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Gilbert Garcia

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

Patman shares her vision for Metro

I like what I’m hearing from new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman.

HoustonMetro

A regional transportation plan is critical, Patman said, because it allows everyone to establish what transit and transportation officials should be doing. Everyone, including counties and cities not part of Metro today, needs to be part of the dialogue and outline needs from new roads to new transit offerings, she said.

“You have to have their input into the transportation plan,” Patman said of the suburban communities. “That’s the only way you are going to develop something broader.”

Part of having that regional conversation is to chart a course for improving transit and possibly adding to it. Though construction is a long way off, Patman said the 2003 referendum approved by voters remains the playbook.

And yes, that includes a Westpark corridor, whatever that may entail. The University Line light rail project is the biggest sticking point between transit skeptics, notably U.S. Rep. John Culberson who represents western Houston and supporters of light rail expansion.

“We definitely need a link between downtown and the Galleria,” Patman said. “We will look at any means we can get that connectivity and any route we can get there.”

The Uptown dedicated bus lanes, which Patman also supports, could be a catalyst for making that connection, and show off an alternative to light rail that could be considered with frequent, dedicated buses.

“We are going to look at all sources of funding,” Patman said, noting her personal interest in possibly expanding public-private partnerships. “But my best prediction is, yes, we will have to go back to the voters and ask for more bonding authority.”

I swear to you, I am still working on a set of posts outlining my own vision for Metro and where I’d like to see it go over the next few years. With all the other stuff going on, it’s been hard to carve out the time to do this writing, but I’ll get there. Some of the things Patman discusses in this story are on my list as well, especially the shift to a broader, more regional approach to transit and transportation. It’s also good to see rail expansion being brought up, but I see that as being a little farther out. If there’s one thing I hope we’ve all learned from past Metro experience, it’s that lack of communication from them is a killer. They need to constantly engage with a wide range of stakeholders or anything they want to do becomes much harder to achieve. The Gilbert Garcia board got a lot done, and along the way repaired a lot of relationships with other agencies, various government entities, and the public. One of Patman’s jobs is to build on that so the rest of what she envisions becomes possible. I wish her all the best. KUHF and Write On Metro have more.

Gilbert Garcia will be a tough act to follow at Metro

Let me bid an early and fond farewell to outgoing Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia.

Gilbert Garcia

With only weeks to go as chairman of Metro, Gilbert Garcia bounds down the hallway to his transit agency office greeting workers, talking about how much he’ll miss the place.

He’s not shy in expressing pride about what he’s leaving behind.

“This is probably the most successful board in the history of Metro,” Garcia said, pulling up a list of the agency’s accomplishments on his phone.

Metro leaders often leave the agency with riders and elected officials dissatisfied, with uncertainty lingering about the future, or both. The current board, despite some stumbles, leaves not with a legion of complaints – though there are some – but with a legacy of accomplishments shaped by some members who have departed, some who will soon leave and a few presumably hanging around for a few more years.

In the past six years, Metro has opened three new light rail segments, redesigned its bus system, re-established its financial footing and – perhaps most importantly – healed some of the political strife that divided the city and suburbs for years.

“It has to be a regional agenda,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, describing the mission of an agency that serves most of Harris County.

Previous boards often were divided between city appointees who make up a majority – including the chairman, often a strong presence over a weak board – and county and suburban city interests.

“Getting everyone in the tent has been a great thing,” Garcia said.

[…]

When Garcia took over as Metro chair, his predecessor, David Wolff, was the only city appointee to show up. He accepted a plaque as thanks for his service and immediately left. Garcia, in contrast, is planning a celebratory handoff to [incoming Chair Carrin] Patman.

“This might be the first time that’s happened,” he said.

There should be a celebration, because Gilbert Garcia did a tremendous job as Metro Board Chair, and he deserves a lot of thanks. Sure, there are still problems, as the story points out in painstakingly obligatory fashion. There are lots of things Carrin Patman and the rest of the Board can do to make things better (and yes, I know, I really need to write down what I think some of those things are). The point is that they’re starting out in a much better place than Garcia did, and can focus their energy on making improvements rather than putting out fires. So thanks for all the hard work and big achievements, Gilbert Garcia, and best of luck in whatever comes next.

Mayor Turner appoints new Metro board chair

Good choice.

Carrin Patman

Former Metro board member Carrin Patman will return to the transit agency as chairwoman, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Friday.

Patman, 59, is a partner at Houston-based law firm Bracewell, where she has represented major corporate clients in fraud and breach of contract claims. She served on the Metropolitan Transit Authority board from April 2010 until December 2013, when she resigned to attend a fellowship program at Harvard University.

“I realize how critical effective, excellent transit is – making sure all of our citizens in the greater Houston area have excellent transit and we build for the future,” said Patman, who will be the first woman to lead the transit agency board.

Board members are limited to four 2-year terms for a maximum of eight years. Patman’s previous service means she is eligible to serve an additional four years.

“She is a visionary leader capable of collaborating with all the different community stakeholders,” Turner said.

The mayor has the option of replacing four other Metro board members – Christof Spieler, Diann Lewter, Barron Wallace and Sanjay Ramabhadran – or retaining them. Turner said he expects to make other Metro appointments in the next two weeks.

[…]

Metro is a different agency today than the one Patman joined six years ago, when its light rail program and budget were in disarray. Now its finances are stable and ridership on buses and trains is growing after a two-year redesign of local service. Two new light rail lines opened last May.

“I think they are going to be inheriting the strongest Metro there has ever been and I am proud that is the handoff,” said Garcia, who was appointed with Patman by former Mayor Annise Parker when she assumed office.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here. Patman’s service on the Board under Garcia makes her well qualified to take the reins now. She helped clean up the mess before, and she’s fully aware of where things are and where they ought to be going. I of course have a few thoughts on that myself and will be writing them down in the next couple of days. Until then, all I can say is that I really hope Mayor Turner intends to ask Christof Spieler to continue to serve on the board, and that Spieler says Yes.

Metro posts solid ridership increase

Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

Paxton opines on Uptown BRT

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Metro wants to know what you think of bus system reimagining

This ought to be interesting.

HoustonMetro

Starting Monday, Metro workers will be at bus stops and transit centers surveying riders about the changes, which took effect Aug. 16. The new system altered practically every bus trip in the Houston area, as Metropolitan Transit Authority officials shifted to more frequent service along some lines.

Though some riders have expressed serious concerns about the new system and said Metro made their transit trips unbearable, many said the routes seem quicker and easier to navigate.

The survey focuses on whether wait times for buses and overall travel time has improved with the new network. Respondents are also asked if their trips require a transfer to light rail, how often they ride and whether they have ever attended a Metro public meeting to comment or learn about the transit agency.

“We want accurate, good feedback,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “Whether it is tough love or accolades.”

I figure they’ll get it. As I’ve said before, my experience has been positive, though I am not a typical rider and I live in a part of town that is heavily populated and thus well served. The Press has taken on the role of finding people who don’t like the new map. Part of the intent of the new map was to shift resources to where there are more people and businesses, and that means that people in places like the northeast part of town have seen their service decline. I don’t know what can be done about that without throwing a lot more money at the system. We’ll see what the feedback from the riders tells us.

Red lights on the Green line

Alas.

HoustonMetro

Light rail is up and running along Harrisburg on the city’s east side, but Metro’s construction continues to be a sore spot with area residents because it seems at every turn the work is taking longer than promised.

The latest delays come from sluggish work to move utilities and excavate for a planned overpass of freight railroad tracks along Harrisburg near Hughes. The overpass is needed to extend Green Line rail service from its current terminus at Altic to its future endpoint at the Magnolia Park Transit Center.

“There is no way to sugarcoat this. We are behind schedule and we are working to get back on schedule,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

Construction can catch up, officials said, meaning the overpass remains on track to open in May 2016 as Metro and McCarthy Building Companies – the project’s general contractor – estimated in January. Much of the work occurs in the center of the new street, meaning it doesn’t cut off businesses but does make accessing their driveways trickier.

[…]

One of the first steps in the construction – moving utilities – got off to a slow start, Trevino said.

Moving overhead electrical utilities lagged at first, then crews started finding telecommunications and gas lines that weren’t listed on plans and city documents.

That stalls work as gas or phone company crews have to come out and assess the lines and see if they are functioning.

A potentially bigger pitfall comes from prior industrial uses along Harrisburg, Trevino said, specifically underground tanks used to store fuels that were not listed on many site plans and which proved more problematic than Metro thought.

“We are doing some proactive measures to make up as much time as we can,” Trevino said.

To accelerate construction, additional crews have descended on the job site, and McCarthy has plans to move from doing work for 10 hours six days a week, to seven days a week.

If it’s not one thing it’s another with this construction. I don’t think there’s much that could have been done differently based on what the story says, but boy will everyone be glad when this is over. I just hope they can still make the May deadline.

In tangential news, the Wednesday Metro board meeting was where the long-discussed idea of allowing ads on trains and buses was supposed to come up, but I haven’t seen any news item or press release indicating that it did. Anyone know what happened?

Three Metro updates

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

And speaking of ridership numbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The system has been reimagined

Now we get to see how it all goes.

HoustonMetro

Seven members of the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority board were among the first passengers to try the revamped bus network launched early Sunday morning after taking a 30-minute bus ride around the city.

Metro CEO Tom Lambert joined along on their quick spin across town, allowing them to see the results of more than two years of planning in action for the first time.

“We’re looking forward to getting more and more people to give us a test drive this week,” Lambert said at a press conference before boarding the bus, adding that his staff has focused on making sure customers have all the information they need in hand.

[…]

Board secretary Christof Spieler said there is a palpable difference in the quality of the new bus system that will likely make peoples’ commutes easier.

“I was standing there last night, watching the last runs on the old network, and it’s just amazing how much better Houston’s transit system is this morning than it was last night,” Spieler said. “This is one of the biggest transitions any transit system in the United States has ever done and there has been extraordinary effort on the part of the staff to actually make this happen.”

Houston’s transition has certainly drawn national attention – five employees from the Central Ohio Transit Authority have been watching Houston’s staff work to unveil the new routes in preparation for their own system upgrade in 2017.

“Our system is definitely smaller,” said COTA spokeswoman Lisa Myers on Sunday. “But lots of great ideas are happening here that we can certainly scale to Columbus, Ohio.”

Rides are free all this week – local buses and light rail – and there will be Metro personnel around town helping people figure out the new routes. There are tools and utilities available on the Metro website to help as well. It will be a few days before I get a chance to ride – and honestly, the bus route I take hasn’t changed that much – but if you’re a rider I’d love to hear your experiences. Leave a comment and let us know what you think of the changes. Texas Leftist has more.

Lawsuit filed over Uptown line

All things considered, I suppose this was inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chron on how Metro and Culberson came to an accord

Read all about it.

HoustonMetro

Houston’s buses don’t run at 2 a.m., but that’s when Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson began to see real movement toward a deal to improve area transit service.

“We got really intense one night and literally worked line-by-line,” Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Gilbert Garcia said last week, explaining how months of on-and-off talks helped Metro leaders and Culberson overcome years of distrust and division.

“There was a point where the congressman said, ‘Gilbert, we’re there,’ ” Garcia recalled.

Culberson, a Republican, credited Garcia with breaking through a long history of distrust by acknowledging errors in previous Metro plans and focusing on areas where transit officials and suburban politicians could find agreement.

Last week, Garcia and Culberson inked a deal that puts aside the bitter fight over rail along Richmond Avenue. The agreement delays that issue until after voters get a chance to weigh in, which could be years from now, and instead identifies other projects Culberson can help the transit agency bring to fruition.

Both said they feel confident about this deal. In the past, Culberson and transit officials have spoken of cooperation, only to resume lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another a few months later.

“It’s in writing,” Culberson said of the new agreement.

The deal, described by Garcia as Metro’s “grand bargain” with one of its staunchest critics, is hailed by both sides as a big win- a clear delineation of what each will do for the other.

The cessation of hostilities gives Houston a chance to secure federal funding for projects caught in the crossfire of Culberson’s refusal to open a door for a Richmond Avenue light rail project and Metro’s attempts to make the Richmond line the region’s next signature rail project.

Much of this is stuff we already know, especially if you listened to my interview with Gilbert Garcia and/or Houston Matters’ interview with Culberson. There is of course the question of whether you believe this is for real or not – the Chron expressed a fair bit of skepticism in a recent editorial – but as I said, this is how it is with every contractual agreement ever. Either you believe the other side will do as they say or you don’t. The one piece of new-to-me information in the Chron story was the involvement, on Metro’s behalf, of Republican lobbyist and former Rick Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. I don’t know what to say about that except that politics really does make for strange bedfellows, and lobbyists really are like roaches in the sense that they’re everywhere whether you can see them or not. For now, I hope the next thing to say about any of this is to hail the news of funding being secured for each of those projects that the agreement touched on.

What next for Metro now that peace with Culberson has broken out?

We’ve all had a chance to read over and digest the agreement Metro struck with Rep. John Culberson now. It looked good to me up front (though not to everyone – more on that in a bit), but as always with something this involved, there are many questions. What do some of these items mean, and when might we start to see some of the effects of this deal? I had much to ask, and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia had the answers. He took a few minutes to talk to me and address my queries. Here’s what we talked about.

We spoke over the phone, so the audio quality isn’t the best, but I think you can get the picture. As I said, I like what I’ve seen, and I like what I heard from Chair Garcia. I mentioned that not everyone is sold on this just yet, so let me turn it over to Jeff Ragsdale:

HoustonMetro

What has been the hook in Culberson’s jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia? In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue. Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO’s service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson’s agreement this week not so surprising. He simply wants new votes, and I don’t much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson’s jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation. More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown’s work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city. However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this ‘Culberson-Garcia Accord’ than I. Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year’s election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing. Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

I would note, as Chair Garcia did in our conversation, that Metro was already prohibited by law from using any federal money on the Universities Line as currently designed. This agreement allows for a way forward, which we didn’t have before. Of course it requires Rep. Culberson to keep his word, but then that’s true of any contract. Metro has an end to hold up, too. Sure, a rogue Houston Mayor could undo or undermine a lot of this, but it has always been the case that a non-transit-oriented Mayor could do a lot of damage. That’s why I’ve been so obsessed with where the Mayoral candidates stand on mobility and transit and other issues. We need to know these things, and we need to not be satisfied with platitudes and evasions. We also need to not be satisfied with any Mayor that isn’t fully on board with taking advantage of this great opportunity Houston has been given. We have been presented with a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands and run with it.

UPDATE: You should also listen to this Houston Matters segment about the agreement, in which Craig Cohen speaks to Rep. Culberson and a couple of media types. Culberson is still spewing the same untruths about the 2003 referendum, and pointedly said that while he would not obstruct future rail construction if the voters approved it he would absolutely oppose such a referendum. So yes, one should maintain one’s level of skepticism. One correction to something Bob Stein said after Culberson was on: The 2012 referendum forbids Metro from spending the extra money they would get from the sales tax from scaling back the 25% give back on rail. They’re not restricted on spending other money on rail. I’ll agree they don’t have it to spend, at least in the absence of new federal funds, but the 2012 referendum isn’t the cause of that.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Metro reaches detente with Culberson

Holy cow!

Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson have called a truce in their war over a planned light rail line on Richmond Avenue, suggesting an end to an impasse that has stymied local transit development.

Culberson, a Republican from Houston, has stood in the way of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s federal funding efforts for years. While the new agreement does not necessarily mean the Richmond line will be developed, it could help Metro move forward with other transit projects.

“We have got to make progress or we are in gridlock,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

The announcement follows months of discussions and comes days before Metro is set to open two new rail lines serving east and southeast Houston. The Green and Purple lines open May 23, the next step in development of a light rail system that has divided Metro and many critics, notably Culberson, since voters approved it in 2003.

From his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Culberson has stopped Metro from receiving any Federal Transit Administration funds related to rail on Richmond or a similar rail plan along Post Oak, later converted to a fixed-route bus system.

Culberson represents voters west of Shepherd along Richmond, many of whom vigorously oppose the rail line.

Just as a reminder, while the anti-rail faction is highly vocal, there’s little evidence to suggest they’re any kind of majority. Precinct analysis from the 2006 election, when funding for the Universities line and the debate about whether or not it belonged on Richmond Avenue were hot items, suggests that Culberson and then-State Rep. Martha Wong did not gain any votes by being anti-rail, and may have lost some votes for it. That was a long time ago and 2006 was an oddball election, so I wouldn’t stake too much on any of that, but it always annoys me to see these loudmouths presented as the prevailing opinion.

Recently, Culberson announced he would seek to continue cutting off the Richmond money in the next federal funding bill, but he softened his stance by saying Metro could seek money for the lines if they receive local voter support in a new election.

He said current leaders have made the agency more financially transparent, helping him to find common ground with them.

“I am especially pleased that our agreed-upon amendment today will make Metro the first transit agency in America to require voter approval of a very detailed and very specific transportation plan before they can move forward with construction,” Culberson said in a statement.

The change in tone drew praise from Rep. Ted Poe, another Houston-area Republican, who sparred with Culberson over his blocking the federal funding for rail along Richmond.

“While we would prefer to have no limiting language, this compromise allows the voters of Houston to have a voice in this matter, which has been Congressman Poe’s concern the whole time,” said spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what this means, but if we can settle this matter once and for all and get the ball rolling on the US90A rail extension into Fort Bend County, that would be a big step forward. The fact is that sooner or later, we’re going to need the Universities line and we’re going to want to build it. It doesn’t make sense to have the Uptown line as an island unto itself. The system as a whole will be far more valuable if it is all connected. If we do wind up with the high speed rail line terminal being out at the Northwest Transit Center, that makes connections to the Uptown Line (including perhaps an Inner Katy line, which by the way was also part of the 2003 referendum) all the more necessary. All I ask is that if we have to re-vote on the Universities line that we get full cooperation from our entire Congressional delegation if it passes as well as the possibility of building on what we already have. It doesn’t have to happen right away, it just has to happen. Houston Tomorrow and Texas Leftist have more.

One hundred days till the new bus network

And counting down.

Metro on Friday began the 100-day countdown to sweeping changes in local bus service, conceding that months of work ultimately will be judged by the level of confusion – small or large – that happens Aug. 16, and its effects on riders left with longer trips.

“We cannot miss this mark, and we won’t,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

To make the change new signs must be hung at around 10,000 Metropolitan Transit Authority bus stops across the Houston region. Officials, starting soon, must also hang new route information at each one, along with an aggressive outreach campaign and reprinting bus schedules.

Though it’s taken more than two years to develop the system, the countdown Friday represents that push starting in earnest, officials said. “We’ve jumped off the cliff,” board member Allen Watson said.

Nearly every bus route in the system, which carried an average of 266,000 people daily in March, will be affected by the redesign. Board members in February approved changes that refocus Metro on attracting new riders and restructuring service to better reflect where people live and work in Houston.

As a result, the bus network – which largely relied on routes that weaved through the area and focused on downtown Houston – was revised to create more north-south and east-west routes that operate more on a grid pattern around the region.

Proponents say the system is a vast improvement, noting a Metro analysis found that it connected more riders to more jobs. Combined with two new rail lines set to open May 23, Metro board member Christof Spieler said the new system gives transit riders three rail lines and 22 bus routes that operate every 15 minutes or less.

“That is freedom,” Spieler said, referring to the benefits of faster trips and easier access to the region via transit.

[…]

Practically every Metro rider – most of whom have at least one transfer – will have a new routine. To address the potential confusion, Metro will offer side-by-side online comparisons of routes starting June 1, said Denise Wendler, the agency’s chief information officer. The comparison will let someone look at their current route and compare it to the best option along the new network.

When the new system begins, Wendler said Metro will also offer information by text message, so someone standing at a bus stop can use their phone to receive a text telling them when the next bus on their route is coming to that bus stop.

“That will be a prominent part of the information campaign,” Wendler said.

Metro has a big job ahead of it, not just communicating the changes to existing riders and helping them understand how their routines will differ, but also to new riders, the people they want to start taking the bus now that it will be more convenient for them. A big part of this is to increase ridership, and that means converting some number of non-riders into riders, at least for some of the time. I’m a roughly once a week rider – my route will change in August, but it won’t be that much different though I will have a longer walk to a bus stop – and I have to say, a bus that lets you off close to your destination is often a lot more convenient than navigating a downtown parking lot and walking in from there. Cheaper, too. Have you looked at the new bus system map and considered your options?

Senate passes Metro board expansion bill

From the inbox:

HoustonMetro

The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) today applauded the unanimous approval of transit legislation by the Texas State Senate, that is designed to enhance Board stability, provide for an orderly transition of Board members and initiate continuity from year to year. Currently, the Texas Transportation Code provides for the appointment, composition, terms, and term limitations of the members of the METRO Board of Directors.

SB 2059 was authored by Sen. Paul Bettencourt and backed by city, county and multi-city officials. It will accelerate an existing provision in METRO’s “Enabling Legislation” to increase the number of METRO Board members from nine to 11 including an additional appointee from Harris County.

“The passage of this bill is a great example of what can be accomplished when parties work together. Harris County, the City of Houston, METRO and the multi-cities within the METRO service area, with my office, came together to work on this good governance bill,” said Sen. Bettencourt. “I’m honored the parties asked me to carry this important legislation. I look forward to continuing to work it through the House and on to Gov. Abbott’s desk.”

When METRO was created in 1978, the “Enabling Legislation” stated METRO’s Board of Directors should grow along with the region’s population. In 1979, METRO started with seven board members. In 1982, METRO’s Board increased to nine members. METRO’s Board of Directors is made up of five City of Houston appointees, two Harris County appointees, and two multi-city appointees.

This change reflects what is anticipated to happen as the population continues to grow in the unincorporated areas of Harris County.

The proposed legislation allows for good governance practices, including staggered odd/even year appointments of Board members and timely appointments.

“Given the great cooperation among the city, county and multi-city represenatives, it makes sense to provide better representation for the people of Harris County now, rather than waiting for the next census to trigger a change in the number of Board members,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia.

See here for the background and here for the details on SB2509. Obviously this still needs to be passed by the House, but given the unanimous consent that it won in the Senate it may have a clear path to do that. I’m glad to see it.

Metro writes off old light rail studies

What might have been.

Houston transit officials Thursday wrote off $104 million wasted on multiple studies related to the controversial University and Uptown light rail projects that ultimately stalled due to a lack of funding and fierce opposition from the neighborhoods they would impact.

The studies for the two lines, which were approved by voters in a 2003 referendum, were conducted prior to 2010. The value of those studies have since been carried as assets on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s books, just like buses or real estate, a common practice as major projects are compiled.

Thursday, by approving Metro’s 2014 certified financial report – an audited assessment of the agency’s finances – board members authorized the removal of the studies from the agency’s ledger.

In other words, they paid $104 million for detailed engineering and analysis and got very little in return.

Metro officials remain adamant that transit improvements in the area remain a priority. But if plans for the two light rail lines ever move forward, many alignment studies will have to be redone, reflecting more current conditions.

“It is very frustrating,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “That’s why, when we came in, we stopped that practice.”

[…]

Many of the studies were related to repeated demands by residents or elected officials vehemently opposed to the two lines to reconsider some of the alignment proposals, particularly along the University Line, which would have, in part, run along Richmond Avenue.

“Between 2004 and 2009, 46 additional alternatives, were looked at along the corridor,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, explaining some of the $61.8 million in work related to the University Line.

About $34.2 million was spent to study portions of the Uptown Line, along Post Oak Boulevard. The board also wrote off $8.6 million related to a failed effort to build an underpass along Harrisburg for the Green Line, currently under construction.

Probably all of those Universities Line studies were the result of Metro trying to accommodate all of the malcontents who kept demanding alternatives to the Richmond route we all know was best. All water under the bridge now, but I still get mad every time I remind myself how far along the process Metro got on the Universities Line before it was brutally murdered by John Culberson.

Meanwhile, we finally have an official grand opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines.

Even though trains have been running for several months, Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they’re still in the testing phase mandated by the federal government.

“We’re really working through all the operational experiences, so before we get into revenue service we have a good understanding how that’s going to work,” Lambert says.

[…]

The two new lines will take riders into the East End and Southeast Houston. They’ll link up with the current North Line downtown. The new opening date is now set for May 23.

At last report, the opening was aimed for the end of April. Maybe now that we have an actual date and not a vague time period, it will happen. That date was also noted by The Highwayman, which includes this tidbit about rail ridership:

Peak rail ridership for the rodeo, which ended Sunday, topped out March 19 with about 71,500 boardings on the light rail line, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said. That’s well short of the record day Metro had last year, when the line logged 76,925 boardings.

“Overall (rail) ridership for that three week period is up by about 21,000 boardings, but rodeo ridership specifically was down, apparently due to all the wet weather we had,” Gray said.

Metro did log record ridership for a week, with 448,000 boardings from March 14 to March 20, but that had less to do with the rodeo and more to do with incremental increases in general rail use, officials observed. Gray said last year during the rodeo, there were about 1.28 million rail trips, with 471,000 of those attributed to the rodeo. This year, officials estimate 1.3 million rail trips were taken, but rodeo-related rides slipped to about 421,000.

Overall, since the expansion of the Red Line in December 2013, light rail use has increased. In February, average daily ridership was 46,633, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and 24 jump from February 2013, before the line opened north of downtown Houston.

I’ll take the tradeoff of lower rodeo ridership for higher overall ridership every day of the week. I can’t wait to see what it looks like once these two lines finally come online. The Highwayman has more.

Metro board seeks to expand

It’s change that has been anticipated since the 2010 Census data was released.

HoustonMetro

With all indications pointing to more people in the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area living outside Houston than inside the city, Metro officials are asking to accelerate a state-mandated expansion of the transit agency’s board. The change would mean more members appointed by Harris County and smaller municipalities and a dilution of Houston’s majority control of the board.

“I believe this region is ready for this to be a regional agency,” said Allen Watson, Metro’s vice chairman. “This is the time to do it.”

The board is made up of nine members – five appointed by Houston, two by Harris County and two by the smaller 14 cities included in Metro’s service area, covering 1,303 square miles. That composition has been in place since 1982, when, by state law, the Metro area population grew to warrant four non-Houston slots.

The next step would be an 11-member board, with the county getting another appointee, and the chairman’s post shifting from Houston to a choice made by the 10 Metro board members. Houston would continue to have five appointments.

A board expansion would be triggered once the population outside Houston within Metro’s area is larger than the city’s population, as calculated by the U.S. Census. The balance nearly shifted as part of the 2010 decennial census.

Rather than wait for the official census in 2020, Metro officials – working with state lawmakers – are seeking to speed up the transition, saying it is the right way to apportion transit power in the area, and something they will have to do eventually. State laws govern how transit boards are organized, so any early move to an 11-member board would take legislative action. State Rep. Garnett Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, have filed bills to help Metro make the move.

The legislation also would clear up some hiccups in board rules and procedures, setting deadlines for cities and Harris County to make appointments and staggering terms so board members rotate in and out annually. Board member terms still would be two years, with a maximum of eight years.

[…]

The change also would allow Metro to pivot to serve an increasing demand for service to and from suburban communities into the city, which comes with more non-Houston seats at the table, said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

“There needs to be additional focus on commuter rail, versus what you see in downtown,” Radack said. “Right now, Houston has total control, but the service area and needs are bigger than that.”

Radack balked at the idea more county-chosen Metro members would dilute and weaken core transit service.

“I don’t think the move needs to be away from what’s been going on with Metro,” he said. “I think it needs to be expanded.”

See here for some background. At that time, this was seen as a way to shift power on the Metro board, which a lot of people including me th0ught was detrimental. As this story notes, Metro is in much better financial shape and there’s a lot less tension between it and Harris County. As such, everyone is on board with this, and it’s being seen as a way to expand service, not move things around. As Jay Crossley, who also had some concerns, said in the article, it’s a good thing if more people see themselves as represented by Metro and want to have access to its services.

Not part of the scope of this issue but worth asking anyway: Is it a good time to bring up the issue of expanding Metro’s service area, to include places like Fort Bend? If there is momentum again to build some commuter rail lines, including the US90A line that could and should go into Fort Bend, it would be nice to have that piece of the puzzle in place. Maybe that’s too complex a thing to deal with now, and maybe there are good reasons to wait till other business has been conducted, I don’t know. I just thought I’d ask, and this seemed like as good a chance as any to do so.

Overpass groundbreaking

Progress.

After years of conflict among community members and leaders, construction of Metro’s new Harrisburg overpass is officially underway in Houston’s East End.

“It’s not just a bridge; it’s going to be a landmark in the city,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Diann Lewter said at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday.

[…]

City Council member Robert Gallegos withheld $10 million from the project’s budget for a month in 2014 to investigate Metro’s claims about an underpass. He eventually agreed to a compromise that included extensive community involvement in the design and development; an overpass that would accommodate trains, motorists and pedestrians; and maintaining street access to surrounding businesses.

Both sides of the overpass will be adorned with references to the history of the East End and the bridge columns lit with blue LED lighting. A garden wall will follow the lower side of the bridge, a fitting tribute to Metro’s “Green Line.”

“We really let the community choose; we came up with different design renderings, and ultimately this is where (they) landed,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “We wanted to do something special so that when you come in, you really feel like you’re entering a wonderful community, rather than just driving (through).”

The $26 million, half-mile overpass is expected to be completed in 18 months, but Metro and community leaders both are hoping to shorten that.

“We want to go at warp speed. The community has been supportive long enough,” Garcia said. “We want to complete this thing so the businesses can go back to do what they need to do.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Everyone seems to be happy with the way this is going, and that’s all you could want at this point. We’re also getting close to the official opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg-up-to-the-overpass lines, both of which should happen sometime next month, though it’s not exactly clear when. I’ve been seeing trains go by regularly on the western end of those lines in downtown. I’m eager to see them go by with passengers on them.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro board approves reimagining

On to implementation.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

System reimagining time

Big day today, hopefully.

A once-in-a-generation change to Houston bus service – shifting from a downtown-focused, hub-and-spoke design to a broader network reflecting new ways people move around – could receive final approval by Metro’s board Wednesday.

Officials say the “reimagining” may represent a make-or-break moment in the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s efforts to boost lagging ridership.

“If we screw it up, rolling this out, we are going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” board member Cindy Siegel said.

The board will consider authorizing staff to revise the entire local bus system. None of the changes apply to park and ride service.

The final plan, however, scraps one of the biggest changes originally proposed in several northeast neighborhoods – on-demand “flex” service as opposed to fixed routes. And the redesign won’t take effect until August, two months later than planned, giving officials more time to transition to changes that could affect most of Metro’s 290,000 or so daily riders.

Cost estimates reflect Metro spending $9.3 million more annually than it does now on bus service, a roughly 3 percent increase. The higher costs would be covered by additional fares – officials predict the revised routes will increase ridership by 20 percent – and sales tax revenue tied to the 2012 referendum that allows Metro to keep more of the region’s 1-cent transportation sales tax.

See here, here, and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I’m one of the six percent that will be negatively affected by this, as the #40 route that I take the most often will no longer pass through my neighborhood. From what I can tell, I’ll either have to take two (high-frequency) buses to get downtown with a minimum of walking, take a lower-frequency route that’s farther from my house than my current stop is, or take a high-frequency route (the Washington Avenue one) with a long walk; this latter option is something I do now occasionally on my way home. As someone once said, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, so I’m okay with this as long as it meets the stated objectives. I look forward to seeing what final changes Metro has made as they move forward with this. Houston On The Go has more.

UPDATE: System reimagining was unanimously approved, according to a Metro press release. The approved map can be found here.

Uptown BRT moving forward again

Good news.

Tensions are easing over plans to develop dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, where community leaders want to give commuters and shoppers more transportation options and relieve worsening congestion.

“We’re there and ready to make this project happen,” said John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, the agency leading the project to run express buses along Post Oak Boulevard and Loop 610. The buses would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Northwest Transit Center.

Breeding and others said buses should start rolling on Post Oak in mid-2017.

Lately, the project has been mired in disputes between Metro and Texas Department of Transportation officials. After Metro officials balked at an agreement TxDOT requested to ensure the project was only for buses and would not be converted to rail in the future, state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley proposed moving $25 million from Uptown to an unrelated project.

The state funds would pay for elevated bus lanes along Loop 610. Moseley had said the disagreement indicated the Loop 610 project wasn’t ready to move forward.

Although its absence would not kill the project, the Loop 610 component would dramatically improve the travel time to the Northwest Transit Center. Faster, more reliable service would increase use of the lanes, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

On Wednesday, Moseley said TxDOT had agreed to keep its funding for the project on the table until February, providing enough time for Metro to resolve its concerns about agreeing to a bus-only project. Voters in 2003 authorized the agency to build light rail in the corridor.

“Metro has asked for some extra time,” Moseley said. “We support this project and think that is reasonable. That gives us an extra period of time to look at authorizing the money.”

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he was optimistic the various players could agree on issues skeptics have raised about mass transit in the Uptown area.

“I am trying to use this project as an opportunity to put some of those things to rest,” Garcia said during a meeting meant to update board officials on the Uptown project. “Try to bring some of the people together and find out where is the common ground.”

See here for the last update. I’m glad to see Moseley and TxDOT acting more reasonably, though I’m still annoyed that they’re dictating terms that would stand in contradiction to the 2003 Metro referendum. I suppose I can live with that if we can finally get this project off the ground. The Highwayman has more.

TxDOT still screwing with Metro

WTF?

Given powerful support from local and state transportation officials, the more of the parkway comes together, the more likely the last phases will fall into place.

The project that remains far less certain is the planned dedicated bus lanes on Post Oak Boulevard. The project, which a few months ago was speeding along, has run into significant bumps as TxDOT and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have dueled over agreements related to a bus lane along Loop 610.

Moseley in September warned if all parties couldn’t agree on the project, he’d prefer TxDOT move its $25 million commitment to a new Texas 288 interchange with the Sam Houston Tollway. Losing TxDOT’s money puts the Loop 610 portion of the bus lanes, and potentially the entire plan to run express bus service along Post Oak, in doubt.

Metro officials have since signed the agreement, but transit board chairman Gilbert Garcia complained TxDOT officials haven’t backed off the threat to move the money.

Marc Williams, director of planning for TxDOT, told transportation commissioners Thursday that the discussions are ongoing, but the recommendation at this point is to shift the money to the Texas 288 project.

A final decision is expected Nov. 20 when the commission meets in Austin. Written comments about state’s unified transportation plan — which guides state transportation spending — will be accepted until Nov. 17.

See here, here, and here for the background. What the hell else does TxDOT want? I have no idea why they’re being such huge jerks about this. If it’s at all feasible, I’d advise Metro and the Uptown Management District to tell TxDOT to go screw itself and finance that $25 million themselves. That way they can build it the way they want to, and they wouldn’t have to put up with this petty crap. If that’s not realistic, then I hope TxDOT gets over itself and does its job. But jeez Louise, enough already.

And we’re still talking about the 2015 Mayor’s race

Here we go again.

Mayor Annise Parker

Still the Mayor

The mayor’s race may be more than a year away, but nearly all candidates have launched shadow campaigns – and not all shadow campaigns are created equal.

[State Rep. Sylvester] Turner and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, considered early frontrunners if both launch bids for City Hall, already have the name recognition from years of holding public office. That advantage may be multiplied by their ability to raise money through their existing campaign committees – an opportunity they have capitalized on over the last month.

City ordinances prevent candidates from raising money for a mayoral bid before Feb. 1, but because Turner and Garcia currently hold non-city offices, they can raise cash through their committees.

Come February, they are expected to transfer the lion’s share of that money to their mayoral bids, turning the well-liked frontrunners into well-funded frontrunners.

“It’s a little bit of a head start for sure, but the people who are talking about it are lining up their donors the same way they are,” said Lillie Schechter, a Democratic fundraiser. “One person will have to pick up checks, the other person will have to transfer checks.”

[…]

In what is expected to be the most crowded mayoral field since the last open race in 2009, a dozen potential candidates have effectively launched their bids, hiring consultants, meeting with labor and business groups, and telling the political class that a campaign is imminent. They must sit on their hands, however, when it comes to raising the money that determines their political viability, unable to collect a single check until the nine-month brawl for the mayor’s office begins in February.

As many as seven Republicans are looking into entering the race: Ben Hall, who squared off against Mayor Annise Parker in 2013, and councilmen Steven Costello and Oliver Pennington said they will announce bids, while councilmen Jack Christie and Michael Kubosh and former Kemah mayor Bill King are waiting to assess the field.

Republican Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, [Chris] Bell, City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford and private equity executive Marty McVey are said to be considering bids.

See here for the previous roundup of wannabes, could-bes, and never-will-bes. I have four things to say.

1. Most of what I think about this story I’ve already said in that previous post. I do consider Rep. Turner to be the frontrunner, for whatever that’s worth, but we’re a long, long way from being able to assess the field. Hell, there really isn’t a field to assess right now. As I said, there are only so many max-dollar donors, only so many endorsements that are worth chasing, and only so much grassroots/volunteer energy to go around. The market, if you will, just can’t support more than about four serious candidates. Most of the names you see and hear now will disappear long before we get to put-up-or-shut-up time.

2. Like Texpatriate, I remain skeptical that Sheriff Garcia will throw his hat into the ring. He must know that a fair number of Democrats will be unhappy with him if he leaves his post to a Republican appointee, which is what we’ll get from Commissioners Court. I do not speak for Sheriff Garcia, I do not advise Sheriff Garcia, and I have zero inside knowledge of what Sheriff Garcia has in mind for his future. If I were advising him, I would tell him to line up a strong successor for 2016, then set his sights on running for County Judge in 2018, when we know Ed Emmett will step down. We all know that Sheriff Garcia has ambitions for bigger things. I’ll be delighted to see him on a statewide ballot some day. Mayor of Houston would certainly be an excellent springboard to something statewide. So would County Judge. I think he’d have a clearer shot at that, and he’d risk angering fewer current allies with that choice. This is 100% my opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

3. Listing Ben Hall as a Republican made me guffaw, followed by some giggles. Any article that can do that to me is all right in my book.

4. I still don’t think we should be talking about the Mayor’s race now, and we shouldn’t be talking about it until after the election this November. That’s far more important right now. That said, I am thinking about what I do and don’t want in my next Mayor. I’ll publish it when it’s done, which I guarantee you will be some time after November 4.

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.

[…]

To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

Texas Transportation Commission continues to be obstinate

This continues to be ridiculous.

Continued disagreement about certain features of a planned Uptown bus rapid transit system prompted a Texas transportation official to suggest Thursday that $25 million in state funding should be redirected.

The comments by Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley were the latest setback for the project, intended to relieve traffic congestion in the Galleria area. After months of planning and lobbying to secure local, regional and state money, it has faced increasingly vocal opposition and a fraying of the partnership among the Uptown Management District, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation.

[…]

The $192.5 million project is expected to open in 2017, with some still holding out hope that portions will open in time for Houston’s hosting of the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 of that year.

Metro, city officials and TxDOT have dozens of items to resolve while they try to counter criticism of the project.

Topping the list of disputes is the state’s role in the project: elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 between Post Oak Boulevard and the Northwest Transit Center. A $25 million commitment from the state led state transportation officials to seek Metro’s assurance the project was strictly a bus plan, not a prescursor to rail.

“We didn’t want our involvement in this project to be clouded by rail versus bus,” Moseley said.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he must clarify whether signing the agreement with TxDOT, which specifies the bus project “will not support a rail component,” puts Metro at odds with its 2003 referendum, which included a rail line in the Post Oak Corridor.

On Metro’s behalf, the county attorney has asked Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s office to determine whether signing the agreement would violate the will of the 2003 voters. Waiting for Abbott’s decision could take months.

Moseley said the potential delay “compromises the availability of those funds” related to the elevated lanes, because state officials have many construction projects ready to go. At a meeting in Austin on Thursday, Moseley said that if the Uptown project is not ready to move forward, he will ask that the state funds shift to a project at Texas 288 and Sam Houston Tollway.

I’ve already ranted about this, and I don’t have much to add to that. The potential delay here is entirely of Jeff Moseley and the TTC’s making. For the life of me, I cannot understand the justification of forbidding the inclusion of some design elements that may someday, if a bunch of things eventually happen, allow for this BRT line to be converted to light rail as the voters approved in 2003 in a cost-effective manner. The TTC has no power to forbid that from happening, and even if Metro agrees to their conditions now a future Metro board will not be bound to keep the Uptown line as BRT if they decide it’s in the public’s best interest to finally move forward with the light rail line we thought we were getting. All the TTC can do is make that future Metro board’s job harder and more expensive. Why would they want to do that?

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

Council approves funds for Harrisburg Line overpass

Progress!

The City Council is set to decide Wednesday whether to give Metro $10 million to accommodate traffic as well as trains on a controversial overpass the transit agency plans to build along its Green Line light rail route.

The council delayed action on the matter for 30 days last month at Mayor Annise Parker’s suggestion when Councilman Robert Gallegos raised concerns. Gallegos and some other neighborhood leaders long have lobbied against an overpass and sought more time to confirm Metro’s claims that worse-than-expected soil contamination would prevent a previously planned underpass where freight tracks cross the path of the Green Line along Harrisburg.

After months of delay when the environmental concerns were discovered, the extra 30 days caused consternation for some neighborhood leaders, and for Metro officials.

Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia fired off a letter saying the council’s delay had forced him “to reverse course and to proceed with a plain rail-only overpass.” This week, however, Garcia said those thoughts were premature.

“Looking back in time, we all could have communicated better. And I really think any miscommunication is really a result of everybody trying to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re going to look back and I think we’re all going to be very proud of this project, so I think some of the angst today will be a distant memory when the line is successful and businesses are thriving.”

And indeed, Council approved the funding on Wednesday. The best news is that this overpass will include vehicular traffic as well, and the current design specs appear to be more palatable to East End residents. Current estimates for construction are 32 months, which would put the opening in 2017, but Metro Chair Garcia is optimistic they can beat that. The Harrisburg Line up to the future overpass will be completed by the end of this year, just barely. It will be very nice when that is all done.

A lesser overpass

I’m not very happy with this.

A City Council delay in contributing funds for a contentious East End overpass will likely lead Metro back to build a span only for its light rail line and not drivers, and without some of the attributes transit officials and some nearby residents said they wanted.

[…]

The delay in receiving $10 million from the city could have a detrimental effect on whatever is built, as Metro presses ahead. Final agreement between the city and Metro regarding the money Houston committed to an underpass or overpass missed a Monday deadline set by Metro, sparking another spat between transit and city officials.

At the same time Wednesday that City Council members were delaying their commitment, Metro’s board was approving a design contract for the overpass. Transit officials are also planning the first public meeting about the overpass design on Tuesday.

The goal was to develop an overpass with traffic lanes, and add features like murals and amenities to make the overpass more palatable, not just a concrete overpass for the light rail line. All of that is now moot, as the city delays and Metro moves ahead, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

[…]

When Metro moved forward, the decision angered Houston Councilman Robert Gallegos, who asked last week for a delay in handing $10 million over to Metro for the project.

That delay stretched from one week to two because of the upcoming July 4 holiday, and then to 30 days at the suggestion of Mayor Annise Parker, who said she was just hearing about some of Gallegos’ concerns.

Gallegos said he wants to research the level of contamination, whether it should be cleaned up and what can be designed that will protect the community.

“It is not about pushing for an underpass at this point,” Gallegos’ chief of staff, Danial Santamaria, said. “It is concern about the contaminants.”

Metro officially approved the overpass plan in late May. I understand why they want to move forward already, but it’s not clear to me why a relatively small amount of money like that $10 million should have such a large effect on the final design. Surely there must be some way that sum can be covered even if the city backs out of the original agreement, which was made with the understanding that Metro would build an underpass. Given that the underpass option is off the table at this point, I feel strongly that every effort should be made to make the overpass as palatable to the East End residents as possible. Let’s not mess this up over a small sum of money.

Metro still aiming for an overpass

I’ll be glad when this is settled.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said they must consider the need to extend the line east of Hughes Road, the potentially costly and time-consuming underpass construction, and the potential environment fallout after a discovery that contaminated soil was more extensive than previously believed.

“We think it is our responsibility to complete the project because it has been going on for some time,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Garcia said he favors a plan to take the tracks over the freight line, but did not want to assume the board would agree. Board members who have publicly stated a preference have supported an overpass, saying an underpass is impractical.

[…]

Residents said if Metro officials know there’s a problem – one that’s common on the East End, where industries and businesses polluted the land – they should clean it up.

“Let’s not leave it for another generation,” said Don Ready, who lives and works in the area around Hughes and Harrisburg.

Some residents and business owners said the issue has been studied enough and it’s time to begin construction, probably of an overpass.

“I have a letter signed by 14 business owners who want the overpass because they need to get it done as soon as possible,” said Mark Rodriguez, who owns a business along Harrisburg and is active with the Oaklawn Fullerton Civic Association.

Metro officials said their overpass design would address some of the original concerns. It could include elevating the light rail tracks and two lanes of traffic over the freight line, while keeping a lane in each direction for street-level traffic and sidewalk access.

Garcia said if an overpass is chosen, Metro would work with the community to make the crossing “as unobtrusive as possible.”

An overpass would be cheaper than an underpass, but Metro might have less money to work with. City officials planned to contribute $20 million, but $10 million of that was tied to the crossing being an underpass, said Andy Icken, chief development officer for Mayor Annise Parker.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m sympathetic to the East End residents who have to feel like they’ve been fighting this fight forever, and I’m sympathetic to the Metro board that is still trying to extricate itself from the messes left behind by their predecessors. Metro, which has other issues it needs to resolve as it finishes construction on the Harrisburg line, would surely like to just make a decision and move forward. I’d feel better about that if I had a clearer idea of just what the costs are at this point. Will it really be less expensive to do the overpass if the city pays $10 million less towards its construction? Is it responsible to leave the buried toxins underground? Might there be some alternate sources of funding to aid the cleanup? Could the new-and-improved overpass design that Metro says they have be acceptable to East End residents? These and other questions remain to be answered.

Metro unveils draft bus re-imagining

Here’s your proposed new bus system.

Transit planners kicked off a major shift in Houston bus service Thursday, betting that the benefit of faster service on key routes will outweigh riders’ concerns about adjusting to new schedules and service patterns.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday released a draft of its “reimagining” plan, intended as a sweeping upgrade to the region’s bus system. The map, which officials say will change over the next few months based on public suggestions, focuses on distributing service more efficiently.

Some officials said the plan, if approved in about four months, could help increase ridership by 20 percent or more after two years.

Metro buses, still operating on a system largely developed in the 1980s, are essentially delivering the best service for Houston in 1990, said Geoff Carlton, a consultant on the reimagining plan.

“New job centers exist that maybe didn’t a while ago and we need to respond to serving them,” Carlton said.

Often, bus routes are redundant, especially downtown, wasting resources. Some buses also take circuitous routes to cover neighborhoods where few people ride.

The changes involve about the same about of service, but make service on some major lines much more frequent by developing a grid pattern. Popular north-south and east-west routes that pass by major job centers like Greenway Plaza, southwest Houston and the Uptown area will have buses arriving every every 15 minutes or less.

Less-popular but important routes will have service every 30 minutes or less, while low-use routes in less dense areas of Houston will have service every hour or less.

With the changes, which also re-route buses to avoid some delays like freight rail crossings, 93 percent of current riders will be able to catch a ride at the same bus stop they use now, according to the analysis used to create the map.

The full Chron story is here. See TransitSystemReimagining.com for all the details, and see here for a copy of the presentation that was given to the board. As it happens, I’m in that seven percent of riders who will not be keeping his old bus stop; the current #40 bus that among other things ran down Bayland in the Heights is no more. I’ll have some other reasonable options, and as someone who generally only rides once a week it’s not a big deal. The #40 was not heavily used – the closest replacement to it, the new #17, is one of the “every hour or less” routes – and the overall gain in the system looks to be vast. Certainly, the new routes, which operate as a grid and which operate much more frequently out west where they’re really needed, are sensible and easy to understand. My first impression is positive, and I think it will go over well and will be well received. There will be plenty of opportunities to give your feedback to Metro, and I’m sure all of our friendly neighborhood light rail critics who have been just begging Metro for years to Do Something about bus service will be right there giving their honest appraisals and cheering them on. Anything less on their part would just be tacky, after all. What do you think about the new routes?