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Uptown

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro to buy buses for Uptown BRT

Another step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film at 11.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Uptown lawsuit filed

I suppose we should have expected something like this.

The city’s Uptown Development Authority and the economic development zone that feeds it were created in violation of the Texas Constitution, two critics allege in a lawsuit that seeks to void all resulting actions and block Uptown from collecting or spending another dime.

The Galleria-area agency’s controversial, $200 million effort to widen Post Oak Boulevard and add dedicated bus lanes down the middle is a key focus of the lawsuit. It was filed Wednesday on behalf of restaurateur Russell Masraff and condominium resident Jim Scarborough, who was also was a plaintiff in another, since-dismissed lawsuit seeking to block the bus plan.

The suit argues that Uptown officials repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in pricing and purchasing land to widen Post Oak – including tracts in which some Uptown board members had a financial interest – and that the agency’s subsequent decisions should be voided or reversed, to the extent possible.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joe Larsen, said he views the filing as having broader significance beyond the bus plan.

“We’re asking the court to order Uptown to make no further payments because all the money involved has been collected through an unconstitutional tax regime,” Larsen said. “The bottom line is the Constitution requires equal taxation.”

He added that the only reason tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, “are not unconstitutional is that there’s a different provision in the Constitution that allows them.”

“In order to meet that other provision in the Constitution that allows TIRZs to be constitutional, they have to be in an area that’s ‘blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped,’ Larsen asserted. “That’s it.”

This is not the first lawsuit related to this project; that one was subsequently dismissed, though without a comment on its merits. In this case, the plaintiffs asked the judge for an injunction blocking the Uptown Development Authority from spending money or issuing bonds while the litigation was in progress, but that request was denied. I feel like it’s also in the Constitution that we cannot have a non-freeway expansion transportation project in this town without at least one lawsuit. I’m not qualified to assess the legal argument being made here, so instead let me bring you a video of “Uptown Funk”, since that song has been lodged in my brain since this story first broke.

With all due respect to “Uptown Girl”, I say this song should be played at the beginning of all court hearings in this case. Who’s with me on this? Swamplot has more.

Uptown BRT will be ready in 2019

A little later than originally expected.

Construction might be set to start soon on dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak through the Uptown area, but the latest projections don’t have riders on the lanes for nearly three years.

Despite earlier estimates to open the lanes in 2018, which Uptown Management District President John Breeding said was possible, even if it happened at “11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2018,” the latest plans don’t have riders hopping aboard until March 2019.

The new date was confirmed Thursday during an update on the project by Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, who are working with Uptown to develop the project, estimated to cost $192.5 million.

[…]

A separate project led by the Texas Department of Transportation will allow the buses to travel along Loop 610 for the portion of the line from Post Oak to Metro’s transit center north of Interstate 10.

The Loop 610 project will not be ready when trips begin in March 2019, said Clint Harbert, Metro’s senior director of system planning and development. It is scheduled for late fall, Harbert said, though Metro is estimating first-year operations on the possibility it might not be ready until early 2020.

Has there ever been a major infrastructure/construction project that didn’t blow past its original completion estimates? I can’t think of any offhand. They’ll get there when they get there, I guess.

The latest attempt to kill the Uptown BRT line

Whatever.

“See this right turn lane filled up?” asked consultant Wayne Dolcefino to about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. “That’s going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That’s going away too.”

A woman’s jaw dropped, as though what Docefino said was inconceivable.

But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two-and-a-half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.

Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the “lack of effective commuter transit service.” To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.

On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won’t want to bother with the headache, and that the project is “stained ethically” because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston.

[…]

John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that “this project has been vetted more than any public project I’ve ever been associated with” in response to critics saying it hasn’t been transparent.

Complaints about the Uptown line are nothing new – they go back to 2010 at least. A lawsuit was filed last year claiming that the project was in conflict with the 2003 referendum because it wasn’t light rail (!); that lawsuit was dismissed a few months later, though there was no resolution in the dismissal. A criminal complaint was filed in April over the way land was acquired for the project; there’s been no word yet as to whether there’s anything to that or not. Campos has the text of a letter this “Save Uptown” group has sent out, which calls on Mayor Turner to stop the project and says another lawsuit is in the offing. It’s not clear to me that the Mayor could stop this if he wanted to – Council approved funding as part of the overall Uptown/Memorial TIRZ expansion, but funding for this comes from other, non-city sources as well. It’s also not clear to me why Mayor Turner would want to top this given his emphasis on rethinking transportation. My question for “Save Uptown” or any other foe of this project is this: What’s your alternative to the status quo? I mean, if you think the traffic situation in the Uptown/Galleria area is fine as things are and nothing needs to be done, then fine. Say it loud and proud. If you don’t think it’s fine, then please tell me 1) what you would do about it, 2) how you would pay for it, 3) how much disruption any of your planned upgrades would cause over the next two years, and 4) what you have been doing since, oh, 2010 or so, to bring about your vision. Maybe the Uptown BRT project isn’t the best possible idea, or maybe the cost is too high, but you can’t beat something with nothing. This plan has been in motion for a long time. What have you got that’s better than it? Swamplot and the HBJ have more.

Uptown BRT construction officially begins

Here we go.

Crews are relocating trees in preparation for two years of construction, starting in July.

The Uptown Dedicated Bus Lanes Project will unfold in three phases, moving from north to south and starting with the West Loop to San Felipe segment. Designed to solve the area’s crushing mobility problem, the $121.5 million boulevard project is one part of a three-prong plan to make it easier for 80,000 employees to get to work.

“We’ve done about all we can with the freeway, but we need to improve how automobiles move through the area. We essentially have no commuter bus service,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding.

The boulevard will be widened from 120 to just over 136 feet. Buses will be moved to central lanes, with landscaping and sleek shelters, replacing the current esplanades. The project preserves six auto traffic lanes and their signalized left turn lanes.

The Uptown TIRZ is contributing $76.5 million and getting $45 million in federal funds for the boulevard. An additional $25 million in TxDot funds and nearly $70 million in federal funds will be spent to tie the boulevard’s buses to the Northwest Transit Center and a new Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center that will tap into the Westpark Tollway and the Southwest Freeway HOV lanes.

“We’re going to have the level and quality of service that the light rail system has with all the flexibility that the bus system offers,” said Uptown Houston District president John Breeding, whose group is also working with Metro to develop a new bus prototype for the boulevard that will be a hybrid of commuter rail vehicles and current buses. Giving the buses their own roadway will reduce travel time along the boulevard by 40 percent, Breeding said.

But his group also wants to create a more walkable environment for growing numbers of residents and visitors in the area.

The district estimates that Uptown’s current population of more than 45,000 people will mushroom to more than 69,000 by 2040.

To that end, the sidewalks are being expanded from four to 12 feet and planted with a shady canopy from two rows of new trees.

“If we can get people to walk to lunch, it really does take cars out of the intersections,” Breeding said. “We will not be successful just by adding mobility improvements. We have to make it a better place.”

Sleek light towers will also make the sidewalks more inviting at night. The boulevard’s trademark steel “ring” signage will remain, and its shiny arches will be re-engineered to accommodate the wider sidewalks.

“We don’t want you to walk out of a restaurant or an office building and go, ‘That’s a really great bus street,'” Breeding said. “We want you to think about how beautiful the environment is.”

There was a symbolic groundbreaking almost exactly a year ago. I guess I hadn’t realized there hadn’t been much done since then, other than more legal thrust and parry, anyway. My opinion on this project remains the same: I think it’s a good idea, I think it’s necessary, and I think that if it provides a good service, people will use it. I’d feel better about its short term prospects if the University line hadn’t been reset to zero, but if the Uptown line can be viable and useful, then that will make the case for trying again on the University line that much stronger. In the meantime, having express bus service go into the Galleria area will help provide some level of potential Uptown Line riders, and if the high speed rail line really does get built with a terminal at the Northwest Transit Center, then that’s another way to connect in. As with pretty much every rail or rail-like project ever, if it can overcome the hurdles people keep putting in the way of its construction, I think in the end we will be happy it got built. But first we have to get there. This is the beginning of that.

One more thing:

Breeding admits the project has one serious shortfall: No bike lanes are included.

“That’s an important, emerging issue,” he said, calling access for bikes “a holy grail” that couldn’t be accommodated, given “the national mood on the widths of thoroughfares.” He said the district is developing a master plan that could encourage bike traffic on other streets in the area.

That is unfortunate. I’ve been an advocate for integrating bikes into the plan for Uptown (and for transit in general), so I’m sorry to see this. I hope that master plan can find some decent alternatives that will still work well with what they’re doing.

Criminal complaint filed over Uptown land acquisition

All righty then.

A consultant who represents property owners in the Galleria area has filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, alleging the Uptown Development Authority and related entities broke state open meetings and disclosure laws in relation to acquiring property for a dedicated bus lane project.

The complaint, filed last week with District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office, concerns meetings held by Uptown officials to discuss right-of-way purchases along Post Oak Boulevard to make the bus project feasible.

The transit project, which also involves Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation, would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center with the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610, stopping at dedicated platforms along Post Oak.

Wayne Dolcefino, president of Dolcefino Consulting, said Uptown did not create any records of the so-called Right-of-Way Committee meetings, including dates, agendas or minutes.

“We believe that’s a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and have now formally asked the district attorney to investigate,” according to a statement released this week by Dolcefino’s consulting firm. His complaint also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest among board members who own or are affiliated with companies that own real estate on Post Oak.

Uptown official John Breeding said his organization has not broken any rules. He said the meetings did not include a quorum and no action was taken.

“Our attorneys … they tell us such committee meetings don’t have to be posted,” said Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District and administrator of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Development Authority.

Long story short, this is just another skirmish in the fight between the Uptown Management District and its plans to remake Post Oak Blvd and build a BRT line, and some Uptown business interests that hate the idea and have been fighting it like a pack of crazed weasels. It’s all going to culminate in a lawsuit, unless one of the shots that the opponents have been firing manages to take the project down before a suit gets filed. I rather doubt this complaint will lead to anything, but hey, you never know.

Paxton opines on Uptown BRT

AG Ken Paxton was asked for an opinion on whether or not Metro could work with the Uptown Management District on its proposed BRT line. The opinion has been given, though it doesn’t really settle anything.

In the ruling, Paxton said the issue centered on the $640 million in bonds voters approved in 2003, part of an overall rail plan for the Houston area. Metro promised voters to develop light rail along the route.

Holding the agency to that vow, however, would require finding that it spent the money improperly or is developing the bus lanes in lieu of its promise to voters, Paxton’s ruling said.

“A court would likely determine that (Metro’s) contract with the voters included the expenditure of a portion of the bond proceeds on the Uptown/West Loop 4.4-mile rail segment,” Paxton wrote. “Whether Metro’s participation in the Uptown Houston Transit Project violates that contract with the voters requires the resolution of fact issues that are beyond the purview of an attorney general opinion.”

Critics said he decision vindicated their position that Metro cannot substitute a bus project for light rail. The question could arise again if Metro tries to issue bonds – the language of which must be approved by Paxton’s office – or if critics ask a court to intervene.

[…]

A court ultimately, if asked, would have to decide whether voters received the benefits Metro promised them in 2003 and that money was used for those purposes, Paxton’s opinion said.

Another question, Paxton said, would be whether the existing project “will prevent the development of the promised rail segment.”

See here for the background, and see the story for a copy of the opinion, designated KP-0046 if you want to look at it on the OAG website. I don’t see any way this doesn’t end in a lawsuit. That’s just how we roll around here with rail projects. In the meantime, savor the irony of die-hard light rail opponents arguing that the Uptown line has to be built as light rail or else it’s illegal. How Andy Taylor keeps his head from exploding is one of life’s enduring mysteries.

More on the high speed rail station in Houston

The Chron frets about it not being downtown.

After hearing so much about how the proposed Central Texas Railway will help people commute between the central business districts of Houston and Dallas, it turns out that the Houston station will be built near the Northwest Mall at U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

Unless your business is antiques, that location isn’t exactly central. In fact, the French have a phrase to describe rail stations that sit outside central business districts, surrounded by little more than a parking lot: beet field stations.

We’ve heard arguments that, while it isn’t an economic core itself, the proposed rail terminus serves as the center of Houston’s economic footprint, balanced between the energy corridor, Galleria area, downtown, The Woodlands and the Texas Medical Center. But it isn’t just about placing riders at the physical center of a region. Central business districts offer convenient connections to riders’ end destinations. This means walking to hotels or businesses, grabbing a cab or connecting to a local mass-transit system. Downtown Houston is one of the few parts of town that can meet all those standards.

Rail stations on the edge of urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to a June report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration that documented best rail practices from around the world. Sometimes it makes sense to build on more affordable, suburban property. However, those stations function best when they’re at the core of a transit node. Metro’s Northwest Transit Center isn’t enough.

[…]

Metro’s version of commuter rail – Park and Ride – has stations that are little more than parking lots. Those are the dreaded beet field stations that, according to Eidlin’s report, do little to attract economic development.

There’s plenty of opportunities for Houston’s high-speed rail station to connect with the rest of the city, such as a Metro’s planned dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, or even light rail toward downtown. But according to best practices, that groundwork for a mass-transit hub should already be laid by the time the new high-speed rail station is built. Keith said the Central Texas Railway planned to break ground in 2017. Where is Metro’s corresponding local plan?

Jarrett Walker has a response to this.

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won’t go to “downtown” Houston.  Instead it will end atNorthwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I’ve talked with aren’t sounding nearly as upset.  That’s because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It’s also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region’s second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It’s very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

There’s a good discussion in the comments to that post, if you want to read some more. My thoughts are as follows:

1. The decision to put the terminus at 290 and 610 was as much a political choice as anything else. Right now, Texas Central mostly has political enemies in the rural and suburban counties between Houston and Dallas, with some spillover into neighboring rural counties. The legislators who represent these areas include some fairly powerful people, but there aren’t that many of them. The one key vote regarding Texas Central, in a Senate committee, went in their favor because there were more Senators from urban areas like the Metroplex and Harris County who favored the idea. The last thing Texas Central needs is more enemies, and that’s what they would have gotten if they had pushed for a downtown terminus, as plenty of inner Loop folks didn’t like the idea of the trains whizzing through their neighborhoods. Yeah, there’s a NIMBY aspect to this, but the fact remains that a downtown terminus would have had more legislators aligning with the anti-high-speed rail folks. Texas Central didn’t need or want that, and this was the easiest solution to that problem.

2. As long as we’re noting the politics of high-speed rail, let’s also note that Metro is where it is today in large part because of political forces, which among other things have forced them to make dubious promises about not building light rail in the dedicated lanes now being intended for the Uptown BRT line. Metro did plenty to sabotage itself during the early days of the light rail approval process, but they have also had to fight against considerable headwinds, for which the main casualty has been the Universities line. I don’t know what the landscape would look like if there had been a more favorable political climate over the past dozen or so years, but I think we can all agree that it would be different.

3. The area around 290 and 610 where this would be built isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be clear: Pretty much everywhere along 610 between I-10 and TC Jester is a wasteland right now, largely because of freeway construction. At some point, all that construction will be over, and the area can begin to develop into something. When that might be, I have no idea. Prospects for that area may be limited regardless, because access to it is limited by the various freeway interchanges. But if there was ever a time to build something around there, now is as good as any because it’s all going to change over the next five to ten years anyway.

4. I think a lot of concerns go away if 1) the Uptown BRT line gets built; 2) an Inner Katy line, which would connect downtown to Uptown via Washington Avenue and the Northwest Transit Center, gets on the drawing board; and 3) the Universities Line gets back into the discussion. Put those things in place, and this terminus much more accessible to the rest of the city. #1 will happen on its own if nothing torpedoes it. #2 has been the subject of what-if speculation for financial assistance from Texas Central. Not clear how that might work, but it sure would be worth talking about. As for #3, I think everyone agrees that once the Uptown line is built and assuming it’s a success, the argument for connecting it to the Main Street line becomes nearly unassailable. Metro would have to hold another referendum to make that happen per the terms of the peace accord with John Culberson, and for sure all the usual forces against any kind of spending on rail construction will come to the fore. But it could happen, and if these things do happen we’ll be much better off.

The FRA releases its alignment analysis for the high speed rail line

There will be no downtown Houston station, that much is for sure.

The area around U.S. 290 and Loop 610, anchored by Northwest Mall, is likely to be the end of the line for a proposed Houston-to-Dallas high speed passenger train.

The Federal Railroad Administration has eliminated from consideration both of the paths that would have carried the trains to Houston’s central business district. The agency is overseeing environmental approvals for the multi-billion-dollar line proposed by Texas Central Partners.

The decision essentially gives Texas Central “our target landing zone,” CEO Tim Keith said, although the company still must procure numerous federal approvals, hold public meetings, raise money and acquire land before construction could begin.

[…]

Keith said the decision not to bring the line downtown keeps the project within its $10 billion to $12 billion cost estimate.

“Serving downtown Houston directly would require significant community impact and significant cost,” Keith said.

Federal officials eliminated options for a downtown connection because the each of the two proposed paths had numerous areas of concern. Both would have resulted in environmentally-significant damage to the Heights Boulevard Esplanade – part of a national historic district – and Cottage Grove Park west of T.C. Jester.

[…]

A decision about where the line would end changes many of the conversations with local officials, Keith said.

“We’re focusing on getting passengers into the (central business district) and allowing us to engage in those discussions with the various entities we can partner with,” Keith said.

The discussions will likely include the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is planning some projects around Loop 610 and U.S. 290. Metro board member Jim Robinson said Metro officials have suggested the private high-speed rail firm help to pay for a Metro light rail extension to the area.

“They could extend light rail for a fraction of (the high-speed rail cost) and that would certainly better serve their business model,” Robinson said. “I think we should absolutely partner with them.”

Keith said no conversations about Texas Central funding other improvements have taken place.

“We are going to work hard to get something to maximize connectivity,” he said.

You can see a copy of the FRA report here; it’s not exactly light reading, but go for it. The Dallas end of the line is still a work in progress, but the list is short. The idea of HSR-to-light-rail has come up before, though apparently not in a way that Texas Central will officially comment on just yet. I think that would be a win all around, and would add connectivity to the Uptown BRT line, assuming it doesn’t get derailed. It’s mostly a question of how to make the finances work. I do hope Metro pursues this; since everything comes down to the Mayoral runoff these days, I’d be more confident about a Metro board appointed by Sylvester Turner taking that on than I would with a Bill King board. Be that as it may, this doesn’t get real till construction starts, in 2017 if all goes as planned. There’s still time for the Lege to interfere as well, so while this is another step down the path, the finish line is still a long way away. The Press has more.

Uptown living

It’s a thing that is happening.

Home to the city’s glittering epicenter of retail, with a dramatic skyline dominated by the towering Williams Tower and other office buildings, Uptown Houston is best known for the places where people work and play. Increasingly, it’s a place where people want to live as well.

A $1.7 billion investment in condominium towers and apartments over the last five years there has pushed residential development past retail as a percentage of overall real estate. Uptown is now 28 percent residential, compared with 25 percent retail.

Leaders at Uptown Houston, which runs the tax increment reinvestment zone and management district there, say residential opportunities are still in their infancy. Another 4,000 living units are under construction.

“Office, residential, retail and hotel all sort of blend and work together to create an urban neighborhood,” Uptown Houston president John Breeding said. “I think we’ve reached a new level of urbanization.”

The office market still dominates in Uptown, which ranks among the top 15 biggest office centers in the nation. Office makes up 37 percent of the district.

But residential is on the rise. O’Brien’s complex recently opened at 1900 Yorktown, the eight-story building advertising units with built-in wine cellars, oak floors and a large “Vegas-style” pool.

Announced residential projects in the Galleria area include a 26-story development called Belfiore being built at Post Oak Lane and South Wynden Drive, and a 28-story condominium tower called Astoria on Post Oak Boulevard. The Wilshire, a 17-story condominium project, and the SkyHouse River Oaks apartments replaced a 1960s-era apartment complex on Westcreek, now adjacent to the recently opened River Oaks District.

[…]

The regional housing market, long dominated by spacious single-family homes in suburban areas, is evolving as buyers increasingly are attracted to urban locales where it’s possible to walk to nearby attractions, said Jacob Sudhoff of Sudhoff Properties, a high-end real estate brokerage firm specializing in condo sales.

The Uptown-Galleria area is ground zero for this change as international buyers, oil executives and downsizing empty nesters trend toward the luxury for-sale units.

“Houston has finally turned into a condo market, and in the past we never were,” Sudhoff said. “There’s a correlation between amenities, walkability and the location of these condominiums.”

I think it’s a good thing that formerly non-residential areas such as Uptown now feature actual residences. The best way to avoid and reduce traffic is for people to be places where they don’t need to get into a car to go about their business. This is why things like sidewalks, bike paths, and transit matter. Some number of people who work and shop in the Uptown area have no choice but to drive there. If the people who do live there or live close to there can do those things by walking, biking, or taking Metro – and if there are more of those people to begin with – then they’re not competing with the folks who have to drive for space on the Loop. (I’ve made the same argument about parking for bikes at restaurants.) Doesn’t that make sense? Now if we could figure out how to get some more affordable housing into and around places like Uptown, then we’d really have something. I’m sure the next Mayor will get right on that.

Lawsuit against Uptown line dismissed

We haven’t heard the last of this, of that you can be certain.

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit challenging a dedicated bus lane project in Houston’s Uptown area, but the ruling is not a final resolution of the dispute.

State District Judge Brent Gamble on Thursday dismissed the lawsuit filed by Cosmopolitan Condominium Owners Association against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The dismissal did not specify why the lawsuit should not go forward, although Gamble indicated previously that unresolved questions made the lawsuit premature.

Both sides, however, said they viewed the dismissal as a step in their favor.

“It is my hope that now people will come together to make this the best project it can be,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia.

Jim Scarborough, a Cosmopolitan resident and leader of the opposition to the bus lanes, said critics would have preferred that the judge halt the project. However, he said, the dismissal paves the way for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to determine if another challenge is valid.

Because Metro’s 2003 referendum authorized the transit agency to build light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. Paxton’s office was asked by State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to determine if the project violates what voters approved.

“We are pushing forward to the AG’s opinion,” Scarborough said. “There is no doubt in terms of our opinion what he is going to say.”

The dismissal by Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, is unlikely to end the opposition. Because Metro’s 2003 referendum called for light rail rather than buses along Post Oak, opponents have challenged the use of Metro funds for the project. That question has been posed to Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has not issued an opinion yet on the matter.

See here and here for the background. Judge Gamble received the case after another judge recused herself because of contact with a Metro lobbyist, which just adds a touch of absurdity to the whole thing. The irony of using the ballot language from 2003 to force the construction of light rail is not lost on me. Does Rep. Culberson know about this? I can’t figure out if this tactic makes the people behind this more clever than I might have thought, or just less subtle. I mean, we have all noticed that Metro isn’t actually paying for this construction, right? I don’t know why the 2003 referendum would even apply here, but then I’m not a super-genius like Andy Taylor, so what do I know? We’ll get that AG ruling in a few months, and one way or the other I expect we’ll wind up back in court. According to the story, the Uptown Management District hopes to have a contractor named by February; utility work along Post Oak began earlier this year and technical design of the bus lanes is expected within 60 days. Time is getting short to stop this.

August ridership numbers for the new rail lines

Again, don’t get too excited just yet.

HoustonMetro

Use of Houston’s two newest rail lines increased in August, though it took a strong late showing and free rides to finally meet the ridership expectations Metro officials outlined in May.

According to ridership figures released Thursday, average boardings at the shared stations downtown where both Green and Purple lines trains stop increased to 2,788 daily, from 2,546 in July. Boardings at the stations unique to the Green and Purple lines, respectively, dropped on average, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

Though the use was relatively flat, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said a few things worked against the lines attracting riders, notably five days of 100-plus degree temperatures and four evenings where rail service on the lines was suspended because of construction near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

There were also signs of some improvement, based on the last few days of the month. Metro officials have said once the bus system switched to its new network, which debuted Aug. 16, and students returned to the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, use would increase.

When the days when students returned to school — and a week of free rail rides to usher in the new bus system — are factored, use of the Green and Purple lines increased by 17 percent, to 6,291 daily boardings. On the much more established Red Line, the new students and free rides resulted in a 9.6 percent increase in ridership, meaning the new lines outpaced its ridership growth.

We’ve been down this road before. I’m a little puzzled by the first embedded chart in the article, since the story says that numbers at the non-shared green and purple line stations were down, but the graph says otherwise. Sometimes it’s nice to see the actual numbers. Ridership during the first week of bus system reimagining when fares were free are encouraging but far from conclusive. Hopefully, with UH and TSU now in session, we’ll continue to see steady gains. Check back again in another month.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note, there’s this review of the revised Uptown Line ridership projections, why they’re almost certainly wrong, and why that likely doesn’t matter. Turns out ridership projections are basically guesses, and that’s true for highways like the I-10 managed lanes as well. I’ll say again, if this provides a useful service then people will use it. Not everybody, of course, but enough to be worthwhile. How many that actually turns out to be we won’t know till it’s built, and we won’t really know till it’s been in use for at least a few months.

Three Metro updates

The Metro board has its first meeting post-system reimagining, and gets some feedback on the new routes.

HoustonMetro

At Metro’s first board meeting following the launch of the new network, officials heard about two hours of public comment from unhappy riders.

One of those riders was Jennifer Williams. She commutes from southwest Houston to her job in the Texas Medical Center. Williams says she can get back to her neighborhood okay, but it’s the last bus home that’s a problem.

“I either have to wait for the 63 to take me down the street and wait there 25 minutes nervously, not knowing who’s going to approach me,” says Williams. “Or I could walk in the dark, by myself, down the street to my apartment.”

Metro officials say they know it’s not a smooth transition for everyone, but they’re hoping the newly redesigned routes will encourage more ridership after years of declining numbers. Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia says they fully expect to make some tweaks after the first of the year.

“We’re going to just frankly, compile our list, take a look to see if there are any adjustments we need to pivot to, whether we can solve them by a different vehicle, or solve them by a slight alteration on the route,” says Garcia.

Again, I don’t want to minimize anyone’s problems, but as I said before, if this is the extent of the problems, then this was a big success. I continue to not see other stories, so either there’s a lot of unreported bad news, or there’s not much to report. I lean towards the latter. I had my own first experience with the new system last week, and once I realized I’d been reading the map incorrectly (I’d mixed up the direction of the #30 route downtown), I made it home in fairly short order via the #85 (Washington Avenue) and the #56 (Montrose/Studemont). I had to wait only about five minutes for the second bus. Not bad at all. Anyone else have an experience to share?

Ultimately, this will be judged by how it affects ridership. On that score, the numbers from the first week were encouraging.

METRO’s first week of the New Bus Network brought in 24 percent more riders than the average August ridership.

Boardings on both bus and light-rail trains totaled 1.7 million, thanks to two factors: an improved, high-frequency system which integrates bus and rail in a seamless network and free rides which were offered all week from Aug. 16 to 22.

“This is good news as we work to create a system that promotes public transit and connects more people to more places,” said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Our region continues to grow, and we need to maximize usage of our transit system, including local bus and rail.”

[…]

The biggest increase in METRO’s ridership last week came over the weekend, with boardings on local buses totaling 270,000 on Aug. 16 and Aug. 22. That compares to 191,500 average weekend boardings in August 2014.

“We anticipate consistent increases in ridership after two years of implementation. By then, we expect a 20 percent hike in ridership,” said President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Now of course this was a week with no fares, and even without that one week’s totals tell us little. The increase is weekend ridership is a big deal, and one that should persist, because a big part of the system reimagining was increasing weekend service – in many cases, implementing it in the first place. Let’s see what ridership looks like by the end of the year.

And speaking of ridership numbers.

A just-completed METRO ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project Mixed Flow option shows ridership in the year 2018 to be about 12,050 boardings per day, approximately 15 percent lower than the 14,100 boardings forecast when the project was first developed in 2013.

A second set of projections were developed should an elevated busway be constructed for the Uptown Management District. That calculation is roughly 20% fewer riders projected for the year 2018. Another set of figures, based on the year 2020, was requested by METRO recognizing that Elevated Bus Lanes will not be operational by 2018. In that year 14,850 daily boardings are projected.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, who requested the second study, said, ” It’s interesting to note while the ridership projections in the early years are lower in this new study the 2035 numbers for the mixed flow lane jump to about 18 percent higher than projected in the original 2013 study. Whether it’s the early years or later, the numbers overall justify the need for improved transit along this corridor.”

For the Elevated Busway option, the revised ridership forecast for 2035 is 30,900 boardings per day which is about 19 percent higher than the previous forecasts of 25,800 boardings per day developed in 2013.

The updated ridership forecast for the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane Project uses revised assumptions developed by METRO in July 2015. The assumptions reflect changes occurring between the 2013 to 2015 timeframe and are more consistent with current operating and budget principles.

The original assumptions used in the 2013 analysis were based on Uptown’s project description and operating scenario. There have also been significant changes in both population and employment in the region as captured by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) in their demographic forecast. H-GAC is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Houston-Galveston region and manages the regional demographic forecasts. The new ridership forecast integrates the regionally adopted H-GAC demographic forecast.

See here for some background. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the difference is between the Mixed Flow and Elevated Busway options, and I didn’t get to send an email and ask before the weekend, so don’t ask me for specifics. I’ll say again, I think people will use this if it’s a worthwhile service, and I don’t think there’s any better option for adding capacity to Uptown. I also think that Uptown will be an excellent place for future B-Cycle expansion, and a working Uptown line would make having a future high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 feasible. Just a thought.

Lawsuit filed over Uptown line

All things considered, I suppose this was inevitable.

A homeowner’s association is suing Metro over its involvement in plans to run bus lanes along Post Oak Boulevard, saying the project puts the agency at odds with a 2003 referendum that included adding a rail line along the corridor.

The lawsuit was filed Monday just minutes after Mayor Annise Parker and the Uptown management district cheered the start of the $192 million project, lauding it as an example of Houston’s transit future. The plan calls for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

“It’s about taking our signature retail boulevard and making it something that’s not a traffic-choked freeway,” Parker said.

“The time is now,” Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

A block away, opponents called the project illegal, saying Metro has no authority to participate when voters in 2003 approved light rail for the Post Oak corridor. As part of the lawsuit, Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, has requested an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office as to the legality of Metro’s involvement. Nichols chairs the senate’s transportation committee.

“We’re asking all these government agencies, ‘don’t be arrogant,’ ” attorney Andy Taylor said. “Hold tight and make sure that what you’re doing is in the public interest.”

See here for some background. Rule #1 of politics around here: If Andy Taylor is on your side, you’re on the wrong side. (*) And much more often than not, the side that’s gonna lose.

Metro submitted a similar inquiry to then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott last year at the request of the Texas Department of Transportation. The state agency was wary of offering funds for the elevated lanes along Loop 610 if it meant jumping into a lengthy, bitter debate surrounding light rail in the area. So at TxDOT’s request, Metro sought to clarify whether an agreement with the state agency, which specified the bus project “will not support a rail component,” put Metro in conflict with its 2003 referendum. To be clear, Metro would be operating the buses, not funding the construction of the actual lanes. The project pulls heavily on Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone funds and some U.S. Department of Transportation grant money.

The agency told the Attorney General’s office it no longer needed an opinion when TxDOT said its concerns had been eased and the agreement was not necessary. That was in part because federal lawmakers approved a fiscal 2015 spending plan, including language inserted by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, that forbid any federal money from going to rail projects along Post Oak north of Richmond, and Richmond west of Shepherd.

[…]

In the lawsuit, Taylor said that voters have consented only to light rail along the corridor and that any work specific to bus rapid transit should wait until the Texas Attorney General’s office issues a response to Nichols’ request. Taylor is representing the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which sits along Post Oak, and Jim Scarborough, a vocal opponent of the project and property owner in the area.

Scarborough has led opponents, largely business owners, who say the bus plan will disrupt the flow of traffic on Post Oak and discourage drivers from wanting to traverse the bustling corridor. At town hall meetings and news conferences, they’ve also said that the plan is a real estate deal disguised as a transit project that benefits some Uptown board members whose companies are in the right of way. Some of those companies will receive payments for their land from the TIRZ in order to widen Post Oak.

Taylor dismissed any notion that the lawsuit amounted to a last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit.

“Metro should immediately announce its abandonment of the project, admit that it violates Metro’s contract with the voters, and, should it desire to pursue light rail, then, in accordance with its recent agreement with Congressman John Culberson, go back to the electorate with a new referendum on whether light rail should be approved on Post Oak Boulevard,” Taylor said in the lawsuit.

A “last-ditch effort to thwart the project rather than a substantive suit” is pretty much how I’d describe it. There’s nobody involved with that lawsuit that actually wants a light rail line to be built, they just want to force Metro into a no-win position. I am hopeful that a judge will give this litigation the lack of respect it deserves.

(*) Case in point. Those were dark, dark days.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

Dignitaries will gather Monday to symbolically start construction of wider sidewalks and dedicated bus lanes meant to enhance Post Oak Boulevard and offer improved transit service, even as some residents and business owners continue fighting to block a project they consider a huge mistake.

Though it has passed a number of government hurdles, the $192 million project has faced increasingly stiff headwinds as opponents question the decision-making process as well as the data justifying the bus lanes.

Plans call for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Riders would board and exit the buses at stations, similar to how light rail operates. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

Post Oak would be widened, without reducing the current number of general use lanes.

The project is led by Uptown Houston, the management district for the Post Oak area. The Metropolitan Transit Authority would operate the bus service. Funding comes from local, state and federal sources, and the project has been approved by Uptown Houston’s board, the Houston City Council, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Texas Department of Transportation.

It has faced some political hurdles, despite broad agreement that peak-hour traffic congestion on Post Oak was hindering the area’s ability to further develop. Supporters said transit was the logical next step, noting that in most other U.S. metro areas, Uptown’s job and business scene would make it the urban core and a transit hub. Its employment numbers are on par with downtown Denver’s.

“I think it is the correct solution,” said John Breeding, the president of Uptown Houston. “But it is not that I think it – it was voted on by public agencies and planners looked at it.”

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s now a dispute over projected ridership numbers, which are being recalculated by Metro as a result. I have no idea what ridership numbers will be, but I see no reason to be pessimistic. People will use it if it provides a worthwhile service. It may take some time to build, and it will definitely help if the Universities line ever gets built and gets connected to it, but if I worked in the traffic congestion hellhole that is the Uptown/Galleria area, I’d sure be interested in an alternative to driving. We’ll see how it goes.

The latest Uptown fuss

I suppose I need to say something about this.

Two members of an economic development board pushing a plan to run a center bus lane along Uptown’s Post Oak Boulevard have financial ties to companies that will be paid for land in the project’s right of way.

Earlier this year, Uptown Chairman Martin Debrovner and secretary and treasurer Kendall Miller disclosed financial interests in two of the more than 30 parcels the board will purchase with public funds to expand Post Oak.

Collectively, three companies that own property along Post Oak – Weingarten Realty Investors, WMJK and Hines Interests – stand to receive about $6 million of the roughly $47 million budgeted for right-of-way acquisitions if average appraisals done by an outside company last year hold.

A third member of the Uptown development board, Louis Sklar, filed a similar affidavit earlier this year because he is a former senior executive at Hines Interests. But according to his affidavit, he does not make enough of his current income from the company or own enough stock, for instance, to have a “substantial interest” in the company as defined by state law.

The board members appear to have followed state law; they have not voted on items with specific or special financial benefit to them, instead voting more broadly to support the bus plan.

Critics contend that the financial disclosures should have been filed in early 2014, when a consultant’s report was issued listing the properties to be purchased along retail-laden Post Oak Boulevard.

[…]

Any appraisal above $500,000 and any offer that exceeds fair market value by more than $50,000 requires Federal Transit Administration approval. As for why the affidavits weren’t filed sooner, Breeding said they waited until right-of-way offers were imminent.

“Our board of directors is much more concerned about (conflicts of interest) than just your average person,” [Uptown President John] Breeding said. “Really, from the very beginning, we said, ‘How can we do this and how can we support it and how can we set up a system that is as transparent and as free from conflict as possible?’ Honestly, it comes up all the time because we build roads and streets in the area.”

Not really clear to me what the scandal is supposed to be. One would expect that members of the Uptown Management District would own property in Uptown, and some of that property will be bought for right of way purposes. Yeah, TIRZes are often more opaque than they should be, but that’s not what is being argued about here. If this is the worst thing that the Uptown opponents have to say about the project, it ought to be very smooth sailing from here.

Save Uptown from what?

From Swamplot:

The Uptown Property and Business Owners Coalition is out today with a new website (portrayed here) meant to drum up opposition to the Uptown District and Metro’s plans to install dedicated bus lanes down Post Oak Blvd. The lanes, the last vestige of what was once a plan for an Uptown light rail line, would run from dedicated bus lanes linking to the Northwest Transit Center all the way to the proposed Bellaire/Uptown Transit Center near U.S. 59 and Westpark, where they might someday intersect with a University Line traveling eastward from that point. But the team behind the website wants none of it: “Uptown is a Houston masterpiece. Why do they want to ruin it?” reads the copy on the home page. Meanwhile, an introductory blog post on the site encourages readers to attend a friendly “town hall” meeting, [Tuesday] night at the Uptown Hilton, in the company of “hundreds of angry business owners and Uptown area residents.”

Here’s their website; if you scroll down to the bottom, you’ll see the name Daphne Scarbrough, one of the fanatical anti-rail on Richmond types who has long since morphed into an all-purpose rail hater. Given the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, the timing of their launch – the Facebook page was created Friday the 15th – isn’t exactly sublime for them. Remember that Metro has nothing to do with the construction of this line – it’s entirely being done by the Uptown Management District. Metro will eventually operate the buses, but that’s it. As far as what they’re fighting for, I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard anyone call Uptown a “masterpiece” – hell, twenty years ago I’d have said I’d never heard the term “Uptown” used in conjunction with that part of the city. It’s not like there’s a historic preservation angle in play. My personal description of Uptown is a mess that I try to avoid at all times. I believe this plan will help, and I have no idea what alternative to help alleviate the awful traffic Save Uptown or any other group might have. Doing nothing isn’t an option, it’s just sticking your head in the cement. But here they are, and one should know one’s opponents. We’ll see if they get any traction. KHOU has more.

An Uptown BRT skeptic

Here’s one guy who doesn’t like the idea.

Ridership models developed by the Uptown TIRZ board project that the new bus route will carry 10,000 riders per day in 2018. This estimate is outrageously inflated, given that the more than 30-year-old Park & Ride system only carries 16,000 riders per day, most of whom are downtown-bound. This has been tried before. Since 1985, Metro has rolled out seven Park & Ride routes to the Galleria. Last month, they cancelled the sixth route (Kingsland to NW Transit to Uptown) due to low ridership. The sole surviving Park & Ride route to the Galleria (Kuykendahl to Greenway to Uptown) is classified as “poor-performing,” carrying an average of only 220 people per day to both districts.

Major Galleria-area employer Apache, initially in favor of the project, now opposes it. The company surveyed its employees and asked how many would drive to the Northwest Mall and then board a bus to the Post Oak Central offices. Not one Apache employee was interested in doing so. Not one. Why has there never been a well-reasoned, comprehensive survey of Galleria employees as to their expected usage of such a project?

Parking in the Galleria is convenient, readily available and reasonably affordable. This is the complete opposite of the downtown area. Even in the parking-challenged downtown, over the past five years, Park & Ride participation rates are falling, from 38 percent to 28 percent. Metro’s entire Park & Ride system consists of 29 lots. Despite a 30 year-plus operating history, 23 of its 29 lots operate at 55 percent or less of capacity.

What will this Guide Way project do to Post Oak, Houston’s Rodeo Drive? I believe it will ruin it. Look what happened to the merchants on Main Street. Look what’s happened to the Central Business District regarding crosstown traffic.

[…]

Uptown, Metro and the city are talking about condemnation proceedings taking place before a final plan has been produced. This is par for the course. Another example of Metro’s “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach: Recently, a long-known environmental hazard interrupted construction of the Harrisburg Line of light rail. Believe it or not, the meandering East Side Metro trains don’t run the full length of the Harrisburg route. When did the poor planning method become an accepted standard?

I am convinced that people decide to work and (increasingly) live in the Galleria area due to the ease of access to retail, including restaurants and grocery stores. Completely dedicated bus lanes/guide ways make no sense to any student of public transportation unless they are of the BRT (bus rapid transit) variety. These lanes are definitely not, despite having been initially designated as such. BRT lanes are dedicated and do not stop for traffic.

The piece is such a mishmash of unsourced assertions, tangents, and failure to address items that have already been raised during the process that it’s hard to know where to begin. The main thing to me is that nowhere does the author suggest any alternatives to the BRT line as a way of dealing with Uptown’s crushing traffic congestion. I came away with the impression that his preference is to do nothing because there is no problem to be solved. I don’t even know how to respond to that, so let me just state a few basic principles. Traffic is bad. It’s a problem now, and it will limit future growth and economic opportunities. Building more road capacity, especially non-highway road capacity, is not an option to alleviate the mobility issues we have now or the ones we will continue to have if we do nothing. The best way to create more capacity is to create options for people who could get where they need to go without using their car. This means mass transit, bike trails and lanes, better and safer sidewalks, and the like. Not everyone will use these things, maybe not even a majority of people. But many people will use at least one of these options at least some of the time, and every time they do it means less traffic for those who can’t or won’t do anything other than drive. Maybe this plan isn’t the best of all possible plans. I’m sure there are ways it could feasibly be better, and I have no doubt there will be implementation and operation problems to deal with. But it is a workable plan that addresses the main issue, that there isn’t enough room for all the cars that want to be in Uptown now, let alone the ones that will want to be there in the future. If you want to argue against it, I’d appreciate it if you came up with your own workable alternative to it.

Transportation Commission approves funds for Uptown BRT

Finally.

Dedicated bus lanes along Loop 610 remain a part of planned transit service in the Uptown area after state officials kept $25 million allocated to an upcoming project.

After months of discussions about the project’s purpose and agreements between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, state transportation commissioners Thursday approved the state’s 10-year spending plan with the money for the bus lanes included.

John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, told officials he was pleased to move the process along.

“We particularly thank you for your leadership and your patience as the area got its act together on this project,” Breeding said.

Proponents of the project have noted Uptown is one of Houston’s most traffic-clogged areas, a problem that’s likely to worsen with recent development. More frequent, fast and predictable transit, supporters say, could give many workers an option that would take cars off the roads and out of Uptown parking garages.

State transportation officials passed the plan without comment. The plan is updated annually and covers the next decade of road expansion and maintenance as well as transit and alternative transportation projects, such as bicycle lanes.

[…]

“The way this project will be successful is to make it reliable and fast,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

Post Oak will continue to have three traffic lanes in each direction, with some turn lanes.

Some traffic lights will be sequenced to allow buses to avoid stopping but not those at major intersections such as Westheimer and San Felipe, where tweaking the timing could have disastrous effects on traffic flow.

See here for the previous update. There was far too much squabbling over this, and I’m still unhappy with the condition that there be no preparations included for possible future conversion to light rail, but at least this hurdle has been cleared. Metro Chair Garcia is right that the main goal here is to build something that people will want to use. If that happens, it will be a lot easier to take a next step if there is one.

Uptown needs bikes

So says this op-ed.

Always susceptible to gridlock, especially at Christmastime, the traffic jams now happen year-round and last longer each day. Clearly, Uptown badly needs convenient, reliable alternatives to cars for the tens of thousands of workers and residents who live, work and shop in the area, the largest business district in the nation outside of a traditional downtown.

One such alternative is bicycling. Houston has made impressive progress in recent years to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

The Bayou Greenways Initiative, Safe Passing Law and Complete Streets policy are recent examples, and an updated Bikeway Master Plan, now underway, will identify additional on- and off-street facilities to fill in the gaps in Houston’s bikeway network.

Uptown, however, remains dangerous to navigate by bike, especially during rush hour. Surrounded on three sides by major freeways, there are few safe options to enter the area by bike. Once there, a cyclist must navigate streets designed solely to move cars as quickly as possible, with few accommodations for cyclists. Post Oak Boulevard, Uptown’s signature street, is an obvious example. While biking there can be a death-defying experience, even walking is a daunting and frightening prospect, with sidewalks located right next to speeding traffic.

The proposed Uptown dedicated bus lanes project (“Bus project along Post Oak appears ready to roll ahead” Page B3, Jan. 29) will provide one alternative to driving, especially for commuters in the suburbs who have access to park and ride routes that run to the existing Northwest and proposed Bellaire/Uptown transit centers. The project features a total rebuild of Post Oak Boulevard to add dedicated bus lanes in the middle, while preserving existing lanes for cars.

Unfortunately, the plan as currently proposed includes no bike lanes, and maintains wide, high-speed main traffic lanes. Thus, while it will provide an alternative to driving for suburban commuters, the current dedicated bus lane plan does nothing for Uptown workers who live close enough to bike to work, but who won’t risk their lives (and their families’ livelihoods) to do so. It also does little for local residents who might like to bike to local shops and restaurants or into adjoining neighborhoods and parks, including Memorial Park (now a part of the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone.)

Adding dedicated bike lanes to the dedicated bus lane project would provide an additional alternative to those who want access to shops, workplaces and restaurants along Post Oak, as well as provide connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods, Memorial Park and the Greater Houston bikeway network.

Bike lanes would also enhance the pedestrian realm by providing a buffer between sidewalks and automobile traffic.

I agree completely. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money redoing Post Oak Lane and not end up with a street that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. There are two ways to deal with excessive traffic in destinations like Uptown: Make it easier to get there without driving, primarily for commuters, and make it easier for those who are already there to get around within the area without driving. Downtown does both of those things. Uptown is working on the first one, with the BRT line and the HOV lane. It really needs to do the other, and the opportunity to do that begins with the BRT line construction on Post Oak. I want to be clear that this is the Uptown Management District’s responsibility. Metro will operate the BRT line once it is built, but the Management District is doing the design and construction. Please do it right the first time, y’all.

Metro board approves reimagining

On to implementation.

Metro’s board gave unanimous, final approval to the so-called reimagining plan, authorizing agency staff to plan public meetings to explain the changes.

Between now and August, Metro must replace every sign at every bus stop, revise every bus schedule and prepare a massive educational campaign.

“This will be the biggest outreach effort in the history of the city,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

[…]

Metro plans to spend around $7.5 million replacing signs at bus stops, reprinting maps and schedules and conducting the educational campaign. The need for these steps led to a two-month delay on starting the new routes, which had been scheduled for June.

“The day this goes into effect, I intend to be standing at a bus stop helping people out,” [board member Christof] Spieler said.

See here for the previous update. Metro has a lot riding on this. I believe the concept is sound, but the execution is key. I will be very eager to see what the effect is on ridership.

Meanwhile, according to this Chron editorial that ran on Wednesday, the board was also supposed to vote on approving funds for the Uptown BRT line. I don’t know what happened with that, but unlike bus system reimagining, for which the Chron had good things to say, they had concerns about this project.

Both Metro and Uptown organizations have made grand claims about how this BRT plan will reduce congestion on West 610 Loop, but we’ve yet to see supporting numbers or studies.

It is also troubling that a total reconstruction of Post Oak doesn’t include bicycle lanes. The people who live and work in the Uptown area should be able to use bikes as transportation without risking their lives. Multi-modal transit provides the most and best options for a booming Galleria area.

Members of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Houston Management District, which are spearheading the project, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board that the project should be judged by its results. It is hard to judge by anything else. These appointed boards hold their meetings away from City Hall and operate without the direct input of voters, all while diverting taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, this cost of this BRT project has grown from an originally projected $177.5 million to Uptown Houston’s current $192.5 million estimate. Metro told the editorial board that the project would cost more than $250 million. These conflicting numbers should serve as a warning sign.

Mayoral elections are around the corner, and unless this BRT project has unanimous support, that big budget item risks getting diverted away from transit and toward filling potholes and hiring police officers, just as Mayor Bob Lanier did with transit funding in the early 1990s. The growing Galleria area looks to choke on its own growth as new towers go up and more cars fill crowded roads and freeways. At its core, the BRT plan tries to bring the success of park and ride into Uptown, but it needs support from all stakeholders before moving forward.

I’ve discussed the subject of bikes in conjunction with this line before. I definitely agree that if the Uptown Management District is going to spend all this money and cause all this disruption to redo Post Oak like this, it makes much more sense to incorporate bikes now rather than try to shoehorn them in later, after they’ve realized what a mistake they made by not planning for them in the first place. I hope they don’t make that mistake. As for the effect of the Mayoral race on this project, you know how I feel about that. You can start talking about things other than potholes and pensions any time now, fellas. Texas Leftist has more.

Uptown BRT lurches forward

One staggering step at a time.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Uptown BRT moving forward again

Good news.

Tensions are easing over plans to develop dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, where community leaders want to give commuters and shoppers more transportation options and relieve worsening congestion.

“We’re there and ready to make this project happen,” said John Breeding, president of the Uptown Management District, the agency leading the project to run express buses along Post Oak Boulevard and Loop 610. The buses would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Northwest Transit Center.

Breeding and others said buses should start rolling on Post Oak in mid-2017.

Lately, the project has been mired in disputes between Metro and Texas Department of Transportation officials. After Metro officials balked at an agreement TxDOT requested to ensure the project was only for buses and would not be converted to rail in the future, state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley proposed moving $25 million from Uptown to an unrelated project.

The state funds would pay for elevated bus lanes along Loop 610. Moseley had said the disagreement indicated the Loop 610 project wasn’t ready to move forward.

Although its absence would not kill the project, the Loop 610 component would dramatically improve the travel time to the Northwest Transit Center. Faster, more reliable service would increase use of the lanes, said Metro board member Christof Spieler.

On Wednesday, Moseley said TxDOT had agreed to keep its funding for the project on the table until February, providing enough time for Metro to resolve its concerns about agreeing to a bus-only project. Voters in 2003 authorized the agency to build light rail in the corridor.

“Metro has asked for some extra time,” Moseley said. “We support this project and think that is reasonable. That gives us an extra period of time to look at authorizing the money.”

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he was optimistic the various players could agree on issues skeptics have raised about mass transit in the Uptown area.

“I am trying to use this project as an opportunity to put some of those things to rest,” Garcia said during a meeting meant to update board officials on the Uptown project. “Try to bring some of the people together and find out where is the common ground.”

See here for the last update. I’m glad to see Moseley and TxDOT acting more reasonably, though I’m still annoyed that they’re dictating terms that would stand in contradiction to the 2003 Metro referendum. I suppose I can live with that if we can finally get this project off the ground. The Highwayman has more.

TxDOT still screwing with Metro

WTF?

Given powerful support from local and state transportation officials, the more of the parkway comes together, the more likely the last phases will fall into place.

The project that remains far less certain is the planned dedicated bus lanes on Post Oak Boulevard. The project, which a few months ago was speeding along, has run into significant bumps as TxDOT and the Metropolitan Transit Authority have dueled over agreements related to a bus lane along Loop 610.

Moseley in September warned if all parties couldn’t agree on the project, he’d prefer TxDOT move its $25 million commitment to a new Texas 288 interchange with the Sam Houston Tollway. Losing TxDOT’s money puts the Loop 610 portion of the bus lanes, and potentially the entire plan to run express bus service along Post Oak, in doubt.

Metro officials have since signed the agreement, but transit board chairman Gilbert Garcia complained TxDOT officials haven’t backed off the threat to move the money.

Marc Williams, director of planning for TxDOT, told transportation commissioners Thursday that the discussions are ongoing, but the recommendation at this point is to shift the money to the Texas 288 project.

A final decision is expected Nov. 20 when the commission meets in Austin. Written comments about state’s unified transportation plan — which guides state transportation spending — will be accepted until Nov. 17.

See here, here, and here for the background. What the hell else does TxDOT want? I have no idea why they’re being such huge jerks about this. If it’s at all feasible, I’d advise Metro and the Uptown Management District to tell TxDOT to go screw itself and finance that $25 million themselves. That way they can build it the way they want to, and they wouldn’t have to put up with this petty crap. If that’s not realistic, then I hope TxDOT gets over itself and does its job. But jeez Louise, enough already.

Like a bridge over Memorial Park

Some fascinating ideas for ensuring the long-term health of Memorial Park.

Today Memorial Park is a land divided.

The city’s premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz of the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, an elevated railroad, a power easement and recreational amenities.

That could change during the next 20 years if a long-range master plan being proposed by Woltz’s firm is adopted next spring by the Houston City Council. Hired in 2013 by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy, the firm is nearly three months into a 10-month design process.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm’s initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them – ideas driven by previous public input and a year’s research by a team of about 70 local experts in fields like soil science, ecology, history and archaeology.

He shared maps, drawings and aerial views to explain the park’s ecological and cultural histories, also unveiling a dramatic solution to one of the landscape’s biggest problems. He’s proposing a grass- and tree-covered land bridge, 800 feet long, that would rise gently across Memorial Drive, over a tunnel, to reconnect the park’s north and south sides.

While it’s not realistic to remove the street, which is crucial to Houston’s traffic circulation, the land bridge is “a kind of triumph … the park wins,” Woltz said.

The current pedestrian bridge on the park’s western side, completed in 2009, was an important first gesture toward stitching the park’s landscape back together, Woltz said. “This land bridge builds on that beginning at a much larger scale.”

[…]

Project director Sarah Newbery of Uptown Houston said the Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 million to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure; a figure that could change with property values. Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said her group is studying how much it can raise in the next 10 or 20 years toward the effort.

“But we think of this in terms of a 100-year or 75-year plan. We’ll execute large parts of it in the next three to 15 years; but there can be a road map for the next generation as well.”

Woltz expects to reveal designs that incorporate Camp Logan remnants at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.

“We’re looking for ways the landscape could function as a memorial to the soldiers and maybe even reveal some of the grid,” he said.

A Jan. 12 meeting is titled “Spaces and Places: How Will It Look?” The final March 9 meeting promises a more comprehensive revealing of the plan.

See here, here, and here for some background. The TIRZ in question is also the one helping to fund the Uptown BRT line. Some more material from the architect is here. What do you think about this? Link via Swamplot.

Texas Transportation Commission continues to be obstinate

This continues to be ridiculous.

Continued disagreement about certain features of a planned Uptown bus rapid transit system prompted a Texas transportation official to suggest Thursday that $25 million in state funding should be redirected.

The comments by Texas Transportation Commissioner Jeff Moseley were the latest setback for the project, intended to relieve traffic congestion in the Galleria area. After months of planning and lobbying to secure local, regional and state money, it has faced increasingly vocal opposition and a fraying of the partnership among the Uptown Management District, the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation.

[…]

The $192.5 million project is expected to open in 2017, with some still holding out hope that portions will open in time for Houston’s hosting of the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 of that year.

Metro, city officials and TxDOT have dozens of items to resolve while they try to counter criticism of the project.

Topping the list of disputes is the state’s role in the project: elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 between Post Oak Boulevard and the Northwest Transit Center. A $25 million commitment from the state led state transportation officials to seek Metro’s assurance the project was strictly a bus plan, not a prescursor to rail.

“We didn’t want our involvement in this project to be clouded by rail versus bus,” Moseley said.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said he must clarify whether signing the agreement with TxDOT, which specifies the bus project “will not support a rail component,” puts Metro at odds with its 2003 referendum, which included a rail line in the Post Oak Corridor.

On Metro’s behalf, the county attorney has asked Attorney General Gregg Abbott’s office to determine whether signing the agreement would violate the will of the 2003 voters. Waiting for Abbott’s decision could take months.

Moseley said the potential delay “compromises the availability of those funds” related to the elevated lanes, because state officials have many construction projects ready to go. At a meeting in Austin on Thursday, Moseley said that if the Uptown project is not ready to move forward, he will ask that the state funds shift to a project at Texas 288 and Sam Houston Tollway.

I’ve already ranted about this, and I don’t have much to add to that. The potential delay here is entirely of Jeff Moseley and the TTC’s making. For the life of me, I cannot understand the justification of forbidding the inclusion of some design elements that may someday, if a bunch of things eventually happen, allow for this BRT line to be converted to light rail as the voters approved in 2003 in a cost-effective manner. The TTC has no power to forbid that from happening, and even if Metro agrees to their conditions now a future Metro board will not be bound to keep the Uptown line as BRT if they decide it’s in the public’s best interest to finally move forward with the light rail line we thought we were getting. All the TTC can do is make that future Metro board’s job harder and more expensive. Why would they want to do that?

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

Uptown BRT update

From Swamplot:

HERE ARE SOME of the purty watercolor renderings the Uptown District has been presenting of what Post Oak Blvd. will look like after the addition of 2 dedicated bus lanes down its middle. The proposed changes to the thoroughfare won’t take away any of the 6 existing car lanes or 13 existing left-turn-signal lanes. There’ll be a few modifications, though: new protected-left-turn signals will be put in at West Briar Lane and Fairdale, for example, and 3 median openings will be closed. The space for the buses and 8 transit stations along the Boulevard between the West Loop and Richmond Ave will come from acquiring 8 feet of right-of-way from each side of the existing street. The bus lanes and light-rail-style stations will go in the median.

Notably, the Uptown District presentations never use the phrase “Bus Rapid Transit,” or BRT in describing the upgrades, though a BRT system has been pitched as a replacement for Metro’s earlier proposal for an Uptown light-rail line. Uptown Houston got approval for a $61.8 million federal grant to fund the street reconstruction last year. It appears that the lanes will be used for commuter buses as well: “This joint project of the City of Houston and Uptown,” an executive summary of the program reads, “will develop a system designed to connect workers to Uptown via Houston’s highly successful HOV network.” The dedicated bus lanes are an additional piece of the project.

[…]

The buses will still have to stop at intersections, and move through lights only when cars do. “All travel time savings for the buses will be generated by simply being the ‘first-in-line’ at the signalized intersections made possible by the dedicated bus lanes,” the summary notes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Construction is set to begin next year, which will be exciting. The Uptown folks may not care for the BRT appellation, but I’m under no such obligation. Calling it “rapid” may be a tad bit of an overbid, but I’m sure travel times will compare favorably to what people experience now, especially for those who are eventually able to take advantage of this as park-and-riders. Add in some B-Cycle kiosks when this is finished, and people in and around the Galleria area will have some good non-car options for getting around and not adding to the traffic congestion. Now if only we can get the University Line going to connect this to the rest of the light rail network. Some day, by God, some day…

Chron favors Uptown transit plan

Good to see, and I think they make a decent point.

We’re glad that Houston-area transportation officials have approved federal funds for an Uptown bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

[…]

But we’re struck by [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett’s vote against the plan at the Galveston-Houston Area Council Transportation Policy Council.

Emmett is no knee jerk mass transit opponent. Harris County’s resident transit nerd, these sorts of issues are his bread and butter, and the Uptown Houston Management District should heed his concerns. If the BRT is going to be built for office workers, then it should meet those needs.

We believe that means bus stops large enough and service often enough to accommodate rush-hour crowds; protected crosswalks and wide sidewalks that make it easy to get from buses to the office; shade and cover to make those walks comfortable. Adding B-Cycle rental stations and designated bike routes to this Uptown project could also help bridge the gap from bus stop to office door.

Unlike downtown’s Park and Ride buses, stops won’t be immediately outside of office buildings and there isn’t an underground tunnel system to avoid the heat. Houston neighborhoods are rarely built with pedestrians in mind, and BRT will only live up to the full potential if this overhaul of Uptown transit addresses every inch of the commuter route – transfers and walks included.

See here for the background. I am of course delighted to see the Chron get on board with the idea of using B-Cycle to enhance and extend the BRT/commuter bus network, since I’ve been advocating for that all along. I do agree that it would be wise for the Uptown Management District to take pedestrian concerns seriously. If Judge Emmett has any thoughts about how those concerns might be addressed, I’m sure we’d be glad to hear them. The bottom line remains that this is a worthwhile idea, and we should do every reasonable thing we can to make it work.

On using B-Cycle

The Chron had a nice lifestyle section story about B-Cycle last week.

B-cycles are appearing all over downtown and Midtown. You may have seen them, parked at racks with self-serve kiosks, where riders are able to enter their payment information, detach the bike and go.

B-cycle is a program of Houston Bike Share, a nonprofit organization funded by federal grants. The program started in May 2012 with 18 bikes planted at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston City Hall and Market Square. Success was immediate. Today 173 bikes are available at 21 stations in downtown, Midtown and Montrose, with more planned.

Will Rub, the director of Houston Bike Share, is passionate about the program.

“Our prices are so much better than most other cities’. Denver carries an $80 annual cost and a weekly rate of $20; New York’s annual rate is $95 while the weekly is $25. You can rent a Houston B-cycle bike for as little as $5 for 24 hours; $15 for seven days and $65 for a year,” Rub said.

But there’s a catch: “You can only use the bike for one hour at a time.”

That means someone who wants to ride a B-cycle to work must pick up a bike in the morning and park it when he arrives at his destination. He must use another bike to ride home in the afternoon.

Because the bikes are linked to computers, Rub can track who takes a bike at any given time and where he drops it off. He said several residents of the Sabine Lofts near the Sabine Street Bridge will pick up bikes about 7:30 a.m., ride for four to six minutes, then leave them at buildings downtown. The stations are open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, though bikes can be returned at any time.

Not a whole lot there that would be news to anyone who has been paying attention to B-Cycle. I suspect this was an introductory story for those who haven’t followed it closely – Page One of the lifestyle section will do that. I don’t have any particular analysis of it, I just wanted to note that having moved to a downtown office a couple of weeks ago, I finally got a chance to break in my own B-Cycle membership. I rode to and from Phoenician Market for lunch. That would have been a ten-minute-plus walk for me, not terribly inviting in the heat, but was much quicker and less arduous on a bike, since the nice thing about riding is that you create a breeze for yourself. My way of thinking of this is that having B-Cycle available – there’s a kiosk two blocks from my office – enables me to expand my range of lunch possibilities. I can get farther in a short time span, with my car being an impractical option (and sometimes an unavailable one, if Tiffany needs it at lunchtime). I’ve got my eye on the Food Truck Park and Stanton’s City Bites for the future. Maybe the north end of Midtown – there’s a bunch of stuff there on West Gray, just south of I-45. All practical and doable with a bike, but not by any other means. I’m getting enthusiastic thinking about it.

On a related note, I had a doctor’s appointment last week. My doctor’s office is 1.3 miles from where I work, according to Google Maps. Way too far to walk, and a big hassle to drive since it means going from one multi-story parking lot to another – and having to pay for the privilege at my destination – but a snap on a bike. To avoid any concerns about securing the bike or keeping it longer than the 60-minutes-free period, I rode from one kiosk to another, which was four blocks away from the office. Given that I’d have had to walk four blocks to get my car anyway, my trip took no more time than driving would have, and it was free. You just can’t beat that.

Does this fit into the Chron’s critique of B-Cycle as “toys for urban bohemians” rather than “legitimate transportation”? Well, beyond the fact that if I’m a bohemian then the term has lost all meaning, how is this not “legitimate” transportation? These destinations are all too far to walk, but are within five minutes of my B-Cycle kiosk. It’s still a car off the street, even if it’s not at rush hour, and even if the thought of driving to one of these places – after walking four blocks to my parking garage, and not having any guarantee of finding parking at some of these destinations – is ludicrous. It makes downtown a better experience for me as an employee there, and though I do have a car available to me because I carpool with my wife, B-Cycle makes taking transit to downtown more attractive, since you needn’t feel as limited for lunch options. That’s my point about the Uptown transit plan, and why I think B-Cycle expansion out there will help address Judge Emmett’s concerns about people not wanting to give up their cars. I bet if it was pitched properly, you might be able to get the Uptown Management District and/or some of the businesses there to kick in for a piece of the cost to put kiosks there. It’s good to have options, and B-Cycle provides them.