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University line

If only it were that easy to get our act together

Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has some blunt words for Houston about light rail.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likes Houston’s light rail that’s up and running but warns that regional transit officials have squandered opportunities the past decade by not building greater consensus.

“The region needs to get its act together,” LaHood said during a brief question and answer session after an unrelated news conference Wednesday in Houston.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board Chairman Gilbert Garcia conceded a tarnished transit image and political opposition has slowed progress, but the past three years have seen Metro make significant progress.

“It may not go the pace we all want but we’ve gone very far,” he said.

Going further, Garcia said, will take more buy-in from local congressional and statehouse lawmakers.

Though the Main Street line has been a success, and three more lines are under construction, LaHood said the area is coming up short because more hasn’t been done to extend lines to the suburbs where most people live.

He said he spent the morning in Houston talking about projects to extend transit farther from the downtown area. Suburban taxpayers who supported referendums in 2003 and 2012 especially have demonstrated a desire for development, only to have officials shortchange them.

“The fact that these people voted for a referendum and are paying these taxes and have never seen any benefit from it is just not right,” LaHood said.

LaHood, who is stepping down as transportation secretary as soon as a successor is confirmed, said in other cities that have won rail funding, it’s been because everyone from City Hall to Capitol Hill has shown their support for transit funding. In Houston, that hasn’t been the case, and that’s going to hamper getting federal funds.

“If there is not going to be universal agreement then it is not going to happen,” LaHood said.

I certainly agree that as long as we are all rowing in different directions, we’re going to get nowhere, and that’s very much to our detriment. But that’s the reality we live with. Rep. John Culberson is a staunch opponent of the University Line, and has done everything he can to block its construction. While I appreciate Secretary LaHood’s honest assessment, the best thing he could have done to help us all get on the same page would have been to use whatever Republican street cred he had left to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with his former colleague Culberson and tell him to quit being such a jackass. The sad fact is that there is no leverage to be had on Culberson. The voters he answers to agree with him, and if there’s a way for someone else to put pressure on him, I don’t know what it is.

Now to be sure, there’s plenty of responsibility for the excruciatingly slow progress on light rail in Houston that extends beyond Rep. Culberson. Metro itself did a lot of things wrong in the years immediately following the 2003 referendum, including the BRT flipflop, the Buy America fiasco, and just generally being lousy at community engagement and communication. Bill White did a lot of good things as Mayor, but Metro was broken on his watch – it wasn’t until after he’d left office that it became clear just how badly Metro was broken during his tenure – and even if it had been a well-oiled machine, he never spent much time or energy pushing the light rail expansion projects. Commissioners Court, in particular Steve Radack, has been another burdensome obstacle for Metro. Metro is in much better shape now, thanks in large part to the Board that Mayor Parker selected and the tenure of George Greanias as CEO. Radack got what he wanted in the Metro referendum from last year. It would be delightful to get Metro, the city, Commissioners Court, and the entire Congressional delegation all on the same page, but as long as some members of that group are pushing for the opposite of what everyone else wants, I have no idea how to make that happen.

Finally, Secretary LaHood’s comment about suburban taxpayers struck me as a bit odd. For one thing, Metro has spent a ton of money on the park and ride network, which very much serves the suburbs. For another, though I don’t have precinct data from the 2003 referendum in front of me, I’d bet money that the suburban parts of Houston voted against Metro’s 2012 Solutions plan. What he’s talking about sounds a lot like commuter rail, which strictly speaking outside of the US90/Southwest Corridor rail project, which was part of the 2012 Solutions plan and for which work continues, commuter rail is outside Metro’s scope, at least as far as planning and seeking funds go. Still, any viable commuter rail plan will also require everyone to work together in perfect harmony, so in a larger sense it does speak to LaHood’s overall point. Ultimately, we work together or we get nothing done. The message is clear, it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do about it.

Metro’s bus strategy

We know that the 2012 Metro referendum was intended to help Metro boost ridership by improving and expanding its bus service. Metro Board member Christof Spieler explains what that means.

First, in many cases, transit doesn’t go to the right places. Over time, Houston’s population has shifted as the urban core has redeveloped, older suburbs have changed, and new areas have appeared. But the local bus system, with routes that trace their origins to Houston’s streetcar network of the 1920s, has not changed. Nor has it adapted to a city that now has multiple job centers: It connects well to downtown and the Texas Medical Center, but not as well to Greenway Plaza and Uptown.

Second, our bus system discourages new riders. Where routes are frequent and clear, as on West­heimer, buses are packed. But buses on most routes are infrequent, so you need to plan your life around their schedules. They’re complicated, jumping from one street to another and branching to multiple destinations rather than following straightforward, predictable paths. They’re also hard to understand: Nothing at a typical bus stop tells you which destinations a route serves, which direction a bus is going, or how frequent the buses are.

The system works well for people who make the same trip at the same time every day. For everyone else, it can be intimidating. As a frequent bus rider, I understand why people who want to use public transportation can’t figure out how to use the local bus system.

So, we are starting with a blank sheet to create a more effective bus system. Rather than follow past practices of just tweaking today’s routes, we’re going to look at where people live and where people work, and then design the system that serves them best.

The first step is defining what our goals are. This isn’t simple. It appears obvious that we want to move as many people as possible and serve as many places as possible. But those are actually contradictory goals. To cover as much area as possible, we would need to reduce the bus frequency in the areas with the highest number of potential riders. This dramatically reduces ridership. These are not easy policy trade-offs, but we need to acknowledge them and make thoughtful decisions.

We can’t make those decisions without involving the public. We’ll talk with the community to learn what their priorities are, then develop a network to address those priorities. A task force representing neighborhoods, employment centers, educational institutions, health care facilities, local governments and other stakeholders will drive the process. At every step, we’ll have opportunities for public participation – including surveys and online forums.

This is all very sensible, and if you get a chance to hear Christof talk about this stuff in person as I have, I guarantee you’ll come away a believer. I’d like to see some metrics established along the way so we’ll know what Metro’s goals are for ridership and how they’re doing with them. If you get the chance, try to attend one or more of the upcoming engagement sessions, since this affects you whether you ride buses or just benefit from the lower traffic that would result from more people riding them.

On a related note, the Chron approves of Uptown’s plan for a BRT line.

Without traffic solutions, Uptown’s new offices and residences will undermine the area’s livability. So it makes perfect sense that Uptown Houston is taking matters into its own hands, and we’re pleased that Metro is on board – viewing the plan as a partner rather than a competitor.

The $177.5 million project will create an exclusive right-of-way for large buses that will act more like light rail, without the rail, running from the planned Westpark Transit Center near U.S. 59 up to the Northwest Transit Center at Interstate 10, traveling along feeder roads and an expanded Post Oak Boulevard. These paths could even eventually be upgraded to rail.

Linking the system with the Metro transit centers will provide some much needed transportation options for Uptown commuters, who are distinctly underserved by Metro’s park-and-ride system. Uptown has 15 percent of Houston’s Class A office space, but only three percent of Metro’s daily park-and-ride buses.

See here for the background. I hope Uptown makes some accommodation for bicycles on the BRT vehicles, and in general as part of a balanced solution for dealing with all that traffic. And as the Chron notes, I hope the completion of this line serves as a catalyst and a pressure point for getting the University Line going.

Tell Rep. Culberson how you feel about rail on Richmond

From RichmondRail.org:

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

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

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

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

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

Uptown BRT

Interesting news from Swamplot.

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

Greanias officially resigns, interim Metro CEO named

George Greanias may have stepped down as CEO of Metro, but he’ll still be around for awhile, as Metro searches for his successor.

George Greanias

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday accepted Greanias’ resignation, named an interim replacement and approved a six-month, $117,500 contract with Greanias – equivalent to half his annual salary – to consult for Metro.

“Don’t think you’re getting away scot-free,” board member Carrin Patman told Greanias after a 90-minute closed session. “We have a job for you.”

Greanias’ consulting duties will focus on leadership transition, increasing bus and light rail ridership and improving the MetroLift service for disabled passengers. These are key areas where Greanias can be an invaluable asset, said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia.

“Who better than someone who has been here that knows all the parts, all the intricacies,” Garcia said.

To replace Greanias, the board appointed Tom Lambert, Metro’s executive vice president and the agency’s former police chief, as interim CEO. Lambert, a 32-year Metro veteran, told the board he is not interested in the position permanently.

He said Greanias leaves the agency after 30 months in much better shape than he found it. Lambert said his goal for his time at the helm is to keep the staff directed on its long-term goals of improving bus and train service.

“I think the real issue is how can we take the system today and make it even better tomorrow,” Lambert said.

Greanias didn’t give any specific reason for leaving – he did deny that a difference of opinion over the Metro referendum was a factor – he just said he was ready to do something else. Easy enough to understand – he inherited a mess and turned it around, which has to have been exhausting as well as satisfying. The next CEO will be more in run-and-maintain mode, though he or she will have to figure out how to expand bus service and getting the new rail lines going while still working towards building the University line. It’ll be a challenge of a different kind, but a challenge nevertheless. The Board has a big task ahead of it in finding the right person for that job.

Don’t write off the University line

Metro certainly hasn’t, judging by what they’re saying.

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

What hasn’t been figured out, yet, is how to pay for the project. Federal money was heavily leveraged to get the North Line and Southeast Line to construction, but Metro is assuming a lot of the costs. And the agency is building the East Line without federal money.

In order to attract more federal funds, Metro will still have to pay up to get the University Line going. With a price tag of $1.3 billion, according to the project’s environmental report, that won’t be easy.

That’s what leaves a lot of opponents to the referendum fearing that it will ultimately doom rail. The overwhelming decision by voters to continue general mobility payments to the cities, they worry, will leave Metro with the money to run what it has, but little else.

I never thought the University line would disappear – it’s too useful, and too necessary, for that – but it was clear it would be delayed. I mean, it’s already delayed, but even if Metro could have gotten the full penny of sales tax revenue, there were and are numerous obstacles in its path for this line. The question is how long will it take before Metro feels it can start pushing forward on this again, and what will the status of the existing obstacles be when that happens. I figure the next time to check on that is after the last of the lines that are currently under construction is finished. By that time, the modified GMP will be in place, Metro’s sales tax projections will hopefully be back to where they were before the economic downturn of 2008, and there will be no other big capital projects out there. In the meantime, it’s good to hear Metro talk like this. See the Metro blog for more on their status, and on a tangential note be sure to see Jeff Balke’s story and slideshow about the construction of the other rail lines. Link via Houston Tomorrow.

Buses and trains, not buses or trains

I have a lot of emotion about this, but I’m still working through how to express it.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials say the agency is on firmer financial footing than it has been in years. They plan to add shelters at 100 bus stops in the next year, replace aging buses with larger and smaller vehicles in some cases and rethink how the Houston area is served by bus.

The refocus is a shift for the agency, as rail has dominated the political discussion since a 2003 vote for transit improvements that included five light rail lines, three of which are under construction now.

“What got focused on and what got done was the rail component,” said George Greanias, Metro’s president and CEO. “That has not always worked to the benefit of the system. … We’ve not focused as much as we should on buses.”

Metro board members and local officials, notably Houston Mayor Annise Parker, lauded the chance to correct years of underinvestment in the bus system.

“They began paring back on the bus system, dropping off the lower ridership routes, rerouting the buses, saving money, saving money so they could do rail,” Parker said Wednesday.

[…]

Around the same time Metro placed the referendum in front of voters, officials also created a strategic planning committee. One of the committee’s main tasks will be to determine how Metro’s 1,300-square-mile area can best be served by buses, including how to tie them to the rail lines, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if it is steel wheels or rubber wheels, it is all transit and it needs to work for the rider,” Spieler said. “What I would like to see is a better job of putting the whole network together.”

Some of that paring back of the bus system was necessary and correct. The main advantage to buses as transit is their lack of infrastructure, which thus enables routes to be redrawn at will and as needed to cope with shifting populations. Metro did a good job of identifying low-performing bus routes, but it hasn’t done nearly enough to improve the bus system and attract new riders to it. Part of their thinking behind this referendum and the “no incremental sales tax revenue on rail” deal, as expressed by Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia in the interview he and Spieler did with me, is that by working to get Metro’s overall numbers up they can build more public approval of the system as a whole, which will benefit future rail expansion. It feels a bit like a bank shot, but the bus system does have unaddressed needs, and as I said before taking care of those needs will remove a key pillar of the anti-rail contingent’s argument against more rail. I still think a big part of the problem here is that those who are the most vociferously anti-rail are not equivalently pro-bus, or pro-transit in general. The focus in this region has always been on roads uber alles, and getting any change in that focus has been hard fought and very incremental. Still, I continue to believe that there is a lot of potential for moving the region’s transportation and mobility forward if the stakeholders can agree to work together for once. Metro needs to maintain its commitment to fulfilling the 2003 referendum and building the University Line, and we all need to tell our elected officials, loudly and often, that we expect them to work with Metro to make that happen. Nothing about this referendum should change that.

Closing arguments for the Metro referendum

One way or another, this argument will be settled on Tuesday. What happens after that is still anyone’s guess.

The referendum on Tuesday’s ballot asks whether to continue spending some public transit sales tax money on streets and bridges. Opponents have campaigned against it by recasting the question: Should transit money be spent on roads or rail?

“You cannot do rail expansion if this thing passes,” said David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that studies urban issues to inform discussions of growth and the leading voice against the Metro proposition. “We’re not going to do rail expansion ever again.”

Mayor Annise Parker and the chairman she appointed to the Metro board, Gilbert Garcia, insist that passage of the proposition makes rail expansion more likely. One of the stated purposes of the referendum is to allow Metro to pay down debt, freeing up borrowing capacity that could be used on future rail lines. Referendum opponents are wrong when they say its passage will delay rail, Parker said Wednesday.

“Either they believe that the magic tooth fairy in Washington will shower us with federal transit dollars in the midst of a still very difficult budget cycle, or we’re going to have to pay for that next line that we build ourselves,” she said. “If we want to pay for that line ourselves, once again, we’re not creditworthy unless we pay down our debt. So, how is this going to slow down rail?”

Crossley’s answer to that, which you can hear in the interview I did with him, would be that with the full penny of Metro’s sales tax going to the agency it would be able to afford to do a lot more of the work on the University Line by itself. It’s still not enough for all of it, however, and part of Crossley’s solution depends on the city doing some of the road and utility work. The city’s plan for transit corridors already includes whatever preparations are needed for transit in those corridors, but there’s always a question of timing and priority, as well as how constrained the city might be financially if it lost GMP funds. It’s really not clear to me how this would play out under either scenario.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Crossley and other rail supporters have stepped up their campaign, raising what Crossley estimated is $16,000. He has spent it on 280,000 robocalls and on yard signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts.

In a KUHF/KHOU poll late last month, 43 percent of respondents said they favored the referendum to 28 percent against. The question read to respondents stated that the additional money Metro picks up if the proposition passes will go toward buses, shelters and paying off debt “and not on rail,” though the referendum does not specifically state that. Further clouding the results was that 27 percent were undecided.

“The voters are confused,” said Rice University political science professor Robert Stein, who helped administer the poll. “What’s on the ballot doesn’t tell voters enough to figure out what to do.”

One single poll can only tell you so much. I’ve had a pretty good feeling about the bond issues from the beginning, before that KHOU poll suggested they were winning. With the Metro referendum, regardless of what the poll says, I feel it could go either way. From what I’ve seen in email and on Facebook, the Crossley message has been getting through. I just don’t know whether it’s too little, too late, or not.

More back and forth on the Metro referendum

Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia explains the referendum for those who say they don’t understand it.

The referendum is as easy as 1-2-3. If approved, it will:

1. Continue the road-building program.

2. Expand Metro’s bus system.

3. Pay down Metro’s short-term debt.

Sure, the mathematics of how the money flows to accomplish these items takes work, but building more roads, improving our bus system and paying down debt are the results of a “FOR” vote. And with no increase in your taxes.

The actual ballot language is pretty simple. Voters will be asked to vote FOR or AGAINST: “The continued dedication of up to 25 percent of METRO’s sales and use tax revenues for street improvements and related projects for the period October 1, 2014, through December 31, 2025, as authorized by law and with no increase in the current rate of METRO’s sales and use tax.”

The question we are being asked is indeed pretty simple. What happens after that question gets answered is where it gets complicated. Former Metro VP for Communications George Smalley makes the case for that answer to be No.

Three of the five new rail lines are about half finished; that’s the good news. But the most important was to be the major east-west trunk line known as University. The University Line, you may recall, became snarled in controversy over whether part of it should run on Richmond Avenue. If voters approve the referendum, the University Line will be shelved for at least 10 years and probably longer.

The loss of this key infrastructure of an inside-the-loop collector-distributor light rail system – and its adjacent spur, the Uptown Line on Post Oak Boulevard – would doom effective mass transit anytime soon. The University and Uptown Lines would connect two major employment centers – Greenway Plaza and the Galleria – with downtown, the Texas Medical Center and multiple universities and neighborhoods. This light rail system is what would enable commuters in Missouri City, for example, to ride a future commuter rail line to the Medical Center and then transfer to light rail to reach their jobs in the Galleria.

What’s more, significant amounts of time and treasure have been spent on preliminary engineering, environmental studies and real estate evaluations for the University Line. It is highly unlikely that any meaningful portion of this work could be salvaged if and when the University Line is resuscitated.

So the harsh reality is that the majority who voted in favor of this light rail system in 2003 may not see it.

I’ve said what I had to say last week. If you forced me to make a guess today, I’d feel pretty confident about the bond issues passing, but I don’t have a good feel for this referendum. The politics of it are totally upside down, and despite Chairman Garcia’s explanation, I am confident that some people will vote against the referendum because they think it will deprive Metro of money, and some people will vote for it because they think it will provide more money for light rail. How big these blocs of misinformed voters are, I have no idea. What do you think?

What comes after the Metro referendum

I hope you found my series of interviews on the Metro referendum to be useful. I think there’s plenty in those four interviews to bolster your support of or opposition to the referendum. The referendum question is simple – do we or do we not want to continue the General Mobility Program? but the issue is complex, and I could probably do at least one more week’s worth of these without exhausting the subject. But at some point you have to make a decision. I said several weeks ago that I intended to vote for the referendum, and I am still going to vote for it, but I have to say I definitely understand the opposition’s perspective a lot better now.

The one thing I believe now that I hadn’t thought about before I began this process is that in a sense it doesn’t matter what happens with the referendum. Pass or fail, it’s just a step along the way towards the region’s transportation future, and pass or fail it’s up to all of us to work to make that the best it can be. Going forward, the main thing I want to see is better cooperation and coordination among the stakeholders on transit and transportation. Getting the University line built will benefit the entire region. It’s high time all of our local officials recognized that, and stopped tolerating the shenanigans of certain members of Congress who have so tirelessly worked against the region’s interests on this. The city and the county should work with Metro to do what they can to help facilitate University Line construction. David Crossley made the point that the city could help pay for the road and utility work that will need to be done for this, as that will reduce Metro’s total cost and make them that much less dependent on federal funding. I say Harris County can and should contribute in a similar fashion. Commissioner Radack may believe that rail lines are more expensive than they’re worth, but a significant portion of the University Line – and the Uptown Line for that matter – runs through Precinct 3, and I know if he were to ask the business interests in the affected areas, they’d tell him how much they want this built. Surely the parts of his precinct that are inside the city limits deserve as much attention paid to their mobility needs as those out near Hockley. Having those lines in place will make any future commuter or passenger rail line along 290 that much more valuable as well. We’re all in this together, and it’s way past time for us to act like it. Whatever the fate of the referendum, and however you vote on it, this is what we need to be working towards.

Interview with Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

Former Council member Sue Lovell was not directly involved in the current Metro referendum, but as the past Chair of the Transportation Committee on Council under Mayor Bill White, she was instrumental in the creation and adoption of the city’s operating agreement with Metro, which is what authorized Metro to begin construction on the 2012 Solutions plan. She also lives three blocks away from where a University Line station would be built if it ever does get built, and along with other supporters of rail and the 2003 referendum recently expressed her displeasure with the current proposal. Here’s what we talked about:

Sue Lovell MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Will voters understand the Metro referendum?

That’s the question that people on both sides of the issue are asking themselves.

“You have some people who will read it and maybe they don’t like Metro and so they’re going to vote against it, without realizing that by voting against it they’re really going to be damaging the county and the city and everybody else,” County Judge Ed Emmett said earlier this month, after Commissioners Court formally endorsed the referendum. “We need to educate people because it’s a little bit of a convoluted ballot item.”

[…]

If the ballot item fails, Metro would keep all of its sales tax dollars for transit.

That is the outcome Jay Blazek Crossley, of the nonprofit Houston Tomorrow, wants. His group and the Citizens Transportation Coalition have raised about $6,000 of their $10,000 goal, he said, acknowledging the money war is lost. Instead, his group is organizing volunteers to post yard signs, campaign door-to-door and speak about the referendum at house parties.

“We think our job is to reach out to Houstonians, talk about transit, and make people understand that we can have a much better transit future. But yes, a lot of people will vote no just because that’s what people do,” Crossley said, adding that some people also may vote yes – mistakenly thinking they’re supporting transit.

Referendum supporters set the ballot language, he said, so if voters are confused, supporters have themselves to blame.

The referendum language is here. I think it’s pretty straightforward, but you have to know what the General Mobility Fund is to comprehend it. As such, I do believe some people will vote based on a flawed understanding of it. I’m going to do what I can to facilitate a better understanding of the issue by running a series of interviews next week on the referendum and its effects. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Whither the University Line?

Is the University Line in doubt? Some people think so.

Over the last decade, METRO spent $71 million of your dollars to build a rail line. But the agency recently took that project off the table for at least another decade and no work has been done.

So where did all that money go?

Ten years ago, METRO promised to build a light rail line starting out on Hillcroft through Montrose, downtown, out past TSU, UH and stopping just east of 45.

Ten years later, nothing’s been built on the University Line and nothing will be built until at least 2025 if METRO gets its way.

“It think this is a sad day for Houston,” said David Robinson with the Neartown Houston Association.

Robinson lives along the route in Neartown. He patiently waited, even supported METRO’s plan to wait. But now he feels duped.

“We don’t understand how we were sold out,” Robinson said.

[…]

“We’re trying to close the gap,” METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

METRO says they simply don’t have the money to do this now and won’t for more than a decade. But METRO’s already spent $71 million on the project, even as recently as last year.

“We believe that every dollar of taxpayer money, whether it comes from the fare box, tax money or federal money, we need to spend it as wisely as possible,” METRO CEO George Grenias said.

In fact, if METRO hadn’t spent the money on studies and land and lawyers and meetings and newspaper ads, they could’ve taken $71 million bills and laid them down along the route, paving it from curb to curb and then some with your money.

“It’s an enormous amount of money,” Garcia said.

The agency spent $14 million studying on environmental studies that will soon be out of date. METRO spent another $2.5 million on land appraisals, and they’re no good anymore. So that’s $16.5 million gone. And METRO spent $54 million studying possible routes and picking the final one, only some of which may be useful in 10 years, but who knows.

“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” Grenias said.

I have appointments to do interviews with Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia and with Houston Tomorrow‘s David Crossley to discuss the upcoming Metro referendum, and I can assure you that the subject of the University Line will be thoroughly covered. But aren’t we overlooking something in this story? Metro cannot build the University Line without federal funding, which has not been appropriated yet. The money that it has spent so far on environmental studies and whatnot is money that it is required to spend in order to qualify for FTA grant money. In 2010, Metro received a Record of Decision from the FTA, which is the final approval of those environmental studies and which allows Metro to move forward with utility work and the like. This is the last step needed to be able to receive federal funding, but as we all know, resistance from Congress has made that extra difficult, and recent maneuvering by sworn University Line opponent John Culberson threatens that funding for the foreseeable future. Why is there no mention of this in the story?

I get that people are frustrated and tired of waiting for this. I am, too. I understand that critics of the upcoming referendum believe that anything but a complete removal of the GMP payments will leave Metro with insufficient funds to build the University, Uptown, and other planned light rail lines. I’m not sure I agree with that view, but it’s a valid concern. Metro’s ability to receive federal funds for the University Line are also contingent on its ability to handle its debt load, which Metro CEO George Greanias called a “heavy lift” when he first came on board. There are a lot of moving parts here, and Metro is responsible for its past decisions as well as its current ones and the effect they may have on the promises they made a decade ago. There’s a lot more to this than what the story covers. For a related discussion of the Metro referendum, see Nancy Sims.

Here come the GMP proposals

At Metro’s board meeting yesterday, trustees presented their proposed ballot referenda for the General Mobility Program.

I still hope we get to have all this some day

“I’m anxious to see the outcome just like everybody else,” said Chairman Gilbert Garcia, before anyone offered their specifics.

As it turned out, city-appointee Garcia was one of only two trustees calling for a vote on capping the GMP at 2014 levels. However, Garcia’s proposal also allowed for the option of voting to extend the program until 2030.

City-appointee Allen Watson called for a vote to cap GMP until September 2030, but sought $200 million bond authority for partnerships on non-rail transit.

Dwight Jefferson, a city appointee, said while he, personally, favors a compromise, public comments had led him to call for an “up or down vote” on whether the 25 percent of 1 cent in tax revenues should still go to the partnering entities for road-related projects.

The two other city trustees, Carrin Patman and Christof Spieler offered proposals that would extend the GMP payments until 2016 and 2019, respectively. Another referendum would be held prior to the new expirations.

The joint proposal from the multi-cities trustees Burt Ballanfant and Cindy Siegel, and Harris County appointees Gary Stobb and Lisa Castaneda called for a vote on whether the 25 percent of 1 cent in tax revenues should still go to the partnering entities for road-related projects or be retained by Metro.

Houston Tomorrow put out a report from the meeting as well. Spieler’s proposal, which you can see here, deserves a closer look. For some bizarre reason when I copy from that PDF it adds a line break after every word, so let me paraphrase:

1. Extend the GMP at 25% of Metro’s sales tax through 2019, with each entity getting 25% of the revenue collected within its jurisdiction. I missed that last clause at first glance, but it’s a big deal and quite possibly a dealbreaker for the member cities, since it would benefit Houston and Harris County at their expense.

2. Metro would get another $640 million in bonding authority, the same as they got in the 2003 referendum, based on the 75% of sales tax allocated to transit and contingent on Metro being able to swing it financially.

3. Metro would continue work on the University Line from Wheeler Station west, with roadwork, utilities, and right of way being funded from Houston’s GMP allocation.

There would also be no decrease in bus service or increase in bus or rail fares through 2019. What I like about this proposal is that it gives Metro something in return for continuing to disburse 25% of its sales tax revenue. It allows Metro to take advantage of historically low interest rates, and gives them a way to work around John Culberson. The smaller cities won’t like it, and it’s unclear to me how Harris County would react. The city may balk at being required to commit any of its GMP funds to this project, even though the University Line and the Uptown Line that it would enable are keys to its own mobility future. It’s also unclear how the politics of this will play out once ballot language has been decided and sides have been chosen. One poll suggests that Metro would have an uphill battle to cap the GMP. This is in conflict with the latest Houston Area Survey that showed an upswing in support for transit, but supporting something in the abstract while opposing the specifics is nothing unusual, as anyone familiar with the polling on “the deficit” can attest. (I should have full data on that poll shortly and plan to discuss it more detail when I do.) If Spieler’s proposal gains traction, there’s certainly room within it for compromise.

Spieler’s proposal is one of many, and the board put off discussing them all until August 3, so we won’t know what we’re going to get on the ballot until then. As I understand it, it’s also possible for the board to simply re-authorize the GMP for another number of years and put off having a referendum until that time. The range of possible outcomes is still pretty wide, in other words. What’s your preference?

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

Endorsement watch: An opponent for Culberson

The Chron gets around to another race it ignored in May, the Democratic primary in CD07.

The winner of the Democratic primary runoff for Texas’ U.S. House 7th District will face quite a battle against incumbent Rep. John Culberson on this comfortably Republican turf. Challengers for these sorts of safe seats have a dual duty: Try to win a race in unfriendly territory, but also lay groundwork to help future candidates. From that perspective, there is something to be said for Lissa Squires’ approach of taking the strongest position possible and unapologetically charging forward. But while her anti-corporate rhetoric may help rally the most liberal members of the Democratic base, it is neither a winning strategy nor the way to best represent Houston. But Squires’ moderate Democrat opponent, James Cargas, seems excellently suited to reflect the district’s energy industry.

[…]

In the midst of our natural gas boom, this founding member of the Oil Patch Democrats could be a strong voice for the Houston economy, showing that the oil and gas industry isn’t merely a Republican institution, but a broad and important economic driver that deserves attention from the entire political spectrum.

And even if he doesn’t win in the general election, putting forth a candidate like Cargas can remind voters in the district that there are plenty of Texas Democrats who support fracking, will bring federal grants to the Texas Medical Center, and put Houston before party.

I’m going to make the Arrogant Pundit’s Assumption that the bit about putting Houston before party is a reference to the one issue that interests me the most in this race, which is funding for Metro and the University line. You won’t find a more egregious example of putting petty partisan and personal interests ahead of the city’s needs than you will with Culberson’s neverending vendetta against the will of the voters. Since I criticized both candidates for their lack of noise about this, I am compelled to note that Cargas has been much more vocal about this lately. For reasons I can’t fathom given what a hanging curve this ought to be for any Democrat, Lissa Squiers still has nothing about this issue that I can find on her webpage or Facebook page. I don’t get it. I have no opinion on this race beyond that – I remain grateful that the redistricting gods have spared me from being “represented” by Culberson. I hope some day soon the rest of Houston will be so lucky.

Culberson’s Univesity Line attack makes it through the House

Great.

It's all on KBH now

Advocates of federally subsidized expansion of the Houston Metro light rail system lost a crucial round to Houston Congressman John Culberson on Friday, leaving dwindling opportunities to overturn spending restrictions on the Richmond Avenue project.

The House adopted a $51.6 billion spending measure on a 261-163 vote that included Culberson’s ban on federal spending for any Metro expansion along Richmond Avenue and Post Oak Boulevard. The measure also requires an in-depth audit of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County by the inspector general of the Department of Transportation.

In a boost for Metro, the spending package included $200 million in 2013 to support continued work on the lines in the North Corridor and Southeast Corridor.

[…]

The House vote left Metro supporters holding their fire and looking to deliberations by a House-Senate conference committee later this year to make the final decision on a ban included in the House bill but not included in the Senate version.

“We will await the outcome of the normal process in the House and Senate,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We remain hopeful that Congress will respect the wishes of local voters on local issues, as is normally the case.”

Robin Holzer, of the pro-Metro Citizens Transportation Coalition, said voters and civic organizations have voiced strong support for light rail construction along both Richmond Avenue and Post Oak Boulevard.

“Culberson is pandering to a handful of his supporters at the long-term expense of this district,” Holzer said. “Marketing himself as “Letting Texans run Texas,” while pushing his personal anti-rail agenda in Washington is ironic.”

Retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, will be squarely in the middle of any House-Senate negotiations on Culberson’s spending restriction.

Point of clarification here, the CTC is pro-transit, not pro-Metro. If you don’t get the distinction, go look up some of the things Metro was doing when Frank Wilson was CEO. Despite Culberson loading up KBH’s office with his baloney about Metro and rail expansion, I think there’s a decent chance that KBH will do the right thing. But now would be a very good time to contact her office and let her know that she needs to step up and support transit in Houston. Call 713 653 3456 or 202 224 5922, send email from here, write on her Facebook wall, or send her a tweet. Be nice, be respectful, and be clear.

Long term, the only solution is to elect a new member of Congress. To that end, it would be nice if the two Democratic contenders for the nomination in CD07 could take a few minutes out of their busy schedule of sniping at each other and maybe put out a press release on this or something. It would also be nice if the business interests in Greenway Plaza that support the University Line would say something about this. Barring a significant change in the Congressional map resulting from the DC Court’s long-awaited ruling on redistricting, the best chance of getting an upgrade in CD07 is going to be in the Republican primary. That’s not going to happen as long as these folks refuse to rock the boat. Until we all get on the same page here, Culberson will continue his crusade to nullify the 2003 referendum and ensure Houston is unable to move forward as a competitive 21st century city.

Metro floats compromise on mobility funds

As we know, Metro is preparing for a referendum this fall on the status of the general mobility fund, which is one fourth of the sales tax revenue Metro collects and which goes to Metro member cities for road projects. Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia has suggested freezing the payments after 2014, with any future revenue increases going back to Metro for transit work.

I sure hope we get to have all this some day

Freezing the payments would give Metro flexibility to invest more money in transit improvements, Garcia said.

“We’re looking to extend it on a fixed amount,” Garcia said. “We know they (the cities) need the funds and they go to good projects. The number one priority is to meet the needs of the community.”

Some transit supporters say Garcia’s proposal is a step in the right direction but would still consume funds needed to complete the light rail system. The coalition of multi-city mayors, however, wants the payments to continue in full.

“The 14 of us are not interested in capping our payments, and we will fight it,” said coalition chairman and Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen. “The whole problem with it is that people think Metro subsidizes us. It’s the reverse, we’re subsidizing Metro. We don’t intend to give them any more than what we’re giving today.”

Dan Barnum, a board member of the Citizens Transportation Coalition, suggested that Metro reduce the mobility payments to 10 percent. Expanding mass transit, he said, is essential if Houston is to remain competitive.

“I appreciate the difficult position they’re in, but it (the mobility payments) still takes a significant amount of money from valuable, needed projects and basically puts off completion of the light rail system,” Barnum said. “What we want is Metro tax dollars for transit and I think that’s what we should be doing.”

I am more sympathetic to Barnum’s position than I am to Owen’s, but I can live with Garcia’s compromise. If we’re going to have a public debate about the need for Metro to continue making these payments to the general mobility fund, we ought to have as much information as possible about the money involved. Owen claims that the small cities are subsidizing Metro. I presume by that he means that the 14 smaller cities contribute a larger share of sales tax revenue than they get back in general mobility funds. That’s an objective claim that ought to be easy enough to verify, and I call on Metro to provide those figures. Similarly, we should know what exactly the smaller cities are using their share of the mobility funds for. I have heard claims over the years that some of these cities get more mobility funds than they have road-related need for, and as such they are used as general revenue for them. I call on the 14 small cities to provide some accounting for how they use these funds. Let’s get all the cards on the table and come to an informed decision about the best and fairest way forward for everyone.

Football season is over, but political football season never ends

It never even reaches the two minute warning.

The University Line, whether John Culberson likes it or not

The committee chairman described it as a “food fight,” an after-midnight bout as Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold tried to jimmy legislation to block federal money for Metro to build or extend the University and Uptown light rail lines.

In the end, his effort failed. But the wrangling in the wee hours last week spotlighted the countless little-noticed struggles that take place across Capitol Hill as lawmakers try to steer taxpayers’ dollars toward projects they favor – and away from projects they oppose.

In this case, the stakes were potentially the future of Houston’s light rail system and the unceremonious initiation of Farenthold, a freshman lawmaker with barely 13 months on Capitol Hill.

[…]

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he had been “surprised that a congressman representing the citizens of Corpus Christi would get involved in our local matter.”

Needless to say, Farenthold was lackeying for John Culberson, parroting the usual BS about the 2003 referendum as if he were sitting on Culberson’s lap. Thankfully, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida intervened on behalf of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, and this particular bit of monkey business was defeated. Culberson and his ilk will never give up on this issue. Those of us who actually respect the outcome of that election can’t take our eye off the ball.

UPDATE: This would be entertaining at least, if there were any substance to it.

The Greater Houston Partnership has taken the unusual step of publicly taking U.S. Rep. John Culberson to task for his unsuccessful attempt late last week to block federal funding for Houston light rail, arguing that it makes the area vulnerable to other attempts of what it terms “reverse earmarking.”

It was so unusual that Partnership CEO Jeff Moseley argued that Culberson’s primary offense was not in opposing proposed light rail lines in his district along Richmond and Post Oak, but that the veteran lawmaker and light rail opponent did not work more quietly against the funding.

“We’re just saying whatever the questions might be on how they (funds) are being used, they’re best to be resolved quietly and not done in the front yard,” Moseley said during a visit to the Houston Chronicle editorial board Monday.

Nice, but as with the Texas Association of Business and immigration, it’s all just talk until someone funds an opponent.

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

I feel like I’ve heard all this before.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bellaire “urban transit village”

Very interesting.

Nearly a year in the drafting, a sweeping change to Bellaire’s zoning laws creating an “urban transit village” where there is now a collection of nondescript warehouses will soon be before City Council.

On Nov. 1, the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously voted to recommend Council approval of the zoning ordinance they’ve has been working on since February with Gary Mitchell of the firm Kendig Keast, which had helped design Bellaire’s comprehensive plan five years ago.

Before the vote, the commission held a public hearing on the proposal. While members of the public were present at many of the marathon workshop sessions the commission held throughout the process, this was the first opportunity they had to speak directly on the proposal.

The warehouse district, previously called a Retail Development District in the city’s zoning plan, is a 28-acre area near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610. It includes a site where preliminary plans by Metro call for a light-rail station on Westpark where the regional transit agency hopes to connect the University Line with the Uptown Line leading into the Galleria.

This is the same basic location as the one-time proposed alternate site for Dynamo Stadium. The proximity of a future Universities Line rail stop was a key feature in that proposal as well.

Richard Franke, a Bellaire resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in May, said that the proposed ordinance was “an extraordinary effort.” Still, he peppered the commissioners with a list of questions he’d prepared.

“How will the legitimate interests of taxpayers be protected?.” he asked. “What if it reverts to an apartment complex? It’s clear that the residents of Bellaire clearly prefer detached, single-family housing.”

Responding to Franke, [Bellaire community development director John McDonald] said that while the quiet suburban lifestyle may have served Bellaire well in the past, recent trends in development throughout the greater Houston region have shown that a more “urbanized” form is beginning to take hold.

If Bellaire wants to attract new residents, particularly young professionals, it needs to seriously begin considering new forms of development, he said.

That’s almost shockingly forward-thinking of Bellaire. Who knew they had it in them? I hope Houston is paying attention.

Metro signs Full Funding Grant Agreement

Full speed ahead.

The head of the Federal Transit Administration on Monday signed $900 million in grant agreements to help pay for two Houston light-rail lines under construction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The grants, the first federal funds ever provided for rail in Houston, were formally approved in a ceremony attended by the FTA chief, Peter Rogoff, Mayor Annise Parker, Metro officials, local members of Congress and others. They will pay half the costs of the North and Southeast lines, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will extend Houston’s light-rail network by 12 miles.

Local officials have been trying to secure the federal funds since voters approved a plan to expand Metro’s rail network in 2003.

It took a hell of a long time, and it nearly got derailed thanks to the previous Metro regime and its Buy America foolishness, but it got done. And remember, some people said it would never happen.

Here’s Metro’s press release:

METRO Inks Houston’s First Ever Full Funding Grants for Light Rail

Houston’s light-rail expansion is now cleared to receive $900 million dollars as part of two federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).  A special signing ceremony for the grants was held [Monday] morning at a rail expansion construction site overlooking downtown. The observation at 800 Burnett St. brought METRO officials together with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and a host of elected officials to sign long-awaited FFGAs for the North and Southeast rail lines.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the New METRO’s Board of Directors says, “The rail expansion team, METRO Board members, past and present and our entire staff, past and present, should be proud of accomplishing an enormous task. We’ve never lost sight of the prize and finally it is Houston’s. We thank all the community patriots for all their help in making this day happen. This is a major investment in the region that will not only create jobs but boost economic development.”

METRO President & CEO George Greanias says “The $900 million federal grants more than double the local dollars being used to construct the 5.3 mile North (Red) extension* and the 6.6 mile Southeast (Purple)* lines and mark the first time rail projects here have received FFGAs. This is a great example of how we can leverage our local dollars to improve mobility in the region.”

The total construction cost for the two lines is $1.6 billion dollars. Each line is receiving a $450 million dollar FFGA. The federal government has already set aside $484.5 million dollars for the two projects as part of the FFGAs. Of that amount, METRO has received $84.5 million dollars. The transit agency expects to continue receiving the federal funding over the next few years.

More than 30 percent of commuters heading into the downtown area and the Texas Medical Center ride METRO. The rail expansion approved by Houston voters in 2003 includes the North (Red) Line and extends the current Main St. Line starting at UHD to the Northline Transit Center, Houston Community College and Northline Commons Mall. The Southeast (Purple) Line connects downtown with local universities including Texas Southern University and the University of Houston central campus. The two federally funded lines and a third, locally funding East End (Green) Line currently under construction, are all expected to be completed by 2014.

For PDFs of work being performed see: METRORail North Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF) METRORail Southeast Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF)

The Harrisburg line is also under construction, but it is using only local funds. Still out there waiting their turn are the Universities line, the Uptown line, which will also be built with local funds but is entirely dependent on the completion of the Universities line to be feasible, and the Inner Katy Line, which was on the 2003 referendum but was not officially part of the 2012 Solutions plan. The Universities line received a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Universities line last July, and now awaits final design approval, which had been hung up to a degree by the other Metro projects in the queue ahead of it and now is waiting for Congress to get its act together and pass an adequate transportation bill so there will be more New Starts funds to grant. An Inner Katy line will likely be part of a larger next phase project – Metro Solutions 2020 or some such – that may be packaged together for another vote. I’m mostly speculating here, but such a line makes all kinds of sense and is already supported by the neighborhood. What it needs now is a funding source.

That’s something farther out to look forward to. For now, we have the North and Southeast lines and their historic funding agreement. It’s a good day for Metro and for Houston. The Metro blog and Dallas Transportation have more.

Apartment boom coming

I have many things to say about this.

High occupancies and rising rents for apartments are driving a new wave of development in Houston’s high-end urban neighborhoods.

More than 3,500 units in a dozen complexes are under construction primarily inside the 610 Loop and around the Galleria. Nearly 8,700 more are proposed, according to Houston-based Apartment Data Services. Most, if not all, are being planned with top-notch finishes and high-dollar rents.

The flurry of activity is meaningful after a period where construction was virtually nonexistent. Amid the nation’s economic crisis, developers couldn’t get loans to start new construction and the appetite for apartments soured as renters moved in with relatives or doubled up in units.

But with the local job market beginning to recover, demand has been ramping back up, and the numbers of available units are dwindling. Few are concerned about a glut.

“If we ever needed construction, we need it now and need it soon,” said Bruce McClenny, president of Apartment Data Services.

Most of the units won’t be ready until late 2012 at the earliest.

The print edition of this story, which ran on Sunday, included a completely inaccurate map that among other things confused Weslayan with Shepherd and Richmond with both Bissonnet and Allen Parkway. I eventually gave up trying to make sense of it.

Among the projects listed were several of the longstanding vacant lots that I’ve noted from time to time. One that is actually under construction is the Ashton Rice Village, formerly the hippie bohemian attorney Sonoma development. Two others that are listed as “proposed” are Regent Square, home of the former Allen House apartments, which claimed last year that it would break ground in 2012, and the infamous Ashby Highrise, which may have lawsuit issues of its own to deal with. Not included: The site that used to house The Stables restaurant, which was torn down nearly five years ago. I have absolutely no idea what is going on with that site and when if ever something will be built there. At the time, one of the buyers said “We’ve acquired a crucial one-acre parcel in the Med Center area, which is hard to do”. You’d think by now someone would want to do something with it.

About two thirds of the 37 properties shown on the crappy map are in the rectangle bounded by the West Loop, I-10, the Southwest Freeway, and I-45. In other words, basically Montrose, Rice U/Med Center, Upper Kirby, West U, and River Oaks. If all of these projects get built, and all of the apartments get leased (I know, not going to happen) you’re talking 20 to 25 thousand more people in the area. As these are mostly high-end places, you have to wonder what effect this will have on the demographics and the politics; most of this territory is in the court-drawn HD134, and in the new City Council District C. Greg often talks about the re-honkification of the Heights. This isn’t the Heights, and this area was pretty Anglo to begin with, but there’s likely to be an effect nonetheless.

(Alta Heights, at 141 Heights Blvd, is the closest project listed to the Heights proper. This is basically across the street from the Ainbinder Wal-Mart site, and used to be a low-income apartment complex.)

With all this dense construction taking place in an already crowded part of town, you would hope that the need for more and better transit would be seen as increasingly urgent. Some of these projects will be close to the Universities rail line when it finally gets built, but a lot more than that is going to be needed to handle this and to allow for future projects like them. I’ll say again how nice it would be if the county, instead of spending gazillions of dollars on a road to nowhere to accommodate people that might live there 20 years from now, spent a few dollars helping to improve mobility where people are right now.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”

[…]

Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

Yet another threat to light rail expansion

Great.

The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities – not just Houston but cities across the country – that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing – and not everyone realizes it.”

Actually, I have no trouble believing that the Republican Congress will act in bad faith on this. They don’t care. I didn’t include John Cornyn’s crocodile tears quote about how they’d just love to honor their commitments if only they had the money for it, but you can expect that to be the prevailing attitude.

Having said that, there is some evidence that the issue is overstated. The RSC’s proposal isn’t universally accepted by Republicans, and there are Republicans in Congress that support high speed rail, which is a different kettle of fish but which might translate to support for other forms of rail as well. And of course, the Senate gets a say, the President has a veto pen, and the Democratic phrase of the moment is infrastructure, by which they mean “jobs”. So I’m not going to panic just yet. But as with everything else lately, we’ll have to do it the hard way if we want to get anything done.

In the meantime, the Metro board has voted to increase the capital budget for rail this year, having completed several requirements for doing so, and pointed out that suspending work until it has all of the promised federal funds in hand presents risks and carries costs of its own.

If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.

“If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we’re stopped today, we’d be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we’d be walking away from everything we invested already, we’d be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University,” Greanias said. “That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, ‘We’ll move forward prudently, managing the risk.’ ”

[…]

Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.

“The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, ‘Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,’ ” said Metro board member Christof Spieler. “Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access.”

They say they have a Plan B to scale things back in the event of a worst-case, RSC-approved budget. Let’s hope they never have to use it.

Metro gets record of decision for University line

Very good news.

Metro has received word that final approval has been given concerning the environmental review process for the University light-rail line.

“Houston clearly needs the University Line as an East-West transit artery,” said George Greanias, action president and CEO of the transit agency. “We’re extremely gratified the FTA has taken a big step in advancing this important project.”

The approval in the form of a federal Record of Decision allows Metro to go forward with utility coordination, design and pre-construction planning along the 11.3-mile route, some of which will run along Richmond Avenue from roughly Main to Cummins streets.

Metro’s press release about the FTA action is beneath the fold. There is of course still the matter of getting federal funds, and ensuring that Metro’s financial position is sufficiently strong to carry the debt load all this will eventually incur, but that’s a concern for another day. Between this and the conclusion of the document shredding investigation, it’s been a pretty darned good week for Metro.

On a side note, you can see Metro’s response to the FTA concerning Buy America. Maybe they can go three for three and get a favorable resolution to this soon, too.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story on the record of decision.

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Another setback for DART

More bad news from Dallas.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit can’t afford to build light-rail service to D/FW International Airport by 2013 as it has long said it would, the agency’s chief financial officer said Tuesday.

The news comes as a sharp reversal, but CFO David Leininger said the only way the project can be built in the near future will be if new revenues can be found, either through a new tax or, more likely but still uncertain, a federal grant that would cover the approximately $275 million cost of the final leg of the Orange Line.

“We are not abandoning these projects by any means, but there simply isn’t room for them in your current plan,” he told board members.

[…]

Irving has counted on the line to anchor more than $4 billion in planned developments near rail stations. That includes a $385 million convention and entertainment complex in the Las Colinas Urban Center. The city is shouldering the lion’s share of those construction costs.

That’s on top of the previous announcements about projects being delayed or discontinued. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that the pool of federal grant money that gave Metro funding for the North and Southeast lines is all used up. Metro got the last two available grants for that. Until there are more funds like that available from the federal government, projects like that and like the University line will at the very least experience some uncertainty. It’s high time Congress took action on this. Alternately, as the DMN editorializes, the Lege can provide funds for regional transportation projects. This is worth doing, and if DART can’t do it by itself, it should get help.

Metro approves study of Fort Bend commuter rail line

In the last act for several Metro board members, we get a step forward on another commuter rail line.

Moving to extend Metro’s reach into Fort Bend County, the agency’s board agreed Thursday to spend up to $500,000 on environmental studies for a commuter rail line connecting southwestern suburbs with central Houston.

During the last meeting for chairman David Wolff and three other Houston appointees, the Metropolitan Transit Authority board authorized its staff to finalize the alignment, begin public meetings and environmental review and take other steps to advance the 8.2-mile, $250 million project in the U.S. 90A corridor.

U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, whose district includes much of the corridor, has agreed to seek federal funding for the project, Metro officials said. Service could begin within three to five years, they said, enabling Fort Bend County residents to board a single Metro train that would bring them to jobs in the Texas Medical Center.

Despite all the talk about maybe having to slow some things down, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the advancement of commuter rail plans. First Galveston, then Hempstead, and now Fort Bend. I think those are all the corridors that have been actively bandied about lately, though there are certainly other possibilities; west on I-10 and north on I-45 come to mind. I hope the new Board is able to pick this ball up and keep running with it.

A key advantage of Metro’s plan, Wolff said, is that it would use trains Metro already owns on tracks that would parallel Union Pacific freight tracks in the same corridor, tying into the existing Main Street light rail line to create a seamless experience for passengers.

The commuter line would begin at Fannin South, the southern end of the Main Street line, and continue to the Fort Bend County Line at Beltway 8.

“The commuter rail has to tie into light rail in order to be attractive to the consumer,” Wolff said.

Now where have I heard that before? This is an advantage for the Fort Bend line, one that the Hempstead line at least does not share. It would of course be best to be able to continue on from the FB line into Greenway Plaza or the Galleria, but being able to get to the Medical Center and downtown is a good start. Continuing this line into Fort Bend, for which various options already exist, is vital as well, but that would require Fort Bend County giving Metro permission to operate there. As it happens, when I spoke to David Wolff, he told me that Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert was on board with the idea. We’ll see how it goes from here now that Metro has taken this step.

The transition team report on Metro

In addition to naming new Metro board members, today was the day for Mayor Parker’s transition team to give its report on Metro. Here’s the Chron story about their report. I’m going to focus on one piece of it:

[James] Moncur, a former deputy city controller and former Metro finance employee, said the attorney general’s office has told the transition team it is unwilling to allow Metro to pledge certain federal grant revenues to help the agency repay the bonds.

The state agency believes counting on the continuation of these grants at a time of growing federal deficits is imprudent, Moncur said. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office has told the Houston Chronicle that it is in preliminary talks with Metro about the bonds but hasn’t disclosed the substance of the talks.

Without these funds, Moncur said, it’s doubtful Metro could support enough debt to build all five of its planned light rail lines by 2015. Funding for the three lines under construction — the North, East End and Southeast lines — seems secure, Moncur said.

The attorney general’s office, which must approve the bonds, “is OK with the three-line scenario,” Moncur said. “For the five lines, it’s kind of borderline.”

I was in a conference call with Moncur and George Greanias yesterday in which all of this information was previewed. (*) The grants in question are called 5307 grants, and it’s not clear to me why exactly the AG’s office has an issue with this. Moncur told us that Metro wants to pledge the revenue from these funds, about $50 million per year, for the life of the bonds, which is 30 or 40 years. The grants are recurring, and Metro has received them regularly. Obviously, people are concerned about the federal deficit, and it’s certainly possible that something like this could be affected by future budget-trimming efforts, but in the absence of any specifics, it has the feel of politics to me. I certainly could be wrong about that – we really don’t know much about what the AG and Metro’s bond lawyers have been saying to each other – and I suppose over that long a time frame anything can happen, but I don’t quite get the hangup here. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon.

This isn’t the only issue. As the story notes, Metro is making some assumptions that Greanias termed “optimistic” about sales tax revenues and operating costs, and it is also assuming future fare increases. The former is beyond anyone’s control, and the latter will surely run into political resistance. Overall, I feel better about this situation now than I did a week or so ago, and I do believe there is a commitment to getting the U lines built, just perhaps not on the schedule I’d want. But it ain’t gonna be easy, and I don’t envy the new Board the task of making it work.

Other items that came up: The idea of maybe reducing the fares seems like a non-starter – if you are committed to building the rail lines, then as Moncur put it “Eliminating fares would sink the rail program.” I asked about whether there was merit to the assertion that the 2003 referendum would not allow for Metro to float this $2.6 billion bond package without another referendum. The said they did not do a legal analysis, but they assumed that Metro’s bond attorney, who helped write the referendum, knew what he was doing. They said the economist Metro uses for their sales tax projections is Barton Smith, and that the FTA reviews those projections as well before they make any grants.

That’s what I’ve got for now. I’m going to need to read through the transition team’s reports for myself, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say as I do. Texas Watchdog has more.

(*) – I missed the beginning of the call due to bad cellphone reception, but the Chron’s Mike Snyder very kindly took notes and shared them with me, so I was able to get everything out of the call. My sincere thanks to Mike for his generosity.

Parker reaffirms commitment to light rail

This is what I want to see.

[Mayor Annise] Parker’s letter regarding this week’s Metro board meeting was sent on the eve of her trip to Washington, where she said she would reassure U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that her administration wants to see five new light-rail lines built in Houston.

“I just want them to know that in spite of what might seem to be some turmoil at Metro, and despite what’s clearly going to happen with a new management team and a new board at Metro, is that Houston remains firmly committed to light rail,” Parker said.

The mayor said she intends to announce her five new appointees, including a new chairman, after she returns from Washington on Thursday — the same day as Metro’s March board meeting. Parker has said Wilson also should be replaced.

Her letter asks the board to defer action on any items that would obligate Metro to substantial financial commitments or assign any of its operating authority to a third-party vendor. Parker said she expects her appointees to be confirmed by City Council prior to the board’s April meeting.

It’s a good start, and if one assumes that a large part of the concern over Metro’s finances is that they’ve counted too much on federal dollars that haven’t been appropriated yet, it goes a long way towards offering reassurance that the two U lines will get built. I have faith in Mayor Parker and I don’t doubt her desire to see these lines built, but it’s always nice to hear the words.

The Hempstead line

Here’s another story about progress on a proposed commuter rail line, this one out US 290. A study to determine ridership on the line, which would go as far west as Hempstead, will be done.

The Houston-based engineering firm Klotz Associates will do the $715,000 study. The Gulf Coast Rail District got the money from federal stimulus funds.

The line as presently envisioned would start somewhere near the junction of U.S. 290 and Loop 610 and head north along an existing freight rail line.

In other words, the eastern end of this line would be proximate to the northern end of the Uptown line. Hold that thought for a minute.

The launch of the study is a milestone, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who is not a formal participant in the planning but has promoted it the commuter line as vital to the region.

“It’s a real step as opposed to people just talking about it, and real money is being spent to get this process moving,” Emmett said.

Part of the Klotz work is to determine whether what is known as the Eureka corridor line is a viable option. [Gulf Coast Rail District Board Chair Mark] Ellis believes it will be.

[…]

The Gulf Coast Rail District would also need to strike a deal with the Metropolitan Transit Authority because the commuter rail line alone will not complete most commutes.

Passengers delivered to the Northwest Transit Center near U.S. 290 and Loop 610 will need quick passage to downtown and other employment hubs.

I trust we can all agree that the value of this Hempstead line declines considerably if there is no Uptown line for it to connect to, and no University line for the Uptown line to connect to. Same for the ridership projections. I hope that Klotz presents different scenarios in its report, one with a fully functional rail system, and one without. I for one would not be surprised if the line isn’t feasible without this connection.

(Another scenario to consider is that someday Metro may finally get around to building the Inner Katy light rail line that was also approved in the 2003 referendum but not made part of the initial expansion plans. That, or at least one variation of it, would be the logical extension of the Hempstead line into downtown. Again, you have to figure that would have a positive effect on ridership numbers, which in turn makes the whole endeavor that much more worthwhile.)

But of course what we’re talking about now is whether, not when, the two U lines will be built because maybe Metro doesn’t have the money for them. I think by now you know where I stand on this. I’m bringing it up again as another reminder that the value in having a built-out rail system is bigger than just the light rail part of it. I have observed that commuter rail has a lot of support from people who aren’t fans of light rail. Some people argued before the Main Street line was built that we should have built commuter rail first. I have always felt that unless there’s something for those commuter rail lines to connect to, they’re not doing much more than what the existing buses from the suburbs provide. Each part has value, but sum of the parts, which maybe someday will include high speed passenger rail as well, is greater than the parts themselves. A letter to the editor that I missed in Saturday’s edition from Metro executive vice president John Sedlak about its bus service is beneath the fold. David Crossley and Andrew Burleson have more on related topics.

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More on Metro’s finances

The Chron takes a closer look at Metro’s finances and the recently expressed doubts about their ability to pay for the University and Uptown lines.

Mayor Annise Parker said last week that she wasn’t convinced the Metropolitan Transit Authority would have the money to build its planned Uptown and University rail lines.

Parker said she hopes Metro can build the two lines, which together would constitute about 15 of the 30 miles of rail included in the second phase of the “Metro Solutions” mobility program.

But Parker, who was scheduled to be briefed this weekend by transition teams that she said have “drilled down” into Metro’s finances, said Metro officials have misled the public by talking as if funding for those two lines were assured. Three other lines are under construction.

“It’s tenuous,” Parker said Thursday after a speech to the Greater East End Chamber of Commerce that included an enthusiastic endorsement of rail transit in Houston.

Some of the doubts expressed by Parker and others who have studied the issue focus on how Metro would repay the $2.6 billion in bonds it intends to issue through 2014 to help finance the rail system. Metro chief executive Frank Wilson said the bonds would be backed by a combination of sales tax revenues, fare revenues and federal grants.

Parker noted that revenues from Metro’s 1 percent local sales tax are declining. Figures presented to the Metro board in February show sales tax receipts for the 10 months ending in January plummeted by $34 million from the same period a year earlier.

“We’re in a very different sales tax climate,” Parker said. “Some analysts say the sales taxes are going to continue to decline. There are a lot of moving parts.”

If sales tax revenues do continue to decline, we’re going to have much bigger problems than just Metro. Be that as it may, it’s still hard to judge the concerns without seeing the transition team’s report. If it mostly hangs on the question of whether Metro will get the federal funds it anticipates for the University line, then yes, not getting those funds, or not getting as much of them as requested, would be a big deal. Metro did very well in getting the funds it received for the North and Southeast lines, and the University line will have stronger ridership numbers than either of them, so you’d think they’d be in decent shape, but anything can happen with appropriations, so who knows? I don’t know what else there is to say about this.

At a higher level, what I want to know is what the commitment is to getting these lines built. I have faith in Mayor Parker, and I do believe she wants to see this happen. What I want to see is an affirmation that we’ll find a way to make it happen. The people voted in 2003 to build five light rail lines. We all remember how upset the strongest supporters of the 2003 referendum got when Metro announced that due to cost concerns they would be building bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of light rail for some of the routes. If the current funding model doesn’t work, then what we need is a promise to figure out a way to make it work. We’ve come too far to turn back now, and the transit system that we’re building is too important to Houston’s future mobility to leave incomplete.

Parker expresses doubt about University and Uptown lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All your empty lots are belong to HEB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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