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Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

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

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

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We shall see.

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

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

Uptown BRT moving forward again

Good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who needs managed lanes?

Not TxDOT, and not on 290.

State transportation officials have changed plans for widening U.S. 290, increasing capacity for people driving alone but reducing opportunities for alternatives to solo driving.

After initially planning four or five general use lanes in each direction and three reversible managed (toll and carpool) lanes in the center, Texas Department of Transportation officials are now planning for a single managed lane. This lane, however, will extend to Mason Road, much farther than it does now, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the U.S. 290 widening project.

Reducing the space for carpool and toll lanes gives officials room to add one or two more general use lanes in some spots, making five or six free lanes available.

[…]

Eventually, Othon said, a tollway is planned along Hempstead Highway, providing carpool and transit access. A 50-foot corridor along this tollway is expected to one day carry high-capacity transit such as commuter rail.

The Hempstead corridor projects, however, remain well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans.

Othon said additional general use lanes on U.S. 290 would help relieve the immense demand drivers place today on the freeway. About 240,000 vehicles use the freeway daily, based on TxDOT counts.

A reduction in managed lanes, however, means options other than driving alone become less attractive. Interstate 10 west of downtown Houston has managed lanes in both directions, providing a bigger benefit for those who use transit or share a ride.

“The point is to add capacity,” said Christof Spieler, a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro officials urged TxDOT to build two-way managed lanes to improve transit options. Buses across Houston use the managed lane system – Metro maintains many of the lanes – because they typically enable buses to make quicker trips between suburban park-and-ride locations and major job centers. If buses are stuck in the same traffic solo drivers are, they lose their advantage, transit officials said.

I have no idea what drove that decision, and I have to say it’s a little disconcerting for it to happen without any public input. The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s very self-limiting. You can only have so many single-occupancy vehicles on the road at any one time. Increase the number of people per vehicle, increase the number of riders on buses headed to and from park-and-ride lots, and you can move a lot more people on the same number of lanes. Why would you not want to do that? Has TxDOT not noticed how crowded the massively-widened Katy Freeway has been getting lately? To say that the Hempstead Highway option is “well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans” is putting it mildly. Look how long it’s taken to get this part of the 290 construction project going. Nothing about this makes sense, but that’s TxDOT for you. The Highwayman has more.

The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region’s major airport. Houston’s new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what’s been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston’s population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART’s apparent ease of laying lines to Houston’s perennial controversy.

“Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. “Certainly we can get to The Galleria.”

The race for more lines isn’t much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don’t want rail, or more specifically they don’t want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

A step forward for Uptown BRT

Progress.

Texas transportation officials Thursday kicked in $25 million to build a dedicated bus lane along Loop 610, ensuring the second piece of a planned bus rapid transit corridor in the Uptown area.

As part of a larger statewide transportation spending plan for the next decade, members of the Texas Transportation Commission added $25 million to the transit plan. Officials with the Uptown Management District and Metropolitan Transit Authority are working on the bus project.

The project along Loop 610 is specific for buses.

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

The money is scheduled for the project in 2017.

Plans call for bus-only lanes along Post Oak and Loop 610 between the future Westpark Transit Center that Metro’s building and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It really is a transformational project in Houston,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia, noting it allows workers in the Uptown area to avoid some congested parts of their trip.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I presume the rail restriction on these funds is just for these funds, and that if someday Metro wants to build the Uptown Line as originally envisioned it can do so. That’s not even close to the radar at this time, I just hope future options are being kept open. For now, I’m glad to see this move along.

The Bill King alternative to light rail

In case you missed it, Bill King wrote a column lat week that was based on an email exchange he had with me awhile back in which he laid out his alternate vision for what Metro ought to be doing. Some of the items on his list are things I’d support, like adding amenities to park and ride stops. Some are things that sound interesting but I’d need to know more about before I could comment on, like his trolley-bus-circulator idea. Some are things that I would consider to be a waste of money for no discernable purpose, like elevating the Main Street line through the Medical Center.

Most of the rest are things I don’t have any strong feelings about one way or the other. One reason for that is because they would not do anything to improve mobility for people like me who live and work inside the Loop. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I believe a critical function of an expanded light rail network in Houston is to add capacity to the congested-and-getting-worse street grid of Houston’s inner core. We cannot address this problem the same way we’ve done for our highways, which is to build more lanes, because there isn’t the room for it. (There’s not the room for it any more on most of the highways, either, but that’s another story.) I don’t want to rehash all of that here because I don’t have anything new to add to what I’ve already written, but to me any plan or vision that doesn’t include a solution to this problem is completely inadequate. I’m open to the idea that there’s something other than light rail that can achieve this, but what King proposes ain’t it.

I should also note that King is trying to pull a little sleight of hand when he says “We must also ask what else we could do with that $3 billion to $4 billion”. That money he’s referring to comes from FTA grants specifically geared towards the construction of new rail lines; hence the name New Starts grants:

The New Starts program funds new and extensions to existing fixed guideway transit systems in every area of the country. These projects include commuter rail, light rail, heavy rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars, and ferries.

With the possible exception of the LRT elevation, to which he tacks on the commuter rail to Fort Bend proposal, I don’t see any of King’s suggestions meeting that requirement for the money that Metro is still waiting to get. There may be other grants available for the remaining items, but Metro would have to apply for them and beat out other hopefuls. If there’s one thing we’ve definitively learned from the Buy America debacle, it’s that the FTA very much expects its funds to go to the things it says they must go to. To imply that some of this money could be repurposed for things like rebuilding the I-45 South HOV or the FM1960 corridor is highly misleading. Peter Brown, who responded to King on Facebook, has more.