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Greater East End

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

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6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

How the East End got its rail line

A great overview of how we got here with the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, the genesis of which go back a lot farther than the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.

Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.

At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.

Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.

This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.

The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.

The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.

Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”

Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.

I had no idea there had once been a serious proposal to extend SH 225 into downtown. What a disaster that would have been. The story continues through the creation of Metro, the 2003 referendum, and the fight over the overpass on Harrisburg. Check it out.

Meet your Harrisburg overpass

Looks nice enough. Going to be painful getting to the finished product, though.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are set to approve a $30.66 million construction contract on the half-mile overpass next week. The overpass is needed to complete the Green Line rail along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, near Gus Wortham Golf Course, and to cross the Union Pacific freight rail tracks.

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To mend fences with the community, Metro worked with neighbors to make the overpass look better than just a concrete riser. Plans include special lighting and designs in the concrete that reflect the area’s business and cultural heritage.

“The East End might have the most attractive overpass along the lines when this is built,” Metro board member Burt Ballanfant said.

McCarthy Building, the winning construction company, has 18 months to build the overpass, with incentives to finish sooner and costs if the project is delayed. Roberto Trevino, Metro’s capital programs manager, said some factors outside Metro and McCarthy’s control could affect the schedule. Union Pacific Railroad and local utilities must be consulted, and their issues and actions could affect when the work is finished, Trevino said.

Timing is crucial, and important to area residents, because the overpass work will require closing six blocks of Harrisburg for about four months, from Caylor to 66th Street. Detours are planned between Lockwood and Wayside to route traffic to Navigation during the closings.

See here and here for the background. This would take forever without closing that stretch of Harrisburg, but closing a street like that for any length of time is going to be a bug hardship on the neighborhood. This article doesn’t have any reactions from locals about either the design or the schedule, so it’s hard to say offhand how well received they are. Still, this needs to get done, and depending on when the actual start date for this part of the construction is, it could be done by mid- or late-2016. That should be a relief and a cause for celebration for everyone.

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six new B-Cycle locations announced

From the B-Cycle monthly newsletter:

6 NEW B-stations coming this month!
We are happy to announce our new locations!

When we launched our pilot program in May of 2012 we were anxious and excited to see how Houston would respond to a bike share program. As you are probably aware, the reaction has been incredibly positive and we are now expanding again! We will be installing SIX additional stations later this month!

1. Spotts Park- 401 S. Heights Blvd
2. Taft & Fairview- 2401 Taft St.
3. The Menil Collection/ Alabama & Mandell- 1529 W. Alabama St.
4. Leonel Castillo Community Center/ South St. & Henry- 2109 South St.
5. Milam & Webster- 2215 Milam St.
6. Project Row House/ Holman & Live Oak- 2521 Holman St.

The first three are basically Montrose – the far north end, the east side near Midtown, and farther south – the Leonel Castillo Community Center is north of downtown, just east of where I-10 and I-45 cross, the Milam location is on that dense little patch of Midtown just south of I-45, and the Holman location is east of downtown. As noted on Facebook when they teased the news last week, they’re spreading out from their “established footprint”, and you can sort of get a hint from there where they might go next. The Highwayman has more, including a map that shows all the current and new locations.

Railroad crossings

There are a lot of freight rail lines in the East End. Some big changes will be coming to them.

Railroad-Crossing

A series of underpasses and street closings east of downtown represents the latest effort to seal off railroad corridors and take vehicle traffic over or under the tracks, while closing off other roads.

“If you look at the plan we have … you’ll see every place we closed a road is by a grade separation,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

Eliminating crossings by separating roads and rail lines with overpasses or underpasses is the best solution, but also the most expensive, officials said.

“Anywhere a grade separation is done, you take away the conflict,” Crocker said.

Where officials can’t eliminate the conflict, they are working to make drivers more aware of the trains, or to cut off access.

Five grade separations and five road closings are planned along nine miles of double railroad track, known as the West Belt, that extends from northside neighborhoods to southeast of the Third Ward. Most of the projects are east of downtown.

At an estimated cost of $107.7 million, the closings and underpasses will create a roughly five-mile quiet zone where trains won’t blow their horns when they approach an at-grade crossing. That means fewer whistles for the 15,000 nearby residents, officials said.

Funding for the project will come from federal, state, local and railroad sources, Crocker said, and potentially involves applying for a competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

There have been a number of collisions, resulting in 27 injuries and one death, at rail crossings in Harris County since 2010. In addition to the changes at these crossings, there will be billboards put up to remind people that trains take a long time to stop, so you really ought to think twice about crossing a rail line if there’s any question about your ability to make it safely. You wouldn’t think that would be something people would need to be reminded about, but it is. One hopes this will help.

Keep Houston Houston argues that street closures are a bad idea.

Basically, closing a crossing is like parking a freight train in front of the gates 24/7. This is true if there’s no alternative for miles, and it’s equally true if there’s an overpass or underpass a block a way.

Consider, for instance, the pending loss of Sherman Street. Right now there’s a bike trail that starts in downtown and ends one block away. But using Sherman you can keep going east, all the way to the Ship Channel, on a quiet, low-traffic, residential street.

What happens if you close Sherman? Sure, it’s only a two block detour over to Harrisburg. But Harrisburg is a big, noisy street, with through traffic and light rail trains. This can only discourage cycling. And how ’bout if you’re on foot? That two block detour represents about six or seven minutes of walking time. It costs about as much time as a one-mile detour in a car. And slowly, bit by bit, neighborhoods are cut off from each other.

It’s already happened in the First Ward. There used to be a nice quiet cut-through, Silver Street, that would take you from anywhere in the First all the way across Washington and down to Memorial. It was a great way to avoid the jam-up on Sawyer Street, or the racetrack on Houston Avenue, where HPD cruisers regularly hit 50-60mph on the way to and from headquarters. But now, it’s gone. Google shows the transformation. In Streetview, a nice straight shot. In 45-degree view, dead.

All of this is enabled by laughable “cost benefit analyses” that weigh the “benefit” of crossing closures in terms of the accident reduction without considering any “cost” other than $50,000 for the barricades, signing and striping to close the thing. Lost time due to cars taking a longer route isn’t considered. Lost connectivity for peds and bikes isn’t considered. Lost ridership and productivity on transit routes forced to detour is not considered.

If this same methodology was used on all transportation projects, the Interstate highway system would have a 10mph speed limit.

It’s a good point. Silver Street is in the Washington Quiet Zone, and KHH is right that there aren’t any good alternatives for non-car traffic now that it’s closed. I think the effect is less pronounced west of Studemont, but that doesn’t help anyone who used to bike on Silver. No question, under/overpasses are the best option, if you can pay for them. I sympathize with the folks in the East End, who have dealt with freight rail traffic for a long time. I hope this is what they wanted.

Why not a university?

Tory Gattis has an interesting suggestion for that 136 acre tract of land east of downtown.

This parcel of land could be the last opportunity for Houston to add a major college campus to the city.  We should consider something similar to what NYC just did with Roosevelt Island, where after a long evaluation process they awarded it to Cornell for a technology campus.  That is likely to eventually be a huge economic development boon for New York.  Of course the City of Houston doesn’t own the land, but it could be a facilitator (along with the GHP) to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest.

There are a lot of potential options.

He lays out a number of possibilities, which I encourage you to examine. I have no idea how feasible any of this is, but it’s worth thinking about. Tory’s right that there may not be another opportunity for a university campus to be built inside the city limits. Such a development would also be a good fit for a streetcar extension when and if one gets built. I still lean towards something mixed use, but I could be persuaded otherwise. What do you think?

A streetcar for the East End?

It could happen.

As the once solidly industrial East End transforms with a 4-month-old soccer stadium, a light rail line under construction and the imminent sale of a 136-acre plot that could signal coming lofts and boutiques, boosters are studying the possibility of reviving the streetcar in Houston after an absence of more than 70 years.

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Streetcars, which generally are single cars driven by electricity on rails embedded in roads they share with automobiles, are not on a fast track locally. There is no money yet to build even the 4-mile loop – which could cost $10 million a mile – envisioned as the first phase of the project being studied for the East End. Even if there were startup funds, there is no plan to sustain it, since fares alone do not support a system.

Greater East End leaders say the area is fertile ground for the rebirth of the streetcar. Its proximity to an estimated 150,000 downtown jobs makes it a potential commuter hot spot. Streetcar line installation costs could be held in check by the use of remnant track on Commerce and other streets in the neighborhood and the possibility of excavating a long-filled tunnel at Preston and Dowling for a low-cost underpass beneath a freight rail line. Streetcars, Greater East End leaders say, would be particularly useful in solving the East End’s so-called “last mile” problem, in which developers are wary of building too far from the light rail line out of a fear that residents and businesses will not buy in because of the prospect of a long walk in summer heat.

Even with federal funding and future income from a recently created city tax rebate zone in the neighborhood, the East End needs some of those developers to make bets on the neighborhood to increase the property tax collections that will have to be part of the financing package, said Patrick Ezzell, the district’s planning and infrastructure director. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. A streetcar line may attract development, but the district needs development first to raise the tax revenue to launch the line.

“Developers have loved it in other cities,” Ezzell said. “Whether that would translate to Houston, we don’t know.”

I’ve embedded a picture of the proposed line, about which you can find more on page 21 of the East End Mobility Study. This line would run along the southern end of that massive redevelopment opportunity site and connect it to the Dynamo Stadium light rail stop, as it should. Note also the price tag of approximately $40 million for the whole thing, which certainly makes it reasonable to think about even if there’s no funding source at this time. You should browse through that mobility study because there’s a whole lot more to what the planners have in mind than just this, but a line like this makes a lot of sense for the neighborhood that a lot of people would like this to be.