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I-45

HGAC gives initial approval to TxDOT’s funding demand

Approval with concerns. There will be opportunities to revisit this.

Plans to overhaul Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston inched forward this week, but not without some hesitation and a slew of caveats by some local officials who have been asked to commit $100 million to the massive project.

Approval by the Houston-Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee came Wednesday with many members echoing lingering concerns over the project as currently envisioned by the Texas Department of Transportation. Among those are how the agency addresses environmental issues and communicates with the public.

“It is important to recognize that things TxDOT has done in the past are not going to be sufficient for this project,” said Carol Lewis, a TAC committee member and director of the Center for Transportation Training and Research at Texas Southern University.

Ultimately, the technical committee approved the committal of $100 million in locally-controlled federal funds to the center segment of the I-45 project, per a request from TxDOT. The final decision rests with H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which meets July 26.

[..]

The approval is not a final word on whether the freeway project is built, and not even the last time H-GAC will have to vote on it.

Local officials must add the $100 million to the region’s short-term transportation plan, also approved by the transportation council. That approval would not happen for a project in 2024 for about another two years.

The resolution, if approved by the regional council next week, notes some of those milestones so officials could be assured they had options if TxDOT did not adequately address community concerns.

See here for the background. Two members of the technical committee, Veronica Chapa Gorczynski, president of the East End Management District, and Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, opposed the request/demand/whatever to commit the money to TxDOT. I’d still just like to know what exactly it would be used for, or at least what are the possibilities, and what would happen if HGAC said “nope”. Not today, I’m afraid.

Another manifesto against I-45 expansion

They’re fun to read, and my heart is with them, but we all know how this works.

The I-45 project is likely to do irreversible damage to our city’s finances and ecology. It will reduce the city’s tax base by eliminating existing businesses that affect 25,000 jobs. This includes approximately 20 city blocks in EaDo, a thriving entertainment and residential neighborhood with massive unmet potential. It will wipe out homes, churches and businesses in neighborhoods including Independence Heights, Near Northside and Fifth Ward, repeating the sins of the past by building highways through historical African American and Latino neighborhoods.

This project represents a major transfer of wealth from the city to the suburbs, trading actual city of Houston homes, land, and businesses for the promise of faster trips through Houston. Researchers say that promise won’t pan out long-term: As Houston’s own history with I-10’s expansion demonstrates, adding lanes doesn’t improve freeway congestion for long.

Adding insult to those injuries, the expanded freeway will likely lead to further development on our shrinking forest and prairie lands north of Houston. That open land currently buffers neighborhoods downstream from flooding, and it filters rainwater, improving our area’s water quality.

I have been part of many of the “Make I-45 Better” discussions, hosted with the idea that, if TxDOT would come to the table with resources and an openness to new design approaches, the damage caused by the project could be offset by the benefits it could create. I no longer think this trade-off makes sense.

To move people without the putting an undue burden on the neighborhoods along the I-45 corridor, we need a better regional approach.

What might be possible if we work together on a different vision? Imagine if the state legislature allowed TxDOT act like a true department of transportation — not just a highway department. Imagine leaders from TxDOT, METRO, the city of Houston and others sitting together and figuring out how we can best connect people to the abundance Houston has to offer. Imagine a safer, sustainable and more equitable Houston, where people had choices to avoid congestion. Imagine if we implemented projects that strengthen our city instead of undermine its competitiveness.

That approach shouldn’t be limited to freeways. Given the funds dedicated to I-45 and other roadways, METRO’s METRONext plans, Harris County flood bond projects and Harvey Recovery funds, tens of billions of dollars will soon be spent on infrastructure to remake our city. We need a vision for how all this investment fits together.

See here and here for some previous point/counterpoint, and read the whole thing for the author’s suggestions. I basically agree with everything he says, but it’s all for academic interest, because there’s no mechanism to make any of what he says happen. The truth of the matter is that what we should have been doing is spending the last decade or two working to change the laws on how transportation dollars are allocated by the Lege. That wouldn’t have worked, of course, because there’s very little interest in the Republican legislature for anything other than road building, but at least it would have had a chance of success. It’s still a worthwhile goal, even if it’s too late to do anything about I-45. Lobbying Congress to appropriate more money to transit grants would also be useful. None of this is pretty or easy, but it’s the best we can do.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

In defense of the I-45 expansion

Jeff Balke rises in opposition to the anti-I-45-expansion clamor.

We have seen comments on social media and rantings about how our city should be more bike friendly and pedestrian safe. How we need commuter rail, better bus service and rapid transit like expanded METROrail. In fact, we could not agree more. We have written time and time again that we must be open to alternate methods of transportation if we are going to grow intelligently as a city over the next two decades.

However, one area where differ quite sharply is the idea that we should do nothing. That the only way to solve the problem is to force motorists to change their habits, give up their cars, and one way to do that is to make traffic worse.

Here is our biggest issue with that: size. Houston is massive. This isn’t New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles. We are 600-square miles inside the city limits alone. Add the entire region and it’s more than double that. Our centers of commerce are all over the place from downtown skyscrapers to medical center hospitals to office towers in the Galleria to warehouses and refineries on the east end to tech companies well north.

It would be virtually impossible to entirely give up a vehicle unless you were able and willing to live close to your job, and that isn’t often possible thanks to our lack of zoning and the far flung nature of our region.

We have seen many suggest projects like these are for the benefit of suburbanites who use our city resources and then retreat to the comfort of their neighborhoods outside the city limits while we are left to deal with the fallout. That is not abnormal. Most big cities deal with the very same issues. Space comes at a premium and not everyone can afford to live inside the Loop.

More importantly, there are things like hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicle movement that must be considered. The fact is we cannot solve our traffic problems in Houston with one thing. Rail, biking, walking, urban planning, wider freeways, none of those things will save us alone. We need a massive, concerted effort with a lot of growing pains to re-build the city the way it probably should have been designed 100 years ago.

Jeff didn’t single out anyone who argued for doing nothing, but as I was one who examined that idea, I’ll give him equal time. My post was more about considering the alternate universe in which we spent the same amount of money on transit as we do on highways – spoiler alert, we could have much better and more expansive transit if we did that – but that’s not how this works. And I did suggest that doing nothing might be better than going forward with this plan, so I’ll own that. Jeff is right, we can’t improve mobility on the wildest dreams of transit alone, and I-45 is a critical evacuation route for hurricanes, so there is a critical need to improve it. (And hope like hell we don’t need that evacuation route while it’s all torn up.) For sure, we will need multiple modes of travel to improve mobility in Houston. I just wish, and I’m sure Jeff agrees with me, that we put some more emphasis on, and resources into, those other modes.

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.

Independence Heights and I-45

Sometimes, with everything else that’s going on in the world, I forget that the I-45 expansion is still out there, looming like a battleship in the harbor. But there it is, and we can’t not worry about it.

For Tanya Debose, Independence Heights is rich with history. Before it became a Houston neighborhood, it was a city, one of the oldest — if not the very first — Texas cities to be founded by African Americans. Debose’s great-grandfather became one of the city’s original homeowners in 1924; now, as executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, Debose imagines tours taking visitors to sites such as Harris County’s first African American city hall.

So when the Texas Department of Transportation released an analysis of how the I-45 expansion would impact historical resources, Debose scrolled through the document looking for what the agency had to say about the project’s impact on Independence Heights, where dozens of homes and a storied church lay in the right-of-way.

Independence Heights is bounded on the south and east by I-610 and I-45, respectively, and while the 2,309-page report mentioned that the community could potentially be impacted by the project, it did not address specific effects.

The omission could impact how the neighborhood, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is compensated for any historical losses.

[…]

Independence Heights has been impacted by highway construction before. In the early 1960s, Loop 610 was built through the neighborhood, with 330 residences demolished to make way for the highway, according to Lone Star Legal Aid.

Since then, Independence Heights has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation program that also has roots in highway construction.

Here is the draft Historical Resources Survey Report, which is 2309 pages long, so you may be excused for not having read all the way through it. The revised design schematics for I-45 are here, so take a look at what may be in store near where you live. It’s coming, and we better be ready for it.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Just a reminder, the I-45 construction is going to be massive

I can’t quite wrp my mind around the scope of it. I suspect a lot of us feel the same way.

Birds flitting in and out of the grass and trees along this strip of marsh pay no heed to the roar from interstates 45 and 10 on the horizon, but to Houston Parks Board officials the sound is an ominous reminder of what could come.

Defenders of this long-sought “linear park” that leads from the Heights to downtown Houston now see a threat from the Texas Department of Transportation and its mammoth, once-in-a-generation project to relieve chronic congestion along I-45 and on the broader downtown highway system.

The project, already years in the making, reflects unprecedented levels of listening by TxDOT, which fairly or not has a reputation of building through communities rather than with them. Yet concerns linger over this pristine spot on White Oak Bayou, which TxDOT would criss-cross with seven new spans under the current version of its ambitious plan to build Houston’s freeway of the future.

“If that happens, the gateway to White Oak Bayou Greenway will be a freeway underpass,” said Chip Place, director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.

The parks board and a handful of other groups — joined by elected officials — have raised these and a number of other issues with the freeway redesign following the release of the project’s draft environmental report. Disenfranchised communities fear rebuilding the freeway and its connector ramps will further cut them off from economic gains so that other people can shave a minute or two from their daily commutes.

Their message is clear: Houston has one chance in five decades to remake the spine of the region’s north-south traffic movements. Good isn’t good enough. It has to address everything to the best of everyone’s abilities.

You can read the rest. We’re two or three years out from the start of construction, which is on a ten-year timeline. I’ll stipulate that TxDOT has done a good job of soliciting and incorporating public input on this thing. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any way to do this that doesn’t fundamentally change the character of every part of town the redesigned highways pass through, and not in a good way – I think the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t do much harm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for a little while.

From the “we don’t want those people coming here” files

Stay classy, Spring.

The headline wasn’t subtle: “Stop Metro from coming to Spring.”

The article,published July 15 on the website Spring Happenings, warned that bus service would “give criminals an easy way in and out” of the north Harris County suburb.

A range of experts I interviewed this week agreed that little evidence supports the “buses lead to crime” idea. (This is also true of its cousin, “Low-income housing leads to crime,” the subject of a column I wrote last year.)

Yet the perception persists that mass transit is the first step in the ruination of a community. It’s an attitude that could complicate the challenge of meeting the mobility needs of the vast, rapidly growing Houston region.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is holding public meetings to gather input on a new regional transit plan. Metro officials say the plan is needed to prioritize options for adding bus and rail service, along with van pools and potentially bus-only lanes or high-occupancy toll lanes.

More than 300 people showed up Tuesday night at a Metro meeting in Spring. My colleague Dug Begley, who attended, said many residents expressed the same concerns as those reflected in the Spring Happenings article.

[…]

Notwithstanding the concern on the near north side, suburbs are where opposition to mass transit seems to find its fullest expression. Transit researcher Todd Litman has an idea about why this is the case.

“Automobile dependency has been used for generations as a moat to keep poor people away from certain areas,” said Litman, the founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization.

Crimes involving vehicles – car thefts, vandalism, road-rage violence – are far more common than those associated with public transportation, Litman said. Imagine the reception a campaign to keep cars out of a neighborhood would receive in Houston.

Nonsequieteuse says what needs to be said about this. I’ll just add one thing, which is that if the people of Spring are that concerned about evildoers coming in from the outside world and defiling their pristine community, then they’re not thinking big enough. If they really want to defend their borders, they’ll need to petition TxDOT and HCTRA to tear up the exits to Spring from I-45, the Hardy Toll Road, and the Grand Parkway. I mean, that’s how everyone gets around in these parts, and that includes the bad guys as well as they good guys. If Spring wants to isolate itself, then let it isolate itself. Just as long as there are no half measures employed, that’s all I’m saying.

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.

Get ready for lots of road construction

Because a lot of money is fixing to be spent on it.

A sweeping revision of state highway plans adds nearly $9 billion in new funds for improving Texas roadways, including a $1.32 billion infusion in the Houston area for a major overhaul of Interstate 45 and nine other projects.

Projects along Texas 36 in Fort Bend and Brazoria counties and Texas 105 in Montgomery and San Jacinto counties are also included in the unified transportation plan approved Tuesday in Austin by the Texas Transportation Commission.

“This is a major step forward,” said Commissioner Bruce Bugg.

The newly approved plan adds 230 projects and $8.9 billion in funding statewide.

[…]

Construction is expected to start in late 2020 on the first of seven separate projects that will realign I-45 along downtown’s eastern side, parallel to Interstate 69, also known as U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

The first projects will reconstruct I-69 between Spur 527, which leads into Midtown, and I-45, including the interchange with Texas 288. That will be followed by a rebuild of I-45 at its interchange with I-69.

Combined, the two interchanges – technically four projects on TxDOT’s books – are expected to cost nearly $1.7 billion. That is more than half the $3 billion cost of remaking I-45 around downtown, which includes removing the segment of I-45 along the Pierce Elevated.

[…]

Next month, TxDOT is scheduled to open bids on the next phase of widening I-45 in League City, continuing a decade-long slog toward Galveston, making the freeway four lanes in each direction with frontage roads.

Typically, construction begins about three to four months after bids are opened. If that timing holds, two months after I-45 work moves south, drivers frustrated on their way to Austin when westbound Interstate 10 drops to two lanes in Brookshire will start seeing orange cones. Crews will widen the freeway to three lanes in each direction to the Brazos River.

Just before or after the holiday season, work will begin on a third project to reconstruct some of the connections where I-69 crosses Loop 610 near Uptown, as well as rebuild Loop 610 through the intersection.

TxDOT expects all of the projects to finish in 2021, around the time downtown interchanges will start to see construction.

Note that these are approvals for new projects, so it doesn’t include works in progress such as 290. Outside of Houston, there will be continued widening of I-45 farther south, eventually reaching all the way to Galveston. Years ago, I used to hear people joke that there had never been a day when some part of I-45 wasn’t under construction. In retrospect, I don’t think they were joking. I’m going to predict that by the end date for these projects in 2021, we’re going to be talking about if not preparing for further construction on I-10 out west, which already resembles what the Katy Freeway looked like pre-widening. Basically, there’s always going to be major construction somewhere. Get used to it.

Get ready for more I-45 chaos

Lord have mercy on our souls.

Relieving one of Houston’s worst bottlenecks will come with some lengthy complications for northbound drivers on Interstate 45 headed into Houston’s central business district, starting Friday night.

After years of delay, work is starting on a modification to Spur 5, the ramp that connects northbound I-45 traffic to downtown via Pease and St. Joseph. The spur is being rebuilt to also be the connection from northbound I-45 to Interstate 69, also U.S. 59 in the Houston area.

Though it is a major improvement, the work means seven months of construction detours for downtown-bound drivers, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. Crews will close Spur 5 at Scott Street starting at 9 p.m. Friday, so they can demolish the ramp parallel to I-45.

In the interim, drivers that would normally use the spur will exit at Scott and use the I-45 frontage road to travel into downtown. More than 13,000 vehicles use Spur 5 to access downtown at St. Joseph, according to a 2015 TxDOT traffic count. More than 200,000 vehicles use I-45 in the area.

In addition to affecting downtown-bound traffic, the spur closure means drivers won’t be able to access northbound I-45 at Scott Street, said Deidrea George, spokeswoman for TxDOT in Houston.

[…]

The interchange work is hardly the end of construction along the I-45 corridor around downtown, with many considering it a precursor to potentially a decade of constant construction. TxDOT is proceeding with plans to realign I-45, I-69 and the interchange with Texas 288 as part of a $3 billion redesign of the downtown freeway network.

The first of seven projects to rebuild interchanges, widen the freeways and shift I-45 to run parallel to I-69 along the east side of downtown is scheduled to begin in 2020, about a year after the Spur 5 work is set to finish.

Allen said the Spur 5 project is being designed with the future interchanges in mind, but will require some minor modifications once I-45 moves.

This has been in the works for awhile – we first heard about it in 2014, long enough ago that I had about given up in searching my archives for something I knew I had posted about because I was sure it had been more recent than that. This construction is part of the grander plan for redoing I-45, though it would probably be worth doing on its own if that doesn’t materialize. Whatever the case, it’s going to suck. I pity anyone who will have to deal with it. The Press has more.

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?

Texas Central releases ridership study

From their website:

A comprehensive ridership study conducted by L.E.K Consulting has confirmed that Texas is ready for a privately developed Bullet Train line serving North Texas, the greater Brazos Valley and The Greater Houston Metro areas. According to this landmark study, 90% of the 16 million people living in the Texas Bullet Train service areas would save at least 1 hour on their journey times as compared to air or road travel. In addition, the overwhelming majority of surveyed Texan Travelers (over 83%) said they would use the Bullet Train in the right circumstances, with only 15% of survey respondents stating they would not consider any alternative but their personal vehicle. Looking further into the study, 71% of frequent travelers, and 49% of non-travelers said they either probably or definitely would use the Texas Bullet Train on their next trip to North Texas or Houston if it were an option today!

Bringing together end-to-end journey time analysis, primary market research on perceptions of high-speed trains, and long distance travel market size estimates, it is possible to develop estimates for future levels of demand for the Texas Bullet Train. Ultimately, the L.E.K study concludes that Bullet Train ridership is anticipated to ramp up to 5 million journeys by the mid 2020’s, and 10 million journeys by 2050. That’s 30% of the anticipated number of long-distance trips between North Texas and The Greater Houston Metro Area.

Here’s the study brochure. The main selling point is that travel times via Texas Central will be predictable and generally an hour or so less than either driving or flying, which includes the time it takes to get to the airport, get through security, get on the plane, and get your luggage afterwards. A large percentage of people they surveyed said they would the service, but then we kind of already knew that. I mean, they wouldn’t be investing all this money to build it if they didn’t have good reason to think that enough people would want to use it to make it profitable.

Here’s the Chron story about this. The main question remains whether Texas Central will ever get to build the thing in the first place.

Earlier this week, Waller County’s sub-regional planning commission – which has already stated its opposition to the train line’s passage through its area – filed a lawsuit in Austin against the Texas Department of Transportation, related to the transportation agency’s refusal to coordinate planning activities related to the line.

TxDOT, under the guidance of the Federal Railroad Administration – which ultimately will approve or deny plans for the line – is the state agency overseeing Texas Central’s environmental plans.

Waller County is claiming its objection and concerns to the line are being ignored, as federal and state officials prepare the environmental review.

“Without meaningful coordination, our community will suffer immediate and irreparable harm and that is totally unacceptable,” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said in a statement.

The main obstacles at this point remain acquiring the land for the right of way, and whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain. If they can make it through the next legislative session alive, I like their chances, but that remains a big if. Click2Houston has more.

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.

I-45 onramp closures coming

From the inbox:

The Texas Department of Transportation will close the Houston Avenue southbound and Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramps to I-45 southbound on Friday, July 8 to begin construction on new ramps that will improve traffic flow and enhance safety.

Currently, motorists trying to reach I-45 southbound main lanes from Allen Parkway eastbound have to enter from the left or inside lane. This has slowed the approaching traffic on the freeway sometimes causing a bottleneck effect that backs up traffic. The new ramp will connect to the main lanes of IH 45 southbound from the right lane allowing for better flow of traffic along the corridor.

To make room for the new Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound, the Houston Avenue southbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound and the connecting bridge before the ramp will also need to be reconstructed. The reconstructed bridge and ramps will provide more efficient and safer access to the I-45 southbound main lanes.

TxDOT will close the existing bridge and ramps on Friday, July 8 to facilitate the construction of the new structures. The Houston Avenue bridge will be completed in late September/ early October of this year and the Houston Avenue/ Rusk and Allen Parkway entrance ramps to I-45 southbound will be open in late November/ early December.

Below is a list of the closures for this project:

  • Total closure of the Allen Parkway eastbound entrance ramp to IH 45 southbound on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m.. Detour during construction is as follows: eastbound on Allen Parkway/ Dallas, right on Smith St.,left on Jefferson St., and follow Jefferson to the I-45 southbound entrance ramp.
  • Total closure of the Houston Avenue southbound entrance ramp to I-45 southbound on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m.and the Houston Avenue southbound bridge at Lubbock and at Rusk on July 8 at 7:30 p.m. Detour during construction is as follows: from Houston Avenue take a left onto Rusk St., right on Smith St., left on Jefferson St., and follow Jefferson St.to the I-45 southbound entrance ramp.

There will also be additional closures to prepare for the bridge and ramp construction at this location. TxDOT will close allmainlanes on I-45 southbound at I-10 beginning Friday, July 8 at 9 p.m. until Monday, July 11 at 5 a.m. Motorists will be detoured to IH 10 eastbound to US 59 southbound to IH 45 southbound.

For more information on scheduled lane closures in the Houston District contact Danny Perez at (713) 802-5077.

Also be sure to visit the Houston TranStar website at www.houstontranstar.org for a complete list of closures related to this constructionproject and other Houston District closures. All closures are subject to change due to inclement weather.  Follow us on Twitter @TxDOTHoustonPIO.

See here and here for the background. This is the implementation of something we first heard about last February. This is going to be painful, but at least it ought to be done in a few months.

To clarify what is being effected, here are a couple of pictures. First, what is being closed:

I-45 onramp closures

The black arrows point to the two to-be-closed onramps. The green arrow at the bottom shows where you will need to go in order to get onto I-45 South from downtown. If you’re saying to yourself “but Jefferson isn’t even next to I-45, how do I get onto I-45 from it”, take a look at this:

I-45 Jefferson entrance

You have to stay on Jefferson all the way through downtown till you pass under US59, then east of Dowling Jefferson elevates and crosses over I-45, where it basically becomes the southbound service road. The actual entrance on to I-45 is down past Cullen Blvd, so you’ve got quite a ways to go, especially if your journey involved taking Houston Avenue. Those of you who work downtown and commute in via the Gulf Freeway, you have been warned.

There’s also more work being done on Allen Parkway.

After a seven-week hiatus for some special events along Buffalo Bayou, major work will resume July 11 on pedestrian and parking improvements along Allen Parkway, part of an $11 million makeover that’s shifted the travel lanes on Allen south.

Officials also confirmed plans to meter parking along the bayou, to encourage turnover of the spots.

“The majority of users are visitors that are walking and jogging, riding their bike, taking their dog to the dog run, etc.,” said Angie Bertinot, director of marketing communications for the Houston Downtown Management District. “The three-hour time limit should suffice.”

Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority, which is closely aligned with the management district, is overseeing the Allen rehab project expected to be completed in late September.

[…]

Growing demand for amenities in the Buffalo Bayou Park spurred officials to redevelop Allen to add parking, and make crossing the parkway more pedestrian-friendly. Slowing down traffic on the road – notorious for speeders who mistake the parkway for a freeway – also was a goal, downtown and city officials said.

Prior to the work slowdown in late May, traffic on Allen shifted to its new configuration. The remaining work focuses on landscaping, irrigation and some road repaving, said Lonnie Hoogeboom, director of planning and design for the Houston Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

“Also between July 11 and Sept. 30, the contractor will be constructing the new sidewalks with safer connections between Buffalo Bayou Park … and the west end of Sam Houston Park,” Hoogeboom said. “Transplanted live oaks have already been relocated to this area.”

Can’t wait to see what it looks like. We just have to make it through the summer first.

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.

I-45 update: North St Bridge and more

The latest update from the I-45 Coalition:

Dear I-45 Coalition member,

October 2015 was the last update … it’s now May 2016 … several things have changed in the past 8 months.

As a quick summary, TxDOT will be rebuilding I-45.  This will be a massive project that includes rerouting I-45 downtown by abandoning most of the Pierce elevated and routing I-45 below-grade next to I-59 by George R Brown Convention Center. 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 year 11 of an approximately 12 year planning phase … prior to shovels hitting the ground for 4-6 years of construction.  TxDOT has held 4 public meetings so far, the last one in April 2015.

The next meeting will be a public HEARING (much different than a meeting) in late fall 2016 … probably October or November 2016. This will be the last opportunity for the public’s voices to be heard before construction begins! Comments received during the Public Hearing will be considered, then a ‘Record of Decision’ (ROD) will be issued & construction will begin (when funding is secured).

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.

Well … #2 has never been explored, #3 is yet to be determined & #1 was initially going well, but has changed recently.

For Segment 2 – Initially, TxDOT was staying within existing right-of way (ROW) in Segment 2, except for some intersections. Now, things have changed – per TxDOT “The project now requires limited ROW acquisition on both sides of the highway between Quitman and Cavalcade to allow for ramping and connectivity between Quitman and N. Main. These changes were brought to us by neighborhoods wanting better access to the freeway.  There is also a small sliver of ROW at the gas station on the northwest corner of N. Main to avoid impacts to the Hollywood Cemetery.”

Between Little White Oak Bayou to N. Main, on the East side of I-45 a service road is being created/expanded. “The length of the ROW is approximately 2400’ and the width varies between 10’ to 120’. Despite the large range in width, only the first row of properties adjacent to the highway would be affected. There are a total of 17 affected parcels.  Of those, 12 have structures and one has a billboard that will be impacted.”

North St. Bridge – This will be gone. No vehicular bridge. No pedestrian bridge. The main I-45 roadway will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so there will be no way to have any bridge there.

You can look at TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com

The I-45 Coalition will keep you updated as plans progress. It will be critical to attend the Hearing, when it is announced.

If you are not on our contact list, please go to www.I-45Coalition.org , then “How You Can Help” & enter your email info. Or go on Facebook & search for I-45 Coalition or https://www.facebook.com/groups/126404660719854

The project is on a short fuse now… please stay involved!

Jim Weston, I-45 Coalition

See here for the last update. I’ll be sorry to see the North Street Bridge go, but I can’t claim it’s highly trafficked. Mostly, I hope that Mayor Turner and the various people who represent this area are staying on top of developments and expressing their own concerns and opinions to TxDOT. Remember, there are other possibilities. I’ll keep an eye out for an announcement about that meeting.

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.

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.

Know any good, solvent highway construction firms?

TxDOT is looking for a few.

Drivers on Interstate 45 will wait longer for better connections to Loop 610 and U.S. 59 because a Woodlands-based contractor will have to be replaced.

The jobs, totaling about $102 million, were won by Tradeco Infraestructura, based in The Woodlands. The contractor is the American wing of the Mexican building giant Grupo Tradeco.

More than a year ago, the Texas Department of Transportation chose the company for three key jobs meant to relieve area congestion. The projects included two new ramps where I-45 crosses Loop 610 near Gulfgate Mall – from eastbound Loop 610 to I-45 northbound and from southbound I-45 to westbound Loop 610.

Tradeco also was the low bidder on a $28.5 million project to redesign how traffic moves from I-45 to U.S. 59 near the central business district. The project essentially moved the ramps to parallel lanes that carry northbound I-45 to downtown exits.

[…]

As of a Dec. 8 progress report, the ramp from southbound I-45 to westbound Loop 610 was 9.3 percent complete after work began on June 23, 2014.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said work can proceed after a new contractor is chosen, which should happen in the summer.

See this Chron story from June for more about the default. Not clear what went wrong or what if anything TxDOT could have done about it. Whatever the case, it’s back to the drawing board. Better luck next time, TxDOT.

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.

Chron overview of the Montgomery County bond referendum

The voters there are engaged in this issue, that much is for sure.

Life is on hold in the parking lot that is Rayford Road, 4 miles of too many cars squeezing into too few lanes. Even when it isn’t so busy, which isn’t often, there is a chance a passing train can bring traffic to a halt.

It is just the sort of bottleneck Montgomery County leaders intend to unplug with a $280 million bond measure to build new and wider roadways that voters will decide on Nov. 3.

The measure would set aside the biggest chunk of money – $60 million – for improvements along Rayford Road, one of the county’s most congested streets. While the project could bring needed relief to traffic-weary drivers, the roadway represents only a small part of the rapidly growing county’s mobility problems.

That’s because there are far more projects across the county than could be covered by a one-time burst of cash. A new study estimated road needs to be about $1.6 billion over the next quarter-century for just south county, roughly the area from the Harris County line to FM 1488 and Texas 242, including The Woodlands.

“The bond issue is only the start of the process,” said retired Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler, who backs the measure. “The county has billions of dollars of road needs.”

If voters approve the borrowing, those funds could generate hundreds of millions more in state and federal aid for road projects, Sadler said. But voters have rejected the last two requests for new transportation money.

[…]

Sadler, the former judge, said he expects the county to ask voters to approve more borrowing within next four or five years.

While H-GAC’s study made recommendations with cost estimates, it’s not a comprehensive mobility plan, said Carlene Mullins, a transportation planner for the regional council.

“It’s a concept,” she said. “It’s going to be up to local officials on how to implement a plan.”

But Mullins said they need to act. “Doing what you can with the funds you have would be better than nothing at all,” she said. “If you don’t build any roads, the people are still going to come. It’s just going to get more congested.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I have no dog in this fight and don’t really care what happens with this referendum, I just continue to be amused by it all. It’s a lovely combination of parochial self-interest, severe dislike of spending money, and utter lack of planning, which is ironic given the super-master=planned status of The Woodlands, with a dash of back-room dealmaking thrown in for good measure. I’ve wondered before what Montgomery County will do if they continue being unable to pass these bonds, but it’s also worth wondering if they can solve their problems even with a compliant electorate. There’s an awful lot of demand on their roads, with a rapidly growing population and few if any other tricks in their bag beyond building more roads. What does Montgomery County look like in 20 or 30 years if can’t ever get anywhere in a timely fashion? I’m glad that’s not my problem.

Three I-45 updates

From The Highwayman:

Texas Transportation Commission members on Thursday approved a $3.6 million contract with Main Lane Industries, based in Houston, to replace the entrance ramp from Allen Parkway to southbound I-45. The ramp, which whips drivers through a steep curve before they merge into the fast lane of the southbound freeway, is a well-known bottleneck. Many drivers consider it hazardous.

“It is a confusing entrance and doesn’t work very well,” Jeff Weatherford, Houston’s deputy public works director, said in January.

The project shifts the entrance to the right lanes of southbound I-45 and creates a dedicated lane from Allen Parkway to prevent traffic from backing up. Work is set to begin on the new ramp later this year, and numerous closings and changes to freeway access are planned as work proceeds. The exit ramp from I-45 southbound to Dallas and Pierce could also close. As of earlier this month, the details of the closings were still being worked out.

See here for the background. This work will be done in conjunction with the other work being done on Allen Parkway. As someone who takes the Dallas/Pierce exit to get to work, I’m a little leery of that penultimate sentence. I hope there’s a “temporarily” in there somewhere.

From Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition on Facebook:

There was a meeting Monday 8/24 & TxDOT showed some updates! This is a work in progress BUT it appears that TxDOT may be listening! NONE OF THESE CHANGES ARE COMPLETE! However, there are indications that TxDOT is listening to the citizens and several changes are planned. Here is a summary of some of the changes, all for Segment 2 (between North of I-10 & South of 610)

1. Houston Ave is back to being 2 way! TxDOT is proposing a ‘roundabout’ (similar to the one at Washington Ave & Westcott). (see drawing)

2. TxDOT has added back the Southbound entrance to I-45 at Houston Ave (TxDOT had deleted it at the April meeting). (see drawing)

3. TxDOT has added an U-Turn lane from the feeder street Southbound to Northbound just before N. Main. (see drawing)

4. TxDOT has removed the proposed connection / roadway from Houston Ave to North Street nearest to I-45.

5. TxDOT has added back the Northbound entrance to I-45 from Quitman.

6. TxDOT WILL NOW provide the crossbeams on the section of I-45 that will be below grade. This is GREAT! Now we just need the ‘slab’ that goes on top of the crossbeams. If we can convince TxDOT to include that, it will be much easier to create green space in this area.

7. TxDOT will create a service road on the East side of I-45 from Quitman to N. Main.

8. The North St. bridge might NOT be replaced. TxDOT does not know yet if there is sufficient clearance for a vehicular bridge. If not a vehicular bridge, then a pedestrian/bike bridge will replace it the existing bridge.

9. Traffic from the Southbound exit from I-45 near 610 was exiting at Link Rd – TxDOT has changed that to Cavalcade exit instead.

The changes, which will generally be welcomed by folks in my neighborhood, have not yet been posted to the TxDOT website, but they will be. The comments on the post indicate there were notes on the other segments of this proposed project, so if you’re affected by it you might want to keep an eye out on the webpage, or find someone who attended that meeting.

And finally, a Chron story about the potential effects of I-45 construction in downtown.

The owner of a 375-unit upscale multifamily complex stands to have a third of its apartments taken for the project. And a nearly century-old building that just this week received a designation from city preservation officials as a protected historic landmark appears to be around the edge of the project’s proposed right of way.

Unveiled by the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this year, the freeway project proposes to add managed lanes to Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway in north Houston to U.S. 59 south of downtown. Additionally, plans call for removing the Pierce Elevated and realigning I-45 to be parallel to U.S. 59 east of the George R. Brown Convention Center. It is expected to cost more than $6 billion and take years to complete.

Some freeway segments have been designed as depressed roadways with local street traffic flowing above them. Plans show green space above the freeways east of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets.

TxDOT is still in the analysis and environmental impact assessment phases of the project and its plans are subject to change. Spokesman Danny Perez said it would not begin acquiring property until TxDOT had “officially determined the recommended alternative, completed the environmental impact review and have a record of decision.”

“We are working toward getting environmental clearance in 2017,” Perez said in an email. “The date of clearance would be the earliest we could start acquiring right of way.”

[…]

David Denenburg recently bought the historic red brick building, a sliver of which is behind the red line on the map, and he’s already started restoring the five-story structure at the corner of Preston and St. Emanuel.

David Bush, acting executive director of Preservation Houston, said federal and state projects take precedence over local historic designations.

“We feel confident we can work around a matter of a few feet to save one of Houston’s historic buildings still standing,” said Denenburg, who owns the property with other investors.

Another block within the proposed right of way contains a large apartment building, one of three structures that make up the Lofts at the Ballpark complex.

Stacy Hunt of Greystar, which manages the property, said the project appears to be a long way off, but the owner of the complex, a pension fund adviser out of Boston, is aware of the possible repercussions.

“The people we represent are very concerned,” Hunt said.

It’s a big change, though as we have seen there are still a lot of pieces to it that are not yet finalized. The environmental impact assessment is where much of those details will be worked out. I’ll say again, this is something all the Mayoral candidates should have an opinion about, because whatever happens will take place on their watch. What kind of changes, good and bad, do they want to see or are they willing to accept in downtown? We need to know.

I got those reverse commuting blues

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things:

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

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

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

Encroaching on Sam Houston National Forest

The march of development continues apace.

All over the Texas Piney Woods, along farm-to-market roads and state highways, multicolored signs hawk real estate – small plots of paradise among the tall trees. The billboards offer “gated acreage” and “room to breathe,” promoting rural charm not far from urban amenities.

But in the process of subdividing and selling the woods, fast-growing Houston has found its way into once-remote public lands. The Sam Houston National Forest, 60 miles north of downtown, is suddenly buckled up to the big city, with thousands of new houses sprouting around it and bringing a new set of challenges for forest rangers.

There are more people living here, more people coming for a visit. And more people mean more traffic on two-lane roadways, more off-road vehicles going their own way, more fallen trees on fence lines, more trash and more crime. Just in the last few years, authorities have found three farms growing marijuana for Mexican cartels.

“There are now six lanes to our doorstep,” district ranger Warren Oja said of the recently widened Interstate 45, which cuts through the forest. “More people are finding the Sam Houston (National Forest) who didn’t know it was here before.”

Not that there is anything wrong with people wanting to camp and hike and fish in the expansive forest, which covers 163,000 acres in Montgomery, Walker and San Jacinto counties, and Oja is making plans to create more recreational opportunities.

No, Oja said, what’s troubling about the forest’s growing popularity is the need to do more with less, making its preservation more difficult than ever before. With budget cuts across the U.S. Forest Service, his staff has gone from 40 people in 2010 to 23 now, including one technician to maintain campground facilities and 240 miles of trails.

[…]

Brandt Mannchen, a Houston resident who has volunteered countless hours of labor for the Sam Houston forest, said the federal agency that oversees the area needs to be better funded, with money either for more staff or to buy additional property to fill in the holes in the forest to limit urban encroachment. The forest, for example, didn’t receive additional funding in 2011, when the driest year in Texas history damaged thousands of trees. Some drought-related debris plugged culverts during May’s storms, causing unpaved service roads to wash away.

“The money we are talking about is peanuts,” Mannchen said. “We are being penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The state’s four national forests and two national grasslands are operating on a $15 million budget, down from $36 million in 2008. Forests managers have supplemented their appropriations through timber sales, which totaled $1.3 million last year. And Oja said volunteers have provided about $400,000 in labor since October at the Sam Houston forest.

Mannchen said it isn’t right that the forest’s trails are open only because of the work of volunteers. The Sam Houston Trails Association, for one, is maintaining trails and constructing new ones through grants.

The story doesn’t examine the reasons for the budget cuts, but if I had to guess I’d say they’re the result of sequestration, which as it happens Congressional Democrats are trying to kill off. That would be good news for Sam Houston National Forest and the people who use it, not that anyone who lives nearby is likely to understand that. One way or the other, I hope the Forest Service can get what it needs. The Sam Houston National Forest is worth taking care of.

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Mayoral candidate forum season gets underway

Gentlemen, start your oratorical engines for these upcoming Mayoral candidate forums.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

The events, which will focus on arts and culture, economic development, and labor and community concerns, kick off a months-long cycle in which the candidates will appear before various interest groups, speaking to their specific concerns.

Wednesday’s arts forum at the Asia Society comes two days after the conclusion of this year’s legislative session in Austin and is expected to be the first time the candidates appear together since former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia entered the race.

The forum hosted by Houston Arts Alliance, Houston Museum District, Theater District Houston and Miller Outdoor Theatre begins at 6:30 p.m. and will be moderated by KTRK reporter Miya Shay.

[…]

Thursday’s forum hosted by SPARC Growth Houston, a coalition of economic development groups, will focus on the city budget and economic development. It begins at 6 p.m. at the University of Houston.

[…]

Then, on Saturday, the candidates are set to appear before area labor and community organizations for a 9 a.m. forum at Talento Bilingue.

I realize that these particular forums are tightly focused, subject-wise. Nonetheless, as a public service, I offer to the moderators of these forums and any and all future forums, the following questions that I think these candidates should be asked.

1. What is your opinion of the plan TxDOT has put forward to remake I-45 from Beltway 8 into downtown? Have you taken the opportunity to submit feedback to them via their website? The deadline for such feedback is today/was May 31.

2. During the legislative session there was a bill by Rep. Chris Paddie that would have provided a regulatory framework for “rideshare” services like Uber and Lyft to operate anywhere in Texas. In the bill’s initial form, these regulations would have superseded local rideshare ordinances, though after pushback from cities Rep. Paddie agreed to make some changes. What was your opinion of Rep. Paddie’s rideshare bill? Should the state of Texas be the one to regulate these services? Did you contact Rep. Paddie and/or your own Representative to express your opinion on this bill?

3. Texas Central Railway is currently going through the federal environmental review process to get clearance to build a privately-funded high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas. One of the things they are trying to decide is where to put the Houston terminal for this line. Their original plan was for it to be downtown, but they have encountered strong resistance from the neighborhoods that it might have to pass through (there are two possible routes), who object to elevated trains so close to their homes. An alternative now being discussed is for the station to be located at the Northwest Transit Center, though downtown and some other possibilities are still on the table. Where do you believe the Houston terminal for this high speed rail line, for which construction may begin as soon as 2017, should be? Have you gone to any of TCR’s public meetings, or provided feedback to them in any form?

4. As you know, the city received several proposals in response to its RFP for a “one bin for all” solution for solid waste management. These proposals, which are still being evaluated by the city, would require new technology and a substantial investment by a private company. The city has said that if the idea turns out to be infeasible, it will not pursue it. Mayor Parker has said that one way or another, this will be a task for the next Mayor to finish. What is your opinion of the “one bin for all” idea? Would your preference be for the city to pursue it or drop it?

I really really look forward to hearing some answers to these questions, whether next week or sometime soon thereafter.

I-45 Coalition gives its feedback to TxDOT

Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition sent the following feedback to TxDOT regarding their plans for remaking I-45 in and around downtown.

Through-out all Segments:

1.1 – All existing sound barrier walls must be replaced. Past agreements to install sound barrier walls, must be installed as part of this project.

1.2 – Sound Mitigation – There must be noise barrier walls for residential neighborhoods that are adjacent to the freeway, with landscape/beautification included. Consider a design that is appropriate for some of the oldest districts of Houston. Consider both vertical and horizontal caps and a slight inward angle towards the freeway instead of vertical walls to further remove sound from entering neighborhoods.

1.3 – Utilize ‘quiet pavement’ techniques and materials to lower the sound decibel levels generated from the roadways.

Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8)

1.1 Proposed plan has additional R.O.W. taken from the east side of I-45 south of Crosstimbers. This east side is populated by well-developed and thriving businesses, while the west side has many vacant or closed businesses. It is more desirable to utilize the additional R.O.W. from the WEST side in this section, instead of the east. Conflicts with floodway can be mitigated by retention / detention basins, channel adjustments and by building above grade.

1.2 There need to be curb cut entrances from frontage roads so customers can gain access to businesses.

Segment 2 (I-10 to 610)

2.1 – All bridges removed and rebuilt (Cottage St., N.Main, North St.) should be rebuilt as architectural-styled bridges that have physically (concrete barrier, for example) separated, wide pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. They should have pedestrian friendly lighting. This section of I-45 passes thru some of the oldest districts of Houston and the bridges should reflect that character. They should give our neighborhood a visual identity (similar in concept to the “red-ball” bridges over US-59 at Mandell, Dunlavy, Woodhead, Hazard). Perhaps an artist design competition?

2.2 – Houston Ave. must continue to be a two-way street. Otherwise, it will force additional traffic onto neighborhood streets. Keep Houston Ave two lanes southbound, two lanes northbound and then a designated barrier-separated entrance ramp (at grade level) to I-45 south. This separated entrance ramp can be merged with additional vehicles from Houston Ave north bound (similar to current). This layout completely eliminates the dangerous cross-traffic intersection that is currently in place.

[…]

Segment 3 (Downtown) West

3.1 – I strongly support the Pierce SkyPark concept and request that TxDOT incorporate this concept at the Pierce Elevated. In particular, I would like to be able to use existing portions of the Pierce Elevated infrastructure for a hike-and-bike connectors, green spaces and parks. This will also provide a reduction in demolition costs to the project for TxDOT.

3.2 – I want connectivity from I-45 to and from Memorial Drive. Memorial Drive is an important East-West connector and needs to have connectivity with I-45. Without Memorial connectors, west side inner-loop residents will be adding to congestion on I-10, 610 and or US-59 while accessing I-45 North or South.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. The deadline for submitting feedback to TxDOT on this project is tomorrow, May 31. This deadline has already been extended once thanks to a request from Rep. Jessica Farrar, so don’t blow it. Go here to submit your feedback. TxDOT can’t know what you do or don’t want if you don’t tell them. It would also be nice to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this, wouldn’t it? I wonder if any of them submitted feedback to TxDOT about this. That’s a question that may show up in a future interview.