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Uptown line

Metro’s post-Culberson future

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

Lizzie Fletcher

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

KUHF also asked those questions.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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.

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

ONE OF THESE 3 spots revealed in a report from the Federal Railroad Administration will be the planned site for the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail line’s Houston terminal. All 3 are near the intersection of the 610 Loop and the BNSF rail tracks that run parallel to Hempstead Rd. just south of 290.

In the map at top, the station takes the land directly north of the Northwest Transit Center, where an industrial complex home to Icon Electric, Engineering Consulting Services, and others exists now. Hempstead Rd. is shown fronting Northwest Mall at the top of the plan.

Another proposal puts the station in the spot where the mall is now.

See here for the background, and click over to see the locations. We’ve known for some time that the station would be near the 610/290 junction, so now it’s just a matter of picking the precise spot. All three should be proximate to the Uptown line when it finally gets built, and of course there have been discussions with the Gulf Coast Rail District about connecting the line to downtown. So even after the final decision is made, there will still be a lot more to do.

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.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

Patman shares her vision for Metro

I like what I’m hearing from new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman.

HoustonMetro

A regional transportation plan is critical, Patman said, because it allows everyone to establish what transit and transportation officials should be doing. Everyone, including counties and cities not part of Metro today, needs to be part of the dialogue and outline needs from new roads to new transit offerings, she said.

“You have to have their input into the transportation plan,” Patman said of the suburban communities. “That’s the only way you are going to develop something broader.”

Part of having that regional conversation is to chart a course for improving transit and possibly adding to it. Though construction is a long way off, Patman said the 2003 referendum approved by voters remains the playbook.

And yes, that includes a Westpark corridor, whatever that may entail. The University Line light rail project is the biggest sticking point between transit skeptics, notably U.S. Rep. John Culberson who represents western Houston and supporters of light rail expansion.

“We definitely need a link between downtown and the Galleria,” Patman said. “We will look at any means we can get that connectivity and any route we can get there.”

The Uptown dedicated bus lanes, which Patman also supports, could be a catalyst for making that connection, and show off an alternative to light rail that could be considered with frequent, dedicated buses.

“We are going to look at all sources of funding,” Patman said, noting her personal interest in possibly expanding public-private partnerships. “But my best prediction is, yes, we will have to go back to the voters and ask for more bonding authority.”

I swear to you, I am still working on a set of posts outlining my own vision for Metro and where I’d like to see it go over the next few years. With all the other stuff going on, it’s been hard to carve out the time to do this writing, but I’ll get there. Some of the things Patman discusses in this story are on my list as well, especially the shift to a broader, more regional approach to transit and transportation. It’s also good to see rail expansion being brought up, but I see that as being a little farther out. If there’s one thing I hope we’ve all learned from past Metro experience, it’s that lack of communication from them is a killer. They need to constantly engage with a wide range of stakeholders or anything they want to do becomes much harder to achieve. The Gilbert Garcia board got a lot done, and along the way repaired a lot of relationships with other agencies, various government entities, and the public. One of Patman’s jobs is to build on that so the rest of what she envisions becomes possible. I wish her all the best. KUHF and Write On Metro have more.

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.

More on the Gulf Coast Rail District and the high speed rail line

The Chron reports on the story.

Officials with the Gulf Coast Rail District, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Texas Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transit Authority are involved in a comprehensive planning study of rail, generally in the Washington Avenue and Interstate 10 area.

The study, building off numerous previous reports and research by the agencies, is intended to provide a template for how to develop rail between a site at or near Northwest Mall and the former downtown post office.

The study could be persuasive should local officials want to encourage the Federal Railroad Administration or Texas Central Partners, the sponsor of the Dallas-to-Houston rail project, to rethink extending high-speed rail service to downtown, said Maureen Crocker, the rail district’s executive director.

“Really, time is of the essence at this point,” Crocker told rail district officials about changing the high-speed rail plans.

[…]

A 2012 study commissioned by the rail district found that commuter rail along the U.S. 290 corridor would carry an estimated 5,960 riders in 2035 without a direct connection to the central business district. With access to the urban core, ridership increased to 22,580 per day. The study did not examine the effect of the connection on intercity trains.

[…]

Though they were absent from earlier discussions, Metro officials now are engaging in the process. Metro is by far the region’s largest public transit agency and the only operator of passenger rail in Houston, apart from national Amtrak service.

“For such a study to be successful, Metro has to be a full working partner,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the transit agency’s appointee to the rail district.

The various agencies, including Metro, also have different priorities. Even among those interested in a rail link, the demand and types of traveler vary. Metro must consider the needs of all transit users, not just those hopping off high-speed rail, board member Christof Spieler said.

See here for the background. The involvement of Metro is good to hear, as they’re the only outfit that would be capable of operating such a train line, were it to come into existence, and because if you’re going to do something like this you may as well make it as useful as possible. Like, make it have useful stops along the way at places where people would want to go and where connections to bus lines exist. Remember, the two endpoints of this hypothetical train line are themselves hubs – downtown is obviously a locus for lots of other transit options, but so is/will be the Northwest location, which has a park and ride lot now, will have an Uptown BRT station in a couple of years, and may also serve as a stop for a commuter rail line, all in addition to the high speed rail line. You can see why there might be a lot of interest in this. There’s a lot of potential benefit at stake here, so let’s get it right.

Metro posts solid ridership increase

Nice.

METRO’s chosen path to increase ridership by delivering improved routes, with improved connections, is producing solid, steady and most impressively significant, numbers – across the board. Ridership on all fixed routes grew to nearly 7 million in November 2015. That is an 11 percent jump from November 2014.

Local bus ridership numbers for November 2015 are up more than 4 percent from a year ago. METRORail’s Red Line ridership is up nearly 26 percent and Park & Ride boardings have increased nearly 6 and a half percent.

“We are in the first year of a five year plan to improve mobility options for the Houston region,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying. The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

“This is a good start and we expect our new transfer policy will increase ridership even more,” said METRO CEO Tom Lambert. “ The ability to transfer in any direction will not only make our network easier to use, it will give our riders more freedom and can save them a significant amount of money.”

METRO will unveil its new two-way transfer policy on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The new Board policy changes a one way fare into a three hour ticket, allowing fare cardholders free transfers in any direction on local bus or light rail within that three hour window. Currently, transfers are free in one direction.

Not too shabby. You can see the numbers in the embedded image. A few extra details, taken from Metro Board member Christof Spieler’s Facebook page:

“November ridership, @METROHouston reimagined local network: +8% over last year weekday, +9% Saturday, +30% Sunday.”

and

“Red Line now carries nearly 55,000 a weekday, and 11 local routes (all frequent) with over 5,000 weekday boardings, 2x many as before.”

Again, that’s pretty darned nice, especially at a time when there is also some annoying news about Metro’s light rail car supplier. It shows that the whole system is seeing increases – existing light rail, local buses, and Park and Ride buses. Demand is clearly there for transit, and part of this increase is the result of new service – the two new light rail lines, buses running on normal schedules on weekends, and so forth. Keep all that in mind when you hear Uptown BRT naysayers claim that no one will use it. The same people said the same things about the Red Line once, too. Beyond the Uptown line, there are a lot of other service expansion projects being talked about. It’s time to start making some of them more concrete. The demand is there. We need the supply.

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.

The Chron on how Metro and Culberson came to an accord

Read all about it.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still debating where to put the Houston high speed rail terminal

While people in the rural counties are trying to kill the proposed high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas, some other people here in Houston are thinking about where a station should be.

[Lynn] Hardwin was among a few dozen people attending an open house held by Texas Central Partners on April 23 at the venerable Tin Hall dance hall, situated on a quiet 40 acres in Cypress since 1890. TCP is the development arm of the project and would own and operate the rail service.

Members of Houston High Speed Rail Watch, a coalition of central Houston neighborhoods that includes Super Neighborhoods 12, 22 and 51 as well as other groups, also attended the event, which focused on dispelling misconceptions that have erupted since the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation began an environmental review process of the privately-funded project last summer.

It will be months before new details emerge about the proposed rail’s exact route and where it might terminate in Houston. From 290 and Loop 610, TCP is eyeing an alignment on Interstate 10 into downtown, but Union Pacific lines in the Washington Avenue area have been considered, too.

The coalition is advocating a path that avoids residential neighborhoods, says spokesman Mark Klein, who is president of Super Neighborhood 12 along the North Loop east of U.S. 290.

The group argues that only a small percentage of Houston residents will use the new rail service – not enough to justify the potential impact to well-established neighborhoods located in its path to the Central Business District downtown.

“We envision a rail terminus located northwest of the 610 Loop, such as at the Northwest Mall, or routing the line to a downtown terminus along freeways or through industrial areas,” Klein said.

[…]

Details about the exact route and how much property will be needed outside of existing rail or other public rights-of-way won’t be known until the draft environmental impact statement is completed, by early 2016. Two station locations are being eyed in Dallas, but TCP has not settled on a Houston station location. While it hopes to put a station downtown, officials say the line could terminate elsewhere.

Jersey Village might be another option for a station location, says City Manager Mike Castro, who also attended the Cypress open house.

The city created a transit-oriented development district on U.S. 290 at Jones Road in its master plan in anticipation of commuter rail a few years ago, Castro said, adding that the zone could accommodate a station for the high-speed rail service, too.

“We’ll wait for the environmental review,” Castro said. “Noise impacts are always a concern of ours, but overall, I see a very positive impact for Jersey Village, particularly if there is potential for a station location there.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The original idea was to have the high speed rail line come into downtown, since that is likely to be a common destination for business travelers and it’s also well connected to other transit options. That means routing the line through residential neighborhoods, which is a big problem if you’ve got these elevated tracks. Having the terminal be farther out, such as at the Northwest Transit Center, solves these problems but creates others, since an isolated terminal is less useful to someone who doesn’t want to have to park at it or doesn’t want to rent a car. Having the Uptown Line in place would help with that, and having the Uptown Line plus at least one other line that connects to it – the Universities Line and/or an Inner Katy Line – would help a lot more. Maybe Metro’s peace treaty with John Culberson can help make these things happen. Who knows? There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of possibilities here, some more promising than others. We’ll know more as the environmental impact statement process concludes.

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.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Metro reaches detente with Culberson

Holy cow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro writes off old light rail studies

What might have been.

Houston transit officials Thursday wrote off $104 million wasted on multiple studies related to the controversial University and Uptown light rail projects that ultimately stalled due to a lack of funding and fierce opposition from the neighborhoods they would impact.

The studies for the two lines, which were approved by voters in a 2003 referendum, were conducted prior to 2010. The value of those studies have since been carried as assets on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s books, just like buses or real estate, a common practice as major projects are compiled.

Thursday, by approving Metro’s 2014 certified financial report – an audited assessment of the agency’s finances – board members authorized the removal of the studies from the agency’s ledger.

In other words, they paid $104 million for detailed engineering and analysis and got very little in return.

Metro officials remain adamant that transit improvements in the area remain a priority. But if plans for the two light rail lines ever move forward, many alignment studies will have to be redone, reflecting more current conditions.

“It is very frustrating,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “That’s why, when we came in, we stopped that practice.”

[…]

Many of the studies were related to repeated demands by residents or elected officials vehemently opposed to the two lines to reconsider some of the alignment proposals, particularly along the University Line, which would have, in part, run along Richmond Avenue.

“Between 2004 and 2009, 46 additional alternatives, were looked at along the corridor,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, explaining some of the $61.8 million in work related to the University Line.

About $34.2 million was spent to study portions of the Uptown Line, along Post Oak Boulevard. The board also wrote off $8.6 million related to a failed effort to build an underpass along Harrisburg for the Green Line, currently under construction.

Probably all of those Universities Line studies were the result of Metro trying to accommodate all of the malcontents who kept demanding alternatives to the Richmond route we all know was best. All water under the bridge now, but I still get mad every time I remind myself how far along the process Metro got on the Universities Line before it was brutally murdered by John Culberson.

Meanwhile, we finally have an official grand opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines.

Even though trains have been running for several months, Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they’re still in the testing phase mandated by the federal government.

“We’re really working through all the operational experiences, so before we get into revenue service we have a good understanding how that’s going to work,” Lambert says.

[…]

The two new lines will take riders into the East End and Southeast Houston. They’ll link up with the current North Line downtown. The new opening date is now set for May 23.

At last report, the opening was aimed for the end of April. Maybe now that we have an actual date and not a vague time period, it will happen. That date was also noted by The Highwayman, which includes this tidbit about rail ridership:

Peak rail ridership for the rodeo, which ended Sunday, topped out March 19 with about 71,500 boardings on the light rail line, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said. That’s well short of the record day Metro had last year, when the line logged 76,925 boardings.

“Overall (rail) ridership for that three week period is up by about 21,000 boardings, but rodeo ridership specifically was down, apparently due to all the wet weather we had,” Gray said.

Metro did log record ridership for a week, with 448,000 boardings from March 14 to March 20, but that had less to do with the rodeo and more to do with incremental increases in general rail use, officials observed. Gray said last year during the rodeo, there were about 1.28 million rail trips, with 471,000 of those attributed to the rodeo. This year, officials estimate 1.3 million rail trips were taken, but rodeo-related rides slipped to about 421,000.

Overall, since the expansion of the Red Line in December 2013, light rail use has increased. In February, average daily ridership was 46,633, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and 24 jump from February 2013, before the line opened north of downtown Houston.

I’ll take the tradeoff of lower rodeo ridership for higher overall ridership every day of the week. I can’t wait to see what it looks like once these two lines finally come online. The Highwayman 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.