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Bayou Greenway Initiative

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

“We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem”

Offcite points to a way forward.

We must find a way to co-exist with the bayou ecosystem, not get in its way. As Albert Pope, a professor at Rice Architecture, has pointed out in a series of proposals, most of Houston’s housing stock will be rebuilt over the next fifty years. It would make the most sense to plan that development outside floodplains. It’s a simple idea that requires a big shift in how we insure, subsidize, finance, and govern ourselves. We have to rethink our economy the way Jim Blackburn, Rice Professor in Practice and co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED), has come to understand it: ¨‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative.¨

We should push for collaborative regional planning entities in lieu of independent fiefdoms of utility districts. Texas has produced innovative approaches in the past. Galveston reinvented municipal government to raise the entire city up after the Great Storm of 1900. When subsidence started swallowing up whole neighborhoods, the entire region worked together to transition from ground to surface water. Bayou Greenways 2020 is creating the beginnings of a new backbone that marries flood mitigation, parks, transportation, ecosystems, and economic development. The proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area would provide a tourism infrastructure for private landowners and institutions that agree to preserve the natural buffers that protects our coast. Likewise, the dikes, floodgates, and seawalls we need to protect lives and industry from storm surges and rising sea levels can be designed to help not hurt wildlife and improve rather than impede public access to our bays and beaches. We should look to the lessons learned from New Orleans, where the response to Katrina exacerbated inequalities, and from the Dutch, who have developed a holistic approach to water management.

Also offering constructive suggestions – twelve of them – is Jim Blackburn:

2) We must get a handle on the projected rainfall from big storms such as Harvey as well as the simpler frontal movements such as those that generated the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods. Our current concepts of the 100-year and 500-year floods and flood plains are obsolete. We have to stop denying that our climate is changing. We have had too many big storms over the last few years to simply write them off as aberrant. They are part of a new pattern of severe storm events that will plague us for decades to come, according to climate change experts. We need to understand what we are dealing with and start giving our citizens first-class information about these issues. State and local government employees are afraid even to mention climate change because of the politics – because of fear of losing their jobs. Well, the politics need to be damned if they refuse to recognize a key element of protecting our citizens from current and future flood problems.

3) Addicks and Barker reservoirs are the best flood control investment ever made in the Houston region, combining large land areas and high levees to impound water upstream of the heart of the city. But these dams are currently in bad shape and are rated as two of the six most dangerous dams in the United States due to structural issues that are compounded by the large population protected by them. The protection and restoration of these dams is a major priority that must be taken forward. Even more important is the fact that over the 60 or more years that they have been protecting us, they have slowly been filling with dirt and sediment from stored storm water. The capacity of these reservoirs could be increased substantially by removing this accumulation, and we should do it. There is at least one new reservoir that should be constructed in northwest Harris County that can help on flooding along Cypress Creek, Bear Creek and Buffalo Bayou. It should be pursued as soon as possible, and other upstream locations should be found on virtually every stream in our region.

[…]

10) Our pattern of development has been outward from the center of the city up the watersheds of the various bayous and creeks. As such, our new upstream development has dumped increased runoff on our older downstream subdivisions and commercial structures. Inadvertently, we have flooded older neighborhoods while attempting to keep flood-control costs lower in the new ones, effectively subsidizing new development on the backs of the downstream residents. Floodplain maps have grown, and more people are in the 100-year floodplain than in the past. We must ensure policies exist that require no more runoff from new development than was the case before development.

Read the whole thing, both of them. We can choose to do things differently. It will take years to make it happen, but it can happen if we want it to.

More bayou bike trails

Nice.

Laying out the particulars for a new trail section along White Oak Bayou, Chip Place saw something out of place where the trail crossed the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near T C Jester.

It was the stairs connecting the two trails.

“Look at that,” Place said, pointing from the new stairs to the stellar view of downtown Houston. “I said ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to capture this.'”

Starting Friday, the stairs – along with two miles of fresh trail to southeast of T C Jester – are ready for runners, cyclists and others who want a new view of the area.

“It is always fun to create a park and see how people will use this,” said Place, managing director of capital programs for Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit that promotes parks in the city.

Part of the parks board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 efforts, the new segment of the White Oak Bayou Greenway runs from Studemont Street and the Heights trail to the T C Jester trail.

[…]

The new two-mile section – minus an unfinished spot below Yale Street – extends the White Oak trail to about 11 miles, making it the largest continuous portion completed thus far. By mid-2017 that will lengthen to 15 miles once key connections to downtown and the trail is extended from Antoine to the city limits. Once all of its segments are connected, Brays Bayou Greenway will be the longest of the trails at 30 miles, from the Houston Ship Channel to Eldridge in far west Houston.

“I really do believe Houston is at such an exciting point in the public realm,” said Beth White, the parks board’s president.

White, who took over the nonprofit nearly six months ago, moved to Houston encouraged by the “vast” opportunity to develop a large-scale trail system.

“All of the things that cities need to be resilient are being looked at,” she said. “Open space, alternatives in mobility, it’s all right here.”

I’ve been watching this go in – you could see the progress of the construction from the I-10 service road as you approach Studemont – and I plan to give it a ride in the near future. The one thing that is unclear to me at this time is whether it connects to the Heights trail, which among other things would connect it to downtown. There’s a separate trail that begins in front of Stude Park and takes a different route into downtown, but this new one stops a little short of that, and would need a bridge across the bayou to make a connection. It’s a good addition to the area, and will provide a non-car means of local travel for folks in the new housing being built on Studemont across from the Kroger.

City bike plan finalized

Here it comes.

Bicycling advocates – fresh off finalizing a plan for Houston’s bike future – face the challenge of getting formal city approval of their ideas as they incrementally piece together what could be a $500 million investment.

Changing attitudes, however, have proponents optimistic that most if not all of the 1,800 miles of bike lanes, trails and shared use paths will be built in the next decade.

“We are starting to get the right people in the room,” said Geoff Carleton, who consulted on the bike plan and spoke Monday before City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee. “Those conversations are taking place from Metro about transit accessibility, and the city when it designs a street is asking the right questions about the best way to use it. … those things are happening much more now.”

If fully built, the bike lanes and trails would provide an alternative to driving that’s not easily available to most Houstoninans for trips ranging from workday commutes to visiting a park on weekends. Moreso, supporters said, it will signal an important shift in the city’s commitment to keeping riders safe, lowering dependence on automobiles and reducing vehicle emissions.

“There is growing recognition that we need to rethink our mobility paradigm,” Houston Planning Department Director Patrick Walsh said.

[…]

Accomplishing all of the plan, however, will take a large investment over the next 20 years, estimated at more than $550 million based on the highest cost projects. Funding for the projects could come from the city’s street money, its share of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s 1 percent sales tax and state and federal dollars that can be spent on city infrastructure projects. Houston has trailed some of its peer cities in securing federal funds related to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

Despite the price tag, the plan has support from a host of local groups, including Bike Houston and various neighborhood groups and Houston Parks Board. Compared to billions in highway spending – a plan to widen Interstate 45 alone is estimated to cost $7 billion – the investment in better bike lanes is minimal, when incorporated into other road improvements and trail enhancements.

See here and here for the background. You can see the final report and all other information on the plan here. It’s important to remember that a lot of funding for this will come from the Bayou Greenways project and existing CIPs, and from grants from H-GAC and the federal Department of Transportation. A significant portion of the plan involves simple and inexpensive changes like restriping streets and taking lanes from low-traffic streets like Austin and Caroline downtown, in similar fashion to what was done on Lamar Street. There’s much that can be done for very little, and by adding this capacity you are giving people more non-car options for short trips, which in turn makes it a little easier for those who have to drive and park. It also makes things safer for the folks who have to get around by bike. There’s a lot to like here, now we just need to get it approved and on its way. The Press and KUHF have more.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

Bayou trails update

Coming along nicely.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative will build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along the city’s nine waterways, a $220 million effort that Mayor Annise Parker says is “one of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to work on as mayor” – and which is only now gathering steam.

“It’s a transformative project designed to string the beads of existing trail systems into an integrated whole,” Parker said, “but also designed to put accessible park and green space into every neighborhood of Houston by putting trails along all of the small rivers that cross the city.”

The ambitious plan advanced Wednesday as City Council approved $19 million for the next phase of trails in north Houston and also cleared the way for the purchase of land on which some of the trails will run.

[…]

Bayou Greenways’ construction progress has been modest thus far as the parks board designs the new trails and slogs through the dual permitting process of the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the parks board’s Catherine Butsch, as both entities have jurisdiction.

About 3.5 miles of trail have been built, mostly along White Oak Bayou, but Butsch said the pace is likely to increase sharply.

Construction is to start soon along a section of White Oak in the I-10 corridor. That follows the recent openings of a new bridge near T.C. Jester and 11th Street over White Oak, and of a new trail section from Antoine to Alabonson.

Along Brays Bayou, a trail section from Mason Park to Old Spanish Trail opened last year, and that segment will soon be extended to the University of Houston.

On Sims Bayou, construction is scheduled to start on the two trail sections at the far eastern and western edges of the city limits by year’s end, in tandem with design work on the middle sections.

Design also will start this year on two sections of trail along Greens Bayou and on a far western section of trail planned along Brays.

“When it is completed by 2020, we estimate that six out of 10 Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of one of these Bayou Greenways,” Butsch said. “That’s really enhancing access to park land. We’re really able to use our natural resources, our bayous, in a special way like no other city.”

I love this project, and I believe it will do a lot to make Houston a better place to live. We have all these bayous, we should be taking full advantage of them. A lot of the funding for this is privately raised as well, making it a better deal overall. I’m especially looking forward to the White Oak/I-10 work, but it’s great to see this happening farther out as well.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.

WhiteOakBayouPathAlabonsonAntoine

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.

[…]

Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

Flooding as election issue

I suppose this was inevitable.

As thousands of Houstonians recover from the recent storms, the flooding is emerging as a political issue. Mayoral candidates are criticizing the city’s drainage infrastructure, attacking an unfinished project along Brays Bayou – around which much of the flooding occurred – as well as ReBuild Houston, the controversial street and drainage repair program that voters approved in 2010.

Even if the long-term goals of both efforts had been met before Memorial Day, however, experts say the city still would have flooded, as no drainage system could handle the 11 inches of rain that fell overnight in Epps’ and other neighborhoods.

“The rainfall greatly exceeded any design standard for the street system: ReBuild Houston, the old systems, whatever. And the rainfall exceeded any expectation for the bayou systems to contain water,” said Mike Talbott, director of the Harris County Flood Control District. “Any time you exceed the design capacity rainfall event, you’re going to see flooding occur.”

During major downpours, swampy Houston’s first lines of defense are its streets and the underground pipes or roadside ditches alongside them. City storm sewers can send an inch or two of rain over a few hours to the bayous without water pooling in the street, but much more than that will cause road flooding – and this is by design.

The ultimate goal of the city’s current standards, said Carol Haddock, senior assistant director of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, is to contain a “100-year” rain event – in theory, the worst 1 percent of storms – within the public right of way. That means residents living on any street rebuilt since the early 2000s, when these standards were enacted, should be able to take 13.5 inches of rain in 24 hours without their homes or yards flooding, though their street and sidewalks will be underwater. It’s unclear how many streets have been fully rebuilt under the current standards, but it is certainly no quick task to replace Houston’s more than 8,000 miles of roadway.

What happened with the recent storms, however, saw some areas take nearly that much rain in half the time. Haddock said she is aware of no city that designs to such a standard.

“If everybody wanted us to be able to accommodate every rain event and keep everything open, it would cost every project we build a multiple of what we already spend,” said Wayne Klotz, president of local engineering firm Klotz and Associates and a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The passage of ReBuild Houston, a program fed largely by a drainage fee levied on property owners, did not change the city’s design standards, but Haddock said the funding it provides will improve drainage by speeding up the replacement of older streets with poor drainage.

Some areas flooded last month because the water could not get to the bayous, Haddock said – that is the city’s job, and what ReBuild is supposed to address. Other neighborhoods flooded, she said, because the bayous had insufficient capacity and broke their banks; improving those channels is the Harris County Flood Control District’s job.

“When Project Brays is done, and 20 years from now, when many of these neighborhoods have been rebuilt, I think the models would predict that we’d fare much better,” Haddock said. “There’s always the possibility that a storm event will exceed what it was designed for, whether you’re talking about pipes or streets or levies or dams. What you’re trying to do is reduce that risk as much as you can.”

These are important issues, but let’s maintain some perspective. No city is built to withstand the kind of rain we were getting without some floods occurring. Whatever you think of ReBuild Houston, we’ve got years to go and many millions of dollars to spend to get a significant number of our streets updated. Go reread that Jim Blackburn piece for some ideas of what kind of questions we should be asking our Mayoral hopefuls going forward. There are a lot of things we’d like to do and that we need to do, but we’re going to have to make a lot of hard decisions about how to prioritize them, and how to pay for them.

Council approves Memorial Park plan

Done deal.

The plan, which could see up to $300 million invested, also would restore the park’s ecosystem, which was greatly harmed in the 2011 drought, through ambitious plans to add fire suppression and irrigation systems and improve drainage to end serious erosion problems in parts of the park.

The plan was developed through months of public meetings, surveys and workshops with park users, and incorporated research from local experts on such matters as soil ecology, hydrology, archaeology, history and traffic. It was created by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.

The Uptown zone also will commit up to $120 million toward the envisioned infrastructure projects, such as drainage and parking improvements. Much of the rest will be raised from private donors by the conservancy.

As with most such master plans, the blueprint defined goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding becomes available to build the things it proposes. Next, officials will design the projects, estimate how much they will cost, and decide how and when to apply public and private dollars to them.

See here for the background. Since there was a lot of discussion regarding the price tag in the comments to that post, keep in mind that not everything in the plan may ultimately get done. In addition, as noted above, privately raised funds will be a big part of this. The Bayou Greenway Initiative, which has a key role in the plan, intends to raise as much as they borrow in the bond initiative. Whatever the city winds up paying will come from the capital budget. It would be nice to know how much that is, but we’re not going to until the construction projects actually start. And again, it would be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, because this affects them and they can affect this. Hair Balls has more.

What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

Council is set to vote on the Memorial Park Conservancy plan, whether you like it or not.

Joe Turner does not want more drawings gathering dust on a shelf.

Houston’s parks and recreation director inherited more than a few unrealized master plans when he was hired 10 years ago. Now he’s shepherding the most complex one yet, a detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain Memorial Park, the largest and most heavily used green space in the city.

Thomas Woltz describes his blueprint as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help save a green space three times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It doesn’t lack for ambition, restoring the ecosystem, shifting several ballfields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two dramatic land bridges spanning Memorial Drive that reconnects the park’s major sections.

“We feel like we’ve enlarged the park without any land acquisition,” said Woltz, a partner in one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms, Nelson Byrd Woltz.

But it’s an election year, and vested interests around the park are taking aim at new ideas they don’t like. Tuesday is the last day for public comment on the plan.

Then, on Wednesday Mayor Annise Parker and City Council will be asked to vote on the plan, 18 months after they unanimously approved its creation. The plan was created through a partnership of Turner’s department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.

[…]

In addition to the land bridges, the plan’s most ambitious ideas involve infrastructure, including fire suppression and irrigation systems, stormwater management and a 30 percent increase in parking spaces. Those projects would happen first. They fall within the realm of the TIRZ, which by law can support infrastructure only with the tax money it collects.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Woltz and Sarah Newbery, Uptown’s park project manager, have said the tab might be $300 million, but last week they were loath to use any figures.

Newbery said the plan simply tries to define goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding become available to build the things it proposes. If council approves the plan, the team soon will address where and how to begin, calculate costs and put every item through “a measured and thoughtful public process,” she said.

See here and here for some background on the plan; see here, here, and here for background on the TITZ part. The plan has its share of controversy, from the land bridge to the parking plan to the bayou erosion remediation. This Hair Balls post about yesterday’s Council public session covers a lot of the concerns. I’m generally favorable, though I share a lot of the concerns about the bayou. Be that as it may – you know what’s coming, right? – there’s nothing in this story to indicate what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this. Memorial Park is a crown jewel, and this is a huge undertaking that will happen on the next Mayor’s watch. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if they approve or disapprove, and what their concerns are?

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

Neighborhood Greenways

I really like this idea.

Complete Streets means that our local governments prioritize the safety and comfort of all a street’s users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Fixing our streets will be a long-term project, but if we head in the right direction, we will have neighborhoods for our grandchildren to live healthier, happier and more prosperous lives.

Now is the time to make the next big push.

It’s time to build on the Bayou Greenways network, the remarkable trail system that brought together Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, the Houston Parks Board, voters and private funders. Bayou Greenways simultaneously improve flood control, add green space, and provide safe, attractive hike-and-bike trails. If we connect Bayou Greenways to other trails — including the Utility Line Easement Hike and Bike Trail concept — the Houston region will have a massive large-scale grid allowing safe long-distance trips.

That will all be terrific once you’re on that network, on one of those trails. But even if the trail network expands radically, before we can use it, we have to get there from our homes.

The Houston region needs something new — not just Bayou Greenways, but Neighborhood Greenways that would connect those trails to all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport.

[…]

Houston could add 200 miles of Neighborhood Greenways for $50 million — roughly the same cost as adding two lanes to one mile of freeway. We could connect most of the Houston region’s dense urban core — the Inner Loop and the same-sized area just west of the 610 Loop — with safe walking, biking, and driving infrastructure for less than 5 percent of one year’s regional transportation spending budget. For about 10 percent of that regional budget, we could connect most of the city of Houston. That small investment would create a Houston that is dramatically more family-friendly for generations to come.

See here for a full presentation of Neighborhood Greenways. The basic idea is to use side streets as connectors to bike trails and the like, with some modifications to these side streets to make them safer and more attractive to bikes and pedestrians. It’s another way to extend the already-growing network of hike and bike trails, since in order to take advantage of them you have to get to them in the first place. It’s a concept that’s being used in other cities, like Portland and Seattle. The cost of all this is fairly small, and there are federal funds available. What’s not to like? As I’ve said before, there’s no one big solution to reducing traffic and adding capacity. There are a lot of smaller solutions that together add up to much more. It’s up to us to take advantage of these smaller solutions.

Creating a bike plan for the city

Moving forward.

It would be hard to argue that bicycling in Houston is not on the upswing, with many millions of dollars approved and numerous policies passed in recent years, all aimed at welcoming and protecting riders.

City planners and cycling advocates see significant gaps in this progress, however, from uncertainty about the kind of cyclists Houston wants to serve to questions about what projects should take priority on which streets.

To fill these holes, city planners in the coming weeks will launch a $500,000 effort to produce a citywide bicycling plan, the first such comprehensive effort since 1994. Houston has set aside $100,000 for the plan, which will be led by outside consultants, and is raising the rest from private partners, said Pat Walsh, director of the city Planning and Development Department.

“This project is long overdue,” Walsh said. “The city has changed much in 20 years, the support and use of bicycling has increased significantly in 20 years, and we feel it’s time to revisit our planning for bicycle activities.”

[…]

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, which is helping fund the planning process, said the initiative is a criticial step in the city’s evolution and, ideally, in the evolution of individual cyclists’ mindsets. Most cyclists today ride recreationally, he said, but safer routes would let more people ride comfortably around their neighborhood, then discover it is feasible to run a few errands or even to commute by bike.

National data suggest perhaps 1 percent of riders brave traffic, regardless of the conditions, he said, about 7 percent ride a bit and would like to ride more, and about 60 percent say they want to ride more but don’t feel safe doing so. This last group should be the main target of any policy study, Payne said.

“It’s about addressing the safety issue and about having separate bikeways so that people have both the perception of safety but also the reality of greater physical separation from cars,” he said. “We need to develop infrastructure that people 8 years old to 80 years old feel comfortable using. It’s not just about this aggressive, fast-paced cyclist, who’s typically a middle-aged man, white guy, affluent. We’re trying to meet the needs of a wide range of society.”

The general idea, Payne said, is to use the Bayou Greenways trails, which typically run east-west, and future trails envisioned along electric utility corridors, which often run north-south, as bike highways.

As high-speed, congested city streets are due to be rebuilt, protected bike lanes may be added. And on neighborhood streets, with slower speeds and fewer cars, cyclists could get striped paths similar to those on city streets today. However, Payne said, the paths ideally would be much wider, in line with 5-foot national standards, and better maintained.

Because these on-street improvements will take many years, Walsh said, part of the planning effort also will seek to identify “low-hanging fruit” – quick, cheap improvements with potentially high impact.

See here for the background. The main goal is to promote safety, largely via BikeHouston’s Goal Zero Fatalities, but also by the continued improvement of off-road bike trails, which will be getting a major boost in the coming years. Houston is a much more bike-friendly city than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The more we can get people to swap cars for bikes for short trips, the better our roads and our air will be going forward. I look forward to seeing how this progresses.

Heights bike trail connection update

Good news from Swamplot:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

OVER THANKSGIVING weekend city workers opened a portion of the proposed hike-and-hike trail that will one day link downtown and Acres Homes.

Work began last October on this new section, one that heads west from the MKT hike-and-bike trail’s former official western terminus at Lawrence Park, under the N. Shepherd Dr. and N. Durham Dr. overpasses, and over White Oak Bayou, west to Cottage Grove and north towards an eventual link with the existing White Oak Bayou trail.

This link legitimizes an unsanctioned though fairly popular “ninja route” long used by off-trail cyclists, who had been pedaling the gravel path from the park to a rickety, burned-out White Oak Bayou railway trestle known to as the “Bridge of Death,” seen below in a 2012 photo.

Click those links above, and see also here for the background. The last bit isn’t quite done yet, but this is some good progress. I look forward to checking it out sometime after the holidays when things are a bit less hectic.

What’s on the agenda for Mayor Parker in her third term

Now that Mayor Parker has been safely re-elected, with a better-than-expected margin, what does she plan to do from here?

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

A triumphant Parker on Tuesday lauded her “decisive” victory but quickly shifted her focus to the coming two years, listing her third-term priorities as jobs, economic development, rebuilding streets and drainage, and financial accountability.

“There are no quick fixes. We’re rebuilding Houston for the decades, and we’re doing it right,” she said. “My election is over, but the work is going to get much tougher. … The next two years starts tonight.”

Parker had said for weeks she expected to avoid a runoff, and lately has acted the part, saying Monday she intended immediately to place controversial items before the City Council.

An ordinance targeting wage theft should be on the Nov. 13 agenda, she said, with a measure restricting payday and auto title lenders shortly to follow. Both items were discussed by council committees earlier this year before disappearing in favor of bland agendas during the campaign.

The council also should vote on a controversial item rewriting regulations for food trucks before year’s end, Parker said.

She said she also wants to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to an item recently passed in San Antonio that prohibited bias against gay and transgender residents in city employment, contracting and appointments, and in housing and places of public accommodation.

Parker also has said she wants to expand curbside recycling service to every home in Houston, to finish an effort to reduce chronic homelessness, and to give Houston voters a chance to change the city’s term-limits structure, likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. She singled out homelessness and the Bayou Greenways initiative, a voter-approved effort to string trails along all the city’s bayous, Tuesday night.

Parker also has highlighted pending projects: the city is halfway through moving its crime lab from the Houston Police Department to an independent lab; voters’ narrow approval of a joint city-county inmate processing center on Tuesday will let the city shutter its two aging jails.

The mayor twice has failed to persuade the Texas Legislature to give her local negotiating authority with the city’s firefighter pension system; she will get another crack at it in 2015.

Another reform Parker said she wants to tackle is increasing water conservation in Houston, saying “we are one of the most profligate users of water of any city in Texas, and that has to change.”

A lot of this should be familiar. The wage theft ordinance was brought up in August to a skeptical Council committee, and the Mayor promised to bring it up on October 23. Payday lending is a to do items due to legislative inaction. The call for a more comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance was a recent addition that came in the wake of San Antonio passing its more muscular NDO. The crime lab and closure of the city jails are long-term projects that will move forward. It will be interesting to see where Council is on some of these, and it may be better for a couple of them to wait until the runoffs resolve themselves and bring them up next year. Finally, on the subject of water usage, there’s a lot we could do to affect that.

The one cautionary note I would strike is on term limits. You know how I feel about term limits, so I’m not going to go into that. My concern is that this necessarily means a change to the city charter, and that implies the possibility of a larger can of worms being opened. Which, maybe Mayor Parker would welcome, I don’t know. I personally have a hard time shaking the feeling that the goal of this exercise is to curtail the power of the Mayor one way or another – I have a hard time seeing us move to a City Manager form of government, but things like giving Council members the power to propose agenda items are in play. Which, again, may be something the Mayor wants to discuss, and even if it isn’t may be a good thing for the rest of us to talk about. I’ve said I’m open to the conversation, and I am. Doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about the possible ways it could go.

One more thing:

Parker said Tuesday she would not be a candidate for any office in 2016.

That was made in the context of speculation that the Mayor’s current agenda for Council might presage a run for statewide office. I don’t know what the Mayor’s plans are for life post-Mayorship, but I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that of course she wouldn’t be a candidate for office in 2016. What office would she run for? The only statewide positions are Railroad Commissioner and judicial seats, and unless she wants to move out west and run against Steve Radack, the only county office that might fit would be Tax Assessor. The question to ask is whether she might be a candidate for office in 2018, and even I would have to admit that’s way too far off to really care about right now. Let’s see how these next two years go, and we’ll figure it out from there.

Bayou Greenways project moving along

Work is underway, land is being acquired, and money is being raised.

Now, the Houston Parks Board and its public partners hope to revive some of the city’s natural treasures through Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile trail system that, once complete, will wind along the bayous long seen as an interruption to Houston’s urban sprawl.

The initiative is at the heart of a bond package approved by voters last November that will provide $100 million in matching funds to double the number of trails to link existing park space and neighborhoods along the city’s many bayous.

While other bayou improvement projects in recent years have focused on public art, cafes and festival space, the Greenways initiative is about trails, native grasses and flood-resilient trees.

“This is very simple,” said [Roksan] Okan-Vick, president of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board that is leading the public-private project. “We will commit to keep it as natural as possible and meander a sensitively designed, single line of trail that connects to the neighborhoods whenever possible.”

[…]

As opportunities arise to buy grasslands or wooded lots, Okan-Vick said, up to 1,200 acres of new, small nature parks could jut from the trails.

She pointed to a city map with yellow ovals dotted over stretches of six bayous, marking the Greenways projects slated for next year. They include trails along White Oak Bayou between Antoine and Hollister, as well as connecting Brays Bayou trails between Mason Park and the University of Houston.

Another 21 red ovals highlighted areas where land must be acquired or trails built before the 2020 deadline.

The nonprofit has already acquired land along the bayous to complete 20 miles of the 80-mile trail expansion, breaking ground earlier this year on three smaller projects along Brays and White Oak bayous.

That last paragraph refers to the MKT to White Oak trail connection, which will connect two existing bike trails. The Parks Board is about 60% of the way towards raising its goal of $115 million by 2020, which will be matched by funds from the city that were approved in last year’s election. Fifty million of the funds raised by the Parks Board come from the Kinder Foundation, but they with a condition that Council agreed to last week.

The Kinder Foundation is poised to donate $50 million to the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative to connect Houston parks and double the length of the city’s public trails, but there’s a catch. The City Council first must turn over maintenance of the park lands to a nonprofit because of concerns that the city will not adequately maintain the newly developed properties.

The council is expected to approve the agreement partnering the city with the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, which would manage the maintenance of bayou trails with public funds.

The move is, in part, intended to dispel concerns from private donors who worry whether the city will have enough revenue and political support for the proper upkeep of the signature trail system once it is completed.

[…]

Supporters of the greenways project say the agreement before the council will provide assurance to taxpayers and donors that future city leaders cannot undercut their vision by simply moving or slashing city maintenance funds.

“Parks departments have tended to bear the brunt of tough times,” said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer. “This creates a dedicated fund that is more resilient.”

The legal agreement is structured differently from the Buffalo Bayou or Discovery Green projects, but the practical effects are similar.

Under the proposed arrangement, the city agrees to pay the park board up to $10 million a year for maintenance. Although the nonprofit likely will hire private companies and Harris County Flood Control to do some work, the city parks department would be the preferred contractor for the bulk of it, essentially bringing much of the funding back to city coffers.

Additionally, the agreement includes an annual 20 percent contingency fund the board can use for capital improvement projects, such as installing new lights or replacing aging trails, or for disaster recovery after flooding or hurricanes. The board would be required to present an annual report to the City Council on its plans and return any contingency money not spent within the year, Icken said.

If everything goes to plan, the city eventually will make money off the deal. An in-house analysis found that by 2020, when the trails are projected to be complete, the city would be collecting $20 million to $30 million more in property tax revenue than it is today because the improved bayous are expected to raise nearby property values faster.

Council did approve the agreement, so here we are. I’m excited about what this will mean for the city. Houston’s national reputation has improved considerably in recent years, but we’re still considered a flat and visually unappealing place, usually compared unfavorably to cities with hills and more varied terrain like Austin and San Antonio. I figure a project like this can go a long way towards dispelling the idea that there’s not much to look at in Houston beyond the skylines. Swamplot and Houston Politics have more.

Heights-area bike trails to be linked

Excellent news.

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

Houston’s expanding trail system will soon gain a new leg in the greater Heights area.

The addition will be part of Bayou Greenways 2020, a $215 million project aimed at creating a continuous network of hike-and-bike trails and parks along the city’s 10 major bayous.

“This is just one critical piece that will be a great help to the Heights area and the White Oak Bayou trail system,” said Heights resident Kevin Shanley, a former president of the White Oak Preservation Association.

The current trail along White Oak Bayou originally ran from 11th Street north to Watonga. As it grew in popularity, it was extended north from Watonga to Antoine. The expansion was completed last year.

In addition, a downstream section has been added from Stude Park to the University of Houston-Downtown campus.

Also in place is the Heights Hike & Bike Trail, which runs along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line in the Heights from south of 11th Street near Eureka across the Heights community.

The planned section of trail, 1.35 miles, will connect the Heights segment to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail. The project will include replacing a burnt-out bridge over White Oak Bayou. Groundbreaking on this section will take place this fall, Shanley said. The work could be done by fall 2014.

“When the first leg is complete, you’ll be able to ride from (the University of Houston-Downtown) all the way to Antoine,” he said.

Ultimately, the trail will extend much further west/northwest than that, but it’s the connection between the MKT (Heights) and White Oak trails that specifically interests me. I wrote about this two years ago in response to an earlier story by Marty Hajovsky about the effort to link these trails. In the embedded image above, it’s the purple line that represents what is to be built. Making that connection will do a lot to expand bike transit in this area, and I’m delighted to see it happen.

One of the many nice things about these trails is that for the most part they are off the streets and separated from traffic, which makes riding on them quite safe. There are places where the MKT and Nicholson trails in the Heights do cross streets, and in some places those crossings are a bit hazardous. In an earlier entry, Hajovsky wrote about efforts by the neighborhood to mitigate the dangers at these crossings.

Last month, the HHA board sent a letter to District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, Mayor Annise Parker and other city officials calling for safety improvements at six locations where the Nicholson/SP and MKT Rails to Trails bike trails cross major streets. For those of us who use those paths regularly, frequently with kids, as well as those of us who cross those paths in cars regularly (raising hands as I’m included in both of these groups), this would be a major improvement.

The six locations were identified in an independent traffic engineering study obtained by the Heights Association. According to a report in the HHA newsletter that goes out to members, the group claims that the changes should “enhance the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians without significant delays to motorists.” Here’s an excerpt from that newsletter:

The study recommends (1) installation of pedestrian hybrid beacons (“HAWK lights”) where the trail crosses Heights Boulevard, Yale, West 11th, West 19th, and West 20th; (2) installation of in-roadway lighting where the trail crosses White Oak, and (3) enhanced traffic signals and pavement markings at all six crossings. We note that the City has recently installed “bike crossing” pavement markings on the roadway approaches to the MKT intersections at 7th and Yale, 11th and Nicholson, and Columbia and White Oak.

Driving and riding over those six sites frequently, the safety problems are obvious. At West 19th, the Nicholson/SP trail splits from a single trail north of West 19th, to a split trail on both sides of the street to the south. It is so common to see children on bicycles, jogger or walkers darting across the road there to avoid oncoming traffic.

And since the bike trail covers what once were railroad tracks, the trail is on something of a rise in the street at all six of these locations. That makes the bike path hard to make out for oncoming drivers, whose cars are already “at pace” along all six of those streets. On white Oak and West 19th, with the shops, restaurants and bars, there are plenty of distractions already, further endangering trail users.

I personally would rank the intersections at Yale and 11th as the most dangerous because they’re the busiest and fastest-moving. Heights is basically two separate one-way streets, and I find that a lot easier to cross safely, and there isn’t as much traffic on 19th and 20th in my experience. The HAWK signals are still a good idea for all the locations – I’d like one installed at that White Oak crossing, too – but if I had to prioritize them, that’s how I’d do it. Houstonia has more.

Full speed ahead for Parks By You

Excellent.

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with the Houston Parks Board to tackle the ambitious trails plan voters approved in a $166 million bond issue last November.

The Bayou Greenways 2020 project fulfills a century-old vision first laid out by urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912, with a $205 million, 160-mile connected networks of citywide trails. As the name implies, the goal is to finish the work in 7 years.

For a sense of where the trails are going, check out this map.

[…]

The Houston Parks Board has committed to raising $105 million to accompany the $100 million from the bond issue (the other $66 million is for other projects), and already has raised $20.3 million. Parks board director Roksan Okan-Vick said bulldozers will start moving in a few months, starting along White Oak Bayou.

“This is a transformational project,” Okan-Vick said. “It will change the way we think about our city and change the way others view and think about our city.”

I can’t wait. Here’s more from the Mayor’s press release.

Mayor Annise Parker, the Houston Parks Board and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) announced the start of the $205 million Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative designed to create a 150-mile greenway system within the city limits. The project is a result of the 2012 proposition B bond election passed this past November with overwhelming voter support (68% voting margin).

“Thank you Houston! Because of your support the Bayou Greenways 2020 project will create a 150-mile system of parks and trails within the city limits on the banks of our bayous,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This project is truly a partnership project with city, county, nonprofits, businesses and many more interested parties joining together to connect trails and parks. Bayou Greenways 2020 demonstrates our combined commitment to parkland and greenspace that has been shown repeatedly to enhance our quality of life and competitiveness here in Houston. This project truly showcases Houston’s can-do attitude.”

[…]

“This is the largest urban park project in the nation; but, the beauty of it relies on its simplicity,” said Roksan Okan-Vick, Executive Director of the Houston Parks Board. “Our mission is to secure the equitable distribution of parkland for our entire region, and these bayous have no boundaries, connecting neighbor to neighbor, and homes to businesses throughout our area. We are so grateful to be a part of this historic effort by this administration.”

The completion of Bayou Greenways 2020 fulfills a 100-year-old vision presented by urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912. His vision to unite the city with grand greenspaces along the bayous will come into being by creating 150 miles of continuous and accessible parks and trails along the major bayous within the city. Those bayous reflect Houston diversity and crisscross the entire region. They include: Brays Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, Greens Bayou, Halls Bayou, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. In addition, Clear Creek and the San Jacinto River are included in this project. Bayou Greenways 2020 will be completed in multiple phases over seven years (expected to be completed in 2020) and will positively impact every council district.

Today’s agreement also provides for transparency and accountability. All construction plans, trail alignments and design of trails and/or trail related facilities are subject to HPARD approval. All construction contracts are subject to approval by City of Houston Legal and General Services Departments. A reliable long-term maintenance agreement between the City of Houston and the Houston Parks Board is also envisioned, and will establish reliable long term funding sources for ongoing maintenance of the Bayou Greenways 2020 trail system. This agreement will be negotiated between the City of Houston and the Houston Parks Board and presented to City Council for approval no later than December 31, 2013, with implementation set by July 1, 2014. Contractors will comply with MWSBE requirements according to Chapter 15 of City Code.

This document has more details and maps of the project locations.

This is going to be awesome. No city in America has anything quite like this. If you want a sneak peek at the White Oak construction, go here to sign up for a short walking tour of a key part of it on July 20.

Bike trails bill signed

CenterPoint rights of way

CenterPoint rights of way

The Chron has a brief blurb about Rick Perry signing the bill that will allow the CenterPoint rights of way in Harris County to be used as hike and bike trails. See here for the background, and here for a map of the two big rights of way that are in question; the map is embedded in this post as well. Compare this map to that of the Bayou Greenways, which will also have bike trails built along them in places where they don’t currently exist. The bayous run almost entirely east-west, while the CenterPoint rights of way are north-south. It’s easy to see the benefit of having them added to the hike and bike trail network, as they will provide connections between trails, all of which will be off-road. It’s sweet to finally clear a path for this, as it were, and to do so in a way that didn’t require sacrificing all notions of liability. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to be done – we’re probably three to five years away from seeing this completed – but this bill was a necessary first step, and the Houston bond referendum that was passed last year will provide an immediate boost. It’s a big deal, and another great amenity for the city and the county. Kudos to all for getting it done.

Bike trails bill

A bill that will clear the way for bike trails to be built on CenterPoint utility rights of way in Harris County has passed both chambers in the Lege and now awaits Rick Perry’s signature.

“We are really, really pleased to have finally put the ball across the goal line,” [author Rep. Jim] Murphy said. “Now, we can start building these trails that are sorely needed at a fraction of the cost.”

Though CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said there are 923 miles of right of way in the county, including 410 in the city of Houston, Murphy said about 100 miles run under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails. Brad Parker, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which helped negotiate the compromise bill, said there are 142 such miles of local right of way available.

“If you think about our bayou system, they run west to east, not a whole lot of north-south,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Using utility easements will allow us to vastly expand the opportunities for hike and bike trails and put some really critical connectors north-south.”

Houston voters last fall approved $100 million in bonds to expand the city’s trail system along bayous, to be combined with private and grant funds as the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative.

“What is so important about this is (that) these, along with the bayous, will serve as our bicycle interstates,” said cyclist Tom McCasland, director of the Harris County Housing Authority and former lobbyist for the Houston Parks Board. “For those people who don’t want us out on the busy roads, this is the answer. Let us ride these, and then we’ll jump to the side roads to get to our final destinations.”

Houston Parks Board Executive Director Roksan Okan-Vick said the bill would help put under-utilized land to good use. She said there is much to be done, however, from signing agreements with CenterPoint and determining which utility corridors make sense to funding the trails.

[…]

Clark Martinson, a cyclist and general manager of the Energy Corridor Management District, said his group’s plan for west Houston includes a north-south utility corridor west of Beltway 8 that would go from Brays Bayou all the way into Bear Creek Park.

“There’s an amazing number of people that are riding the existing trails. This just opens up safer routes for more neighborhoods,” Martinson said. “With these utility corridors, we’ll be able to tie in neighborhoods that are north of I-10. It gives closer-to-home, safe routes for families, too, not just the commuters.”

Tom Compson, of Bike Houston, said the extension of a trail along a north-south utility corridor that parallels the railroad tracks through Memorial Park and the Galleria would allow a safer route for Galleria bike commuters, keeping him from “taking my life in my hands” in the bike lane on Wesleyan.

“It’s very encouraging,” Compson said. “I don’t think you could find a bike advocate that would be opposed to it.”

The bill in question is HB200; see here and here for the background. The main question had been the amount of liability that CenterPoint would face for allowing this use of their rights-of-way, and in the end I think a reasonable balance was struck. There are a bunch of these throughout the county, and they’re all fairly wide swaths of green land on which the big transmission towers sit. It makes a whole lot of sense to use them for this purpose, and the timing is excellent after the passage of the bond issue last year. We’re still a ways away from anything actually getting built, but this is an important hurdle to clear, and I expect we’ll begin to see some plans and some activity in the next few months. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Interview with Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

It’s bonds and more bonds this week, as we discuss the remaining referenda on the ballot. First up is the city of Houston bond package, which by law will be broken out into five separate propositions for your approval. Proposition B, the one having to do with parks and recreation, is easily the highest profile issue among them, but all five are important and worth your time to consider. I had the opportunity to discuss these issues with Mayor Annise Parker, and you can hear the conversation below, but before I get to that, the Mayor references several web pages in her answers, which are as follows:

Mayor’s Fiscal Responsibility page
Capital Improvement Plan Web Application
Information on the City Bond Referendum and Proposed Charter Amendments
Assessment of Facility Needs

One more thing to note before we get to the main event: As the Mayor says in her opening answer, each referendum is just about granting approval to the city to borrow money. It doesn’t mean the city will necessarily wind up borrowing the full amount, especially for the Parks By You item, since the city is essentially providing matching funds for private capital. If the private fundraisers fall short of their $100 million goal, it’s that much less that the city will borrow. With that out of the way, here’s the interview:

Mayor Parker MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Making the case for the parks

Ed Wulfe advocates for the parks-related referendum on the ballot.

Over the past several months, multiple organizations dedicated to Houston’s Bayou Greenway Initiative and a new organization, ParksByYou, have been uniting parks and bayou enthusiasts. Their work aims to mobilize all of us to vote “yes” for Proposition B on the ballot, a parks bond referendum that will pump $166 million into our parks and bayou properties – all of it targeted at real construction and capital improvements. While $66 million will be used to make critical improvements to existing neighborhood parks all across the city, $100 million of those funds will be matched with private dollars to finally close the gaps along our bayou system and create continuous parks and trails. In less than a decade, with these bond dollars, Houston will have more than 150 miles of trails and a park system like no other in America. Our bayous are Houston’s unique natural feature and will be improved, enhanced and expanded, rather than paved and neglected as in the past. Proposition B is a way to create parks and green space for all of us to experience and enjoy with no increase in taxes.

Our bayous meander through almost every neighborhood, and by building a system of connected linear parks along their banks, we will ensure that a majority of Houstonians will have access to green space within just a few miles of work or school or home. It’s been shown that regular physical activity reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases, and there is strong evidence showing that people exercise more when they have convenient access to parks and recreational opportunities. A vote for the parks bond will contribute to the overall health of Houston’s population while simultaneously enhancing our quality of life.

Parks along our bayous will inspire and energize economic development, increase property values, improve flood control and help manage water quality. The desirability of property located near parks and green space is high because people are attracted to inviting and pleasurable places to play and exercise, resulting in stronger and more active neighborhoods with appealing places for people of all ages.

Here’s the Parks By You website, if you want to learn more. As Wulfe notes, there are five city of Houston propositions on the ballot, each relating to bonds for different purposes. In addition to the parks referendum, there’s one each for public safety, “general government” which I believe has to do with the Solid Waste department, libraries, and housing. I think it’s an easy call to vote for them all, though only the parks issue has an active campaign promoting it. I’ll have an interview next week with Mayor Parker to discuss what these bonds are for and what they will do.

The city’s bond package

And here’s Mayor Parker’s bond proposal for November.

Mayor Annise Parker is unveiling a $410 million package of proposed bond measures for the November ballot that will not require a tax increase.

She proposes five bond measures. The purposes and amounts:

  1. Public safety: $144 million
  2. Health, sanitation and general government: $63 million
  3. Affordable housing: $15 million
  4. Library: $28 million
  5. Parks: $160 million

“I realize many Houstonians are still recovering from the economic downturn,” Parker said in a press release. “That is why it was important to me to present a plan that does not require a tax increase. It is also the smallest bond proposal in more than 30 years. It is a fiscally responsible approach that will create jobs and improve public safety, infrastructure and quality of life.”

Council cannot vote on the measures today. Parker will bring the measures back on a future agenda for a formal vote by council to put them on the ballot.

You can see full details in the Mayor’s press release and the Chron story, which notes that each of these five items will be its own ballot proposition. Parks funding includes the Bayou Greenway project, which merits a couple of paragraphs in the release. Not all of the funds from this package has been designated to specific projects – some $116 million worth will be decided by Council, which ought to be interesting. Anyone want to guess how big District A’s piece of the pie will wind up?

The day before this came out, City Controller Ronald Green griped to the Chron that he had not been kept in the loop about the details of the bond package, and that the numbers he had been hearing sounded too low to him.

Green said he has heard that the package of bond measures will total approximately $400 million.

“I still believe we need to go out for more bond authorization. I think $400 million is not adequate to meet the needs of the city,” Green said. “If you’re going to ask somebody to vote for bond referendums, you need to be realistic about what it’s going to take to meet a major CIP (capital improvement project) initiative.”

The city should take advantage of low interest rates and ask for $600 million to $800 million, even if that requires a tax increase, Green said.

As we now know, Green’s information about the size of the bond package was accurate. Part of the reason for this is specified in the Mayor’s press release:

In addition to being the smallest bond referendum in 30 years, the mayor’s proposal is approximately $135 to $350 million less than the three previous bond referendums Houston voters have considered in the last 15 years. This is due to ReBuild Houston’s pay-as-you-go approach, which provides approximately $125 million of debt free street and drainage improvements annually. In the absence of ReBuild Houston, the bond request would be larger.

Controller Green’s point about taking advantage of historically low interest rates is certainly meritorious, but one can easily imagine the caterwauling that would result from a proposal that necessitated even a small tax increase. Given how contentious these things have become lately, I can certainly understand taking this approach. It’s also probably why I got a press release just a few hours after the original one announcing the bond package’s details that announced the formation of the campaign to support the package’s passage:

The Vote for Houston’s Future Committee is co-chaired by Philamena Baird, Pam Gardner, Melinda B. Hildebrand, City Councilmember Melissa Noriega and Barron and Lisa Wallace. Finance chairs are Robert Collie, Jr., Jason Few and Neil Thomas. Dean Corgey is the campaign treasurer and Billy Briscoe is the campaign manager.

“In these tough economic times, Houston is leading the way – creating more jobs, borrowing less, and improving the quality of life for all Houstonians for years to come,” said Campaign Co-Chair Pam Gardner, former President of Business Operations for the Houston Astros. “We urge Houstonians to vote for the City Bonds in November.”

The Committee has set up a website: www.JobsParksSafety.com. The site will allow visitors to get detailed information on the bond proposal, sign up for an e-mail newsletter or contact the campaign.

We’ll see what kind of opposition materializes. Campos and Stace have more.

Connecting bike trails

Marty Hajovsky makes a keen observation.

Bike trails in the Houston area are all-too-frequently a joke at best and dangerous, hazardous, life-threatening situations at the worst.  I’m sorry, but painting a solid white line in the drain gutter on a busy street and calling it a bike lane may get the city federal funds for such things, but no matter how you look at it, this is not a safe and economical way to bike commute around Houston.  It may be a boon for the surgeon community who get paid to stitch these people who get injured there back together again, but when i see one of those things, I feel like John Rhys-Davies in Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Very dangerous. You go first.”)

But the worst part to me is that this situation obscures the fact that the city has some very functional and safe trails in the Houston Bikeways Program, many of them in fact.  The Katy/MKT trail and the White Oak Bayou trail are two near to and in the Houston Heights that spring immediately to mind. I have recently ridden them both and have long been wishing that somehow or other they would hook up.  Enter the Bayou Greenway Intiative.

For those of you not familiar with this little problem.  The White Oak Bayou Trail extends from Watonga in the northwest all the way along White Oak Bayou to the corner of Ella and West 11th in Timbergrove and back. Along the way, it dips under a few streets, stops at others, but most importantly, is not crossed by unregulated traffic. However, it abruptly ends at Ella and West 11th.  The Katy/MKT trail, on the other hand, starts at what would be West 7th (which doesn’t exist over there) at Lawrence Park just next to the North Shepherd Street bridge and continues all the way to UH-Downtown.

So how could they hook up? Look at this Google map right here.  Through an open fence gate the other day, I walked from the Katy/MKT trail at Lawrence Park along the old railroad bed west to White Oak Bayou.  Then I followed the bayou along all the way to West 11th and the White Oak Bayou Trail.  Not once did I encounter a single impediment that would prevent the construction of a tiny spur to connect the two paths. All it takes is will.

The Bayou Greenway Initiative calls for the construction of just such a connector.

I didn’t quite follow what Marty meant when I first read this, but after emailing him and zooming in to the correct location on that Google map, I figured it out. Here’s what he’s talking about:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

I think he meant to say “TC Jester” and not Ella, but never mind that. The red line in the lower right is the end of the MKT bike trail, which is labeled “Height Bike Trail” by Google Maps. The blue line is the White Oak Bayou trail. The purple line connecting them is more or less the path Marty walked, which as he says is completely off the street grid.

I recently got a bicycle and have started riding it around the neighborhood. (I hadn’t owned a bike in nearly 30 years. Fortunately, that old expression about something being “just like riding a bike” is spot on.) I prefer the trails when possible, for the same reasons given above, and my reaction the first time I rode the MKT trail to its terminus at Shepherd was “They should make this thing go farther”. I’m delighted to hear that this is in the plans – as Marty says, it’s a no-brainer. I doubt I’ll ever ride it all the way out to Jersey Village (!), which is as far as it will eventually extend, but it’s nice to know that I could.

I should add, if you’ve never taken the MKT trail, you really should, whether by bike or on foot. Between Yale and Shepherd is a part of the Heights you’ve probably never seen. On my blogging to-do list is to take my camera with me on a ride and shoot some pictures of the sights. I have this slightly grand photography project in mind that I’ll never have the time to do, but maybe on a slow day I’ll create a Tumblr site for it and see if I can convince some other suckers bike-riding neighborhood enthusiasts to contribute to it.

Park ambitions

Dream big.

Two of Houston’s heaviest-hitting business groups — the Greater Houston Partnership and the Quality of Life Coalition — are promoting an ambitious master plan to develop land along 10 of Harris County’s major bayous, creating an enormous system of “linear parks.”

With a potential half-billion-dollar price tag, the Houston Bayou Greenway Initiative would include almost 250 miles of new or upgraded hike-and-bike trails, not to mention canoe trails and more than 50 new parks that would do double duty as flood-retention basins or wetlands that improve the quality of the city’s groundwater.

“Two hundred and fifty miles!” exults developer Ed Wulfe, who represents both the Partnership and the Quality of Life Coalition. “That’s the distance from here to Dallas!”

The Bayou Greenway would be the biggest parks initiative in Houston’s history, says Tom Bacon, president of the Houston Parks Board, and would add desperately needed greenspace to neighborhoods widely spread across Harris County.

How much would it all cost? Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the Houston Parks Board, offers a rough estimate in “big round numbers:” $255 million to acquire land for the trails, build them and landscape them with native trees and plants, plus $240 million to add the 50 parks.

The Greenway would be a patchwork of projects carried out by hundreds of parties: city, county, state and federal agencies; nonprofits; municipal utility districts; Tax-Increment Reinvestment Zones; neighborhood groups; private developers; and private philanthropists.

I love the sound of this, I’m just not clear on what it means. The main question, of course, is “How will this be paid for?” For that,we go to the Houston Parks Board:

The Greater Houston Partnership will take the Bayou Greenway Initiative to our elected representatives in the coming months to secure support, and hopefully obtain funding commitments over the next two to three budget cycles. As that process moves forward, HPB will continue to work with the community, increase its partnerships with other bayou organizations, continue on-going communication with its public partners, and pursue private funding opportunities.

In other words, this is still more wish list than anything else. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I love the vision, and I hope to see it come about. There’s still a lot that needs to fall into place for it, and no guarantees that any of it will happen. Click that last link to see a map of the proposed new trails, and to find an email address for Roksan Okan-Vick if you want to get involved.