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Department of Public Works and Engineering

The latest report on city finances

A little light reading for you.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Even after Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark pension reforms, the city of Houston is on pace to spend $1 billion more than it will take in over the coming decade, and must cut spending and raise revenue bring its annual budget into balance, according to an exhaustive new report.

Failing to do so, the authors state, risks letting the city inch toward insolvency with all the symptoms that accompany such a fiscal crisis: Worker layoffs, an erosion in police staffing, fewer library hours, decaying parks facilities, a hollowing out of the city as the suburbs boom.

The analysts from Philadelphia-based consulting firm PFM did not shy away from controversial recommendations, including some that would dramatically restructure city government.

Among dozens of other reforms, the authors suggest Houston should:

  • break up its mammoth Houston Public Works department and consolidate its finance, procurement, human resources, and information technology staff;
  • cut the $9.5 million annual subsidy to the Houston Zoo roughly in half;
  • shrink the Houston Fire Department by up to 845 positions through attrition and lengthen firefighters’ work weeks; reduce the number of fire stations; hire civilians to do fire inspections and take 911 calls; and raise ambulance fees;
  • hire civilians for the Houston Police Department to enable cops now doing administrative tasks to get back on patrol; free up officers’ time by arresting fewer low-level offenders and writing more tickets; use civilians to conduct crash investigations and issue non-moving traffic tickets; consolidate with Metro’s police staff, and, perhaps, local school districts’ too;
  • cut health benefits for active and retired city workers; and
  • submit trash pickup, building maintenance and street repairs to “managed competition,” giving all or part of each task to city departments or to private companies, whichever submits the most efficient proposal.
  • City Council hired PFM for $565,000 in 2016, Turner’s first year in office, to craft a 10-year financial plan. Turner made clear in comments last week, however, that he views some of the recommendations as impractical.

“When you talk about structural changes, just because it’s identified doesn’t mean it’s easily done. It’s not about taking a report and just implementing it,” he said. “There are some things that, from my vantage point, yes, we will accept. There are some things that are going to require additional study. There are some things that will be more long term. And then there are some things that we’ll never get there.”

The report is here; it’s quite long, but the executive summary is only 16 pages, so read that if you want a feel for it. At first glance, a lot of it sounds reasonable and even doable. I appreciate the fact that they recognize that revenue is part of the equation and that removing the stupid revenue cap would go a long way towards alleviating the problem. Some actions could be done by Mayoral fiat, some by Council action, and some will require negotiations with third parties and/or legislative approval. It’s always possible that a report like this becomes little more than a doorstop, but I think we’ll see at least some of it happen.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”

[…]

City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

Can we share these lanes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HCC Board censures Chris Oliver

It’s the most they can do.

Chris Oliver

The Houston Community College system’s board of trustees decided Thursday to reprimand a 21-year veteran of the elected board who has pleaded guilty to a federal bribery charge.

The board’s eight other members decried Christopher W. Oliver’s acceptance of unlawful payments as “reprehensible.” They voted unanimously to formally censure Oliver, strip him of his vice chair role, freeze his spending account and remove him from all committees, including the audit committee he had chaired.

[…]

Trustee Robert Glaser said the board acted as quickly as possible.

“We didn’t leave anything on the table,” he added.

“It affects us all,” said trustee Adriana Tamez. “This totally takes away from the great things that are going on. … There’s no excuse.”

[…]

The board’s bylaws lay out the group’s options in ethics situations: “If the Board finds a violation of this Ethics Code, it can reprimand or censure the Board member, the only sanctions available under Texas law.”

In general, elected officials cannot be removed by their colleagues. The underlying principle is that voters alone get to choose their representatives.

The HCC board’s legal counsel said Oliver still holds his position.

“The Board does not have the authority to remove a Board member from elected office,” the Bracewell law firm said in a statement emailed by HCC spokesman Todd Duplantis. “That process is governed by Texas law.”

The board’s counsel, Bracewell partner Jarvis Hollingsworth, told the Chronicle in 2010 that censure is the harshest punishment available to the board. Elected trustees only can be removed by state district judges, he said.

See here and here for the background. Given that the Board does not have the authority to remove Oliver from office, I agree that they did all they could. Given that Oliver has not yet resigned, I would still like to know what the process is for getting a district court judge to remove him. Is that something the Board can initiate? According to Robert Glaser, the answer to that is No:

[Oliver] is scheduled for sentencing August 28. The act of sentencing will remove him from office. Folks have from July 22 to August 21 to ‘throw their name in the hat’ to run for his seat this November. We may let the sentencing action play out- as that is going to happen in (6) weeks, anyway. It may take that long for anyone to get an action thru state court to get his removal completed. We, as a board, cannot initiate the action. An individual living in Harris County would need to initiate the action. This is from information provided to us by our legal counsel.

Good to know. As for Karun Sreerama, I’m not ready to render a judgment on him just yet. I haven’t called for Ken Paxton to resign as AG because as malignant as I think he is, he is still innocent until proven guilty. Sreerama has not been formally accused of any wrongdoing, nor does it appear he was let off the hook for anything in return for cooperation in the Oliver investigation. That doesn’t mean his behavior isn’t problematic or worthy of consequences, just that we have a lot less information right now about what he actually did and why he did it. Maybe he felt he was being coerced, or maybe he was acting out of a (possibly misguided) sense of compassion, I don’t know. If you want to make like Herodias and call for Sreerama’s head on a platter, you do you. I’d like to hear what he has to say for himself first. The Press has more.

Houston Public Works director caught up in HCC bribery case

Unclear yet how big a deal this is, but it is a big deal.

Chris Oliver

Houston Public Works Director Karun Sreerama made $77,143 in unlawful payments to a Houston Community College trustee who faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to bribery, according to federal court records.

The payments – made when Sreerama ran a private engineering firm – are related to an extortion and bribery case against 21-year HCC trustee Christopher Oliver, who was accused of taking payments and promising to use his position to help secure contracts with the community college system. The acting U.S. attorney has agreed to dismiss the extortion charge against Oliver in exchange for his guilty plea on the bribery indictment, court records show.

The extortion count lists an individual with the initials “K.S.” as a “victim” of “extortion under color of official right” carried out by Oliver between December 2010 and August 2013, meaning Oliver allegedly used his position as a public official to obtain an unlawful payment.

Sreerama’s attorney and two sources with knowledge of the case confirmed that Sreerama, who at the time owned the engineering firm and frequent public contractor ESPA Corp., is the person identified as “K.S.”

[…]

Houston attorney Chip Lewis, who is representing Sreerama, on Tuesday said his client was one of several targets of a “shakedown” by Oliver, and suggested broader fallout from the federal probe is to come.

Lewis said the payments in question were related to projects stemming from the college’s 2012 bond referendum.

“In doing the very diligent work the agents and prosecutors did in this case, they discovered Oliver soliciting and extorting Karun,” Lewis said. “When he was approached, he voluntarily met with the authorities and told them everything. Obviously, everything he told them checked out and was corroborated. That’s why he was a victim of Mr. Oliver’s scheme and not implicated in any criminal wrongdoing.”

Sreerama’s consent to the payments, as the Oliver indictment states, is not inconsistent with his status as a victim, Lewis said.

“Oliver made it very clear if Karun refused to make the payments that are reflected in the indictment he wouldn’t get the contracts,” the attorney said.

ESPA conducted facility studies for the college system in the years preceding and at the time of the payments, including a master plan that projected the system’s building needs through 2035.

See here for the background. Ted Oberg at KTRK adds a few more details.

According to Sreerama’s attorney, Chip Lewis, Trustee Oliver approached Sreerama three times asking for money. At the first meeting, Oliver allegedly told Sreerama he was going through a divorce and could not pay expenses for two households. Sreerama allegedly loaned Oliver thousands of dollars after that meeting. It was never paid back.

At a second meeting, Lewis told ABC13 Investigates, Oliver explained he was adopting a child and needed to have a particular balance in his bank accounts. Lewis says Sreerama again gave Oliver thousands of dollars.

The third time, Sreerama agreed to hire Oliver’s construction site clean-up company to sweep a strip mall for Sreerama.

According to the court documents, the payments totaled $77,143.34. Lewis did not dispute the amount and said Sreerama cooperated and his bank provided canceled checks to the FBI. Sreerama is not under investigation, Lewis said.

On Wednesday in the late morning, after this story was published, Mayor Turner put out a statement that says he is “placing city Public Works and Engineering Director Karun Sreerama on administrative leave with pay” while he reviews the matter. The Mayor also said he “was not aware of the federal case until this week”, which puts him in the same boat as the rest of us but makes one wonder what Sreerama had to say about this during his hiring process. I can believe that Sreerama didn’t know about the case against Oliver, but one would hope that he knew that these payments were questionable at best. Did the subject ever come up, or was his future boss completely blindsided? I can’t speak for Mayor Turner but it would make a difference to me.

As for Oliver, the HCC Board has called a meeting for today to discuss what happens next. Trustee Robert Glaser has been posting about this on Facebook, and he notes that the Board does not have the legal authority to boot Oliver off. Only a state district court judge can do that, though what the process for that is was not specified. The Texas elections code states that “To be eligible to be a candidate for, or elected or appointed to, a public elective office in this state, a person must […] have not been finally convicted of a felony from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities”. Oliver does not get sentenced till August 28, and I don’t know if he is “finally convicted” until he is sentenced. He can, of course, choose to resign, as the Chron urges him to do. If for whatever the reason Oliver does not do that, then the HCC Board needs to figure out how to get a judge to force him out. This should not be up for debate. Campos and the Press have more.

Smarter streets

They’re coming soon to Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be careful what you flush

Yeesh.

Grease blockages are the main cause of Houston’s epidemic of sewer overflows, a problem so widespread that it has drawn the city into negotiations with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The multibillion-dollar enforcement action that could result – likely increasing residents’ water bills – would be aimed at limiting raw sewage spills by replacing pipes and ramping up maintenance and education.

Houston, in other words, has enough sewer problems without residents making things worse.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering pamphlet, for instance, also urges residents to stop flushing paper towels, baby wipes and diapers. Many “flushable” products carry that label because they won’t plug a toilet, not because they won’t block a city sewer pipe, Houston’s wastewater division director Jason Iken said.

Any modern toilet will flush a tennis ball, for instance. But for that 2.7-inch diameter ball to avoid plugging a sewer line – most of which are 8 inches in diameter – that pipe had better be free of grease, mud and tree roots.

That’s not the half of it.

Microwaves, bowling balls, rolled up carpets, shopping carts, car bumpers, water heaters, tires, two-by-fours, hard hats, fence pipes, Beanie Babies (when those were hot) – even, city records show, “body parts” have turned up in Houston’s sewers – though Iken said that last one did not ring a bell. Larger items aren’t flushed, of course, Iken said, but tend to find their way into larger pipes via vandals or careless work crews.

Given that a big part of the problem here is simple ignorance, perhaps what is needed here is a public service campaign to deliver the message of Things You Should Not Wash Down Your Drain Or Flush Down Your Toilet. A few Youtube videos, promoted on social media, would probably get some attention and do at least a little good, at a reasonable cost. Just a thought. In the meantime, put grease and those “flushable” baby wipes in the trash, OK? Thanks.

Potholing

The city’s pothole repair program seems to be going well.

Faster response by city crews to resident-reported potholes has saved thousands of drivers a bumpier ride around Houston the past six months, though officials warn there’s a long way to go before local streets are smooth driving.

Since Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on Jan. 4 that resident-reported potholes would be assessed within 24 hours and filled the next business day, more than 3,400 potholes in the city have been patched because of calls to 311 or online reports from residents. That’s at least 600 more filled potholes than all of 2015, based on city records, though some accountings of the number filled differ.

“The voters demanded pothole repair and I think that was a core area in the election and they got it,” said Mark Klein, president of Super Neighborhood 12, bounded by where Loop 610 and U.S. 290 converge and extending north to Pinemont-area neighborhoods.

[…]

The number of potholes filled by the city because of calls from residents, however, is a fraction of the number of potholes actually filled in Houston. By some measures, overall pothole repairs are down from a peak in mid-2015. According to the key performance indicators report prepared by Houston Public Works each month, from February to May the city filled fewer potholes this year than in 2015.

The figures used and verified by the city’s “Pothole Tracker” website, meanwhile, show the total number of potholes increasing. Eric Dargan, deputy public works director over the streets and drainage division, said the calculations are different because the internal performance measures all potholes, while the pothole tracker tracks work orders. Multiple potholes could be filled on a single work order, Dargan said.

Despite differing figures, Dargan said he’s confident Houston’s 16,000 lane miles of street are in better shape, while he cautions there is much more work to do to fill potholes.

“The formula is right, the question is how much funding we have for maintenance,” Dargan said, explaining street repairs vary from simple potholes to complete street rebuilds with sewer pipes, such as the recent work on Shepherd south of Buffalo Bayou. “I would love to get my assets on a 10-year cycle. We are nowhere close to that.”

Here’s the city’s pothole page, if you’re into that sort of thing. Fixing potholes is good, and increasing people’s faith that calling 311 will make something happen is better, but completing the Rebuild Houston project is critical, as it addresses the long-term issues that attention. In the meantime, though, go ahead and call 311 or use the app and report that pothole that’s been bugging you. You’ll feel better once you do.

How much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

Whatever your answer to that question is, the real answer is that it could be quite a lot.

Years of Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes belching raw waste into residents’ yards and city streets have City Hall facing a federal decree that sources say could force the city to invest $5 billion in upgrades.

As in dozens of cities across the country, the looming Environmental Protection Agency mandate likely will force Houstonians to pay sharply higher water bills to fund the improvements.

[…]

As is the case in Wood Shadows, many of Houston’s sewer overflows reach local bayous and breed bacteria. These violations of the Clean Water Act create health risks severe enough that experts advise against swimming in local waterways, 80 percent of which fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than face a lawsuit from the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, city officials have spent the last few years negotiating a so-called consent decree, a binding agreement that specifies projects aimed at reducing spills by upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how they can avoid clogging Houston’s 6,700 miles of sewers, such as not pouring grease down the drain.

EPA officials declined comment, and city leaders have resisted discussing details of the talks, but three sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the efforts expected to be required under the mandate could cost an estimated $5 billion.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged the negotiations are “significant,” and said he has discussed the decree directly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and plans to soon meet with Houston’s Congressional delegation on the issue.

“We are not opposed to making improvements, but we want the costs to be reasonable and spread out over the next 20 years so we can avoid any dramatic spiking of ratepayer rates,” Turner said. “Negotiations are ongoing on all fronts.”

Brent Fewell, an environmental consultant and former top official in the EPA’s water division, agreed that getting more time to comply with a decree can curtail a rate hike. Still, he said, Houstonians should expect to pay more.

“These are big-ticket items. They’re not cheap, and it definitely has an impact,” Fewell said. “There are some communities that have seen as much as 100 percent to 150 percent increases in their water rates based on these consent decrees.”

Houston’s sewers have lagged since the city’s first postwar boom, with City Hall, critics say, tending to make fixes only when forced to by regulators.

Whatever sewage treatment plants could not handle in the 1960s was dumped straight into the bayous, making Houston for decades the region’s single worst water polluter. The Texas Attorney General took the city to court over the issue in 1974, securing a judgment that restricted Houston’s development until new plants were built.

Those investments did not end the spills, however, so another round of decrees spurred a mid-1990s effort that repaired a quarter of the city’s sewer pipes and upgraded many treatment plants and pump stations.

Even that $1.2 billion program didn’t fix the problem, leading to another 2005 state mandate that Houston is scheduled to satisfy this month. That mandate was to replace 1,800 miles of pipe, clean twice that much, and cut grease clogs by passing an ordinance requiring restaurants to clean their grease traps.

For a bit of extra credit, do some reading over at the city’s Wastewater Operations page. I’m reminded of a story I heard from the professor of an urban history class I took in college. He talked about how in New York, specifically in Manhattan, the upper classes lived farther north in the pre-indoor plumbing days, and thus were first in line to both cook and wash with, and dump their waste into, the Hudson and East Rivers. Those of lesser means, who lived south – that is, downstream – from there, were thus “literally eating shit”, as he put it.

Try to keep that in mind when you read this story, because it’s our sewer system and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to avoid a similar fate. Whatever the city negotiates with the EPA, the cost of building more capacity and fixing old leaks will be passed on to all of us, and no one will like it. If you want to blame someone for it, blame all the public officials og generations past that failed to maintain the city’s water infrastructure, and the voters who let them get away with it. It will not be much fun fixing this problem, but the alternatives are all much worse.

Meet the toucan light

The first of its kind in Houston, though maybe not the last.

Not that kind of toucan

The new traffic signal suspended above Appel at Yale and Seventh is a first for Texas, but also an adjustment for residents – some of whom are unsure of its benefit.

Called a toucan, as in “two can go,” the signal gives pedestrians and bicyclists a red-yellow-green signal and stops vehicular traffic with a traffic light at the touch of a button. In other spots around Houston, pedestrians can activate walk signs or flashing red lights. Cyclists along Lamar receive a special traffic light along the street’s green cycle path.

The toucan takes the signal to another level, said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works, who oversees traffic management.

“The (traffic) volumes on 7th are not really there,” he said. “It will never meet the warrants for a regular traffic signal.”

However, the trail – often bustling with joggers and cyclists and strollers – has enough demand to command its own green lights to stop traffic. Trail users can activate the signal with a button, similar to pedestrian crossings at major intersections. Drivers stop as they would in any other traffic signal circumstance.

“It’s a traffic signal to them, no difference at all,” Weatherford said.

The timing is set to give pedestrians time to cross the street. As trail use increases in various spots around Houston, Weatherford said the toucan signals could be installed in other spots where practical and when funding allows it.

[…]

Trammell Crow Residential, developers of two apartment buildings along Yale near the trail, paid for the toucan’s analysis and construction, estimated to cost between $150,000 and $200,000, said Ben Johnson with Trammell Crow.

The company agreed to pay for the signal during discussions with residents skeptical about the developments, which are expected to increase traffic on Yale.

The city will pay for maintenance and operations, including the cost of electricity to operate the signals.

The trail’s new location, however, has alarmed some. To line up the signal with Seventh, a requirement of state traffic codes, the trail curves headed east and deposits cyclists and pedestrians on the east side of Seventh into a median installed in the middle of the street.

The center location is less safe, said Shirley Summers, as she pushed her daughter Molly, 2, in a stroller.

“Cars turning right can’t see where I’m going,” she said last week.

I’m glad to see this, because crossing Yale at that location is indeed scary – traffic is heavy, there’s four lanes of it, and pretty much nobody pays attention to the speed limit. If this works as hoped, I’d suggest the city look at installing another one of these on 11th Street where the trail that runs along Nicholson crosses, because it’s the exact same situation. A word of warning, via a comment on Facebook, is that cars apparently don’t always respect the light at the head of the TC Jester trail. Having now driven past this light on Yale headed northbound, I can tell you that it’s actually kind of hard to see the light as you approach it from 6th Street. There’s a tree on the east side of Yale that blocks your view of the light (or at least, it blocked mine) until you’re quite close to it. Might be a good idea for the city to look into that, and also for HPD to have some traffic enforcement there in the early going. I sure hope this does what it promises to do. What do you think?

More speed bumps coming

Like ’em or not.

Houston officials are speeding up the process of slowing down residential street traffic.

A laborious process to improve traffic and safety by installing traffic calming devices such as speed humps is radically streamlined in a new method by the city’s public works department, unveiled Monday at a City Council committee meeting. Council members applauded the change.

“I am doing the happy dance here,” said District K Councilman Larry Green, whose southwest Houston area has some of the neighborhoods that have waited the longest for relief from speeding cars.

In the future, with demand for speed humps high in many areas, public works will no longer require traffic and speed analyses, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said.

“We believe all local neighborhood streets should automatically qualify for speed control if they want it,” Weatherford said, citing overwhelming evidence that pedestrians and bicyclists are safer with lower residential street speeds.

The change would only apply to residential streets, where speed humps are practical, and not thoroughfares that carry far higher volumes of traffic.

[…]

In the past, neighbors upset at a cumbersome city process left dissatisfied, especially when the analysis found they didn’t have a speeding issue. Residents would then frequently ask public works to assess the traffic volume, which would start the process over again.

When requests from residents come to public works in the future, staff will analyze the neighborhood and then deliver their recommendations to the district council member for the area.

Pending approval from the council member, public works will then coordinate construction of the speed humps. Plans are devised for entire neighborhoods, often a 10- to 20-square block area between two major streets. Public works will normally consider streets best suited for traffic calming, then locate humps, medians and other features where appropriate to control speed.

District D Councilman Dwight Boykins noted the city successfully dealt with fast-moving vehicles crashing in a curve in a residential area by placing the humps not at the curve, but leading to it.

Under the old way, however, that process often took nine months to complete. The new method that reduces studies decreases it to six to eight weeks, but it also puts a lot more responsibility in the hands of council members, [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

I confess, I hate these things. I hate driving over them, and will go out of my way to avoid them. But I understand why we have them, and I’ve seen more than enough jackwads doing in excess of 40 on residential streets to accept them without complaint. Well, OK, with a bit of whining, but without any expectation of sympathy. If we want safer streets and fewer traffic fatalities – and we do, or at least we should – then this is a part of that. I’ll just have to suck it up.

Flooding as election issue

I suppose this was inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing pothole procedures

Mayor Parker seeks to reduce the number of campaign issues for this fall by half.

City officials are hoping to replace more concrete segments of streets in lieu of simply patching over Houston’s many potholes, part of an emergency response that Mayor Annise Parker called for earlier this year when she branded the onslaught of road maintenance needs a “crisis situation.”

City Council on Wednesday will consider approving a series of contracts with a combined emergency spending authority of up to $5.6 million, enough to replace more than 550 concrete panels. Public Works and Engineering officials also want to spend that cash, part of the city’s Dedicated Drainage and Street Renewal Fund, more quickly than usual; the agenda item would not require work associated with the contract to come back to City Council.

The replacements will go to roads identified through calls to the city’s 311 line, with an emphasis on major thoroughfares, said department spokesman Gary Norman. The focus will be on roads not already scheduled for work on the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan, but Norman said there may be some exceptions.

All of the panel work should be completed in the next 180 days, weather permitting.

“This is work that might have taken years to complete without this extra funding,” Norman said in an email, “instead we are able to do it now.”

The idea is to create a second tier of pothole repairs, doing more substantive work on pockmarked roads that aren’t scheduled for major work or reconstruction under the city’s five-year capital improvement plan.

Short of road reconstruction, concrete panel replacements are considered among the more expensive and substantive repairs. The work can be time consuming, pulling up a bad panel and then completely replacing it with a new concrete one rather than simply sending a truck out to quickly fill it with asphalt. About 60 percent of Houston’s streets are made up of a series of concrete panels.

The emergency spending authority won’t cure the city’s massive pothole problem, nor will it address what Mayor Annise Parker and public works officials say is the fundamental problem – that potholes are merely a symptom of chronic underinvestment in roads during the past few decades. But public works officials say it marks an important shift in philosophy, noting they have never before done concrete panel replacement on this scale.

“What you are actually witnessing is a transition in philosophy with respect to ‘just go out there and fix it’ as opposed to ‘let’s go fix it with a more permanent fix where we’re able to,'” Public Works Director Dale Rudick told a City Council committee this month. “And that of course takes resources.”

See here for the background. Council did approve the funds so look for this kind of construction near you. They’ve been doing this very work on Studemont just south of I-10, in front of the Kroger, and it’s a vast improvement over the moonscape that was there before. Now that we have this solved, I guess we can spend the next six months talking about getting tough on pensions, because there aren’t any other issues for the upcoming election. Woo hoo!

Fixing sidewalks

I like this.

Houston’s leaders often decry the condition of city sidewalks, whether missing, overgrown or buckled by tree roots. Then there’s the safety risks when pedestrians are forced to walk on the crumbling concrete or adjacent streets.

But the city is unwilling to assume responsibility for all sidewalks in Houston – or foot the accompanying billion-dollar bill. That’s why Mayor Annise Parker and City Council members instead are discussing making it easier for homeowners to keep their own sidewalks up to par.

The council [considered] hiring two sidewalk repair contractors with whom fixed prices have been negotiated, as well as changes to city rules that would waive the need to submit detailed plans up front and more than $100 in permitting and related fees homeowners today must pay when replacing sections of sidewalk.

Countless homeowners do not know city rules make them responsible for their own sidewalks, Parker said, but for those who know, the new program could help residents unsure of whom to call for a fix.

“This is designed to allow an easy process for a citizen to say, ‘I want to repair my sidewalk, I want a contractor I can trust, I want to know what the fair price is,’ ” Parker said. “They don’t have to hire our contractors, but we’ve vetted the contractors, we’ve established a price. Even if they don’t use ours, we think it will be helpful because they can go and say, ‘I can go to the city and this is what I’ll pay … can you beat that price?’ ”

The program would allow residents to fill out a form on the Department of Public Works and Engineering website, triggering a visit from a city employee who would decide if the repair was feasible, and, if so, give the homeowner a cost estimate. The homeowner could then pay the city, which would collect a 7 percent administrative fee and pass the rest of the money to one of the preselected contractors. City staff would inspect the company’s work afterward.

The ordinance was passed unanimously by Council on Wednesday. You did know that homeowners are responsible for fixing their own sidewalks, right? As the story notes, this is far from unique to Houston. Ideally, what this plan will do is make it easier, and perhaps a bit cheaper, for someone who wants to do that to get it done. How much effect that will have is unclear to me, but it’s a simple enough thing to do and it won’t cost the city anything. There’s plenty of sidewalk to fix in this town, so every little bit helps.

Pothole progress

Hooray.

Two months after Mayor Annise Parker called Houston’s pockmarked streets a “crisis situation” and pledged to clear a mounting pothole repair backlog, the city has reduced open work requests by about 1,000 despite a steep increase in calls for repairs.

The welcome news for Houston drivers tired of dodging pesky potholes is tempered by the fact that crews are still more than two months behind keeping pace with incoming requests. But the city’s response has dramatically improved, Deputy Public Works Director Eric Dargan told a City Council committee Tuesday.

Using increased funding made available last summer but only recently spent, added crews and contractors on the streets along with more hours worked have helped winnow the 3,794 requests for pothole patches in January down to 2,769, Dargan said. The city has also nearly tripled the number of potholes filled during the past two months compared with the same time period in 2014.

Council members largely lauded the improvements Tuesday and commended Dargan for leading a response to what he called a “heightened sense of urgency” around the city’s pothole problem.

“Voters want the pensions fixed and the potholes fixed,” Councilman Jack Christie said. “That is the two greatest things that you could please the citizens with.”

Other changes the department has made since Houston’s pothole problem came to a head in 2014 are largely administrative and, seemingly, long overdue: using a Google maps-based management system to more efficiently map service requests, sorting out duplicate complaints and tracking time spent investigating problems.

[…]

Houston’s increasing pothole problem is driven by a range of factors, but chief among them is under-investment in city streets over the years that have left drivers facing ever bumpier roads, especially in older parts of the city.

But Dargan also attributed the steep rise in calls to media attention. A slew of reports about the lingering pothole problem spurred Parker to call the situation an emergency in early February.

In particular, Parker and the public works department came under fire for having spent only about 20 percent of a $10 million pot of extra funding the city approved last summer specifically to speed up street repairs.

Parker said the city took too long to get contracts in place to complete the work, and she vowed to speed up the process before she leaves office.

As of the end of March, the city had spent more than $7 million of the money allocated for street repair, lining up on-call contractors to supplement city staff.

I haven’t really followed this, but it’s been a thing on Teh Twitters – with hashtags! – so I’m sure you can find some background if you want. Could this have been managed better by the city? I’m sure it could have been. Is this the most important campaign issue of the year? No.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Downtown dedicated bike lane delayed a bit

Aiming for the end of the year now.

Conversion of a traffic lane on Lamar into Houston’s main bike route through downtown has been delayed as officials finalize plans and wait for in-demand humps known as “armadillos” to arrive.

Department of Public Works and Engineering officials initially said work would start on the lanes in September and finish in a few weeks. Now they hope to have cyclists cruising the green lane along Lamar by the end of the year, said Jeff Weatherford, the city’s traffic operations director.

One of the last steps will be installing “armadillos” – rubberized humps that separate vehicle lanes from the nine-foot-wide bike path. A European company is the only supplier of armadillos, and with their growing popularity they are on back-order, Weatherford said.

[…]

Creating the lane required some tough choices, Weatherford said, and weeks of work remain. Officials chose Lamar because other streets from Discovery Green to Sam Houston Park either had higher traffic volumes or posed greater risks for cyclists because of drivers entering and exiting Interstate 45 and Allen Parkway.

The bike lane will occupy the southernmost lane of Lamar, a space now used for parking except during peak commuting periods.

The conversion to a two-way bike lane will take about six or seven weeks, Weatherford said, with work occurring on weekends to avoid commuting traffic. Because the bike lane is on the south side of the street, new street crossings are planned near the two parks. City law prohibits cyclists from riding in crosswalks – technically, they should dismount and walk the bike across – though the law is rarely enforced.

“Still, I want it to be something that doesn’t force someone to break the law,” Weatherford said.

See here for the background. I work near where this work is going to be done, and I’m looking forward to it. I plan to take some pictures once the lane has been painted green and those “armadillos” have been installed.

A bike lane to connect to bike trails

Makes sense.

Houston may get its first protected on-street bike route as early as October, as city officials prepare to convert a lane of Lamar Street downtown into a two-way cycling path connecting the popular Buffalo Bayou trails west of downtown to Discovery Green and points east.

The nearly three-quarter-mile connector, from the east end of Sam Houston Park to the edge of Discovery Green, will be painted green and separated from the remaining three lanes of traffic by a two-foot barrier lined with striped plastic humps known as “armadillos” or “zebras,” said Laura Spanjian, the city’s sustainability director.

Signals will be added at intersections to direct cyclists headed east on one-way westbound Lamar. Officials hope to begin work in September and open the lane in October.

Michael Payne, executive director of Bike Houston, said the 11-block dedicated lane will be a crucial link to safely get cyclists from the Buffalo Bayou trails to the well-used Columbia Tap Trail east of downtown that runs past Texas Southern University. A link from that trailhead to the George R. Brown Convention Center is under construction.

“The key here is that physical separation, which makes cyclists feel more comfortable, that their space is defined,” Payne said. “When you’re on a bike route you’re right out there with the traffic. The whole objective here for Houston is to develop infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable, safe and encourages them to get out of their houses and out of their cars and use their bicycles both for recreation and for transportation.”

[…]

Jeff Weatherford, who directs traffic operations for the city’s Department of Public Works and Engineering, said Lamar was chosen in part because the lane being converted is devoted to parking except during rush hours.

The other available streets that had a parking lane to give were Walker, McKinney and Dallas, but Weatherford said Walker and McKinney see higher speeds and more traffic movement because they become Interstate 45 on-ramps. And along Dallas, downtown boosters plan retail-oriented improvements. Lamar is the default choice, he said.

Average traffic counts show Lamar also carries fewer cars daily than the other three streets considered. At its busiest, between 4 and 5 p.m., Lamar averages 1,240 vehicles between Allen Parkway and Travis. East of Travis, the counts drop sharply; the blocks of Lamar closest to the convention center, at their busiest, see fewer than 200 cars per hour.

There are a few complainers, of course, but there always will be for something like this. You can see with your own eyes that Lamar is less trafficked than Walker or McKinney, and the connections to I-45 are definitely a key part of that. What makes bike trails effective as transportation, not just as leisure or exercise, is connectivity. The trails themselves are great because they’re safe, efficient ways to travel by bike. Connecting the trails in this fashion makes them that much more effective and gives that many more people reasons to use them. Is it going to magically un-congest our streets of vehicular traffic? No, of course not. Nothing will do that short of a massive paradigm change. But it will give a larger number of people the option of not being part of that congestion, for little to no cost. What more do you want? Houston Tomorrow has more.

Transforming the GRB Convention Center

I don’t think I’d realized that there was a renovation of the George R. Brown Convention Center in the works, but after reading this story, I’m excited about it.

George R. Brown Convention Center

By late next year, people strolling the George R. Brown Convention Center plaza can take in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, landscaped walk-ways and a water fountain. At night, if all goes according to plan, they’ll be treated to a fog and light display.

By the time the Super Bowl rolls around in 2017, the plaza is expected to host a party for 100,000.

Those plans are much grander than when the project was initially bid a year ago. They evolved into a full-blown re-imagining of the area surrounding eastern downtown’s Discovery Green park.

Marie Hoke, a principal at WHR Architects and the project’s lead architect, says she has never worked on a design job that has expanded as much as this one – fitting, perhaps, given the 48-year-old Houstonian’s self-described penchant for “stretching, reaching and not leaving well enough alone.”

Hoke spent her earliest years in her mother’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador. She said she feels at home in a melting pot city like Houston, a place “where you don’t have to leave your culture of origin behind.”

“There is an opportunity to synthesize who you are into something new. We’re all kind of hybrids in Houston, comfortable with each other’s cultures.”

[…]

The original proposal Houston First sent to the architectural firms was more modest, Hoke said. It called for a mixed-use parking garage with some office space, and it included a vague reference to making the convention center more pedestrian-friendly.

After Hoke’s team won the bid, she and representatives of WHR and Houston First visited convention centers in other U.S. cities and came back with “game-changing” ideas, she said.

In Anaheim, Calif., they realized they could take buses off the front of the convention center and have drop-offs at the building’s sides, she said. In Chicago, they saw beautifully integrated public art.

A plan to add three restaurants in the area has grown to eight or nine.

And after Hoke brought SWA landscape architects on board, the project “caught fire” with ideas for the plaza, she said.

The city’s Public Works Division and Houston First are in talks to change the lane configurations on Avenida De Las Americas to allow more room for people to roam in the plaza, she said.

Once completed, the plaza “will take on the feeling you have in Discovery Green and extend it to the convention center,” Central Houston president Bob Eury said.

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a group focused on local quality-of-life issues, said: “This is really beautiful stuff and revolutionary in Houston.”

That’s quite the endorsement. Discovery Green has been transformative, not just in the sense of turning an ugly vacant lot in an unloved part of downtown into a beautiful and heavily used city park, but also in the sense of spawning a lot of good construction around it, some of which is still underway. As someone who works within walking distance – or at least B-cycling distance – from Discovery Green and the GRB, I’m definitely intrigued by that news about the eight or nine restaurants. We’ve been hearing about this for almost three years now, and we’re still a ways off from its completion. I’m really eager to see how it all turns out.

Yale Street Bridge load limit reduced again

From the inbox, via CitizensNet:

Yale Street Bridge Load Limit Further Reduced by TxDOT

City of Houston Takes Proactive Steps to Monitor Bridge Usage

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has reduced the load limit on the Yale Street Bridge just south of Interstate 10 from 8,000 lbs. per single axle to 3,000 lbs. per single axle. A standard passenger car with two single axles and a maximum weight of 6,000 lbs. (3,000 lbs. x 2 axles) would meet the new limit, but certain pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles may exceed the new limit.

The change is not indicative of any recent deterioration in the bridge’s physical condition. It remains safe, but should be used within the new posted load limits. All required signs are now posted, north and south of the bridge, establishing the new load limit.

The Houston Public Works and Engineering Department is exploring options for additional signage to better notify motorists of the new limits. The Houston Police Department will continue to monitor traffic in the area to assure the load limits are enforced. Additionally, the City of Houston will, initially, monitor bridge traffic using a donated camera to assess compliance with the new limits.

The Yale Street Bridge is on a TxDOT prioritized list for statewide funding for replacement, with construction anticipated to start in late 2016. In the meantime, the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department will continue to routinely inspect the bridge for any change in conditions and intends to perform low-cost rehabilitative actions that will allow the bridge load restrictions to be raised back to those previously posted.

With the completion of Koehler between Heights and Yale, there is now an easy alternative route around the Yale Street Bridge via the Heights Boulevard Bridge for northbound and southbound truck traffic. The Heights Boulevard Bridge does not have load limits.

For more information contact Alvin Wright at Alvin.wright@houstontx.gov.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Chron explains what this means in practical terms.

That will put most sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks – even some minivans – over the limit, said Sgt. Teresa Curry with the Houston Police Department’s truck enforcement unit.

“The problem is that pretty much everyone is going to be violating that provision,” she said.

Janice Evans-Davis, spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, said Friday that city and state engineers have determined that the bridge is safe but cautioned that people need to be aware of the load limit.

“If your vehicle is outside the limit, we urge you to go one block east and use the Heights Boulevard bridge as an alternative,” she said. “It doesn’t have a load limit.”

[…]

Given the impossibility of going after every violator, Curry said police will focus on large trucks, which arguably do the most damage to the bridge that’s near the new Heights-area Walmart under construction at 111 Yale.

“My theory is that the 80,000-pound truck is much more of a problem than the smaller vehicle,” she said. “Our enforcement efforts will be directed to trucks that are disregarding the signs.”

Enforcement will include having truck scales at the bridge, said HPD spokesman Victor Senties.

I’d avoid this if at all possible. This press release from RUDH has more.

Water conservation task force

Mayor Parker has put together a water conservation task force.

“This task force will be forward-thinking in its approaches to addressing water conservation and water supply diversification,” Parker said, “taking into consideration Houston’s climate, existing water supply and alternative approaches to ensuring a robust water supply for decades to come.”

Ideas include the use of recycled water for irrigation, rainwater harvesting, desalination and use of greywater – that which drains from showers and bathroom sinks.

“Even if Houston is in a good position as far as water supply goes, Houston is going to continue to grow and conservation needs to be a big part of your future water portfolio,” said task force member Jennifer Walker, water resources specialist at the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. “There’s a lot of room for improvement in the region, and I’m really glad that the mayor is on board with exploring options.”

I’m glad, too. Conservation is always the cheapest option, and there’s surely a lot of room to grab the low-hanging fruit. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

Fix those leaks

We lost a lot of water this year, which seems like an especially undesirable thing during a record drought.

At the peak of this year’s record drought, the city of Houston lost more than 18 billion gallons of water through a system that was leaking like a sieve, amounting to tens of millions of dollars wasted in potential revenue.

The largest losses occurred in September and October, when more than 9 billion gallons — about one-fourth of all the water produced during those two months — leaked from a system riddled by countless pipe breaks, according to recently released city records.

“Water is a valuable resource, and we’re blowing it right and left,” said Katie Molina, general manager of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition in Houston. “We have to ask why we have so many leaks. Is it all drought-related, or did we let our infrastructure fall into such a state of disrepair that it is now coming back to haunt us?”

There’s some dispute in the story over how much this represented in lost revenue to the city, but I’m less interested in that as I am in how much it represented in lost capacity. The city is looking at tapping into new sources of water to help meet future demand driven by population growth. I’d like to know what the growth curve looks like if we lost a minimal amount of water to leakage, instead of the 18% we apparently lost over the course of the year. Granted, this was surely a worse year than usual for water main breaks, but the point is that we plan our capacity based on peak needs, and higher loss levels factor into that. How much capacity will we really need to add if we take steps to ensure we actually get all that we pump? That’s a question for which I’d like to see a more definitive answer.

Bumpy roads

This story is mostly about how Houston ranks against other cities in road conditions. Of interest to me is the reasons why we’re not likely to get any better:

At the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the transportation planning body for Harris and seven surrounding counties, roughly $50 billion has been trimmed from a $157 billion, 25-year regional transportation plan. Those funds would have been used for new construction and a variety of improvements and repairs.

The cuts come as the metro area’s population is expected to grow to 8 million by 2035.

At Houston’s Public Works Department, where about 350 workers care for nearly 6,000 miles of streets, the asphalt street repaving effort this year has been cut by almost a fifth. Repairs to concrete streets also are being reduced, said spokesman Alvin Wright.

Patricia Waskowiak, an HGAC transportation planning manager, reported highway and road departments are getting hammered . Short term, she said, agencies face the economic downturn. Long term, the increase in high-mileage vehicles on the roads will lead to drops in the state’s motor-fuels tax — a prime source of revenue for TxDOT.

Further, federal aid for local roads is uncertain. Since its insolvency in 2009, the federal highway trust fund has been bolstered by infusions of general funds money. “What the future holds in the short term is very uncertain,” Waskowiak said.

While traffic gurus count their nickels and dimes, 18-wheelers, endemic to Houston’s highways, keep pounding the pavement.

As has been the case so often recently, the theme is that we get what we pay for. We could afford better roads if we wanted to, but in an environment where rich people whine about a $5 monthly fee that’s dedicated to road and drainage improvements, there’s not much of a push for that. Maybe someday that will change.

Fixing flooding

I’m glad to see that the city is taking the issue of flooding and drainage seriously, as this is an increasingly urgent problem. It’s really one of infrastructure, which like everything else in this world eventually wears out and needs to be replaced. But as we know these things cost money, and some people don’t want to spend any.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering has estimated that the price tag on infrastructure improvements needed to control flooding in the next 20 years is in the neighborhood of $4 billion. Others say it is closer to $10 billion. Even spread over decades, that kind of money is not available amid sprawling budget problems that include unfunded pension liabilities, and a financially strapped Combined Utility System.

Beyond the high cost and policy ramifications, political pitfalls abound. Chief among them is a campaign that could be led by some of the very engineers who could benefit the most from the infrastructure boom a referendum would initiate.Other question marks include whether the proposal could be crowded out by another ballot proposition, or how voters would respond to what would almost certainly be a major tax increase.

“What a shock that an engineer or contractor would support a referendum for a bunch of infrastructure projects,” joked former City Councilman Bruce Tatro, a leading voice against a scuttled drainage fee plan during the Lee Brown administration.

Tatro said the central issue is not whether a bond referendum would be used to pay for infrastructure projects, but whether that referendum would lead to a tax increase.

“I think in this atmosphere, people would be very apprehensive to approve any amount of bond-letting that would require a tax increase,” he said.

Tatro’s non-responsive joke about engineers annoys me more than it should. He’s not claiming they’re wrong in their assessment, just that (heaven forfend!) some of them may stand to benefit from that assessment. Either this is in the public interest or it isn’t. If it is, then any self-interest on the part of the engineering community is a secondary concern. It’s still up to us to decide if this is something we want the city to do.

As for the concern that folks might not want to authorize bonds to deal with these problems because they might mean higher taxes, well, maybe, but what purpose does that kind of speculation serve? This won’t happen without a referendum, where people can express any reluctance they may have in the most direct manner possible, and before that there will plenty of opportunities for discussion and debate. Does Tatro, or anyone else, have a substantive criticism on the merits of the idea, or is this how it’s going to be? There are many things we need to be clear about. What, if anything, do we really need to be doing right now? What are the risks of doing nothing? What is the best way to pay for what we want to do? How do we prioritize our to-do list? The story does talk about some of the costs and hazards of the current situation, but we’re just scratching the surface right now. How people may feel about these things will depend to a large extent on how well they understand what needs to be done and why. Let’s please get on with that.

Design guide versus transit corridors ordinance

Not sure what to make of this just yet.

Fallout from the long-dormant Ashby high-rise development emerged Wednesday as a potential obstacle to the city’s effort to promote walkable, urban-style development along Metro’s planned light-rail lines.

Neighborhood opposition to the Ashby project, a planned 23-story mixed-use tower whose developers continue to await a permit almost two years after they first applied, inspired changes to an obscure city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual. The changes include a review process intended to prevent high-density developments from worsening traffic congestion on surrounding streets.

City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance. Councilwomen Toni Lawrence and Pam Holm threatened to withhold support from the ordinance, seen by many as a vital first step in creating walkable urbanism in Houston, unless the conflict was resolved.

“Urban corridors and transit streets are getting caught in the trap they set for Ashby,” said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a group seeking to limit new regulations on Houston’s real estate industry.

[…]

Chapter 15 was added to the design manual in the aftermath of the Ashby controversy, but it simply put into writing procedures that the city already followed, said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.

But Miller, of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said he remains concerned that Chapter 15 of the design manual gives Public Works personnel too much discretion to require developers to take costly steps to offset traffic impacts. Those costs and lack of predictability could discourage investment in transit corridors and elsewhere, Miller said.

Holm agreed.

“Many of these standards have been put in place to deal with a specific project,” she said, referring to the Ashby high-rise, “and it gives too much decision-making to one person as opposed to setting standards. It is in conflict with the goal of what we’re trying to do with this ordinance as a city.”

I’m not going to take Kendall Miller’s word for it – I think he’s more likely to be concern-trolling than anything else. I’d like to know what folks like Christof Spieler, Andrew Burleson, or David Crossley have to say about this. Having said that, the point that a bunch of us have made all along regarding the Ashby highrise is that the problem with it wasn’t traffic but scale – it just didn’t fit into the surrounding area. Until that is truly acknowledged and dealt with, there’s a real possibility of unintended consequences like this.

Stimulus package, Council-style

What to make of this?

Houston is set to embark on a program to provide a boost to some of the city’s biggest developments, many of which have been put on hold amid the ongoing financial crisis.

The plan aims to entice developers not to put their multimillion-dollar projects on hold in exchange for millions in incentives if the companies begin building soon and agree to make improvements to public roadways, sidewalks and streetscapes.

City Council is scheduled to vote today on what would be the first such incentive package for Regent Square, a planned 4-million-square-foot, $850-million mixed-use development that city officials said was about to be put on hold indefinitely by Boston-based GID Urban Development Group. The development will abut Allen Parkway near Dunlavy and Dallas.

If council approves, the company will receive $10 million in reimbursements to be paid out of tax revenues generated by the development.

“This is our own stimulus program,” said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, who helped negotiate with the developer on behalf of the city. “The alternative to what we’re talking about would have been to have a great deal of investment going on in this community and to have a big, giant piece of property sitting vacant for a long period of time.”

Critics say such incentives go too far and run the risk of artificially propping up some property and creating more commercial real estate than there is demand for at a critical time for the economy.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” said Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, who has fought the expansion of government-involved development in that area in the past. “There’s no net gain to the economy. It doesn’t change the demand for commercial space, it simply changes the supply. The favored developer who owns the land is the beneficiary and the victims are taxpayers on the one hand and unfavored, unsubsidized developers on the other.”

On the one hand, it doesn’t do anybody any good for these lots to lie fallow. Empty lots are a drag on property values and property tax revenues, and can negatively affect nearby businesses; as Christof writes about the shaky start for Houston Pavilions, one dead block can turn off a pedestrian easily. We should want something to get built on them, it makes sense for that to be the original project where possible, and frankly some kind of incentives for developers is what makes the world go ’round, at least around here.

On the other hand, and I can’t believe I’m about to say this, I think Barry Klein has a point. If we’re incentivizing commercial development at a time when the economy can’t support it, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. How sure are we that this is the best use of our resources at this time?

Having said that, I disagree that this is a zero sum game. It’s an investment, and if it’s a good one there will be a return on it. It’s certainly fair to question the value of such an investment, and I hope this is being done on more than optimistic assumptions. What kind of improvements would the developers be required to make, and would they be above and beyond what they would have done anyway? How many jobs might be created by getting these projects off the ground? Surely we can quantify some of this stuff.

I think Campos has a reasonable take on this:

Two things: 1) Commentary doesn’t have a problem with this as long as other parts of town also get stimulated, and 2) How do the Mayoral candidates feel about this since they are the ones that are going be dealing with it next year.

Yes, if we’re going to go down this road, we ought to make sure it’s not an exclusive road. As for the Mayoral candidates, we’ll know how Peter Brown feels about this by his vote on the measure. Annise Parker is still City Controller, and as such is well placed to speak out on things she thinks are Bad Ideas, so I’d say if we don’t hear anything explicit, we can assume she’s okay with it. I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that Roy Morales will oppose this on grounds that the government doesn’t have any business stimulating anything. That leaves Gene Locke, and I don’t know what he might think about this. But I agree it’s a good idea for all of the Mayoral candidates to get asked about stuff like this going forward.

Pity the poor Astrodome

These sure are bad days for the old icon, aren’t they?

The Astrodome will not host the rodeo’s nightly country-western dances next month, or any other special event for that matter, as city code violations that would cost millions to remedy threaten to keep the doors shut indefinitely.

It would cost Harris County $3 million just to make enough repairs to host rodeo-related events on the playing field of the iconic stadium, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Tackling the entire list of violations the city identified last year would cost several times that amount.

[…]

The trouble began about a year ago, when dome officials could not produce a valid certificate of occupancy during their annual fire inspection, senior fire inspector Joe Leggio said. The county ultimately had to apply for a new certificate, which triggered an inspection by city building code officials.

That inspection and a follow-up inspection by the city fire marshal’s office identified about 30 problems, including malfunctioning sprinkler and fire alarm systems. Those violations are considered life threatening, so the fire marshal could have ordered the building shut down. Instead, the county voluntarily relocated the three dozen employees of the management company that runs Reliant Park who had offices there and agreed not to host any public events.

The sprinkler system has since been fixed, and the county has a contract to replace the problematic fire alarm panel, said Loston, whose group manages the Reliant Park complex for the county.

[…]

Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst in the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works & Engineering, said standards are based on what the building is designed to be used for, not how it currently is being used. However, most of the inspection would be based on codes in place when the stadium was built in 1965.

It is not clear why the sports and convention corporation could not produce a certificate of occupancy despite operating with no problems for decades. County Judge Ed Emmett asked the County Attorney’s Office on Friday to look into the fire marshal’s authority to inspect the dome and what codes the stadium should be expected to follow.

Leggio said the city has always inspected the Astrodome and has always used the proper codes.

I would assume the fire marshal has – or at least, should have – the authority to inspect the facility because if a fire broke out there, it would be the Houston Fire Department that’d fight it. I don’t know what things are like at the Dome now, but I can say that when I saw Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan perform there a few years ago during the Rodeo, it was depressing how rundown it looked and felt. One way or another, this situation needs some kind of closure.

The dome’s future has been uncertain since Reliant Stadium opened next door in 2002. Many residents oppose razing a structure long billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” but a proposal to convert it into a luxury hotel has faltered amid financial snags.

What, no love for the movie studio concept? Maybe that’s the more realistic scenario these days.