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Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film at 11.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

For an agency that’s spent decades guiding freeway expansion, it was a stark admission for members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation policy council.

“Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity,” the agency’s staff wrote.

Facing a future in which 14.2 million people will live in the eight-county Houston area in 2050, transportation planners are proposing a special task force that will work on the region’s long-range transportation plan so that high-capacity transit can start to gain a foothold after years – perhaps decades in some cases – without traction in car-crazed Houston.

The regional transportation plan is updated every five years, for a 25-year period. The current plan, approved in 2015, covers until 2040. The next version will reflect plans for highway, transit, bicycle and maritime projects for 2020 to 2045.

Though plans always have some bold transit components – ranging from commuter trains to major expansions of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail system – they rarely proceed in earnest.

“Some of them have been in three or four editions of our plan and they are no farther along than they were 15 years ago,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the area council, which acts as the local metropolitan planning organization responsible for doling out federal transportation funds.

On the one hand, it’s very encouraging to see official recognition of the reality that road capacity is a finite thing, and that expanding transit in the greater region is going to be vital to meeting our mobility needs. On the other hand, I’m going to be 79 years old in 2045, so my expectations are necessarily modest. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

My vision for Metro: Expansion

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses
Part 2: Marketing itself

One of the things that new Metro Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about is a regional transportation plan, to get everyone – including cities and counties not currently involved with Metro – to agree on what transit is and how we best go about doing it in a way that serves the greater region’s needs. I am fully on board with this idea, and my purpose today is to discuss a few specific ideas towards that end. My assumption throughout this post is that Metro can and should take a leadership role in this discussion. One can argue for an organization like H-GAC to take the lead, but I see them as more of a facilitator. Metro is the dominant transit provider in the region, and any meaningful regional plan for transit necessarily goes through them. They need to be the driving force to make things happen.

To me, the first principle in a regional transit plan is that it should be possible for anyone in the region – and I am talking about the ten-county greater Houston region that H-GAC covers – to plan and execute a trip on any transit line, from any point of origin and to any destination – from a single app or website. That includes mapping out the trip, estimating total trip time by the published schedules, and paying for the fare. It shouldn’t matter which agency or agencies are involved – any transfers, whether inter- or intra-agency, should be seamless. All you as the transit customer need to do is say that you want to start here and end there, and the rest is made available to you.

The first step towards this is for every transit agency in the greater Houston area to make all of its data available for the other agencies to use. Routes, schedules, fares, alerts, outages, whatever else – put it into a standard format that can be shared and used by applications. The city of Houston has done a lot of work to make its data available, so there’s an example to follow. Metro undoubtedly has the most data to make available, and likely also has the most IT resources at its disposal, so they ought to take the lead on this.

Once the data has been made available to all, the next step is to thoroughly review it, to see what obvious holes exist and what simple things – relocating a station, adjusting a schedule, and so forth – can be done to fix them. See Raj Mankad’s story of taking transit from Houston to Galveston for an example of what I’m talking about.

Now it’s time to build all that data into an app so that people can plan their trips. And as long as that is being done, there may as well be a parallel effort to allow for payment from within the app. Metro is already developing a smartphone payment system, so this shouldn’t be a stretch. The bonus here would be for the app to allow for payment on any system. Along those same lines, Metro Q-cards should be accepted as payment on any other regional system, with a reciprocal agreement in place as well. (*) I know there are reasons why so many different transit systems exist in our region. All I’m saying is that if we really want a regional transportation solution, as Metro appears to want, then we need those differences to be made transparent to riders.

So that’s the goal, and the path to meeting it. I think about this on the days when I take the bus home, because the stop where I pick up the 85 is also a pickup point for various Woodlands buses. I don’t have a need to go to the Woodlands, but if I ever did I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own what I need to do to get there. If Metro and its peer agencies get this done, I wouldn’t have to.

Finally, any discussion of expansion needs to include the fact that Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend County. That becomes an issue if and when the promised US 90A commuter rail extension – you know, the one that our buddy John Culberson made some promises last year to help get moving – gets funding. That line makes a lot more sense if it can be extended into Fort Bend, but that can really only happen if Metro operates in Fort Bend. For that to happen will take legislative action, and possibly a local referendum; I’m a bit unclear on the exact details. The legislative part I am sure of, and we know how dicey that can be, and how long you have to wait for a second crack at it if at first you don’t succeed. Getting started on that sooner rather than later is probably the better way to go.

(*) – When you think about it, why shouldn’t Metro’s Q-cards work on Via and DART and every other transit agency in the state? The EZ Pass we bought from HCTRA pays for tolls anywhere in the state. Why shouldn’t this also be the case for transit agencies? I’m just saying.

Still seeking a downtown connection for the high speed rail line

I’m hoping one gets found.

Texas Central Partners, the private firm proposing the Houston-to-Dallas line, briefed a city council committee Monday, telling officials they remain on track to break ground in late 2017.

“That might slide into early 2018,” said Shaun McCabe, vice-president of Texas Central Railway.

Any connection to downtown, which would likely require public funding, would be built later, said Holly Reed, manager of external affairs for Texas Central Partners.

[…]

“I am concerned there is a possibility of land-locking my district,” District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said, noting details have made it hard to determine the traffic effects the line will have.

The train line would run parallel to U.S. 290, Hempstead Highway and a freight rail line, which Stardig said could be too much for the area to overcome in terms of crossings and large impediments cutting the neighborhoods in half.

The lack of a downtown connection, meanwhile, continues to worry some officials, including [District K Council Member Larry] Green and Mayor Sylvester Turner. Houston Public Works has a pending request for proposals for an engineering firm to study the downtown link in greater detail. Green said the study would give Houston more information about the importance of a downtown link, which would then be turned over to the company so they can consider a possible link.

“It might make sense for them to do it,” Green said. “We as a city want to know what the impact would be and is there another way.”

Reed, the Texas Central spokeswoman, said the company would consider any alternative outside its own plans as “complimentary” to its own plans. She compared the Houston discussion to a similar conversation happening in the Dallas area, where a link to Fort Worth is being studied.

That extension, however, is predicated on public funding, Reed said.

I would point out that the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying this issue as well, and as noted in that first link if anything comes of this it would involve multiple entities, including the GCRD, H-GAC, Metro, TxDOT, and the city of Houston. How that would work, where such a connector would be located, who pays for what – those questions and many more remain to be answered. The point is that someone is at least thinking about them. As for TCR, their draft environmental impact statement is expected in summer or fall, and there will be public meetings after that, as there were with Metro and the light rail lines. I’m sure some of them will be quite eventful. The deadline for responses to the city’s request for a study of options connecting the high speed rail terminal to downtown is May 27. KUHF has more.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

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

The Chron reports on the story.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

I got those reverse commuting blues

The Woodlands is growing as en employment center, which means it is also seeing a lot more traffic in what used to be the reverse commute direction.

There is no longer a simple drive to this onetime bedroom community, which has turned into an economic powerhouse and upended the flow of traffic in the process. These days, it can be nasty in both directions during rush hour, with just as many people driving to The Woodlands for work as residents leaving for jobs in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The movement is unique in the eight-county Houston region, where commuters mostly have followed the same paths from the suburbs into the city for decades. The rapidly growing ranks of reverse commuters have created new challenges for those responsible for keeping the area out of gridlock.

“I-45 North is congested in both directions every morning and afternoon,” said Thomas Gray, chief transportation planner for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “It’s because there are so many jobs in The Woodlands now, and people can’t or don’t want to move for them.”

[…]

Houston Transtar data shows the 21-mile stretch from the northern edge of The Woodlands to Beltway 8 takes about 34 minutes on average at 6 p.m. – up from 21 minutes just four years ago.

That’s in part because of road construction south of The Woodlands. But it’s also because there are more vehicles using I-45 than it was designed to handle.

For example, the stretch between Rayford Road and Woodlands Parkway is carrying 253,000 cars a day, which is 18 percent over capacity, officials said. The Texas Department of Transportation expects some 390,000 vehicles a day to be passing through that stretch by 2030.

Some people also worry about increased traffic within The Woodlands, with several high-rises sprouting in the town’s center, giving it a look that’s similar to Houston’s Galleria, a place where traffic routinely backs up throughout the day.

“There’s just so much volume that congestion starts early,” said Gavin Dillinghman, a scientist who commutes some 40 miles from west Houston to the Houston Advanced Research Center in The Woodlands. “You’re not beating anyone by leaving at 6 a.m. anymore. We just leave earlier and earlier, and it’s worse and worse every day.”

One problem is a lack of options for those with the reverse commute, which has existed for decades in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and Washington that are ringed by mini-cities.

For Houstonians with jobs in The Woodlands, though, there are no buses going their way, no park-and-ride lots and no high occupancy vehicle, or HOV,lanes for relief. The only alternative is the Hardy Toll Road, which can cut down on drive times but does nothing to reduce the number of cars making the daily trip to and from the suburb.

That could change. The Woodlands is considering introducing bus service for reverse commuters. The township already provides express bus service for residents working downtown and at the Medical Center and Greenway Plaza.

“We’re looking at it very closely,” said Chris LaRue, transit program manager for The Woodlands. “The questions are, what’s going to make it viable and how soon should we do it?”

Three things:

1. Most of this is happening north of Beltway 8, where I-45 is six lanes wide – this is the portion of the freeway that has been improved by TxDOT already. There’s also three lanes’ worth of the Hardy Toll Road that can get you to the Woodlands. It’s not a lack of road capacity that’s a problem here, is what I’m saying. When TxDOT does whatever it’s going to do to I-45 between the Beltway and downtown, it will only get worse, just as I-10 inside the Loop got congested after it was widened out west.

2. It’s good to hear that the Woodlands is considering bus service from Houston into their township. There’s clearly a need for it. I would hope that they work with Metro on this, mostly to ensure there aren’t any egregious gaps where there should be overlaps. Ideally, they will work to integrate the two to extend the reach of their own service, and possibly save themselves some money on facilities. I’m thinking they should aim to have at least a few stations for their service at Metro transit centers, and provide a subsidy for for their riders to take a Metro bus or rail line to get there.

3. Ultimately, the only real solution here is going to be to get fewer cars to use the road. As we should surely have learned by now, adding highway capacity doesn’t solve highway traffic problems, and does a lot to exacerbate traffic problems on surface streets. More transit, more carpooling, more people living close enough to work to be able to walk or bike – all these things need to be in the mix. The idea that Something Must Be Done to enable you as a single-occupancy-vehicle-driver to get to work faster needs to be put to rest, because at some point that just ain’t gonna be possible any more. The sooner we all accept that, the better off we’ll all be.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B-Cycle’s future

There’s some trouble in San Antonio.

San Antonio B-Cycle could be on the verge of following rideshare and disappearing from the San Antonio landscape, multiple sources have told the Rivard Report, unless it can win the local government, corporate and philanthropic financial support that bikeshare enjoys in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, and Austin. The same sources said Cindi Snell, the unpaid executive director since B-Cycle’s started here, announced at a Tuesday B-Cycle board meeting that she has decided to step down later this year. Snell has recently told friends and colleagues in the cycling community that she is exhausted after four years of unsuccessful efforts to win any major sponsorships and operating on a bare bones budget and pro bono support services to survive.

Sources say the B-Cycle board will have to consider shutting down or scaling back operations even as it seeks a new executive director, which it lacks funds to pay. One option would be to turn down the $1.2 million TXDOT grant to avoid the increased operating costs associated with an expanded network, but that would signal an end to rideshare’s growth in San Antonio, disappoint many neighborhoods awaiting stations, and the board would still face an underfunded system that would have to operate after losing Snell, bikeshare’s strongest and most visible advocate in San Antonio.

The bulk of funds that have built the San Antonio B-Cycle system flowed through the City’s budget from federal stimulus programs, and like the pending TXDOT grant, were for bikes and stations. Snell, co-owner of the Bike World cycling stores, has worked full-time for free while B-Cycle’s seven employees are paid modest salaries or hourly wages. The City, County and regional government entities do not contribute any funding to support B-Cycle. The 80/20 Foundation and Baptist Health Foundation have each contributed $50,000 grants this year, but no national company or locally-based company has shown interest in sponsoring bikeshare in the city.

That story, which has been shared 126 times after being posted to the San Antonio B-Cycle Facebook page, has generated promises from city leaders that they would work to save the program, but as yet I’ve not seen any reports saying that a sponsor or other funding source has been found. San Antonio was the first city in Texas to get B-Cycle, and it’s been very successful, with more stations and bikes and checkouts than Houston’s B-Cycle. It would be a big loss for them if it can’t sustain that success. Next City has more.

Meanwhile, Houston has a sponsor for its existing B-Cycle stations and is looking for more grant money to allow for further expansion.

Houston so far has avoided pitfalls, said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle, by stretching the seed money it received from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas in 2013 to expand the system.

“That and the fact that we have operated on a very lean basis,” Rub said. “We have been able to cover approximately 70 percent of our operating expenses through the income generated by the system, therefore we’ve been able to stretch the sponsorship dollars. We’ve even had a few months where the system income has exceeded our monthly operating expenses.”

More money would help Houston to expand the system. Right now it is focused on downtown and nearby areas such as the Museum District, Midtown and Montrose. Adding stations or offering service in additional neighborhoods, like the Heights or close to the University of Houston and Memorial Park, would require corporate partnerships or grant funding.

Rub said he has applied for funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money for transportation options such as biking. The proposal would be for $3.4 million from H-GAC, with the local B-Cycle matching 20 percent of that with money they collect from fares or raise via other sources.

“If we receive the award we will put a plan into action that will result in adding 71 more stations over the next two-plus years,” he said.

The plan would also add 600 bikes.

“That would establish a very well networked bike share program,” Rub said.

If the H-GAC proposal does not happen, Rub said, finding a title sponsor would be hugely important to maintaining and expanding the system.

“We, along with the entire bike share industry, feel that we can provide a great deal of value to a title sponsor,” Rub said. “But bike share is still a relatively new industry and doesn’t have the advertising industry metrics to justify the investment, from a sponsor’s perspective. That is the challenge faced by many of the programs around the country.”

I hope they can get that grant and execute that expansion plan. I also hope they will have the same kind of backing from the next Mayor as they have had from the current one. You know how I feel about this sort of thing.

The trouble with the Southwest Freeway

I think the problem is easy enough to identify. The solution is another matter.

Houston-area transportation planners are considering some novel strategies – at least for Texas – for managing traffic to ease congestion on U.S. 59 between downtown Houston and the Sam Houston Tollway.

Among the steps that may be considered are clearing accidents more quickly, restricting trucks to certain lanes and allowing buses to use freeway shoulders.

First, though, planners are running ideas by the public.

A variety of agencies, corralled by Houston-Galveston Area Council planners, have been discussing options for short-term fixes to U.S. 59 traffic. The puzzle regional planners are hoping to solve has one major constraint.

“The approach for this study is not taking more right of way or adding more lanes,” said Bill Tobin, chief transportation planner for H-GAC.

Using the same lanes more efficiently is a big challenge along the 14-mile stretch of U.S. 59. Officials estimate 300,000 vehicles use the freeway on an average work day.

Often, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said at a recent meeting, the congestion defies common assumptions.

“It has baffled me for many, many years why inbound the Southwest Freeway backs up in the afternoon,” Emmett said, noting one would expect most traffic to be heading away from downtown jobs and back to suburban homes.

All due respect, but I don’t think there’s anything to be baffled about. Heading northbound on 59, when you hit Loop 610 there are five lanes. At the downtown spur, north of Greenbriar, it narrows down to three lanes, as the two leftmost lanes peel off onto the spur. Then when you get to the I-45 junction a mile or so farther north, it squeezes down to two lanes as the leftmost lane is exit only. This is also the point at which 288 merges into 59, which returns to three lanes and stays that way till you get north of I-10. And this isn’t really “inbound” traffic in the traditional sense, either. It’s people heading from employment centers like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria, not to mention the Medical center for all those 288 folks, to the various suburbs via 59 and 45. It’s the same reason why 288 northbound backs up in the afternoon. What to do about it, I have no idea – the suggestions proffered are fine, though I doubt they’ll make much difference – but putting a finger on the cause is easy enough.

The wheels on the bus go round and round, even in The Woodlands

Welcome to the wonderful world of transit.

If only…

With help from regional officials, The Woodlands is entering the bus business, a decision that might give south Montgomery County commuters more options down the road.

Population gains pushed the Woodlands-Conroe area from a “small urban area” to a “large urbanized area” of 230,000 residents for the 2010 Census. That bump means someone has to take responsibility for federally awarded transit money.

“Now those dollars are coming to us,” said Nick Wolda, spokesman for The Woodlands Township, the local governing organization.

With the money, however, comes responsibility for overseeing a bus system and stocking up on buses. To get the fleet started, Woodlands officials reached out to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out federal transit money in the Houston area.

Council officials Tuesday approved a $14.1 million agreement that uses $11.3 million in federal funds and $2.8 million from The Woodlands to buy 25 buses over a number of years, starting with five in the first year.

“It is not all the buses they need, but it is gives them a great start,” said Alan Clark, manager of transportation air quality programs for H-GAC.

[…]

Controlling bus service in their communities means the township and city can adjust service more to their liking and move more quickly, Clark said. By owning buses – and potentially having the funding to invest in more lines – transit officials in southern Montgomery County can start to position the buses to meet the area’s explosive growth.

“This is kind of the maturity of these communities,” Clark said. “Everything is coming together on this. They have made additional investments in sidewalk infrastructure.”

I wish them all the best with that. They’re still going to have to deal with the fact that their lack of a street grid and the resulting traffic congestion will severely limit the utility of their bus network, but it’s a start. At least every bus passenger will be one less car on those crowded streets. It ain’t much, but it’s a start.

How to solve the traffic problems of The Woodlands

All that growth has its downsides.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, along with local entities including The Woodlands, Montgomery County, the City of Oak Ridge North and the Texas Department of Transportation, are working on a South Montgomery Mobility Study that they hope will ultimately ease the woes of commuters.

Officials say they realize there are no easy answers. But they say the blueprint will help guide transportation planning for years to come.

“It’s obvious. The traffic situation is getting worse,” said Thomas Gray, a Houston-Galveston Area Council planner who is helping to lead the study. “The existing road network can barely sustain current traffic, and they won’t be able to handle the anticipated volumes.”

Preliminary findings reveal that most of the main arterials in and surrounding The Woodlands, such as Woodlands Parkway, Gosling Road and Kuykendahl Road, are either at or over capacity.

Congestion will only worsen as new residential communities and companies break ground in the coming years, according to early data and area council officials.

Township board members said that some residents believe the township and other regional leaders are not working quickly enough, as growth stresses the local infrastructure.

For many, completion of the study can’t come soon enough.

“I have residents calling and saying, ‘Why can’t you do something?'” said Jeff Long, a member of The Woodlands Township board. He said the No. 1 concern he hears from residents is that they’re spending too much time in traffic.

My advice is to invent a time machine, travel back to 1975 or so, and try to convince George Mitchell to do a traditional grid design for the streets instead of the mishmash of self-contained cul-de-sacs that exists now. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t known for some years now that this funnel everything to a single main road approach doesn’t work so well. Doing a grid would also allow for the creation of a public transportation network, and would also allow people to, you know, walk or bike to certain destinations instead of having to drive everywhere. It’s so crazy it just might work!

While I maintain that the time machine approach would ultimately be cheaper and less disruptive to The Woodlands and other parts of southern Montgomery County and far north Harris County – I wonder if all those soon-to-be-relocated ExxonMobil employees are aware of this? – I daresay that’s not likely to be the way the folks that are charged with fixing this will go. What the next best alternative is, I have no idea. Whatever solutions they do come up with, I’ll bet they can’t afford them with their current level of taxation. Good luck, y’all. You’re going to need it.

Metro reports an increase in boardings with bikes

From the inbox:

The number of people using bikes to extend their bus trips (or vice versa) increased more than 47 percent jumping from 12,111 bike bus boardings in January 2013 to 17,859 in January this year, That’s according to METRO figures which do not account for bikes taken onto light-rail trains.

At the METRO Downtown Transit Center you’ll find a bustling bike-share station, and at bus stops and train stations bikes ready to be loaded onto bike racks.

“We are preparing for and trying to cultivate, these folks as repeat customers. We’re doing that with bike racks on buses and at bike stands at bus stops. We’ve installed racks on our new trains and are working with the city to provide better infrastructure with bike lid storage at Park&Ride lots and B-Cycle facilities at our Downtown Transit Center,” says METRO’s Interim President & CEO Tom Lambert.

“The upward trend is gratifying. It’s good exercise, gets cars off the road, relieves congestion and certainly cuts emissions that impact our air quality. We work with bus drivers to be more aware of cyclist needs and the rights of the road,” Lambert continued.

METRO has encouraged bike ridership through collaboration with area agencies – advancing what was a grant for a three-station bike share start-up program to the 29 stations and 227 bikes it has today. Houston B-Cycle has registered more than 55,650 checkouts since opening – which comes to about 1,200 per week since the program expanded in March 2013. One of the most popular bike rental stations is located at METRO headquarters at 1900 Main St.

METRO is also working on a Transit-Bike Connection study as well as partnering with Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on a Bike and Ride Access Implementation plan. Meanwhile Rice University engineering students turned to METRO to work on their first project — the design of a rack to transport three bicycles at a time via bus. Their METRO-based project won this year’s Texas Department of Transportation’s College Challenge.

That team was one of three finalists asked to develop concepts to help Texas mobility, connectivity and transportation safety issues. Students were motivated by a recent H-GAC study anticipating growth. The three-rack solution is one of several by Houston Action Research Team (HART) undergrads.

Good to hear, and another bit of positive news from Metro at the start of the year. As you know, I’m a big fan of integrating bike and transit networks as a way to extend them. The release also noted that Metro topped 22,000 bike boardings in August, so while the overall trend may be positive – they didn’t give figures for other months – there’s still room for monthly growth. I hope it continues.

Chron favors Uptown transit plan

Good to see, and I think they make a decent point.

We’re glad that Houston-area transportation officials have approved federal funds for an Uptown bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

[…]

But we’re struck by [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett’s vote against the plan at the Galveston-Houston Area Council Transportation Policy Council.

Emmett is no knee jerk mass transit opponent. Harris County’s resident transit nerd, these sorts of issues are his bread and butter, and the Uptown Houston Management District should heed his concerns. If the BRT is going to be built for office workers, then it should meet those needs.

We believe that means bus stops large enough and service often enough to accommodate rush-hour crowds; protected crosswalks and wide sidewalks that make it easy to get from buses to the office; shade and cover to make those walks comfortable. Adding B-Cycle rental stations and designated bike routes to this Uptown project could also help bridge the gap from bus stop to office door.

Unlike downtown’s Park and Ride buses, stops won’t be immediately outside of office buildings and there isn’t an underground tunnel system to avoid the heat. Houston neighborhoods are rarely built with pedestrians in mind, and BRT will only live up to the full potential if this overhaul of Uptown transit addresses every inch of the commuter route – transfers and walks included.

See here for the background. I am of course delighted to see the Chron get on board with the idea of using B-Cycle to enhance and extend the BRT/commuter bus network, since I’ve been advocating for that all along. I do agree that it would be wise for the Uptown Management District to take pedestrian concerns seriously. If Judge Emmett has any thoughts about how those concerns might be addressed, I’m sure we’d be glad to hear them. The bottom line remains that this is a worthwhile idea, and we should do every reasonable thing we can to make it work.

H-GAC approves Uptown transportation funding

Good.

Houston-area transportation officials approved a plan Friday to use $61.8 million in federal funds to help build bus-only lanes along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area.

[…]

The project, sponsored by the Uptown Management District, widens Post Oak to add two center lanes for buses that will shuttle riders from two Metropolitan Transit Authority transit centers into the bustling Uptown business area. The $177.5 million project is slated to start construction in 2015, said John Breeding, Uptown’s president.

Breeding and other Uptown area business leaders told the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council the project could be a game-changer in terms of how people commute into the area to work and to shop.

“We are convinced it will improve mobility well beyond its neighborhood,” said Jack Drake, president of the Greenspoint District.

See here and here for the background. The plan to install BRT as a (temporary?) replacement for light rail along the Uptown Line has gotten the bulk of the attention, but the addition of HOV lanes is likely the bigger deal. Somewhat strangely to me, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who voted No, expressed skepticism about that aspect of the plan.

“I am afraid we are going to look up in 10 years and say, ‘What did we do that for?’ ” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

Emmett, chairman of the transportation council, said the project followed the rules and on paper warranted the funding commitment from local officials.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the right project to solve the Uptown area’s serious traffic problems, said Emmett, expressing doubts that Houston residents would get out of their cars to take a bus to work.

“I think I know Houstonians enough to know they are going to want to drive,” Emmett said.

Unlike downtown, where park-and-ride buses drop commuters off right in front of major buildings, someone leaving an office on Post Oak would have to cross wide grass medians and wait at an outdoor transit stop in the middle of the street.

“When it’s 95 degrees, is anybody going to do that?” Emmett asked.

You hear that “it gets hot in Houston” argument often for why non-car-oriented projects won’t be worth it. It’s true we have hot summers, but that’s only three months out of the year. The rest of the year is great weather for being outside. We’re still talking about a fairly short distance to walk to get from bus to building. I’m sorry, but I don’t see this as a good reason to oppose the plan, especially given how awful traffic around the Galleria is. I think plenty of people would be happy to have an alternative to that.

One argument that I can see is that once you’ve taken a bus into Uptown, you’re stranded when you want to go to lunch. Downtown there are tons of options in easy walking distance – if you drive into downtown to work, depending on how close your garage is to your office, you can likely get to numerous lunch places in the time it would take you to walk to your car. I don’t know what the situation is like Uptown. But that’s where the rest of the plan comes in – the BRT line will help you get around Uptown, perhaps someday connecting to the University line as well. Throw in a future B-Cycle expansion as I’ve been suggesting, and I think you’ve got it mostly covered. Metro and the Uptown District will need to educate businesses and employees about what their commuting options will be in the future, but I’m sure they’ll take care of that. I think this is a good idea and I think it’s going to make a positive difference in the area. What do you think?

Uptown transit plan gets key funding approval

Good news.

Plans for bus-only lanes along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area moved forward Thursday when a key committee recommended spending $62 million in federal funds.

Members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation improvement program subcommittee approved the spending, a month after delaying a decision so staff could study the issue more, especially regarding plans for the buses to use lanes along Loop 610. In the end, after that additional analysis, planners found the project to build bus-only lanes along Post Oak and offer dedicated service between two park and ride lots is worthwhile, even without the freeway component.

“This project would score exactly in the middle of the highest tier,” said Alan Clark, manager of transportation and air quality programs at the Houston-Galveston council.

Two more approvals from a technical committee and the region’s transportation policy committee are needed for the project to receive the federal funds.

[…]

Combined, the Westpark transit center and rapid transit project and Post Oak improvements are estimated to cost about $148 million. The work along Loop 610 is considered a separate $40 million project, which likely will follow the bus upgrades, set to open in 2017.

See here for the background. H-GAC had wanted to get more technical input from TxDOT about the Uptown plan as a whole and in regard to the HOV service before signing off on the grant money. As originally reported, up to $45 million may be available, with that money originating with the federal government and being allocated by H-GAC. I’m not exactly sure where the $62 million figure comes from; perhaps it includes work related to the Uptown project but not for the work on 610. Their next meeting is June 28, and at this point I feel confident the grant will be approved.

The Uptown plan is as much about HOV as it is BRT

Maybe more.

Most discussion of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone’s plan, which goes before City Council this week, has been about a proposal to annex Memorial Park into the zone and spend $100 million restoring the drought-stricken park. The centerpiece of the zone’s plan, however, is a $187.5 million vision to widen and rebuild Post Oak Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes in the middle, build 7,500 feet of elevated bus lanes on the West Loop, and finance a transit center and parking garage at Westpark and the West Loop.

“We’re doing a lot to improve streets in the Uptown area to help make it more convenient for people to get around, but getting to the Uptown area, we’ve done about all we can with the automobile,” said John Breeding, director of the Uptown zone. “What we need to do is find some way to grow our transportation supply, and that is by bringing in transit.”

Breeding stressed that Post Oak’s existing six lanes and protected left turn lanes would be preserved.

More than 65 percent of Uptown workers live to the southwest and northwest in areas served by HOV lanes and Metro’s park and ride service, Breeding said, but just 10 of 300 daily park and ride buses visit the Galleria; most go downtown.

“We are badly underserved right now,” said Kendall Miller, an Uptown zone board member. “We have some local routes that kind of go through us, we have some van pools that are organized by the big companies. It’s very ad lib.”

About 37 percent of all downtown workers take a Metro vehicle to work, Breeding said, and 62 percent of them make more than $80,000 a year, showing people choose transit for many reasons and that everyone from oil executives to retail clerks would use the buses if they served Uptown.

[…]

Metro board member Christof Spieler said about half the people who live in areas served by park and rides use the service, adding that Metro has long wanted to add Uptown to that list.

“It’s never been possible because, in order to get from the Northwest Transit Center or the Southwest Freeway to Uptown, those buses would have wound up stuck in same traffic with everyone else,” he said. “I really think this is a game-changer for transit in one of our most important job centers.”

City Councilman Oliver Pennington, who represents the area, said Greater Houston Partnership data show there are almost 200,000 jobs in his district, 91 percent of which are filled by workers living elsewhere, creating “a terrific traffic nightmare.” The proposed transit plan would make the area more competitive and more livable, he said.

“I’m a firm believer that we need some things to show what a great city we are. I think it will not only serve the people, but it will show the world that Houston is doing things for its citizens. We need some physical evidence of the kind of life that we enjoy here.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think this is the first mention I’ve seen of elevated bus lanes for the West Loop, which would enable the park and ride buses to avoid the traffic of the Loop and thus be more attractive to potential riders. It certainly makes sense to expand the park and ride network into Uptown, and I do think it will be heavily used once that happens. Having the support of CM Pennington makes approval of the TIRZ expansion very likely, though I’m sure there will be some lively discussion given the Memorial Park concerns that have been raised.

Expansion of the TIRZ is still a necessary condition for any of this to go forward. Funding for this plan is dependent in part on a grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council, which has not yet approved said funding but could take the matter up once soon.

The proposals could come for consideration before the regional group’s Transportation Policy Council – the body responsible for allocating the federal grants – on May 24 or June 28, said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s transportation director.

“The council allocated around $400 million in grants at its April 26 meeting. The projects in question were not slated for action, but money was held back so these projects can be considered,” Clark said.

Before the proposals go for a TPC vote, an H-GAC advisory committee will consult with the Texas Department of Transportation about one phase of the plan that would involve linking bus service on Post Oak to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center, Clark said.

Current ideas include creating a grade-separated bus way above the main lanes of Loop 610 that would be connected to a Post Oak transit line, he said.

“Because this (the connection between Post Oak and the Northwest Transit Center) is so integral to the overall plan and its anticipated benefits, the Technical Advisory Committee wants to do further study,” Clark said.

Again, I feel confident that this will go through, but it’s fine if H-GAC wants to take its time and think about it some.

One other point to stress about all this is that by extending Metro’s park and ride network into Uptown, which includes the BRT lanes on Post Oak, we are also building for even more expansion and connections in the future. The Westpark transit center would obviously be of use when the University line finally gets built. If there is ever a commuter rail line along US 290, the Northwest transit center, which is the northern endpoint of this project, would be the gateway from it into Uptown. Adding a node to a network has value beyond the node itself. This plan has a lot to offer for Uptown, but it’s potentially very good for the big picture as well.

The Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Big projects, big plans, big funding mechanism.

Transit and trees – things that make urban areas move quickly and look pretty – are the centerpieces of a $500 million project that would remake the Uptown area and reinvigorate Memorial Park.

Mayor Annise Parker and other officials announced a plan Thursday that would fund construction of a mass transit corridor on Post Oak Boulevard and kick start much-needed reforestation efforts at one of the city’s signature parks.

“We’re coming together around a really unique opportunity and a unique proposition to link what’s happening in the Galleria area and what’s happening in one of Houston’s most beloved parks,” Parker said.

[…]

The estimated cost of the local park and transit projects is $556 million over a 25-year period. Funding would come from property taxes generated as a result of incremental growth in property values within the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 16, which encompasses the Galleria and surrounding area.

The project is dependent on City Council extending the boundaries of the Uptown zone. The 1,503 acres of Memorial Park would be annexed into the TIRZ 16, as it’s known. There will be a public hearing on the plan on April 24.

If progress continues as expected, buses could start running in late 2017.

[…]

The plan to enhance the park would first involve removing dead trees, bushes and invasive plants that compete with trees for water and sunlight, said Shellye Arnold, executive director for Memorial Park Conservancy. Erosion control and the re-establishment of native grasslands would follow.

Up to 15,000 seedlings and trees have already been planted since January.

Basically, this is the city’s part of paying for the Uptown BRT line. As reported elsewhere, the estimated cost for that is $177.5 million, of which the city is kicking in $92 million; the rest will come from state funds and an H-GAC grant that uses federal money. Obviously, that means Memorial Park will get the bulk of the TIRZ funds, which makes sense given the 25-year time frame mentioned in the story since the Uptown BRT construction should be done by 2017. Not clear when the Uptown construction would start, but I figure that will come out during the discussion. I can’t wait to see what Helena Brown will make of this. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in stories about the Uptown transit project is to what extent bikes will be part of the vision. Once BRT is in place here and Uptown is integrated with Metro’s park and ride network, you would think that accommodating bikes as a way to extend the reach of these things would be desirable. I haven’t seen Uptown mentioned as a future site for B-Cycle, but 2017 is far enough away, and there are enough other obvious expansion points for bike sharing that it may just not be on the radar yet. But I figure we ought to at least acknowledge the possibility now so that we will be ready to plan for it when it’s more timely.

Biking to transit

KUHF has an update.

Metro’s Strategic Planning Committee got an update on the “Bike and Ride” Access Study. Metro says it wants to make it easier for Houstonians to combine bike and bus travel.

Metro officials say between 10,000 and 15,000 people every month bring their bikes aboard when they use the bus. Every bus has a rack on front that can hold two bikes.

Initial results of a survey by Metro and the Houston-Galveston Area Council show many more riders would like to bring their bike on a bus or train, but they don’t know how transit fits into their travel choices.

Metro board member Christof Spieler says the goal of the study is to find ways to hook up bike trails with transit centers.

“And what those bike trails end up being, is they end up being ways to extend our light rail system. If you live in the Heights you might not have a light rail station, but you’ll have a bike trail that will lead you directly to a light rail station.”

I’ve discussed the bikes on trains issue before, and as noted in my first link remain hopeful that as the new light rail lines are completed and new rail cars are purchased that Metro will extend the hours in which you are allowed to bring your bike onto a train to include rush hour. The figures monthly bike boardings on Metro buses is in line with what Metro had previously reported. It’s a non-trivial amount, but there is surely room for that number to grow. More train service, more bike-on-train hours, and better bus service should help with that. I don’t know if anyone has articulated a goal for bike-to-transit usage – 20,000 combined bike-on-bus/train boardings per month? Thirty thousand? Fifty thousand? – but we should have one, and we should have a strategy for how to reach that goal. I hope that subject comes up as Metro and H-GAC evaluate the results of the survey, which you can still take.

Take the 2013 METRO Bike and Ride Survey

A public service announcement from H-GAC:

2013 METRO Bike and Ride Survey

The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) and METRO invite you to participate in the METRO Bike & Ride Plan, a planning effort to improve connections between bicyclists and the transit network in the METRO service area. Take the survey!

Vision, Mission and Goals

Based on input from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, METRO and the project consultants, the following vision, mission and goals were developed for the project:

Vision

The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will enhance METRO’s ability to provide first class transit service by linking the region’s expanding bicycle networks to transit infrastructure, while building upon its foundation as a trusted community partner to implement a prioritized set of projects that will provide attractive, safe, healthy, low-cost transportation choices for all users.

Objective

The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will define a prioritized set of high-quality links between the bicycle and transit networks in the METRO service area to maximize the ability to make bicycle-transit linked trips for all users.

Goals

  • To enhance bicycle access to METRO facilities with a focus on the highest potential locations
  • To create inter-jurisdictional consensus on recommendations and partnerships that facilitate on-the-ground improvements with the associated project costs of each
  • To improve bicyclist accommodations at METRO facilities, especially Park and Ride lots, transit centers and rail stations
  • To identify recommendations for METRO to consider as it develops a comprehensive plan for bicyclists
  • To implement programs and standards that make the METRO system easy for bicyclists to understand and use

Project Description

H-GAC has partnered with METRO on the development of a Subregional Planning Initiative study that will facilitate METRO’s evolution as a multimodal transit agency to increase accessibility for bicyclists and pedestrians. The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will identify strategic approaches tailored to each of METRO’s Park and Ride lots, transit centers and rail stations based on analysis and information that includes best practices from peer transit agencies, spatial requirements, security requirements and geographic requirements. Study goals include:

  • Enhance access for bicycle riders to METRO facilities
  • Identify specific short and long-range improvements, along with associated costs for each, that will maximize accessibility and accommodation for bicycles at each Park and Ride lot, transit center, and rail station
  • Provide recommendations for METRO and its member jurisdictions to consider as it develops a comprehensive plan for bicyclists throughout its service area

Again, the survey is here. I don’t know if there’s a deadline on this, but please take a moment if you can and help them out on this. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Help Metro figure out the bike and transit thing

Your public service opportunity of the day:

METRO and the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) are seeking input from bicyclists on the use of public transit. Want to join? You must meet the following criteria:

  • Already integrate biking and public transit
  • Bike but not currently using public transportation
  • Use public transit but not with a bike

Focus group dates are Wednesday, Dec. 5 from noon to 1:30 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 6, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

The METRO Bike and Ride Access and Implementation Plan will define links between the bicycle and transit networks in the METRO service area so more people can easily use both bikes and buses or trains to get around.

You must RSVP by calling Patricia Lawhorn at 832-681-2523, or email bikeandride@h-gac.com. Once you RSVP, you’ll be given the downtown location of the meetings.

I presume they mean you must meet one of those criteria listed, since I think it’s logically impossible to meet all three. Be that as it may, if this is up your alley get in touch and help them out.

Houston-Austin rail update

Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation is planning to fund environmental and financial feasibility studies for a passenger rail line connecting Houston to Austin, according to the Texas Tribune and KUT Austin.

The planned line would be a 110mph train connecting Houston, Hempstead, Brenham, Giddings, and Austin, for about $1.2 billion, although TXDOT is considering several variations, according to a presentation at the Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council as reported by Houston Tomorrow.

TXDOT does not have a funding source identified for the completion of the project, but is conducting the studies to be better prepared for future federal funding opportunities, according to KUT Austin.  Meanwhile, the Lone Star Rail District is conducting studies on how to move freight traffic from its intended passenger rail line connecting San Antonio to Austin and many points in between, while efforts continue to build a true high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas with all private funding.

Listen to audio file of KUT story (mp3)

As I said before, I think any rail line between Houston and Austin that takes longer to drive is highly unlikely to be attractive to people. I still hope there’s more to this than what we’ve seen so far.

Roundabouts in the sky

I have three things to say about this.

The words will make you down and out

Imagine driving into downtown Houston on interstates 10 or 45, or U.S. 59, and having to merge with all other incoming traffic onto an elevated, one-way traffic circle around the cluster of skyscrapers.

If downtown isn’t your final destination, you would stay on the circle until you got to the point where your freeway picks back up. Otherwise, you would pick an off-ramp to exit.

For now, the concept – a first-of-its-kind roundabout fed by multiple major highways rather than surface streets – is one of many untested and undeveloped ideas that local transportation entities will entertain as they begin taking a more creative look at how to relieve congestion in the highly developed area inside Loop 610 in an era of declining state funding.

[…]

Ted Houghton, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT, turned heads when he described the concept as both “fascinating” and “feasible” during a breakfast address in Houston in early August.

“Believe that, or not, but that is a recommendation,” Houghton told the Houston Realty Business Coalition. “In other words, if you’re coming north on 59 to downtown and you want to get to 45, you will get on that roundabout and get spit out either north or south onto 45.”

Houghton said the fate of the concept largely would be contingent on public input – “the outcry of the folks who are going to drive that and work downtown.”

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said regardless of whether the roundabout idea is workable, it’s indicative of the creative thinking that’s been sparked by an array of challenges facing transportation leaders.

People like Clark are charged with figuring out how best to reduce crippling congestion in a highly developed area while minimizing the impact on traffic flow and the need for more land – all as the area’s population explodes and funding for transportation dwindles.

Clark also noted that Houston has multiple, major employment centers that are as spread out as its suburbs, meaning rush hour traffic doesn’t flow in just one direction. And since multiple, major freeways converge downtown, travelers headed elsewhere often get stuck in the bottleneck there.

1. I gather from Houghton’s comment that the traffic would be going counterclockwise. That would leave the flow of I-10 West, I-45 South, and US 59 North unaffected, but would mean taking a noon-to-eight equivalent detour around the circle if you’re going the other way. I think I can predict what that outcry is going to sound like.

2. The fact that funding for transportation is “declining” and “dwindling” is not the result of some natural law over which we have no control. It’s entirely the result of policy decisions, beginning with the refusal to increase the gas tax over the past 20 years, that leave us now with population growth and transportation needs that far outstrip our ability to pay for them. Rather than come up with these crazy-sounding solutions to work around our entirely self-inflicted problem of insufficient transportation funding, we could, you know, work to redesign the funding mechanism for transportation in such a way as to make it adequate and sufficient for our needs. Some people in Texas are talking about real solutions to our infrastructure problems, others don’t understand the question. Solving political problems is much harder than solving technological problems, but the former are almost always more foundational.

3. I’ll keep saying this till I’m blue in the face, but we cannot solve this problem if we are not working to provide alternatives to taking crowded freeways through downtown for people who don’t really need to be taking freeways. I speak once again of better and more extensive transit, which would make it easier for people who are just trying to get from one place inside the Loop to another to leave the highways to the suburbanites and long-haul truckers. You don’t want people like me clogging up the Pierce Elevated as I commute from the Heights to the Medical Center. There will thankfully be a transit alternative for me in a couple of years, but there needs to be a lot more of this. Highways should be for long trips, not short trips.

Galveston passenger rail back on track

Sorry about the pun, they can be hard to avoid when writing these titles. Anyway, the on-again, off-again Houston to Galveston rail line is apparently on again.

A Houston-to-Galveston passenger rail line postponed indefinitely after the economy hit bottom in 2009 is getting another chance, but it could be a decade or more before the first spike is driven.

The original plan called for a passenger line carrying 1,000 to 2,000 people per day to be in operation as early as this year, but a series of events starting with Hurricane Ike and the stock market crash in 2008 stalled the project.

“The impact of the economic downturn has taken its toll in so many ways,” said Barry Goodman, whose consulting firm, Goodman Corp., is doing the planning. Goodman said the recession affected the rail project more than the storm.

The price tag had risen from an estimated $415 million in 2007 to $650 million, and local governments were unable to provide the 40 to 50 percent contribution typical for such projects, Goodman said.

Enthusiasm remains high for the plan among officials and residents in Galveston County’s 13 cities, so Goodman Corp. is redrawing the plans to accommodate the new financial reality, said John Carrara, senior vice president.

The revamped plan calls for starting more modestly with expanded park-and-ride and express bus services in the Houston-Galveston corridor.

The more measured approach could provide immediate benefits, said Alan Clark, transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The council, which coordinates planning for local governments in the region, will consider making the Goodman Corp. plan part of the regional transportation plan, Clark said.

I’m not sure why the story refers to this as “passenger rail”, which sounds like something that tourists would take, and not “commuter rail”, which is sure what it sounds like. The last updates I have on this is a story from 2011 about the project being off track (with a letter to the editor following a few days later disputing some of the points in the story); a 2010 story about the formation of a Galveston County transportation district; and a 2009 story about (what else?) a political dispute over who would do what for this rail line if it ever got off the ground. Who knows what will happen from here or more importantly when it will happen, but I do want to note that we are approaching the ten-year anniversary of the first Galveston rail-related blog post I ever wrote, which of course also prominently features a quote from Barry Goodman. Some things really do never change.

Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

TPC splits the difference

Bike advocates get a partial victory as the Transportation Policy Council voted to keep the last $12.8 million of unallocated federal funds on alternate mode projects instead of redirecting it towards roads.

“Whatever we do in this room is supposed to be representative of our regional values and needs,” said Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Director Art Storey, who said he favored redirecting that $12.8 million to roads. “If we allocate federal money to small-ticket things that are representative of individual communities’ values as opposed to regional values, we’re sucking up our discretionary funding because of the deficiency in mobility, the big-ticket things.”

Ultimately, Storey voted with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to funnel all the remaining dollars to mobility work, but leave previous funding decisions intact.

A proposal by Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell to give $7.2 million more to bike and pedestrian projects and another $72.6 million to roads was voted down.

CM Lovell put out a statement following the TPC meeting that said “This action not only stopped the loss of $12.8 million in federal funding recommended at the February 25 TPC meeting but also secured the commitment of the $51.6 million, which represents 15 percent of the total federal funding and exceeds the original recommendation that was originally considered by the Transportation Policy Council.” That is higher than the nine to thirteen percent range for alternate mode projects that Judge Emmett had recommended, but considerably lower than the 34% target that advocacy groups like Houston Tomorrow wanted. Still, they managed to reverse the original decision to use those remaining funds for roads and drew a considerable amount of attention to their efforts in the process, which is no small thing. I haven’t seen a statement yet from either HT or BikeHouston yet so I don’t know how they feel about this, but my guess would be more positive than negative.

Today’s the day for the TIP

That postponed Transportation Policy Council meeting to determine how to allocate unprogrammed federal transportation funds happens today.

A proposal before the regional Transportation Policy Council last month could have clawed back $12.8 million in funding set aside for bicycle and pedestrian projects and directed those dollars to road and freight rail work. At the urging of advocacy groups, the proposal was tabled to allow for more discussion.

The TPC — an appointed body of mostly elected officials that directs federal transportation funding in the eight-county region — will take up the issue at its meeting Friday.

“I’m hoping we can reach a compromise to where all of the (bike and pedestrian) funding is not lost, yet certainly understanding the need for roadway and rail funding,” said Houston City Councilwoman Sue Lovell, a TPC member.

[…]

In its 2011-14 transportation plan, the council has direct discretion over just $346 million in federal funds, $266 million of which already is allocated.

Some TPC members have proposed setting percentage guidelines on how the remaining $80 million should be spent: 1 percent on planning studies, 9 percent to 13 percent for alternative modes such as biking, walking and mass transit, and for air-quality projects, and the remaining 75 percent to 82 percent on roads and rail.

“I think there are going to be a lot of people in the broader community who aren’t in a particular interest group who say, ‘Wait a minute, of course, we ought to be giving 80 percent of mobility funds to actual mobility projects,’ as opposed to sidewalks or hike-and-bike trails,” [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

[…]

Advocacy group Houston Tomorrow has suggested spending 55 percent of the funds on roads and rail, and 34 percent on alternative modes.

They lay out their case here, with David Crossley adding more here. The meeting is this morning at the TPC’s office at 3555 Timmons, 2nd floor, room A. It’s open to the public, and the public comment period begins at 9:30, though there will be a TPC workshop beginning at 8:45 that you can also attend but not participate in. I look forward to seeing what happens.

HGAC hearing on TIP

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council will host a public hearing to discuss citizen priorities for the use of discretionary funds in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program on March 25, 2011 at 8:45am at the H-GAC building in the 2nd Floor Conference room at 3555 Timmons.

The Technical Advisory Committee will meet Wednesday, March 16, 2011 to discuss, amongst other things, a proposal to pursue “option 4” for allocating the remaining funding, as well as a H-GAC staff report on “the TIP Call for Projects.”

Houston Tomorrow has published a primer on the TIP funding issue.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m impressed by the amount of attention this has received. Take advantage of the opportunity to affect the outcome while you can.

TPC delays vote on TIP

Houston Tomorrow:

The Houston-Galveston Area Council’sTransportation Policy Council (TPC) unanimously voted on Friday morning to delay by thirty days its vote on a full $79.8 million allocation of unprogrammed federal transportation funds toward Mobility – roadway and freight rail – projects and a reallocation of $12.8 million from already committed pedestrian, bicycle, and Livable Centers projects to Mobility projects.

The 30-day delay will allow the public and elected officials to further explore how potential money from the federal Surface Transportation Program Major Metro (STP MM) and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) funds should be allocated within the Houston-Galveston region’s2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

The decision came after elected officials heard from more than 20 business, bicycle, pedestrian, and political advocates in attendance, plus thousands of citizens who signed petitions and called officials’ offices during the week to voice their concerns regarding the manner in which federal funds were being distributed toward various transportation modes.

Rather than push a vote through, City of Houston Council member Sue Lovell requested that the TPC delay voting on the issue for 30 days so that elected officials could more carefully examine the options on the table and hear from their constituents.

See here and here for some background. Houston Tomorrow has an online petition that calls for roadway spending to make up no more than 55% of regional transportation infrastructure spending, which it says in accordance with the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I don’t know enough about the 2035 RTP to comment on that, but I am glad there will be more time to discuss this issue. A press release from CM Lovell about the requested delay to the vote is beneath the fold.

(more…)

City to ask Census for a do-over

Very interesting.

The city of Houston will ask the U.S. Census Bureau to change its official count, raising questions about whether some apartment complexes or even entire neighborhoods were missed.

Houston’s population is 2,099,451, according to Census data released last week. That’s more than 100,000 fewer people than earlier estimates, and slightly below the 2.1 million that triggers an expansion of City Council to 16 members.

The expansion is still on, as city planners and independent researchers try to determine what went wrong.

“I think we’re all very disappointed in the Census Bureau’s ability to actually count the immigrant populations, and (other) hard-to-count populations,” said Jerry Wood, a consultant hired to review census results for the city. “The bureau had a great story about how they were going to do a better job this time, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that it didn’t work.”

Census maps show a huge section of east Houston — most of the area inside Loop 610, east of Interstate 45 – lost population, as did sections of southwest and northeast Houston.

Those areas are predominantly Latino and African-American, populations that historically are most likely to be missed by the census.

Some census tracts reported only small losses, but the widespread area that was affected caught people by surprise.

“That almost doesn’t seem right,” said Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council. “That strikes me as odd.”

In fact, the 2006 population estimate for Houston pegged it at 2,144,491 residents, so you can see why the official 2010 figure was so surprising. That represented 8.8% growth from the 2000 Census total of 1,953,631, and at that same rate over ten years would have led to a 2010 figure of 2,248,488. I’d guess that the growth rate would have slowed somewhat over the last four years, on the assumption that the 2006 total included a spike resulting from Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but even if you assume a rate half as large from 2006 to 2010 as you had from 2000 to 2006, you still top 2.2 million residents. Which is probably what the earlier estimates were based on.

Obviously, this matters for City Council redistricting, which as Greg notes should and will proceed. It also matters for legislative redistricting, both because Harris County is slightly under the total needed to maintain 25 seats, and because an awful lot of legislators need to add population to their districts, a task that will be easier to do if there’s more of it to spread around. Revising the count upwards will also temper somewhat the necessary westward shift of the legislative districts, since so much of the “missing” population is east of I-45. To put it in Bidenesque terms, this is a big effing deal. Keep an eye on it. A video report from KTRK can be seen here.

More on H-GAC and the TIP

I received some feedback from Judge Ed Emmett’s office regarding this post about H-GAC’s Friday Transportation Policy Council (TPC) meeting, at which funding in the 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) will be discussed and voted on. There’s some context missing from what Houston Tomorrow and Bike Houston wrote about this.

Let me start by pointing you to the TPC agenda item concerning the TIP. The original allocation of funds, with $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” monies remaining, was determined by the TPC to be short of their goal for project type Mobility, which includes “added capacity roadways; traffic operations/Intelligent Transportation Systems, transportation systems management, roadway rehabilitation/maintenance, grade separations/interchanges and freight rail projects”. To meet their goal of 78% allocation for Mobility, all unprogrammed funds plus an additional $12.8 million were designated for that type, with the extra money coming from the Alternative Modes type (“bicycle, pedestrian and transit improvements”); a third type, Air Quality, had no flexibility in its allocation, and the Planning/Studies type was already at zero. Alternative Modes is still getting $38.9 million, or 11.2% of the $345.6 million total, down from $51.6 million, which would have been 14.9%.

What Judge Emmett told me was as follows:

– The $79.8 million in “unprogrammed” funds came from a variety of sources, including the federal and state governments. This is money that was going to be spent but hadn’t been attached to anything yet.

– The TPC had decided to set ranges for the share of each project type’s allocation. Mobility’s range is 75-83%, Alternative Modes and Air Quality is 9-13% for each. The original TIP had Mobility below that range, and Alternative Modes, which Judge Emmett referred to as “hike and bike trails”, above it.

– No Alternative Modes project that already had funding lost funding as a result of this. There were some projects that had been approved but not yet funded that were pushed back to the 2015 TIP. These projects will retain their approval – in other words, they will not have to got through the approval process again and as the Judge put it “will be at the front of the line” for funding.

– In addition, as noted on page 3 of the agenda item, if there are any Mobility funds left over, unfunded but approved Alternative Modes projects would be eligible for them.

– The TIP covers a three year time frame, and most of the Alternative Modes projects that have been approved for funding have already had those funds allocated, and this is why there’s little of such funding allocated after this year.

I hope all this helps you understand it a little better, as I now do. I appreciate Judge Emmett taking the time to answer my questions. Please note that none of this is intended to discourage you from attending the TPC meeting on Friday if you were thinking about it. By all means, if you think the target ratios for Mobility and Alternative Modes are wrong, if you think that there are approved but unfunded Alternative Modes projects that shouldn’t have to wait till 2015, or if you have some other opinion about any of this, you should attend. That’s what it’s all about.