few key respects from the as-yet-unspecific Trump plan. I don’t know how or if Texas Central would fit into that, and there’s a zero percent chance that it gets taken up for a vote in Congress, but it’s there if you want an eventual point of comparison.