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A really dumb “Trump and the train” article

Ugh.

Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.

[…]

California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”

[…]

High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Still more hyperloops

They had a hyperloop design contest at Texas A&M:

In the end, Elon Musk couldn’t resist showing up to the competition he helped inspire. The billionaire SpaceX CEO made a surprise appearance at the end of the Hyperloop pod design competition at Texas A&M University Saturday, eliciting a rapturous reaction from the thousand-plus audience of high school and college engineers who were there to compete for a chance to test their designs on Musk’s personal Hyperloop track later this year.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s team was awarded the top prize, and will now go on to build an actual pod to race on the under-construction track near SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters. The Delft University of Technology from the Netherlands were the next runners-up. Auburn University won in the category of best overall subsystem. Twenty-two teams in all will go on to test their pods in Hawthorne, although up to 10 other teams could also qualify after further judging in the coming weeks, according to SpaceX.

Dozens of other winners in propulsion, design, levitation, and braking were also announced at the end of the two-day competition, which also featured technology demonstrations like Arx Pax’s hover engine, and a speech by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The event was meant to generate excitement among engineers and the public for the tube-based, transonic, vacuum transport system popularized by the billionaire Musk in 2013. But it was also meant to serve as a rebuttal to skeptics who dismissed the Hyperloop as too fanciful, impractical, and expensive to exist in the real world.

“The public wants something new,” Musk told the attendees. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

See here and here for some background. I still think this is all pie in the sky, but it is nice to think that there might be better ways to travel than what we have now. Maybe if this doesn’t work something like it will. Texas Monthly has more.

Three views of traffic in Texas

It’s getting worse.

Houston-area leaders love to trumpet the region’s affordable cost of living and low taxes, but the costs of sitting in traffic are taking a record share of workers’ incomes, according to a comprehensive annual study.

The average peak-period commuter in Houston pays $1,490 annually in lost time and wasted fuel because freeways are not flowing, according to the Urban Mobility Scorecard. The scorecard, developed by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute, assesses congestion in America’s 471 urban areas. It is considered a reliable barometer of whether traffic conditions are worsening or improving.

Congestion delays more than 2.4 million commuters daily along the Houston region’s 90,000 lane-miles of streets and highways, the study found. Though nearly the same number of workers traveled in the area daily in 2012 and 2014, last year motorists collectively sat in traffic for more than 200 million hours for the first time. This means every worker in the Houston area who travels at peak times wastes on average 61 hours annually because traffic doesn’t move as intended.

[…]

Despite having a lower cost of living than many other congested urban areas, Houston ranks fourth nationally when the cost of congestion is calculated. The area’s total wasted time and fuel value is $4.9 billion annually; an estimated 94.3 million gallons of fuel are lost to stop-and-go traffic.

Freight movement also suffers. Congestion adds $1.1 billion annually to the price of delivering and shipping goods via truck, according to the scorecard. Only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago shippers lose more money to congestion.

Even adjusting to the value of $1 in 2014, the money lost to commuting is at an all-time high in Houston. With a more diverse economy and growth seemingly inevitable, experts do not expect the cost of congestion to decline.

“If Houston grows by a million people, just keeping that at $1,500 is going to be hard,” [scorecard co-author Tim] Lomax said.

Here’s the scorecard and press release, with additional commentary from The Highwayman. I’m sure all of this will sound familiar.

What may not be so familiar is this critique of the study:

The trouble with TTI’s work is that, to put it bluntly, it’s simply wrong. For one, their core measure of congestion costs — the “travel time index” — only looks at how fast people can travel, and completely ignores how far they have to go. As a result, it makes sprawling cities with fast roads between far-flung destinations look good, while penalizing more compact cities where people actually spend less time — and money — traveling from place to place. These and other problems, discussed below, mean that the TTI report is not a useful guide to policy.

Moreover, its authors have been consistently indifferent in responding to expert criticism, and the report has not been subjected to peer review. The authors continue to report data for 1982 through 2007, even though TTI’s model for those years doesn’t actually measure congestion: it simply assumes that increased vehicle volumes automatically produce slower speeds, which is not necessarily accurate. The report’s data from 2007 and earlier isn’t comparable the data that comes afterwards, and can’t legitimately be used to make claims about whether traffic is better or worse than in earlier periods. And for decades, TTI used a fuel consumption model to estimate gas savings that was calibrated based on 1970s-era cars, and which assumed that fuel economy improved with higher speeds — forever.

At City Observatory, we’ve spent a lot of time digging through TTI’s work and similar congestion cost reports. A summary of our work is in the City Subjects card deck “Questioning Congestion Costs.”

Click over to see the summary of what City Observatory learned. More along these lines comes from Transportation for America:

The report focuses only on drivers — not commuters as a whole. The millions of people using growing modes like transit, walking or biking or skipping the trip entirely by telecommuting at peak aren’t included in the analysis. So when the report says “person” or “commuter,” what they’re really saying is “car commuter.” The nearly 1 million trips taken per day in Washington, DC —#1 on the “list of gridlock-plagued cities — on metro (bus and rail) and therefore not in a car? Not included in this analysis.

Trips not taken can be crucial, yet they’re ignored here. In February 2009, Inrix, the company partnering with Texas A&M on this release, reported that just a 3.7 percent drop in vehicle miles traveled in 2008 resulted in a 30 percent drop in congestion in the 100 most congested metro areas. We don’t need everyone to shift their trip, take transit, move closer to work, or telecommute — among many possible options. But smart investments and incentives that lead to very small reductions in trips taken can have huge benefits in reduced congestion. And they’re often far cheaper than massive projects proposed to shave a few seconds off of average commutes.

Live close to where you work? Oops. Your short commute can come out looking worse than someone else’s much longer commute. TTI completely ignores the actual time and distance of commutes. If you have a 20-minute commute home but move at a lower speed, your commute scores worse than the person driving 80 minutes at a higher speed. Yet who has the better experience each day?

[…]

Ranking congestion is fine, but what should we do about it? How can we manage congestion in the most cost-effective way possible given limited transportation dollars?

Doing more of the same certainly won’t solve the problem. Regions that have been aggressively investing in additional travel options, eliminating trips, reducing trip length, creating more places to live close to jobs or more effectively managing demand have seen their congestion numbers get better, according to this landmark CEOs for Cities report from a few years ago.

That’s why it’s so critically important that the rule for the congestion performance measure being developed by USDOT measure success (or failure) in ways beyond just this limited and flawed TTI measure. We do need a better measure of congestion if we want to avoid making the same decisions that got us into this mess.

How far do most people have to travel for work? How long does it take them? What is most effective at reducing the amount of time it takes to get places? How many people are exposed to the congestion? Congestion may be bad, but people telecommuting, in a vanpool or on a bike might not experience it. Credit should be given to areas that allow people to opt-out of the traffic. Those are the kinds of metrics we need to use in order to find real solutions.

I’d fall into that third group above – whether we take I-45 or Houston Avenue, we move pretty slowly going into downtown most days, but we don’t have far to go, and it almost never takes more than 10 minutes total. Tiffany used to take a vanpool to The Woodlands for her job. She moved a lot faster, but was on the road a lot longer. Which would you rather do?

Just a little food for thought while you’re sitting there in traffic. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, we are reaching the end point of accommodating single-passenger-vehicle drivers. We don’t have the room to build more highway lanes in our cities, and in the places where we have done so recently, they’ve just filled right back up again. Just as we can’t economically meet our state’s water and energy needs without conservation, we can’t economically meet the needs of single passenger vehicles at the current pace. The focus has to be on reducing the number of cars on the road – more carpools, more transit, more biking and walking, more telecommuting – which is to say, on conserving road capacity. We’re too cheap to pay for anything else anyway, so we may as well embrace the option that we’re forcing ourselves into. Street Smart has more.

Flying to Cuba

You can get there from Houston, or at least you will be able to soon.

United Airlines made it clear Thursday it intends to offer regular commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, saying it would look to offer service from its Houston and Newark hubs to the Caribbean island.

The Chicago-based carrier’s statement came Thursday, following the administration’s announcement that it would begin steps to ease restrictions against Cuba starting Friday.

“We plan to serve Cuba, subject to government approvals, and look forward to doing so from our global gateways of Newark and Houston,” the airline said in a statement.

Many details remain to be worked out before such service could begin.

The Department of Transportation said Thursday the U.S. regulators will work with Cuba to explore air service expansion. A specific air service agreement between the two countries would be required before regular commercial flights could start between the countries.

[…]

The infrastructure is in place here to capitalize on the travel changes. In 2011, Bush Intercontinental Airport was designated as one of the airports that could legally charter flights to Cuba. The first one took off in February 2012 with 80 passengers. Several charters have flown from the airport since, but none on a regular basis.

American Airlines, which has operated flights to Cuba for 15 years, dominates U.S. travel there. JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines were among the companies that started flying charters in 2011 from Florida

We’ve already discussed Cubans coming to Houston to visit and shop, so this is only fair. Houston is a hub for a lot of Latin American travel anyway, so the surprise would have been if United didn’t plan to play in this market, whenever it officially happens. Until then it’s a matter of dumping enough money on recalcitrant Republicans lobbying Congress to get the ball rolling.

US-Mexico high speed rail?

What goes north can also go south.

Like this but with fewer mountains

A high-speed rail line connecting San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico, could be less than a decade away from welcoming its first passengers, according to federal and Texas officials who met with Mexican officials in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the project.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-San Antonio, hosted the meeting in which Texas and Mexican officials offered a joint presentation to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about the project, and Cuellar said Foxx was receptive. It was the third meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials related to the project, Cuellar said, following a meeting in the summer and another in October.

“From the Mexican side, they are very interested,” Cuellar said. “From the Texas side, they are very interested.”

Supporters say the rail line, if completed, could move passengers from San Antonio to Monterrey in two hours. The trip takes nearly five hours traveling by car.

Cuellar said he became interested in such a project after learning that the Texas Department of Transportation had received $5.6 million in federal funds last year to study possible rail projects between Oklahoma City and South Texas.

[…]

Both Mexican and U.S. officials envision a large portion of the project’s funding coming from the private sector, perhaps from a single company investing in the project in both countries.

We are familiar with one private investor for high speed rail in Texas, and we heard about that FTA grant recently. Obviously, all this is a long way from happening, but if both do happen – I’m reasonably confident about the Houston-Dallas line – then it would make a lot more sense to connect them, since that would have more value than two separate, disconnected lines. That would mean finishing the rest of the so-called Texas Triangle, which would then have offshoots continuing on to Oklahoma City and Monterrey. That would be pretty cool, don’t you think? The Highwayman and the Express News have more.

Railroad crossings

There are a lot of freight rail lines in the East End. Some big changes will be coming to them.

Railroad-Crossing

A series of underpasses and street closings east of downtown represents the latest effort to seal off railroad corridors and take vehicle traffic over or under the tracks, while closing off other roads.

“If you look at the plan we have … you’ll see every place we closed a road is by a grade separation,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

Eliminating crossings by separating roads and rail lines with overpasses or underpasses is the best solution, but also the most expensive, officials said.

“Anywhere a grade separation is done, you take away the conflict,” Crocker said.

Where officials can’t eliminate the conflict, they are working to make drivers more aware of the trains, or to cut off access.

Five grade separations and five road closings are planned along nine miles of double railroad track, known as the West Belt, that extends from northside neighborhoods to southeast of the Third Ward. Most of the projects are east of downtown.

At an estimated cost of $107.7 million, the closings and underpasses will create a roughly five-mile quiet zone where trains won’t blow their horns when they approach an at-grade crossing. That means fewer whistles for the 15,000 nearby residents, officials said.

Funding for the project will come from federal, state, local and railroad sources, Crocker said, and potentially involves applying for a competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

There have been a number of collisions, resulting in 27 injuries and one death, at rail crossings in Harris County since 2010. In addition to the changes at these crossings, there will be billboards put up to remind people that trains take a long time to stop, so you really ought to think twice about crossing a rail line if there’s any question about your ability to make it safely. You wouldn’t think that would be something people would need to be reminded about, but it is. One hopes this will help.

Keep Houston Houston argues that street closures are a bad idea.

Basically, closing a crossing is like parking a freight train in front of the gates 24/7. This is true if there’s no alternative for miles, and it’s equally true if there’s an overpass or underpass a block a way.

Consider, for instance, the pending loss of Sherman Street. Right now there’s a bike trail that starts in downtown and ends one block away. But using Sherman you can keep going east, all the way to the Ship Channel, on a quiet, low-traffic, residential street.

What happens if you close Sherman? Sure, it’s only a two block detour over to Harrisburg. But Harrisburg is a big, noisy street, with through traffic and light rail trains. This can only discourage cycling. And how ’bout if you’re on foot? That two block detour represents about six or seven minutes of walking time. It costs about as much time as a one-mile detour in a car. And slowly, bit by bit, neighborhoods are cut off from each other.

It’s already happened in the First Ward. There used to be a nice quiet cut-through, Silver Street, that would take you from anywhere in the First all the way across Washington and down to Memorial. It was a great way to avoid the jam-up on Sawyer Street, or the racetrack on Houston Avenue, where HPD cruisers regularly hit 50-60mph on the way to and from headquarters. But now, it’s gone. Google shows the transformation. In Streetview, a nice straight shot. In 45-degree view, dead.

All of this is enabled by laughable “cost benefit analyses” that weigh the “benefit” of crossing closures in terms of the accident reduction without considering any “cost” other than $50,000 for the barricades, signing and striping to close the thing. Lost time due to cars taking a longer route isn’t considered. Lost connectivity for peds and bikes isn’t considered. Lost ridership and productivity on transit routes forced to detour is not considered.

If this same methodology was used on all transportation projects, the Interstate highway system would have a 10mph speed limit.

It’s a good point. Silver Street is in the Washington Quiet Zone, and KHH is right that there aren’t any good alternatives for non-car traffic now that it’s closed. I think the effect is less pronounced west of Studemont, but that doesn’t help anyone who used to bike on Silver. No question, under/overpasses are the best option, if you can pay for them. I sympathize with the folks in the East End, who have dealt with freight rail traffic for a long time. I hope this is what they wanted.

If only it were that easy to get our act together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike sharing to come to Fort Worth

Good for them.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority said Monday it’s raised more than $1 million, and plans to launch a central city bike-sharing program by next Spring that will include 30 stations and 300 bikes.

The program will start by April, Dick Ruddell, president of The T, said Monday. Stations will be between the Hospital District and TCU on the South Side and the Stockyards on the north, and the West 7th corridor on the west and Texas Wesleyan University to the east.

The heavy-duty three-speed bikes will come with locks, lights, baskets, and GPS devices that the T can use to track the locations of each bike. Users will be able to use credit cards or program membership cards to check bikes at out from kiosks at each station, and to check them back in. Rent rates will be based on time, and haven’t been determined yet.

Ruddell said there’s potential to expand the program beyond the initial numbers of stations, “but that’s certainly enough to get us started.”

“It’s the last mile of connectivity,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who joined Ruddell Monday in announcing the bike share program and another one the city announced to put down bright green-painted bike lanes at intersections and other heavily trafficked places where cars and bike paths meet.

The T has received a $940,000 Federal Transit Administration grant and sponsors have chipped in another $260,000 for the bike share program, Ruddell said.

See here and here for more info and a little jealousy from the latter.

Here’s how the U.S. Department of Transportation described the grant, announced this morning by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on his blog: “To further improve mobility and connectivity between popular destinations, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority will implement the Fort Worth Livability Bike Sharing Program. Bike stations will be placed in areas that have dense neighborhoods with high activity and access to a variety of transit connections. Bike stations will also be placed at the intermodal hub in Ft. Worth.”

Joan Hunter, spokeswoman for The T, said she learned of the grant through a call from the city this morning and was still tracking down details. But she said the transit agency has been working on a plan to run a pilot program for the bike-share in hopes of “being a catalyst for the city of Fort Worth.”

She said if the program works, officials are hoping the city will expand it and set up the Fort Worth bike share effort as a standalone entity. She said the agency was hoping to have the bike-share pilot project underway by the end of this year, but was still looking for the necessary funding. The federal grant will help a lot, she said.

They’ll be modeling this after the successful San Antonio bike sharing program, though there are still a lot details to be worked out first. Along with San Antonio, Fort Worth joins Houston and Austin in the bike sharing business. Don’t worry, Dallas, I’m sure you’ll get it sooner or later. Oh, and Metro got $11 million to rehab six bus operating facilities as part of the same set of grants. Very cool.

Culberson up to his old tricks

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

John Culberson is coming after you!

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

There is nothing but highways

More bad policy coming from the Republicans in Congress.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday the House GOP’s highway spending plan is “the worst transportation bill” he’s seen in decades.

“This is the most partisan transportation bill that I have ever seen,” LaHood said in an exclusive interview with POLITICO.

“And it also is the most anti-safety bill I have ever seen. It hollows out our No. 1 priority, which is safety, and frankly, it hollows out the guts of the transportation efforts that we’ve been about for the last three years,” LaHood added. “It’s the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”

The $260 billion, five-year House bill would cut Amtrak subsidies and increases truck weight limits, leading safety and environment advocates to assail the legislation.

LaHood was a seven-term Republican Congressman before being tapped to be Transportation Secretary, in case you were wondering. What else is rotten with this bill? It screws bicyclists, for one thing.

When the bill goes to the U.S. House floor this week, legislators will consider getting rid of a provision that requires states to dedicate a percentage of highway funds for to build trails for bicyclists and pedestrians, as well as other enhancements.

Under current law, states have to set aside 3 percent of their total highway funds for enhancements, such as hike-and-bike trails, Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karen Amacker said. Under the new bill, states would decide if, and how much, to spend on such projects.

I’m sure we can all guess what would happen in Texas if that set aside is removed. And if that’s not enough, the bill also screws public transportation.

The U.S. Congress is moving forward with a bill that would strip transit funding out of the Highway Trust Fund, a move that upends an Ronald Reagan-era structure that has meant billions in guaranteed funding for mass transit.

[…]

Here’s why this is a big deal: Money collected from gas taxes, and a handful of other sources, flow directly into a special account in Washington, known as the Highway Trust Fund. Spending out of that account does not require annual appropriations as do expenditures from the general fund.

Instead, the Congress authorizes transportation funding every five years or so and the highway fund spends the money during that time without involvement from the Congress.

By kicking transit out of that system, it leaves any transit spending decisions subject to the same budget and deficit fights that most spending has to contend with, and — transit advocates fear — is really just a way to cut spending for transit.

And again, if that’s what is allowed to happen it’s almost certainly what will happen because it’s the sort of thing that’s easier to do than the alternatives, not to mention the fact that those who depend on public transportation tend to have fewer highly paid lobbyists. The good news is that the Senate is unlikely to go along with this, but it seems unlikely to me that anything will pass that doesn’t have some bad effects. The number of ways in which the 2010 elections were a disaster just keep piling up.

Metro gets more light rail funds

From the US Department of Transit:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced $1.58 billion for 27 transit projects nationwide that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution.

“Investing in a modern transportation network is a key part of President Obama’s strategy to win the future by out-building and out-competing the rest of the world,” Secretary LaHood said. “America’s long-term economic success requires investing now in transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and goods more safely, efficiently and quickly than ever before.”

“Our investments in expanding America’s transit networks will not only improve reliable transportation access for communities across the country, they will support construction jobs and economic development,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “And, a more efficient and reliable transit network means new opportunities for Americans to keep more of their paychecks in their wallets and spend less at the gas pump.”

Twenty-seven transit projects across America are on a path to receive funding under the New Starts program, through which Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides federal support for major capital construction projects such as subways, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.

Among those projects, all of which you can see here, are Metro’s North Line and Southeast Line, each of which are slated to get $75 million each. Note that this is happening even though the Full Funding Agreement is still pending with the FTA, though as I heard Metro CEO George Greanias say at a Livable Houston presentation in May, you’d think that after giving Metro all this money up till now they’re probably not going to reject the FFA at this point. This announcement comes as Metro gets ready to start laying actual tracks for the Southeast Line, too. Great to see such progress being made. Via Houston Tomorrow.

It’s our own fault we missed out on SUPERTRAIN funds

So says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“If Texas had had its act together, it would have gotten some high-speed rail money,” the Obama administration Cabinet official told reporters.

Thirty-one states shared $8 billion in rail grants from the 2009 economic stimulus package last week. The only money Texas received was a $4 million grant for planning a project in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We based our decision on where the money could be well-spent and jump-start opportunities around the country,” LaHood said.

“Unless a state or region has its act together, with (local) money, with a good plan that connects things, they’re not going to be in the high-speed rail business,” he said.

Well, let’s be honest. If we’re going to have a chance in the next round, we’re going to need a different Governor, because this is not a priority for the current one. And we’ll need some changes in the culture at TxDOT. Getting stuff through the Lege is always a challenge, and the 2011 session will be a lousy time to try to fund new projects, but beyond those things I don’t think there are any unique obstacles there. In other words, it’s going to take a lot of things going right, and even then it’ll be hard. But other than that, piece of cake.

Department of Transportation makes it easier to do transit projects

Good news.

In a dramatic change from existing policy, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today proposed that new funding guidelines for major transit projects be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time saved, which are currently the primary criteria.

In remarks at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, the Secretary announced the Obama Administration’s plans to change how projects are selected to receive federal financial assistance in the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts and Small Starts programs. As part of this initiative, the FTA will immediately rescind budget restrictions issued by the Bush Administration in March of 2005 that focused primarily on how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to its cost.

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

The change will apply to how the Federal Transit Administration evaluates major transit projects going forward. In making funding decisions, the FTA will now evaluate the environmental, community and economic development benefits provided by transit projects, as well as the congestion relief benefits from such projects.

“This new approach will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid transit systems.”

FTA will soon initiate a separate rulemaking process, inviting public comment on ways to appropriately measure all the benefits that result from such investments.

As noted by Houston Politics, the main way this is likely to affect Metro is with the University line, as the others have their funding lined up one way or another. If we’re lucky, when Metro is in a position to think about further expansions, the same rules will be in effect. On the down side, as the DC Streetsblog notes, this didn’t increase the amount of federal funds available. That still needs to be done by Congress, and who knows how that will go. But this is a good step in the right direction. Yglesias, neoHouston, and Houston Tomorrow have more.