Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

TxDOT

HGAC gives initial approval to TxDOT’s funding demand

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

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

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

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

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

[..]

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

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

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

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

Another manifesto against I-45 expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t understand this.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

I have questions.

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

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

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

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

In defense of the I-45 expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

Independence Heights and I-45

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

HOV for Uptown BRT update

Checking in on this long-time project.

Uptown’s bet on buses is getting a lift from TxDOT in a first-of-its-kind venture that has state highway dollars going to a mass transit project along one of Houston’s most clogged freeways.

Come next year, buses traveling in their own lanes will ascend to the middle of the West Loop 610 for traffic-light trips between Post Oak and Metro’s Northwest Transit Center via a busway that will swing over the southbound freeway and then parallel to it.

Making all the pieces fit along what by many measures is the busiest freeway segment in the state has taken some engineering creativity, as well as a change in policy for the Texas Department of Transportation that many critics say remains too focused on being the “highway department” in a Houston area that is increasingly urbanizing.

“It is a tremendous recognition of how mobility in this region is changing,” said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The $58 million project, which is becoming more visible along the Loop by the day, adds two lanes in each direction specifically for buses. Though other projects around Houston have benefited buses in the past three decades, such as the Katy Managed Lanes along Interstate 10, this will be the first Houston-area transit-only project using highway money since TxDOT was created in 1991 by merging the aviation and highway departments with the Texas Motor Vehicle Commission.

Just for some background, it was six years ago that City Council voted to approve the Uptown TIRZ plan that included the BRT lane construction on Post Oak as well as the HOV construction on 610. A bit more than a year later came the no-light-rail-conversion conditions, which still chap my rear end. The Post Oak construction started in 2015. If we’re really on track to have everything done by next year (woo hoo!), then among other things that would prove how prescient Uptown Management District President and CEO John Breeding was when he told me in a 2010 interview that it would take five to ten years to finish the project. Based on that timeline, we’re more or less on schedule. Have patience, y’all.

Bullet train dodges more bullets

More good news for Texas Central.

The Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project dodged a bullet this week when lawmakers hashing out the state budget released their decision to strike a provision that could have delayed the project.

A committee of Texas House and Senate members ditched language that would have prevented the Texas Department of Transportation from coordinating with a high-speed rail company so its project could cross state highways until a court definitively affirms the company’s ability to use eminent domain with an unappealable ruling. That provision, called a budget “rider,” could have delayed the project for several years, according to Patrick McShan, an attorney for an opposition group and more than 100 landowners along the train’s planned route.

Project developer Texas Central Partners LLC lauded the legislative move. The company has been battling legislative efforts that it says could cripple the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

“Today’s action ensures the project continues to be treated like any other major infrastructure project in Texas,” said Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

[…]

The Senate added the rider in its proposed 2020-21 budget, but the House’s spending plan didn’t include the language. So that was one of several differences that a conference committee of members from both chambers are hashing out behind closed doors. Once that process is done, both chambers will vote on the revised budget.

Houston Democrat state Rep. Armando Walle, one of the members of the conference committee, said the rider was removed out of fear that a lawmaker could argue the language changes general law, something that House rules don’t allow the budget to do. If such an argument were successful, that could have threatened the entire spending plan.

“In order to not have the whole appropriations bill go down, I think that was the safest way to address the issue,” Walle said.

See here for some background. In the time it’s taken you to read this post, the odds of anything bad happening to Texas Central have decreased. I’ve said this twice before, and so far I’ve been wrong each time, but I’ll take my chances and say again that if Texas Central can make it through this session without anything bad happening to them, they ought to be in good shape going forward. I mean, at some point they’re going to have full-blown construction happening, right? Anyway, one more session mostly over, one less thing for Texas Central to worry about.

Austin’s scooter study

Be careful riding these things, and for crying out loud wear a helmet.

A first-of-its-kind study on injuries related to dockless electric scooters found that most incidents were preventable, and now Austin city officials are hoping to use their findings to inform future policy.

The city’s health and transportation departments collaborated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review 271 reports of possible scooter related injuries filed from Sept. 5 to Nov. 30, 2018. The study, however, only confirmed 190 cases involved scooter riders, one involved a pedestrian and one involved a cyclist. The rest were determined to be hurt while riding a gas-powered scooter, moped or device that uses three wheels, or didn’t involve a device at all, said Jeff Taylor, an Austin Public Health epidemiologist.

“If anything, this study also helped prove out that, that we need to be more precise in our language when we’re recording data that a scooter is not just a scooter. We mean something very specific,” Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said Thursday.

The CDC said the study found “a high proportion of e-scooter related injuries involved potentially preventable risk factors, such as lack of helmet use or motor vehicle interaction.” City officials also said almost half the head injuries documented could have been prevented.

The study drew data from Austin-Travis County EMS incident reports and information from nine area hospitals, as well as from interviews with some who were injured. Taylor said it was important to interview the injured so the data could be more specific.

Among the findings:

• 20 people for every 100,000 scooter trips taken were injured, and most were first-time riders.

• 48% were between 18 and 29 years old. Researchers recommend targeting educational materials to that age group going forward.

• 39% of injuries happened between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

• 29% told researchers they had been drinking before they rode.

• Only one person of the 190 riders hurt was wearing a helmet.

• More than half of the riders were injured in the street and a third were hurt while riding on the sidewalk.

• More than a third said speed contributed to them crashing.

Having more accurate data about the scooters and how they’re affecting Austin residents could help inform policy discussions in the future, said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department medical director for Dell Seton Medical Center. The hospital does not have a uniform way to record the number and type of scooter injuries coming into the emergency room, he said.

[…]

During a period comparable to the one the CDC studied — four months in 2018, between May 7 and Sept. 6 — the Texas Department of Transportation found that in Austin 1,945 people were injured in a vehicle and eight were killed; 105 were injured on motorcycles and five were killed; 60 were hurt using bicycles. Scooter injuries during that time tallied 28, according to the city of Austin.

Lessening the number of injuries related to scooters could start with messaging and education, Ziebell said. Patients have told him they thought hopping on a scooter would be a quick, fun thing, but they end up hitting a pebble and crashing.

“I still hear patients who come in and say, ‘I had no idea,’ ” he said. His patients range in age from their 20s to 70s.

See here for the background. I don’t know why there’s such a wide disparity between the CDC and TxDOT studies in terms of the number of scooter-related injuries over similar time spans. My guess is that only a fraction of scooter injuries in the latter period were reported to TxDOT. Be that as it may, while the scooters caused their share of (I daresay mostly preventable) mayhem, they’re a drop in the bucket next to motor vehicles. Let’s do what we can to make scooters safer, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture. Mother Jones has more.

Time for another Texas Central legislative update

I keep thinking that Texas Central has reached a point where there’s not much that can be done in the Lege to stop them, and events continue to prove otherwise.

Dallas-Houston bullet train developer Texas Central Partners LLC said its project could be delayed by a provision added to the Texas Senate’s proposed 2020-21 budget Wednesday, even though the company is not planning on using state funds to build the high-speed rail line. The company said language added to the upper chamber’s spending plan would encourage lawsuits and “is not beneficial for good coordination and planning.” Meanwhile, project opponents cheered the provision.

The measure, authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, continues to bar state funds from subsidizing high-speed passenger rail projects but would go further than current law. It would prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from helping coordinate access to rights-of-way on state highways for the high-speed rail project until there is a final, unappealable court ruling on the project’s eminent domain authority. Debate over whether Texas Central has the right to condemn land and buy it from unwilling owners has fueled opposition to the project and led to court battles across the state. The new language was added in what’s called a rider to the proposed budget.

[…]

“Working with TXDOT is critical to the project,” the company said in a statement late Wednesday. “This rider would impose arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions for a single project and sets a bad precedent.”

Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain to take land for projects, and Texas Central says it is one. But opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.

Texas Central disagreed with the ruling, citing a previous Harris County ruling in its favor, and said it plans to appeal the judge’s decision. But as the decision stands, the company can’t condemn land in the counties under the court’s jurisdiction, according to an attorney who represented the landowner in that case.

Patrick McShan, an attorney for the group Texans Against High-Speed Rail and more than 100 landowners along the train’s route, said there may be a lengthy court battle to settle the disagreement over whether the company can use eminent domain. And that, he said, could stall the project.

“At least two years, could be four years. Whatever it is, it’s several years,” he said. “It would be a significant obstacle to the project being constructed. … I do not envision a scenario where they can obtain these necessary approvals and these necessary court rulings to prove to the state that it is justifiable and necessary for the state to expend its resources on this project.”

See here for more on that court case, and here for where things stood at the end of the 2017 session. I fondly remember thinking that if Texas Central survived that session with nothing bad happening they were probably in good shape going forward. Those were the days, I tell you. The Senate budget still has to be approved by the full chamber and then reconciled with the House budget, so there will be opportunities for this rider to get ditched. And then I can make the same foolish prediction at the end of this session and get proven wrong again in 2021. It’s the circle of life, almost.

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

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

The brief list of negatives include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you started avoiding the 59/610 interchange yet?

Better get started.

I-69 at the 610 West Loop is a traffic hot spot in Houston. The two freeway segments that meet at the interchange top the list of the most congested in Texas, according to the Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Danny Perez, a spokesman for TxDOT, says a project the Department has already started is designed to eliminate a lot of the weaving motions that lead to crashes in the hot spot. They want to give drivers more time to make decisions before they have to merge.

“You’ll have increased capacity on connector ramps for instance,” explained Perez. “So if you’re going 610 northbound to 69 going northbound you’ll have a wider connector that will be set further back.”

The project includes higher and wider ramps along with other improvements. Perez says the work could take up five to six years but they’re hoping to finish sooner.

Emphasis mine. See here and here for the background. Note that this is happening as the construction of an elevated busway is already happening. A couple of weeks ago on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Houston Matters, I opined that the end of the construction on 290 just meant that roadwork would shift elsewhere, as roadwork never truly ends but is conserved. It’s like one of the laws of the universe or something. If anyone who was listening to that thought I was joking, well, now you know. Godspeed to us all.

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got those “too many traffic lights between Houston and Austin” blues

But maybe not for long. Depending on which route you drive.

[T]he Texas Department of Transportation is in the final stages of a decadeslong effort to at least make that 170-mile trip from Austin to Houston free of traffic lights.

Right now, there are just five traffic signals left on Texas 71 between Interstate 35 in South Austin and I-10 in Columbus, all of them between Austin and Bastrop. And TxDOT has engineering plans and money set aside to eliminate four of those lights by adding overpasses over the next four years. The fifth one — at FM 1209 just west of Bastrop — is in the cross hairs as well, but the timing of its removal is less certain, TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy told me.

[…]

Texas 71, other than in Austin and through Bastrop’s commercial district, has no frontage roads. And it has scads of roads and private drives entering it throughout the other, more rural sections. So to turn it into interstate now would require TxDOT not only to acquire a lot of right of way for what would be a wider highway in many places, but also to pay some property owners for lost access to the road.

Or, more likely, to build many, many miles of frontage roads. Either way, the cost would be enormous. This isn’t a project that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future.

What TxDOT is doing instead — trying to eliminate traffic lights little by little — is the next best thing.

During my youth in Austin, through the mid-1970s, a trip to Houston included going through Bastrop, Smithville, La Grange and Columbus, including a few lights in each town and the odd right or left turn. The towns broke up the trip and were interesting to look at out the window, but going through them added a lot of time to the trip. By the early 1990s, TxDOT had completed loops around all those towns and few traffic lights remained east of FM 973 in Del Valle.

But little by little, as development stretched southeast of Austin, traffic lights were added first to that Bastrop bypass and then to several other spots along the way. About 15 years ago, TxDOT began to take those on, building overpasses and associated frontage lanes at several spots in Bastrop and major roads along the way like Texas 21. More recently, TxDOT installed a deep underpass on Texas 71 at Riverside Drive and a short tollway to bypass traffic signals at Texas 130’s frontage roads.

But lights remain at Ross Road and Kellam Road in Del Valle, at Tucker Hill Lane and Pope Bend Road about halfway to Bastrop, and at FM 1209.

TxDOT has set aside $48 million to build overpasses at Ross and Kellam — work set to begin as soon as fall 2019 and be done by summer 2021 — and $52.6 million for overpasses at Tucker Hill and Pope Bend. That second set of projects, TxDOT hopes, will start in fall 2020 and be done by summer 2022. All of this, TxDOT officials caution, could be delayed somewhat by environmental clearance work and acquisition of right of way.

The FM 1209 overpass, TxDOT estimates, would cost an additional $35 million. That money has not been nailed down.

McCoy, by the way, said he would like to make similar progress on U.S. 290, the northern route to Houston, but it has far more traffic signals standing in the way.

So, something like five years from now, a driver might be able to get to and from Houston on Texas 71 without hitting a red light.

So good news if you take the I-10/SH71 route between Houston and Austin, which puts you into (or takes you out of) the southern end of Austin. If you’re coming to or from the northern side via US290, hang in there. That may be a more interesting challenge, since there are traffic lights far away from both endpoints, in places like Chappell Hill and Brenham. And like SH71, the story of how US290 has evolved over time is similar. It used to wend its way through lots of small towns – I still remember a McDonald’s in Hempstead that was the best available bathroom for miles in either direction – but has now ruthlessly bypassed them all, making the drive faster and more efficient but much less scenic. We’ll see what comes of this. In the meantime, if you’re wondering why I-10 doesn’t connect Houston directly to Austin instead of San Antonio – look at a map, if you drew a more-or-less straight line from Houston to El Paso, you’d go through Austin – click over and read the answer.

Hiring and harassment at TxDOT

Good morning. Here’s another story about harassment and discrimination being suffered by female and minority employees at a public institution, in this case the state Department of Transportation.

The Texas Department of Transportation held Tamela Saldana up as a “superhero” when she trekked across the state working to help contract with minority and women-owned businesses. But everywhere she went, Saldana said she encountered a similar troubling scene.

“I traveled to almost every district in TxDOT, and the faces were the same. They were the same. They were male, and they were predominately white male,” Saldana said. “If you saw a minority person, they were going to be the lowest level – the person who checked you into the front desk or the person who was out in the parking lot picking up litter.”

After more than a decade of glowing performance reviews, Saldana’s tenure with TxDOT came to an acrimonious end in 2012. That year, TxDOT fired the former University of Texas track star. She, in turn, sued for discrimination.

A KXAN investigation of TxDOT’s workforce reveals Saldana’s experience is one of hundreds that underscore the agency’s ongoing struggle to address gender and racial disparities — and their unfortunate side effects — in a culture historically and predominantly composed of white men, especially at its highest echelons.

KXAN found workers officially made more than 200 allegations against the agency in the past five years. Many of those came from women and minorities alleging harassment, discrimination and retaliation, according to internal TxDOT documents obtained through an open records request. Dozens of workers have also sued the agency in recent years on those grounds, according to court records.

Go read the rest. Basically, TxDOT is less reflective of society at large and the state’s overall civil workforce than it was a decade ago. It’s a problem on a number of levels, and it would be nice if our state’s leadership paid some attention to it. Link via the Trib/a>.

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandon hope, all ye who drive here

Just stay away. Far, far away.

Houston’s worst chokepoint is about to be a construction zone for the next five or six years, in the hopes that drivers eventually reap the rewards.

Federal, state and local lawmakers gathered Monday on the HOV ramp overlooking the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, to kick off reconstruction of the interchange. Major work is expected to start early next year, with some construction already noticeable, according to Texas Department of Transportation officials.

The interchange is the crossing point for most congested roadway segment in Texas – Loop 610 from I-69 to Interstate 10 – and the third-most-congested segment in the state, along I-69 from Loop 610 to Texas 288. As a result, officials say the interchange is Texas’ worst for slowing traffic to a crawl.

“This project is going to help change that,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT in Houston.

The interchange rebuild will make all the ramps between the two freeways in all directions two lanes, add shoulders and rebuild the main lanes of Loop 610 and make other design changes that officials said will help traffic flow through the area.

Work is expected to take six years.

Emphasis mine. My in-laws live near this interchange. We may need to tell them that they have to move. I don’t have any advice to offer the poor wretches who have to travel this way, but I do have one stray observation: It sure would be nice to have some alternate transit options through that area, which don’t depend on road capacity, wouldn’t it? You know, like the University and Uptown rail lines. Maybe next time. In the meantime, avoid if you can. If you can’t, may God have mercy on your soul.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

Remember the Katy Prairie

From the four things we could have done differently to maybe mitigate some of the worst effects of Harvey:

Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible

Much of northwest Houston used to be covered in prairie land, where tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater. But most of it has been paved over in the past two decades amid rapid development and a massive influx of people. Between 2000 and 2010, this part of Houston grew by nearly 70 percent to a population of 587,142 — equivalent to that of Milwaukee. Restoring or preserving prairie can’t prevent flooding altogether, but it can be a tremendous help in mitigating the damage.

Some local officials flat-out disagree with this conclusion; they believe you can erect public works projects to catch and manage runoff — essentially fighting water with concrete — and don’t need more green space.

But the vast majority of scientists believe the region needs to impose stricter regulations on those who want to develop prairie land.

Just a reminder, because I see some variation of this – some more egregious than others – in every story like this one: The vast majority of this development and growth is outside the city of Houston. It affects the city of Houston, but there’s literally nothing the city could have done about it because it’s outside the city’s borders and ETJ. In the case of this story, I would note that while “the region” may need to impose stricter regulations on development, there is no “regional” authority to do that.

Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that even if we had all the green space we had thirty years ago, there’s only so much to be done about nine trillion gallons of water being dumped on you. A storm this size was always going to be a catastrophe, it just might have been a slightly smaller one if we had been smarter and perhaps a bit luckier. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can be more specific about just what paved over these former wetlands.

Torrential rains that flooded hundreds of northwest Harris County homes last week reinforced long-standing worries that development on the Katy Prairie could make future floods more frequent or more severe.

Development encouraged by a planned segment of the Grand Parkway connecting Interstate 10 to U.S. 290 threatens to diminish the environmentally sensitive prairie’s capacity to absorb floodwaters, said Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in two related lawsuits.

“The Katy Prairie, for decades, has been our sponge,” Blackburn said, noting that the prairie also provides valuable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Tension between development interests and environmental and neighborhood groups surfaced in the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit challenging flood plain maps for the Cypress Creek watershed, which encompasses the area where last week’s floods were most severe. The organization has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the parkway.

The developers of the Bridgeland master-planned community intervened in the case last year, seeking to prevent an expansion of flood plain boundaries that would require the company to take expensive steps to offset increased runoff downstream.

An executive of Bridgeland GP, the company developing the 11,400-acre community, said in a Jan. 9, 2008, affidavit that the revisions sought by the Sierra Club would cost the company $28 million in flood mitigation measures that would “adversely affect” the development.

Despite the company’s efforts, the maps are being redrawn under U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s supervision. Rosenthal has stayed the lawsuit until October to allow time to complete the maps, but officials said they aren’t certain when the task will be finished.

Preliminary revised maps shown to the Houston Chronicle by Blackburn and the Harris County Flood Control District show a significant expansion of the flood plain in an undeveloped western segment of Bridgeland’s property and a reduction of the flood plain in other areas.

That story is from 2009. Here’s one from 2011:

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

To hear Burge and his colleagues at TexDOT and Harris County tell it, they are simply trying to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable: sprawl, on top of sprawl, on top of sprawl. But not in a bad way, they say.

“It will increase sprawl but that’s really the reason people come to Houston: to have a big house and a big yard,” said Burge. “You can call it sprawl, or you can call it quality of life.”

If you want to see what will likely replace the switchgrass and wildflowers of Katy, look to the Bridgeland development. This massive, 12,000-acre “new urbanism” development, where homes sell from $160,000 to north of $1 million, stalled in the real estate crisis. Since then, developers have stepped up pressure on local authorities to bring forward highway infrastructure needed to jump start sales.

Anything that we can do to protect and restore the Katy Prairie going forward, we must do. I hope that the scarring experience of Harvey will put enough political pressure on the people who can do something about this to take action. But one thing we can’t do is decide not to build the Grand Parkway. It’s too late for that.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay classy, Spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The process for I-45

This time it’s different, more or less.

The region’s largest looming highway project – a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to downtown Houston – has a lot of people looking into the rear-view mirror, pressing officials to make sure the job does not come with some of the downsides of its predecessors.

Even with the worries, however, the mega-project planned by the Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t been like many others, from the time it has taken to develop to the types of new lanes proposed.

Though often characterized as a bureaucratic behemoth, the state transportation agency has gone to unprecedented levels of public engagement the past three years, taking the designs for adding two managed lanes in each direction to public meetings, community groups, even sitting down with interested stakeholders for one-on-one meetings.

“We’re doing a lot of listening,” said Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT. “We want to be a good partner, with others, in every sense of the word.”

[…]

Though the goal of many of the proposed changes is to tear down barriers, notably the Pierce Elevated, previous Houston freeway projects around downtown – including Interstate 10, Loop 610 and U.S. 59 – have left some neighborhoods cleaved. The north side, also divided by Buffalo Bayou, has not enjoyed downtown-centered investment as much as Midtown and the Fourth Ward. Bellaire residents and leaders still have bad feelings over how Loop 610 cut through the small city.

Drivers do not want that to happen with the I-45 project, which officials have called a generational project that commuters still could be using 40 years from now. Cutting off neighborhoods or restricting transit options could have devastating consequences.

“The easiest way to destroy a neighborhood is to divide it,” said Seth Hopkins, who lives at Emancipation and Polk, where residents worry they will lose easy access to downtown if Polk and other streets are cut off by the freeway.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I’ll agree that TxDOT has done a pretty good job taking its time and listening to feedback about the project. I suspect one difference between this and the Katy Freeway widening of 15 years ago is that project had a lot of pressure, from John Culberson and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to get it done, while the pressure in this one is to slow down and not break anything. But for all that, at some point ground will be broken and people who live and work in the targeted area on the east side of downtown will be affected in ways we don’t know yet. It’s going to be a huge mess, one that may take a decade from start to finish. I appreciate what TxDOT is doing now, but there’s only so much that can be done to soften the impact of this kind of project.

TxDOT public hearings on I-45 widening scheduled for May 9th & May 11th

From the inbox, from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

The I-45 Project – Planning Stage is coming to an end!  This next meeting is a HEARING –  much different from the public meetings that TxDOT has been holding.

This HEARING is the last meeting where the public will be heard!  After a short comment period following the hearing, nothing else will go on record on the project.

After the Hearing, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be completed – estimated to be complete next year – in 2018. Then a R.O.D. (Record of Decision) – also in 2018. And TxDOT will immediately start acquiring Right-of-way where needed and finish designs. 1st phase of construction will begin on Segment 3 (downtown) – estimated to start in 2020.

There are only 2 HEARINGS scheduled at this time.  You may remember that normally there were 3 meetings including one held at Jeff Davis High School (now Northside High School).  Northside is currently being renovated so no meeting can be held there.  We are asking TxDOT for a meeting that is convenient to Segment 2… but so far, no luck.

As a quick summary, there are 3 Segments involved in the project – Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8); Segment 2 (610 to I-10) and Segment 3 (the Downtown Loop).  We are currently in the final year of an approximately 12-year planning phase.   TxDOT has held 4 public meetings – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.   Part of this project, is the re-routing of I-45 at Pierce Elevated and moving it to be coincident with I-10 on the north side of downtown and coincident with US-59 on the east side of Downtown.  Directly east of George Brown Convention both US-59 and I-45 will be below-grade.  This is a major project that is estimated to cost between $6 Billion and $7 Billion, WITHOUT right-of-way costs included.

I am part of the I-45 Coalition, which is an all-volunteer group that was formed to address issues related to the planned construction of I-45 and to work with TxDOT to ensure that the pending construction comply with these 3 tenets: (1) No expansion beyond the existing right-of- way (2) Alternative means of transportation must be explored (3) No negative impact on the neighborhoods quality of life.  We have not been very successful in these 3 tenets…but we have helped improve the project.

Regarding ROW in Segment 1 – 212 acres of land will be taken; Segment 2 – 19 acres of land and in Segment 3 – 79 acres of land.

In Segment 2 – the North St. Bridge will be removed.  The main roadway of I-45 will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so it is impossible with the current engineering to have any bridge there.

If you have commented or attended any of the prior meetings before, you should have received, or will soon receive notification via USPS of the 2 meetings locations from TxDOT. Locations and dates are:

Tuesday, May 9th                                                                   Thursday, May 11th

St. Pius X High School                                   Houston Community College – Central Campus

811 W. Donovan Street                                  1300 Holman Street –  San Jacinto Building

Houston, TX  77091                                                   Houston, TX  77004

 

Displays will be available for viewing at 5:30 pm, formal hearing starts at 6:30 pm.

Please review TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com. As of today, the documents that will be shown at the hearing are NOT on the website…but they should be there soon.

I received notification of the meetings in the main on Wednesday. The images embedded in the post are from the I-45 Coalition’s Facebook group. I can’t quite make out the context, so I guess I’ll have to go to the meeting. The www.ih45northandmore.com webpage now has the meeting notice on it, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available as well, if you want a little light reading. If you use I-45 north of downtown at all, you should probably make plans to be at one of these meetings. There’s no next chance to give feedback after this.

Five anti-Texas Central bills approved by Senate committee

It just got real.

Five bills filed by state lawmakers fearful a high-speed rail project planned between Houston and Dallas will be a dud and need help from the state passed a key committee Wednesday, breezing their way past opposition from supporters of the line.

The bills approved Wednesday by the Senate Transportation Committee, three by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and one each by state Sens. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, address various concerns.

[…]

Schwertner said the efforts by skeptics are “simply about taxpayers and keeping them off the hook should a private high speed rail project fail.”

Supporters of the lines called them poison pills not just for Texas Central, but innovation in Texas.

“It sends a chilling message to business across the world and across the country that want to bet on Texas,” said Chris Lippincott, executive director of Texas Rail Advocates, a group supportive of the line. “These bills turn the Texas welcome mat into a do-not-enter sign.”

See here for the background. The Trib has specifics.

The five bills are among more than 20 pieces of legislation aimed at privately-operated high-speed rail in Texas that lawmakers have filed this session. All five also have House companions that have yet to be heard in that chamber’s committees.

[…]

Senate Bill 979 originally would have prevented any privately operated high-speed rail company from using eminent domain. But state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, removed that provision in a version of the bill presented Wednesday morning. The bill still requires a company that takes land under the “threat” of eminent domain for a high-speed rail project must return the land to the previous owners if the project isn’t eventually built.

The bill passed out of the committee unanimously.

Schwertner authored two of the other bills passed Wednesday. Senate Bill 977would forbid lawmakers from allocating any state funds to a privately operated high-speed rail project. It would also prohibit any state agencies from using state money on the planning, construction or operation of a bullet train line.

Schwertner’s wording on that provision of the bill is similar to a provision in the Senate’s proposed budget that he wrote. Texas Central called that budget wording a “job killer” that would create “vague and ambiguous questions” about its ability to coordinate and work with the Texas Department of Transportation, which is helping shepherd the project through the federal approval process.

But Schwertner on Wednesday presented a memo from TxDOT government affairs director Jerry Haddican. The letter said the state agency should still be able to answer questions from Texas Central, review and provide advice on the company’s plans and build state roads and highways that connect to development around high-speed rail stations under Schwertner’s budget rider.

Texas Central president Tim Keith said Wednesday that the memo “was received well” after he “quickly” reviewed a copy of it but the company did not formally change its position on Schwertner’s bill.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, cast the sole dissenting vote against that bill.

Kolkhorst’s Senate Bill 981 would require Texas Central’s line to allow for more than one type of train technology. Texas Central currently only plans to allow for one type of train on its tracks. It is partnering with Central Japan Railway, the company the developed the technology for the Shinkansen bullet trains that run throughout Japan, for the Texas line.

Kolkhorst said her bill is aimed at preventing a monopoly, especially if the line is expanded to other cities inside or outside of Texas.

“This allows a more comprehensive network to be developed and allows train operators to purchase trains from a variety of manufacturers,” Kolkhorst said.

Keith said the line will physically fit other types of trains. But its signaling and safety systems will only be built to accommodate the bullet trains.

“The Japanese system is designed that way to avoid crashes,” said Holly Reed, a company spokeswoman. “That’s part of the safety system.”

Garcia again cast the sole dissenting vote against Kolkhorst’s bill.

The transportation committee also unanimously passed out Senate Bill 975, which would require high-speed rail operators to reimburse law enforcement agencies for any officers’ time used. The committee also passed Senate Bill 980, which would prohibit any privately operated high-speed rail line from receiving state money or loans unless the state first puts a lien on the project or receives a security interest in it. Garcia also cast the sole dissenting vote on that bill.

The bills sound less onerous than when they were first introduced, but Texas Central still opposed them all and said when they were introduced that they considered them all a serious threat to their business. What I would be concerned about right now if I were Texas Central is that Sen. Garcia was the only No vote on any of these bills, even though the Senate Transportation Committee has three Democrats plus Metroplex-area Sen. Kelly Hancock. That’s the first concrete sign that the mostly rural antis have broadened their base of support. If you didn’t know anything about Texas Central, some of these bills would sound pretty reasonable, which may be why they all passed out of committee so easily. But I think it’s fair to say that whatever goals Texas Central had in lobbying against these bills, they didn’t do as well as they surely might have liked. From here on out, it’s crunch time for them.

Get ready for lots of road construction

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Who loves budget gimmicks?

The Senate Budget Committee, that’s who.

Texas Senate budget writers on Wednesday unanimously approved their two-year budget, which avoided some steep cuts by using an accounting trick to free up $2.5 billion state dollars that were originally slated to go to the state highway fund.

By delaying a diversion of sales tax money from August 2019 to September 2019, and therefore moving the funding from the 2019 fiscal year’s budget to the first month of fiscal year 2020, Nelson said her two-year budget had an additional $2.5 billion to spend on needs such as health care and schools.

The accounting maneuver “solved a lot of our problems,” Nelson told reporters shortly after her Senate Finance Committee approved the budget unanimously. She said the move would not affect the Texas Department of Transportation’s ability to pay for highway projects in 2019.

But House Speaker Joe Straus called the move “gimmickry” and likened it to “cooking the books.”

“Counting money twice in order to balance a budget is not a good idea,” Straus told reporters Wednesday morning. “This is the Texas Legislature. We are not Enron.” He was referring to a Houston-based energy company that collapsed in spectacular fashion because of fraudulent accounting practices.

[…]

Nelson said her proposed budget “meets our responsibilities” and “keeps Texas on the path to success and prosperity.” The proposal now moves on to the full Senate, where a full chamber vote is expected on Tuesday.

Nelson told reporters the Senate had no appetite to use the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a $10.2 billion savings account lawmakers have available to address budget shortfalls or emergencies.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear about two things. One, this is far from the first time this particular accounting trick has been used. Indeed, accounting tricks of all kinds are baked in our legislative DNA. They are a natural and totally expected outgrowth of the many artificial budget constraints that our Legislature is subject to. I wouldn’t claim that there’s anything honorable about any of this, but given that the constraints aren’t going away, I’d greatly prefer a bit of financial prestidigitation to slashing critical services.

That said, it seems crazy to me to resort to this sort of trickery when there’s more than enough money in the Rainy Day fund to actually pay for the things that need to be paid for. There was a time when the general consensus was that this is what the Rainy Day fund is there for. The diversion tactic doesn’t make that $2.5 billion in obligations go away, it just shoves them into the next budget cycle. Which is fine of the state’s finances wind up being better than the Comptroller projects them to be for the next two years, not so fine if not. Remember, the House wants to use the Rainy Day fund to plug a gap in the budget from the last session, which resulted in part because expenses were higher than we thought they would be. We have the wherewithal to take care of this problem now. Why wouldn’t we do that? The Chron has more.

Bill to restore some budget flexibility filed

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences Act of 2017.

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

See here for the background. I don’t expect this to pass – I really don’t think two thirds of the Senate will go for it – but I will be very amused if it does. Whether this is more or less likely to happen than tapping the Rainy Day Fund is now something we can test empirically. If nothing else, that’s a victory for science.

Get ready for more I-45 chaos

Lord have mercy on our souls.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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