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Metro

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.

How many police forces do we need?

It’s an age-old question.

Harris County could save millions of dollars a year by consolidating overlapping law enforcement agencies, from sharing technological resources to reallocating duties from constables to the sheriff’s department, according to a report by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

The report, which was released Thursday, revives several decades-old ideas to combine resources between law enforcement agencies in Harris County, despite likely opposition from the agencies and county government, which would have the ultimate authority in enacting many of the proposed changes.

[…]

Kinder studied the 60 law enforcement agencies that form a patchwork of separate but sometimes overlapping patrols within Harris County, including the sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department, constables’ offices, school district police departments and smaller municipal police departments. Those agencies spend a combined $1.6 billion per year on law enforcement, according to the report.

“We do have a system that, for all intents and purposes, is working fairly well,” Kinder researcher Kyle Shelton said. “But there are clearly places where there are overlaps and places where we could see what efficiencies would work.”

Among ideas included in the report are a merger of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police department with the Houston Police Department, and the consolidation of smaller municipal police departments into a larger network.

One of the report’s most aggressive ideas to consolidate would be to move patrol duties from the eight Harris County constables’ offices to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Political opposition to that idea would be too difficult to overcome because agencies would have to cede governing power, [County Commissioner Steve] Radack said.

“People can study it and study it and study it, but I can assure you … the people that are really familiar with this are all going to say, no” said Radack, who was formerly the Precinct 5 constable.

You can see the report here. Two points I would add: One, this is not limited to Harris County. Two, the list above leaves out police departments associated with universities, community colleges, and medical schools. There’s a lot of law enforcement agencies out there.

I find it interesting that the main argument against any sort of consolidation is that there would be political opposition to it, as Commissioner Radack notes. I don’t doubt that he’s right, but it’s not a reason, it’s a justification. Some reforms would require legislative assistance – Constables are constitutional offices, after all – while others shouldn’t need anything more than various entities working together. I’m pretty sure that there’s a dollar figure that could be attached to each recommendation in that report. Maybe if we start talking about it, we can decide what if any of these ideas are really worth pursuing, even in the face of political opposition.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

It’s big, with smaller components that could be done as lower-cost alternatives.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston’s transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. “We’re going to have to pick and choose because we can’t do it all,” said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; “it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study.”

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency’s current financial projections.

“This is big, it’s bold,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. “It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit.” In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent in the mayor’s Complete Communities, according to Thursday’s presentation. “A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations,” said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

[…]

Patman described that vision as “almost a pie in the sky plan” given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves.

“I’m very curious about what we’re really accomplishing,” asked board member Troi Taylor. “It seems like it’s going to be a very small drop in the bucket.”

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

You’ll need to click over to look at the diagrams and explanations. There’s also a long story in the Chron that captures a lot of the discussion and feedback. Nothing is close to being finalized, so what we will eventually vote on on 2019 is still very much up in the air and dependent on what feedback Metro gets and how much the usual gang of anti-transit ghouls scream and wail. The project website is here, with an events calendar and various ways to get updates and give input. It’s early days so there’s not much there yet, but there will be. What about this interests you?

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor makes Metro appointments

Only one change, but it’s a big one.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has nominated Teresa “Terry” R. Morales to serve in Position 5 of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO) board of directors, for a term that expires April 7, 2020.

The METRO board consists of nine members. Five are nominated by the Mayor of Houston and confirmed by Houston City Council. Two are appointed by the mayors of METRO’s 14 other member cities and two are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

Morales is a Senior Vice President of Amegy Bank in the Corporate Banking Division. She is involved in various internal group activities including the Amegy PAC, the Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee, and the Amegy Women’s Initiative Diversity Markets Committee.

She replaces Christof Spieler whose term expired April 7, 2018.

Morales is a native Houstonian and grew up in Houston’s East End. She earned a BBA in Finance from the University of Houston, and is also a graduate of Leadership Houston and the Center for Houston’s Future. Her involvement in the community includes being a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum Class XXXIV, and an active role in several community organizations.

“Terry’s background in business combined with her community involvement make her an exceptional addition to the METRO board,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “As roads get more crowded, more Houstonians are ready to start using transit, but we have to make it more efficient and more convenient by building connections to destinations in high demand.”

Mayor Turner also announced his intention to reappoint four current METRO board members whose terms will expire April 7, 2020.

  • Lex Frieden, position one
  • Sanjay Ramabhadran, position two
  • Troi Taylor, position three
  • Carrin F. Patman, position four

Houston city council is scheduled to vote Wednesday, July 11, on the mayor’s appointments.

You can see the current Board here. Christof Spieler was and is a visionary and probably the most knowledgeable person about transit and transportation the Board has ever had. The bus system reimagining was his baby. All things come to an end, and if we’re lucky he’ll get back to blogging about transit now that he’s free to talk about this sort of thing in public again.

Ms. Morales comes onto a Board that has gotten a lot done in the past few years and which now has the challenge of defining and selling a vision for the future to its constituents. I wish her and her returning colleagues all the best with that task, and I wish Christof all the best in his post-Metro life.

Enabling better transit

This is great.

For less than the cost of a single bus, however, Metro might be the first transit agency in the country to take a significant step across an entire bus system that could open riding options to scores of vision-impaired customers with the use of a smartphone.

The secret is a small beacon about the size of a garage door opener, placed atop every one of those bus-stop poles.

“It is amazing when you see a need you can address it with new technologies,” said Lex Frieden, a member of the transit agency’s board and a nationally acclaimed disability-access advocate.

Users can plot their location using a mapping program, then the beacons are integrated into the directions. Often, the biggest challenge for some users is finding precisely where a bus stop is located at an intersection, or in the middle of a long block.

“It is about getting that information and getting it in your hands,” said Randy Frazier, Metro’s chief technology officer.

As someone approaches their intended stop, their phone receives signals from the beacon, which can send an alert to their phone. Alerts can be delivered either as audio instructions, such as how a mapping program gives drivers voice instructions to turn left or right, or as tactile directions that use pulsing so someone can understand the instructions via sense of touch. As they draw closer to the stop, the pulses increase until the rider knows they are in the correct spot.

[…]

The beacons are a relatively inexpensive leap that could put Metro at the forefront of making transit more accessible for many potential riders. In addition to an aging population of Baby Boomers, many of whom will need transit in the future as they lose the ability to drive, Metro and other transit agencies struggle to lessen para-transit costs.

MetroLift, which offers door-to-door service for elderly and disabled passengers, costs Metro $2.47 per mile, according to 2016 data. Providing a taxi, where applicable, reduces the cost to $1.26 per mile a passenger is carried.

Conventional transit, meanwhile, costs Metro less, about $1.11 per mile for a bus and $1.17 for light rail. When that’s considered across nearly 590 million miles of transit travel in the Houston area, shifting some of the riders to buses and trains could save millions of dollars and give elderly and disabled riders more freedom to travel without prearranged plans.

Installing a beacon at all of Metro’s roughly 9,000 bus stops is expected to cost $375,000, meaning for less than the cost of a single bus every place that a bus stops will be accessible to the visually impaired and others.

Better service for more people at a lower cost. Gotta love that. I don’t have a point to make here, I just want to make sure you keep this in mind when you hear all the blather from the usual blowhards when Metro rolls out its comprehensive transit plan later this year.

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

Metro to buy buses for Uptown BRT

Another step forward.

Metro officials next week are set to spend at least $11.2 million on buses for bus rapid transit service along Post Oak, committing the agency to spending on the controversial project after years of discussion.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members discussed the purchase, and an agreement with the Uptown Management District which is rebuilding Post Oak, Wednesday. The full board meets on Feb. 20, and at that time could approve both the purchase of 14 buses and the agreement.

“This project does exactly what good transit is supposed to do,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “It goes to a crowded area and delivers service that connects conveniently to the rest of the service area.”

Many details of the bus purchase and agreement with Uptown will be worked out in the coming week, after a discussion among board members at the capital and strategic planning committee.

Despite the loose ends, Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said she expected the board to approve the requests, so the agency will be ready for the rapid transit service by May 2019. That is around when Uptown officials expect to be ready, but about a year before the Texas Department of Transportation is set to open a bus-only system along Loop 610 that will speed transit times to the Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10.

See here for the most recent update in this process. Not mentioned in the story, but definitely a consideration, is that the Uptown BRT line would almost certainly connect to the high speed rail station, if not immediately then at some point between the line’s debut in 2019 and the Texas Central opening in 2024. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense for them to not be connected. I’m sure this will be a part of the Metro referendum later this year as well. We’ll keep an eye on this going forward.

Northwest Mall will be your Houston high speed rail terminal

No surprise.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen Northwest Mall near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as their preferred site.

The company has an option to buy the land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for Texas Central.

The announcement was largely expected, as the mall site remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses. Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

[…]

Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of stores and venues with exterior entrances remain open.

City leaders also joined with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, noting they hoped the station could spur rail development from Metro’s nearby Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290 is essentially the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

“This is the best site for Houston for many reasons,” Aguilar said.

That happened on the same day that the public hearing for the draft EIS was held in Cypress. The Dallas end of the line was chosen last week. The Trib adds a few details.

The chosen location is about 1.5 miles from Northwest Transit Center, a major bus hub and the closest public transportation connection. Despite that distance, the company said in a prepared statement Monday that the station will provide “convenient, efficient and direct” connections to the Houston METRO transit system.

METRO does not currently have any light-rail lines in that part of the city. The agency is working on a long-term plan for expanded transit service.

“So we’re in a broad range of conversation and thought as to how to provide that connection,” Texas Central President Tim Keith told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

There’s pictures at Swamplot, so go check it out. It’s true there’s not much there now, but as you can see there are big plans to change that. There aren’t any transit connections yet, but we’re talking about a 2024 debut for TCR, so there’s a lot of time for stuff to happen. I feel confident the forthcoming Metro referendum will include an item to deal with this in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it.

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.

The elections we may get in 2018

We know there are going to be a lot of contested elections up and down the ballot in 2018, both primaries and the November general, for state, county, and federal office. There are also at least four possible elections I can think of that we may get in addition to these. Let’s review.

1. Firefighters’ pay parity referendum

Remember that one? Petitions submitted, but it took a long time for them to get counted and certified, so the deadline to get on the ballot was missed? Yeah, that’s still out there, and barring a verdict that the petitions were insufficient, we’ll get to vote on it. Everyone I’ve talked to says that it would be in May, which would be the next uniform election date. After going a number of years without any May elections, we could have them two years in a row. This one would almost certainly be contentious.

2. Revenue cap repeal/modification

Another one that we thought would be on the November ballot was a revenue cap referendum. In the end, the plan was shelved so as not to endanger the pension obligation bonds. The strategy worked – the bonds passed – so now it’s time to finish off this piece of business. The main question is one of timing. If the firefighters’ pay parity proposal passes, then no further charter amendments can be voted on for two years. That presents Mayor Turner with a choice: Work to defeat the pay proposal, and thus vote on revenue cap reform in November, or put the rev cap issue on the ballot in May alongside this issue? I can make a case for either, but I’m sure the Mayor would prefer to have this up in November. We’ll see how that plays out.

Also, too, there’s the question of what exactly this referendum will do. Initially, Mayor Turner spoke about modifying it, to allow more revenue growth that would apply to public safety. More recently, he seemed to be talking full repeal, which is of course my preference. Again, we’ll see what happens.

3. Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about a new comprehensive Metro referendum, to fund further rail expansion and bus system upgrades. That was put off from last year, and appears to be on track for this year. Details and scope are yet to be determined.

4. Harris County flood mitigation bonds

In the immediate aftermath of Harvey, Commissioners Court discussed the possibility of a bond issue for flood mitigation projects. I presume this is still on the table, but as yet it isn’t more fully formed than that. If I had to bet, I’d say this happens, but it’s by far the least developed. Look to see what the Court does and we’ll know from there.

Finally, I should note that there is ongoing litigation related to the 2010 Renew Houston referendum and the 2015 term limits referendum. The former has been sent by the Supreme Court back to the lower courts, and I suppose it’s possible that there could be an order for a do-over election this year. It’s not clear to me what we might vote on if that happens, as it was City Council action that actually authorized and set the fee, but that would be among the things argued about in court, so we’ll see. For the latter there has not been a trial on the merits of the lawsuit as yet, so we are a long way from a resolution. I just wanted to touch on these since I’m sure someone was wondering about them.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 EV daily report: Just remember, the reports we get are all of Harris County

Here are today’s numbers, and here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   11,953   7,513   19,466   19,581
2015   36,322  19,789   56,111   42,520
2011   10,818   3,823   14,641   13,697
2007    8,080   3,126   11,206   12,775

So 2011 appears to be the closest comparison so far. That might imply a much higher level of turnout than what I’ve been suggesting, but I’m not prepared to believe that yet. The main reason for this is that less than 40% of the vote was cast early in 2011, and I seriously doubt that’s what we’re going to get this time. Odd year elections skew more towards Election Day and less towards early voting than even year elections – in 2015, just over half of the vote was cast early – but I think this year we will see a higher percentage of the vote cast early. The message from the County Clerk is to take advantage of the early voting period because a number of polling sites are unavailable thanks to Harvey, and I think people will heed that. We’ll take our guesses about that later in the EV period, but for now just keep that in mind. 2017 may be a bit ahead of 2011 in early voting, but I suspect that’s because more people will be voting early than usual.

It should also be noted that these reports encompass all of Harris County, so some of those numbers above are not for Houston or HISD. I’ve gone through this exercise before, but let’s review the percentage of county turnout that was in Houston in these elections:


Year   Harris  Houston   Share
==============================
2015  421,460  268,872   63.8%
2013  260,437  174,620   67.0%
2011  164,971  121,468   73.6%
2009  257,312  178,777   69.5%
2007  193,945  123,413   63.6%
2005  332,154  189,046   56.9%
2003  374,459  298,110   79.6%

“Share” is just simply the percentage of the county vote that came from Houston. There’s a big span here, but that comes with an asterisk, because the conditions were not the same each year. For example, in 2015 and 2007, Harris County had bond elections in addition to the state constitutional amendments. In 2005, the notorious state anti-gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, which coupled with a non-competitive Mayoral election meant a much larger county share. Finally, in 2003 there was the Metro referendum, which covered all of the county. There were also no state constitutional amendments on the ballot, as those had been voted on in September, to enhance the odds of the tort “reform” amendment passing.

Bottom line, with boring constitutional amendments on the ballot, I’d suggest that county/city ratio will be like the other years, which is to say between 67 and 73 percent. Let’s say 70%, just to split the difference. That’s another thing we’ll have to take into account when we do our projections later on.

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

Film at 11.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Harvey’s car carnage

Lot of people lost their wheels in the floods.

More than a week after Harvey slammed Houston, wreckers like Bryan Harvey are still hauling cars and trucks from flooded neighborhoods to dealerships or to vast fields where insurance adjusters can assess the damage. Harvey killed at least 70 people, destroyed or damaged 200,000 homes — and inflicted an automotive catastrophe on one of America’s most car-dependent cities.

The Houston area has lost hundreds of thousands of cars, says Michael Hartmann, general manager of Don McGill Toyota of Katy, a city of 17,000 about 30 miles west of Houston. “We have a shortage of rental cars and people not sure how to go about handling claims and just what to do with their lives.”

The wreckage has forced Houstonians to scramble to try to rent or borrow cars or to work from home — if they can. Some have it worse: They can’t return to work until they resolve the transportation problems, depriving many of them of income and slowing the city’s return to business as usual.

[…]

Houston is used to flooding. But it had never seen anything like Harvey, which dropped a year’s worth of rain onto the metro area. Flooded roads and neighborhoods left cars submerged and, in most cases, impossible to salvage.

“Almost every square inch of your vehicle has wires in it,” says Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Cox Automotive. “The materials are often flame-retardant, but they are not waterproof.”

Cox estimates that up to 500,000 cars and trucks were damaged or destroyed, amounting to nearly $5 billion in damage. Auto insurance claims have reached 160,000, according to the Insurance Council of Texas. Cars are being taken by the hundreds to a make-shift lot at the 500-acre Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, about 35 miles east of town. Most of the time, the insurance adjusters shake their heads at the damage Harvey has wrought and declare the cars a total loss.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the adjuster,” says Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Texas insurance council. “He’s just seen, say, a 2015 Toyota Camry. He knows this vehicle has been underwater for six days. They can look at it, but they know water is all throughout that vehicle. They know it is totaled … He’s going to see the same vehicle many times.”

Many insurers are reluctant even to try to repair cars that risk further problems and repairs later.

In the meantime, there’s a desperate shortage of rental cars. Enterprise Holdings, which includes the Enterprise, National and Alamo brands, has moved thousands of vehicles to southeast Texas and plans to have brought in at least 17,000 by the end of September. The Avis Budget Group, which operates Avis and Budget, is moving 10,000 vehicles into the affected areas, waiving late fees, one-way rental fees and rental extension fees in and around Houston.

Pro tip: Don’t buy any used cars in Houston for at least the next year. If we’re going to do any big-picture radical rethinking of how Houston is built and configured post-Harvey, building a region that has more robust transit and is thus less car-dependent would be on the to-do list. Harvey was exceptional, but it’s not like we haven’t had plenty of “normal” flooding events that have caused some amount of havoc with people’s vehicles. I really don’t expect much in the way of big-picture radical rethinking to happen, but in the event I’m wrong and it does, put this down for the record.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

At City Hall, Houston and Texas Central Partners announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which commits both sides to share environmental surveys, utility analysis and engineering related to the project and surrounding area and work together to develop new transit and other travel options to and from the likely terminus of the bullet train line.

In the memorandum, Texas Central notes the likely end of their Houston-to-Dallas line will be south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610 and north of Interstate 10. The exact site has been long suspected as the current location of Northwest Mall.

[…]

The cooperation between Houston and Texas Central is no surprise. City officials, notably Mayor Sylvester Turner, have praised the project, with the mayor citing it among examples of his goal of reducing automobile dependency.

“We also look forward to the project’s creation of job opportunities and economic development,” Turner said in a prepared statement.

Here’s the longer version of the story. You can see a copy of the MOU here. I’ve highlighted the most interesting bits below:

3. Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees to coordinate with the City, Harris County, METRO, TxDOT, and GCRD to plan and create the design of the Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees that the design of the Hempstead Corridor must preserve feasibility for high capacity commuter transit. Upon the submission of final approved design plans, and the final approved Definitive Agreements, the Mayor may present to City Council for consideration and approval a resolution or ordinance allowing Texas Central use of the Hempstead Corridor for the purposes contemplated by the Project.

4. Houston Terminal Station Intermodal Connectivity. Texas Central shall ensure the Houston Terminal Station is highly integrated with local transit systems. Texas Central will choose a location for the Houston Terminal Station for which a high level of integration with local transit systems is feasible. Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, GCRD, and other agencies as needed on the location and layout of the Houston Terminal Station and ensure the Houston Terminal Station provides convenient, efficient, and direct access for passengers to
and from local transit systems.

5. Houston Terminal Station Location. Texas Central has advised the City and the City acknowledges that Texas Central proposes to locate the Houston Terminal Station in the general area south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610, and north of I-10. Texas Central will consult with the City prior to finalizing the location of the Houston Terminal Station.

6. Connections to Major Activity Centers. In order to minimize mobility impacts on existing mobility systems and enhance local transportation options, Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, the GCRD, and other agencies as needed for the study, design and construction of connections specifically related to the Project to facilitate efficient multi-modal connections between the Houston Terminal Station and the City’s major activity centers. If Texas Central or the City engages a third party to provide services related to such study, design and construction of connections, the allocation of costs and expenses related to such study, design and construction of connections contemplated by this paragraph 6 shall be mutually agreed upon by Texas Central and the City prior to engaging the services for same.

First, this confirms what everyone basically knew, that the terminal will be at 290 and 610. Of interest is the terminal as an intermodal center, designed to connect people to other forms of transit, as well as the discussion of what those other connections will be. The Uptown BRT line will be one such connector, and then there’s the possible “Inner Katy” light rail line, which as we know from previous entries would involve all of the groups name-checked in point #6. Whether that is dependent on the next Metro referendum, which would likely be in 2018, remains to be seen, but I hope it means we start seeing some activity on possible design and routes for such a line. I’m excited by this. Swamplot and the Press have more.

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

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

Stay classy, Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Culberson does his Culberson thing to Metro again

It is what it is. But maybe, just maybe, there’s now a sell-by date on it.

Houston may have stopped building light rail lines, but the fight over them rages on — right to Washington where Rep. John Culberson again has inserted language keeping tracks off Richmond and Post Oak.

For the fifth consecutive year, Culberson, R-Houston, added language to the draft of the House appropriations bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, specific to the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Section 163 of the THUD bill, as it’s called, bars federal officials from spending money that “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

The area in question is within Culberson’s district, and he vigorously has opposed any light rail projects along Richmond, citing resident opposition and his belief that Metro deceived voters when it narrowly won approval for a “Westpark” rail line in 2003.

[…]

In the draft bill released Monday, the language provides for Metro to regain federal funding if it wins voter approval that specifically identifies a route along Richmond and Post Oak as part of a region-wide comprehensive plan for transit.

“The ballot language shall include reasonable cost estimates, sources of revenue to be used and the total amount of bonded indebtedness to be incurred as well as a description of each route and the beginning and end point of each proposed transit project.

Metro, meanwhile is working on a regional transit plan, holding the first of 24 community meetings on Monday night in Cypress. That leaves Metro a long way from any work along Richmond, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“I think, quite frankly, we’re at a point in time right now where we need to see what we should be doing,” Lambert said.

We are familiar with the drill by now. Metro is working on that regional transportation plan, and I feel reasonably confident that a Universities Line 2.0 will be part of it. It just makes sense. We may get to vote on a new referendum next year, at a time when Culberson will be facing his most competitive race in a decade. I have to assume there will be some public discussion about this between now and then. Let’s just say that I welcome the debate.

Bonds on the ballot

Mayor Turner has one more item to deal with this November.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is poised ask voters to approve bonds this fall to fund improvements to city parks, community centers, fire stations and health clinics, adding hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to a crowded November ballot.

The proposed five-year capital improvement plan, unveiled at a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, calls for $6.7 billion in airport and utility projects, to be funded by user fees, as well as $538 million in improvements such as expanded police and fire stations, renovated libraries, miles of bike trails and repairs to city buildings to paid for with taxes or philanthropic gifts.

The plan relies on a November 2017 bond vote as one of its key funding sources, with about $190 million worth of projects in the five-year plan contingent on approval of new debt.

Houston’s last bond vote was in 2012, and the city’s capital spending is expected to quickly exhaust the debt voters authorized then.

“It’s not a question of going to voters with debt. We will be going to the voters with an investment proposal, a package of community improvements that are important to delivering the kind of services Houstonians expect and deserve,” Turner said. “Those improvements, whether they are police or fire stations, libraries or community centers or parks, make our city a better place for all of us to live.”

City Finance Director Kelly Dowe said Tuesday the size of the bond package has not been determined, but Houston typically seeks enough leeway to last a bit beyond any one five-year capital plan.

[…]

The mayor has pledged to ask Houstonians to repeal a voter-imposed cap that limits what the city can collect in property taxes. That rule is a lightning rod for conservatives, who spearheaded its passage 13 years ago.

Turner’s landmark pension reform bill, which takes effect Saturday, also requires voters to approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. Should voters reject it, those groups’ substantial benefit cuts could be rescinded, hiking the city’s costs overnight.

Adding a general bond issue to the ballot alongside the pension bonds and what amounts to a tax hike is risky, said Jay Aiyer, a Texas Southern University political scientist professor.

“The more measures you put on the ballot, the more confusing it becomes for voters and I think the more attention is taken away from selling the one item that absolutely must pass, and that’s the pension obligation bonds,” Aiyer said. “It would make a whole lot more sense to make the pension obligation bonds a standalone and push some of these other items off.”

First of all, “what amounts to a tax hike”? Leave the spin out, please. Four of the five bond issues in 2012, which totaled $410 million, passed with at least 62% of the vote; the fifth drew 55%. That was a very high turnout context – there were over 400K votes cast for each item – while this year will not be. Even if the Supreme Court intervenes and puts city elections on the ballot, far fewer people will vote this year. Still, bond issues usually pass. Especially if there aren’t city elections, all of these issues will come down to how successful the Mayor and his team are at getting the voters they need to come out and support him.

I would push back on the notion, as expressed by the Chron’s Rebecca Elliott, that having these bond issues makes the November ballot “ugly”. We are basically talking three items – revenue cap change, pension obligation bonds, and these bonds, though they will likely be split into multiple smaller items – in an election where there may be no city candidates on anyone’s ballot. Remember, there will be no Metro vote or Astrodome vote – what we have now is all we’re likely to get. Frankly, unless the Supreme Court sticks its nose in and orders city elections this fall, the number of votes people will be asked to cast will likely be smaller than what it usually is in an odd-numbered year. In addition, only the revenue cap vote is one that will be in any way complex – we have bond issues all the time, people understand them, and the pension obligation bonds are just a special case of that. Ugly to me will be having a bunch of campaigns put together on short notice and sprinting towards the finish line with far less time to do the sort of retail-politics outreach that most city candidates get to do. YMMV, but if what we have now is what we end up with, I’ll consider it a relaxing stroll. Campos has more.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals

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

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

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

We’re Listening

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

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

No Metro vote this year

One less to worry about.

Agency officials expect to begin public meetings to gather input on where expanded bus and rail lines might go in late June.

But the critical public response – the money to fund preferred projects via a voter referendum – likely is 18 months away, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

“The community input process is going to take a lot of time,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board, calling the chances of asking voters to approve a bond issue this year “unrealistic.”

“My guess is it would not be before November 2018,” Patman said.

The timeline is less rosy than predicted when the regional transit plan was rolled out in February, when Patman and others said a vote this November remained a possibility.

The regional transit plan, meanwhile, could be approved by the Metro board next summer, after a series of meetings with riders and those who rarely interact with transit.

[…]

Metro officials held 13 meetings with agency employees to solicit ideas from bus and rail operators about what improvements are most needed. That feedback, CEO Tom Lambert said, confirmed what many officials already have said about the need to improve bus stops and shelters and make minor adjustments to routes to improve service.

Also key to the plan as officials prep for meetings in late June is soliciting comment from people in places where bus service is nonexistent, board members said.

“Historically, the meetings have been held in places where Metro is already operating service,” said vice-chairman Jim Robinson.

Attracting suburban interest for transit, and properly prioritizing it with other needs, is an important part of the plan, officials said.

See here, here, and here for some background. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred to see this ready to go this November, as there are a lot of needs to plan for and the sooner we begin the better. But I’d also rather get this right than rush it, and there’s certainly a case for not putting this on a ballot that will be dominated by the revenue cap referendum. Which is not to say that 2018 will be better – there will be far more races on the ballot, if nothing else – but it is a reasonable choice. Let’s get the best plan we can, with a compelling vision for the future, and begin selling it with an eye for next year. KUHF has more.

Metro begins regional transportation planning

Metro wants your input.

We want to hear your ideas for a regional transit plan for the future. METRO, led by its Board of Directors and chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services. It will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, approved by voters in 2003.

Our goals are to improve mobility, enhance connectivity, support vibrant communities and ensure a return on investment. We will be guided by these principles: safety, stewardship, accessibility and equity.

So talk to us.

What type of transit would you use? How do you feel about the goals above? If you don’t use transit today, what would convince you to use it? Can you list three important things METRO should keep top of mind as it shapes this regional plan?

Click here to learn more details. You’ll find tabs at the top of the page. One is “Share Your Vision” where you can submit your ideas online. You’ll also be able to see a presentation on our regional transit plan.

At the specified link you can give feedback, review the 2003 referendum, and read a presentation about the Regional Transit Plan. The latter is from February, and it was the first indication of the planning process, though Metro Chair Carrin Patman was talking about it well before then. The ultimate goal is for this to culminate in another referendum to specify and plan for particular projects, which may include more rail lines like the ones we voted on in 2003 but were not able to complete. Metro could aim to have something on the ballot this year, though given the likely presence of pension and revenue cap issues (and maybe another Astrodome vote), it’s not clear if they should aim for this year or next. Whatever the case, they want to hear from you, so go tell them what you want.

Revenue cap will be on the November ballot

Here it comes, assuming the pension reform bill doesn’t get mugged in a dark alley.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to ask voters to lift Houston’s cap on property tax collections in November, a move that could loosen one of the city’s primary fiscal constraints as it confronts still-hefty pension and debt costs that leave little breathing room to maintain city services.

The referendum would fulfill the mayor’s pledge to try to overturn the revenue cap if he succeeded in reforming Houston’s pension systems.

“Repealing the revenue cap means a better credit rating for Houston and lower costs for taxpayers when we finance improvements to the city buildings, parks and libraries that serve our neighborhoods, aging fleet, bad streets, illegal dumping and deferred maintenance,” Turner told an audience of 1,400 Thursday at his annual State of the City address. “We must achieve sustainable structural budget balance by making sure that our recurring income is equal to or more than our recurring expenses, and in fact, we must always seek ways to reduce our expenses.”

[…]

Houston’s pension reform deal as passed by the Senate includes a requirement that voters approve the $1 billion in bonds Turner plans to inject into the under-funded police and municipal pensions. The bonds would not require a tax hike, but the bill would reverse the groups’ benefit cuts if voters reject the bonds.

Meanwhile, a petition submitted two weeks ago that is being reviewed by the City Secretary calls for a public vote to require a shift to 401(k)-style defined contribution plans for all city workers hired after the start of 2018.

Lifting the revenue cap, on the other hand, would increase homeowners’ property taxes. The owner of a $200,000 Houston home saved about $84 in taxes over the last three years, costing the city an estimated $220 million in revenue.

“You’re risking a lot by putting two potentially inflammatory items on the ballot that could stimulate an anti-Turner vote,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, noting that he thinks the pension obligation bonds alone would pass. “But if you put in bond plus revenue cap, that’s a bitter pill that conservatives would have to swallow all at once.”

Harris County Republican Party Chair Paul Simpson said the party has not decided whether to back the issuance of pension obligation bonds, but it already has committed to campaigning against lifting the revenue cap.

“Without that cap there, there will be the inevitable pressure to solve every fiscal problem by raising taxes,” Simpson said. “It’s the best tool we have to actually impose fiscal discipline on the city.”

Turner appeared undaunted by the prospect of a financially weighty ballot.

“Protection – it’s not free. Police officers are not free. … Firefighters are not free. People who are fixing our streets – they are not free,” he told reporters after his speech at the downtown Marriott Marquis hotel. “When people have a need, they want the city to respond. Well, we want to respond.”

I’m all in on this, as you know. My preference would be to go for full repeal, though what the Mayor has generally talked about is building in an exception for public safety. Which I can live with, given that revenues tend to be fungible, but the honest and future-lawsuit-proof path is to ditch the stupid revenue cap altogether.

The likely presence of a pension obligation bond referendum on the ballot doesn’t strike me as a problem, as both items can be sold together as a package deal to get Houston’s finances on firmer ground. And if the people who are now insisting that we vote on the pension obligation bonds then show their true colors by opposing those bonds, well, now we’ve got a villain to run against. The Mayor can campaign for them by sending Greater Houston Partnership types out to the wealthy neighborhoods to talk fiscal responsibility, and he can send Democratic partisans to the clubs and other receptive audiences to tell them to send a message to the out of touch Republicans in Austin that they can’t meddle in our city. I’d feel pretty good about our chances with that kind of campaign.

It’s a different question whether Metro will want to join in and put its own referendum on the ballot as well or wait till 2018. There’s a case for waiting and a case for action, and I’m glad it’s not my decision to make.

Improving Metro service for disabled riders

It’s a work in progress.

Many elderly and disabled people in the region rely on the bus, and a 6-foot stretch of missing sidewalk can cut off their access completely. Advocates expect better from the city with the world’s largest medical center, home to the former president, George H.W. Bush, who signed the Americans With Disabilities Act – and who now uses a wheelchair to get around himself.

Largely via prodding from [Metro board member Lex] Frieden, who helped craft the Americans With Disabilities Act, Metro officials are taking another look at increasing access for disabled and elderly riders by improving their paths to mass transit. As Metro revamps its own policies that might drive away disabled riders – such as tense interactions with bus operators – the larger issues remain smoothing over Houston’s bumpy sidewalk system and repairing Metro’s crumbling concrete slabs at many bus stops.

City leaders agree there are major problems, ranging from poorly maintained sidewalks to ill-placed utility poles and electrical boxes.

“I am very sensitive about that, especially with the disabled community,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Aside from the city’s own sidewalk plans, Metro officials expect to spend $16.5 million over the next five years, including more than $3.5 million in the current fiscal year on “universal accessibility,” a hodgepodge of projects aimed at making it easier for everyone to get to a bus. Projects include improved sidewalks, rebuilt ramps, making bus stop slabs level and even adding trash cans.

Still, problems persist even as Houston enjoys new development that brings new sidewalks and street crossings.

“Overall, it is getting better,” Frieden said on a recent tour of problem spots old and new along Metro’s routes. “Any time there is new development, there is new construction that is up to code and often it is better. The problem is that one exception that keeps me from benefiting from the new development.”

Increasing access to Metro buses also helps curtail the growing demand for costly, door-to-door paratransit provided by MetroLift.

MetroLift cost $54 million in 2014, about the same the agency spent on commuter bus services to park-and-ride lots, which provided four times as many trips. On a per-trip basis, each 2014 MetroLift trip cost $22.51 for a taxi ride or $30.46 for a small bus equipped with a wheelchair lift, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Every conventional bus trip costs Metro $4.78 on average.

I wrote about the need for good sidewalks in my Vision for Metro post about boosting bus ridership. I admit I didn’t think of it in terms of making the system more accessible for disabled riders, which as this story notes would allow Metro to provide fewer of the more expensive MetroLift rides, but the principle was the same. People can’t and won’t ride the buses if they can’t get to and from the bus stops in a safe and convenient manner. It’s good that Metro is putting some money into addressing the issue, but let’s be clear that this is not, and should not be, strictly a problem for Metro to solve. It’s a Houston issue and a Harris County issue, too. We all need to treat it like the pressing concern that it is.

Metro still fixing rail car issues

Someday this will all be over.

Houston’s light rail system is fully open, but closing out a complicated rail car purchase that nearly derailed the new lines remains a challenge for transit officials.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials continue withholding $12.9 million from CAF U.S.A. – the builder of the vehicles – as they debate the amount of liquidated damages owed because of delays and delivery of railcars that were overweight, leaky and halted by faulty axles, among other problems.

When those discussions could conclude and what sort of damages Metro could receive is uncertain, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “We are going to continue to work with CAF, address the issues and go from there.”

In the meantime, the Metro board on Thursday extended a contract with Parsons Transportation Group, an engineering and design firm, for oversight of the CAF purchase. The extension carries the contract beyond its previous expiration in May to April 2018 and adds nearly $700,000 to the contract, which has already paid Parsons $29.6 million.

All 39 of the new light rail cars purchased are available for service, and carried a higher-than-normal number of passengers because of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

All of the cars, however, also have a handful of fleet defects that CAF will have to correct, said Scott Grogan, Metro’s senior director of rail operations.

[…]

The cars are only part of the stumbles related to the rail lines that Metro has raced to correct. Axle counters along the line led to delays in service for months, dropping on-time performance, especially on the Red Line, which represents most rail trips.

Timing has improved significantly since a blitz of repairs prior to the Super Bowl held last month in Houston. In January, the Red Line posted its highest on-time percentage, 92.6 percent, since November 2015. For many of the months between, fewer than 80 percent of the trains arrived on time.

Officials said despite the lingering issues and unresolved matters, the system is carrying people and growing. Buoyed by heavy use for the Super Bowl week, light rail weekday ridership was 2 percent higher in February, compared to the same month last year.

On Saturdays and Sundays, use was increased 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

“This isn’t limiting our ability to provide service,” board member Christof Spieler said of the railcar repairs.

It’s annoying that Metro is still dealing with this crap, but it will eventually get sorted. I’m focusing on the fact that the Main Street line’s on time performance has returned to normal levels, and that ridership continues to be strong. I’ve done more riding on Metro – mostly bus, but some train – in the last year than in any previous year I’ve been in Houston. The bus system redesign has been great for me, enabling my wife and I to carpool to work without having to worry about it when one or the other of us needs to go in early or stay late or run an errand after work. Sure it helps that we live in the inner Loop, but that’s where transit is most needed, and it keeps one of our cars off of I-45 every day. This isn’t directly applicable to the story here, but I think it’s good to remember that while Metro has its problems, it does do a good job at what it’s supposed to do.

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

For an agency that’s spent decades guiding freeway expansion, it was a stark admission for members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation policy council.

“Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity,” the agency’s staff wrote.

Facing a future in which 14.2 million people will live in the eight-county Houston area in 2050, transportation planners are proposing a special task force that will work on the region’s long-range transportation plan so that high-capacity transit can start to gain a foothold after years – perhaps decades in some cases – without traction in car-crazed Houston.

The regional transportation plan is updated every five years, for a 25-year period. The current plan, approved in 2015, covers until 2040. The next version will reflect plans for highway, transit, bicycle and maritime projects for 2020 to 2045.

Though plans always have some bold transit components – ranging from commuter trains to major expansions of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail system – they rarely proceed in earnest.

“Some of them have been in three or four editions of our plan and they are no farther along than they were 15 years ago,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the area council, which acts as the local metropolitan planning organization responsible for doling out federal transportation funds.

On the one hand, it’s very encouraging to see official recognition of the reality that road capacity is a finite thing, and that expanding transit in the greater region is going to be vital to meeting our mobility needs. On the other hand, I’m going to be 79 years old in 2045, so my expectations are necessarily modest. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

Metro preps regional transit plan

This could be on our November ballot as well.

A pending long-term regional transit plan, and likely voter referendum as early as November, will determine where Metro goes. More importantly, they will show what level of support people in the Houston region have for more buses, longer train routes and commuter service to increasingly urbanizing suburban communities.

What’s clear, transit officials acknowledged on Feb. 15 during their first in-depth discussion of the transit plan’s focus, is many solutions to traffic congestion will sit on transit agency shelves for years to come.

“We know we will never have enough resources to build everything,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “How do we choose which projects are most worthwhile?”

Board members during the discussion said a host of factors will influence transit project priorities, though the critical litmus test will be whether a project can reliably and quickly serve a large number of riders and solve a congestion challenge. Officials predict as the region grows freeways will clog even more with cars and trucks for more hours of the day. Expansion of many freeways is limited, so using the lanes more effectively or drawing people off the freeway will be critical.

“We’re all going to be more transit-dependent because we can’t spend two hours getting to work,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said.

Transit agency staff has started compiling a list of unfinished projects, including those left over from the contentious 2003 referendum and financial commitments from an extension of Metro’s 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.

Along with public input and ongoing discussions, Metro could have a draft of a regional transit plan – incorporating not only service in Metro’s area, but beyond its own boundaries – by April under an accelerated timetable.

[…]

There are options for starting major transit projects within the next five years, but they require transit officials to either come up with alternative sources of money or ask voters to approve more spending, which could mean more borrowing and new taxes or fees to pay off the debt.

Officials are exploring both options. Last year, officials approved soliciting interest from private firms for development of a train line from the Texas Medical Center to Missouri City. The line, estimated to cost at least $400 million, has political support from many Houston area federal, state and local officials. Questions related to the proposal pushed the deadline for companies to express interest in partnerships with Metro from Feb. 7 to March 20.

Metro leaders, after new board members were installed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year, also have said a voter referendum for more spending is likely. Transit board chairwoman Carrin Patman said the regional transit plan could lead to a vote as early as November, though the plan itself will inform what could end up in front of voters.

“It’s possible,” she said of an election in nine months. “We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to the plan and what is the best course.”

A referendum, officials said, could be approval for a single project that transit supporters consider high-priority or politically palatable. A entire suite of projects also could be put in front of voters.

See here for some background. The plan doesn’t exist yet, so it’s more than a little premature to speculate. The howling chaos in Washington doesn’t help, either. I’d prefer a bigger package to vote on than a smaller one, but a bigger one carries a lot more risk, as the opposition will be more intense. Still, we did pass the 2003 referendum against a pretty fierce and well-funded No effort, and I’d guess the Metro service area is more amenable to transit in general and rail in particular now than it was then. But even people who do support those things may vote against a referendum if they don’t think it gives them something they want. And even if Metro wants to put something up for a vote, there’s an argument to be made to wait till 2018 and do as much public engagement as possible beforehand. There’s a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll just have to see what they present when they have something to show us.

Another point about Metro and marketing

Metro receives a good report in its quadrennial audit, and also a good suggestion.

The public perception of vagrancy, loitering and even crime remains a challenge for Houston transit officials that has made its way into Metro’s new performance audit.

The audit, which Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board accepted Wednesday- a largely perfunctory approval – gave the agency positive marks in many respects but noted along with lagging fare collections and insufficient marketing that too many people consider the area’s bus and train system unsafe or unsightly.

“Metro needs to be a part of the discussion and ultimate solution regarding vagrancy, loitering, and panhandling on and around the transit system,” outside auditors wrote. “Metro should work with social service agencies, churches and the city to address this issue. The ultimate outcome of any collaboration to address this challenge could stem the loss of ridership.”

[…]

Still, for some riders – and especially nonriders – the lingering image of Metro’s public transit is one of loitering and problematic vagrancy.

“It’s just a rolling homeless shelter,” said Sek Pamyu, 44, who works downtown and occasionally rides the train to meetings.

Others said the perception is overblown.

“A lot of that is elitist, maybe even racist,” said Lyle Boatwright, 28, who frequently rides the Red Line train in downtown and Midtown. “Public transit is for everybody. …You don’t get to pick the other passengers.”

Patman agreed changing that image is important, though she stressed it is not a systemwide crisis.

“Certainly we do get feedback from our riders that it is a problem at some locations,” Patman said. “And we’re working with everyone involved to reduce that.”

Metro has improved cooperation with other city agencies, transit police chief Vera Bumpers said. A transit officer is now assigned to the homeless outreach team, and officers have increased their visibility in specific locations, such as Wheeler Transit Center, following complaints.

I’ve been a reasonably frequent bus rider over the past year or so, and I agree that this perception is overblown. The people I see on the bus are people going from point A to point B. I’m sure there are some problems, but none that I have seen. That said, if people think that there is a problem and it is a barrier to them using Metro, then Metro ought to take steps to combat it. I’ve advocated for Metro marketing itself before as a way to boost ridership, and I still think it’s a good idea. The people who use Metro are an asset to them, and so are their stories. Metro should take advantage of that.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.

When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.

But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.

What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.

Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.

[…]

The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.

Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.

There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.

The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.

First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.

“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.

Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.

Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.