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Medical Center

Your Super Bowl AirBnB dream probably did not come true

Alas.

Vacation rental websites like Airbnb and Home Away still have pages of listings available for this weekend. Many are asking well over $1,000 per night for, in some cases, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom apartments.

Data from Airbnb Thursday show the typical price of booked listings in Houston for the Super Bowl is $150 per night. Listings within a 5-mile radius of NRG Stadium get a slight premium: $200 per night.

The most popular Houston neighborhoods for guest arrivals included Montrose, the Medical Center area and the Greater Heights.

See here and here for the background. That story was from Thursday, so I suppose it was still possible for some desperate last-minute renters to come in and sweep up those unclaimed listings at the listed rates. I kind of doubt it, though. Turns out, unless you have a particular kind of high-end property to rent out – and a particular kind of high-end renter looking for that kind of property – AirBnB is going to be the cheap alternative to a hotel, not the expensive alternative. Maybe next time, y’all.

Next B-Cycle expansion approved

Good.

Expansion of Houston’s bike sharing system is pretty much in high gear after City Council on Wednesday signed off on a $4.1 million plan to roughly triple the number of bikes and kiosks.

With the agreement in place, local B-Cycle operators can proceed with their plan to purchase 568 bikes and install 71 new kiosks where people can check out a bike.

By 2018, Houston is slated to have roughly 100 stations and 800 bicycles spread across the central business district, Midtown, Texas Medical Center, Montrose, Rice Village and around the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.

Seventeen of the stations in the medical center and Museum District should be operational by March, said Carter Stern, executive director of Houston’s bike sharing system.

Stern said new stations will pop up in Midtown and the Montrose area in the summer, with stations on the college campuses expected to open in the fall.

“The rest of the allocated stations will occur piecemeal as we finalize locations and secure the matching funding,” Stern said last month.

This expansion was announced in August, with funding coming from a TxDOT grant and the nonprofit Houston Bike Share. Usage continues to grow as well, and in the parts of town where B-Cycle exists and will exist getting around on a bike often makes more sense than driving and parking. I look forward to further growth, and eventual further expansion.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

Our bioscience future

Looking bright.

Biotechnology continues to grow in Texas, contributing to the state’s overall economy by adding jobs, making strides in research and innovation and last year attracting $1 billion in federal funding for research, a new report on business development from a biotechnology trade association found.

As the Texas economy struggles under the weight of an oil and gas industry downturn, the biosciences of medical research, treatment innovation and pharmaceutical development are seen as a bright light that stands to soon glow brighter.

The Texas bioscience industry reported 81,000 jobs in 2014 across 4,865 businesses, which translates to 1 percent growth since 2012, according to a report released [recently] by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the national trade association, which compiled the study along with Teconomy Partners to measure growth over previous years.

The findings were made public in San Francisco at the organization’s annual convention, which attracts 15,000 biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals from around the world.

“Texas is one of the top-tier states in the size of its bioscience and biomedical research and innovation base,” the report concluded.

[…]

In that time the state has set its sights on becoming a true competitor with the more established institutions of research and pharmaceuticals on the East and West coasts. “The third coast” has become a popular rallying cry for those working to turn Texas in general and Houston in particular into a bio-science destination.

“Houston is becoming a major player not just from a research perspective but also in its clinical prowess,” said Melinda Richter, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS.

JLABS opened a state-of-the-art, 34,000-square-foot business incubator not far from the Texas Medical Center’s main campus in March. The project offers laboratory space, equipment and guidance for biotechnology and life science startups in their march toward commercialization.

The luring of a JLABS facility was seen as a coup not only for the innovation expected to blossom there but also for bragging rights.

“That is huge,” Kowalski said of the opening of JLABS @ TMC. “They don’t just go anywhere.”

Nationally, biotechnology exploded in the early 2000s but slowed during the recession years. The report says the industry is now regaining lost ground.

In 2014, the industry employed 1.66 million people at more than 77,000 businesses across the country, the report found. Wages continue to be robust with a $95,000 average annual salary.

You can find a copy of the report here. This is all to the good, though we’re a ways away from being able to mitigate the effects of the energy industry slowdown. Imagine how much better things could be if our state leadership wasn’t so relentlessly hostile to science, too. Until that time, we’ll take the growth we can get.

Want to buy a big piece of land near the Medical Center?

Here’s your chance.

A single tract of land large enough to hold multiple office towers, high-rise residential buildings and a hotel doesn’t often come available inside Loop 610. One near the Texas Medical Center is even more uncommon.

After 45 years, Shell Oil Co. is selling 21 acres it owns at the southwest corner of Old Spanish Trail and Greenbriar, just south of the Medical Center’s main campus and directly west of the Woman’s Hospital of Texas.

The site houses a midrise office building, a parking garage and several warehouse structures.

As far as most people in real estate development would be concerned, they’re all teardowns. The value of the property is in the land, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars.

The land is next to a giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center that is the proposed location of a medical research project to be called the TMC3 Innovation Campus.

The facility would bring together several Medical Center institutions and for-profit commercial components, such as hotels, shops and restaurants. It would have a large plaza shaped like a double helix, a nod to intertwining strands of DNA.

The Shell property is along the light-rail line and represents the largest contiguous redevelopment site in the Texas Medical Center area, according to Cushman & Wakefield, which has the listing.

I used to work out that way, and I can tell you, the stretch of Old Spanish Trail from 288 to where it meets up with Main Street, just to the west of this property, used to be mostly run down and vacant lots but is now packed with new Medical Center complexes and residences. The “giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center” referenced is in front of the Smithlands light rail station, which is two blocks from the main entrance to the for-sale tract. That lot is always full – there was a dedicated traffic light put in for it on OST between Greenbriar and Stadium – so I have no idea what will happen when it gets developed as well. I would also note that the large tract of land at Main and Greenbriar where The Stables once was is still a vacant lot after just shy of a decade has passed. In other words, just because a large tract of land is coming on the market, doesn’t mean something will get built on it any time soon. Anyway, if you have a few million bucks lying around, this might be a nice piece of land to pick up.

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.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

Texans like having health insurance

Who knew?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

A first-of-its-kind survey asking Texans if health insurance is necessary found an overwhelming majority believe having coverage is critical for them and their families, with 50 percent calling it “absolutely essential.”

The Texas Medical Center commissioned Nielsen to survey attitudes surrounding health insurance ranging from its importance, what you would give up to pay for insurance, and whether people with bad health habits should be required to pay more.

The Houston Chronicle obtained advance results from the online poll posed to 1,000 Texans over 18 between Jan. 27 and March 3. The complete results will be unveiled Monday at the Medical World Americas 2015 conference in Houston.

Most striking was that 83 percent of those surveyed – a rate that held steady across age, race, income, education and insurance status categories – said having health insurance was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.” Only 5 percent said it was “not important at all.”

“That includes the all-important 25-to-35 demographic. It flies in the face of those groups who have been saying that young people don’t need or want health insurance,” said Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson, director of the Health Policy Institute at Texas Medical Center.

[…]

Currently, Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured with roughly 22 percent, or about 5.7 million people. And while it is not unusual for people living on the edge to experience periods without insurance, in Texas more than half of uninsured adults have been uninsured for five years or more, including 31 percent of the uninsured who have never had coverage in their lifetime, according to a 2014 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the state’s uninsured.

I can’t find a copy of the study anywhere – a description of it is here – so you’ll just have to take the story’s word for it. Not really sure what there is to say other than I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by this. And in case you’re wondering, people who bought plans via the Obamacare exchanges are pretty happy with them, too. So yeah, health insurance good. Film at 11.

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.

[…]

BRT is generally touted as the quickest and cheapest solutions for car-centric cities hoping to provide mass transit options. These projects dedicate separated road space specifically for buses, with the intention of removing them from the common stream of traffic and decreasing the delays for commuters. Stations that protect riders from the elements and with raised platforms allow riders to enter buses as they would a train. Coming in at 1/5 the cost of light rail, BRT projects can provide a very similar level of service, especially when given designated right-of-way.

The Uptown Management District is currently working on installing a contentious BRT system along the medians of Post Oak Boulevard. Such systems could be installed along the esplanades of former streetcar lines and permanent raised bus platforms installed along the routes at a fraction of the cost of a streetcar line. All of this can be installed with the understanding that a streetcar line would go in along the route once the city has reached a more sustainable density.

Reinstalling streetcars in Houston is not a novel idea. The Greater East End Management District has been working on a streetcar initiative since 2011, planning a route through the Second Ward that connects to the light rail line and nearby stadiums. The project is meant to spur development in the area but could provide decent service for a broad swath of Houstonians. The very fact that rail transit is desirable enough to attract developments is a sign that we should be considering more possible additions.

I’m OK with BRT for the Uptown line because that was always going to be locally funded, and it’s what we can afford. It’s been hard enough overcoming other obstacles to just get to the point where things can move forward. This project will do a lot to relieve the fierce congestion in the area and I believe it will help up the pressure to get the Universities line built since the need to connect the Uptown line to the rest of the system will be so obvious. I consider BRT to be a lesser version of light rail, but this is likely the best we were going to get any time soon, so let’s not quibble while there is forward momentum.

As for streetcars, they’re basically light rail without the dedicated right of way, and as such they can and will get stuck in traffic just like buses would. Yes, I know there are things that can be done to mitigate that, but ultimately streetcars don’t add capacity, and that’s an issue. Especially with bus reimagining going on, I’d be hesitant to think too much about streetcars, but there are two situations where they might make sense. One is in areas where there’s enough road capacity to handle sharing a lane with streetcar tracks, and the other is as a short-distance extension of light rail. The Greater East End Management District plan cited above might be an example of the former; as it is intended to connect to the Harrisburg line, it also works for the latter. Another example of the latter I’ve been thinking of is a streetcar extension to light rail in the Medical Center, as there are now so many more buildings that are a decent walking journey away from the existing rail stops. I’m not exactly sure what route this thing might take – maybe something along MacGregor into Holcomb, then somehow to Old Spanish Trail? There are many details to work out – but you get the idea. You might be able to do the same sort of thing with shuttle buses, but streetcar tracks could be laid outside existing streets, and can be in closer proximity to pedestrians since their paths are completely predictable. I’m just thinking out loud here. The basic goal here is to increase capacity and make it easier for more people to travel to dense, hard-to-park places without cars. The more we all think about this stuff, the better off we’ll be.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[…]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[…]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

B-Cycle keeps racking up good numbers

Great to see.

From meager beginnings, Houston’s bikesharing program has blossomed into a big draw for visitors and locals looking for a quick ride.

For the first six months of 2014, Houston B-Cycle logged 43,530 checkouts, according to agency data. The system had about 2,000 checkouts in all of 2012, the year it started with three stations and 18 bikes.

“We are excited about continuing the expansion and operations,” Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. “We still feel like we are on track for our five-year plan for having 100 stations and 1,000 bikes by 2017.”

The smooth ride to a 29-station, 225-bike system hasn’t been all downhill, however. Use of a couple of stations meant to move B-Cycle into targeted areas is well below expectations, and three bikes, valued at about $1,200 each, have gone missing.

The bumps are balanced by good ridership even in the city’s hotter months, if June is any indication. As the weather warmed, the system still averaged more than 220 checkouts a day. Based on calculations of how long the bikes were checked out and an average travel distance, officials estimate the bikes have traveled more than 143,000 miles this year.

[…]

Denver’s growth is a good aspiration for Houston, however. Its system, one of the country’s largest, logged 263,000 trips last year. Denver has 84 stations and 624 bikes.

Houston’s long-term plans mirror what Denver has already built in some sections of the city. Stations are spaced about every 1,000 feet, making it easy for a rider to grab a bike for a quick trip down the street for lunch or an appointment. From there, stations have been added to expand the edges of the system.

Although Houston has a group of committed, frequent riders, it hasn’t hit the level where grabbing a bike becomes a viable option for most people, Rub said.

“Right now we don’t have the station density that really contributes to it being a really integrated network,” Rub said.

Houston B-Cycle is hoping to lure a title sponsor – like New York’s 6,000-bike system did with Citibank – to commit $4 million over five years. Paired with grant money and federal funds for air quality improvements, the title sponsor would give Houston the capital to blanket many areas, such as the Texas Medical Center.

“I think that network in and of itself is going to create some very impressive numbers when we are in the (medical center),” Rub said.

I renewed my membership this weekend. I don’t use B-Cycle as often as I thought I would, but when I do use it, it’s been for the reasons I expected – to get me places in and near downtown that are too far to reasonably walk but which make no sense for me to drive to. A lot of folks – some visitors, some locals – have used B-Cycle on impulse, which is good for the system since they pay a slightly higher rate than members do. It would be nice to understand why some of the stations have been lightly used, and as I’ve said before I hope all interested parties are talking about how best to integrate B-Cycle with the new bus routes going forward. I can’t wait to see what B-Cycle’s numbers look like next year and the year after.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Chron wonders where B-Cycle is going

Last week in an unsigned editorial, the Chron asked a provocative question about B-Cycle.

Are bicycle rental programs supposed to be legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians? New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante revealed Friday that her city’s attempts to make bike share more affordable, such as distributing free helmets and subsidizing Citi Bike memberships for low-income New Yorkers, have so far reached few people.

Houston’s policies don’t paint a better picture. We do have a bicycle helmet fund, which was created to raise money to provide bicycle helmets for very low-income families. But the list seems to stop there. We lack a program to subsidize B-Cycle memberships for needy families, though one has to wonder how much of an impact that program would have. After all, there are no B-Cycle stations in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown’s B-Cycle core. It is not as if these neighborhoods aren’t bike-friendly. The Fourth Ward is accessible by West Dallas St., a designated bike-share road that connects directly with downtown. And the Columbia Tap bicycle trail stretches from east of downtown through the Third Ward to Brays Bayou – one of the most convenient bicycle paths in the city, utterly wanting for a B-Cycle station.

Here’s that NYT article the editorial refers to. I can’t speak to Citi Bike, which is a new program and has its share of kinks to be worked out, but the point about making B-Cycle more accessible to more Houstonians is very much a valid one. I sent an inquiry to Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian about the editorial, but she had already sent a letter to the editor in response, which she pointed me to.

Houston B-Cycle appreciates the Chronicle’s calling attention to a wonderful three-month old program – and the call for more bikes and greater coverage. When first launched, some thought this could never work in Houston.

But Houstonians are proving the skeptics wrong. Houston B-cycle is well ahead of projections with over 5,000 unique users and an average of 1,300 bikes checked out each week. And in a city accused of being too fat, these riders have burned an estimated 4 million calories! But we recognize that we have more work to do.

The Houston bike share system, like successful programs in other cities, has used a proven formula, placing the first bikes in the densest part of our city … the downtown urban core and dense adjacent neighborhoods. We want to expand the program across the city, and the Chronicle is right to push for broader coverage.

B-cycle’s growth will build off of the current network. The existing program is a great example of private and public partnership, built with zero local tax dollars. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has been a key partner and financial supporter. They share our goal of making Houston B-cycle the best in the nation.

We need more partners to continue expansion plans. If you want to help, please visit us at http://houston.bcycle.com/.

Laura Spanjian, director, city of Houston Sustainability

Michael Skelly board member, Houston Bike Share

I agree with what Spanjian and Skelly say here, but they don’t exactly get into specifics in their response. I think there’s a more fundamental point that needs to be addressed, but before I get to that, let me point to the story that I suspect was the genesis of the Chron editorial, which was in one of the neighborhood section and thus probably wasn’t widely noticed. (I only saw it because it was on the B-Cycle Facebook page.)

As cycling’s popularity rises in Houston, city officials and planners see the west side of the Inner Loop as the logical next place to focus energy on developing a more prominent role for the quiet, eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and area shopping districts already attract cyclists, said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for Mayor Annise Parker.

“There’s a lot of bike commuters to Rice,” she said. “There’s already some good infrastructure there.”

The city is looking at ways to expand offerings in the neighborhood, with one option being a project where certain streets will close to vehicles and open only for bicycles on Sundays, Spanjian said.

Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share, hopes that the city’s B-cycle bike rental program can become more established in the area.

“We have very high hopes of expanding the bike share program into the medical center,” he said. “Bike share is an ideal supplement to the Texas Medical Center environment and would go a long way towards reducing a significant number of ‘intra-center’ car rides and eventually reducing some of the shuttle trips.”

He said the next natural step would be to expand the program to Rice Village and at Rice University.

“I’ve had discussions with a few representatives from the school, but no plans or commitments at this time,” he said.

Spanjian said the mayor’s office is working to expand bicycle routes into the medical center and other neighborhoods by year’s end.

I talked about the logical next steps for B-Cycle expansion, and this story makes sense to me. Ideally, as Spanjian and Skelly said, B-Cycle is going to go where the biggest bang for the buck will be – dense places where parking is at a premium and it’s often not convenient or practical to retrieve your car for a short trip. B-Cycle will mostly be a convenience in these locations, helping to reduce short-trip driving, which in turn helps relieve parking congestion, while extending the range of places that a non-driver can get to. This is all to the good.

What we need to keep sight of is that at its core, B-Cycle is a transit network. Extending that network by adding more stations makes it more useful and valuable, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The B-Cycle network can and should integrate well with our existing transit network.

Last month, we recorded 15,232 bikes on buses – that’s 15 percent more than the same month a year ago. And that’s 28 percent more than the previous month of April’s boardings.

Now, no one is going to put a B-Cycle bike aboard a Metro bus. But if we locate some B-Cycle kiosks near bus stops in parts of town that are heavily dependent on buses for local transit, that not only makes both networks more extensive, it also helps to address the Chron’s concern about who is being served by B-Cycle. As we know, Metro is re-imagining its bus system. I say this redesign needs to be done in conjunction with B-Cycle and its future expansion plans. Having these two networks – and the light rail network, and the Uptown BRT line – complement each other will make the whole that much greater than the sum of the parts. To address the question about the helmet fund, perhaps Metro could kick in a little something for that, and perhaps there’s some H-GAC mobility money available to help as well. The point I’m (finally) making here is that we need all these components to work together. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere else. We have an opportunity here to really make non-car transit in Houston a lot more convenient and attractive. Let’s take full advantage of it.

Don’t expect B-Cycle in the Heights anytime soon

I know there are a lot of people in the Heights that would like to see some bike share kiosks here, but as The Leader News reports, it will be awhile before that happens.

Although running through arguably the most bike-conscious set of communities in Houston, the bike paths along White Oak Bayou and through the Heights into downtown now primarily sustain a ridership of weekend and evening recreational users, walkers and joggers. (It doesn’t help the White Oak trail that 610/290 construction is closing a big chunk of it from south of the North Loop along T.C. Jester to 34th Street for another year.)

The city of Houston’s B-cycle bike share program largely completed its second phase this week ahead of schedule and now boasts 21 stations and 175 bikes – but they’re all in downtown, midtown, Montrose, the East End and the Museum District-Hermann Park area.

And Will Rub, head of the B-cycle program, says when the third phase is funded, it’s likely to focus on the Medical Center area.

“We might start looking along sites along the Washington Avenue Corridor,” he said, “but that’s down the line.” Way down the line is the Heights, he said.

[…]

Blake Masters, president of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood, seems strangely calm about the area being passed over so far for the B-cycle kiosks. But there’s a reason.

As part of a Leadership Houston class, Masters studied putting a bike share into Houston before the group learned that the B-cycle program was already on the drawing boards.

“You do have to start somewhere, and to make it succeed, you have to choose the areas with the heaviest pedestrian traffic and people who need to go short distances on congested streets. So far, they’re doing it right.”

He’s encouraged to hear that the Washington Avenue Corridor, which is in his Super Neighborhood, is on B-cycle’s radar. Parts of the Heights would also be “very logical” locations he said, naming the 19th-20th Street, White Oak and Studewood commercial areas. “We’d have to make sure the neighbors are on board with the plans, though,” he said.

This makes sense to me. Bike sharing is for places to which people travel without cars, or for whom it’s inconvenient to get their parked cars for a short trip. That describes places like downtown and the Medical Center, but not the Heights. The Heights is a destination, not a point of origin, for bike sharing; if you’re in the Heights and you want to get somewhere by bike, you probably already have your bike with you. The downtown bike share network, which is somewhat akin to a transit network, is beginning to build spokes out of downtown, with kiosks in Midtown and parts of Montrose. The Washington Avenue corridor, which is directly accessible from downtown, is a natural future spoke of this network. Once this extended network is robust enough to support spokes being built from other spokes and not from the hub, that’s when it will make sense to look at putting kiosks in the Heights, most likely in the locations suggested by Blake Masters. Alternately, as Metro’s re-architected bus route map gets built, or in the event of future streetcar/BRT/light rail construction along Washington, that may make Heights-area kiosks more attractive and useful. The kiosks are coming, I have no doubt about that, but the network isn’t ready for it yet. If you want it to hurry along, do what you can to make the existing B-Cycle network a success.

Another reason why bike parking matters

This comment of the day on Swamplot points out a salient fact about bike parking.

In all honesty, I only ride my bike for fun with the family on the weekends. However, after a couple of very frustrating attempts to park around White Oak to go out to dinner, I recently rode my bike down there with the family for dinner at BBs. While there is a dearth of bike racks, it was so easy to just hop on the bike path, lock up the bikes and go to dinner than weaving in and out of parking lots and side streets trying to find a space for parking. And that is why cycling will eventually become an essential for Houston. We are piling people inside the loop at an unprecedented rate. There is not enough parking in a number of hot spots (Montrose, White Oak, Washington Ave, etc.). People now live close enough to ride their bikes to go out to eat in these areas but don’t because bike amenities are woefully lacking. Or, to put it another way, if you love your car, you should support cycling so there are more parking spaces available for you.

Public House on White Oak

That comment was left on this post. Like this person, my preferred way of getting to White Oak establishments is by bike. I live close enough that driving there should be the exception, but I totally agree about the convenience of bike parking versus the hassle of car parking. The point, though, is that for places on White Oak and Washington and other high-traffic/crowded parking areas, there are basically two types of people: Those that can get there by means other than cars, and those that can’t. It’s very much in the interest of those who have to drive and park to make it as easy and convenient as possible for those that don’t have to drive so that as many of them as possible choose not to. Every one of them who chooses to walk or bike is one less car taking up a parking place, after all. The same is true for places like the Medical Center and midtown, where everyone who arrives via light rail is one less person competing with you for a parking place. The people who have to drive to these places should be the most vocal supporters of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access to them, and the steady progress of rail line construction should should be taken as especially excellent news. It’s for their own good even if they never use those arrival methods themselves.

Along those same lines, the arrival of more bike share kiosks is as good a thing for the drivers as it is for everyone else.

With the opening of the Ensemble stop and the additional bikes, riders can for the first time check out or return a bike to a station outside the central business district. Previously only three locations — City Hall, Market Square Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center — featured a B-cycle kiosk.

According to a map on the Houston B-cycle website, a station at the Houston Zoo is coming soon.

Hair Balls has more on this. The point I’m trying to get at here is that being an occasional bicyclist is a good thing in and of itself. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the people who are driving to the places you are biking. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Along those lines, if you look at those two Swamplot posts above, you’ll see the inevitable comments from those who claim it’s too hot in Houston to ride bikes. Well, it’s not too hot right now. In fact, it’s not too hot about nine months out of the year. Personally, I find that even when it is hot out, the nice thing about riding a bike is the cool breeze you get while riding, and at no time were you sweltering in a car that had been left out in the sun. I would also note that one of the most successful B-Cycle cities in America is Minneapolis, and their winters are at least as long and unfriendly to biking as our summers are. But so what? Like I said, this isn’t all or nothing. Bike when the weather is agreeable to you. It’s all good.

The 288-to-the-Medical-Center connector takes a step forward

I still have a bad feeling about this.

In a first step toward providing relief, transportation officials will spend the year winnowing six possible locations for reversible toll lanes that would provide a direct connection between the sprawling medical campus and Texas 288. They hope to start construction in 2014.

Texas 288 between U.S. 59 and Interstate 610 is the 25th-most-congested freeway in Texas, according to a Texas Department of Transportation analysis. And not all the blame can be assigned to Texans games at nearby Reliant Stadium or to tourists looking for the Astrodome.

“A significant number of motorists traveling along 288 between downtown and Brazoria County are traveling to the Medical Center,” said TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis. The center includes more than four dozen medical institutions, employs about 100,000 people and has nearly 7,000 hospital beds.

Reversible ramps would allow traffic to flow faster in and out of the area during peak commuting times, Lewis said. The ramps would complement a larger project to add toll lanes on Texas 288 from U.S. 59 to Brazoria County.

Residents have until Feb. 22 to comment on the project to add a ramp connecting the freeway and the Medical Center south or east of Hermann Park. Plans call for a roughly $12 million flyover linking Texas 288 and a street around the center.

In addition to the freeway improvements, Houston plans to add one lane in each direction to Almeda Road between South MacGregor Way and Old Spanish Trail. Transit and pedestrian improvements also are planned for Main Street.

I’ve expressed my concerns before, and I don’t really have much to add to that. At best, I think this will mostly move some congestion from the highway to the connectors and the surface roads. It still won’t do anything about the backup at 59, which is what causes most of the delay on 288 as you head north past 610. Ultimately, the only solution to to the problem of too many cars trying to park in a limited area is to reduce the number of cars trying to park, which is to say to provide viable non-car alternatives. I have no idea what, if anything, is currently on the drawing board for that.

UPDATE: The Chron editorializes on the subject.

No smokers need apply

Boy, is this a big can of worms.

Methodist Hospital System in Houston this month announcedit will implement a tobacco-free hiring policy on Jan. 1, joining the Texas Medical Center and Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, which have had similar policies since last year and 2010, respectively.

The policies are straightforward. Applicants who smoke or chew tobacco will not be hired. Existing employees are exempt.

A growing number of hospitals and health care institutions have adopted the policies to promote wellness, improve productivity and rein in rising health care costs, but critics say they discriminate and could lead to punitive actions against other personal habits and vices.

“We think this is an invasion of privacy and really overreaching,” said DottyGriffith, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. “At what point do you give up your rights and autonomy? Will they not employ those who ride motorcycles and drink alcohol?”

Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Methodist Hospital System, said the policy is about company employees modeling healthy behaviors. More than 13,000 people work at the system’s five hospitals.

“This is part of a journey of wellness and making this a great place to work,” Boom said. “Employees work here to take of care patients. We can only do that if we’re leading by example.”

Methodist’s online application will warn job seekers that it is a tobacco-free employer and that urine tests will be used to detect nicotine. A job offer will be rescinded if an applicant’s results are positive. Free smoking cessation classes will be offered, giving applicants an opportunity to reapply if they have been smoke-free for 90 days.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense for a hospital system to practice what it preaches. There’s a lot to be said for leading by example. And, though it isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, having an entirely non-smoking workforce would be great for Methodist’s bottom line, since it would reduce their own health care costs. Therein lies the rub, of course, because if having a non-smoking workforce is good for the company, then so is having a non-overweight workforce, and who knows what else. Employers have enough power over their employees already, thanks very much. Be that as it may, I have a strong feeling this will ultimately be settled in a courtroom, after someone files suit for discrimination. What do you think?

Take the train to your dining destination

Katharine Shilcutt writes about how she gets to some of her favorite restaurants.

When owner Staci Davis decided on a location for her restaurant, Radical Eats, one thing was extremely important to her above all: Davis wanted her vegan paradise to have access to the new Metro light rail North Line that’s currently being built along Fulton. When the line is completed, riders will only have a few short blocks to walk from the Moody Park station to her restaurant. For now, the construction and the dust are a bit of a nightmare, but Davis insists that it’s worth it.

And at the new 8th Wonder Brewery that’s being built in EaDo, the planned Stadium stop on the East End Line will not only service the Dynamo’s shiny new stadium — it will bring visitors to the craft brewery as well as to concert venues like Warehouse Live and restaurants like Huynh.

[…]

I ride the light rail to the Museum District and to Reliant Stadium so that I don’t have to deal with parking. I ride it to my doctor’s appointments or to visit hospital-bound friends in the Medical Center (or to eat at Trevisio) because the only thing more confusing than the hospital corridors themselves is trying to recall where you left your car. I ride it to the Best Block in Houston to see shows at the Continental Club, to get cocktails and coffee at Double Trouble, to eat brunch at Natachee’s or dinner at t’afia. I ride it to the Preston station and get my movies at Sundance or my culture at Jones Hall.

And, as you would expect, I ride it to restaurants up and down the line. People will often complain about walking in the Houston heat — that’s why we have tunnels, after all — but the funny thing is this: You get used to it. Really fast. And walking off a meal is one of my favorite activities to do outside of eating the meal itself. If more of us did this (myself included, as I don’t walk nearly as often as I should), Houston would undoubtedly remove itself from the running each year as the Fattest City in America. Walking is good. Try it.

On that note, we’ve put together a handy visual guide — to scale, no less! — of all the lunching and dining options off the main stops on the light rail. Some will require a bit of a walk (perhaps five blocks at most) while others are literally right in front of the stop itself. If you use it online, you’ll note that you can click on the restaurant names to be taken to a site about the restaurant itself. If you print it out, you can use it as a visual reference when you take your first heady steps into the rail car before it rattles and shakes off into city.

You can see the map here. That’s a link I plan to keep handy for visitors who are staying or doing business downtown or in the Medical Center. Be sure to read through the comments, as several people noted places they overlooked. There will be a version of this map the June 28 dead tree edition of the Press, so look for that as well. This map is just for the Main Street line, but Katherine says (in response to my comment) that they will do this again later for the three that are under construction. I’m looking forward to that.

Couple things to add. One, I totally agree with Katharine about walking and the heat. It really isn’t that bad, especially if the sidewalk you’re on has some tree cover. I’ve been bringing my bike with me to work and using it to get to lunch instead of driving, and I’ve actually been surprised by how little the heat has affected me as I bike around. Sure, I do work up a bit of a sweat, but I haven’t melted yet. And remember, eight months out of the year the weather is generally pretty darned nice here, much better for the most part than in many transit-and-pedestrian cities around the country. This is Houston, y’all. We don’t let a little heat get us down.

If you look at the map, you’ll note that the vast majority of dining locations are at or north of the Ensemble/HCC station. They didn’t bother to extend the map any farther south than the Museum District station, and as someone who works near the Smithlands stop, I can confirm the dismal lack of lunch options in the vicinity. The sheer paucity of eateries in the Medical Center – there’s a Subway and a Chipotle at the Dryden/TMC stop, and pretty much nothing else there or at the other two stops, unless you walk to Hermann Park to go to Little Big’s – is as frustrating as it is confounding. With the thousands of people that work and visit there daily, you’d think some entrepreneur would see a golden opportunity to fill a giant niche. Available space is an issue, of course, but still. That’s got to be a huge potential market. All those people have to eat somewhere. What do you do for lunch if you work in the Med Center?

More on the 288 to Medical Center connector

The more I hear about this idea, the worse it sounds.

A proposal to build a highway connector between Texas 288 and the Texas Medical Center via North MacGregor Way has drawn criticism.

Among those opposed to the flyover is the Hermann Park Conservancy, which says the elevated connector would leave Hermann Park’s new trail system in the shadow of a freeway.

“Horrible,” conservancy director Doreen Stoller said in summing up the proposal.

Among other issues, Stoller said in a written statement, the flyover would take land from the park for non-park purposes, would increase traffic and noise pollution, would cause congestion at one of the park’s major entrances and would diminish the effect of a recent $100 million park upgrade.

The $12.1 million flyover is part of a project to add toll lanes to the highway that serves as a major route between the Pearland area and downtown Houston.

As I said when I first heard about this, whatever this may do to relieve congestion outside 610, it won’t do a thing to relieve it as 288 merges into I-45 and US 59. I would also argue that it won’t do much to actually relieve congestion on the way into the Medical Center. It will mostly relocate it, from the surface streets to this flyover, which will still ultimately have to connect up with the surface streets and the Medical Center parking lots. I’m really not convinced that this thing will do any good, and that’s before you factor in the damage this design proposal could do to Hermann Park. Some years ago there was an idea that got floated to build a connector from I-10 to US 59 parallel to the West Loop, roughly running along where Weslayan is. This of course would have cut through Memorial Park, which helped to make the idea a non-starter. I hope this idea meets the same fate.

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

Patrick’s blackmail bill goes to the House

The assault on the will of the voters takes another step forward.

The Texas Senate voted 30-1 for Sen. Dan Patrick’s bill to broaden the exemption from Houston’s drainage fee to cover non-profit groups and expansion by churches and schools.

The City Council on Wednesday agreed to exempt existing church and school facilities, and most county government facilities.

“They didn’t exempt new churches and schools in the future, or if a school or church were to expand. They call it a fee. It’s a tax,” Patrick said. “Their bill didn’t include exempting non-profits. This is a time when we need our non-profits to be spending their money on services as government is cutting back.”

Patrick said the Texas Medical Center had testified that it believed a non-profit medical center should be exempt from the fee.

“The city has said this is a local control issue. Had they just gone the next step in their bill yesterday, there wouldn’t have been a need for this legislation,” Patrick said.

First of all, what do non-profits have to do with this? Far as I know, they weren’t even brought up during the election, certainly not to the extent that schools and churches and county-owned buildings were. You’d think that the Medical Center, which suffered terrible flooding losses, including a couple of deaths, during TS Allison back in 2001, would be eager to do what it can to help the city improve its drainage capabilities. And the richness of Dan Patrick, who is doing his level best to increase the burden on charities by cutting off all other forms of social support, piously telling the city to cut them some slack is enough to make my head explode. Does the man have any self-awareness at all?

So now it’s off to the House, where its prospects are unknown to me. If it does get passed, there will surely be expensive and time-consuming litigation to follow. And when Rick Perry signs it into law, I hope Annise Parker tells him to take that meaningless unfunded mandates commission of his and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Midtown development

The Sunday Chron had a look at some new development coming to Main Street near the Ensemble/HCC station. In it was this observation about what had previously been built in the area:

When the Main Street light rail line opened in 2004, there were hopes that transit-oriented developments would follow, particularly at rail stops, but there has been relatively little growth.

One notable exception is the block next door to the soon-to-open shops at 3600 Main, at the Ensemble/HCC stop: 3700 Main, which houses the Continental Club, the Breakfast Klub, T’Afia, Julia’s Bistro and Mink bar. Four businesses on the 3700 block — the Continental Club, Tacos A-Go Go, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Top Lounge — were developed by Bob Schultz and his partners Steve Wertheimer and Gordon, and investors. Some of those businesses, including the Continental Club, predate light rail.

[…]

Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a group aiming to enhance the street, offered reasons why only a relative few blocks have been developed along the rail line: land speculation, which causes real estate prices to soar and makes development less desirable; the lack of incentives to encourage development; and the recession.

It all depends on how you look at it. Christof Spieler documented in 2007 a whole bunch of new construction and renovation work done along and nearby the Main Street Corridor. The vast majority of it was downtown or in the Medical Center, though there were a few things in Midtown. My own observation is that much of what I’ve seen happen in Midtown, before and since the construction of the light rail line, has happened on the streets near Main Street, but not so much on Main Street. For whatever the reason, that’s been a much tougher nut to crack.

More on the city-county TIRZ deal

The Chron does a kind of big picture overview story of the city-county TIRZ deal that we heard about earlier this week.

If successful, the months-long negotiations between the city and Harris County could provide a solution for problems that have vexed both sides for years, including redevelopment of the Reliant Astrodome, construction of a new jail and a new professional soccer stadium.

But that could be a very big if, according to numerous city and county officials. All the factors that led the two bodies to disagree before are still at play, as well as a new wrinkle: that the success of the plans would depend on the use of tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, a financing vehicle typically used more to generate economic development than pay for major capital projects.

“I’ve never been a big fan of the TIRZ,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, who said he will wait to see the completed proposal before deciding whether to support it. “It assumes that property values are going to go up and are going to be worth a certain amount, but as we’ve seen with the downturn in the economy, maybe it doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to work out.”

Emmett said the public must be assured that the use of TIRZs is not just a means to circumvent a public bond election, given that one of the possible projects that could come from the negotiations — a new jail — was rejected by voters last year.

[…]

The city-county proposal involves four TIRZs: two that already exist near downtown and two the city would create for use by Harris County. City and county officials stressed that the negotiations have been dynamic and that the TIRZs are really more of a mechanism for development possibilities.

The first step, and the most advanced in the negotiations, would be for the county to join the East Downtown TIRZ near the George R. Brown Convention Center. Using TIRZ tax money and bond proceeds, the city and county would pay $20 million for the infrastructure improvements around a new soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamo that also could be used by Texas Southern University. The stadium itself, which would be jointly owned by the city and county, would be built by the Dynamo with $60 million in private funds.

The second element involves the county joining one existing TIRZ and the city creating another, both in the general downtown area. Tax revenue and bond sales would not be committed to any specific project but eventually could be used for a new county administration building or joint booking facility that would allow the city to close its two jails. The city has budgeted $33 million for the joint booking center in its five-year capital improvement plan.

The last element would be the creation of a TIRZ around the area of Reliant Stadium that eventually could include the redevelopment of the Astrodome. The area, close to the booming Texas Medical Center, is likely to see numerous major development projects when the economy picks up steam again, city and county officials said.

The Dynamo Stadium deal, which has been in the works for over two years now, should be straightforward and non-controversial. If Commissioners Lee and Garcia, in whose precincts the affected area is, want this to happen, it will happen. The jail stuff, you know the score. If it’s simply a replacement facility, I’m okay with the idea; if it’s an expansion, I’m not. Who knows what the Dome stuff will be about, but I do agree that the area, which has already seen a lot of new development projects, will continue to be very active. We’ll see what the details are and what they do with it.

Bonding Metro

It wouldn’t be Metro if there weren’t drama.

Metro has not obtained performance or payment bonds to cover all the planned construction of four new light rail lines, and some officials say that could put taxpayer dollars at risk.

Metro President Frank Wilson said the transit agency has not made a final decision, but tentatively plans to use a different form of risk management, called parent guarantees, to make sure the four major companies fulfill their obligations and pay their subcontractors on the $1.46 billion contract.

The four companies are Parsons Transportation Group, Granite Construction Co., Kiewit Texas Construction L.P. and Stacy and Witbeck Inc. They have formed a joint venture known as “Houston Rapid Transit.”

Wilson’s announcement at a July board meeting aroused the concern of the national surety industry, which provides the bonds for construction projects by public agencies. Some local officials also questioned the decision.

Texas statute requires public agencies to obtain performance bonds on construction contracts larger than $100,000 and payment bonds on contracts larger than $25,000. Metro did use performance bonds during the construction of the Main Street rail line.

“By Metro not putting these bonds in place the taxpayer is potentially liable,” said Peter Brown, a Houston City Council member and mayoral candidate. “We do these for every major project at the city of Houston. Metro has been planning the light rail project for a long time, and if they needed to find protection for the taxpayers through another means they should have taken that up with the Legislature this past session.”

[…]

Wilson said that Metro was complying with the state law but had to explore a different method because performance bonds for a $1.46 billion contract would be too expensive and difficult to obtain. “We went out and got 100 percent performance bonds, just not in the traditional way,” he said. Bond underwriters object because they can’t get business from the contract, he said.

Wilson said that the contract ensures the four parent companies share “joint and several liability” for the proper building of the new light rail system. “They have pledged their corporate assets,” he added.

[…]

A parent guarantee is written into contract language, while a performance bond is issued by a regulated, third-party underwriter with deep pockets, said Peter Linzer, a University of Houston business law professor. Although a parent company involved in a joint venture may also have deep pockets, and may pledge to make good on any disputes or failures of subcontractors, there is still some risk it could go under.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a performance bond is not the same as a parent guarantee,” Linzer said.

I’m not a finance guy, so I’m not going to try to analyze this stuff. I get that the issue is the risk that the public could wind up on the hook in the event things go south. What I don’t see in this story, maybe because it’s not possible to accurately quantify at this point, is how big this risk is. Metro is claiming their way of doing this is less expensive, and that the tradeoff in increased risk is minimal. How valid are those claims? I don’t have a feel for that based on this story.

On a tangential note, Metro and the Medical Center have settled the lawsuit filed by the Med Center over stray current from the Main Street line. One less thing for Metro to have to deal with.

A solution in search of a problem

We were out of town over the weekend, so I managed to miss this Bill King op-ed about the “need” to elevate the Main Street line on Fannin in the Medical Center area. Having now read it, I have three things to say.

Generally it only takes one trip through the Texas Medical Center (TMC) on Fannin for a person to swear off the route permanently. It is a driver’s nightmare with dozens of indecipherable signs and lights giving directions. There have been several train-pedestrian and train-auto accidents in the area. And the traffic … well, let’s not even go there.

Many have questioned the wisdom of a multibillion-dollar investment that crams a new modal system into the same horizontal plane already crowded with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Most of the great, iconic transit systems, such as the New York subway, Washington’s Metro or Chicago’s “L,” are grade separated from street traffic. Even Dallas’ DART is largely grade separated.

The problem with grade separating our rail system is, of course, the increased cost. Estimates range from twice to five times as expensive. When we built the Main Street line, we did so without any federal funds. As a result, Metro took a number of shortcuts to contain the cost. One of those shortcuts was the contorted maze through the TMC.

[…]

The line could begin a gentle incline around Hermann Park and continue above the street level to the south side of Brays Bayou. The rail line could be tied into the elevated walkways between the buildings on either side of Fannin, providing easy, ADA-compliant access. Elevating the rail line both relieves the congestion on Fannin and insulates its circuits from the surrounding infrastructure.

1. Has Bill King forgotten just how congested that stretch of Fannin was before the rail line was built? Because I haven’t. It was a mess, and it took forever to drive through. Among other things, there are bunch of traffic lights on Fannin between Dryden and MacGregor, many of which are not at intersections but at the entrance to parking garages. Those lights are all still there and would continue to impede traffic in the event that the rail line magically disappeared. And it would still be confusing to drive through, especially if you’re headed for one of those garages – I speak from the experience of turning into a garage other than the one I intended to, more than once.

2. King is completely disingenuous about the cost. For one thing, as Metro President David Wolff points out in a letter to the editor, Metro would be competing for federal dollars to do this against its other light rail lines, including those that are in the final stages of getting funding. For another, despite the approving murmurs King’s op-ed got from the anti-rail crowd at blogHouston, doing this would surely garner opposition from those who want to see more rail being built, as it would be a poor use of limited funds, and it wouldn’t make the idea of rail any more popular among the antis; if anything, this would be used as ammunition by them for their argument that rail is “too expensive”. There’s just no value proposition here.

3. Finally, perhaps King hasn’t noticed the large number of people who now park in lots well away from the Medical Center and take the train in. I work a block away from the Smithlands station, and I see people in scrubs coming out of that lot and getting on the train (or getting out of the train and going into the lot) all day long. Every one of those people represents a car that is no longer being driven on Fannin. The rail line does more to relieve traffic congestion there than anything we’ve ever done, and when there are more lines connecting to it, thus making more of the city accessible without getting into a car, that will do even more.

The new Hermann Park train

All aboard!

Hermann Park Conservancy on Saturday will formally unveil $14 million in park improvements, including a new miniature train station, dramatically landscaped grounds and a lakeside plaza featuring a restaurant, gift shop and rest­rooms.

Among other project highlights for the 6-acre tract adjoining the northeastern edge of McGovern Lake, said conservancy executive director Doreen Stoller, were the planting of 300 trees and improvement of a waterway that will drain to Brays Bayou.

Stoller likened the transformation of the area, which abuts parking for the Houston Zoo, to that at downtown’s Discovery Green.

“This is even prettier than I imagined,” she said.

The station will serve as the focal point of the expanded miniature railroad, whose route was lengthened to nearly two miles and now includes stops at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Texas Medical Center and a transfer point to Metro’s light rail system.

We go to the zoo a lot, so we’ve been watching this progress. I can’t wait to take the girls on the new train – they’ll love it. I just hope yesterday’s inclement weather didn’t put a damper on the festivities.

So much for the Fort Bend-Medical Center shuttle

Well, that didn’t last long.

After just six months, the Texas Medical Center has pulled the plug on subsidized express bus service to and from Fort Bend County.

Fort Bend County Commissioners Court members approved an agreement with the Houston medical center in July, which was touted as a way to provide cheap transportation to some of the 14,000 medical center employees in the county.

On Tuesday, court members accepted a termination notice from the medical center, canceling the agreement.

“The use of the service is not what they had projected it was going to be,” said Fort Bend County Transit Director Paulette Shelton.

In July, Texas Medical Center Senior Vice President Joyce Camp said about 14,000 people in the Fort Bend area work at institutions in the medical center, with about 8,300 living in zip codes abutting bus routes originating in Katy and Sugar Land.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Shelton said about 100 people were riding the buses from Fort Bend County to the medical center each morning, and about the same number were riding back after work.

Precinct 4 Commissioner James Patterson said the medical center was expecting 450 riders.

“Let’s face it, when gas was $4 a gallon a lot of people signed up,” he added. “When gas went down to $1.40 a gallon, a lot of people dropped out.”

Link via Hair Balls, which noted that there were a few glitches at first, but it still seemed promising. I don’t know if the concerns about being stranded during the day if an emergency arose dampened demand, or if people just preferred driving, but whatever the reason it’s not terribly encouraging for future rail prospects. I hope some kind of after-action review of customer experiences is performed, so that a potential future successor can learn from this.