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John Breeding

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

The end is near for construction that has clogged Post Oak and delayed drivers, but the buses at the center of the project will not start rolling for at least another year as officials grapple with roadblocks threatening to push the final route three years past its original completion date.

Months of additional work lies ahead on the dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the street as crews complete the stations that will connect passengers to the rapid transit line. Though once on target to ferry passengers this holiday season, workers still are installing electrical and fiber optics systems so the buses can operate, as they pour the last segments of concrete along the widened roads from Loop 610 south to Richmond.

As a result the buses, which officials at one point had hoped would ferry visitors for the 2017 Super Bowl, will not carry passengers until 2020.

Even when Metropolitan Transit Authority begins operating the buses along dedicated lanes in the center of the street, riders and operators face months, perhaps years of detours at both ends of the project as two Texas Department of Transportation projects take shape.

“It will operate. It just may not be the guideways we want eventually,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

As Post Oak proceeds, TxDOT is building an elevated busway along Loop 610 so the large vehicles will move from their Post Oak lanes to an overpass that takes them directly to the transit center. Construction, estimated to cost $57.2 million, started earlier this year. Completion is set for late summer 2020, meaning a few months of the large buses slogging north to the transit center.

On the southern side of the bus project, another challenge looms. A massive rebuild of the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69, already a year into construction, will worsen as the project moves toward its 2023 completion.

Of particular concern is the timing of work south of Richmond, where Post Oak morphs into the southbound Loop 610 frontage road and goes under I-69 before re-emerging at Westpark Drive. Referred to by transportation officials as the “portal” along with the underpass that carries northbound frontage traffic beneath the interchange, it is the critical link for Post Oak buses headed to the new Bellaire transit center.

We were promised that the service would begin in 2019, but between politics and Harvey and whatever else, that’s the way it goes. Solving the problem of extending this to its intended endpoints at Northwest Transit Center and the to-be-built transit center in Bellaire, that’s the big challenge. Among other things, right now this is the main connection to the rest of the city from the Texas Central terminal. This thing is a big deal, and we’re going to need it to be done right.

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film at 11.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Uptown BRT will be ready in 2019

A little later than originally expected.

Construction might be set to start soon on dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak through the Uptown area, but the latest projections don’t have riders on the lanes for nearly three years.

Despite earlier estimates to open the lanes in 2018, which Uptown Management District President John Breeding said was possible, even if it happened at “11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2018,” the latest plans don’t have riders hopping aboard until March 2019.

The new date was confirmed Thursday during an update on the project by Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, who are working with Uptown to develop the project, estimated to cost $192.5 million.

[…]

A separate project led by the Texas Department of Transportation will allow the buses to travel along Loop 610 for the portion of the line from Post Oak to Metro’s transit center north of Interstate 10.

The Loop 610 project will not be ready when trips begin in March 2019, said Clint Harbert, Metro’s senior director of system planning and development. It is scheduled for late fall, Harbert said, though Metro is estimating first-year operations on the possibility it might not be ready until early 2020.

Has there ever been a major infrastructure/construction project that didn’t blow past its original completion estimates? I can’t think of any offhand. They’ll get there when they get there, I guess.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Criminal complaint filed over Uptown land acquisition

All righty then.

A consultant who represents property owners in the Galleria area has filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, alleging the Uptown Development Authority and related entities broke state open meetings and disclosure laws in relation to acquiring property for a dedicated bus lane project.

The complaint, filed last week with District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office, concerns meetings held by Uptown officials to discuss right-of-way purchases along Post Oak Boulevard to make the bus project feasible.

The transit project, which also involves Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation, would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center with the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610, stopping at dedicated platforms along Post Oak.

Wayne Dolcefino, president of Dolcefino Consulting, said Uptown did not create any records of the so-called Right-of-Way Committee meetings, including dates, agendas or minutes.

“We believe that’s a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and have now formally asked the district attorney to investigate,” according to a statement released this week by Dolcefino’s consulting firm. His complaint also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest among board members who own or are affiliated with companies that own real estate on Post Oak.

Uptown official John Breeding said his organization has not broken any rules. He said the meetings did not include a quorum and no action was taken.

“Our attorneys … they tell us such committee meetings don’t have to be posted,” said Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District and administrator of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Development Authority.

Long story short, this is just another skirmish in the fight between the Uptown Management District and its plans to remake Post Oak Blvd and build a BRT line, and some Uptown business interests that hate the idea and have been fighting it like a pack of crazed weasels. It’s all going to culminate in a lawsuit, unless one of the shots that the opponents have been firing manages to take the project down before a suit gets filed. I rather doubt this complaint will lead to anything, but hey, you never know.

Lawsuit against Uptown line dismissed

We haven’t heard the last of this, of that you can be certain.

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a dedicated bus lane project in Houston’s Uptown area, but the ruling is not a final resolution of the dispute.

State District Judge Brent Gamble on Thursday dismissed the lawsuit filed by Cosmopolitan Condominium Owners Association against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The dismissal did not specify why the lawsuit should not go forward, although Gamble indicated previously that unresolved questions made the lawsuit premature.

Both sides, however, said they viewed the dismissal as a step in their favor.

“It is my hope that now people will come together to make this the best project it can be,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia.

Jim Scarborough, a Cosmopolitan resident and leader of the opposition to the bus lanes, said critics would have preferred that the judge halt the project. However, he said, the dismissal paves the way for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to determine if another challenge is valid.

Because Metro’s 2003 referendum authorized the transit agency to build light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. Paxton’s office was asked by State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to determine if the project violates what voters approved.

“We are pushing forward to the AG’s opinion,” Scarborough said. “There is no doubt in terms of our opinion what he is going to say.”

The dismissal by Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, is unlikely to end the opposition. Because Metro’s 2003 referendum called for light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. That question has been posed to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has not issued an opinion yet on the matter.

See here and here for the background. Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, which just adds a touch of absurdity to the whole thing. The irony of using the ballot language from 2003 to force the construction of light rail is not lost on me. Does Rep. Culberson know about this? I can’t figure out if this tactic makes the people behind this more clever than I might have thought, or just less subtle. I mean, we have all noticed that Metro isn’t actually paying for this construction, right? I don’t know why the 2003 referendum would even apply here, but then I’m not a super-genius like Andy Taylor, so what do I know? We’ll get that AG ruling in a few months, and one way or the other I expect we’ll wind up back in court. According to the story, the Uptown Management District hopes to have a contractor named by February; utility work along Post Oak began earlier this year and technical design of the bus lanes is expected within 60 days. Time is getting short to stop this.

Lawsuit filed over Uptown line

All things considered, I suppose this was inevitable.

A homeowner’s association is suing Metro over its involvement in plans to run bus lanes along Post Oak Boulevard, saying the project puts the agency at odds with a 2003 referendum that included adding a rail line along the corridor.

The lawsuit was filed Monday just minutes after Mayor Annise Parker and the Uptown management district cheered the start of the $192 million project, lauding it as an example of Houston’s transit future. The plan calls for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It’s about taking our signature retail boulevard and making it something that’s not a traffic-choked freeway,” Parker said.

“The time is now,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

A block away, opponents called the project illegal, saying Metro has no authority to participate when voters in 2003 approved light rail for the Post Oak corridor. As part of the lawsuit, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office as to the legality of Metro’s involvement. Nichols chairs the senate’s transportation committee.

“We’re asking all these government agencies, ‘don’t be arrogant,’ ” attorney Andy Taylor said. “Hold tight and make sure that what you’re doing is in the public interest.”

See here for some background. Rule #1 of politics around here: If Andy Taylor is on your side, you’re on the wrong side. (*) And much more often than not, the side that’s gonna lose.

Metro submitted a similar inquiry to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last year at the request of the Texas Department of Transportation. The state agency was wary of offering funds for the elevated lanes along Loop 610 if it meant jumping into a lengthy, bitter debate surrounding light rail in the area. So at TxDOT’s request, Metro sought to clarify whether an agreement with the state agency, which specified the bus project “will not support a rail component,” put Metro in conflict with its 2003 referendum. To be clear, Metro would be operating the buses, not funding the construction of the actual lanes. The project pulls heavily on Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone funds and some U.S. Department of Transportation grant money.

The agency told the Attorney General’s office it no longer needed an opinion when TxDOT said its concerns had been eased and the agreement was not necessary. That was in part because federal lawmakers approved a fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbid any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Taylor said that voters have consented only to light rail along the corridor and that any work specific to bus rapid transit should wait until the Texas Attorney General’s office issues a response to Nichols’ request. Taylor is representing the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which sits along Post Oak, and Jim Scarborough, a vocal opponent of the project and property owner in the area.

Scarborough has led opponents, largely business owners, who say the bus plan will disrupt the flow of traffic on Post Oak and discourage drivers from wanting to traverse the bustling corridor. At town hall meetings and news conferences, they’ve also said that the plan is a real estate deal disguised as a transit project that benefits some Uptown board members whose companies are in the right of way. Some of those companies will receive payments for their land from the TIRZ in order to widen Post Oak.

Taylor dismissed any notion that the lawsuit amounted to a last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit.

“Metro should immediately announce its abandonment of the project, admit that it violates Metro’s contract with the voters, and, should it desire to pursue light rail, then, in accordance with its recent agreement with Congressman John Culberson, go back to the electorate with a new referendum on whether light rail should be approved on Post Oak Boulevard,” Taylor said in the lawsuit.

A “last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit” is pretty much how I’d describe it. There’s nobody involved with that lawsuit that actually wants a light rail line to be built, they just want to force Metro into a no-win position. I am hopeful that a judge will give this litigation the lack of respect it deserves.

(*) Case in point. Those were dark, dark days.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The latest Uptown fuss

I suppose I need to say something about this.

Two members of an economic development board pushing a plan to run a center bus lane along Uptown’s Post Oak Boulevard have financial ties to companies that will be paid for land in the project’s right of way.

Earlier this year, Uptown Chairman Martin Debrovner and secretary and treasurer Kendall Miller disclosed financial interests in two of the more than 30 parcels the board will purchase with public funds to expand Post Oak.

Collectively, three companies that own property along Post Oak – Weingarten Realty Investors, WMJK and Hines Interests – stand to receive about $6 million of the roughly $47 million budgeted for right-of-way acquisitions if average appraisals done by an outside company last year hold.

A third member of the Uptown development board, Louis Sklar, filed a similar affidavit earlier this year because he is a former senior executive at Hines Interests. But according to his affidavit, he does not make enough of his current income from the company or own enough stock, for instance, to have a “substantial interest” in the company as defined by state law.

The board members appear to have followed state law; they have not voted on items with specific or special financial benefit to them, instead voting more broadly to support the bus plan.

Critics contend that the financial disclosures should have been filed in early 2014, when a consultant’s report was issued listing the properties to be purchased along retail-laden Post Oak Boulevard.

[…]

Any appraisal above $500,000 and any offer that exceeds fair market value by more than $50,000 requires Federal Transit Administration approval. As for why the affidavits weren’t filed sooner, Breeding said they waited until right-of-way offers were imminent.

“Our board of directors is much more concerned about (conflicts of interest) than just your average person,” [Uptown President John] Breeding said. “Really, from the very beginning, we said, ‘How can we do this and how can we support it and how can we set up a system that is as transparent and as free from conflict as possible?’ Honestly, it comes up all the time because we build roads and streets in the area.”

Not really clear to me what the scandal is supposed to be. One would expect that members of the Uptown Management District would own property in Uptown, and some of that property will be bought for right of way purposes. Yeah, TIRZes are often more opaque than they should be, but that’s not what is being argued about here. If this is the worst thing that the Uptown opponents have to say about the project, it ought to be very smooth sailing from here.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Uptown BRT moving forward again

Good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H-GAC approves Uptown transportation funding

Good.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mattress Mack’s Uptown rant

There’s a lot missing from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s screed in the Sunday op-ed pages.

When you get right down to it, the recent announcement that the Uptown Houston Management District wants to spend $177.5 million to “redesign and widen” Post Oak Boulevard and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through the heart of the Galleria area tells you everything you need to know.

What does it say?

It tells you that here in the fourth-largest city in America, our Metropolitan Transit Authority is so tarnished by corruption and scandal, so riddled with $1.3 billion in debt, and generally so ineffective that they now must rely on a local taxing district to do their job.

So one “rogue” organization, as Mayor Annise Parker referred to Metro back when she was running for office, is passing the baton of an incredibly expensive and very ineffective transportation program to an even less transparent organization – the Uptown District.

Folks, this is not progress. It’s government at its worst.

First, if the Uptown District wants Metro to provide bus service up and down Post Oak, they could do that right now without spending an additional dime. But this isn’t about buses.

It’s about paving the way for light rail and helping the contractors and developers who live off city contracts and make generous campaign contributions.

I wish I could quote the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece of unfocused anger, buzzwords, and vague accusations. It could easily have been a transcript from a talk radio segment. But let’s discuss some of the things that aren’t in this piece.

First, McIngvale’s antipathy to the Uptown Line goes back at least three years, when he and some other Galleria-area businesses, aided by one of the anti-rail-on-Richmond agitators, threw a fit about a design for the Uptown Line that had come to light a few months before. It’s curious that he spends as much time as he does raging about Metro and Mayor Parker and Washington, DC (?!?) since the main driver of the BRT effort, as well as the earlier Uptown Line design, is the Uptown Management District. Management districts are government-created entities, and there are certainly issues about the powers being granted to these unelected bodies, but all that escapes Mack’s wrath.

Second, Mack misses the point about bus service in the Galleria area. The idea here is to provide a dedicated right of way to the BRT buses, as is the case elsewhere with light rail and would be/would have been the case with the Uptown Line, so that they are not stuck in the awful traffic that currently snarls mobility in the region. A lot of people live and work in Uptown, and of course a lot of other people come into Uptown to shop or do business. Some number of the trips they take during the say is from one Uptown destination to another. Ideally, the Uptown BRT line would provide a viable alternative to them to driving from point A to point B, which in turn would help un-snarl things a little more. A BRT line could make such a trip quicker than driving, factoring in walking and waiting on the one hand and navigating a parking structure on the other. A bus line using the same streets as your car cannot.

Third, remember that part of the Uptown plan includes tying the Uptown district into Metro’s park and ride system, which Mack never mentions in his jeremiad. While it’s not clear (at least to me) how this will be done, it should be obvious why this is a good thing. Having the BRT line in place so that one isn’t stranded during the say will make using the park and ride service that much more attractive. Add bike sharing to the mix, and you can make non-car transit into and out of the Uptown area, and around it for those who live there, viable in a way that it just isn’t right now. How can this not help with mobility?

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, the voters did approve the Metro 2012 Solutions plan, which included a light rail line in Uptown, back in 2003. We’re not going to get exactly that with the Uptown BRT line, though we may yet someday, but as is so often the case with opposition to this and to the University Line, those expressing that opposition simply ignore that electoral result. This is the vision people voted for. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be blamed on Metro and some of which cannot, that vision still isn’t and may never be completely fulfilled. But that vote mattered, and the default direction should towards its fulfillment, not away from it.

The Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Big projects, big plans, big funding mechanism.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Uptown BRT

Interesting news from Swamplot.

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parker expresses doubt about University and Uptown lines

This is not the sort of thing I want to see.

Mayor Annise Parker cast doubt Wednesday on whether the Metropolitan Transit Authority has the money to pay for two planned light-rail lines that proponents say are critical to the success of the agency’s plans.

Parker said members of her transition team have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances and she now feels comfortable only with the funding plans of three rail lines: the East End, North and Southeast. Construction on those lines is under way.

Parker’s goal is to make sure those three lines are built “very, very rapidly,” she said. The other two, the Uptown and University lines, “are lines that I want to see built, but until we can finalize all the numbers, and some of them are still moving, I’m not going to commit to whether that is possible.”

The difference between building the two U lines and not building them is the difference between having a fully functional rail transit system and having a few light rail lines. Among other things, the various commuter rail lines that are being talked about will be far less useful if you can’t continue riding rail into places like Greenway Plaza and the Galleria. The University line is the linchpin, as David Crossley put it, and not having it would leave a gaping hole.

Having said all that, it’s a little early to panic. The University line is an excellent bet to receive federal funds, which will help a lot. If you listened to my interview with John Breeding of the Uptown Management District, he believed the Uptown Line was at least five years away, perhaps more like ten, and it’s likely that the financial picture will be quite different by then. And of course there’s the matter of the 2003 referendum, in which the voters approved building these lines. You’d think there will be some pressure to finish the job.

Responding to Parker’s comments, [Metro Board Chair David] Wolff said he believed the agency’s funding plan is feasible, although he was happy to discuss the matter further with the mayor.

Metro confirmed this week that it intends to issue $2.6 billion in bonds in the next few years, about four times the amount of debt approved by voters in 2003, to finance its rail plans. The agency said voter approval of the bonds is not necessary.

Wolff said Metro will be able to pay down the bonds it will have to issue for the University and Uptown lines and remains confident that the remaining puzzle piece — an additional $700 million in federal funding — will be approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

The bond question was the subject of a story from yesterday in which we get the usual treatment of someone who is not a rail supporter trying to tell the rest of us what the referendum really said. I’ll simply note here that that point was not addressed by Mayor Parker and leave it at that until we see what the transition team has to say.

Interview with John Breeding

Last week, I noted that several business owners along Post Oak had gotten together with one of the local anti-Metro agitators to complain about what was going on with the Uptown Line and make claims about working to stop it from being built. Among other things, I noted that the story did not include any response from Metro or the Uptown Management District, which I understood to be the main mover behind the Uptown Line design. So I figured if I wanted to know what the Uptown Management District had to say, I ought to ask for myself. As such, I got in touch with John Breeding, the President and CEO of the Uptown Management District, to ask him about it. Here’s what we talked about:

Download the MP3 file

So now you know. Tomorrow I will publish an interview with soon-to-be-outgoing Metro Chair David Wolff. Tune in then and hear what he has to say.