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Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

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.

Early voting so far

The Chron looks at the first day of early voting and some area races.

Early voting began Monday for local elections next month that will determine who leads increasingly diverse Pasadena, the fate of a major school bond referendum in League City and whether Houston’s largest school district pays tens of millions to the state to comply with a controversial policy and avoid a potentially bigger financial hit.

Across Harris County, 1,153 voters turned out Monday for the elections, figures show. They included many who live within the Houston Independent School District and voted for a second time on “recapture,” a process through which so-called property tax-wealthy school districts pay the state to help fund districts that collect less.

[…]

Two candidates, Bill Benton and Edmund Samora, are seeking to unseat Rosenberg Mayor Cynthia McConathy, who stirred debate last year after sending an email to city employees inviting them to participate in prayer at the start of the new year. Richmond Mayor Evalyn Moore has been serving in her post since the 2012 death of her husband, Hilmar Moore, who had been the city’s mayor for 63 years. She now faces Tres Davis, who is running what an online fundraiser calls a “People’s Campaign.”

Meanwhile, in Stafford, longtime Mayor Leonard Scarcella, who has held his seat since 1969, is running unopposed.

Sugar Land has only one contested seat: that to fill the position of Harish Jajoo, a city councilman who ran unsuccessfully in 2016 to be the city’s first South Asian mayor. He chose not to seek re-election as a councilman.

Of note among school district trustee races, Lamar Consolidated ISD’s Anna Gonzales, who was indicted on charges related to bribery in a case that was dismissed last year, faces an opponent in Joe Hubenak, the son of the late state representative and LCISD board member by the same name.

In Brazoria County, Pearland voters are heading to the polls to vote for mayor, City Council and school trustees. A letter from a real estate agent denouncing “liberal gay rights Democrats” trying to take over the city and school board elections there – which are nonpartisan – drew ire from many progressive groups, as well as longtime Mayor Tom Reid and two other candidates endorsed by the letter.

In Clear Creek ISD, the district is asking voters to approve a $487 million bond that officials say is needed to build new schools and keep up with growing student populations. But conservative groups are concerned that the bond’s steep price tag includes too many unnecessary frills, such as $13.7 million to renovate Clear Creek High School’s auditorium.

Consternation over the bond has set up a showdown between two warring political action committees, or PACs, which have spread from national races down to municipal races and local bond referenda.

The Harris County Clerk is sending out its daily EV reports as usual, with a new feature this time – they are posting that report online, which you can find here. As that is a generic URL, I presume it will simply be updated each day, so be sure to hit Refresh if you’re going back at a later date. The vast majority of the vote in the usual places should be for the HISD recapture referendum. There’s no way to tell how many of the mail ballots are for that and how many are for the other races. I may venture some guesses at overall turnout later in the process, but for now I’m just going to shrug and say this is all too new and unprecedented to make anything resembling an educated guess. Have you voted yet (I have not yet), and if so how are you voting on the HISD issue, if that’s on your ballot?

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

Jarvis Johnson wins HD139 special election

For whatever it turns out to be worth.

Jarvis Johnson

Jarvis Johnson

Houston voters on Saturday selected Jarvis D. Johnson to fill the remainder of the unexpired term of former District 139 State Representative Sylvester Turner, now mayor of Houston.

Johnson, a former Houston city councilman, defeated Rickey “Raykay” Tezino in Saturday’s race, according to unofficial results. He was the only challenger.

Johnson will serve until at least January. To hold on to the position past that point, Johnson will have to defeat Kimberly Willis in a May 24 special election.

Willis, a social worker and community activist, did not choose to compete in Saturday’s bid to fill Turner’s unexpired term, instead focusing her efforts on the May 24 match up. Primary runoff elections in judicial, sheriff’s and constable races will also be held that day.

Here are the election returns from the Secretary of State. As you can see, the story does not convey the magnitude of Johnson’s win, which was with over 83% of the vote. Of course, that was 83% of 1,836 total votes, so as landslides go it was fairly modest in scope. It’s the election on May 24 that really matters. If Johnson wins that, he gets a head start on all the other freshman legislators-to-be. If not, he’s just another footnote.

Here are the HD120 special election results as well, in which two people who will not be a part of the 2017 Legislature will now go to a runoff to decide who gets to be called “Representative” for a few months. I pity everyone involved in that endeavor.

In other news, here are the election results from Fort Bend County. Of interest are the city of Richmond ballot propositions. As noted in that Chron story above, Proposition 1, to increase the number of city commissioners, passed by a large margin, with over 82% voting in favor. Prop 2, for single member districts, failed by a 47-53 tally.

And finally, every election has at least one reminder that every vote counts. Here’s this election’s reminder:

The Katy School Board Race between Joe Adams and George Scott will not be decided until Friday when provisional ballots are examined, and when additional military ballots could arrive in the mail.

When the votes were tallied on Saturday night George Scott was ahead of incumbent Joe Adams by seven votes. Scott had 1,473 votes to Adams 1,466 but there are 12 provisional ballots that need further examination. That examination will happen on Friday according to Scott. Friday is also the deadline for military ballots.

Seven votes, y’all. I couldn’t find an official election returns page, so I’ll assume that this story is accurate, and I’ll keep my eyes open for a followup on Friday. In the meantime, my tentative congratulations to George Scott for the win.

Representation in Richmond

One of the smaller elections going on right now has some important questions to answer.

Every time Tres Davis drives over the cracks in the streets of North Richmond, he remembers why he’s fighting for change.

There are few sidewalks or streetlights in the historically black neighborhood. Residents live in crumbling, piecemeal homes or aging trailers.

The Brazos River encloses North Richmond on three sides. On the fourth side is a railroad track. When a train comes by – as one does every 18 minutes – there isn’t a convenient way out of the neighborhood.

Davis’ campaign for an open city commissioner’s seat – and to expand the local elected board and change how members are elected – illustrates a broader quest across Texas for greater minority representation in once-rural towns that are now fast-growing suburbs, where whites are now in the minority but continue their hold on political power.

At 55 percent Hispanic, 25 percent white and 17 percent African-American, Richmond not only fits that mold, but serves as the seat of government in Fort Bend County, one of the fastest-growing and most-diverse counties in the United States.

“The fact that Fort Bend County and Richmond in particular are diversifying so quickly demonstrates the need for racial inclusion for groups who historically haven’t had as much say,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Davis, who is African-American, figures his election to an open city commissioner’s seat would immediately increase minority representation. He is seeking to fill the seat vacated by a white commissioner who recently died. That would give Richmond an African-American and a Hispanic on its two-member commission, along with a white mayor and city manager.

Davis also is backing two propositions that aim to make the city’s elected board more inclusive and responsive to the needs of low-income minority residents.

Proposition 1 would increase the number of city commissioners from two to four. Proposition 2 would have city commissioners elected from single-member districts, instead of at large.

Read the whole thing, it’s quite interesting. It should be clear that it’s harder for a city government to be representative of a diverse population when there are only three elected positions, especially when one of those positions was held by the same person for 63 (!) years. One can argue the merits of single-member districts versus at-large representation, but if this story is accurate, then Tres Davis’ North Richmond neighborhood has been getting the short end of the stick for a long time, and a likely reason for that is that no one in Richmond government has been from there. Having more city commissioners – as the story notes, Richmond is the only city in Texas with a city manager form of government and a council/commission that has only two members – would present an opportunity to alleviate that. Unless there’s something I’m missing here, I’d back Richmond’s Prop 1, and would likely support its Prop 2 as well.

Can you ever truly “fix” the 59/610 interchange?

I kind of think the answer is “No”, but they’re going to try anyway.

With Houston choking on traffic congestion from Clear Lake to Jersey Village, an infusion of $447 million in state funds promises relief sooner than expected at three notorious freeway bottlenecks.

That sum amounts to more than one-third of $1.3 billion allocated to relieve congestion in major Texas cities where officials announced targeted projects Wednesday. As a result, major upgrades to the Loop 610 interchange with U.S. 59 near Uptown and widening of Interstate 45 south of Houston and Interstate 10 west of Katy will happen years before initially predicted.

“The sooner you can get it constructed … chances are it will be a lower price as opposed to a higher price,” Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. “And the faster drivers receive relief.” Construction will stretch from 2017 to 2021.

Tasked in September by Gov. Greg Abbott to address congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas, state transportation officials directed $1.3 billion to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. The spending plan requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, likely next month.

Commissioner Bruce Bugg led various sessions in the five metro areas, consulting with local TxDOT officials and others to find projects that could get the state the most bang for its buck now.

[…]

At peak times, some segments of Houston freeways have average speeds slower than most cyclists. Along southbound Loop 610 from Interstate 10 to Post Oak in the Uptown area, the average speed between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. dipped below 12 mph in 2015, down from about 15 mph in 2014 and 18 mph in 2013.

The difference in evening northbound traffic is greater, with average speeds between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. below 20 mph, compared with about 45 mph or more in 2013 and 2014.

Initially, Lewis said, TxDOT planned to rebuild the 610-59 interchange in phases as funding allowed.

The focus on congestion, and voter approval in 2014 and 2015 of new road spending, changed that strategy. The congestion-relief money includes $132 million for this project, making it possible to rebuild the entire interchange at once.

That means new lanes and more effective ramp designs will arrive sooner, although congestion is likely to be even worse during construction.

The three projects were selected because they can provide substantial relief for drivers and were planned and approved so that construction could start in a few months.

I’m pretty sure George Orwell’s actual vision of the future was a human foot stomping on a brake pedal forever, but I could be wrong about that. In any event, my skepticism about this is based on the fact that you can only have so many lanes exiting the first freeway, and only so many lanes entering the second freeway. The 59/610 interchange backs up in all directions because you have multiple lanes of cars trying to cram themselves into one exit lane. TxDOT could certainly add a second exit lane, like it has for I-10 at 610, but that only helps so much if there’s room on 610 for twice as many cars to enter at one time. There’s only so much water you can pour into a bucket, you know? And all of this is before you take into account induced demand or complicating factors like people wanting to enter and exit at Richmond and Westheimer. I’ve no doubt that TxDOT can do things to make this interchange better, though honestly I think they’ve already done a lot with the dedicated flyway to Westheimer and the separation of traffic there. I don’t think they can “solve” it in any meaningful sense, and when you add in the four years of pain from the construction, you have to wonder just what the return on this investment will be. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. Ask me again in 2021 and we’ll see.

The Chron on how Metro and Culberson came to an accord

Read all about it.

HoustonMetro

Houston’s buses don’t run at 2 a.m., but that’s when Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson began to see real movement toward a deal to improve area transit service.

“We got really intense one night and literally worked line-by-line,” Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Gilbert Garcia said last week, explaining how months of on-and-off talks helped Metro leaders and Culberson overcome years of distrust and division.

“There was a point where the congressman said, ‘Gilbert, we’re there,’ ” Garcia recalled.

Culberson, a Republican, credited Garcia with breaking through a long history of distrust by acknowledging errors in previous Metro plans and focusing on areas where transit officials and suburban politicians could find agreement.

Last week, Garcia and Culberson inked a deal that puts aside the bitter fight over rail along Richmond Avenue. The agreement delays that issue until after voters get a chance to weigh in, which could be years from now, and instead identifies other projects Culberson can help the transit agency bring to fruition.

Both said they feel confident about this deal. In the past, Culberson and transit officials have spoken of cooperation, only to resume lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another a few months later.

“It’s in writing,” Culberson said of the new agreement.

The deal, described by Garcia as Metro’s “grand bargain” with one of its staunchest critics, is hailed by both sides as a big win- a clear delineation of what each will do for the other.

The cessation of hostilities gives Houston a chance to secure federal funding for projects caught in the crossfire of Culberson’s refusal to open a door for a Richmond Avenue light rail project and Metro’s attempts to make the Richmond line the region’s next signature rail project.

Much of this is stuff we already know, especially if you listened to my interview with Gilbert Garcia and/or Houston Matters’ interview with Culberson. There is of course the question of whether you believe this is for real or not – the Chron expressed a fair bit of skepticism in a recent editorial – but as I said, this is how it is with every contractual agreement ever. Either you believe the other side will do as they say or you don’t. The one piece of new-to-me information in the Chron story was the involvement, on Metro’s behalf, of Republican lobbyist and former Rick Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. I don’t know what to say about that except that politics really does make for strange bedfellows, and lobbyists really are like roaches in the sense that they’re everywhere whether you can see them or not. For now, I hope the next thing to say about any of this is to hail the news of funding being secured for each of those projects that the agreement touched on.

What next for Metro now that peace with Culberson has broken out?

We’ve all had a chance to read over and digest the agreement Metro struck with Rep. John Culberson now. It looked good to me up front (though not to everyone – more on that in a bit), but as always with something this involved, there are many questions. What do some of these items mean, and when might we start to see some of the effects of this deal? I had much to ask, and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia had the answers. He took a few minutes to talk to me and address my queries. Here’s what we talked about.

We spoke over the phone, so the audio quality isn’t the best, but I think you can get the picture. As I said, I like what I’ve seen, and I like what I heard from Chair Garcia. I mentioned that not everyone is sold on this just yet, so let me turn it over to Jeff Ragsdale:

HoustonMetro

What has been the hook in Culberson’s jaw to make him come to the table and put out this grandiose agreement with Gilbert Garcia? In my estimation, that hook can only be coming from elements in his district wanting clarity on the rail-on-Richmond/Post Oak issue. Afton Oaks once again, for better or for worse, dictates to the rest of METRO’s service area its light-rail policy.

Wanting clarity on the Richmond/Post Oak rail issue makes Culberson’s agreement this week not so surprising. He simply wants new votes, and I don’t much blame him for that.

Another hook in Culberson’s jaw may be the rest of the Houston congressional delegation as well as elements in the Republican Party wanting the federal money-faucet to start going in earnest.

What this agreement does, I think, is codify, though not in law, a broad regional strategy for public transport as well as lay a foundation for future regional inter-government cooperation. More importantly, the fast-tracking of the METRO Board composition change takes away from a future rogue Mayor of Houston the ability to completely stymie the process of mass-transit improvement, as Mayors Holcombe, Lanier, and White did with such effect.

It also gives a new perspective on Houston Mayor Lee Brown’s work in the late 1990s to bring light rail to our city. However, this work also set a precedent for light rail that is at-grade and stops for red lights, the wisdom of which is to my mind still to be proven.

My friend, Wayne Ashley, in his blog is far-more effusive about this ‘Culberson-Garcia Accord’ than I. Culberson could still be forced to go back on his word, and this year’s election for Mayor of Houston could produce a maverick with his own ideas about Houston mass-transit which include not so much cooperation with the County and Multi-Cities, which for Houston-area bus riders will not be a good thing. Yes, I am very guarded about all of this.

If Culberson keeps his word and the next Mayor of Houston does not sabotage everything with a new rogue Board, the agreement between Culberson and Garcia could go down in history as one of the brilliant moments in the history of Houston mass-transit.

We shall see.

I would note, as Chair Garcia did in our conversation, that Metro was already prohibited by law from using any federal money on the Universities Line as currently designed. This agreement allows for a way forward, which we didn’t have before. Of course it requires Rep. Culberson to keep his word, but then that’s true of any contract. Metro has an end to hold up, too. Sure, a rogue Houston Mayor could undo or undermine a lot of this, but it has always been the case that a non-transit-oriented Mayor could do a lot of damage. That’s why I’ve been so obsessed with where the Mayoral candidates stand on mobility and transit and other issues. We need to know these things, and we need to not be satisfied with platitudes and evasions. We also need to not be satisfied with any Mayor that isn’t fully on board with taking advantage of this great opportunity Houston has been given. We have been presented with a great opportunity. Let’s grab it with both hands and run with it.

UPDATE: You should also listen to this Houston Matters segment about the agreement, in which Craig Cohen speaks to Rep. Culberson and a couple of media types. Culberson is still spewing the same untruths about the 2003 referendum, and pointedly said that while he would not obstruct future rail construction if the voters approved it he would absolutely oppose such a referendum. So yes, one should maintain one’s level of skepticism. One correction to something Bob Stein said after Culberson was on: The 2012 referendum forbids Metro from spending the extra money they would get from the sales tax from scaling back the 25% give back on rail. They’re not restricted on spending other money on rail. I’ll agree they don’t have it to spend, at least in the absence of new federal funds, but the 2012 referendum isn’t the cause of that.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

Metro reaches detente with Culberson

Holy cow!

Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson have called a truce in their war over a planned light rail line on Richmond Avenue, suggesting an end to an impasse that has stymied local transit development.

Culberson, a Republican from Houston, has stood in the way of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s federal funding efforts for years. While the new agreement does not necessarily mean the Richmond line will be developed, it could help Metro move forward with other transit projects.

“We have got to make progress or we are in gridlock,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

The announcement follows months of discussions and comes days before Metro is set to open two new rail lines serving east and southeast Houston. The Green and Purple lines open May 23, the next step in development of a light rail system that has divided Metro and many critics, notably Culberson, since voters approved it in 2003.

From his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Culberson has stopped Metro from receiving any Federal Transit Administration funds related to rail on Richmond or a similar rail plan along Post Oak, later converted to a fixed-route bus system.

Culberson represents voters west of Shepherd along Richmond, many of whom vigorously oppose the rail line.

Just as a reminder, while the anti-rail faction is highly vocal, there’s little evidence to suggest they’re any kind of majority. Precinct analysis from the 2006 election, when funding for the Universities line and the debate about whether or not it belonged on Richmond Avenue were hot items, suggests that Culberson and then-State Rep. Martha Wong did not gain any votes by being anti-rail, and may have lost some votes for it. That was a long time ago and 2006 was an oddball election, so I wouldn’t stake too much on any of that, but it always annoys me to see these loudmouths presented as the prevailing opinion.

Recently, Culberson announced he would seek to continue cutting off the Richmond money in the next federal funding bill, but he softened his stance by saying Metro could seek money for the lines if they receive local voter support in a new election.

He said current leaders have made the agency more financially transparent, helping him to find common ground with them.

“I am especially pleased that our agreed-upon amendment today will make Metro the first transit agency in America to require voter approval of a very detailed and very specific transportation plan before they can move forward with construction,” Culberson said in a statement.

The change in tone drew praise from Rep. Ted Poe, another Houston-area Republican, who sparred with Culberson over his blocking the federal funding for rail along Richmond.

“While we would prefer to have no limiting language, this compromise allows the voters of Houston to have a voice in this matter, which has been Congressman Poe’s concern the whole time,” said spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.

We’ll have to wait and see exactly what this means, but if we can settle this matter once and for all and get the ball rolling on the US90A rail extension into Fort Bend County, that would be a big step forward. The fact is that sooner or later, we’re going to need the Universities line and we’re going to want to build it. It doesn’t make sense to have the Uptown line as an island unto itself. The system as a whole will be far more valuable if it is all connected. If we do wind up with the high speed rail line terminal being out at the Northwest Transit Center, that makes connections to the Uptown Line (including perhaps an Inner Katy line, which by the way was also part of the 2003 referendum) all the more necessary. All I ask is that if we have to re-vote on the Universities line that we get full cooperation from our entire Congressional delegation if it passes as well as the possibility of building on what we already have. It doesn’t have to happen right away, it just has to happen. Houston Tomorrow and Texas Leftist have more.

Reimagining Richmond Avenue

Remember the Richmond Strip? If you were here in the 90s you probably do. You also probably haven’t been out there since the 90s. Now there’s a plan to restore some of the luster to that part of town.

It was along this stretch of Richmond Avenue that revelers rushed out to celebrate after the Rockets won two NBA championships in the mid-1990s. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade drew ample crowds to the six-lane street and to bars like the Yucatan Liquor Stand. Every weekend, partygoers found a vibrant scene of restaurants and dance clubs, arcades and two-stepping joints.

Widely referred to as the Richmond Strip, the area – just past the Galleria from Chimney Rock to Hillcrocft and from Westpark to Westheimer – was the place to see and be seen for much of the 1990s, a flashy drag of bars, clubs and restaurants seen as the Houston’s answer to Sixth Street, Beale Street and Bourbon Street.

Now the largely abandoned entertainment district is a focal point for city and business leaders in the area, hoping it can shake its forlorn image and draw on the energy of nearby businesses and retail opportunities along nearby Westheimer in the Galleria area.

“It only takes driving up and down the streets in the area to see the problems that exist,” City Councilman Mike Laster, who represents the area, said Tuesday.

[…]

“We want the area to overcome the negative image,” said Daniel Brents, chairman of the Urban Land Institute panel commissioned to study the area.

The panel, which includes real estate experts, landscape architects and urban planners, presented a general concept to revitalize the area at a community meeting on Tuesday. They interviewed business owners and neighborhood groups as part of the study. A primary suggestion was to make better use of existing tools such as management districts, tax increment reinvestment zones and other incentive programs to help spur development.

John Dupuy, a landscape architect with TBG Partners, noted the disparate land uses in the area that was originally meant for single-family homes but evolved over time. He cited a few current bright spots, including new townhome developments, a group of exotic car dealerships and custom car shops and an immigrant community that recently created an independent soccer league.

“We wanted to find a way to make these anchors more significant and tie them together,” Dupuy said. “We want to make corridors clean, safe, walkable and successful streets.”

Problems identified by the panel include infrastructure, drainage and a lack of lighting. The group’s interviews with interested parties also found that a lack of open space, parks and safe sidewalks hampered development.

There’s a great then-and-now slideshow here, and you can see a copy of the plan here. I doubt the Strip will return to its past glory as an entertainment destination, but there’s no reason why it can’t be an attractive and enticing part of town again. It’s a great location, between the Galleria and the Energy Corridor, and it’s got a lot of potential. I look forward to seeing what they make of it.

Uptown BRT lurches forward

One staggering step at a time.

After some uncertainty, fears about rail development in Uptown appear less likely to delay a planned express bus project along Post Oak.

Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board meets Thursday morning, and is scheduled to discuss progress on the Uptown plan. The addition to their regularly scheduled meeting comes after a letter last week from Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley.

The letter lays out a path for officials to settle their differences and keep the $192.5 million project on track.

[…]

In the interim, the entire kerfuffle became pointless. Last month, federal lawmakers passed the fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbids any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

“I am keeping my word to my constituents on these two streets who overwhelmingly oppose light rail on Richmond and Post Oak,” Culberson said.

The same language was in the previous federal spending bill, enacted Jan. 17, 2014.

In a Jan. 22 letter, Moseley told Garcia that the federal prohibition satisfies TxDOT’s concerns.

See here, here, and here for the background. Culberson has been lying about the level of support for rail on Richmond, but at least in this case it had a somewhat positive effect. I know, my head is spinning, too. Anyway, Council has also approved its piece of this, so we should be on our way.

The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region’s major airport. Houston’s new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what’s been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston’s population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART’s apparent ease of laying lines to Houston’s perennial controversy.

“Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. “Certainly we can get to The Galleria.”

The race for more lines isn’t much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don’t want rail, or more specifically they don’t want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

Culberson says he’s killed the University Line

And maybe he has, though it wasn’t going anywhere at this time anyway.

Residents and business owners along Richmond Avenue are breathing a sigh of relief — at least for now — as U.S. Rep. John Culberson has had his way, quashing federal funding for light-rail along Richmond, west of Shepherd, and on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond. Rail proponents on the other hand will be disappointed to hear that Culberson succeeded in getting the key amendment tacked onto the transportation leg of the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill recently passed by the Senate.

“I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” Culberson told CultureMap following a fundraising luncheon at Tony’s, which not so coincidentally is located on Richmond.

Culberson trumped METRO in his long-running feud with the local transportation agency. He has been threatening and attempting to get his law passed for several years. “It’s a permanent federal statutory law. So it’s a felony if any governmental entities attempt to spend any federal money to push rail on those routes,” he said.

METRO board chairman Gilbert Garcia called the move “very disappointing.” He noted, however, “This is not our focus. We’ve got a full plate right now and we are not taking steps to complete the University Line. First and foremost, we want to complete the other two lines, get time under them.”

The water is muddy on the potential for future federal monies for rail along Richmond and Post Oak Boulevard. Culberson says the federal funding prohibition is permanent. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond,” he said.

I’m pretty sure Culberson, who tried this trick before, does not have the power to tell future Congresses what they can and cannot do. Congress will pass other budget and appropriations bills after this one, so some pro-University Line member of Congress, like maybe Rep. Ted Poe, could get an amendment in there to undo what Culberson did. Doing something is certainly harder than stopping something that hasn’t been done, so Culberson has the advantage now, but it’s not the final word. Despite his protestations about the popularity of rail on Richmond, opposing its construction has not been an electoral winner in the precincts along the proposed line. Perhaps this will galvanize rail proponents and they will help defeat Culberson in an election; a future Republican primary is the more likely path for that, but anything could happen. Perhaps Metro and the other stakeholders will get tired of Culberson’s act and find their own funding. The options aren’t great, but they never have been. The point is that the fight isn’t over just because Culberson says it is.

One more thing:

Not completely opposed to rail, Culberson noted that he has already begun working with Congressman Al Green on possible rail connections from Fort Bend County and that he would support the US 90A southwest rail corridor. On another potential east-west light rail route, Culberson said, “West Park would be perfect. They have the right of way.”

That was news to Garcia. “We would welcome him to shift his approach,” Garcia said. “That would be new information to me. If he told you that, that would be great.”

I suspect Culberson is peddling snake oil here, but let’s take him at his word for the sake of argument. Westpark only runs as far east as Kirby, and east of Shepherd you’re literally in people’s backyards. How do you connect the east end of the line at Montrose to the proposed Westpark part of it? That subject came up in 2006 and the non-Richmond options generated a lot of neighborhood opposition as well as some creative but impractically expensive solutions. Even if there is an affordable way to do this that the area residents would support, the simple fact remains that Richmond is where the people are, and Westpark isn’t. Getting to Richmond from Westpark or vice versa means walking under US59, which is not terribly appealing from a pedestrian perspective. Putting it another way, rail on Westpark will have lower ridership and thus be less useful. Why would we want to do that? If the choice truly is “Westpark” or nothing, then “Westpark” is better, warts and all. I see no harm in Gilbert Garcia giving Culberson a call and seeing if he’s willing to put some money where his big mouth is. I don’t think he means it, and even if he does I don’t think it’s the right answer, as I don’t think this fight is over. But let’s go ahead and find out, so we at least know what’s on the table. Link via Swamplot.

What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

This story is about the opening of the North Line, but it’s also about where Metro goes from here.

The opening of the lines won’t spell the end of the construction. To complete the final mile of the East Line, Metro must build an underpass at Harrisburg and 66th Street at the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad tracks. The agency struggled to accommodate neighborhood concerns and figure out what it could afford, leading to delays. The final mile will open in December 2015 at the earliest.

The fate of the planned University Line, between the University of Houston and the Westpark Tollway, is even less certain. Metro officials haven’t detailed how they plan to pay for its construction.

Earlier this year at Metro’s behest, city officials designated Richmond as a transit corridor, limiting new development that encroaches on the ability to add a rail line without committing officials to any decision or affecting current buildings.

On Thursday, Metro board members extended the contract for design of the University Line for another year, to Dec. 21, 2014. The extension did not increase the fee to engineering firm AECOM, though the contract has been amended and the fee increased 10 times.

Since 2006, the design contract for the University Line has grown from $17.2 million to $50.8 million, of which $3.7 million remains unpaid.

The added time gives Metro a chance to adjust the designs if necessary, interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

Some Metro board members suggested the agency might be throwing good money after bad.

“We know that line can’t be built, or by the time we have it built, all that work will be obsolete,” board member Jim Robinson said.

Board member Dwight Jefferson said Metro should build what officials said they would when they spent money to study the route.

“If we can save it, that’s what we need to be looking to do,” Jefferson said.

Light rail continues to face vocal opposition from property owners along Richmond, especially west of Shepherd Drive. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who represents the western area segment of the route, has consistently opposed federal money for the project.

[…]

Washington has its own set of challenges funding transit projects. Still, [Federal Transit Administrator Peter] Rogoff said federal officials will consider helping Houston when it’s ready for its next light rail line. Technically, the University Line application is already filed with federal transit officials.

“We are sort of awaiting clear direction (from Metro),” Rogoff said. “They have seemingly taken a bit of a timeout.”

The North Line extension had a successful opening on Saturday despite the lousy weather. The political situation, by which I mean Rep. Culberson and his fanatical opposition to rail on Richmond, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The need for the Universities Line hasn’t changed, either – if anything, it’s more urgent now. We can’t wait for Culberson to retire or lose or get redistricted out of this part of town. What can we do in the meantime to move the ball forward?

One possibility is to start building the portion of the line that isn’t in Culberson’s district. That would run from the Eastwood Transit Center to Shepherd. That would provide connectivity to the Main Street and Southeast lines as well we better access to UH and the Third Ward. The Richmond portion of that truncated line falls within Rep. Ted Poe’s district, and as we know, Rep. Poe supports construction of the Universities Line because his constituents support it. With Rep. Poe behind this, one would hope that getting federal funds would be possible. On the other hand, chopping the line in half like this may well invalidate all of the previous filings and approvals Metro now has for this project, and might require Metro to start from scratch and do them all again. Given that ridership would surely be a lot lower for this partial route, there would be no guarantee that it would even qualify for FTA funds. It’s worth exploring, but only worth pursuing if it doesn’t represent a step backward.

Another possibility is to commit to building the whole thing, but only seek federal funding for the eastern half of the line, unless something changes to make funding the western half of the line feasible. That would of course require a large amount of local funding. To my mind, that local funding should come from Metro, the city of Houston, and Harris County. How likely that is I couldn’t say; when I bring it up to other people, the reaction I usually get is to be asked if I also believe in the tooth fairy. It might not be fiscally possible even if you accept the premise that Harris County could be persuaded to play ball. The FTA might not think this is such a hot idea, either, and even if they did Culberson could fight against it even though he’s made a point of saying that he has never opposed funding for rail construction that wasn’t in his district. I’m just throwing out ideas here, I don’t claim to have all the details worked out.

Look, I recognize that these ideas may be completely unrealistic. There may not be anything that can be done under current conditions. But the need is there, whether a plausible path forward exists or not. We need to be talking about this, with the understanding that this really matters and we need to figure it out one way or another. The Universities Line, when it is finally built, will do a lot to enhance mobility in a part of town that desperately needs the help. It will facilitate travel in neighborhoods that are already dense and heavily congested and getting more so every day as one new highrise after another gets developed. It will provide a critical link between east and west, and when the Uptown Line is completed it will make traveling to the Galleria and its environs a lot less nightmarish. Maybe once we start this conversation we’ll also remember that there are other routes on the drawing board that ought to be back in the conversation, like the Inner Katy line and the US90 commuter line. Again, the need is there, and it won’t go away if we don’t do anything about it. So what are we going to do about it?

Tell Rep. Culberson how you feel about rail on Richmond

From RichmondRail.org:

We’ve learned recently that US Congressman John Culberson is soliciting input regarding the planned METRO rail line on Richmond Avenue. While the Congressman has directed his request to property owners and occupants on Richmond Ave., rail transit on Richmond would have an impact throughout Houston. We believe it’s important for as many people as possible to share their thoughts on this matter. So we encourage you to take a couple of minutes to provide your opinion by downloading and filling out this short survey: PDF, DOC. (To ensure your responses are saved in the form, please save the blank form to your computer, fill in the saved form, save again.)

Please send your completed survey as an email attachment, or print and fax or mail, as soon as possible but no later than the end of March, to Lindsay Pepper in John Culberson’s office at:

Email: lindsay.pepper@mail.house.gov
FAX: 713.680.8070
Mail: 10000 Memorial Drive, Suite 620, Houston, 77024-3490

We’d also like to know what you think — please copy your responses to support@richmondrail.org.

I think we all know what kind of response Rep. Culberson is looking for, which he will publicize if he gets it. Let’s make sure he gets a truly representative sample of opinions. Please take a moment to fill this out and give your respectful and polite opinion to him. I for one neither live nor work near this line, but I know I’d use it if it ever gets built. I do work near the Main Street line, and there are plenty of places I’d go if I had this option to get there.

Culberson up to his old tricks

You almost have to admire the single minded focus on doing something only he and a few other people really want to do.

John Culberson is coming after you!

For the first time in his long-running dispute with Houston Metro, Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, has managed to insert language into a $51.6 billion spending package that could block federal funding to expand the light rail system along Richmond and Post Oak.

Culberson, vowing to win passage of committee-approved restrictions by the entire House and Senate, told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday the restrictions would “protect the quality of life” of constituents along Richmond Avenue and prevent Houston Metro from expanding beyond what it can afford.

Metro chief Gilbert Garcia ducked a public fight with Culberson, a member of powerful House Appropriations Committee. Garcia hailed the legislation’s inclusion of $200 million for Metro next year and said he hoped to work with Culberson to address the lawmaker’s ongoing concerns.

Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, said he didn’t expect the measure to survive the Democrat-controlled Senate, adding that some of the restrictions Culberson sought had been worked out in 2006 in bipartisan negotiations.

[…]

Culberson’s language in the $51.6 billion spending package for 2013 for the department of transportation and the department of housing and urban development also requires the transportation department’s watchdog Inspector General to conduct “a detailed financial audit and stress test” of Houston Metro.

Amusingly, this happened at almost the same time that Metro was given an award for its budget presentation. I wonder how much that audit would cost if it were to happen. Got to keep a rein on wasteful spending, you know. And I think we all know what Culberson would say if the result of the audit were anything other than what he wants it to be.

This is as good a place as any to note that Joshua Sanders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth left a comment on my recent post about the upcoming Metro referendum in which he clarified and gave more details about his group’s intent. Suffice it to say, the story left out a lot of detail, so go take a look – it’s also now posted on HRG’s website. The Culberson story from Thursday includes his usual blathering about the 2003 referendum and how it wasn’t worded to his liking because if it had been then obviously the voters would have rejected it. I wonder what his complaint about this referendum will be. Make your early predictions about the next anti-Metro obsession in the comments. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Meet the new rail debate, same as the old rail debate

I feel like I’ve heard all this before.

Opponents of the planned downtown streetcar system said Tuesday that county officials broke a promise with voters when they agreed to use advanced transportation district funds to help fund the project.

The group contends that multiple pieces of campaign literature used to promote the ATD tax in 2004 explicitly stated the money would not go toward light rail or toll roads.

A streetcar, they said, is light rail by another name.

“I think the average person would say this is light rail,” said Jeff Judson, an Olmos Park city councilman, senior fellow with the Heartland Institute and former president of the Texas Public Policy Network, a conservative think tank that played a large role in the defeat of a 2000 tax increase that would have funded a 53-mile light rail system here.

[…]

A 2004 VIA campaign brochure, labeled “Keep San Antonio in Motion!” explained why voters should approve a ¼-cent sales tax increase to fund creation of the ATD, which would pay for transportation projects for VIA, the city and the Texas Department of Transportation.

It also included a note, in bold, italic type that “these funds would not be used for light rail or for projects on toll roads.”

The actual ballot included no reference to light rail or anything that would preclude the money from being applied to rail.

Michael Dennis, a retired lawyer working with the anti-streetcar coalition, said the brochure qualifies as part of a “contract with the voters” doctrine, which includes whatever voters think they are approving even if it wasn’t on the ballot itself.

“That is a binding contract that can be enforced,” Dennis said.

So an anti-rail group is claiming that a referendum didn’t say what it said but did say what they say it said. Yep, I was right, I have heard this before. That means the next step will be to demand a re-vote, and another re-vote after that if the result is unfavorable. My advice to Nelson Wolff and the folks at VIA is to stock up on the ibuprofin. You’re going to need it.

All your empty lots are belong to HEB

The empty lot that once housed the Wilshire Village apartments will be bought by HEB.

Cyndy Garza-Roberts, director of public affairs for H-E-B, said the company is studying the feasibility of the acquisition and didn’t have an estimated closing date.

Garza-Roberts also couldn’t say when a store might be built on the site, but she said the company has identified a need for one there.

“We feel there are customers in that area that H-E-B can serve,” she said.

I don’t quite get that. There’s a Fiesta right across the street, the Whole Foods on Kirby and Alabama and the Kroger on Montrose and Fairview are less than a mile away, and the new HEB at 59 and Buffalo Speedway is maybe a five minute drive, with another Kroger right across the street. It’s not like there’s a dearth of food-buying options in the area. They say they perceive a need, but I’m not sure why.

I do know that if I were still living in that area, I’d be more than a little concerned about the traffic this might generate. It would probably make a lot of sense from a throughput perspective to extend one or more of the currently cul-de-sac’ed streets just west of the property into the future parking lot, but I’m sure the residents of those cul-de-sacs would hate that idea with a passion. They’re not too happy with this as it is.

Maria-Elisa Heg recently formed the Montrose Land Defense Coalition to call attention to the property and attract investors who might be interested in buying it with the city of Houston for use as a public space.

The coalition says a major supermarket there could increase traffic and hurt area businesses.

Heg, who rents an apartment in the neighborhood, said she and other residents would prefer the land be turned into a park with a cafe and a small commercial space where artists could sell their work.

More on that here. I suppose on the bright side, if this thing does get built, it’ll also be a short walk away from the eventual Mandell light rail stop on Richmond, so perhaps they’ll get more of a pedestrian patronage than one might think. Beyond that, it’s still weird to me. We’ll see how it goes.

Uptown agitation

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A bunch of business owners along a proposed light rail corridor are upset with Metro.

Business owners along Post Oak Boulevard met for about two hours Thursday in an effort learn about — and block — plans for a Metro light rail line that would run in front of their businesses.

After the gathering, many left Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli, 2327 Post Oak, expressing what attorney Chris Begala described as “disappointment, even shock.”

Begala, who organized the meeting on behalf of his client and relatively new Post Oak tenant Jim “Mattress Mack” MacIngvale, characterized those attending as “like-minded people,” who feel the Metropolitan Transit Authority is going beyond what it has been charged to do.

“They (business owners) are going to raise the bar, raise awareness,” he said, of the group’s plans.

More info about the Uptown line design is here. While the story focuses on what Metro is doing, it’s the Uptown Management District that has done the design work on this. There are no quotes in the story from anyone associated with the UMD, or with Metro for that matter, so it’s hard to objectively evaluate the complaints from this story. On Monday, I will publish an interview with UMD President John Breeding, in which we discuss this story and what their plans are for Post Oak. I hope that will help to clear this up a bit.

One thing to add is that Chris Begala was one of the anti-Richmond agitators, and he took that act up to the North Line back in 2007, with little effect. He can talk all he wants about blocking the Uptown line, but the fact remains that this was voted on in the 2003 referendum, and they’re not even claiming some bogus “The ballot said Westpark!” logic to claim that the line isn’t supposed to be built where Metro is planning it. If the goal here is to get Metro and the UMD to do a better job of communicating with them about their plans, then I wish them all the luck in the world and I expect them to be successful. If they think they can actually stop this, I have no idea what legal justification they think they have for that. Thanks to Swamplot for the link.

University Line FEIS filed

Again via Swamplot, here’s another Examiner story about the current state of light rail construction, in this case the University line.

The light rail alignment for Metro’s University route will require the acquisition of about 23 acres of land, much of it along Richmond Avenue, according to the final environmental impact study on the project.

“Potential acquisitions and displacement are expected at signalized intersections and at some transit stations,” the report said. “Every transit station located on the street will have a traffic signal. Additional right of way will be needed to accommodate left-turn lanes at key signalized intersections.”

The document shows the project will have an impact on 212 parcels of land, and 168 relocations of businesses and residences will be required.

You can see all of the FEIS documents here. This sounds like a lot, and rather predictably the story has inspired a ton of fear and loathing in the Swamplot comments. I figured it would be useful to ask someone who knows more about these things than I do, so I did. The following is from Christof Spieler:

The 23 acres (22.8, actually) is for the entire line. That includes some large but fairly inconsequential parcels: a TxDOT detention pond at Westpark Transit Center that METRO plans to build light rails storage tracks above while keeping the pond in service, empty land next to a Centerpoint substation at Newcastle and Westpark that’s intended for a park-and-ride lot, a strip of Robertson Stadium parking lot, and the Eastwood Transit Center, which, even though it’s already a METRO transit facility, is listed as property to be acquired (I’m assuming the land may be owned by TxDOT.)

The takings in the Weslayan to Main Street segment (Richmond Ave., Greenway Plaza, and the bridge over 59) are 6.3 acres. About 1.5 acres of that is a strip center on the south side of 59 opposite Cummins; METRO now shows acquiring the whole building and parking lot, not just the strip they need for the bridge.

Other changes from the DEIS (July 2007):

  • METRO has also added three parcels that they need for the boxes that supply power to the trains.
  • The Greenway stations has moved to Edloe, requiring some very thin strips of land (landscaping in from of office buildings).
  • The Dunlavy station was moved to east of Mandell (and renamed Menil Station) at the request of the Menil Foundation. That requires a strip of Menil-owned land on the north side of Richmond, plus some buildings on the northwest corner of Richmond/Mandell.

The rest of the takings are where the DEIS showed them, though sometimes they’ve gotten a bit bigger:

  • Strips of land between Kirby and Shepherd, where Richmond is at its narrowest. The only building that seems to be affected is the front edge of the VW dealership.
  • Strips around the Shepherd station. This affects some buildings on the south side of the street (plus one building on the north side, where a substation would go.)
  • Really small strips (2 to 4 feet, I think) around Woodhead and Dunlavy
  • Some significant strips and a full parcel at the Montrose station. This takes out part of the bank parking lot, businesses and an apartment building on the south side of Richmond between Graustark and Montrose, and several businesses on the south side of Richmond between Montrose and Stanford.
  • Shipley’s Donuts and a vacant lot at Wheeler.

This is obviously not painless. But it’s not a wholescale widening, either. Something like 2/3 of properties are completely unaffected and most of the properties that are affected lose only 2 or 4 feet.

Christof also helpfully included this map to show where property would be affected. I also got some feedback from Jay Crossley, who provided links and excerpts from the DEIS for the US 290 expansion and the Katy Freeway expansion to serve as points of comparison. From the former:

All of the proposed US 290, Hempstead Road, and IH 610 build alternatives would require residential, business, public facilities, utilities, and other relocations. Acquisition of ROW along US 290 and Hempstead Road would displace between 29 and 96 single-family residences, and between 98 and 206 multi-family residential units, respectively, depending on the alternative selected.

[…]

All US 290 alternatives would require relocations of two churches (St. Peter’s Anglican and St. Aidan’s Episcopal), a pipeline transfer facility, an area with Exxon Mobil pipeline equipment, and a United States Army Reserve Center. Hempstead Road Alternatives HR-A, HR-B, HR-C and HR-D would displace the Iglesia Pentecostes Mission Church. Alternatives HR-C and HR-E would require the relocation of the Christ Family Church.”

And from the latter:

“The Preferred Alignment Alternative would result in the displacement of approximately 871 businesses, 72 single-family units, 122 units in multi-family housing facilities, and two non-profit organization facilities.”

Obviously, these are bigger projects, and they’re not really comparable because of that. I include these to note that the kind of person who moans about what Metro is doing never seems to make much of a fuss about TxDOT.

Finally, there will still be opportunities to engage with Metro about what’s going on with the planning and construction. The following was sent to me from the University of Houston:

How will METRO’s new light rail lines along Scott and Wheeler affect you? What’s the good news? What’s the bad news?

METRO will detail its plans for the Southeast Line and the University Line in an information sharing session sponsored jointly by the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, and the Student Government Association.

Please come – Wednesday, January 27, 2010, 10 AM, Elizabeth Rockwell Pavilion, 2nd floor of M.D. Anderson Library.

As UH is a public university, this meeting is open to the public as well.

Chron slaps Culberson again for Metro meddling

It’s an old story. Metro gets some good news relating to the University line. Rep. John Culberson tries again to halt the project. The Chronicle calls him out on it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that last part.

It’s not clear how effective Culberson’s latest railblock will be, since his party is now in the congressional minority and under the Obama administration the FTA seems more responsive to Houston’s rail-building efforts. The FTA does not require congressional approval for evaluations of rail plans.

One thing is sure. Until the first trains start whizzing down the University Line, count on Culberson to be busily scheming to derail the project. In doing so, he will be working against the transit interests of his constituents and the wider Houston community.

In other words, we’ll see this all again sooner or later.

Ashby’s developer defends his project

Let me start by saying that I agree with Kevin Kirton, the CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners, also known as the developers of the infamous Ashby highrise, when he says that the “trip number” justification that the city used to block that project for as long as they did was bunk, and that the highrise as originally envisioned, is a better use of the space than the compromise version. The city’s regulatory system simply doesn’t allow for a way to deny this project, and the debate that ensued in which we pretended there was a way to do it ultimately served no one’s interests. We do need a better and more consistent set of rules for development, and we haven’t really begun to engage that particular discussion.

None of this changes the fact that the Ashby highrise is a bad idea. It’s incompatible with the surrounding area, and the reason there was such fierce resistance to it is that everyone outside of Buckhead Investment Partners realized that. I want to address two of the points that Kirton raises in his piece, one broad and one nitpicky, to try to illustrate this. First, the small point:

Consider that this project:

• •  Is located minutes from Downtown, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria and within walking distance of Houston’s major museums, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University and Hermann Park’s many amenities;

• •  Is on one of the top five most utilized METRO bus routes in the city and a quick half-mile walk to both the Main Street and Richmond rail lines;

• •  Will connect its residents to the community with its shared restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, and a small suite of executive offices.

Actually, the Ashby is about three-quarters of a mile from what should eventually be a rail stop at Richmond and Dunlavy, and nine-tenths of a mile from the Museum District stations on Fannin and San Jacinto at Binz. Fudging numbers doesn’t make me inclined to believe the rest of what you say. And the problem with claiming that this location is walking distance to the Medical Center and Hermann Park is that Rice is in between it and them, and given that it is private property, it may not appreciate a bunch of people using it as a cut-through. I can’t speak to the point about the bus route, but I am curious how many people that currently live in the area use that bus; more to the point, how many future residents of the highrise do you think would use it, and how many current or potential bus riders would disembark there in order to take advantage of its restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, or executive suites. Being accessible to transit is only a virtue if it gets used.

And that brings me to my larger point. The problem with Ashby is simply that it’s misplaced. You can claim, as Kirton does, that it somehow fits in with other pedestrian-friendly development by virtue of it being sort of walking distance from them, but the fact remains that there will be no network effect from putting a mixed-use highrise at 1717 Bissonnet. By that I mean that there won’t be anything else in its immediate vicinity that will also be of interest to someone who is on foot in the area. Ashby is and almost surely forever will be surrounded by nothing but residences. It’s a destination unto itself. Nobody who goes there will then walk to a neighboring shop or eatery or what have you because there aren’t any, and won’t be any. Contrast that with my hypothetical alternate location on Richmond, where a bunch of commercial development already exists and more will likely follow as the stretch of Richmond from Shepherd to Montrose attracts transit-oriented development as Main Street has. The equivalent stretch of Bissonnet is almost exclusively residential. Someone who gets off the Universities line at Richmond and Dunlavy will have a bunch of places to walk to. Someone who gets off the bus at Bissonnet and Ashby is probably going home.

An Ashby highrise that’s actually located in the vicinity of other dense, pedestrian-friendly properties is a valuable addition to that area, one that likely would generate a lot of excitement. An Ashby highrise located in the middle of a bunch of houses is at best a curiosity, and at worst a blight on the existing neighborhood. That’s been the problem from the beginning. To me, the best outcome once we realized that there was nothing to be done to stop Buckhead under the current rules is to come up with a revised set of rules for future Ashbys that will encourage the former and discourage, if not actually forbid, the latter. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to that now than we were when the project was first announced. And I don’t see how we’re going to get there from here.

Transit corridors ordinance approved

It’s not all that it could have been, but it’s a start.

Passengers stepping off trains in Houston’s expanding light rail network will be more likely to encounter walkable environments and interesting destinations because of action taken Wednesday by the City Council, city officials and transit advocates said.

The council unanimously approved changes in development codes intended to promote dense, urban-style development along the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Main Street rail line and five planned extensions. The pedestrian zone requirements and incentives were developed through more than three years of work by city officials, consultants, development experts and others.

Councilwoman Toni Lawrence said the changes, coupled with plans to expand urban development regulations from Loop 610 to Beltway 8 and high speed rail proposals under consideration for commuters, will have a major impact on automobile-dependent Houston. The measures take effect immediately.

“I’m excited about it,” Lawrence said. “We’re behind cities our size to move forward with rail.”

The changes drew support from real estate organizations including Houstonians for Responsible Growth, which generally resists new development regulation. But others who have followed Houston’s efforts to encourage so-called “transit-oriented development” offered only qualified praise, noting that the city’s consultants recommended more far-reaching changes.

“On the whole, it’s a teeny-tiny step in the right direction,” said Andrew Burleson, a development consultant and blogger. While the incentives for enhanced pedestrian amenities aren’t sufficient, Burleson said, the measure makes progress simply by providing a good definition of “quality urban development.”

The new rules will require unobstructed, 6-foot-wide sidewalks — two feet wider than the current standard — for new development along transit corridor streets and certain intersecting streets near transit stations. In most other areas of the city, the sidewalk standard will be increased to 5 feet.

Nice to see Andrew, a/k/a neoHouston, get quoted in the story. His take on the ordinance is well worth reading, as are each of Christof‘s. I expressed my views here. Note that RichmondRail.org’s proposed streetscape for Richmond Avenue conforms to the six-foot sidewalk width. I hope this new ordinance is a good omen for that.

The streetscape for the Universities line

RichmondRail.org has a suggestion for Metro.

For the coming light rail line to be a true asset to our neighborhoods, the streets leading to the transit stations must accommodate pedestrians more safely and comfortably than is typical for Houston streets outside downtown. If enacted, the proposed transit corridor ordinance (aka the Urban Corridor ordinance, which we hope to see on the City Council agenda for approval soon), would foster the evolution toward a more pedestrian-friendly environment as redevelopment occurs along the light rail corridors. That will take time. We believe that there is a near-term opportunity to achieve a better pedestrian environment along the University Line on lower Richmond Ave.

Virtually all of the public right-of-way on Richmond Ave. from Spur 527 to Kirby Dr. is only 80 feet wide. When METRO builds the University Line, we anticipate that they will also need to rebuild the sidewalks along that stretch of Richmond. What better time to create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape than when the rail line is being built? However, the right-of-way constraints do present challenges.

Click over, and take a look at their resolution of support for a pedestrian streetscape for more. Note that none of this requires any property takings, and will make the area much more pedestrian-friendly. To me, the highlight is the request to bury phone, cable, and electric utility wires. This will not only enable better sidewalks in the space allocated, as utility poles will no longer be there blocking the way, but will also provide for fewer service interruptions during and in the aftermath of storms. Remember how downtown and parts of the Galleria area never lost power during Hurricane Ike? Doing this will add to the cost of construction, but there’s never a cheaper time to do this than when the streets are being torn up anyway. It’s an investment, one that makes a lot of sense and will pay off in many ways. Check it out, and add your support for the idea.

Anti-Metro amendment officially dead

Good.

State lawmakers today voted unanimously to kill a provision that could have complicated the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light-rail plans.

The House removed language from a local transportation bill for Austin that would have put limits on Metro’s authority to acquire property through condemnation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, quietly placed the provision in the bill, apparently at the request of rail critics who contend that a 2003 referendum didn’t specify that a portion of the planned University Line would run on Richmond rather solely on Westpark.

Technically, it was one critic, though as has been suggested to me I’m sure there were others behind him. Way to operate in the daylight, y’all. But then that’s been the hallmark of rail opponents around here, going back to Texans for True Mobility in the 2003 referendum, and no doubt much farther than that. No surprise there at all.

Would-be Metro killer outs himself

I had wondered who was behind that anti-Metro amendment from the weekend. Now I know.

A local light rail opponent claimed credit Tuesday for working with an El Paso legislator to try to block Metro’s ability to build the University Line along Richmond Avenue.

Don Hooper, who owns property along the thoroughfare, said he persuaded Democratic state Rep. Joe Pickett to amend a bill involving Austin’s transit agency last week.

The amendment would prevent Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority from using condemnation powers to acquire land needed for the proposed line running from the University of Houston through downtown to near Westpark and U.S. 59.

Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, did not return calls for comment Tuesday. But other legislators and Metro officials confirmed that the amendment — which now looks unlikely to pass — would have posed a big threat to Metro’s plans for four new lines.

[…]

Houston-area lawmakers and Metro lobbyists worked over the weekend to block the amendment.

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said Tuesday that Pickett had agreed to pull his amendment, which had been attached to a bill allowing Austin’s transit agency to hire officers to catch fare evaders.

By late Tuesday, the bill still contained Pickett’s amendment, but it hadn’t been placed on the local and consent calendar — a crucial step in getting the bill to a floor vote. As a backup, the part affecting Austin was added to a separate Texas Department of Transportation measure, so if the bill fails Austin’s agency can still hire fare enforcement officers.

I reported that on Monday. SB1263 is on the Local, Consent, and Resolutions calendar for today. The bill text still has the offending amendment in it, but that likely doesn’t mean anything at this point. Still, vigilance is called for, so keep making those phone calls.

So what we had here was one dude laying a bunch of baloney on a legislator from outside Houston who didn’t know any better, and in the process nearly sinking a huge project that had been approved by the voters. I suppose the fact that it won’t happen should be a sign that the system works, but that’s pretty cold comfort. And in the irony department, a Metro Solutions News Flash that touted the Saturday days of wine and roses editorial hit my inbox yesterday afternoon, with nary a mention of Hooper’s assassination attempt. Way to communicate, guys! Though I suppose there are days when the head-in-the-sand approach has its merits. The idea is that if you do that, whatever’s bothering you will go away, right? Maybe they’re onto something after all.

Anti-Metro amendment removed

I’m pleased to report that the anti-Metro amendment that was in SB1263 has been removed. I am told that Rep. Ellen Cohen discussed the matter with Rep. Pickett, who agreed to remove the Houston-specific language. This is great news, not just for the fate of the Universities line, but as Christof notes, for the rest of the system:

Item (1) [of the original amendment] does not actually apply to the University Line, since there was no route set for the University Line before the referendum. But it does apply to the North Line (which was shifted from Irvington to Fulton at the request of neighborhood groups) and the Southeast Line (which was shifted from Scott to MLK, again at neighborhood request.)

Item (2) applies to every single one of the lines. METRO’s ballot named lines and described end points; it did not call out every street a line would run on. It was not required to, and METRO had not yet done studies on all of the lines.

So this legislation would [have stopped] all property acquisition on all 5 new lines immediately.

Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and for that I thank Rep. Cohen for taking the lead and to Rep. Pickett for listening to reason. (The text of SB1263 has not been updated on the Texas Legislature Online site, but I have been assured that the offending will be removed.) What this shows to me – again! – is that there’s never been a difference between the anti-rail-on-Richmond forces and the opposition to the 2003 referendum. The only constituency that could credibly claim to be anti-Richmond-but-pro-Westpark, and only interested in that, were the people in Afton Oaks, and they got what they wanted. Everyone else involved in this has been dedicated to doing whatever it takes to stop rail in Houston. The will of the people doesn’t matter to them. Clearly, we can’t rest easy till everything has been built.

Anyway. Even without Rep. Pickett’s change of stance, it’s possible this bill won’t make it onto the calendar before tomorrow’s deadline for the House to approve Senate bills, so one way or another this crisis will be averted. I’d still like to know who it was that got to Rep. Pickett and filled him full of lies, but I suppose we never will learn their identities. I do plan to hold this incident up as a shining example of the anti-Metro forces’ hypocrisy the next time I see someone complain about the agency acting in a secretive manner. I’m sure it won’t be long before that happens.

Westpark zealots try to pull a fast one

Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.

The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.

“It effectively kills the light rail program,” said George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing.

The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency’s eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.

The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn’t conform to the referendum.

“If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk,” Smalley said.

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.

The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn’t complied with the referendum. He said he hadn’t talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.

At issue is whether it’s lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.

The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.

Pickett said he is open to changing the language.

“If … they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that.” The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.

So once again, the people who lost the election and whose lawsuit is currently going nowhere have shown that they will do anything to overturn the will of the people and stop light rail in Houston. I’m amazed that they were able to influence Rep. Pickett, and appalled that he couldn’t have been bothered to at least ask Metro for a response. I’m sorry, but that’s just ignorant. Clearly, Rep. Pickett needs to hear from some people who are not anti-Metro crusaders. Feel free to give his office a call and tell him – politely! – that you support light rail in Houston, that you support Metro’s current expansion plans as they now stand, and that you oppose any effort by the Legislature to affect those plans. His Austin office number is (512) 463-0596 and his district office number is (915) 590-4349. If you do make a call, leave a comment here and tell us what kind of response you got. Thanks very much.

The bill in question is SB1263. Here’s the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins “This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more.” You could mention that you oppose this amendment that’s been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett’s office.

By the way, there’s a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that’s often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it’s doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who’s behind it. Way to go, y’all.

The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.

The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.

With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.

Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency’s hands.
“I’ve got my eye on it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn’t survive in its current form.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency’s eminent domain powers “would prevent the common good.”

“I’ll get after it with all my might,” he said. “I’m a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system.”

That’s nice to hear. It would also be a good idea to call your own Rep and Senator and tell them you oppose Pickett’s amendment that removes Metro’s eminent domain power in the committee substitute for SB1263. Especially with all that’s going on right now in the House, let’s take nothing for granted.

What next for Wilshire Village?

Nancy Sarnoff runs an obituary for the Wilshire Village apartments, which are slated for demolition now that they have been officially declared a fire hazard.

A historic Inner Loop apartment complex, once slated for a high-rise redevelopment, was shut down last week after city officials ordered residents to vacate the property.

[…]

The complex is the 1940s Wilshire Village apartments at the corner of West Alabama and Dunlavy, one of three Federal Housing Administration-insured garden apartment complexes built here and the only one still in existence, according to architectural historian Stephen Fox.

In 2005, the owner announced plans to tear it down and possibly build an upscale tower in its place.

Matt Dilick, a commercial real estate developer who controls the partnership that owns Wilshire Village, said the demolition process will start “relatively soon.”

“The buildings are unsafe, and for numerous years prior groups have not kept the buildings maintained or the property up to city code,” he said. “The dilapidated buildings are an eyesore to the public and to the numerous homeowners and businesses in the area.”

[…]

As far the property’s redevelopment, “plans have not been released,” said Dilick, adding that the prime site is best suited for apartments, shops and a hotel.

Okay, an apartment is obvious; one hopes this one will be better maintained than the Wilshire ultimately was. Shops I can see, as long as they figure out how to incorporate parking. The other side of Dunlavy is a strip center anchored by a Fiesta, so more shops would fit in just fine. But a hotel? And was this really considered a good spot for a high-rise? I can’t see it. Dunlavy is a narrow little street. It’s not particularly close to an entrance or exit on 59, which would seem to be a negative for a hotel. It’s not far from Greenway Plaza or the Museum District, but as far as I know there’s no shortage of hotels in those areas, certainly not one acute enough that it would need to be relieved by new construction there. It’s all bungalows in the immediate area, so anything over three stories would stick out like a sore thumb. Basically, it’s analogous to the Ashby Highrise, with slightly better vehicular throughput potential and probably less political clout. I don’t see how a hotel makes sense, and I don’t even see how a developer might see how a hotel makes sense. Am I missing something?

Actually, there is one possibility: The Universities line will have a stop at Dunlavy, so the area will have very easy access to light rail. Maybe that figures in to the calculation. Whether that’s the case or not, I hope whoever redevelops the property includes improvements to the sidewalk, as that will make getting to that rail stop much more pleasant. And hopefully whatever does get built there will be at least mostly done before the U-line is in place, so that stretch won’t be all torn up while people are trying to get to the station. Swamplot has more.

Crosstown (rail) traffic

Approving the construction contract with Parsons is a big step forward for the long-awaited light rail expansion in Houston. But there’s still a lot more to be done.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority will look to the Federal Transit Administration for help funding the University line. The FTA has yet to approve Metro’s environmental impact study for the line, a key element in moving the project forward.

“I’m feeling the frustration of a lot of people in this organization who are trying to get through this process,” Metro spokesman George Smalley said Thursday.

He also conceded the University line may not be completed along with the other lines by 2012, as Metro had projected. That, in turn, could affect the completion of the Uptown line.

That is because the east-west University line would connect the 4.7-mile Uptown line with the rest of the MetroRail system.

In other words, no University line, no Uptown train.

“It wouldn’t be prudent to build the Uptown line if we had no hope for the University line,” President and CEO Frank J. Wilson said Wednesday. “But if the University line is proceeding as we expect, then there’s not a reason to hold Uptown back either. It’s a carefully choreographed set of moves here.”

The Universities line has the highest ridership projection of all the new routes, followed by the Uptown line. It was always proposed as light rail, never as BRT, so the EIS didn’t change as it did for the other non-Uptown lines. It’s a linchpin to the whole system and will have the biggest impact on inner Loop mobility. Of course, it’s also been the subject of a lawsuit, which I feel confident will get filed again once we get closer to the construction phase, , not to mention the politics referenced in the story, so it could be a lot farther away from completion than Metro is willing to admit. For now, we really need to get that contract written and approved so we can at least hope to meet that 2012 goal. Christof has more on the contract that was signed this week.

Some action on the rail construction front

Finally.

After two years of negotiations with two firms, the Metropolitan Transit Authority may be close to reaching a deal with a contractor to build and operate its next four light rail lines.

“We’re in final negotiations,” said George Smalley, a Metro spokesman. “In a negotiation, though, you never know until it’s really over.”

The pending breakthrough with Parsons Transportation Group comes three years before Metro has said all five of its additional rail lines will be complete. The fifth rail line, the University line, remains in preliminary stages of development; another agreement will have to reached on that line.

Despite the tight time frame for the new lines, Metro officials say they are sticking to the 2012 target date.

[…]

Metro leaders remain confident that the five lines, which total 30 miles, can be completed on schedule.

“We’re still set on that path,” Smalley said, “but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

I’m glad he’s confident, but honestly, I don’t see how it’s possible. Maybe we can get the North, Southeast, and Harrisburg lines done by then, assuming overpass issue doesn’t turn into a lawsuit. Even if we assume that there’s no further litigation coming for the Universities line – not a bet I’d be willing to make – who knows how long it will be before they hammer out an agreement for that line, which will be the longest and most care-intensive line to build. And the Uptown line is a non-starter until we’re sure the U-line is going forward. Frankly, I’ll be happy if all five lines are done by 2014.

But hey, whatever the case, I’m just thrilled to see this next step get taken. It’s way past time for it to happen. Now if we can start talking about where we go from here as well, I’ll be ecstatic.

Wilshire Village update

Swamplot has more on the Wilshire Village Apartments situation; apparently, there’s some question as to the legality of the eviction notices that the residents received. Meanwhile, Hair Balls satisfies my curiosity with some interior photos of the place. It does look better on the inside. That’s not saying much, given the sad state the exterior is in, but it’s easy to see how this place, given some love and an owner that cared, could be a real gem again. Seems unlikely that will happen, unfortunately; we’ll just have to see what replaces it. That’s Houston for you.