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I-10

Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

Buc-ee’s comes to Alabama

Tomorrow, the world.

Texas road stop institution Buc-ee’s has opened a store in Alabama, its first location outside the Lone Star State.

Despite chilly weather, more than 100 people were lined up outside the Baldwin County store when it opened at 6 a.m. Monday. They were eager to experience a Buc-ee’s supersized gas station and convenience store, renowned for its cartoon beaver logo, clean bathrooms and clever billboards. Some die-hard Buc-ee’s fans drove hours to get to the store opening, said Jeff Nadalo, Buc-ee’s general counsel.

“It was packed and very busy all day,” Nadalo said. “I think a lot of people had heard what Buc-ee’s was about from friends and family who had been and were familiar with the experience.”

The 52,000-square-foot store, in Robertsdale, features 124 fueling stations and the “biggest, most pristine bathrooms the state of Alabama has ever seen,” a Buc-ee’s press release crowed. The store, has a similar layout to the new Buc-ee’s in Katy, except the Alabama location doesn’t have a car wash, Nadalo said.

[…]

Since it was founded in 1982, Buc-ee’s has mostly stuck to its Texas roots, operating 34 stores across the Lone Star State. A couple of years ago, the Lake Jackson company began looking to expand across the southeastern U.S., which shares a similar customer profile to Texas, Nadalo said.

“We’re taking the great experience that is Buc-ee’s to other states,” Nadalo said. “We felt it was something that would work well, certainly in Alabama, and we think it’ll be well-received in Florida.”

We first heard about this almost three years ago, though at the time they were aiming for Louisiana. It’s on I-10, so if you’re driving to Florida (where Buc-ee’s plans future expansions), you’ll see the familiar signs. Less familiar was this:

A lawsuit claims that Buc-ee’s illegally priced gasoline when it opened its first Alabama travel center last month along Interstate 10 in Baldwin County.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Oasis Travel Center LLC, alleges that the Lake Jackson, Texas-based company violated the 35-year-old Alabama Motor Fuel Marketing Act, and demands that the company halt its pricing strategies while the case is pending.

The law, passed in 1984, prohibits big oil companies from selling gasoline to the public for less than it costs to buy and transport it to a retail outlet.

Similar lawsuits, over the years, have been filed in Alabama against big-box retailers like Costco and Murphy Oil Corp., which operates Walmart gas stations.

“We contend Buc-ee’s, when it opened up two weeks ago, it opened at prices for regular unleaded and other grades at below costs as defined under the Alabama law,” said H. Dean Mooty, a Montgomery-based attorney who has represented smaller-sized convenience stores in similar cases.

The lawsuit specifically cites several dates when Buc-ee’s posted a price of regular gasoline under what state law allows. Among the dates cited is Buc-ee’s Jan. 21 opener, when regular gasoline was sold at a rounded price of $1.80 per gallon.

Oops. You really are not in Texas any more, y’all. As for the rest of us, enjoy the beaver nuggets and the clean bathrooms while you can.

Speed kills

Good long read from the Chron about our dangerous roads and highways. There’s too much to cover here, so I just want to focus on the why we all speed so much.

Houston drivers likely speed, at least in part, because they believe no one with authority is paying attention.

A Chronicle analysis of municipal court data shows that Houston-area law enforcement’s largest agencies are deploying fewer officers for road enforcement and ticketing fewer drivers, even as fatalities increased in the past two years and the area grows in population.

Houston police officers ticketed 41 percent fewer drivers in 2017 than they did in 2012, even as the number of vehicle miles traveled in Houston grew 23 percent.

That reflects a national trend of less traffic enforcement, according to Hersman, the former chairwoman of the NTSB. Federal statistics show that the share of people coming into contact with police through a traffic stop dropped about 11 percentage points from 2002 to 2011.

“We certainly understand what law enforcement is being asked to do and what they deal with, but the reality is fatalities are going up on our roadways,” Hersman said. “What we are seeing nationwide is law enforcement is not doing traffic enforcement.”

Harris County sheriff’s deputies, for example, issued 28 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than they did in 2015, even though the county gained 100,000 people during that period. Houston police officers issued 16 percent fewer speeding tickets in 2017 than in 2015. Texas Department of Public Safety Troopers operating within the greater Houston region are the exception; they issued 11 percent more tickets for speeding than they did in 2015.

I mostly travel on I-10 these days, and I do see (usually unmarked) patrol cars on the shoulders, and occasionally a pulled-over vehicle getting cited. But this is the exception, and there’s nothing quite like the joy of being tailgated when you’re already doing over 70 on a road with a speed limit of 60. I don’t have any solutions to offer here – we could reduce speeding and the mayhem that accompanies it with higher levels of patrol, but of course that’s going to require more patrol officers, and that’s not in the cards. I just miss working in a part of town where I didn’t have to take highways to get to the office.

“We (Heart) Houston” someplace else

Your favorite Instagram spot is moving to a new location.

The “We Love Houston” sign you’ve seen either near I-10 or in Instagram selfies is on the move.

Artist and die-hard Houstonian David Adickes told Chron.com in previous interviews that he planned to move the work, which features concrete letters ranging from 5 to 9 feet tall, separated by a 9-foot-tall heart, from a spot just south of I-10 East near Yale to more hospitable surroundings for the art and its fans.

Housing development behind the installation had cluttered the sentiment since it appeared back in the summer of 2013. It used to be at his former art studio SculpturWorx off Summer Street, near his Beatles statues and presidential heads.

[…]

According to KTRK-TV the signage is moving to a promenade near the 8th Wonder Brewery, which is the current home of the towering Fab Four statues. Chris Alan, who runs the Houston pop-culture site It’s A Houston Thing, told the outlet that this way Houstonians will be able to safely take pictures in front of it.

That’s something that Adickes had always wanted anyway. He is a fan of people of all walks of life enjoying his outsized art.

See here for some background. My fandom of all things Adickes is well known, and that includes this particular piece. Which was near where I live, but as of Sunday is not any more. I’ll miss it now that it’s fone. Here’s a map showing the new location. Having it at a brewery does have some advantages, and maybe now I’ll remember to get a picture in front of it.

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s speech Tuesday may have included jabs at state lawmakers, but it was a hit with transit advocates for a single line.

“We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions,” Emmett said in his prepared remarks, alluding to freeway projects that have exacerbated flooding woes. “One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail.”

[…]

Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.

Still, the regret voiced by Emmett – whom many consider a proponent of road building as a champion of the Grand Parkway – demonstrates a shift, if only in tone, regarding regional transportation.

“I totally think what the Judge said is important,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which has pressed for commuter rail development. “Judge Emmett has always been a supporter of the rail district, but it is important when you hear him say there was an opportunity for commuter rail.”

Yes, we could have had a rail component to the I-10 expansion. It was a choice not to do that. It wasn’t hard to see that at some point after the initial expansion, the new capacity would be exhausted. Having a means to move people that didn’t rely on that capacity would have been helpful. The powers that be – read: Harris County and John Culberson – were not interested in that. We won’t have as many options going forward – it’s not like there’s a bunch of available space to build more lanes, after all.

To be sure, Metro express buses make heavy use of the HOV lanes, which move a lot of people and didn’t require a big capital investment on Metro’s part. One commenter on Swamplot thinks that’s a perfectly fine outcome.

The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can). The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.”

I agree that the park and ride experience is a good one, and a lot of people use it. But even with a rail corridor built in, there would still have been HOV lanes, so we could have had both rail and express buses. Build it as light rail and you can have local service, too. Lots of people are using I-10 for shorter trips that neither begin nor end in downtown. We didn’t know it at the time, but the subsequent local bus system redesign would have provided a lot of connections to and from this could-have-been light rail line, thus reducing the need for parking around the stations. It’s not a question of whether rail would have provided superior service to express buses, it’s that rail plus express buses would have been better. But we’ll probably never get to see that for ourselves, thanks to short-sighted decision making more than a decade ago.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

The process for I-45

This time it’s different, more or less.

The region’s largest looming highway project – a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to downtown Houston – has a lot of people looking into the rear-view mirror, pressing officials to make sure the job does not come with some of the downsides of its predecessors.

Even with the worries, however, the mega-project planned by the Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t been like many others, from the time it has taken to develop to the types of new lanes proposed.

Though often characterized as a bureaucratic behemoth, the state transportation agency has gone to unprecedented levels of public engagement the past three years, taking the designs for adding two managed lanes in each direction to public meetings, community groups, even sitting down with interested stakeholders for one-on-one meetings.

“We’re doing a lot of listening,” said Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT. “We want to be a good partner, with others, in every sense of the word.”

[…]

Though the goal of many of the proposed changes is to tear down barriers, notably the Pierce Elevated, previous Houston freeway projects around downtown – including Interstate 10, Loop 610 and U.S. 59 – have left some neighborhoods cleaved. The north side, also divided by Buffalo Bayou, has not enjoyed downtown-centered investment as much as Midtown and the Fourth Ward. Bellaire residents and leaders still have bad feelings over how Loop 610 cut through the small city.

Drivers do not want that to happen with the I-45 project, which officials have called a generational project that commuters still could be using 40 years from now. Cutting off neighborhoods or restricting transit options could have devastating consequences.

“The easiest way to destroy a neighborhood is to divide it,” said Seth Hopkins, who lives at Emancipation and Polk, where residents worry they will lose easy access to downtown if Polk and other streets are cut off by the freeway.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I’ll agree that TxDOT has done a pretty good job taking its time and listening to feedback about the project. I suspect one difference between this and the Katy Freeway widening of 15 years ago is that project had a lot of pressure, from John Culberson and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to get it done, while the pressure in this one is to slow down and not break anything. But for all that, at some point ground will be broken and people who live and work in the targeted area on the east side of downtown will be affected in ways we don’t know yet. It’s going to be a huge mess, one that may take a decade from start to finish. I appreciate what TxDOT is doing now, but there’s only so much that can be done to soften the impact of this kind of project.

Try to wrap your mind around what I-45 will look like post-construction

Swamplot is here to help.

HAVING TROUBLE SIFTING through some of the massive freeway jumbles in the latest plans for that major I-45 reroute between Downtown and the Beltway? This new video (making the rounds this month as TxDOT hosts a set of public meetings to chat about the project) may or may not help you out. The 10-minute animation shows off what the project plans look like in multicolored, car-spangled 3D action, dragging viewers slowly along the entire project route from Spur 521up to Beltway 8.

The project plans pull 45 over to the east side of Downtown, to line up alongside US 59 and dive underground behind the George R. Brown convention center. Various flavors of new express lanes, managed lanes, managed express lanes, and connectors weave into and out of a massive new 45-59-10 junction as shown above, all labeled by color.

[…]

There’s lot more to parse in the designs — including TxDOT’s estimate that the whole thing will “displace approximately 168 single-family residences, 1,067 multi-family residences, 331 businesses, 4 places of worship, and 2 schools.

There’s a ton of documents and downloadable videos, some of which are embedded at the linked post, at the I-45 project website. About the only thing I’m grateful about my upcoming office move out west is that I won’t have to deal with this horror on a daily basis. Personally, I have a hard time believing that any gains in improved traffic flow will outweigh the costs of executing this massive boondoggle, but maybe that’s just me. Additional views of this colossus from Swamplot are here, and the Chron has more.

TxDOT public hearings on I-45 widening scheduled for May 9th & May 11th

From the inbox, from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

The I-45 Project – Planning Stage is coming to an end!  This next meeting is a HEARING –  much different from the public meetings that TxDOT has been holding.

This HEARING is the last meeting where the public will be heard!  After a short comment period following the hearing, nothing else will go on record on the project.

After the Hearing, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be completed – estimated to be complete next year – in 2018. Then a R.O.D. (Record of Decision) – also in 2018. And TxDOT will immediately start acquiring Right-of-way where needed and finish designs. 1st phase of construction will begin on Segment 3 (downtown) – estimated to start in 2020.

There are only 2 HEARINGS scheduled at this time.  You may remember that normally there were 3 meetings including one held at Jeff Davis High School (now Northside High School).  Northside is currently being renovated so no meeting can be held there.  We are asking TxDOT for a meeting that is convenient to Segment 2… but so far, no luck.

As a quick summary, there are 3 Segments involved in the project – Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8); Segment 2 (610 to I-10) and Segment 3 (the Downtown Loop).  We are currently in the final year of an approximately 12-year planning phase.   TxDOT has held 4 public meetings – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.   Part of this project, is the re-routing of I-45 at Pierce Elevated and moving it to be coincident with I-10 on the north side of downtown and coincident with US-59 on the east side of Downtown.  Directly east of George Brown Convention both US-59 and I-45 will be below-grade.  This is a major project that is estimated to cost between $6 Billion and $7 Billion, WITHOUT right-of-way costs included.

I am part of the I-45 Coalition, which is an all-volunteer group that was formed to address issues related to the planned construction of I-45 and to work with TxDOT to ensure that the pending construction comply with these 3 tenets: (1) No expansion beyond the existing right-of- way (2) Alternative means of transportation must be explored (3) No negative impact on the neighborhoods quality of life.  We have not been very successful in these 3 tenets…but we have helped improve the project.

Regarding ROW in Segment 1 – 212 acres of land will be taken; Segment 2 – 19 acres of land and in Segment 3 – 79 acres of land.

In Segment 2 – the North St. Bridge will be removed.  The main roadway of I-45 will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so it is impossible with the current engineering to have any bridge there.

If you have commented or attended any of the prior meetings before, you should have received, or will soon receive notification via USPS of the 2 meetings locations from TxDOT. Locations and dates are:

Tuesday, May 9th                                                                   Thursday, May 11th

St. Pius X High School                                   Houston Community College – Central Campus

811 W. Donovan Street                                  1300 Holman Street –  San Jacinto Building

Houston, TX  77091                                                   Houston, TX  77004

 

Displays will be available for viewing at 5:30 pm, formal hearing starts at 6:30 pm.

Please review TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com. As of today, the documents that will be shown at the hearing are NOT on the website…but they should be there soon.

I received notification of the meetings in the main on Wednesday. The images embedded in the post are from the I-45 Coalition’s Facebook group. I can’t quite make out the context, so I guess I’ll have to go to the meeting. The www.ih45northandmore.com webpage now has the meeting notice on it, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available as well, if you want a little light reading. If you use I-45 north of downtown at all, you should probably make plans to be at one of these meetings. There’s no next chance to give feedback after this.

TxDOT accelerates I-45 construction timeline

Gird your loins.

For many long-suffering Houston drivers, a solution to the infuriating bottleneck on Interstate 45 through downtown is likely something they thought they wouldn’t live to see.

More than a decade ago, a plan pitched to solve the problem – moving the interstate to the east side of downtown and demolishing the Pierce Elevated – appeared so preposterous they thought it would never get off the ground. It was too big of a change, too ambitious, too expensive and too disruptive.

Turns out it was also too good to pass up, leading to efforts by local transportation officials to now include the first phases of the project in an updated, expanded statewide transportation plan. So the project some only dreamed about is, at least on paper, a reality, pending the allocation of more than $900 million for the reconstruction of two major interstate intersections in the downtown area.

Though these first steps are incremental compared to the overall plan, officials say they are important and send the clear message: The I-45 freeway is relocating and the elevated portion along Pierce will be abandoned and maybe demolished within the next dozen years.

“We are turning the key and starting the engine and moving,” said Quincy Allen, district director for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

Work on revamping the freeway intersections is slated for late 2020 or early 2021, years ahead of when state officials first predicted when they unveiled their construction plans in 2014.

For the Houston region, it might be the most significant freeway project in anyone’s lifetime. That’s because it reconfigures the three interstates that form the backbone of how Houstonians move – I-45, I-69 and Interstate 10 – in the one area where they are so closely tangled and reliant on drivers making transitions from one to another as smooth as possible.

No doubt, those interchanges are the worst, but let’s not forget that a big part of the reason why is because one or both of the intersecting highways has narrowed or will soon narrow down from three or more lanes to two at these points of intersection. I guess the massive reconstruction plan will address that in some fashion, but that’s the problem in a nutshell, and there’s only so much you can do to engineer it away. And oh Lord, the mess even this preliminary construction is going to make. My head hurts just thinking about it.

One more thing:

The first part of the project, along I-69 near Spur 527, aims to lessen the congestion caused where traffic from the Greenway Plaza area flows into a bottleneck where I-69 drops to three lanes, with two others for the spur. It would add another lane, and widen the already depressed freeway through Montrose and Midtown.

The project’s next part takes that even further, burying the portion of I-69 that now is elevated east of Spur 527. Local streets that now flow beneath the freeway will stay where they are, but cross atop it.

“I expect us to continue to progress and go in a counter-clockwise motion around downtown,” Allen said.

Based on projections, when the entire downtown ring is completed and I-45 is in place parallel to I-69, the amount of congestion drivers endure will be cut in half, based on 2040 traffic estimates.

[…]

Eventually, the proposal is to widen I-45 from downtown to the Sam Houston Tollway in Greenspoint. Combined with the downtown efforts, it is estimated to cost at or near $7 billion.

Remember when we spent nearly $3 billion to widen I-10 from 610 to whatever point out west we stopped? On Friday, I had to be at the Lifetime Fitness in the Town and Country mall area at I-10 and Beltway 8 by 6 PM. I hit I-10 at Heights at 5:20. As I approached 610, there was one of those TxDOT marquees telling me the travel time to the Sam Houston Tollway was 29 minutes. That turned out to be a bit of an overestimate, but not by much. How many years do you think we’ll have to enjoy the lessened congestion this is promising to bring us before we’re right back to where we were before we began?

The Food Bank’s new home

I wish them all the best at their new address.

The giant “End Hunger” message emblazoned in green on the Houston Food Bank building just north of downtown will soon go away as the charitable organization plans to start cooking hot meals for hungry kids at a larger kitchen under construction inside its east Houston warehouse by 2017.

“It’s been nice,” Food Bank president Brian Greene said. “It’s in a nice prominent spot on I-45, but functionally, we’ve outgrown it, and it’s really limited how many children’s meals we can do.”

The operation of the Mary Barden Keegan Center at 2445 North Freeway will move to a new 10,000-square-foot kitchen inside 535 Portwall 6 miles east of downtown.

Relocating the kitchen will enable the Food Bank to increase its capacity fivefold, to 20,000 meals a day. The new kitchen will be able to accommodate up to 80 volunteers at a time. The kitchen is used to produce meals distributed to 70 after-school and summer program sites for the Kids Cafe.

[…]

Greene sees the new kitchen as another opportunity to make the headquarters a place that volunteers from companies, churches and other groups want to be.

The food bank moved to the Portwall facility, off Interstate 10 East just inside east Loop 610, in 2010 after buying and renovating the former Sysco Distribution Center. The property consists of a 272,711-square-foot warehouse, a 153,341-square-foot freezer building and a 15,870-square-foot truck center.

The facility was built out with about 40,000 square feet of space for volunteers to make the food ready for distribution through some 600 charities in 18 Southeast Texas counties. It’s also designed to be fun, with a choice of music piped in to work areas. It includes conference space for companies to host meetings.

“Volunteers do the vast majority of the actual work here,” Greene said. “Making this a place where people want to come is a big deal for us.”

“We’ll lose the I-45 frontage, but I think we’ll actually gain far more in people actually engaging with us to come to work.”

I’ve been to the new facility, and while it’s not as easily accessible it is a whole lot bigger and should serve the Food Bank’s needs well into the future. Give it a visit, and volunteer some time if you can. They do great work and they need all the help we can give them.

Still waiting for a design for I-45

Pull up a chair and relax, this could take awhile.

After 15 years of discussion, study and ideas for improvements ranging from enormous tunnels to a massive circulating freeway loop, planners are still at least six months from unveiling their $7 billion plan for historic changes to I-45 and most of the downtown freeway network. Challenges remain, such as paying for it and securing stronger support from city officials who worry the region’s largest road-building project ever is too heavy on solving how to move more cars and too light on long-term public transit expansion.

“I am really concerned about the fact we are focusing solely on road expansion and highway expansion without incorporating rail and other methods,” Houston At-Large Councilwoman Amanda Edwards said last week.

Recognizing they are suggesting a once-in-a-lifetime change to Houston’s freeways, transportation officials are going to unprecedented lengths to gauge reaction. They expect months more of meetings with city and transit officials, and residents living near more than 24 miles of freeway, mostly I-45.

“We’re meeting with several groups, it seems like every week,” said Quincy Allen, head of TxDOT’s Houston office.

[…]

A draft of the final plan for the entire corridor was expected to be released for public review later this year, but that likely will not happen until early 2017, said Pat Henry, director of advanced project development for the Texas Department of Transportation in Houston.

“We have got some contract issues that are slowing us up a little bit,” Henry said.

Transportation officials think they can host what will be the fifth round of public meetings on the pivotal freeway project early next year, secure federal approval by 2018 and start construction on the downtown segments in 2020. The portions from downtown to Loop 610 and Loop 610 to Sam Houston Tollway would come later.

“Even if there is a hitch in the funding for the other parts we’re going to start (downtown),” Allen said.

The central business district segment likely would be split into numerous projects, as the U.S. 290 widening has been, officials said.

Boy, is this ever going to be a pain in the rear end when construction begins. There have been numerous tweaks and alterations to the initial designs, in response to feedback from the public. The I-45 Coalition does yeoman’s work tracking it all – see here for their latest update. It’s just as well that there will be more opportunities for the public to weigh in, because there have been some significant alternative ideas proposed. It’s more than fine by me if we take our sweet time getting started on this.

On a related note, Streetsblog speculates on what the final design could look like.

“The impacts on walkability and urbanism are real and are a big deal,” said Jay Crossley, former director of the smart growth advocacy group Houston Tomorrow. “If they could only do those parts of the plan it would be an amazing plan.” But while TxDOT is starting to consider how its highway projects affect urban neighborhoods, said Crossley, it hasn’t quite embraced the “paradigm shift” away from highway widening that Mayor Sylvester Turner has called for. It’s still an open question whether TxDOT’s plan will result in a net increase in highway capacity, pumping more traffic into downtown. TxDOT’s current proposal calls for adding one high-occupancy toll lane in each direction on I-45. While the tolls could help manage traffic and speed up buses (if prices are set high enough — something political officials have been reluctant to do, says Crossley), the project would still increase total car traffic on the highway.

[…]

The potential highway widenings are still under negotiation, said Crossley, with TxDOT gearing up for a fifth round of public meetings on the project early next year. That will be the real test of Turner’s commitment to the new transportation policy approach he has championed. Crossley believes the city is negotiating with TxDOT over the details of the plan as part of the recently-elected mayor’s transition effort. Turner could tell TxDOT not to add additional car capacity, and the agency might listen. “If Sylvester Turner was to stand behind that, that would be revolutionary in Texas,” Crossley said.

As the story notes, last year’s constitutional amendment voting gives TxDOT a lot of incentive to spend on road-related projects, so it would be quite remarkable if I-45 through downtown wound up with no extra capacity other than the HOV lanes. We’ll see how it goes.

Woodland Heights neighborhood traffic management plan

Of primary interest to the folks in my neighborhood only, though I will note that as Mayor Turner has made it easier for neighborhoods to request traffic-calming measures like speed cushions, this could be in your future as well. Tonight at 7 PM there will be a public meeting in the cafeteria at Hogg Middle School to discuss the very-hotly-debated neighborhood traffic management plan (NTMP) for the Woodland Heights. A copy of the letter sent to residents about the meeting is here. A map of the affected area is embedded in this post and viewable in larger form here; a larger version, from the back of that letter than I scanned and uploaded, is here. An FAQ for residents who haven’t been following this as closely as some is here.

As I understand it, there are three main issues: People speeding on Pecore, people not slowing down at the school crossings at Bayland and Helen and at Bayland at Morrison, and cut-through traffic on Watson and Beauchamp, both of which provide alternate routes to the freeway exchanges at I-10 and I-45. There’s a lot of concern that the forthcoming changes to I-45 in the area will create incentives for more cut-through traffic, and this is designed to remove those incentives. You may or may not care for the solutions being proffered, but this discussion has been going on for a long time and there have been plenty of opportunities to have your voice heard. None of what is being proposed should come as a surprise. If you have anything further to add, tonight at 7 PM at Hogg Middle School is your chance to add it.

We Heart Houston…someplace else

A popular piece of public art is looking for a new location.

It’s difficult not to smile while driving east on I-10 when passing the “We Heart Houston” sculpture near the Patterson St. exit in the Heights. Since 2013, the colorful, 20-foot-tall work has been a great sight for those with pride in Houston. However, the sculpture’s days there are numbered.

The good news? Houston is getting a larger, more substantial sculpture touting our arts scene in its place. “Art is Everywhere Houston” is on the horizon, and promises to make an even greater impact.

The “We Heart Houston” sculpture’s new location is currently under consideration according to the artist, 89-year-old David Adickes. A prolific and treasured local sculptor, Adickes has numerous larger-than-life works to his credit including “Virtuoso” at the Lyric Center, the enormous President’s Heads, and the 76-foot-tall Sam Houston on display on I-45 in Huntsville.

Adickes is working with the Houston First Corporation to review options. Houston First is the agency charged with enhancing the quality of life in our city, as well as advancing economic prosperity, and the city’s image with the world.

“At first we thought we would move it in front of the Hobby Center on the slope of Buffalo Bayou,” Adickes said. “As people drove by, the skyline would have formed a backdrop for the piece. It was the perfect spot.”

Well, not exactly perfect, as it turns out. The portion along Buffalo Bayou chosen for the sculpture routinely floods. Decision-makers concluded that it was only a matter of time before a photograph of a half-submerged “We Heart Houston” sign saturated the internet – not exactly an image the city wants to project.

‘My next choice of locations is on the jogging path as it runs near Stude Park in the Heights. People could still see the sculpture from the street as they drive by, and it would lend itself to joggers and people in the park taking selfies. That’s another good solution,” stated Adickes.

Why the big move? Since the sculpture’s placement on Adickes’ 3,000-square-foot sliver of property along the feeder of I-10, a large town home development was constructed be hind the work. Then, another wall was built between the town homes and the sculpture itself. The aesthetics no longer fit, says Adickes

“Another reason we’re moving ‘We Heart Houston,’ is safety,” said Christine West, Cultural Programs Manager with Houston First. “It’s popular, and people want to stop and photograph themselves standing with sculpture, but it’s dangerous to do that where it is. There’s no parking along the feeder road and traffic whizzes by there. Houston First wants to place it where people and families can enjoy it without risk, and we can actively maintain it.”

Sounds reasonable to me. As you know, I’m a longtime fan of Adickes’ work, and my kids love this particular piece, so I’m glad it will be moved to a place that is safer and more convenient for taking pictures. I feel confident it will be making an appearance on my Facebook wall in the near future.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

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.

Bu-ee’s to expand to Louisiana

The road to world domination leads east.

The first Buc-ee’s outside Texas promises lagniappe, a little bonus, worthy of its Louisiana locale.

“It’s going to look like what we build, and it’s going to feel like what we build,” co-owner Beaver Aplin said this week. But in addition to the Beaver Nuggets and other proprietary snack foods such as fudge or jerky, Aplin said, customers should expect “Louisiana flair” with items like alligator, boudin and cracklins.

A 15-acre tract along Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge will soon get one of the Buc-ee’s mega-convenience stores. The chain known for its buck-toothed mascot, a cartoon beaver, has grown to 31 locations since the first one opened in 1982.

The store could also be the first of others in Louisiana and elsewhere as the Lake Jackson-based chain explores markets beyond Texas’ borders.

Exact plans are not yet available, but Aplin said Buc-ee’s has the Baton Rouge property under contract, and the company is working with the owner and the city. The store will likely be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot travel center, similar to ones in Baytown, Texas City or Madisonville. It will feature sprawling bays of fuel islands and expanded food and other items for sale.

“We think Louisiana will be a great market, and I look forward to being there,” Aplin said.

[…]

Many Louisianians, through traveling or living in Texas, have been exposed to the Buc-ee’s brand, said Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University.

“Buc-ee’s has a cult following,” Hollinger said. “You’re not just excited to go to Buc-ee’s, they’re part of the travel experience itself.”

Hollinger said tapping into Louisiana’s food culture should further help the brand there.

Added marketing professor Betsy Gelb of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston: “You always want to be putting a toe in a state where there are people who know you.”

General counsel Jeff Nadalo said Buc-ee’s continues “looking at all opportunities in Texas and outside of Texas.”

Louisiana is the current focus, Aplin said, with other sites, including along the I-10 corridor, under consideration. None of those projects is far enough along to announce, he added.

Makes sense. Just on billboards alone, you have to figure Buc-ee’s is well known to anyone who’s ever driven on I-10. Now you can stock up on Beaver Balls on your way to New Orleans. What more could you want?

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.

The Katy Freeway cautionary tale on addressing congestion

Turns out that throwing more lanes at the Katy Freeway hasn’t helped all that much.

Several years ago, the Katy Freeway in Houston was a major traffic bottleneck. It was so bad that in 2004 the American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA) called one of its interchanges the second worst bottleneck in the nation wasting 25 million hours a year of commuter time. (The Katy Freeway, Interstate 10, connects downtown Houston to the city’s growing suburbs almost 30 miles to the west).

Obviously, when a highway is too congested, you need to add capacity: make it wider! Add more lanes! So the state of Texas pumped more than $2.8 billion into widening the Katy; by the end, it had 23 lanes, good enough for widest freeway in the world.

It was a triumph of traffic engineering. In a report entitled Unclogging America’s Arteries, released last month on the eve of congressional action to pump more money into the nearly bankrupt Highway Trust Fund, the AHUA highlighted the Katy widening as one of three major “success stories,” noting that the widening “addressed” the problem and, “as a result, [it was] not included in the rankings” of the nation’s worst traffic chokepoints.

There’s just one problem: congestion on the Katy has actually gotten worse since its expansion.

Sure, right after the project opened, travel times at rush hour declined, and the AHUA cites a three-year old article in the Houston Chronicle as evidence that the $2.8 billion investment paid off. But it hasn’t been 2012 for a while, so we were curious about what had happened since then. Why didn’t the AHUA find more recent data?

Well, because it turns out that more recent data turns their “success story” on its head.

Go read the rest for yourself. Speaking from my own experience, the Katy Freeway between 610 and downtown is clogged pretty much all the time, something that was almost never the case pre-widening. I’ve discussed this many times, how it’s not only the freeway itself but the cross streets at the freeway where people are getting on and off as well. I don’t know how much of this is people going far out on the freeway and how much is just because there’s more people in the Heights area and thanks to the bayou I-10 is the easiest way to get from Sawyer/Studemont to Durham/Shepherd, but I’m sure some of it is the “induced demand” that this story talks about. You can see it with your own eyes, not just inside the Loop but well beyond it. We got maybe a couple of years of smoother traffic, and now it’s a lot like it was before. All for $2.8 billion, with no obvious next step to take. Keep this in mind when you hear promises of this expansion proposal or that bringing relief to 610, 288, 45, wherever.

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

The Chron reports on the story.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Would the elevated 610 lanes really reduce congestion?

Color me skeptical.

The elevated lane design, officials said, would allow traffic headed around the loop, and not into the Uptown area, to flow more freely. The lanes would have no access to exits for San Felipe, Westheimer, Richmond or U.S. 59.

Moving that through-traffic to the express lanes would open up space for local traffic on the existing Loop 610 lanes, TxDOT officials said.

The plans have reignited fears about the effects of a double-decker freeway on the area and Memorial Park. Proposals for two tiers of freeway traffic have run into staunch opposition twice in the past 25 years.

Residents and leaders of the Memorial Park Conservancy – a nonprofit that helps protect and manage the park – are taking a close look at the latest proposal. Local landowners and businesses also are monitoring the project, said John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston and administrator of the area’s tax increment reinvestment zone.

“Noise and the visual are the biggest issues,” Breeding said.

[…]

Because of limited space, TxDOT said only one lane to and from the elevated lanes would be practical and help control traffic flow. The absence of a second lane, however, creates a bottleneck where the lanes rejoin the rest of Loop 610.

Others criticized the plan for not having direct access to I-10.

“That’s a big loss,” frequent Loop 610 and I-10 driver Jason Wilkinson said. “Everybody that needs to go downtown, you’ve just made it so they can’t use it.”

TxDOT officials this week extended the deadline for comments from Dec. 28 to Jan. 8, spokesman Danny Perez said.

Though officials have said the lanes may be tolled, recent infusions of cash to transportation funding via voter-approved changes in state budgeting could mean the express lanes stay free.

Pending state and federal approvals, construction could begin in two or three years, provided TxDOT and local officials devise a way to pay for it.

The lanes, estimated to cost $250 million, are not included in regional transportation spending plans approved by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out much of the state and federal money meant for congestion relief.

See here and here for the background. I guess I just don’t believe this will work. The particulars of getting the people who want to pass through the 59-to-10 part of the West Loop (how many such people are there?) onto and off of the express lane or lanes will cause confusion and likely some backups all on their own. Getting to the I-10 exit on the northbound Loop, and to the 59 exit on the southbound side, will still be a mess. And I say again, ain’t no way this comes in at $250 million. It’s just a question of how much of an underestimate that is. I get why people find this enticing – who wouldn’t like to think that we can reduce traffic on the Loop? – I just don’t buy it. It’s false hope. Sorry.

More rail options being studied

This caught my eye last week.

The Gulf Coast Rail District says to make the system viable the train needs to come into downtown, or there has to be some sort of commuter rail option that would link downtown with the high-speed line.

The Rail District now wants to study the possibility of a rail line along the I-10 corridor that would get passengers close to the downtown Amtrak station.

Gulf Coast Rail District Executive Director Maureen Crocker says a train could possibly run on the median or along the embankments. Crocker adds if the high-speed rail line doesn’t have an easy connection into downtown it could cause problems for everyone.

There’s not much more to the story, and to say the least this raised more questions for me than it answered. So, I reached out to Ms. Crocker with my questions:

Are the endpoints for this simply the proposed high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 on one end and downtown on the other, or is there more to it than that?

The study will be focused solely on the segment you reference. It is important to note that GCRD has been in discussions with TCR about the operation of regional rail service below the HSR structure it will build. Previous studies completed by GCRD have indicated that regional rail ridership triples if the rail continues to downtown from the Northwest Transit Center area near Loop 610. GCRD has studied regional rail to Hempstead in essentially the same corridor that TCR has identified. In addition, TxDOT has studied an extension of the regional rail corridor to Austin using abandoned freight rail ROW and rail ROW owned by Cap Metro. Maximizing the synergies of the HSR corridor and the regional rail corridor will be a win-win for the Houston region.

I-10 does not have a median inside Loop 610, so I am confused about where this might be located. Can you be more specific?

Several options will be evaluated including an elevated structure between the eastbound and westbound lanes of IH-10 east of Loop 610. More options will be identified during the initial phase of work. TxDOT will be very involved in this effort.

I realize that this is barely even in the embryonic stage, but if this goes forward in some fashion, who would be responsible to build it?

It is too early to predict what a final partnership will look like. Agreements are being developed for this phase of work to be led by GCRD and H-GAC with strong participation from TxDOT, METRO and the City of Houston.

Are there other possibilities under consideration? I’m thinking of the “Inner Katy” light rail corridor that was part of the 2003 Metro referendum as such an alternative.

The focus of this phase of work is to determine the feasibility of a direct, nonstop rail connection from Loop 610 to downtown for HSR travelers, regional rail commuters, and local commuters for whom the Loop 610 station is convenient. All parties will be at the table to coordinate related planning efforts. Future phases of this work could address more localized distribution from the Loop 610 station such as the proposed Inner Katy LRT service.

So there you have it. Still a lot of details to be worked out, and who knows how long this all might take, but I do have a clearer idea of what’s being discussed. I noticed the mention of commuter rail in there as well, which is another point in favor of the HSR station being located at 290 and 610, as well as another argument for finishing the link into downtown. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, I’m very interested to see how it goes. My thanks to Ms. Crocker for her helpful answers.

Here comes I-14

Don’t hold your breath waiting for it, however. This will take awhile.

Texas is getting a new interstate, as part of a long-term federal transportation bill.

Interstate 14 will be cobbled together mostly from U.S. 190 and other existing roads to create a new freeway from western Texas to the Louisiana border. The Gulf Coast Strategic Highway Coalition, based in Austin, announced the designation Tuesday.

The interstate will take years to build as highway segments must be brought up to freeway standards such as no at-grade intersections and various safety upgrades to allow for higher speeds.

According to the coalition, I-14 will connect Killeen, Belton, Bryan-College Station, Huntsville, Livingston, Woodville and Jasper before terminating at Texas 63 at the Sabine River.

Houston-area drivers would most likely encounter the new interstate where it crosses Interstate 45 in Huntsville, among the most used routes to and from Houston.

[…]

The designation is the first of many steps to convert federal and state highways into I-14. Efforts to turn portions of U.S. 59 into Interstate 69, for example, have taken decades, with many more sections to go.

In many spots, it will take rebuilding and potentially re-routing the highway. Bushell said officials are still working through some of those specifics, including where U.S. 190 currently shares roadway with I-45 northeast of Huntsville.

“Where possible we would want to stay on existing highway footprints but that may not be possible in some places,” Bushell said.

I-14 will go all the way to the Georgia/South Carolina border. Lord only knows how many years it will be before we see even a single I-14 road sign, but someday this new interstate may divert a bit of truck traffic from I-10. Of course, by then I-10 will likely have been widened to the point of being right next to I-14 anyway. Link via Streetsblog, and Paradise in Hell has more.

Elevating the West Loop

I suppose this was inevitable.

Planners on Dec. 10 are scheduled to detail plans for elevated managed lanes along Loop 610, from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59. Long constrained by the development and parkland along the freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation project aims to put elevated lanes in the middle of the freeway, within the existing right of way, for 3.7 miles.

The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Junior League of Houston, 1811 Briar Oaks Lane.

[…]

Relieving traffic, especially where drivers enter and exit in the bustling Uptown area and merge to and from U.S. 59, is a huge priority for regional transportation officials.

Drivers, meanwhile, said they’d welcome anything that offers a faster trip.

“Anything over what’s there now would be an improvement,” said Jason Weiss, 29, who drives the Loop to work daily.

Relief, however, will be years in coming. Construction of the lanes, expected to cost $250 million, isn’t expected to start for at least two years. Funding would likely come from tolling the lanes.

I was a little confused at first by the description of “from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59”, thinking that maybe they meant this would be along the North Loop, but no: It’s the northern half of the West Loop, from the Southwest Freeway to I-10, exactly where the traffic is the worst. It’s also separate from the Metro HOV plan that is part of the whole Uptown BRT package.

And there’s no freaking way this would cost $250 million. Maybe they mean that’s the out of pocket money for TxDOT, with the rest of it financed by future toll revenues, but come on. Anyone who believes that is the real cost also probably still believes that the Katy Freeway expansion came in under the original $1 billion estimates for it.

Will this help make traffic better? In the sense that it will make cars move faster along this stretch of the Loop, the answer is most likely Yes, at least for awhile. Mostly what it will do is shift the effect of that traffic elsewhere, which will in turn be exacerbated by the higher level of throughput on the West Loop. More vehicles passing through the West Loop per minute and per hour means more vehicles exiting the West Loop per minute and per day onto 59 and I-10 and surface roads like Westheimer and San Felipe. None of those roads are going to have any extra capacity, so what do you think will be the end result? This is basically the same as the effect of the Katy Freeway widening on I-10 between 610 and I-45, which is why it is so much busier these days, and why the streets that connect to it, like Studewood and Yale and Shepherd, are also so much busier. If you’ll be just passing through, it ought to make for a more pleasant experience. But sooner or later you’re going to exit, and that’s when it will catch up to you.

More on the high speed rail station in Houston

The Chron frets about it not being downtown.

After hearing so much about how the proposed Central Texas Railway will help people commute between the central business districts of Houston and Dallas, it turns out that the Houston station will be built near the Northwest Mall at U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

Unless your business is antiques, that location isn’t exactly central. In fact, the French have a phrase to describe rail stations that sit outside central business districts, surrounded by little more than a parking lot: beet field stations.

We’ve heard arguments that, while it isn’t an economic core itself, the proposed rail terminus serves as the center of Houston’s economic footprint, balanced between the energy corridor, Galleria area, downtown, The Woodlands and the Texas Medical Center. But it isn’t just about placing riders at the physical center of a region. Central business districts offer convenient connections to riders’ end destinations. This means walking to hotels or businesses, grabbing a cab or connecting to a local mass-transit system. Downtown Houston is one of the few parts of town that can meet all those standards.

Rail stations on the edge of urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to a June report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration that documented best rail practices from around the world. Sometimes it makes sense to build on more affordable, suburban property. However, those stations function best when they’re at the core of a transit node. Metro’s Northwest Transit Center isn’t enough.

[…]

Metro’s version of commuter rail – Park and Ride – has stations that are little more than parking lots. Those are the dreaded beet field stations that, according to Eidlin’s report, do little to attract economic development.

There’s plenty of opportunities for Houston’s high-speed rail station to connect with the rest of the city, such as a Metro’s planned dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, or even light rail toward downtown. But according to best practices, that groundwork for a mass-transit hub should already be laid by the time the new high-speed rail station is built. Keith said the Central Texas Railway planned to break ground in 2017. Where is Metro’s corresponding local plan?

Jarrett Walker has a response to this.

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won’t go to “downtown” Houston.  Instead it will end atNorthwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I’ve talked with aren’t sounding nearly as upset.  That’s because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It’s also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region’s second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It’s very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

There’s a good discussion in the comments to that post, if you want to read some more. My thoughts are as follows:

1. The decision to put the terminus at 290 and 610 was as much a political choice as anything else. Right now, Texas Central mostly has political enemies in the rural and suburban counties between Houston and Dallas, with some spillover into neighboring rural counties. The legislators who represent these areas include some fairly powerful people, but there aren’t that many of them. The one key vote regarding Texas Central, in a Senate committee, went in their favor because there were more Senators from urban areas like the Metroplex and Harris County who favored the idea. The last thing Texas Central needs is more enemies, and that’s what they would have gotten if they had pushed for a downtown terminus, as plenty of inner Loop folks didn’t like the idea of the trains whizzing through their neighborhoods. Yeah, there’s a NIMBY aspect to this, but the fact remains that a downtown terminus would have had more legislators aligning with the anti-high-speed rail folks. Texas Central didn’t need or want that, and this was the easiest solution to that problem.

2. As long as we’re noting the politics of high-speed rail, let’s also note that Metro is where it is today in large part because of political forces, which among other things have forced them to make dubious promises about not building light rail in the dedicated lanes now being intended for the Uptown BRT line. Metro did plenty to sabotage itself during the early days of the light rail approval process, but they have also had to fight against considerable headwinds, for which the main casualty has been the Universities line. I don’t know what the landscape would look like if there had been a more favorable political climate over the past dozen or so years, but I think we can all agree that it would be different.

3. The area around 290 and 610 where this would be built isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be clear: Pretty much everywhere along 610 between I-10 and TC Jester is a wasteland right now, largely because of freeway construction. At some point, all that construction will be over, and the area can begin to develop into something. When that might be, I have no idea. Prospects for that area may be limited regardless, because access to it is limited by the various freeway interchanges. But if there was ever a time to build something around there, now is as good as any because it’s all going to change over the next five to ten years anyway.

4. I think a lot of concerns go away if 1) the Uptown BRT line gets built; 2) an Inner Katy line, which would connect downtown to Uptown via Washington Avenue and the Northwest Transit Center, gets on the drawing board; and 3) the Universities Line gets back into the discussion. Put those things in place, and this terminus much more accessible to the rest of the city. #1 will happen on its own if nothing torpedoes it. #2 has been the subject of what-if speculation for financial assistance from Texas Central. Not clear how that might work, but it sure would be worth talking about. As for #3, I think everyone agrees that once the Uptown line is built and assuming it’s a success, the argument for connecting it to the Main Street line becomes nearly unassailable. Metro would have to hold another referendum to make that happen per the terms of the peace accord with John Culberson, and for sure all the usual forces against any kind of spending on rail construction will come to the fore. But it could happen, and if these things do happen we’ll be much better off.

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.

More I-45 stuff

From The Highwayman:

Public meetings meant to debut the massive plan to remake Houston’s downtown freeway system might be coming to an end, but it’s hardly the last chance residents will have to poke and prod the plans.

Years of work remain on the $6 billion-plus project that shifts Interstate 45 to the east side of the central business district and sinks I-45 and U.S. 59 so the freeways act as less prominent barriers. By moving the freeway, Texas Department of Transportation officials are also eliminating the elevated portion of I-45 along Pierce. The Pierce Elevated would then be removed, or perhaps turned into a park or green space as some are suggesting.

[…]

A fifth set of meetings — the first public meetings on I-45 were held in 2011, though some discussions date to 2003 — is likely next year, when officials will unveil their draft of the technical plan for the freeway.

Despite a lot of attention on the major components of the plan, such as moving the freeway, some important details are tiny (in comparison) fixes to local intersections. A sweeping ramp from Chartres Street that connects to I-10 and I-45 is an example, officials said. The ramp, which makes a high arc with tight curves, slows traffic and leads to a difficult merger with the freeway.

Redesigning that ramp helps move traffic, which helps all lanes flow more effectively.

There is a similar potential ripple effect from the new design that will ease congestion throughout the Houston region, said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office. After looking at some of the proposals, he said he is confident traffic on U.S. 59, Texas 288 and Interstate 10 will improve because of a better connection to I-45.

“Every one of these legs is getting something fixed on it,” he said.

Swamplot has a TxDOT-produced video that shows what the new highways will look like; a few stills plus typically snarky comments are here, and the full slidewhow from whence that came is here. It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around all of it; doing a before-and-after might have been more helpful. Purple City has a good explanation of why traffic through downtown is so bad now. I can only imagine what it will be like during the construction. Even with that, the downtown real estate set is all in. Be careful what you wish for.

I’ll close with a bit from the most recent email from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

For Segment 2 – (610 to I-10) – I suggest that you understand clearly some of the proposed changes:
1) Houston Avenue will no longer connect from White Oak to N. Main – Won’t that force a substantial increase of traffic thru Woodland Heights for no reason?
2) Why does TxDOT remove the current highway entrance from Houston Ave and reroute it to North Street? That will destroy acres of trees and route more traffic thru Germantown Historic District for no reason.
3) TxDOT says that the “Main Lanes will be elevated” between 610 and Cavalcade – What does elevated mean? The Main Lanes are currently at ground level.

Public comments will be accepted through May 31. Go to http://www.ih45northandmore.com/ and tell them what you think.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

Widening I-10 to San Antonio

Like, all the way.

The roughly 200-mile stretch of Interstate 10 from San Antonio to Houston could become more spacious, as the Texas Department of Transportation has raised the idea of adding a third lane to the highway in each direction.

An expansion of I-10 between San Antonio and Houston would be the latest effort to widen the triangle of roads that link the state’s largest cities, Clayton Ripps, TxDOT’s advanced transportation planning director for the San Antonio district, told the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization recently. New lanes are planned or are already under construction on parts of Interstate 35 that connect San Antonio, Austin and Dallas and on Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas.

The I-10 project is in the early phases of development, and an environmental review process is just getting underway, TxDOT officials said. Funding for most of the construction has not been identified, but the work likely will be divided into sections, with some stretches being worked on before others, according to Ripps.

[…]

As census data released last month attested, the areas along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio are some of the fastest-growing in the country. That growth combined with more people in the state overall — Texas added more people than any state from 2013 to 2014 — mean a higher demand on the highways.

“It’s been a gradual increase, but it seems like it has increased quite a bit over the past year or two,” Guadalupe County Judge Kyle Kutscher said about traffic on I-10. “It’s been pretty consistent with the growth we’ve seen in the county and the region.”

Kutscher said he had not seen the additional traffic lead to major problems other than slower travel times.

TxDOT measures daily traffic flows in multiple spots along I-10, and the data generally reflect the increase in vehicles on the highway. In 2010, for example, an average of 33,000 vehicles traveled on I-10 every day at a spot near Seguin. In 2013 at the same place, the average was 36,324.

Gotta say, the last couple of times we’ve driven westward on I-10, things bogged down to a crawl as we reached Brookshire, where it slims down to two lanes. It eventually sped back up to highway velocity, but it took awhile. It was crowded on the way back in the same area as well. I can see the justification for this, but I have to wonder what the price tag might look like. On the plus side, there should be little to no need to take property via eminent domain, and what property does need to be taken should be mostly unimproved rural land, so it would be cheap. On the other hand, we’re talking well over 100 miles of construction. That’s a lot of material and labor. Let’s see what the initial cost (under)estimate will be, and we can go from there. The Chron has more.

News flash: Traffic is getting worse

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

It’s a common dilemma for Houston motorists. Congestion in Houston increased sharply from 2013 to 2014, according to a report released Tuesday by TomTom, developer of the mapping and traffic data fed to phones and other GPS devices.

Analysts said trips in the region on average last year took 25 percent longer than they would have in free-flowing conditions, compared with 21 percent longer in 2013.

This means that a hypothetical 30-minute, congestion-free trip, on average, takes about 52 minutes at peak commuting times. For an entire year, it means drivers waste 85 hours – more than 3.5 days – plodding along the highways and streets of Houston.

It’s the first increase in TomTom’s traffic index for Houston in four years after three consecutive years of slight declines.

Growing cities with robust economies tend to experience the biggest increases in traffic. Oil price dips notwithstanding, Houston certainly fits the bill, said Tony Voigt, the program manager for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Houston office.

Voigt said local analysis supports the conclusion in the TomTom report: More local streets and highways are more congested for more hours of the day. Even weekend trips to some spots – notably retail corridors – can be increasingly time-consuming.

“This is a result of more people living here as compared to two or three years ago and our economy being very active and healthy,” Voigt said.

The rest of the story goes on in that vein, and you can read it for yourself if you’re interested. What I’m interested in is this: The I-10 expansion project was completed in October, 2007. Certainly at the time, traffic flowed much more smoothly than it had before the project began in 2003, but just as certainly, it’s slower now. That’s especially the case for I-10 between downtown and the West Loop, since all those new drivers on the widened freeway still have to go somewhere. What I’d like to know is this: How do the average speeds on I-10 now for various stretches compare to what they were in 2003? I would expect that overall it’s still better, but is it $2.8 billion worth of better? And at what point are we going to start hearing a call to Do Something about traffic on I-10 being too damn much again? Like I said, I’m just curious. I’m sure TxDOT and/or TransStar has that data, but I’m not curious enough yet to pursue getting it and doing something with it. Am I the only one who wonders about this? For more on the report in the story, see Hair Balls and Dallas Transportation.

Texas Central chooses a corridor

We have a single preferred route for the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway (TCR) today informed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) that it recommends narrowing the consideration of potential high-speed rail corridors between Houston and Dallas to a single preferred corridor known generally as the Utility Corridor. TCR has concluded the Utility Corridor is best suited to satisfy the goals of the project to provide reliable, safe and economically viable high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston using the N700-I Bullet System technology.

TCR has spent several years identifying potential corridors for high-speed rail service between Dallas and Houston. To that end, TCR expended significant effort looking for solutions to engineering, construction and economic challenges associated with building high-speed rail in or along the existing Freight Corridor, and believes the Utility Corridor to be the superior alternative. Additionally, as TCR examines the various alternative alignments, one of the company’s goals is to reduce the project’s impact on communities and landowners to the extent practicable by using existing rights of way. TCR will recommend inclusion of an alternative involving the I-10 corridor as a potential approach to downtown Houston and looks forward to working with the City of Houston to evaluate this option.

TCR will now focus on potential alternatives keyed to the Utility Corridor that meet the business, environmental and connectivity priorities of the project and will submit additional information to the FRA for further detailed analysis during subsequent phases of the environmental review process.

As the Dallas Transportation Blog notes, that’s the orange line on the embedded map. The TCR announcement page also has some quotes from Houston-area elected officials, including Mayor Parker, lauding the inclusion of a possible I-10 corridor approach to downtown. That may make some critics here a bit happier, as they had been agitating for TCR to not run through Inner Loop neighborhoods – see this press release I got from the Oak Forest Homeowners Association the other day for an example – though it won’t do anything to deter the more organized opponents; see this post on the No Texas Central Facebook page to see an example of that. If nothing else, this would seem to ensure that there’s no Woodlands station in the cards, not that this was likely once Montgomery County got on board with the opposition. Whether this blunts the resistance or fires it up more remains to be seen.

The Chron fills in some details.

The preferred route would use land along the BNSF right of way parallel to Hempstead Highway, turning near Loop 610 and U.S. 290.

From there, Texas Central is changing its focus to an alignment through commercial areas around U.S. 290 and Loop 610. Elevated tracks would run along Interstate 10 to access downtown, said Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge and president of Texas Central.

“That would take us out of the residential areas, so we are going to seriously look at that as an option,” Eckels said.

Originally, the proposal followed Union Pacific tracks along Washington into downtown Houston.

[…]

Eckels said officials are working on all of the concerns, hoping to avoid as many as possible.

“There is still a process you go through with the FRA,” he said. “We are trying to respond to the comments we have received.”

A draft environmental analysis, expected to be distributed publicly later this year, will have much more detail on the exact route. Eckels said many changes remain likely.

“Not everyone is going to be happy, but we can address many of the concerns,” he said.

Texas Central remains focused on bringing the trains downtown, if possible, and not stopping short of the central business district, Eckels said.

For a better view of what this might look like for the Houston area, see Swamplot, which zooms in on the map and highlights the possible station locations. I’ll be very interested to see what that draft environmental analysis looks like. I’m not exactly sure what an I-10 corridor would look like in this context, as there doesn’t appear to be an obvious place for the right of way that would be needed. As there are likely to be more changes coming, so are there more questions to be answered. The Trib has more.