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BRT

No Metro vote this year

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro to buy buses for Uptown BRT

Another step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

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

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

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

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

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film at 11.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Uptown lawsuit filed

I suppose we should have expected something like this.

The city’s Uptown Development Authority and the economic development zone that feeds it were created in violation of the Texas Constitution, two critics allege in a lawsuit that seeks to void all resulting actions and block Uptown from collecting or spending another dime.

The Galleria-area agency’s controversial, $200 million effort to widen Post Oak Boulevard and add dedicated bus lanes down the middle is a key focus of the lawsuit. It was filed Wednesday on behalf of restaurateur Russell Masraff and condominium resident Jim Scarborough, who was also was a plaintiff in another, since-dismissed lawsuit seeking to block the bus plan.

The suit argues that Uptown officials repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in pricing and purchasing land to widen Post Oak – including tracts in which some Uptown board members had a financial interest – and that the agency’s subsequent decisions should be voided or reversed, to the extent possible.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joe Larsen, said he views the filing as having broader significance beyond the bus plan.

“We’re asking the court to order Uptown to make no further payments because all the money involved has been collected through an unconstitutional tax regime,” Larsen said. “The bottom line is the Constitution requires equal taxation.”

He added that the only reason tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, “are not unconstitutional is that there’s a different provision in the Constitution that allows them.”

“In order to meet that other provision in the Constitution that allows TIRZs to be constitutional, they have to be in an area that’s ‘blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped,’ Larsen asserted. “That’s it.”

This is not the first lawsuit related to this project; that one was subsequently dismissed, though without a comment on its merits. In this case, the plaintiffs asked the judge for an injunction blocking the Uptown Development Authority from spending money or issuing bonds while the litigation was in progress, but that request was denied. I feel like it’s also in the Constitution that we cannot have a non-freeway expansion transportation project in this town without at least one lawsuit. I’m not qualified to assess the legal argument being made here, so instead let me bring you a video of “Uptown Funk”, since that song has been lodged in my brain since this story first broke.

With all due respect to “Uptown Girl”, I say this song should be played at the beginning of all court hearings in this case. Who’s with me on this? Swamplot has more.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Uptown BRT will be ready in 2019

A little later than originally expected.

Construction might be set to start soon on dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak through the Uptown area, but the latest projections don’t have riders on the lanes for nearly three years.

Despite earlier estimates to open the lanes in 2018, which Uptown Management District President John Breeding said was possible, even if it happened at “11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2018,” the latest plans don’t have riders hopping aboard until March 2019.

The new date was confirmed Thursday during an update on the project by Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, who are working with Uptown to develop the project, estimated to cost $192.5 million.

[…]

A separate project led by the Texas Department of Transportation will allow the buses to travel along Loop 610 for the portion of the line from Post Oak to Metro’s transit center north of Interstate 10.

The Loop 610 project will not be ready when trips begin in March 2019, said Clint Harbert, Metro’s senior director of system planning and development. It is scheduled for late fall, Harbert said, though Metro is estimating first-year operations on the possibility it might not be ready until early 2020.

Has there ever been a major infrastructure/construction project that didn’t blow past its original completion estimates? I can’t think of any offhand. They’ll get there when they get there, I guess.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

[…]

John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

More on the Gulf Coast Rail District and the high speed rail line

The Chron reports on the story.

Officials with the Gulf Coast Rail District, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Texas Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transit Authority are involved in a comprehensive planning study of rail, generally in the Washington Avenue and Interstate 10 area.

The study, building off numerous previous reports and research by the agencies, is intended to provide a template for how to develop rail between a site at or near Northwest Mall and the former downtown post office.

The study could be persuasive should local officials want to encourage the Federal Railroad Administration or Texas Central Partners, the sponsor of the Dallas-to-Houston rail project, to rethink extending high-speed rail service to downtown, said Maureen Crocker, the rail district’s executive director.

“Really, time is of the essence at this point,” Crocker told rail district officials about changing the high-speed rail plans.

[…]

A 2012 study commissioned by the rail district found that commuter rail along the U.S. 290 corridor would carry an estimated 5,960 riders in 2035 without a direct connection to the central business district. With access to the urban core, ridership increased to 22,580 per day. The study did not examine the effect of the connection on intercity trains.

[…]

Though they were absent from earlier discussions, Metro officials now are engaging in the process. Metro is by far the region’s largest public transit agency and the only operator of passenger rail in Houston, apart from national Amtrak service.

“For such a study to be successful, Metro has to be a full working partner,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the transit agency’s appointee to the rail district.

The various agencies, including Metro, also have different priorities. Even among those interested in a rail link, the demand and types of traveler vary. Metro must consider the needs of all transit users, not just those hopping off high-speed rail, board member Christof Spieler said.

See here for the background. The involvement of Metro is good to hear, as they’re the only outfit that would be capable of operating such a train line, were it to come into existence, and because if you’re going to do something like this you may as well make it as useful as possible. Like, make it have useful stops along the way at places where people would want to go and where connections to bus lines exist. Remember, the two endpoints of this hypothetical train line are themselves hubs – downtown is obviously a locus for lots of other transit options, but so is/will be the Northwest location, which has a park and ride lot now, will have an Uptown BRT station in a couple of years, and may also serve as a stop for a commuter rail line, all in addition to the high speed rail line. You can see why there might be a lot of interest in this. There’s a lot of potential benefit at stake here, so let’s get it right.

Metro posts solid ridership increase

Nice.

METRO’s chosen path to increase ridership by delivering improved routes, with improved connections, is producing solid, steady and most impressively significant, numbers – across the board. Ridership on all fixed routes grew to nearly 7 million in November 2015. That is an 11 percent jump from November 2014.

Local bus ridership numbers for November 2015 are up more than 4 percent from a year ago. METRORail’s Red Line ridership is up nearly 26 percent and Park & Ride boardings have increased nearly 6 and a half percent.

“We are in the first year of a five year plan to improve mobility options for the Houston region,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying. The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

“This is a good start and we expect our new transfer policy will increase ridership even more,” said METRO CEO Tom Lambert. “ The ability to transfer in any direction will not only make our network easier to use, it will give our riders more freedom and can save them a significant amount of money.”

METRO will unveil its new two-way transfer policy on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The new Board policy changes a one way fare into a three hour ticket, allowing fare cardholders free transfers in any direction on local bus or light rail within that three hour window. Currently, transfers are free in one direction.

Not too shabby. You can see the numbers in the embedded image. A few extra details, taken from Metro Board member Christof Spieler’s Facebook page:

“November ridership, @METROHouston reimagined local network: +8% over last year weekday, +9% Saturday, +30% Sunday.”

and

“Red Line now carries nearly 55,000 a weekday, and 11 local routes (all frequent) with over 5,000 weekday boardings, 2x many as before.”

Again, that’s pretty darned nice, especially at a time when there is also some annoying news about Metro’s light rail car supplier. It shows that the whole system is seeing increases – existing light rail, local buses, and Park and Ride buses. Demand is clearly there for transit, and part of this increase is the result of new service – the two new light rail lines, buses running on normal schedules on weekends, and so forth. Keep all that in mind when you hear Uptown BRT naysayers claim that no one will use it. The same people said the same things about the Red Line once, too. Beyond the Uptown line, there are a lot of other service expansion projects being talked about. It’s time to start making some of them more concrete. The demand is there. We need the supply.

Paxton opines on Uptown BRT

AG Ken Paxton was asked for an opinion on whether or not Metro could work with the Uptown Management District on its proposed BRT line. The opinion has been given, though it doesn’t really settle anything.

In the ruling, Paxton said the issue centered on the $640 million in bonds voters approved in 2003, part of an overall rail plan for the Houston area. Metro promised voters to develop light rail along the route.

Holding the agency to that vow, however, would require finding that it spent the money improperly or is developing the bus lanes in lieu of its promise to voters, Paxton’s ruling said.

“A court would likely determine that (Metro’s) contract with the voters included the expenditure of a portion of the bond proceeds on the Uptown/West Loop 4.4-mile rail segment,” Paxton wrote. “Whether Metro’s participation in the Uptown Houston Transit Project violates that contract with the voters requires the resolution of fact issues that are beyond the purview of an attorney general opinion.”

Critics said he decision vindicated their position that Metro cannot substitute a bus project for light rail. The question could arise again if Metro tries to issue bonds – the language of which must be approved by Paxton’s office – or if critics ask a court to intervene.

[…]

A court ultimately, if asked, would have to decide whether voters received the benefits Metro promised them in 2003 and that money was used for those purposes, Paxton’s opinion said.

Another question, Paxton said, would be whether the existing project “will prevent the development of the promised rail segment.”

See here for the background, and see the story for a copy of the opinion, designated KP-0046 if you want to look at it on the OAG website. I don’t see any way this doesn’t end in a lawsuit. That’s just how we roll around here with rail projects. In the meantime, savor the irony of die-hard light rail opponents arguing that the Uptown line has to be built as light rail or else it’s illegal. How Andy Taylor keeps his head from exploding is one of life’s enduring mysteries.

More on the high speed rail station in Houston

The Chron frets about it not being downtown.

After hearing so much about how the proposed Central Texas Railway will help people commute between the central business districts of Houston and Dallas, it turns out that the Houston station will be built near the Northwest Mall at U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

Unless your business is antiques, that location isn’t exactly central. In fact, the French have a phrase to describe rail stations that sit outside central business districts, surrounded by little more than a parking lot: beet field stations.

We’ve heard arguments that, while it isn’t an economic core itself, the proposed rail terminus serves as the center of Houston’s economic footprint, balanced between the energy corridor, Galleria area, downtown, The Woodlands and the Texas Medical Center. But it isn’t just about placing riders at the physical center of a region. Central business districts offer convenient connections to riders’ end destinations. This means walking to hotels or businesses, grabbing a cab or connecting to a local mass-transit system. Downtown Houston is one of the few parts of town that can meet all those standards.

Rail stations on the edge of urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to a June report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration that documented best rail practices from around the world. Sometimes it makes sense to build on more affordable, suburban property. However, those stations function best when they’re at the core of a transit node. Metro’s Northwest Transit Center isn’t enough.

[…]

Metro’s version of commuter rail – Park and Ride – has stations that are little more than parking lots. Those are the dreaded beet field stations that, according to Eidlin’s report, do little to attract economic development.

There’s plenty of opportunities for Houston’s high-speed rail station to connect with the rest of the city, such as a Metro’s planned dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, or even light rail toward downtown. But according to best practices, that groundwork for a mass-transit hub should already be laid by the time the new high-speed rail station is built. Keith said the Central Texas Railway planned to break ground in 2017. Where is Metro’s corresponding local plan?

Jarrett Walker has a response to this.

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won’t go to “downtown” Houston.  Instead it will end atNorthwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I’ve talked with aren’t sounding nearly as upset.  That’s because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It’s also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region’s second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It’s very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

There’s a good discussion in the comments to that post, if you want to read some more. My thoughts are as follows:

1. The decision to put the terminus at 290 and 610 was as much a political choice as anything else. Right now, Texas Central mostly has political enemies in the rural and suburban counties between Houston and Dallas, with some spillover into neighboring rural counties. The legislators who represent these areas include some fairly powerful people, but there aren’t that many of them. The one key vote regarding Texas Central, in a Senate committee, went in their favor because there were more Senators from urban areas like the Metroplex and Harris County who favored the idea. The last thing Texas Central needs is more enemies, and that’s what they would have gotten if they had pushed for a downtown terminus, as plenty of inner Loop folks didn’t like the idea of the trains whizzing through their neighborhoods. Yeah, there’s a NIMBY aspect to this, but the fact remains that a downtown terminus would have had more legislators aligning with the anti-high-speed rail folks. Texas Central didn’t need or want that, and this was the easiest solution to that problem.

2. As long as we’re noting the politics of high-speed rail, let’s also note that Metro is where it is today in large part because of political forces, which among other things have forced them to make dubious promises about not building light rail in the dedicated lanes now being intended for the Uptown BRT line. Metro did plenty to sabotage itself during the early days of the light rail approval process, but they have also had to fight against considerable headwinds, for which the main casualty has been the Universities line. I don’t know what the landscape would look like if there had been a more favorable political climate over the past dozen or so years, but I think we can all agree that it would be different.

3. The area around 290 and 610 where this would be built isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be clear: Pretty much everywhere along 610 between I-10 and TC Jester is a wasteland right now, largely because of freeway construction. At some point, all that construction will be over, and the area can begin to develop into something. When that might be, I have no idea. Prospects for that area may be limited regardless, because access to it is limited by the various freeway interchanges. But if there was ever a time to build something around there, now is as good as any because it’s all going to change over the next five to ten years anyway.

4. I think a lot of concerns go away if 1) the Uptown BRT line gets built; 2) an Inner Katy line, which would connect downtown to Uptown via Washington Avenue and the Northwest Transit Center, gets on the drawing board; and 3) the Universities Line gets back into the discussion. Put those things in place, and this terminus much more accessible to the rest of the city. #1 will happen on its own if nothing torpedoes it. #2 has been the subject of what-if speculation for financial assistance from Texas Central. Not clear how that might work, but it sure would be worth talking about. As for #3, I think everyone agrees that once the Uptown line is built and assuming it’s a success, the argument for connecting it to the Main Street line becomes nearly unassailable. Metro would have to hold another referendum to make that happen per the terms of the peace accord with John Culberson, and for sure all the usual forces against any kind of spending on rail construction will come to the fore. But it could happen, and if these things do happen we’ll be much better off.

Uptown living

It’s a thing that is happening.

Home to the city’s glittering epicenter of retail, with a dramatic skyline dominated by the towering Williams Tower and other office buildings, Uptown Houston is best known for the places where people work and play. Increasingly, it’s a place where people want to live as well.

A $1.7 billion investment in condominium towers and apartments over the last five years there has pushed residential development past retail as a percentage of overall real estate. Uptown is now 28 percent residential, compared with 25 percent retail.

Leaders at Uptown Houston, which runs the tax increment reinvestment zone and management district there, say residential opportunities are still in their infancy. Another 4,000 living units are under construction.

“Office, residential, retail and hotel all sort of blend and work together to create an urban neighborhood,” Uptown Houston president John Breeding said. “I think we’ve reached a new level of urbanization.”

The office market still dominates in Uptown, which ranks among the top 15 biggest office centers in the nation. Office makes up 37 percent of the district.

But residential is on the rise. O’Brien’s complex recently opened at 1900 Yorktown, the eight-story building advertising units with built-in wine cellars, oak floors and a large “Vegas-style” pool.

Announced residential projects in the Galleria area include a 26-story development called Belfiore being built at Post Oak Lane and South Wynden Drive, and a 28-story condominium tower called Astoria on Post Oak Boulevard. The Wilshire, a 17-story condominium project, and the SkyHouse River Oaks apartments replaced a 1960s-era apartment complex on Westcreek, now adjacent to the recently opened River Oaks District.

[…]

The regional housing market, long dominated by spacious single-family homes in suburban areas, is evolving as buyers increasingly are attracted to urban locales where it’s possible to walk to nearby attractions, said Jacob Sudhoff of Sudhoff Properties, a high-end real estate brokerage firm specializing in condo sales.

The Uptown-Galleria area is ground zero for this change as international buyers, oil executives and downsizing empty nesters trend toward the luxury for-sale units.

“Houston has finally turned into a condo market, and in the past we never were,” Sudhoff said. “There’s a correlation between amenities, walkability and the location of these condominiums.”

I think it’s a good thing that formerly non-residential areas such as Uptown now feature actual residences. The best way to avoid and reduce traffic is for people to be places where they don’t need to get into a car to go about their business. This is why things like sidewalks, bike paths, and transit matter. Some number of people who work and shop in the Uptown area have no choice but to drive there. If the people who do live there or live close to there can do those things by walking, biking, or taking Metro – and if there are more of those people to begin with – then they’re not competing with the folks who have to drive for space on the Loop. (I’ve made the same argument about parking for bikes at restaurants.) Doesn’t that make sense? Now if we could figure out how to get some more affordable housing into and around places like Uptown, then we’d really have something. I’m sure the next Mayor will get right on that.

Lawsuit against Uptown line dismissed

We haven’t heard the last of this, of that you can be certain.

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a dedicated bus lane project in Houston’s Uptown area, but the ruling is not a final resolution of the dispute.

State District Judge Brent Gamble on Thursday dismissed the lawsuit filed by Cosmopolitan Condominium Owners Association against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The dismissal did not specify why the lawsuit should not go forward, although Gamble indicated previously that unresolved questions made the lawsuit premature.

Both sides, however, said they viewed the dismissal as a step in their favor.

“It is my hope that now people will come together to make this the best project it can be,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia.

Jim Scarborough, a Cosmopolitan resident and leader of the opposition to the bus lanes, said critics would have preferred that the judge halt the project. However, he said, the dismissal paves the way for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to determine if another challenge is valid.

Because Metro’s 2003 referendum authorized the transit agency to build light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. Paxton’s office was asked by State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to determine if the project violates what voters approved.

“We are pushing forward to the AG’s opinion,” Scarborough said. “There is no doubt in terms of our opinion what he is going to say.”

The dismissal by Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, is unlikely to end the opposition. Because Metro’s 2003 referendum called for light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. That question has been posed to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has not issued an opinion yet on the matter.

See here and here for the background. Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, which just adds a touch of absurdity to the whole thing. The irony of using the ballot language from 2003 to force the construction of light rail is not lost on me. Does Rep. Culberson know about this? I can’t figure out if this tactic makes the people behind this more clever than I might have thought, or just less subtle. I mean, we have all noticed that Metro isn’t actually paying for this construction, right? I don’t know why the 2003 referendum would even apply here, but then I’m not a super-genius like Andy Taylor, so what do I know? We’ll get that AG ruling in a few months, and one way or the other I expect we’ll wind up back in court. According to the story, the Uptown Management District hopes to have a contractor named by February; utility work along Post Oak began earlier this year and technical design of the bus lanes is expected within 60 days. Time is getting short to stop this.

August ridership numbers for the new rail lines

Again, don’t get too excited just yet.

HoustonMetro

Use of Houston’s two newest rail lines increased in August, though it took a strong late showing and free rides to finally meet the ridership expectations Metro officials outlined in May.

According to ridership figures released Thursday, average boardings at the shared stations downtown where both Green and Purple lines trains stop increased to 2,788 daily, from 2,546 in July. Boardings at the stations unique to the Green and Purple lines, respectively, dropped on average, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

Though the use was relatively flat, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said a few things worked against the lines attracting riders, notably five days of 100-plus degree temperatures and four evenings where rail service on the lines was suspended because of construction near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

There were also signs of some improvement, based on the last few days of the month. Metro officials have said once the bus system switched to its new network, which debuted Aug. 16, and students returned to the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, use would increase.

When the days when students returned to school — and a week of free rail rides to usher in the new bus system — are factored, use of the Green and Purple lines increased by 17 percent, to 6,291 daily boardings. On the much more established Red Line, the new students and free rides resulted in a 9.6 percent increase in ridership, meaning the new lines outpaced its ridership growth.

We’ve been down this road before. I’m a little puzzled by the first embedded chart in the article, since the story says that numbers at the non-shared green and purple line stations were down, but the graph says otherwise. Sometimes it’s nice to see the actual numbers. Ridership during the first week of bus system reimagining when fares were free are encouraging but far from conclusive. Hopefully, with UH and TSU now in session, we’ll continue to see steady gains. Check back again in another month.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note, there’s this review of the revised Uptown Line ridership projections, why they’re almost certainly wrong, and why that likely doesn’t matter. Turns out ridership projections are basically guesses, and that’s true for highways like the I-10 managed lanes as well. I’ll say again, if this provides a useful service then people will use it. Not everybody, of course, but enough to be worthwhile. How many that actually turns out to be we won’t know till it’s built, and we won’t really know till it’s been in use for at least a few months.

Three Metro updates

The Metro board has its first meeting post-system reimagining, and gets some feedback on the new routes.

HoustonMetro

At Metro’s first board meeting following the launch of the new network, officials heard about two hours of public comment from unhappy riders.

One of those riders was Jennifer Williams. She commutes from southwest Houston to her job in the Texas Medical Center. Williams says she can get back to her neighborhood okay, but it’s the last bus home that’s a problem.

“I either have to wait for the 63 to take me down the street and wait there 25 minutes nervously, not knowing who’s going to approach me,” says Williams. “Or I could walk in the dark, by myself, down the street to my apartment.”

Metro officials say they know it’s not a smooth transition for everyone, but they’re hoping the newly redesigned routes will encourage more ridership after years of declining numbers. Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia says they fully expect to make some tweaks after the first of the year.

“We’re going to just frankly, compile our list, take a look to see if there are any adjustments we need to pivot to, whether we can solve them by a different vehicle, or solve them by a slight alteration on the route,” says Garcia.

Again, I don’t want to minimize anyone’s problems, but as I said before, if this is the extent of the problems, then this was a big success. I continue to not see other stories, so either there’s a lot of unreported bad news, or there’s not much to report. I lean towards the latter. I had my own first experience with the new system last week, and once I realized I’d been reading the map incorrectly (I’d mixed up the direction of the #30 route downtown), I made it home in fairly short order via the #85 (Washington Avenue) and the #56 (Montrose/Studemont). I had to wait only about five minutes for the second bus. Not bad at all. Anyone else have an experience to share?

Ultimately, this will be judged by how it affects ridership. On that score, the numbers from the first week were encouraging.

METRO’s first week of the New Bus Network brought in 24 percent more riders than the average August ridership.

Boardings on both bus and light-rail trains totaled 1.7 million, thanks to two factors: an improved, high-frequency system which integrates bus and rail in a seamless network and free rides which were offered all week from Aug. 16 to 22.

“This is good news as we work to create a system that promotes public transit and connects more people to more places,” said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Our region continues to grow, and we need to maximize usage of our transit system, including local bus and rail.”

[…]

The biggest increase in METRO’s ridership last week came over the weekend, with boardings on local buses totaling 270,000 on Aug. 16 and Aug. 22. That compares to 191,500 average weekend boardings in August 2014.

“We anticipate consistent increases in ridership after two years of implementation. By then, we expect a 20 percent hike in ridership,” said President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Now of course this was a week with no fares, and even without that one week’s totals tell us little. The increase is weekend ridership is a big deal, and one that should persist, because a big part of the system reimagining was increasing weekend service – in many cases, implementing it in the first place. Let’s see what ridership looks like by the end of the year.

And speaking of ridership numbers.

A just-completed METRO ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project Mixed Flow option shows ridership in the year 2018 to be about 12,050 boardings per day, approximately 15 percent lower than the 14,100 boardings forecast when the project was first developed in 2013.

A second set of projections were developed should an elevated busway be constructed for the Uptown Management District. That calculation is roughly 20% fewer riders projected for the year 2018. Another set of figures, based on the year 2020, was requested by METRO recognizing that Elevated Bus Lanes will not be operational by 2018. In that year 14,850 daily boardings are projected.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, who requested the second study, said, ” It’s interesting to note while the ridership projections in the early years are lower in this new study the 2035 numbers for the mixed flow lane jump to about 18 percent higher than projected in the original 2013 study. Whether it’s the early years or later, the numbers overall justify the need for improved transit along this corridor.”

For the Elevated Busway option, the revised ridership forecast for 2035 is 30,900 boardings per day which is about 19 percent higher than the previous forecasts of 25,800 boardings per day developed in 2013.

The updated ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project uses revised assumptions developed by METRO in July 2015. The assumptions reflect changes occurring between the 2013 to 2015 timeframe and are more consistent with current operating and budget principles.

The original assumptions used in the 2013 analysis were based on Uptown’s project description and operating scenario. There have also been significant changes in both population and employment in the region as captured by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) in their demographic forecast. H-GAC is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Houston-Galveston region and manages the regional demographic forecasts. The new ridership forecast integrates the regionally adopted H-GAC demographic forecast.

See here for some background. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the difference is between the Mixed Flow and Elevated Busway options, and I didn’t get to send an email and ask before the weekend, so don’t ask me for specifics. I’ll say again, I think people will use this if it’s a worthwhile service, and I don’t think there’s any better option for adding capacity to Uptown. I also think that Uptown will be an excellent place for future B-Cycle expansion, and a working Uptown line would make having a future high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 feasible. Just a thought.

Lawsuit filed over Uptown line

All things considered, I suppose this was inevitable.

A homeowner’s association is suing Metro over its involvement in plans to run bus lanes along Post Oak Boulevard, saying the project puts the agency at odds with a 2003 referendum that included adding a rail line along the corridor.

The lawsuit was filed Monday just minutes after Mayor Annise Parker and the Uptown management district cheered the start of the $192 million project, lauding it as an example of Houston’s transit future. The plan calls for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It’s about taking our signature retail boulevard and making it something that’s not a traffic-choked freeway,” Parker said.

“The time is now,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

A block away, opponents called the project illegal, saying Metro has no authority to participate when voters in 2003 approved light rail for the Post Oak corridor. As part of the lawsuit, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office as to the legality of Metro’s involvement. Nichols chairs the senate’s transportation committee.

“We’re asking all these government agencies, ‘don’t be arrogant,’ ” attorney Andy Taylor said. “Hold tight and make sure that what you’re doing is in the public interest.”

See here for some background. Rule #1 of politics around here: If Andy Taylor is on your side, you’re on the wrong side. (*) And much more often than not, the side that’s gonna lose.

Metro submitted a similar inquiry to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last year at the request of the Texas Department of Transportation. The state agency was wary of offering funds for the elevated lanes along Loop 610 if it meant jumping into a lengthy, bitter debate surrounding light rail in the area. So at TxDOT’s request, Metro sought to clarify whether an agreement with the state agency, which specified the bus project “will not support a rail component,” put Metro in conflict with its 2003 referendum. To be clear, Metro would be operating the buses, not funding the construction of the actual lanes. The project pulls heavily on Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone funds and some U.S. Department of Transportation grant money.

The agency told the Attorney General’s office it no longer needed an opinion when TxDOT said its concerns had been eased and the agreement was not necessary. That was in part because federal lawmakers approved a fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbid any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Taylor said that voters have consented only to light rail along the corridor and that any work specific to bus rapid transit should wait until the Texas Attorney General’s office issues a response to Nichols’ request. Taylor is representing the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which sits along Post Oak, and Jim Scarborough, a vocal opponent of the project and property owner in the area.

Scarborough has led opponents, largely business owners, who say the bus plan will disrupt the flow of traffic on Post Oak and discourage drivers from wanting to traverse the bustling corridor. At town hall meetings and news conferences, they’ve also said that the plan is a real estate deal disguised as a transit project that benefits some Uptown board members whose companies are in the right of way. Some of those companies will receive payments for their land from the TIRZ in order to widen Post Oak.

Taylor dismissed any notion that the lawsuit amounted to a last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit.

“Metro should immediately announce its abandonment of the project, admit that it violates Metro’s contract with the voters, and, should it desire to pursue light rail, then, in accordance with its recent agreement with Congressman John Culberson, go back to the electorate with a new referendum on whether light rail should be approved on Post Oak Boulevard,” Taylor said in the lawsuit.

A “last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit” is pretty much how I’d describe it. There’s nobody involved with that lawsuit that actually wants a light rail line to be built, they just want to force Metro into a no-win position. I am hopeful that a judge will give this litigation the lack of respect it deserves.

(*) Case in point. Those were dark, dark days.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

Dignitaries will gather Monday to symbolically start construction of wider sidewalks and dedicated bus lanes meant to enhance Post Oak Boulevard and offer improved transit service, even as some residents and business owners continue fighting to block a project they consider a huge mistake.

Though it has passed a number of government hurdles, the $192 million project has faced increasingly stiff headwinds as opponents question the decision-making process as well as the data justifying the bus lanes.

Plans call for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Riders would board and exit the buses at stations, similar to how light rail operates. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

Post Oak would be widened, without reducing the current number of general use lanes.

The project is led by Uptown Houston, the management district for the Post Oak area. The Metropolitan Transit Authority would operate the bus service. Funding comes from local, state and federal sources, and the project has been approved by Uptown Houston’s board, the Houston City Council, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Texas Department of Transportation.

It has faced some political hurdles, despite broad agreement that peak-hour traffic congestion on Post Oak was hindering the area’s ability to further develop. Supporters said transit was the logical next step, noting that in most other U.S. metro areas, Uptown’s job and business scene would make it the urban core and a transit hub. Its employment numbers are on par with downtown Denver’s.

“I think it is the correct solution,” said John Breeding, the president of Uptown Houston. “But it is not that I think it – it was voted on by public agencies and planners looked at it.”

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s now a dispute over projected ridership numbers, which are being recalculated by Metro as a result. I have no idea what ridership numbers will be, but I see no reason to be pessimistic. People will use it if it provides a worthwhile service. It may take some time to build, and it will definitely help if the Universities line ever gets built and gets connected to it, but if I worked in the traffic congestion hellhole that is the Uptown/Galleria area, I’d sure be interested in an alternative to driving. We’ll see how it goes.

The latest Uptown fuss

I suppose I need to say something about this.

Two members of an economic development board pushing a plan to run a center bus lane along Uptown’s Post Oak Boulevard have financial ties to companies that will be paid for land in the project’s right of way.

Earlier this year, Uptown Chairman Martin Debrovner and secretary and treasurer Kendall Miller disclosed financial interests in two of the more than 30 parcels the board will purchase with public funds to expand Post Oak.

Collectively, three companies that own property along Post Oak – Weingarten Realty Investors, WMJK and Hines Interests – stand to receive about $6 million of the roughly $47 million budgeted for right-of-way acquisitions if average appraisals done by an outside company last year hold.

A third member of the Uptown development board, Louis Sklar, filed a similar affidavit earlier this year because he is a former senior executive at Hines Interests. But according to his affidavit, he does not make enough of his current income from the company or own enough stock, for instance, to have a “substantial interest” in the company as defined by state law.

The board members appear to have followed state law; they have not voted on items with specific or special financial benefit to them, instead voting more broadly to support the bus plan.

Critics contend that the financial disclosures should have been filed in early 2014, when a consultant’s report was issued listing the properties to be purchased along retail-laden Post Oak Boulevard.

[…]

Any appraisal above $500,000 and any offer that exceeds fair market value by more than $50,000 requires Federal Transit Administration approval. As for why the affidavits weren’t filed sooner, Breeding said they waited until right-of-way offers were imminent.

“Our board of directors is much more concerned about (conflicts of interest) than just your average person,” [Uptown President John] Breeding said. “Really, from the very beginning, we said, ‘How can we do this and how can we support it and how can we set up a system that is as transparent and as free from conflict as possible?’ Honestly, it comes up all the time because we build roads and streets in the area.”

Not really clear to me what the scandal is supposed to be. One would expect that members of the Uptown Management District would own property in Uptown, and some of that property will be bought for right of way purposes. Yeah, TIRZes are often more opaque than they should be, but that’s not what is being argued about here. If this is the worst thing that the Uptown opponents have to say about the project, it ought to be very smooth sailing from here.

Save Uptown from what?

From Swamplot:

The Uptown Property and Business Owners Coalition is out today with a new website (portrayed here) meant to drum up opposition to the Uptown District and Metro’s plans to install dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak Blvd. The lanes, the last vestige of what was once a plan for an Uptown light rail line, would run from dedicated bus lanes linking to the Northwest Transit Center all the way to the proposed Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center near U.S. 59 and Westpark, where they might someday intersect with a University Line traveling eastward from that point. But the team behind the website wants none of it: “Uptown is a Houston masterpiece. Why do they want to ruin it?” reads the copy on the home page. Meanwhile, an introductory blog post on the site encourages readers to attend a friendly “town hall” meeting, [Tuesday] night at the Uptown Hilton, in the company of “hundreds of angry business owners and Uptown area residents.”

Here’s their website; if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see the name Daphne Scarbrough, one of the fanatical anti-rail on Richmond types who has long since morphed into an all-purpose rail hater. Given the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, the timing of their launch – the Facebook page was created Friday the 15th – isn’t exactly sublime for them. Remember that Metro has nothing to do with the construction of this line – it’s entirely being done by the Uptown Management District. Metro will eventually operate the buses, but that’s it. As far as what they’re fighting for, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard anyone call Uptown a “masterpiece” – hell, twenty years ago I’d have said I’d never heard the term “Uptown” used in conjunction with that part of the city. It’s not like there’s a historic preservation angle in play. My personal description of Uptown is a mess that I try to avoid at all times. I believe this plan will help, and I have no idea what alternative to help alleviate the awful traffic Save Uptown or any other group might have. Doing nothing isn’t an option, it’s just sticking your head in the cement. But here they are, and one should know one’s opponents. We’ll see if they get any traction. KHOU has more.

An Uptown BRT skeptic

Here’s one guy who doesn’t like the idea.

Ridership models developed by the Uptown TIRZ board project that the new bus route will carry 10,000 riders per day in 2018. This estimate is outrageously inflated, given that the more than 30-year-old Park & Ride system only carries 16,000 riders per day, most of whom are downtown-bound. This has been tried before. Since 1985, Metro has rolled out seven Park & Ride routes to the Galleria. Last month, they cancelled the sixth route (Kingsland to NW Transit to Uptown) due to low ridership. The sole surviving Park & Ride route to the Galleria (Kuykendahl to Greenway to Uptown) is classified as “poor-performing,” carrying an average of only 220 people per day to both districts.

Major Galleria-area employer Apache, initially in favor of the project, now opposes it. The company surveyed its employees and asked how many would drive to the Northwest Mall and then board a bus to the Post Oak Central offices. Not one Apache employee was interested in doing so. Not one. Why has there never been a well-reasoned, comprehensive survey of Galleria employees as to their expected usage of such a project?

Parking in the Galleria is convenient, readily available and reasonably affordable. This is the complete opposite of the downtown area. Even in the parking-challenged downtown, over the past five years, Park & Ride participation rates are falling, from 38 percent to 28 percent. Metro’s entire Park & Ride system consists of 29 lots. Despite a 30 year-plus operating history, 23 of its 29 lots operate at 55 percent or less of capacity.

What will this Guide Way project do to Post Oak, Houston’s Rodeo Drive? I believe it will ruin it. Look what happened to the merchants on Main Street. Look what’s happened to the Central Business District regarding crosstown traffic.

[…]

Uptown, Metro and the city are talking about condemnation proceedings taking place before a final plan has been produced. This is par for the course. Another example of Metro’s “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach: Recently, a long-known environmental hazard interrupted construction of the Harrisburg Line of light rail. Believe it or not, the meandering East Side Metro trains don’t run the full length of the Harrisburg route. When did the poor planning method become an accepted standard?

I am convinced that people decide to work and (increasingly) live in the Galleria area due to the ease of access to retail, including restaurants and grocery stores. Completely dedicated bus lanes/guide ways make no sense to any student of public transportation unless they are of the BRT (bus rapid transit) variety. These lanes are definitely not, despite having been initially designated as such. BRT lanes are dedicated and do not stop for traffic.

The piece is such a mishmash of unsourced assertions, tangents, and failure to address items that have already been raised during the process that it’s hard to know where to begin. The main thing to me is that nowhere does the author suggest any alternatives to the BRT line as a way of dealing with Uptown’s crushing traffic congestion. I came away with the impression that his preference is to do nothing because there is no problem to be solved. I don’t even know how to respond to that, so let me just state a few basic principles. Traffic is bad. It’s a problem now, and it will limit future growth and economic opportunities. Building more road capacity, especially non-highway road capacity, is not an option to alleviate the mobility issues we have now or the ones we will continue to have if we do nothing. The best way to create more capacity is to create options for people who could get where they need to go without using their car. This means mass transit, bike trails and lanes, better and safer sidewalks, and the like. Not everyone will use these things, maybe not even a majority of people. But many people will use at least one of these options at least some of the time, and every time they do it means less traffic for those who can’t or won’t do anything other than drive. Maybe this plan isn’t the best of all possible plans. I’m sure there are ways it could feasibly be better, and I have no doubt there will be implementation and operation problems to deal with. But it is a workable plan that addresses the main issue, that there isn’t enough room for all the cars that want to be in Uptown now, let alone the ones that will want to be there in the future. If you want to argue against it, I’d appreciate it if you came up with your own workable alternative to it.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

Dedicated bus lanes along Loop 610 remain a part of planned transit service in the Uptown area after state officials kept $25 million allocated to an upcoming project.

After months of discussions about the project’s purpose and agreements between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, state transportation commissioners Thursday approved the state’s 10-year spending plan with the money for the bus lanes included.

John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, told officials he was pleased to move the process along.

“We particularly thank you for your leadership and your patience as the area got its act together on this project,” Breeding said.

Proponents of the project have noted Uptown is one of Houston’s most traffic-clogged areas, a problem that’s likely to worsen with recent development. More frequent, fast and predictable transit, supporters say, could give many workers an option that would take cars off the roads and out of Uptown parking garages.

State transportation officials passed the plan without comment. The plan is updated annually and covers the next decade of road expansion and maintenance as well as transit and alternative transportation projects, such as bicycle lanes.

[…]

“The way this project will be successful is to make it reliable and fast,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Post Oak will continue to have three traffic lanes in each direction, with some turn lanes.

Some traffic lights will be sequenced to allow buses to avoid stopping but not those at major intersections such as Westheimer and San Felipe, where tweaking the timing could have disastrous effects on traffic flow.

See here for the previous update. There was far too much squabbling over this, and I’m still unhappy with the condition that there be no preparations included for possible future conversion to light rail, but at least this hurdle has been cleared. Metro Chair Garcia is right that the main goal here is to build something that people will want to use. If that happens, it will be a lot easier to take a next step if there is one.

Uptown needs bikes

So says this op-ed.

Always susceptible to gridlock, especially at Christmastime, the traffic jams now happen year-round and last longer each day. Clearly, Uptown badly needs convenient, reliable alternatives to cars for the tens of thousands of workers and residents who live, work and shop in the area, the largest business district in the nation outside of a traditional downtown.

One such alternative is bicycling. Houston has made impressive progress in recent years to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

The Bayou Greenways Initiative, Safe Passing Law and Complete Streets policy are recent examples, and an updated Bikeway Master Plan, now underway, will identify additional on- and off-street facilities to fill in the gaps in Houston’s bikeway network.

Uptown, however, remains dangerous to navigate by bike, especially during rush hour. Surrounded on three sides by major freeways, there are few safe options to enter the area by bike. Once there, a cyclist must navigate streets designed solely to move cars as quickly as possible, with few accommodations for cyclists. Post Oak Boulevard, Uptown’s signature street, is an obvious example. While biking there can be a death-defying experience, even walking is a daunting and frightening prospect, with sidewalks located right next to speeding traffic.

The proposed Uptown dedicated bus lanes project (“Bus project along Post Oak appears ready to roll ahead” Page B3, Jan. 29) will provide one alternative to driving, especially for commuters in the suburbs who have access to park and ride routes that run to the existing Northwest and proposed Bellaire/Uptown transit centers. The project features a total rebuild of Post Oak Boulevard to add dedicated bus lanes in the middle, while preserving existing lanes for cars.

Unfortunately, the plan as currently proposed includes no bike lanes, and maintains wide, high-speed main traffic lanes. Thus, while it will provide an alternative to driving for suburban commuters, the current dedicated bus lane plan does nothing for Uptown workers who live close enough to bike to work, but who won’t risk their lives (and their families’ livelihoods) to do so. It also does little for local residents who might like to bike to local shops and restaurants or into adjoining neighborhoods and parks, including Memorial Park (now a part of the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone.)

Adding dedicated bike lanes to the dedicated bus lane project would provide an additional alternative to those who want access to shops, workplaces and restaurants along Post Oak, as well as provide connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods, Memorial Park and the Greater Houston bikeway network.

Bike lanes would also enhance the pedestrian realm by providing a buffer between sidewalks and automobile traffic.

I agree completely. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money redoing Post Oak Lane and not end up with a street that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. There are two ways to deal with excessive traffic in destinations like Uptown: Make it easier to get there without driving, primarily for commuters, and make it easier for those who are already there to get around within the area without driving. Downtown does both of those things. Uptown is working on the first one, with the BRT line and the HOV lane. It really needs to do the other, and the opportunity to do that begins with the BRT line construction on Post Oak. I want to be clear that this is the Uptown Management District’s responsibility. Metro will operate the BRT line once it is built, but the Management District is doing the design and construction. Please do it right the first time, y’all.

Metro board approves reimagining

On to implementation.

Metro’s board gave unanimous, final approval to the so-called reimagining plan, authorizing agency staff to plan public meetings to explain the changes.

Between now and August, Metro must replace every sign at every bus stop, revise every bus schedule and prepare a massive educational campaign.

“This will be the biggest outreach effort in the history of the city,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

[…]

Metro plans to spend around $7.5 million replacing signs at bus stops, reprinting maps and schedules and conducting the educational campaign. The need for these steps led to a two-month delay on starting the new routes, which had been scheduled for June.

“The day this goes into effect, I intend to be standing at a bus stop helping people out,” [board member Christof] Spieler said.

See here for the previous update. Metro has a lot riding on this. I believe the concept is sound, but the execution is key. I will be very eager to see what the effect is on ridership.

Meanwhile, according to this Chron editorial that ran on Wednesday, the board was also supposed to vote on approving funds for the Uptown BRT line. I don’t know what happened with that, but unlike bus system reimagining, for which the Chron had good things to say, they had concerns about this project.

Both Metro and Uptown organizations have made grand claims about how this BRT plan will reduce congestion on West 610 Loop, but we’ve yet to see supporting numbers or studies.

It is also troubling that a total reconstruction of Post Oak doesn’t include bicycle lanes. The people who live and work in the Uptown area should be able to use bikes as transportation without risking their lives. Multi-modal transit provides the most and best options for a booming Galleria area.

Members of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Houston Management District, which are spearheading the project, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that the project should be judged by its results. It is hard to judge by anything else. These appointed boards hold their meetings away from City Hall and operate without the direct input of voters, all while diverting taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, this cost of this BRT project has grown from an originally projected $177.5 million to Uptown Houston’s current $192.5 million estimate. Metro told the editorial board that the project would cost more than $250 million. These conflicting numbers should serve as a warning sign.

Mayoral elections are around the corner, and unless this BRT project has unanimous support, that big budget item risks getting diverted away from transit and toward filling potholes and hiring police officers, just as Mayor Bob Lanier did with transit funding in the early 1990s. The growing Galleria area looks to choke on its own growth as new towers go up and more cars fill crowded roads and freeways. At its core, the BRT plan tries to bring the success of park and ride into Uptown, but it needs support from all stakeholders before moving forward.

I’ve discussed the subject of bikes in conjunction with this line before. I definitely agree that if the Uptown Management District is going to spend all this money and cause all this disruption to redo Post Oak like this, it makes much more sense to incorporate bikes now rather than try to shoehorn them in later, after they’ve realized what a mistake they made by not planning for them in the first place. I hope they don’t make that mistake. As for the effect of the Mayoral race on this project, you know how I feel about that. You can start talking about things other than potholes and pensions any time now, fellas. Texas Leftist has more.

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?

Uptown BRT lurches forward

One staggering step at a time.

After some uncertainty, fears about rail development in Uptown appear less likely to delay a planned express bus project along Post Oak.

Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board meets Thursday morning, and is scheduled to discuss progress on the Uptown plan. The addition to their regularly scheduled meeting comes after a letter last week from Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley.

The letter lays out a path for officials to settle their differences and keep the $192.5 million project on track.

[…]

In the interim, the entire kerfuffle became pointless. Last month, federal lawmakers passed the fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbids any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

“I am keeping my word to my constituents on these two streets who overwhelmingly oppose light rail on Richmond and Post Oak,” Culberson said.

The same language was in the previous federal spending bill, enacted Jan. 17, 2014.

In a Jan. 22 letter, Moseley told Garcia that the federal prohibition satisfies TxDOT’s concerns.

See here, here, and here for the background. Culberson has been lying about the level of support for rail on Richmond, but at least in this case it had a somewhat positive effect. I know, my head is spinning, too. Anyway, Council has also approved its piece of this, so we should be on our way.

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.

[…]

BRT is generally touted as the quickest and cheapest solutions for car-centric cities hoping to provide mass transit options. These projects dedicate separated road space specifically for buses, with the intention of removing them from the common stream of traffic and decreasing the delays for commuters. Stations that protect riders from the elements and with raised platforms allow riders to enter buses as they would a train. Coming in at 1/5 the cost of light rail, BRT projects can provide a very similar level of service, especially when given designated right-of-way.

The Uptown Management District is currently working on installing a contentious BRT system along the medians of Post Oak Boulevard. Such systems could be installed along the esplanades of former streetcar lines and permanent raised bus platforms installed along the routes at a fraction of the cost of a streetcar line. All of this can be installed with the understanding that a streetcar line would go in along the route once the city has reached a more sustainable density.

Reinstalling streetcars in Houston is not a novel idea. The Greater East End Management District has been working on a streetcar initiative since 2011, planning a route through the Second Ward that connects to the light rail line and nearby stadiums. The project is meant to spur development in the area but could provide decent service for a broad swath of Houstonians. The very fact that rail transit is desirable enough to attract developments is a sign that we should be considering more possible additions.

I’m OK with BRT for the Uptown line because that was always going to be locally funded, and it’s what we can afford. It’s been hard enough overcoming other obstacles to just get to the point where things can move forward. This project will do a lot to relieve the fierce congestion in the area and I believe it will help up the pressure to get the Universities line built since the need to connect the Uptown line to the rest of the system will be so obvious. I consider BRT to be a lesser version of light rail, but this is likely the best we were going to get any time soon, so let’s not quibble while there is forward momentum.

As for streetcars, they’re basically light rail without the dedicated right of way, and as such they can and will get stuck in traffic just like buses would. Yes, I know there are things that can be done to mitigate that, but ultimately streetcars don’t add capacity, and that’s an issue. Especially with bus reimagining going on, I’d be hesitant to think too much about streetcars, but there are two situations where they might make sense. One is in areas where there’s enough road capacity to handle sharing a lane with streetcar tracks, and the other is as a short-distance extension of light rail. The Greater East End Management District plan cited above might be an example of the former; as it is intended to connect to the Harrisburg line, it also works for the latter. Another example of the latter I’ve been thinking of is a streetcar extension to light rail in the Medical Center, as there are now so many more buildings that are a decent walking journey away from the existing rail stops. I’m not exactly sure what route this thing might take – maybe something along MacGregor into Holcomb, then somehow to Old Spanish Trail? There are many details to work out – but you get the idea. You might be able to do the same sort of thing with shuttle buses, but streetcar tracks could be laid outside existing streets, and can be in closer proximity to pedestrians since their paths are completely predictable. I’m just thinking out loud here. The basic goal here is to increase capacity and make it easier for more people to travel to dense, hard-to-park places without cars. The more we all think about this stuff, the better off we’ll be.