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Mayoral debate #1

Who watched?

In the first televised debate in the Houston mayor’s race, three of the candidates jockeying to replace Mayor Annise Parker took aim at former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the agency’s allegedly low crime clearance rates.

The pointed effort marked a swift and telling segue from the candidates’ summer circuit of mostly small forums, featuring intermittent fireworks, to their biggest stage yet.

At the end of the debate, former Congressman Chris Bell, businessman Marty McVey and former mayor of Kemah Bill King all honed in on Garcia, a Democrat who many view as a frontrunner in the Nov. 3 balloting.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the first televised debate typically previews some of the battle lines and messaging beginning to emerge as the campaigns heat up.

Still, with the race crowded and the time limited to one hour Thursday, it was difficult for any one candidate to stand out. There was little new policy territory covered, but the candidates did find themselves on the hot seat, both with one another and the moderators, more than in previous settings.

“This (debate) rises above the clouds in terms of its prominence and its significance in that its audience is all of Houston, not just a specific interest group, and its medium is television instead of the best-case scenario a somewhat unreliable Web stream from a forum,” Jones said.

With State Rep. Sylvester Turner seemingly “close to invulnerable getting into the runoff,” Jones said, “pretty much everyone has an interest in taking a hit on Garcia.”

PDiddie was impressed by what he saw, Campos not so much. I confess I didn’t watch. I’m not a big fan of general interest candidate forums, which are especially hard to do with multiple candidates. You need to limit response times to give everyone a chance to speak, but that generally invites sound bite answers. I think forums that are focused on narrower and more specific topics can be more illuminating, partly because they often cover ground that gets very little attention overall, and partly because it gives you a chance to see who has actually thought about some of this stuff, and who is faking it.

And along those lines, there are a couple of upcoming specific-interest Mayoral forums coming up. On Thursday, September 10, Shape Up Houston and the Kinder Institute are hosting a forum on urban health and wellness. The forum goes from 8 to 9 AM with preliminaries beginning at 7 – see here for details and a list of sample questions. The event will be livestreamed here if you want to check it out. That evening at 7 PM, the Houston area Sierra Club, Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby with support of OilPatch Democrats will be hosting a forum on growth and climate change. That will be at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, see here for more information and to RSVP. Finally, there’s an event this morning at Rice hosted by Emerging Latino Leaders Fellowship, Mi Familia Vota, the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER), the Student Government Association at University of Houston-Downtown, and Young Invincibles on the subject of young adult and Latino community issues. It’s too late to attend if you wanted to – the venue is full – but this is one I wish I would have been able to see. I’m hoping it will be recorded, and if so I’ll post a link to the video. All of this is my longwinded way of saying that if you have an opportunity to go to an event like one of these, I recommend you take it. I think you’d learn more than you would watching a general purpose event. Just my opinion, of course, and your mileage may vary.

Houston Tomorrow versus Metro

David Crossley:

On November 6, you will be asked to vote on whether to stop expansion of light rail transit service in Houston.

If you think that’s a terrible idea, you must vote No.

If you do, you will be going up against some very powerful people and institutions.

But that’s what voters do, isn’t it? Be the deciders?

You’d be saying you’re opposed to elected officials and developers replacing 1,200 square miles of Houston farms and wilderness with sprawl.

But you’d be for a thriving, livable Houston region that people from around the world would want to live in to work, learn, and play in a healthy, happy, prosperous environment.

In the end, we citizens will decide this.

No Means More Transit. Vote No For More Transit.

They’re not alone in opposing the referendum.

Houston Tomorrow, along with the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Better Houston are starting a social media-driven campaign to get people to vote No to the METRO referendum. A no vote, they say, would allow METRO to keep all of its sales tax money and use it however they want.

METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia says it’s true that right now there’s no money for light rail. But he says the referendum will allow METRO to pay its current debt, which would allow them to borrow money for an additional light rail line.

“If we did not have this referendum and it did not pass, it would just be even longer before we could take on another rail project because we would need to do these two items — increase the ridership and pay down the debt to have greater capacity.”

I agree with what Chairman Garcia says. I’m going to vote for Metro’s referendum.

I do agree that this isn’t the best possible deal Metro could have gotten. Garcia’s original proposal to freeze the GMP payments at 2014 levels would have been better, but it got no support on the Board. The Houston Tomorrow story about the Board’s vote for the revised plan shows what Metro did in fact get.

The Metro Board on Aug. 3 had approved a rough draft for a referendum asking voters directly to approve allowing Metro to keep all of its sale tax revenue.

Board member Christof Spieler said he voted against the referendum language because it does not give enough money to transit, but admitted “this is probably the best deal we can get in the political climate of 2012.”

Not the best possible deal, but the best deal possible. The question you have to ask is whether this deal is better than the alternative of voting it down and thus ending the GMP. If it were to actually happen that the GMP would expire and Metro would get the full penny of sales tax, then clearly the answer is No. But what are the odds that will be the case? Chairman Garcia said after the original referendum that merely re-apportioned the GMP among member entities was proposed that the Board would create a new GMP, thus ensuring that the member entities would continue to get those funds in some form. From the KUHF story:

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who appoints five of METRO’s nine board members, says even if people vote against the referendum, METRO will likely continue sharing its sales tax revenue in a less formal way.

“If the referendum fails, the METRO board can decide anything they want to do with that money and I would fully expect them to commit, going forward, to continuing the general mobility payments in some form. It is naive and, frankly, foolish to simply assume that if it were voted down suddenly 100 percent of that money is spent exclusively on building rail in Houston.”

If that happens, David Crossley wonders why METRO is holding the referendum in the first place.

“They could just say to the voters here’s mud in your eye, just forget it, we don’t agree with your vote and we’re going to do what we want. But if the voters firmly say no, it’s a little hard for me to see how METRO says never mind that vote.”

Metro is required to have the vote, as Crossley knows. If the GMP as is ends, then the money goes to Metro, and the Board is presumably free to do with it as it sees fit. All of the member entities will be interested in spending some of that money on road-related projects. Maybe it’ll be ad hoc, maybe it’ll be some designated portion of the budget, who knows? Maybe that would turn out to be better for transit than Metro eventually getting about 82% of the sales tax revenue, as would be the case under the revised GMP, but it’s far from guaranteed. The bird in hand here is worth quite a bit. The contention that if the voters reject this deal it means they must have wanted more money to go to Metro is a bit of a stretch, too. All we can say for sure it that they didn’t like this particular deal. Maybe they would have preferred to keep the GMP exactly as it is now. Maybe enough people will have voted No because they don’t like Metro and didn’t pay any attention to the details. I wish I felt confident that the public would vote to give Metro more money, but as I said before, I don’t. Given that, I think this is a decent deal.

OK, but what about the restriction that Metro can only use the new funds for non-rail projects? For one thing, that’s only applicable to the extra funds Metro would be getting from revenue growth above what it would gotten under the current setup. Every other dollar Metro gets in it would still be free to use as it saw fit. Having more money available from one source to spend on bus service may well enable it to spend a bit less from the other, which could then be used on rail. But even if it doesn’t do that, the fact remains that Metro does need to spend more on bus service. It has taken money from bus service to spend on rail. Reversing that would allow Metro to fulfill the promise of improved bus service that was also in the 2003 referendum while taking a key talking point away from its critics. Chairman Garcia notes that by increasing overall system ridership via better bus service, that increases public support for Metro as it works towards getting the University and Uptown lines built. All of these are good things.

Finally, one cannot overlook crass political calculations. It was easy to see a path to defeating the original referendum, as the only entity that was likely to be happy with it was the city of Houston. Harris County, the small cities, and transit advocates were all unhappy with it, and I believe that would have been a big enough coalition to defeat the measure. I was prepared to vote against it. Here, it’s just transit advocates that are unhappy. It’s far from clear to me that they can muster up enough support to defeat this version of the referendum, especially if there’s a concerted effort in favor of it. One could argue that instead of working to defeat the referendum, it would be better to work on Metro to spend the extra money it will get, and the extra money it will have from its unrestricted sources as debt service gets addressed, in a way that transit advocates think is best. I’m sure they’ll be doing that anyway after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, but my way would probably be less awkward.

Basically, I don’t see the upside to voting against this referendum. I see the case for it, but not the case against it. I wish the referendum would have been better, but that fight is over. This is what we have to work with, and it’s good enough for me.

Metro floats compromise on mobility funds

As we know, Metro is preparing for a referendum this fall on the status of the general mobility fund, which is one fourth of the sales tax revenue Metro collects and which goes to Metro member cities for road projects. Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia has suggested freezing the payments after 2014, with any future revenue increases going back to Metro for transit work.

I sure hope we get to have all this some day

Freezing the payments would give Metro flexibility to invest more money in transit improvements, Garcia said.

“We’re looking to extend it on a fixed amount,” Garcia said. “We know they (the cities) need the funds and they go to good projects. The number one priority is to meet the needs of the community.”

Some transit supporters say Garcia’s proposal is a step in the right direction but would still consume funds needed to complete the light rail system. The coalition of multi-city mayors, however, wants the payments to continue in full.

“The 14 of us are not interested in capping our payments, and we will fight it,” said coalition chairman and Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen. “The whole problem with it is that people think Metro subsidizes us. It’s the reverse, we’re subsidizing Metro. We don’t intend to give them any more than what we’re giving today.”

Dan Barnum, a board member of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, suggested that Metro reduce the mobility payments to 10 percent. Expanding mass transit, he said, is essential if Houston is to remain competitive.

“I appreciate the difficult position they’re in, but it (the mobility payments) still takes a significant amount of money from valuable, needed projects and basically puts off completion of the light rail system,” Barnum said. “What we want is Metro tax dollars for transit and I think that’s what we should be doing.”

I am more sympathetic to Barnum’s position than I am to Owen’s, but I can live with Garcia’s compromise. If we’re going to have a public debate about the need for Metro to continue making these payments to the general mobility fund, we ought to have as much information as possible about the money involved. Owen claims that the small cities are subsidizing Metro. I presume by that he means that the 14 smaller cities contribute a larger share of sales tax revenue than they get back in general mobility funds. That’s an objective claim that ought to be easy enough to verify, and I call on Metro to provide those figures. Similarly, we should know what exactly the smaller cities are using their share of the mobility funds for. I have heard claims over the years that some of these cities get more mobility funds than they have road-related need for, and as such they are used as general revenue for them. I call on the 14 small cities to provide some accounting for how they use these funds. Let’s get all the cards on the table and come to an informed decision about the best and fairest way forward for everyone.

Grand Parkway news

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Sierra Club lawsuit to stop construction of the proposed SH99 toll road over the Katy Prairie will see its day in court by September,according to KUHF.

The Sierra Club filed suit against “the Federal Highway Administration due to the failure of that federal agency to do an adequate assessment of the environmental impacts of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E in western Harris County,” according to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, is moving forward with proposed SH99 toll road across the Katy Prairie, having received 23 letters of interest in a public private partnership to build the toll road, according to Project Finance.

I had noted that RFI last week. The Chron provides more details:

A list of the companies that responded is posted on the department’s Web site at www.gpprocurement.com. Their submissions, which were due July 6, have not been made public.

The list includes San Antonio-based Zachry Construction, which was also part of the Trans-Texas Corridor consortium; Balfour Beatty Capital, a U.S.-based arm of an English company; and China Construction America, a subsidiary of China State Construction Engineering Corp.

[…]

Robin Holzer, Citizens Transportation Coalition volunteer board chairwoman, said the coalition has no opinion about the firms on the list but is concerned about the details that end up in eventual contracts.

“It matters whether the state expects one of these companies to accept all of the project risk rather than pledging the full faith and credit of Texas taxpayers to back the project,” Holzer said. “At the end of the day, building a brand new toll road through undeveloped land is inherently speculative.”

Yes, I have a feeling that the public is going to be a substantial part of that public-private partnership. As for that lawsuit, it was filed in March of 2009. I don’t find any mention of it in my archives, so it escaped my notice at the time. You can see the Sierra Club’s complaint here. We’ll see how it goes.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Grand Parkway protest

From the inbox:

Misplaced priorities: $4.8 billion to advance SH-99 while US-290 commuters sit in traffic

Coalition to protest Grand Parkway as poster child of all that’s wrong with Texas transportation policy

(Houston, TX) – As TxDOT hosts the final public hearings on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) Wednesday, a broad coalition of groups will hold press events in two locations to challenge the misplaced priorities of the transportation agency.

While Harris County commuters suffer on 34 of the 100 most-congested roadways in the state, including US-290, the Texas Transportation Commission will squander our scarce tax dollars to fund the entire proposed 180-mile Grand Parkway around Houston.

TxDOT’s Commission voted on April 28, 2011 to make Grand Parkway Segment E a statewide “priority” and assigned ~$350 million of statewide discretionary funds to expedite construction. This April allocation increases TxDOT’s planned expenditures to more than $4.8 billion for the Grand Parkway over the next four years. The 41 planned expenditures affect all project segments (B, C, D, E, F1, F2, G, H, I1, and I2) except for A. The 180-mile project will skirt largely uninhabited and environmentally-sensitive areas. TxDOT’s John Barton described the Grand Parkway as “an opportunity to open up areas for development” in Northwest Harris County, subsidizing private land development, and inducing more new roadway congestion.

In contrast, TxDOT’s plan includes one-tenth that amount for US-290 projects, or just $468 million of the $2.3 billion needed for improvements TxDOT outlined in the US-290 Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS). According to the Texas Transportation Insitute, US-290 is the 11th most-congested highway in the state, affecting more than 230,000 Houston-area commuters daily. Other than some initial work on the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT will mostly leave these taxpayers waiting for relief.

What: Press conference
Who: Coalition of grassroots organizations opposed to squandering scarce transportation dollars on the speculative Grand Parkway, including:
Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Houston Tomorrow, and Sierra Club
When: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm, immediately before TxDOT meeting
Where: Outside in front of TxDOT’s Houston District offices, 7600 Washington Ave., Houston, 77007 (map)

“TxDOT’s unelected Commissioners have ‘found’ billions for a speculative toll road that will destroy the Katy Prairie in order to subsidize a few private land developers. Meanwhile, a quarter million taxpaying commuters will sit in traffic on US-290 indefinitely. TxDOT’s gross misallocation of our tax dollars is appalling,” says Robin Holzer, board chair of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC).

For more on this misallocation and how TxDOT could better use our tax dollars, see David Crossley’s recent oped, “Let’s tell TxDOT where to spend its $350 million

See here for more. Be sure to attend the TxDOT public meeting today from 4 to 6 to give your feedback on this. It’s at the TxDOT – Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave.

Bike to the ballpark

From the CTC email list, this is very cool:

Bike to the Ballpark – May 1

Play Green Week at Minute Maid Park runs today through Sunday, May 1st. Throughout the week, the ballclub will be raising awareness of green initiatives. Join the Astros on Sunday, May 1st for the first-ever Bike to the Ballpark!

Register online for just $10 and receive

:

  • Ticket to Astros vs. Brewers
  • Free Bike Valet secure bike parking in lot D
  • Complimentary bike inspection by Bike Barn mechanics
  • Event packet & Play Green goodie bag
  • Chance to win a free bike, courtesy of Bike Barn!

Once registered, each fan will receive a confirmation email. Please bring this email as your proof of purchase to pick up your event packet and game ticket.

What: Packet pick-up

When: Friday, April 29, 2011 from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and
Saturday, April 30, 2011 from 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm
Where: Union Station Lobby at Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

What: Late registration and group ride

When: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 9:30 am late registration, 11:00 am ride departs
Where: TC Jester Park, 4201 TC Jester Blvd, Houston, TX 77018 (map)

The group ride from TC Jester Park will follow a predetermined route leading to Minute Maid Park. The Houston Police Department and volunteers from Bike Houston and CTC will be on hand to lead the event, and provide traffic control throughout the route. Once at parking lot D, riders will receive goodie bags and tickets to the game.

What: Astros vs Brewers ballgame
When
: Sunday, May 1, 2011; 11:30 am gates open, 12:45 pm bike raffle, 1:05 pm game time, 7th inning first chance to be escorted back to TC Jester Park
Where: Minute Maid Park, 501 Crawford St., Houston, 77002 (map)

Bike Houston and CTC volunteers, along with HPD, will be available beginning at the top of the 7th inning to escort riders back to the starting locations. Groups will be escorted from Lot D every 30 minutes beginning at the top of the 7th.

More information is here, and you can see a map of the five-mile route from TC Jester Park to Minute Maid here. It follows existing bike paths all the way downtown, so you’re separate from traffic almost the entire time. If I weren’t already booked up for Sunday, I’d do it myself. Maybe next year. Let me know if you decide to go on this, I’d love to hear about your experience with it.

Harris County hands the Grand Parkway back to the state

Commissioners Court wants TxDOT to take over construction of the Grand Parkway.

Harris County took control of the project about 15 months ago in the belief that the Texas Department of Transportation did not have the money to build it, and that the county could come to an agreement with the state over how toll collections would be used.

Things have changed since then. First, County Judge Ed Emmett said, the Texas Transportation Commission has notified him informally that it expects to have $425 million available for the project this year.

Second, the county has not come to an agreement with the state on the use of toll revenues. The state has insisted that all toll revenue collected on the Parkway (also known as State Highway 99) needs to be spent on the Parkway itself.

The county wants to keep all the money collected on Harris County segments of the road in the county to pay for drainage projects, connector roads and other necessities the Parkway creates.

At a Transportation Commission meeting last week, Commissioner Ned Holmes said, “I think one of the challenges that Harris County faces is expending funds in counties that are not Harris County.”

[…]

“It is possible that the commission could commit some funding for Segment E in 2011,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Amacker, if the county decides to give the Parkway project back to the state.

“We do believe that it is an important high-priority project, not just for the Houston area but for the entire state,” she said.

And I think it’s a terrible boondoggle that’s primarily going to hugely subsidize development in currently unpopulated areas. Why that’s a better idea than working to improve the parts of town where the people actually live remains a mystery to me. This story was written before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, at which they officially approved the plan. Let’s just say I’ll be hoping that there’s enough chaos in the Lege to make TxDOT lower the priority on this. Houston Tomorrow and KUHF have more.

What’s going on with US 290?

500px-US_290.svg

Last week, I wrote about the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that TxDOT has filed for its proposed expansion of US 290. This is a huge proposal, with a price tag of $4.6 billion if all of it gets done, and it’s one that has a number of unanswered questions, as the Citizens Transportation Coalition has documented. I had the opportunity later in the week to hear CTC Chair Robin Holzer give a presentation on the status of this project and the issues that they have raised, and it was quite enlightening. There’s a lot going on with this project that I wasn’t really aware of, having to do with things like the Hempstead managed lanes, grade separations, and commuter rail, and I feel like there hasn’t been that much in the news about it. So I figured I’d try to do my part by interviewing Holzer about the project. Here it is:

Download the MP3 file

The CTC has a useful overview page that summarizes the issues and questions that remain about the 290 project. It also includes the CTC presentation (large PDF) that I heard Holzer give. If you want to get up to speed on all this, check it out.

The 290 FEIS

The prep work for the expansion/overhaul of US290 is entering its final stages.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed transportation improvements on the US 290/Hempstead Corridor is now available for review. The proposed US 290 Program Corridor begins at the IH 610/US 290/IH 10 Interchange in Houston, TX and extends northwestward to Farm-to-Market (FM) 2920 near Waller, TX for a distance of approximately 38 miles. The proposed enhancements include roadway improvements along a portion of US 290, construction of the new Hempstead Tollway and associated connections to IH 610 and IH 10 in Harris County.

All relevant documents are at that link. One reason why these things are made publicly available is so that all stakeholders can review them and offer feedback. The CTC has given the environmental impact statement a thorough going-over, and you can read their feedback here (large PDF). They pointed out a number of issues, not the least of which has to do with the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes.

At face value, this project includes both expansion of the US-290 main lanes and also construction of new managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Any reader of this FEIS is likely to assume that both 290 and Hempstead project elements will move forward in a coordinated fashion. In fact, TxDOT has repeatedly told the public that the Hempstead Managed Lanes will be constructed before US-290 construction begins, to give people travel options and minimize disruption during construction.

However, TxDOT only controls the US-290 portion of the project. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed SB 792, which specifically grants development rights for the Hempstead Managed Lanes to the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA). TxDOT has neither the authority nor the funding to develop this project.

This FEIS does not adequately reflect the separation of these two projects, nor does it address what happens if the County elects not to construct the Hempstead Managed Lanes. We urge FHWA to require TxDOT to prepare a supplemental FEIS which fully considers these impacts.

That’s quite a large assumption for this $4.6 billion project that involves taking a lot of property that hasn’t been addressed. One wonders where all those self-appointed Metro watchdogs are and why they’re not raising more of a fuss about that. Anyway, see what the CTC has to say, and we’ll see what if any response there is from the FHWA, which as we know is a lot easier to get money out of than the FTA.

IH-10/White Oak detention facilities public hearing

Via email from the CTC:

TxDOT is working toward adding frontage roads to IH-10 inside the loop and separating the depressed section of IH-10 from White Oak Bayou. TxDOT is required to provide new flood mitigation facilities to offset impacts to adjacent neighborhoods from these roadway changes.

TxDOT is proposing improvements intended to replace the volume of water currently contained by the depressed section of IH-10 west of White Oak Bayou which include:

  • Construction of two detention ponds
  • Reduction of embankments in the White Oak Bayou floodway
  • Removal of damaged railroad bridge which crosses White Oak Bayou, upstream from Yale

On Thursday evening, TxDOT will present the proposed sites for detention ponds, show preliminary engineering schematics, and share the results of environmental studies to date. This is your chance to get involved.

There will be a formal public hearing after the presentation to invite feedback regarding the current plans. Individuals will each have 3 minutes at the microphone to present comments. TxDOT will record all comments and prepare responses for a subsequent report.

What: TxDOT public hearing – IH-10 detention ponds
When: Thursday, Feb 18, 2010, 6:00 pm open house, 7:00 pm public hearing
Where: Reagan High School, 413 E 13th St, Houston, Texas 77008 (map)

In the meantime, please visit CTC’s online forum to read more about proposed IH-10 detention ponds near White Oak Bayou and share your thoughts.

Information about the previous meeting is here and here.

Bikes on trains action alert

Via email from Peter Wang:

Action Alert

Thursday, February 11, 2:00 pm
Support Bikes on Trains at the Houston Transportation Committee Meeting.
If you ride in Houston, please attend this important meeting!

Houston-area cyclists-

This Thursday, February 11, the Houston City Council Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee will discuss the METRO light rail construction.

Please attend and insist that METRO accommodate bicycles – both in the light rail cars and with on-street bike parking at stations.

Our friends at BikeHouston have asked BikeTexas to help get the word out to Houston residents to take time off work if possible to attend this meeting – it is that important.

Please ask the City Council and Mayor to influence METRO to include accommodations for bicycles in the light rail construction. For maximum multi-modal connectivity, any light rail project MUST allow bikes in the rail cars, and provide plenty of bike parking at the stations.

The meeting will take place at 2:00 pm, in City Council Chambers, 901 Bagby, 2nd Floor.

METRO was slow to accept the benefit of bike racks on their buses until cyclists spoke up – and as of January 2010, there have been more than 117,000 bike boardings on METRO buses. We can make a difference!

For background on this issue please see this website, by BikeHouston and Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.


Also posted here.

Public meeting for proposed IH-10 frontage roads on January 6

The following is from the most recent Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC) email newsletter.

Recognition that segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway is not “shovel ready” freed up more than $180 million of federal stimulus funding for other mobility projects. Some of that money was reallocated to pedestrian access projects in Houston. But the Texas Transportation Commission voted on Dec 17th to allocate $88 million of stimulus funds to extend new frontage roads along IH-10, inside the loop.

State Representative Jessica Farrar will host a public meeting on January 6, 2010 regarding the proposed frontage lanes. TxDOT has agreed to present all of the current design documents and answer questions about the project.

What: Informational meeting regarding proposed IH-10 frontage roads
When: Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010 from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm
Where: Stevenson Elementary School, 5410 Cornish, Houston, TX 77007 (map)

We encourage anyone who lives or works near IH-10 and White Oak Bayou, between Washington and Taylor, to consider attending this meeting.

Interestingly, this section of IH-10 is one of the least-congested highways in Houston, and it has functioned well without frontage roads for more than 50 years. We have heard no public demand to add them now. CTC’s board believes TxDOT could better invest stimulus funds elsewhere, on a project that maintains the existing roadway system or addresses a critical bottleneck.

However, if TxDOT is going to pursue this project, CTC calls on TxDOT to address several critical issues identified by the White Oak Bayou Association and other neighborhood leaders before moving forward. You can download CTC’s letter to TxDOT (1.5 mb PDF) for a detailed explanation:

  • TxDOT is proposing to advance the project to build new frontage roads along IH-10 but NOT the corresponding flood mitigation project. Given the potential adverse flooding impacts to adjacent neighborhoods in the White Oak Bayou watershed, it is imperative that TxDOT construct all necessary detention ponds for new frontage roads before or contemporaneous with their construction.
  • TxDOT has not hosted a public meeting regarding this project since 2003, and the area has attracted thousands of new residents and businesses in the interim. We urge TxDOT to hold a public hearing for both the frontage road project and the corresponding detention pond project, in January 2010, before moving forward to let contracts.
  • Volunteer engineering resources have identified several critical design issues with TxDOT’s current frontage road plans.

Public participation makes better projects. It’s essential for TxDOT to understand, and address public concerns before committing this project to concrete. If you’re unable to attend the Jan 6 meeting, you may send comments to:

Director of Project Development
Texas Department of Transportation
PO Box 1386  Houston  TX  77251-1386

You can also read more about the IH-10 reconstruction and frontage roads project and the IH-10 detention near White Oak Bayou project in CTC’s online forum.

You’ll definitely want to check out that letter to TxDOT about why the frontage roads are a bad idea, and why the detention ponds should come first regardless of what else TxDOT decides to do. And make plans to attend that meeting if you live in or around the affected area.

It’s hard out here on a pedestrian

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Houston is not a good city for pedestrians, at least from a safety perspective.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

[…]

The statistics are startling. Almost 5,000 pedestrians die in the U.S. after being hit by cars every year, according to the report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, two nonprofit, national coalitions that promote more efficient and equitable transportation policies.

All of the Top 10 dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the South, where new growth after World War II created development patterns that favor cars over pedestrians.

You can see the study here (PDF). I find myself in agreement with, and sharing the frustration of, Robin Holzer at the county’s attitude that they only build roads, not sidewalks. Seems to me they’re doing the residents out there a disservice, not to mention jeopardizing their health. But I suppose nothing will change until voters demand it. Swamplot has more.

What the candidates say about mobility

The Citizens Transportation Coalition has done a candidate questionnaire every election in which the hopefuls are asked a bunch of questions about various transportation-related topics. This year is no exception, and as always there are a lot of detailed questions and interesting responses. You can see them all here, with options to see all candidates’ answers back to back for each question, or to see all of a given candidate’s answers together. Check it out.

Roundabout

I drive through the Washinton on Westcott roundabout every now and then, and find it to be a more pleasant and efficient experience than waiting at a light or playing the “which one of us goes next?” game that you often get at a four-way stop. I’m told there are more such roundabouts in the works at some locations, with Washington at Heights and Yale being on the list. I’d driven through roundabouts elsewhere before – Tiffany and I took a trip to France just before Olivia was born, and the road from Paris to champagne country is littered with them – and find them easy to navigate, but they’re still pretty new here, and some folks may not know what to do with them.

There’s a bill related to roundabouts – HB2214 – that has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate that would require driver’s ed students to receive instructions on how to deal with circular intersections. Monica Savino, President of the WOW Roundabout Board of Directors, gave testimony to the House Transportation Committee in favor of HB2214 as follows:

Since its completion in 2006, our Roundabout has had great success in meeting our goals.

The rate of serious accidents has virtually disappeared and our rate of minor accidents is very small.

During the first full year of operation in 2006, the City of Houston documented only 10 accidents – all minor with no injuries.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that the modern roundabout is significantly more safe than a standard signalized intersection.

Mobility has been very good; currently, we move approximately 34,000 cars per day through the WOW Roundabout.

And we move them; vehicles don’t idle waiting for light changes, they don’t stop and start as they inch their way through the intersection when turns are made as in a four-way stop.

As a result, auto emissions are reduced as are other negatives that traffic congestion can bring.

During the days and weeks after Hurricane Ike, the WOW Roundabout performed as it does on any other day.

I have quickly located several new Roundabouts in the State and there are many more “on the boards”, as they say.

Traffic professionals and communities are finding in some cases that this is a more appropriate solution than the old-fashioned standard intersection.

The Federal Highway Administration is endorsing roundabouts for future projects.
We expect that Texans will see and drive through more Roundabouts in the future.

When WOW is asked by the community, “what are the proper procedures when driving through the roundabout?”, all we can do is direct them to one of the other states that makes this information available for their residents: Washington, Kansas, Colorado, Florida and New York. WOW would like the State of Texas to be the definitive resource for Texans.

Seems reasonable enough, wouldn’t you say? This CTC forum thread, from which I got Savino’s testimony, is asking folks to contact the members of the Senate transportation committee, which includes Sen. Rodney Ellis and Sen. Joan Huffman, to ask for their support of HB2214. A sample letter is included if you want to email or fax their office. HB2214 passed the House on a 142-2 vote, so it shouldn’t be controversial. It just needs to come up in time. And if you need a little incentive, try this:

The power of Jon Anderson and Chris Squire compels you.

Senate passes Safe Passing bill

Via email from the CTC:

On Tuesday, the Texas Senate passed the Safe Passing bill on the third reading. Thanks to each of you who contacted your senator: you helped make it happen!

Before it passed, Senator Patrick proposed two changes which were adopted in the final version of the bill. First, the safe passing provision would only apply when weather conditions allow. Second, the Senate removed the penalties for harassing and taunting. CTC has concerns over both amendments.

The House version of the bill was passed unanimously by the Transportation committee, with two amendments. The first amendment limits the safe passing provision to wider roads. For example, if your car breaks down on a four-lane road, motorists would be required to pass you safely; but if you break down on a two-lane road, they may not be.

The second amendment removed the “right hook” provision, which would require a motorist making a right-hand turn to yield to a vulnerable user, such as a pedestrian, before turning. Given the prevalence of motorists turning right while looking left, this provision remains important, and we hope it comes back.

The House version has not yet gone to the floor. That means our legislators retain the opportunity to strengthen the bill prior to voting on it. We hope they will. If you agree, be sure to tell your state representative.

Please visit this CTC forum thread for legislative updates on the Safe Passing bill.

MTB Law Girl has more on the changes made to the House version of the bill. Assuming it passes as well, there will be a conference committee to work out the differences. As always, there’s never a better time than now to contact your legislators and let them know how you feel about bills like this. BikeTexas has more.