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HOV lanes

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.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

Will driverless cars fix Houston’s traffic problems?

Tory Gattis thinks they might.

The second step is understanding the ramifications of coming new technologies — specifically self-driving cars. While the general vehicle fleet will take decades to turn over as people slowly replace their cars, we can expect extremely rapid adoption among taxi services as soon as these vehicles are available in the early 2020s. The economics are simply too compelling: Almost 80 percent of the cost of a ride is the driver. One estimate has the typical ride dropping to $3.25, with shared rides going for $2.43 or even as low as $1 with SUVs carrying up to six passengers at once along a shared route.

Customized SUVs could be made with private individual compartments, so that passengers traveling in generally the same direction could share a ride without interacting. When vehicle pulls up, an indicator could tell you which door to enter for your compartment, then alert you again when it’s time for you to get out based on the destination you put into your smart phone. A private ride combined with shared prices and efficiency: the best of both worlds.

The impact on traffic congestion could be dramatic, as fewer vehicles carry more riders. Analysis by MIT, Stanford, and others estimate that shared rides could reduce the number of vehicles needed to carry the same number of trips by 70 to 90 percent. Quite the silver bullet to reduce traffic congestion! Then there’s the icing on the cake: Automated drivers are expected to dramatically reduce crash injuries and space required for parking, which will free up a tremendous amount of much-needed land in our cities.

All indications are that these super-cheap, point-to-point autonomous taxi services will essentially replace most bus and rail transit: Most trips would be much faster and more direct at nearly the same cost. In fact, transit agencies like METRO may switch their fleets to such vehicles, providing better service to their customers. Helsinki’s transit agency is already a pioneer of this transition, offering on-demand mini-vans available via smart phone app.

Gattis goes on the describe Managed eXpress Lanes — MaX Lanes, for short – as a way to efficiently ferry around all those multi-occupant driverless SUVs. I have no doubt that driverless cars are coming and that they will change how we do cars – indeed, I have good reason to believe that. What I’m less sure about is the effect it will have on how people behave. As cheap as this form of “mass” transportation may be, people aren’t just motivated by price. Status, comfort, convenience, luxury, self-expression – these are all things people look for in their mode of transportation, and there’s no reason to think that will be any different with driverless cars.

In a utopian world, as my colleague Brian Fung writes, driverless cars would make everything more efficient. You’d never have to waste time looking for parking. Cities, in fact, could get rid of it. Vehicles that today sit empty most of their lives could be put to maximum use instead, transporting one passenger after another.

This ideal scenario, though, assumes some kind of all-knowing central dispatcher: a company, or service, that would distribute cars to serve the most people the most effectively, with an omniscient eye on the entire network. And, as more companies dive into this space — General Motors and Lyft announced an eye-popping new partnership Monday — it’s tempting to think we’re witnessing the start of an epic battle for the coming autonomous monopoly.

Who will get there first, winner-take-all? General Motors working with the ride-hailing startup Lyft? Or Ford, as it’s rumored, teaming with Google? Toyota? Or Uber, which seems to think it doesn’t need a traditional automaker ally at all?

“Uber, their whole goal is to minimize the time from request to pickup, and to do that means you have to have a lot of vehicles,” says Dave King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “And if they’re the monopolists, maybe it’s close to being efficient. But they’re not going to be the monopolists.”

None of these companies will, he predicts.

That’s because autonomous cars will require the same market segmentation we already have today (whether consumers want to own these vehicles or share them or use some hybrid service in between).

“If you think the rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan are going to get into just a lowly old car, I don’t see that happening,” King says. They’ll want the Audi of autonomous cars, while you may gladly hitch a ride in the Kia equivalent. And even if I’m not truly driving a sports car myself, I may want to ride in something that feels sporty.

“The idea that everybody wants the same experience for personal travel is strange to me, because nobody’s ever wanted that,” King says. “We don’t buy the same bicycle, we don’t buy the same model of car. Some people like the bus, some people like the train.”

Sure, a ride in that automated Uber SUV may be cheap, but I’d bet a lot of people would be willing to pay extra to not have to share the ride. I mean, unless you’re the last person picked up and the first person dropped off, a part of your ride will be spent going to and from other people’s pickups and dropoffs, and who wants to spend all that excess time in a car? Note that this is not the case with plain ol’ mass transit – you get on and off at your stops, with no extra side trips. Also, maybe you like listening to your tunes through the car’s stereo system instead of earbuds. Maybe you just don’t want to be in a car with other people, even if you can be hermetically sealed from them; I confess, this “SUV with individual compartments” idea conjures for me images of being packed into a carton like eggs, or slotted like a LEGO action figure into a car built with the iconic bricks.

And while the egg carton individually-compartmented SUV might be a great deal for daily commuters who travel on predictable schedules, the fact remains that a fair number of our driving trips are spontaneous and unplanned – “Hey, let’s go out to dinner tonight”, “Sure, I’d love to meet you for a movie that’s starting in 30 minutes”, “Dad, I need to go to Jenny’s to work on our science project”, “He’s got a fever and he’s barfing, we need to get him to a doctor”. How much tolerance will people have to wait for a robot car to pick them up? (Side question: How many of these driverless Ubermobiles are going to have to be on standby for this, and where will they be when they’re not in use? Idle cars do not maximize profits, and as with commuting people may not want to make three or four other stops before they get where they want to go, especially if they’re in a hurry.) It’s not like car manufacturers are going to stop marketing to individual owners (*), after all.

And if owning an automated car is as common and pervasive as owning a car is today, then we may not get any reduction in traffic at all.

We’re starting to see professional reports echoing long-standing concerns about how driverless cars will affect our cities. This new one from KPMG, in particular, is getting a lot of press.  It’s actually a focus group study about the transport desires of different generations, but it confirms the thought experiments that many of us have already been laying out for a while.

Much depends on whether these cars are owned or spontaneously hired like taxis, Uber, and Lyft.  A taxi model is definitely better in its congestion impacts, but that doesn’t mean it will happen.  The ownership model is closer to the status quo, and the status quo always has enormous power.  Driverless taxis will not always be available on demand, especially in suburban and rural areas, so a legitimate fear of being stranded will make people in those areas prefer the security of having a car just for them. And of course, that’s just the effect of rational concerns about relying on taxis.  Less rational desires for car ownership, as an expression of identity or symbol of liberty, will also not vanish overnight.

This leads to a nightmare scenario that University of Washington’s Mark Hollenbeck laid out in our recent Seattle Times panel.  Paraphrasing Mark:  A suburban father rides his driverless car to work, maybe dropping his daughter off at school. But rather than park the car downtown, he simply tells it to drive back home to his house in the suburbs.  During the day, it runs some other errands for his family.  At 3 pm, it goes to the school to bring his daughter home or chauffeur her to after-school activities.  Then it’s time for it to drive back into the city to pick up Dad from work.  But then, on a lark, Dad decides to go shopping at a downtown department store after work, so he tells his car to just circle the block for an hour while he shops, before finally hailing it to go home.

This is really easy and obvious behavior for a driverless car owner.  It reduces the number of cars someone needs to own, and reduces pressure on inner city parking, but would cause an explosive growth in vehicle trips, and thus in congestion (not to mention emissions and other impacts).  Just the commute behavior doubles car volumes, because the car now makes a two-way trip for each direction of the commute, instead of just one.  And if everyone shopping downtown has a car circling the block waiting for them, well, that level of congestion will far exceed what’s generated by cars circling for parking today.  It could pretty well shut down the city.

And while increased safety is touted as the single biggest boon from driverless cars, there’s reason to fret about that as well.

For the past five years, my collaborators and I in the Vision Sciences Lab at Harvard University have been exploring the differences in capabilities between people and today’s best AIs. My studies have focused on simple tasks, like detecting a face in a still image, where AIs have become reasonably skilled. But I have become increasingly unsettled by the implications of our research for very challenging AI tasks. I am especially concerned by the implications for the extremely challenging task of driving a car. Self-driving cars have enormous promise. The improvements to traffic, safety, and the mobility of the elderly could be dramatic. But no matter how capable the AI, humans just behave differently.

[…]

The biggest difference in capability between self-driving cars and humans is likely to be theory of mind. Researchers like professor Felix Warneken at Harvard have shown that even very young children have exquisitely tuned senses for the intentions and goals of other people. Warneken and others have argued this is the core of uniquely human intelligence.

Researchers are working to build robots that can mimic our social intelligence. Companies like Emotient and Affectiva currently offer software with some ability to read emotions on faces. But so far no software remotely approaches the ability of humans to constantly and effortlessly guess what other people want to do. The human driving down that narrow street may say to herself “none of these oncoming cars are will let me go unless I’m a little bit pushy” and then act on that instinct, but behaving that way will be one of the greatest challenges of making human-like AI.

The ability to judge intention and respond accordingly is also central to driving. From determining whether a pedestrian is going to jaywalk to slowing down and avoiding a driver who seems drunk or tired, we do it constantly while behind the wheel. Self-driving cars can’t do this now. They likely won’t be able to do it for years. But this isn’t just about routine-but-confusing interactions like that between the Google self-driving car and the Mountain View bus.

Even the best AIs are easy to fool. State-of-the-art object recognition systems can be tricked into thinking a picture of an orange is really an ostrich. Self-driving cars will be no different. They will make errors—which is not so bad on the face of it, as long as they make fewer than humans. But the kinds of errors they make will be errors a human would never make. They will mistake a garbage bag for a running pedestrian. They will mistake a cloud for a truck.

In other words, we may be farther away from achieving the kind of AI needed to make self-driving cabs and buses feasible than we now think.

Of course, none of this may happen. Ultimately, we’re all just guessing. All I’m saying is that we should not rule out the human factor when gaming out how driverless cars will change how we live. We tend to adopt new technology to suit our needs, including the needs we didn’t know we had. Maybe a larger percentage of people in the future will forego buying cars and exist solely on the various forms of mass transit than in the present, but it’s not clear to me that that will happen. We’re a car-centric culture that loves our automobiles and needs to be prioritized, right? I know I’ve heard that argument before. I hope I live long enough to see if that remains the case.

(*) Unless of course the Big Government of the future forbids it. If you listen closely, you can hear Ted Cruz’s head exploding.

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.

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.

Now how much would you pay to drive on that toll road?

How about ten bucks each way at peak times, beginning on May 30?

Toll rates on the I-10 lanes, also known as the Katy Managed Lanes, will increase as officials seek to ease congestion by reducing use of the lanes during peak hours through a process called congestion pricing. The rates will go up by as much as $1.20 at each of the three tolling points along the 12-mile route. The price of a complete trip will jump from $7 to $10 at peak commuting times.

Officials said the increase was necessary to reduce congestion and to encourage people to find alternatives to driving.

“This is the only tool we have to manage the congestion on the lanes,” said Lisa Castaneda, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

[…]

The goal is to have 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles use the HOV lane and the same number use the toll lane each hour. Prices are set to achieve that.

Castaneda said at the current rate of $3.20 at Eldridge and $1.90 at Wilcrest and Wirt during peak commutes, about 20 percent more vehicles are using the lanes than optimal. More people will choose alternatives such as public transportation or a car pool if tolls are higher, officials said.

[…]

Setting prices to create incentives for using transit is common in other major metro areas struggling with traffic. Tunnels and bridges in many places have extremely high rates based on huge demand. The George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York cost $13 one-way for access to Manhattan.

It might not match New York demand, but traffic is choking I-10, despite a $2 billion widening project that made the freeway the nation’s widest – 26 lanes when local frontage roads are included. At the spot where the HOV and toll lanes end near Post Oak, more than 338,000 vehicles use the freeway each day, according to 2013 Texas Department of Transportation figures.

“The only tool we have been using is to pour more concrete,” Castaneda said.

In 2003, before the widening work began, about 215,000 vehicles used the freeway outside Loop 610, according to TxDOT figures.

Further relief along the route is likely to come from people choosing other options, something Castaneda said the toll increase was meant to encourage.

I’d been wondering how traffic today compares to traffic pre-widening. Look at it this way: There were four outbound lanes on I-10 from 610 in 2003, three free lanes plus one HOV lane. It’s a little harder to get a handle on it now because lanes come and go, but it’s something like five plus the two toll/HOV lanes. That means in 2003, there were 54,000 vehicles per lane, and today it’s 48,000. All that for $2.8 billion. Did we get our money’s worth or what? And remember, all those extra cars are helping to clog up the Loop and I-10 inside the Loop and I-45, not to mention the surface streets that connect to I-10. I know, the growth in the area meant a lot of that traffic was coming whether we widened I-10 or not, but as people were arguing at the time, we could have done things differently to allow for some of those “other options” – commuter rail, more park and ride lots, who knows what else. But we poured a bunch of concrete, and now a decade later we’re right where we were before we expanded I-10, with far fewer options going forward. What we do now, I don’t know. But maybe this time more people will listen when we say we need options beyond more concrete. The Highwayman has more.

Save Uptown from what?

From Swamplot:

The Uptown Property and Business Owners Coalition is out today with a new website (portrayed here) meant to drum up opposition to the Uptown District and Metro’s plans to install dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak Blvd. The lanes, the last vestige of what was once a plan for an Uptown light rail line, would run from dedicated bus lanes linking to the Northwest Transit Center all the way to the proposed Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center near U.S. 59 and Westpark, where they might someday intersect with a University Line traveling eastward from that point. But the team behind the website wants none of it: “Uptown is a Houston masterpiece. Why do they want to ruin it?” reads the copy on the home page. Meanwhile, an introductory blog post on the site encourages readers to attend a friendly “town hall” meeting, [Tuesday] night at the Uptown Hilton, in the company of “hundreds of angry business owners and Uptown area residents.”

Here’s their website; if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see the name Daphne Scarbrough, one of the fanatical anti-rail on Richmond types who has long since morphed into an all-purpose rail hater. Given the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, the timing of their launch – the Facebook page was created Friday the 15th – isn’t exactly sublime for them. Remember that Metro has nothing to do with the construction of this line – it’s entirely being done by the Uptown Management District. Metro will eventually operate the buses, but that’s it. As far as what they’re fighting for, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard anyone call Uptown a “masterpiece” – hell, twenty years ago I’d have said I’d never heard the term “Uptown” used in conjunction with that part of the city. It’s not like there’s a historic preservation angle in play. My personal description of Uptown is a mess that I try to avoid at all times. I believe this plan will help, and I have no idea what alternative to help alleviate the awful traffic Save Uptown or any other group might have. Doing nothing isn’t an option, it’s just sticking your head in the cement. But here they are, and one should know one’s opponents. We’ll see if they get any traction. KHOU has more.

An Uptown BRT skeptic

Here’s one guy who doesn’t like the idea.

Ridership models developed by the Uptown TIRZ board project that the new bus route will carry 10,000 riders per day in 2018. This estimate is outrageously inflated, given that the more than 30-year-old Park & Ride system only carries 16,000 riders per day, most of whom are downtown-bound. This has been tried before. Since 1985, Metro has rolled out seven Park & Ride routes to the Galleria. Last month, they cancelled the sixth route (Kingsland to NW Transit to Uptown) due to low ridership. The sole surviving Park & Ride route to the Galleria (Kuykendahl to Greenway to Uptown) is classified as “poor-performing,” carrying an average of only 220 people per day to both districts.

Major Galleria-area employer Apache, initially in favor of the project, now opposes it. The company surveyed its employees and asked how many would drive to the Northwest Mall and then board a bus to the Post Oak Central offices. Not one Apache employee was interested in doing so. Not one. Why has there never been a well-reasoned, comprehensive survey of Galleria employees as to their expected usage of such a project?

Parking in the Galleria is convenient, readily available and reasonably affordable. This is the complete opposite of the downtown area. Even in the parking-challenged downtown, over the past five years, Park & Ride participation rates are falling, from 38 percent to 28 percent. Metro’s entire Park & Ride system consists of 29 lots. Despite a 30 year-plus operating history, 23 of its 29 lots operate at 55 percent or less of capacity.

What will this Guide Way project do to Post Oak, Houston’s Rodeo Drive? I believe it will ruin it. Look what happened to the merchants on Main Street. Look what’s happened to the Central Business District regarding crosstown traffic.

[…]

Uptown, Metro and the city are talking about condemnation proceedings taking place before a final plan has been produced. This is par for the course. Another example of Metro’s “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach: Recently, a long-known environmental hazard interrupted construction of the Harrisburg Line of light rail. Believe it or not, the meandering East Side Metro trains don’t run the full length of the Harrisburg route. When did the poor planning method become an accepted standard?

I am convinced that people decide to work and (increasingly) live in the Galleria area due to the ease of access to retail, including restaurants and grocery stores. Completely dedicated bus lanes/guide ways make no sense to any student of public transportation unless they are of the BRT (bus rapid transit) variety. These lanes are definitely not, despite having been initially designated as such. BRT lanes are dedicated and do not stop for traffic.

The piece is such a mishmash of unsourced assertions, tangents, and failure to address items that have already been raised during the process that it’s hard to know where to begin. The main thing to me is that nowhere does the author suggest any alternatives to the BRT line as a way of dealing with Uptown’s crushing traffic congestion. I came away with the impression that his preference is to do nothing because there is no problem to be solved. I don’t even know how to respond to that, so let me just state a few basic principles. Traffic is bad. It’s a problem now, and it will limit future growth and economic opportunities. Building more road capacity, especially non-highway road capacity, is not an option to alleviate the mobility issues we have now or the ones we will continue to have if we do nothing. The best way to create more capacity is to create options for people who could get where they need to go without using their car. This means mass transit, bike trails and lanes, better and safer sidewalks, and the like. Not everyone will use these things, maybe not even a majority of people. But many people will use at least one of these options at least some of the time, and every time they do it means less traffic for those who can’t or won’t do anything other than drive. Maybe this plan isn’t the best of all possible plans. I’m sure there are ways it could feasibly be better, and I have no doubt there will be implementation and operation problems to deal with. But it is a workable plan that addresses the main issue, that there isn’t enough room for all the cars that want to be in Uptown now, let alone the ones that will want to be there in the future. If you want to argue against it, I’d appreciate it if you came up with your own workable alternative to it.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro board approves reimagining

On to implementation.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TxDOT still screwing with Metro

WTF?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Transportation Commission continues to be obstinate

This continues to be ridiculous.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His partners disagree.

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

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

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

Uptown BRT update

From Swamplot:

HERE ARE SOME of the purty watercolor renderings the Uptown District has been presenting of what Post Oak Blvd. will look like after the addition of 2 dedicated bus lanes down its middle. The proposed changes to the thoroughfare won’t take away any of the 6 existing car lanes or 13 existing left-turn-signal lanes. There’ll be a few modifications, though: new protected-left-turn signals will be put in at West Briar Lane and Fairdale, for example, and 3 median openings will be closed. The space for the buses and 8 transit stations along the Boulevard between the West Loop and Richmond Ave will come from acquiring 8 feet of right-of-way from each side of the existing street. The bus lanes and light-rail-style stations will go in the median.

Notably, the Uptown District presentations never use the phrase “Bus Rapid Transit,” or BRT in describing the upgrades, though a BRT system has been pitched as a replacement for Metro’s earlier proposal for an Uptown light-rail line. Uptown Houston got approval for a $61.8 million federal grant to fund the street reconstruction last year. It appears that the lanes will be used for commuter buses as well: “This joint project of the City of Houston and Uptown,” an executive summary of the program reads, “will develop a system designed to connect workers to Uptown via Houston’s highly successful HOV network.” The dedicated bus lanes are an additional piece of the project.

[…]

The buses will still have to stop at intersections, and move through lights only when cars do. “All travel time savings for the buses will be generated by simply being the ‘first-in-line’ at the signalized intersections made possible by the dedicated bus lanes,” the summary notes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Construction is set to begin next year, which will be exciting. The Uptown folks may not care for the BRT appellation, but I’m under no such obligation. Calling it “rapid” may be a tad bit of an overbid, but I’m sure travel times will compare favorably to what people experience now, especially for those who are eventually able to take advantage of this as park-and-riders. Add in some B-Cycle kiosks when this is finished, and people in and around the Galleria area will have some good non-car options for getting around and not adding to the traffic congestion. Now if only we can get the University Line going to connect this to the rest of the light rail network. Some day, by God, some day…

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.

290 toll lane opens

You solo drivers on US 290 can now take advantage of the HOV lane to make your daily commute a little less grim, beginning today.

Based on time of day, drivers will pay between $1 and $5 for using the lanes, while eligible carpoolers can still use them for free. In the mornings, vehicles must have three occupants between 6:45 a.m. and 8 a.m., while only two people per vehicle are required at other times.

The carpool lanes run from near FM 1960 to the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610. The transit center, park and ride buses and the carpool lanes are operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro also manages toll lanes along Interstate 45 and U.S. 59. Carpool lanes along 59 north of downtown are scheduled to open later this year.

About 7,500 vehicles use the carpool lane daily along 290, Metro officials said. Adding solo drivers who pay is expected to increase the use to about 9,000 vehicles. Raising and lowering prices is meant to control use.

See here for some background, and here for more on Metro’s HOV/HOT lane service. Doesn’t sound like it’s enough volume to make much of a dent in the daily commute time for most folks, but I suppose if you’re one of the ones paying for the privilege of driving in the HOV lane it’ll make a difference for you. It’s going to be a long couple of years while 290 gets revamped and expanded, and I hardly ever have to drive on it.

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.

Uptown BRT

Interesting news from Swamplot.

The driving force of a project that Uptown Houston District has proposed to the city to transform Post Oak Blvd.? Big beautiful buses. With both residential and commercial developments like Skanska’s 20-story office building popping up along the major transit corridor and METRO’s Uptown/Gold Line nowhere in sight, the District has developed a $177-million project featuring light rail-like BRT to update Post Oak — a street “that has long outlived its original use,” says John Breeding, the District’s president.

[…]

In the next 2 years, almost 3,000 residential units will be added, says Breeding. Congestion can be so bad that even off-duty traffic cops can’t ease it. Though METRO has plans for the Uptown/Gold Line, Breeding says that that could take up to 20 years. Instead, the District sees BRT as a solution.

[…]

If that reminds you of drawings METRO has done for light rail, it’s not an accident. This BRT service would work similarly, ferrying people up and down Post Oak while protected by candlestick barriers. (And, Breeding says, the street could later be adapted for rail, should that become necessary.)

I interviewed John Breeding in 2010, and the future of transit in Uptown was a major part of the discussion. At the time, he thought that the Uptown Line was ten or fifteen years away, so the 20-year time frame mentioned above isn’t that far off from that. The key to this is that the proposed BRT line would have its own dedicated right of way. If you’ve driven along Post Oak any time ever you know what a difference maker that will be. The Uptown District has had a plan for this for a long time, and if light rail is farther away on the horizon, this will do nicely as a substitute, possibly a placeholder for rail in the future.

Tying Uptown into the park and ride system is also part of this plan. It’s a bit less clear how that will work, but the idea is simply that you need to be able to get people into Uptown without their cars in addition to giving them a way to move around Uptown without cars. Sure would be nice to have the University Line available for that, too, wouldn’t it? I hope all those Uptown business interests that have put so much thought into their vision are reminding John Culberson about that. We’ll see how long it takes to put this part of the plan into action.

UPDATE: I had drafted this post a few days ago, and of course the day I run it there’s a Chronicle story on the same subject. Of interest is this bit at the end:

Metro officials realize improvements are needed, [Board Chair Gilbert] Garcia said. That’s why they back Uptown’s plan.

“There are transit needs everywhere. We know all about them. But Metro’s resources are finite,” Garcia said. “If we can solve the transit needs in this region without stretching Metro resources, like this does, that is great.”

Uptown Houston, which derives most of its funding from the tax increment reinvestment zone funded by property taxes in the zone, will pay between $82.5 million and $91.6 million, Breeding said. The rest would come from $24 million in state transportation funds, and a $45 million grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, using federal money the region received.

Garcia said Metro, which approved the idea in September, will continue to support Uptown as it waits for a decision by H-GAC, expected in about 30 days.

If progress goes as expected, Breeding said, buses could start running in 2017.

[…]

Uptown’s plans enable Metro to adjust its own priorities, Garcia said. After years focused on building the three rail lines set to open next year, Garcia said, the agency can be more nimble at fixing gaps in service.

The flexibility is built into the Post Oak plans, where trains could one day replace the buses. But in the interim, Garcia said, if buses do the job perhaps Metro can use its resources elsewhere.

That includes the long-discussed east-west University Line. After the East, North and Southeast lines open, and Uptown gets its bus lanes, the University Line remains the one major unfinished light rail line.

It also lies between the downtown rail expansion and the Uptown progress.

“The natural (thing) will be that people will start wondering how we connect the two,” Garcia said.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the Uptown Line, which was always going to be built with local funds, could not be built without the University Line. Doing Uptown as BRT, at least for now, flips this on its head. It’s possible that the existence of an Uptown BRT line could become a catalyst for getting the University Line built. Wouldn’t that be something?

Christof Spieler: Deciding the future of Houston’s transit

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Christof Spieler

We as a region are facing a huge decision about our future. If we don’t increase transit use by offering more people the option of high-quality transit, we will be stuck in gridlock. But among all the money we spend on transportation, we have only one dedicated transit funding source, and we are spending a quarter of it on roads in what is known as the “General Mobility” program. Over the past 30 years, METRO – our transit agency – has spent more on roads than it has on building transit infrastructure. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population – and the demand — continues to grow.

We know this: when Houstonians are offered high quality transit they use it. Our park-and-ride system – buses that run as often as every 5 minutes during rush hour from suburban park-and-ride lots down HOV lanes directly to Downtown – carry 30,000 boardings every weekday. Half of Downtown employees who live in the areas served by the system use it. With 37,000 boardings a day, our light rail line carries more people per mile than any other in the U.S. besides Boston; Dallas has 10 times as much track as we do, but carries less than than twice as many people. Even outside rush hour, trains are standing room only. Bus service on Westheimer, where bus service runs frequently all day, every day, carries about 15,000 boardings. These riders have found out that high quality transit – transit that is frequent, reliable, and goes where people want to go – makes their lives better.

But most Houstonians do not have the option of using high quality transit. Greenway Plaza, Uptown, and Greenspoint, which are not served by rail and are not connected to the HOV lanes that keep park and ride buses out of traffic, have less than a third of the transit ridership that Downtown and the Texas Medical Center do. If we build the infrastructure to offer those areas better service, many of those employees will use transit like employees in Downtown do. Corridors like Kirby and Washington Avenue, where density is growing, don’t have the frequent bus service that Westheimer does; therefore the new residents moving in are all getting in their cars to go to their jobs. With better service, many of them would be on the bus.

We have a plan to connect more people to high quality transit, approved by the voters in 2003: light rail lines that link Greenway Plaza and Uptown to the park-and-ride system and to the other major employment centers; new park-and-rides; expanded local bus service; links to the airports; and commuter rail.

Unfortunately, good transit infrastructure costs money, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives. The HOV lane park and ride system cost $1 billion to build, and the current 3-line light rail expansion costs $2.1 billion, (including $435 million in upgraded roadways and utilities). Even expanding local bus service on city streets costs a lot of money: METRO’s biggest expense year in and year out is operating or maintaining bus facilities. But the alternatives to good transit are even more expensive: the Katy Freeway widening, originally estimated to cost $1 billion, came in at $2.8 billion dollars, and it bulldozed over 1,000 homes and businesses. Widening 290 is estimated at to cost $4.6 billion.

Roads and transit alike are funded primarily by the general taxpayers, not just the users of those facilities. The state and federal government collect gas tax, and toll roads collect tolls, but the majority of transportation funding comes from income tax, property tax, and sales tax. TxDOT has calculated that the gas tax collected on the fuel burned on a typical Texas highway covers well under half of the cost of building and maintaining that highway. And the gas tax doesn’t pay for arterials or local streets. The rest of the cost – half of the cost of that highway and all of the cost of that street – comes from the taxpayers as a whole, regardless of whether they taxpayers drive, walk, bike, or take transit.

METRO’s “General Mobility” funding for roads started as a political deal, but only the roadway part of that deal has been upheld. In 1988, voters committed to spending 25% of METRO’s sales tax on General Mobility for twelve years; in 1999, the METRO board extended that program for another 10 years, and in 2003, voters reauthorized it through 2014. Both the 1988 and 2003 votes were part of a package that included rail expansion. Those rail expansion promises have not been kept. The 1988 rail system was never built, and, of the 4 lines that the 2003 ballot called for to be opened by 2012, only 3 are under construction, projected to open by 2014. But though we have not kept our rail construction commitments, we have spent every bit of the money promised — and more — on roads. From 1988 to 2014, METRO will actually have spent 27%, not 25%, on roads through General Mobility. In addition, METRO spent another $1.2 billion to rebuild major streets in Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center.

Of the billions of public money the Houston region spends every year on transportation, only a small part is available for transit. While most tax revenues received by state or local governments are – in theory – “flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads; in reality, the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. Many of the Federal and local funds are–in theory–“flexible” funds that could be spent on highways or roads, but in reality the city, the county, and the state are spending only miniscule amounts of their money on transit. The only dedicated funding source we have for transit in this region is METRO’s 1 cent sales tax. Spending a quarter of this on roads is not “balance”, it’s part of a larger imbalance.

But over the years, METRO’s member jurisdictions have become dependent on General Mobility. Some have gotten very good deals. Piney Point Village, a city of 3,150 surrounded by Houston on every side, has gotten $16.49 for every $1.00 it has contributed in sales tax, while the city of Houston has gotten $0.20 for each of its dollars contributed. Hedwig Village, a neighbor of Piney Point Village, has gotten $10,016 per capita from 1999 to 2014 while Houston has gotten $810. In addition to hefty General Mobility payments, both villages get local bus service, METROlift, and the benefits of reduced congestion on the Katy Freeway due to Park-and-Ride buses. It’s no wonder that the property tax rates in these villages are only a third of the property tax rates in Houston. General Mobility has become a massive subsidy for these small cities. But even Houston and Harris County, which have not gotten these special deals, have come to rely on this METRO money for their capital infrastructure budgets. General Mobility has never been promised or authorized past 2014, but everyone is counting on it.

Unfortunately, funds are tight, and we know METRO does not have enough sales tax revenue to continue both General Mobility and transit expansion. After the 2003 referendum, METRO – just like cities, counties, and school districts around the country – was hit with unprecedented increases in construction costs as the global economy boomed. Then in 2008 the economy crashed, dramatically reducing the sales tax revenue we use to fund transit. By 2010, sales tax revenue was 16% below projections, and while it’s rising again now, we don’t expect it to get back to the pre-2008 projections for 20 years or more.

METRO is being open and transparent about the decision we face. The 2003 referendum required that we call a vote by this year to answer the question of whether general mobility payments will continue. Simply the fact that the voters will be able to decide this issue is unusual in the world of transportation; you won’t find highway expansions on the ballot, and nobody has ever required that the City of Houston or Harris County get specific taxpayer approval for every road they plan to widen. But METRO is going beyond just letting the voters decide at the ballot by giving the public a chance to have input on what goes on the ballot. We’re going beyond that. We have already held two public meetings – one of which ran for nearly 4 hours – to get input, on what should be on the ballot and we’ll be scheduling more public meetings before adopting ballot language in August.

Since Annise Parker appointed 5 new board members in 2010, we’ve put METRO’s financial house in order, securing $900 million in federal funding for new rail lines, cutting costs, and paying down debt, all while continuing to replace 100 aging buses a year and budgeting to keep our facilities in a state of good repair. We are also being unprecedently transparent: every check we issue is posted online; we’ve issued a 200-page budget book that details what we spend and why; and video of every board meeting and every committee meeting is posted online.

METRO is working together with local stakeholders to solve this problem locally, not leave it to Austin or Washington. We’ve heard from many people telling us that all of METRO’s sales tax should go to transit. We’ve heard from others, especially representatives of the smaller cities, who say that 25% — or more – should continue to go to roads. We’ve also heard suggestions for compromise, including a proposal from board chair Gilbert Garcia to freeze General Mobility at the dollar amount it will reach in 2014, with the growth in sales tax revenue above that amount going to transit. Based on all that input, we will put a clear, simple proposition on the ballot, and it will be for the voters to decide. I have already heard people stand before the board and tell us that, if they did not agree with the wording of the proposition on the ballot, or if the voters decided didn’t vote the right way, they would go to the Texas legislature to invalidate the result. That’s simply unacceptable. This is our region’s money, not the Texas legislature’s or Congress’.

We need to be clear about what’s at stake here: we are making a decision about the future of our region. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston; the outcome will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit. This is not some abstract discussion about funding formulas; it is a decision about what options Houstonians will have to get to work, school, and all the other places they need to go in their day-to-day lives for decades to come. If General Mobility continues at 25%, we will not be able to significantly expand transit service – be it
local bus, park-and-ride, Bus Rapid Transit, streetcar, commuter rail, or light rail – for a decade or more, even as the population continues to grow. The next new light rail line – the one the voters voted to open by 2012 – would not start construction until 2028 or 2030. The impacts of such a delay on our region’s economy, our mobility, and the quality of our day-to-day lives are huge. If General Mobility were to expire with the current contracts in 2014, we could see significant bus expansion by 2015 and start more rail by 2018. We are deciding about the future of transit in Houston. The outcome of this year’s General Mobility referendum will decide how many of us have the option to use high quality transit.

Christof Spieler is a licensed professional engineer who has written and spoken extensively on transit and urban planning. He was appointed to Metro’s Board of Directors by Mayor Parker in 2010.

First Metro HOV toll lane opens tomorrow

Enjoy your new option, Gulf Freeway commuters.

I-45 HOV toll lane

Metro is set to debut its first high-occupancy toll lanes on the Gulf Freeway between Dixie Farm Road and Dowling Street on Monday.

This arrangement allows solo drivers to use high-occupancy vehicle, or HOV, lanes for a price at certain times of the day. Tolls vary between $1 and $4.50 by a set schedule.

The so-called HOT lanes will be unavailable during heavy traffic times, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

For the Gulf Freeway corridor, the inbound HOV will be closed to solo drivers from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. For the afternoon rush, the same restriction will apply to the outbound HOV from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

See here for some background, and here for the full map and schedules. I hope Metro makes a nice little bit of money from this.

Here come the HOT lanes

Metro's HOV system

Those of you who commute from the ‘burbs into the central core will have new options for how to get there, if you don’t mind spending a few bucks.

Solo drivers willing to pay extra to breeze through heavy traffic could get their chance soon, with Metro expected to start opening its high-occupancy toll lanes early this year.

Metro officials had previously projected a January start to the high-occupancy toll lanes but now say they don’t have a specific date, agency spokesman Jerome Gray said Friday by email.

“We are undergoing final testing of the infrastructure,” Gray said. “In addition, we are completing the integration of the toll processing with HCTRA (Harris County Toll Road Authority). Once that is complete we should be ready to go.”

The Metro board approved this change in November. There have been HOT lanes on the Katy Freeway since 2009 – they call them managed lanes, but it’s the same thing with lower tolls. The thing I’ve always wondered about is how they know whom to toll, and whom to ticket if they’ve neither a tag or enough passengers.

Metro’s tolls will apply only to drivers with no passengers who opt to use the HOV lanes for a price. Single-occupant vehicles will enter the lane through a designated path that allows tolling.

Vehicles with at least two occupants will not be charged a toll.

Booth attendants will monitor the number of passengers in vehicles entering the HOT lanes, and Metro police will patrol the lanes.

Violators who evade the toll will be assessed a $75 fine, while “occupancy violators” (solo drivers who use the lanes when they are designated for HOV use only) will be issued a citation requiring a court appearance.

More on that is here. Maybe it works simpler than it sounds. Anyone have experience with the Katy lanes? Hair Balls has more.

Get them while they’re HOT

Metro is set to open its HOV lanes to single occupancy vehicles, but you’ll pay for the privilege if you choose it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board Thursday set a range of tolls from $1 to $10, depending on the time of day, for its new high-occupancy toll lanes. The first such lanes are scheduled to open in January in the Gulf Freeway’s existing high-occupancy vehicle lanes between Dixie Farm Road and Dowling Street.

Metro officials said they hadn’t yet worked out a detailed schedule of tolls. They said it was unlikely that tolls would reach the maximum of $10 when the service begins, but the agency reserves the right to charge that much if necessary to manage traffic congestion.

Metro’s maximum tolls will be significantly higher than those charged by the Harris County Toll Road Authority on its Katy Freeway managed lanes, which also charge solo drivers for access. The Katy Freeway tolls range from 30 cents on weekends to $1.60 at certain peak hours.

Only vehicles without passengers will be charged – those that would have qualified for the HOV lanes as before will still get to use them for free. I hope this raises a bunch of money, and I hope that money is then used on transit.

Katy Freeway managed lanes set to open

Christof notices a banner ad on chron.com for the Katy Freeway managed lanes, which are set to open on Monday, April 18, and gives us an update on them.

The lanes will now be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Outside of rush hours, they’re a toll road: every car, regardless of how many people are in it, pays $1.10 to go the full length of the lanes. During rush hour, in the rush hour direction, single occupant cars pay between $2.00 and $4.00 and 2+ carpools are free. Those rates will need to be adjusted if the lanes are too popular, because HCTRA (who operates the lanes) has promised METRO (who gave up the HOV lane to make room for them) that buses will keep moving at full speed. Single occupant vehicles and carpools will be sorted out by a three-lane toll plaza: left lane for carpools, right two lanes for SOVs.

I guess they’ll have some sort of video surveillance to ensure that single occupancy vehicles are not trying to sneak through the non-toll lane. I predict that some time in the next year or so, we’ll see a story reported on how whatever system they have for monitoring this still has a few bugs in the system. The only question is whether they err on the side of caution or aggression.

Other potential problems:

Across the country, people have shown a distaste for tolls when a free option is available. Toll roads like Beltway 8 that don’t duplicate a freeway do well. Toll roads like the Hardy that do tend not to fill up. And Houston’s first managed lanes are in a corridor that just had a lot of free capacity added.

We may also begin to see problem with the lanes themselves. Nearly all the on- and off-ramps are from the regular lanes. If those lanes get congested, getting to the uncongested managed lanes will be hard for both carpools and buses. Some more direct ramps like those at Addicks and NWTC would have helped.

I think even if the free lanes don’t get too congested, having more vehicles cutting all the way across the highway to get on and off is going to increase the number of accidents. But maybe not so much if the free lanes stay relatively free-flowing. I wonder if anyone will do a study of this.

In other news, I recently realized that Bloglines has stopped noticing new updates from Intermodality’s RSS feed, so over these past few weeks as I’ve been wondering if Christof has been off the grid, it turned out that the problem was on my end. So, while I ponder the logistics of switching to Google reader – this is not the first time Bloglines has done this to me, and there are a couple of other feeds that are currently lost as well, I just noticed their loss sooner because they update more frequently – here are a couple of posts that I might have commented on:

Houston rail transit in an alternate universe. Maybe we are better off not having approved earlier rail referenda.

Why the feds like pavement and not rails. Don’t even get me started on this.

The transportation stimulus comes home. A look at where federal transportation stimulus money will be going around here. Some of it will even be spent on non-boondoggle toll roads.

The map – now with officially approved colors. An update to the Metro 2012 Solutions map, with station locations and other useful information.

Stimulus? What stimulus?

I’m basically agnostic about the plan to convert HOV lanes to HOV-plus-toll lanes that Metro is floating. Like Christof, who was quoted in the story, I don’t think it will make that much difference in terms of actual traffic flow, though I think that Texas Transportation Institute fellow is correct to note that it will help outside of the normal rush hour, when the roads are still pretty full. Mostly, I wanted to blog about this story because of this:

Metro President and CEO Frank J. Wilson estimated the cost at between $40 million and $50 million.

In its request for federal stimulus funds earlier this year, Metro estimated the project would cost $70 million.

Metro is slated to receive $92 million in stimulus funds.

Wilson said that he learned last week in discussions with Federal Transit Administration officials that the monies cannot be spent on the North and Southeast light rail lines, as Metro had planned, because those projects have not received the FTA’s final funding approval.

Boy, remember when Metro thought it might get as much as $180 million of stimulus money for light rail construction? Those were the days. Sure hope all the funding they thought they were getting pre-stimulus is in place, because if they were counting on any of this – or worse, if they’d already budgeted for it – that would suck.