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US290

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

More rail options being studied

This caught my eye last week.

The Gulf Coast Rail District says to make the system viable the train needs to come into downtown, or there has to be some sort of commuter rail option that would link downtown with the high-speed line.

The Rail District now wants to study the possibility of a rail line along the I-10 corridor that would get passengers close to the downtown Amtrak station.

Gulf Coast Rail District Executive Director Maureen Crocker says a train could possibly run on the median or along the embankments. Crocker adds if the high-speed rail line doesn’t have an easy connection into downtown it could cause problems for everyone.

There’s not much more to the story, and to say the least this raised more questions for me than it answered. So, I reached out to Ms. Crocker with my questions:

Are the endpoints for this simply the proposed high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 on one end and downtown on the other, or is there more to it than that?

The study will be focused solely on the segment you reference. It is important to note that GCRD has been in discussions with TCR about the operation of regional rail service below the HSR structure it will build. Previous studies completed by GCRD have indicated that regional rail ridership triples if the rail continues to downtown from the Northwest Transit Center area near Loop 610. GCRD has studied regional rail to Hempstead in essentially the same corridor that TCR has identified. In addition, TxDOT has studied an extension of the regional rail corridor to Austin using abandoned freight rail ROW and rail ROW owned by Cap Metro. Maximizing the synergies of the HSR corridor and the regional rail corridor will be a win-win for the Houston region.

I-10 does not have a median inside Loop 610, so I am confused about where this might be located. Can you be more specific?

Several options will be evaluated including an elevated structure between the eastbound and westbound lanes of IH-10 east of Loop 610. More options will be identified during the initial phase of work. TxDOT will be very involved in this effort.

I realize that this is barely even in the embryonic stage, but if this goes forward in some fashion, who would be responsible to build it?

It is too early to predict what a final partnership will look like. Agreements are being developed for this phase of work to be led by GCRD and H-GAC with strong participation from TxDOT, METRO and the City of Houston.

Are there other possibilities under consideration? I’m thinking of the “Inner Katy” light rail corridor that was part of the 2003 Metro referendum as such an alternative.

The focus of this phase of work is to determine the feasibility of a direct, nonstop rail connection from Loop 610 to downtown for HSR travelers, regional rail commuters, and local commuters for whom the Loop 610 station is convenient. All parties will be at the table to coordinate related planning efforts. Future phases of this work could address more localized distribution from the Loop 610 station such as the proposed Inner Katy LRT service.

So there you have it. Still a lot of details to be worked out, and who knows how long this all might take, but I do have a clearer idea of what’s being discussed. I noticed the mention of commuter rail in there as well, which is another point in favor of the HSR station being located at 290 and 610, as well as another argument for finishing the link into downtown. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, I’m very interested to see how it goes. My thanks to Ms. Crocker for her helpful answers.

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.

Who needs managed lanes?

Not TxDOT, and not on 290.

State transportation officials have changed plans for widening U.S. 290, increasing capacity for people driving alone but reducing opportunities for alternatives to solo driving.

After initially planning four or five general use lanes in each direction and three reversible managed (toll and carpool) lanes in the center, Texas Department of Transportation officials are now planning for a single managed lane. This lane, however, will extend to Mason Road, much farther than it does now, said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the U.S. 290 widening project.

Reducing the space for carpool and toll lanes gives officials room to add one or two more general use lanes in some spots, making five or six free lanes available.

[…]

Eventually, Othon said, a tollway is planned along Hempstead Highway, providing carpool and transit access. A 50-foot corridor along this tollway is expected to one day carry high-capacity transit such as commuter rail.

The Hempstead corridor projects, however, remain well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans.

Othon said additional general use lanes on U.S. 290 would help relieve the immense demand drivers place today on the freeway. About 240,000 vehicles use the freeway daily, based on TxDOT counts.

A reduction in managed lanes, however, means options other than driving alone become less attractive. Interstate 10 west of downtown Houston has managed lanes in both directions, providing a bigger benefit for those who use transit or share a ride.

“The point is to add capacity,” said Christof Spieler, a member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro officials urged TxDOT to build two-way managed lanes to improve transit options. Buses across Houston use the managed lane system – Metro maintains many of the lanes – because they typically enable buses to make quicker trips between suburban park-and-ride locations and major job centers. If buses are stuck in the same traffic solo drivers are, they lose their advantage, transit officials said.

I have no idea what drove that decision, and I have to say it’s a little disconcerting for it to happen without any public input. The obvious problem with this approach is that it’s very self-limiting. You can only have so many single-occupancy vehicles on the road at any one time. Increase the number of people per vehicle, increase the number of riders on buses headed to and from park-and-ride lots, and you can move a lot more people on the same number of lanes. Why would you not want to do that? Has TxDOT not noticed how crowded the massively-widened Katy Freeway has been getting lately? To say that the Hempstead Highway option is “well beyond state and local officials’ current funding plans” is putting it mildly. Look how long it’s taken to get this part of the 290 construction project going. Nothing about this makes sense, but that’s TxDOT for you. The Highwayman has more.

Time to comment on the proposed high speed rail routes

Check ’em out, and tell ’em what you think.

Observers have long known that only a few options were available for the route of the privately funded high-speed train line between Houston and Dallas. Now a firmer picture of where the trains might run is emerging.

As part of the federally required process to evaluate the line, the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation released maps of the nine routes they are considering and the two chosen for deeper evaluation.

[…]

All follow rights of way of railroads, TxDOT or utilities, which is pretty standard for rail development. Those are the agencies or companies that own long, thin swaths of real estate that are relatively clear. Backers of the train, who are paying for the analysis, would acquire the property.

The route has long had support of elected officials in both metro areas, as well as state transportation leaders.

Looking at the southern end in the Houston area, the real decision — which could quickly get political — is which of the two preferred routes is the top contender. While the BNSF Railway option grabs a lot of Tomball area and then hooks along Loop 610 before coming south, the utility alignment connects with Cypress and follows the crowded U.S. 290 corridor in.

Both routes have also been prime candidates for commuter rail service, which Houston area officials have said would definitely complement any high-speed line, along with local transit.

See here for the background and here for more about those commuter rail proposals, which would be an enticing add-on for this project at some point. There were a total of nine routes proposed, but the embedded image shows the two that were selected for “detailed evaluation” – see here for the other picture. Public meetings begin tonight in Dallas, and continue through October 29 at locations along the potential routes, with the last one on the 29th at the NRG Center beginning with an open house at 4:30. See here for the full schedule and related information. Dallas Transportation and the Star-Telegram have more.

Bringing commuter rail into downtown

From The Highwayman:

290 Commuter Rail options

As has been reported, the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying the best possible routes for commuter rail in the Houston area, and one of the biggest challenges is bringing the trains into downtown. From the looks of the initial analysis of the U.S. 290 corridor, the trip to the central business district might have some unexpected stops along the way.

Relying on potentially available right of way, the analysis conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates found that the two most feasible routes from a hypothetical train station at 43rd Street and Mangum Road would largely rely on land next to existing freight rail lines, heading east, then south, or south, then east. The study involved finding a route where land would be potentially available without obstacles like buildings. Those who did the study also were tasked with avoiding flood-prone areas, environmental impacts and technical challenges. Officials also had to avoid affecting the major freight railroads, said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district.

One scenario would send the line eastward parallel to the BNSF Railway tracks, then south along land near where Harris County plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road inside Loop 610. From there, the trains would briefly use space next to the Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, into the Amtrak station near the downtown U.S. Post Office.

The other option would bring the trains south along Mangum Road and Post Oak Boulevard before heading east along Katy Road and then parallel to the Union Pacific tracks north of Washington Avenue and into downtown.

[…]

Commuter rail — not the light rail system that Metropolitan Transit Authority has built — would bring travelers from much longer distances than light rail would, connecting areas far outside the Sam Houston Tollway. If Houston ever developed a robust regional passenger rail system, Lott said, the potential northwest station could be the hub of up to eight rail lines, coming from as far as 100 miles away.

The addition of passenger trains could also revitalize the downtown Amtrak station, which only serves a handful of passenger trains each week. In other cities where transit and train service has led to increased traffic, train stations are experiencing a renaissance.

See here for the background. This conversation has come up before, most recently as I recall about a decade ago when one of the options was to bring the line through the Heights, along the former rail right of way that is now the White Oak bike trail. Needless to say, that’s not on the table. You can see the presentation with all of the routes that were considered this time at the link above. I don’t know much about the northern path that would go to the Hardy Toll Road right of way, but the Katy Road/MKT option would basically run along one possible path for the Inner Katy light rail line, if it ever gets onto a drawing board. It might make sense to build a station or two along the way for this configuration, given the population and employment locations along Washington Avenue. I just hope that if they do this, they consider doing something about the rail crossings at Durham/Shepherd, Heights, Sawyer, and Houston Avenue. Traffic gets snarled up enough with the infrequent freight train schedule; with commuter rail frequency it would be a nightmare, especially at Durham/Shepherd. I’m sure that will add another hundred million or two to the price tag, but come on. The need and the benefit are obvious.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

290 toll lane opens

You solo drivers on US 290 can now take advantage of the HOV lane to make your daily commute a little less grim, beginning today.

Based on time of day, drivers will pay between $1 and $5 for using the lanes, while eligible carpoolers can still use them for free. In the mornings, vehicles must have three occupants between 6:45 a.m. and 8 a.m., while only two people per vehicle are required at other times.

The carpool lanes run from near FM 1960 to the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610. The transit center, park and ride buses and the carpool lanes are operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro also manages toll lanes along Interstate 45 and U.S. 59. Carpool lanes along 59 north of downtown are scheduled to open later this year.

About 7,500 vehicles use the carpool lane daily along 290, Metro officials said. Adding solo drivers who pay is expected to increase the use to about 9,000 vehicles. Raising and lowering prices is meant to control use.

See here for some background, and here for more on Metro’s HOV/HOT lane service. Doesn’t sound like it’s enough volume to make much of a dent in the daily commute time for most folks, but I suppose if you’re one of the ones paying for the privilege of driving in the HOV lane it’ll make a difference for you. It’s going to be a long couple of years while 290 gets revamped and expanded, and I hardly ever have to drive on it.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Oak Bayou Bike Trail closed at 610 until 2014

Bummer.

It is with regret that we inform you that project delays (utility relocation) has negatively impacted the schedule for the IH-610 at TC Jester improvement project, causing the trail closure to be extended into Spring 2014. TxDOT is as greatly concerned about these delays as much as you are as the bicyclist, pedestrian or other trail user.

While ‘Share the Road’ signage has been installed along TC Jester, please do not ride through the construction zone – especially when East or West TC Jester is closed at the intersection with IH-610. It is unlawful and unsafe for both you (the bicyclist) and construction workers.

Need more up to date information, please visit www.my290.com or contact the US 290j Public Information Office at 1-866-958-7290.

For a complete listing of TxDOT lane closures on US 290 and in the greater Houston area, please visit www.houstontranstar.org.

Follow the project on Twitter @my290houston
http://us290houston.newsrouter.com

I haven’t made it out that way on my bike yet. It’s on my to do list, but I guess I’ve got a reprieve for now. Note that even if you don’t care about bikes, this means that the road construction is taking longer than anticipated, and that always sucks. Sure gives you a warm fuzzy about the future 290 construction, doesn’t it? See here and here for some background. Link via The Leader.

Tomorrow’s traffic jams are being planned today

I have two things to say about this.

Projects to widen U.S. 290 and Texas 288 with a mix of free and toll lanes in an attempt to ease congestion in the traffic-choked corridors would get a jump-start under a proposed agreement between Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation.

The deal, scheduled for a vote by Commissioners Court [today], also foresees the state building a direct connection from Texas 288 to the Texas Medical Center, as well as improving nearby Almeda and Cullen.

TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said work on U.S. 290 could start early next year; he declined to say when dirt could turn on Texas 288, but said environmental work is under way.

[…]

The proposal envisions a free lane being added in each direction on U.S. 290 between the 610 Loop and the Grand Parkway, and two to three managed lanes in the center. There is disagreement about which directions those lanes should flow at what times. The plan for Texas 288, according to the agreement, would see two toll lanes added from U.S. 59 to near the Brazoria County line. TxDOT’s Kaufman said it is too early to discuss details on either project.

Alan Clark, head of transportation planning for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, said the agreement puts long hoped-for improvements “within striking distance.” Both stretches of U.S. 290 and Texas 288 are among TxDOT’s 100 most-congested road segments.

[…]

Citizens Transportation Coalition board chairwoman Marci Perry and advocacy chairwoman Carol Caul said they support improvements to the congested section of U.S. 290 inside Highway 6, but said population statistics do not support such an investment much beyond that point.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, whose district is home to a large section of U.S. 290, said there is no question that both projects are needed.

“If we want to continue the economic growth and the prosperity that we have, we have to address mobility,” Cagle said. “If this agreement is signed, it’ll be a signal to everyone, not just within our region but … to the entire nation, that ‘Houston is ready to do business – come on down.’ ”

1. I don’t think there’s any question that the return on investment for the 290 expansion is much greater for the 610 to SH6 section of the highway than it is for the rest of the way out. This is about justifying the ridiculous amount that TxDOT and the county will be spending on the Grand Parkway extension north from I-10. It’s also another example of how much we favor spending on transportation projects where there aren’t any people yet over those where there are. To some extent that makes sense – you do have to plan for growth – but to a much larger extent it’s about politics rather than need. The County Commissioners care a lot more about some parts of the county than they do about some other parts of it. And remember, “planning” inside an established population center hinders growth, while “planning” outside existing population centers facilitates it.

2. My experience on 288 is almost exclusively the stretch of 288 between 610 and 59. Whatever this plan may do to alleviate congestion on 288 outside 610, I can assure you it will exacerbate it inside 610. Take 288 north any afternoon, and I can guarantee that it will be backed up starting around MacGregor all the way up to 59. This is because that stretch of 59, which stretches back to at least Greenbriar, is hopelessly congested all the way through I-10. What do you think the effect of bringing in more people on 288 will be? As for having a direct connection from 288 to the Medical Center, all I can say is that “the Medical Center” is a huge place, with components along Old Spanish Trail, Holcombe, and Fannin. Where exactly would this “direct connection” go? What path would it take? How will you avoid massive congestion at its terminus? Perhaps those aren’t TxDOT or HCTRA’s concerns, but as someone who currently works near the Medical Center, they sure as heck are mine.

Hempstead commuter rail update

Here’s a look at how commuter rail along 290 might work.

Commuter trains from Hempstead to Houston could start running by 2019 if the Gulf Coast Rail District can secure $300 million and if Union Pacific Railroad lets passenger cars use its track along Hempstead Highway.

It would be the Houston area’s first commuter rail service between cities in at least 50 years and would help ease severe traffic congestion on U.S. 290, a major route for rapidly growing northwest Harris County.

At the outset, the service would operate only between Hempstead and Loop 610 near Northwest Mall. From there, express buses would carry passengers to four employment centers – downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria/Uptown area.

To succeed, however, the project must extend the track from the loop into downtown, according to a report on a year-long study by Klotz Associates and TranSystems. Commissioned by the rail district, the report was presented Tuesday to the board.

The study was commissioned last March. All of the documents related to the Hempstead rail project can be found here. The initial presentation was made last November. The report that was given to the GCRD this week is here. Of interest is that one of its operating assumptions is that the METRO Solutions Phase II plan has been “Fully Implemented” by the projected start date of 2019. It’s not clear to me if this includes the Uptown Line, which would conveniently have an endpoint at or near the Northwest Mall, which is given as one of the possible terminal locations for the Hempstead line. There is a slide with the title “Interim Terminal Bus Needs (Peak)”, which says two buses to the Galleria/Uptown area would be needed, so presumably at least at the outset the Uptown Line is not assumed to be in the mix.

I would think that having the Uptown Line running would have a positive effect on ridership projections – who wants to get stuck in traffic on a bus after getting off a commuter train? – but the study doesn’t explicitly mention that. What it does discuss is continuing the line into downtown, which would have a huge effect:

By 2035, the time reference used in the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s, regional transportation plan, the commuter service would see about 6,000 daily boardings without an extension to downtown.

If the track is extended, ridership is expected to jump to as many as 22,578 daily boardings by 2035.

I will note that the Super Neighborhood 22 comprehensive transportation plan explicitly discusses a commuter rail connection from Northwest Mall into downtown, so there is a basis for planning that extension. I’m sure the SN22 folks will be happy to talk to the GCRD about how this can be made to happen, with maybe a few of their other ideas thrown in for good measure.

Grand Parkway protest

From the inbox:

Misplaced priorities: $4.8 billion to advance SH-99 while US-290 commuters sit in traffic

Coalition to protest Grand Parkway as poster child of all that’s wrong with Texas transportation policy

(Houston, TX) – As TxDOT hosts the final public hearings on its Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) Wednesday, a broad coalition of groups will hold press events in two locations to challenge the misplaced priorities of the transportation agency.

While Harris County commuters suffer on 34 of the 100 most-congested roadways in the state, including US-290, the Texas Transportation Commission will squander our scarce tax dollars to fund the entire proposed 180-mile Grand Parkway around Houston.

TxDOT’s Commission voted on April 28, 2011 to make Grand Parkway Segment E a statewide “priority” and assigned ~$350 million of statewide discretionary funds to expedite construction. This April allocation increases TxDOT’s planned expenditures to more than $4.8 billion for the Grand Parkway over the next four years. The 41 planned expenditures affect all project segments (B, C, D, E, F1, F2, G, H, I1, and I2) except for A. The 180-mile project will skirt largely uninhabited and environmentally-sensitive areas. TxDOT’s John Barton described the Grand Parkway as “an opportunity to open up areas for development” in Northwest Harris County, subsidizing private land development, and inducing more new roadway congestion.

In contrast, TxDOT’s plan includes one-tenth that amount for US-290 projects, or just $468 million of the $2.3 billion needed for improvements TxDOT outlined in the US-290 Final Environmental impact Statement (FEIS). According to the Texas Transportation Insitute, US-290 is the 11th most-congested highway in the state, affecting more than 230,000 Houston-area commuters daily. Other than some initial work on the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT will mostly leave these taxpayers waiting for relief.

What: Press conference
Who: Coalition of grassroots organizations opposed to squandering scarce transportation dollars on the speculative Grand Parkway, including:
Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC), Houston Tomorrow, and Sierra Club
When: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm, immediately before TxDOT meeting
Where: Outside in front of TxDOT’s Houston District offices, 7600 Washington Ave., Houston, 77007 (map)

“TxDOT’s unelected Commissioners have ‘found’ billions for a speculative toll road that will destroy the Katy Prairie in order to subsidize a few private land developers. Meanwhile, a quarter million taxpaying commuters will sit in traffic on US-290 indefinitely. TxDOT’s gross misallocation of our tax dollars is appalling,” says Robin Holzer, board chair of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition (CTC).

For more on this misallocation and how TxDOT could better use our tax dollars, see David Crossley’s recent oped, “Let’s tell TxDOT where to spend its $350 million

See here for more. Be sure to attend the TxDOT public meeting today from 4 to 6 to give your feedback on this. It’s at the TxDOT – Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave.

How would you spend $350 million of TxDOT’s money?

David Crossley would like to know.

Let’s say you found $350 million to do a great transportation project for the Houston region. Would you use it to build a 400-foot-wide, 15-mile-long segment of brand-new highway across the Katy Prairie wetlands where almost no one lives or works in order to enable a lot of sprawling development (and some new flooding) for future residents? Or would you use it to, say, build commuter rail service along U.S. 290 to serve nearly a million people who live there today?

The reason I ask is that there’s a public meeting next week where you could go and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) what you think would be a good (or bad) use of that money. The information about that is at the end of this article.

Maybe you would tell them to use it to do a whole bunch of projects that we don’t otherwise have money for right now, like rebuild State Highway 6 and FM 1960 from I-10 to I-45? If you did all the proposals that are on the table for that corridor, you’d still have $315 million left. What then? Do 2920? 1488? Do all of them?

Crossley’s piece also appeared as an op-ed in the Chron. The $350 million figure of course comes from the money TxDOT magically found to pay for the Grand Parkway. (Remind me again why we have to vote to build light rail lines, but not new highways?) If you can think of something better to do with this money, here’s how to let TxDOT know:

[C]onsider going to TxDOT’s public meeting to talk about the 2011-2014 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) on Wed., May 25. The email I got says, “All interested citizens are invited to attend and express their views on the program.”

You can go here for meeting info and here to get deep information about the STIP. You will be amazed.

The meeting is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m at the TxDOT–Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave. Be sure to go and talk about how you would like TxDOT to spend that $350 million.

Or at least send some comments to Texas Department of Transportation, Attention: Lori Morel, 118 East Riverside Drive, Austin, Texas, 78704, or by email to Lori.Morel@txdot.gov. Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Monday, June 6, 2011. Department officials will be surprised, I bet.

You can also go to spend350million.org and leave a comment there. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Harris County CIP will ignore Hempstead managed lanes

Earlier this month, I blogged about the status of the US 290 expansion, for which TxDOT’s plan rested on the assumption that the Harris County Toll Road Authority would go forth with the construction of managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Well, Commissioners Court will be voting on their capital improvement plan (CIP) tomorrow, and the word is that the Hempstead lanes are out, and the Grand Parkway Segment E is in. From the CTC press release:

Harris County will vote Tuesday to drop funding for Hempstead Managed Lanes, pursue Grand Parkway development project instead


Citizens will ask for 290 traffic relief through Hempstead project

US-290 commuters who want relief must head downtown Tuesday morning to demand alternatives to increased congestion. Harris County Commissioners’ agenda includes a public hearing on the 2010/11 – 2014/15 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP):

9:00 am  Consideration of capital improvements for Harris County, Harris County Flood Control District, Port of Houston Authority of Harris County, and the Harris County Hospital District.

On Tuesday, Harris County residents will urge Commissioners not to waste resources on the speculative Grand Parkway real estate project while 250,000 US-290 commuters need the relief of the Hempstead Managed Lanes as soon as possible.

What:  Citizens urge Harris County Commissioners to fund Hempstead Managed Lanes before the speculative Grand Parkway

Who: Citizens’ Transportation Coalition http://ctchouston.org, and
Houston Tomorrow http://houstontomorrow.org

Where: 1001 Preston at Main St., 9th floor chamber, downtown Houston, 77002 (map)

When: Tuesday, June 22, 2010 at 9:00 am

Visuals: Harris County Court chamber, grassroots leaders

Background
trafficOn US-290 each workday, 250,000 commuters sit in traffic. US-290 is widely-recognized as the most-congested highway in the Houston region.

In 2007, TxDOT and Harris County released draft improvement plans for the US-290 corridor. These expansion plans include constructing new managed lanes, like the IH-10 Katy managed lanes, along Hempstead Highway from IH-610 out to Cypress and beyond. The plans repeatedly claim to the public that the Hempstead project will be constructed first, to give commuters new options, before TxDOT tears up US-290. The final plans, released in April 2010, still claim that the Hempstead lanes will come first.

Also in 2007, Harris County fought TxDOT for rights to develop the Hempstead project. With SB 792, the Texas Legislature granted the County exclusive rights to Hempstead. Only Harris County can build the Hempstead Managed Lanes.

Since then, TxDOT has designed $2.4 billion of improvements to US-290, but has no budget. Beyond reconstructing the US-290/IH-610 interchange, TxDOT has no funds on hand to add capacity to US-290 anytime soon.

In contrast, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) is flush with cash. According to the County Auditor’s revenue estimate, HCTRA expects to collect $470 million in tolls in 2010/11 and is sitting on another $423 million in cash. HCTRA has  $324 million for capital projectsbudgeted for 2010/11. They should be well-positioned to tackle the $2.2 billion Hempstead project.

Grand Parkway land for saleUnfortunately, it looks like 290 commuters won’t get any help from HCTRA, either. HCTRA’s capital plan includes no funds for the Hempstead relief project, but will spend $125 million for the Grand Parkway, a speculative toll road that will run through mostly-vacant and environmentally-sensitive areas of far northwest Harris County.

In fact, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) Harris County intends to spend $2.01 billion on Grand Parkway in the next four year, as reported in the draft 2011-2014 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). That’s nearly enough to complete the entire $2.2 billion Hempstead Managed Lanes project.

The County’s priorities are absurd when you consider that 384,000 people live in the US-290 corridor. In contrast, less than 15,000 live along segment E of the proposed Grand Parkway. It seems that Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and the Commissioners choose to subsidize developers of proposed new far-flung subdivisions rather than provide real mobility relief to current Harris County taxpayers. They obviously aren’t spending our money where the people are. To add insult to injury, new suburban development that follows the Grand Parkway will only make traffic worse on US-290.

The next time I hear some blowhard like Randal O’Toole yammer on about the evils of urban planning, I’d like to ask him what he’d call this. Be there and make your voice heard if you can.

What’s going on with US 290?

500px-US_290.svg

Last week, I wrote about the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that TxDOT has filed for its proposed expansion of US 290. This is a huge proposal, with a price tag of $4.6 billion if all of it gets done, and it’s one that has a number of unanswered questions, as the Citizens Transportation Coalition has documented. I had the opportunity later in the week to hear CTC Chair Robin Holzer give a presentation on the status of this project and the issues that they have raised, and it was quite enlightening. There’s a lot going on with this project that I wasn’t really aware of, having to do with things like the Hempstead managed lanes, grade separations, and commuter rail, and I feel like there hasn’t been that much in the news about it. So I figured I’d try to do my part by interviewing Holzer about the project. Here it is:

Download the MP3 file

The CTC has a useful overview page that summarizes the issues and questions that remain about the 290 project. It also includes the CTC presentation (large PDF) that I heard Holzer give. If you want to get up to speed on all this, check it out.

The 290 FEIS

The prep work for the expansion/overhaul of US290 is entering its final stages.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the proposed transportation improvements on the US 290/Hempstead Corridor is now available for review. The proposed US 290 Program Corridor begins at the IH 610/US 290/IH 10 Interchange in Houston, TX and extends northwestward to Farm-to-Market (FM) 2920 near Waller, TX for a distance of approximately 38 miles. The proposed enhancements include roadway improvements along a portion of US 290, construction of the new Hempstead Tollway and associated connections to IH 610 and IH 10 in Harris County.

All relevant documents are at that link. One reason why these things are made publicly available is so that all stakeholders can review them and offer feedback. The CTC has given the environmental impact statement a thorough going-over, and you can read their feedback here (large PDF). They pointed out a number of issues, not the least of which has to do with the proposed Hempstead Managed Lanes.

At face value, this project includes both expansion of the US-290 main lanes and also construction of new managed lanes along Hempstead Highway. Any reader of this FEIS is likely to assume that both 290 and Hempstead project elements will move forward in a coordinated fashion. In fact, TxDOT has repeatedly told the public that the Hempstead Managed Lanes will be constructed before US-290 construction begins, to give people travel options and minimize disruption during construction.

However, TxDOT only controls the US-290 portion of the project. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed SB 792, which specifically grants development rights for the Hempstead Managed Lanes to the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA). TxDOT has neither the authority nor the funding to develop this project.

This FEIS does not adequately reflect the separation of these two projects, nor does it address what happens if the County elects not to construct the Hempstead Managed Lanes. We urge FHWA to require TxDOT to prepare a supplemental FEIS which fully considers these impacts.

That’s quite a large assumption for this $4.6 billion project that involves taking a lot of property that hasn’t been addressed. One wonders where all those self-appointed Metro watchdogs are and why they’re not raising more of a fuss about that. Anyway, see what the CTC has to say, and we’ll see what if any response there is from the FHWA, which as we know is a lot easier to get money out of than the FTA.

The Hempstead line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

University Line FEIS filed

Again via Swamplot, here’s another Examiner story about the current state of light rail construction, in this case the University line.

The light rail alignment for Metro’s University route will require the acquisition of about 23 acres of land, much of it along Richmond Avenue, according to the final environmental impact study on the project.

“Potential acquisitions and displacement are expected at signalized intersections and at some transit stations,” the report said. “Every transit station located on the street will have a traffic signal. Additional right of way will be needed to accommodate left-turn lanes at key signalized intersections.”

The document shows the project will have an impact on 212 parcels of land, and 168 relocations of businesses and residences will be required.

You can see all of the FEIS documents here. This sounds like a lot, and rather predictably the story has inspired a ton of fear and loathing in the Swamplot comments. I figured it would be useful to ask someone who knows more about these things than I do, so I did. The following is from Christof Spieler:

The 23 acres (22.8, actually) is for the entire line. That includes some large but fairly inconsequential parcels: a TxDOT detention pond at Westpark Transit Center that METRO plans to build light rails storage tracks above while keeping the pond in service, empty land next to a Centerpoint substation at Newcastle and Westpark that’s intended for a park-and-ride lot, a strip of Robertson Stadium parking lot, and the Eastwood Transit Center, which, even though it’s already a METRO transit facility, is listed as property to be acquired (I’m assuming the land may be owned by TxDOT.)

The takings in the Weslayan to Main Street segment (Richmond Ave., Greenway Plaza, and the bridge over 59) are 6.3 acres. About 1.5 acres of that is a strip center on the south side of 59 opposite Cummins; METRO now shows acquiring the whole building and parking lot, not just the strip they need for the bridge.

Other changes from the DEIS (July 2007):

  • METRO has also added three parcels that they need for the boxes that supply power to the trains.
  • The Greenway stations has moved to Edloe, requiring some very thin strips of land (landscaping in from of office buildings).
  • The Dunlavy station was moved to east of Mandell (and renamed Menil Station) at the request of the Menil Foundation. That requires a strip of Menil-owned land on the north side of Richmond, plus some buildings on the northwest corner of Richmond/Mandell.

The rest of the takings are where the DEIS showed them, though sometimes they’ve gotten a bit bigger:

  • Strips of land between Kirby and Shepherd, where Richmond is at its narrowest. The only building that seems to be affected is the front edge of the VW dealership.
  • Strips around the Shepherd station. This affects some buildings on the south side of the street (plus one building on the north side, where a substation would go.)
  • Really small strips (2 to 4 feet, I think) around Woodhead and Dunlavy
  • Some significant strips and a full parcel at the Montrose station. This takes out part of the bank parking lot, businesses and an apartment building on the south side of Richmond between Graustark and Montrose, and several businesses on the south side of Richmond between Montrose and Stanford.
  • Shipley’s Donuts and a vacant lot at Wheeler.

This is obviously not painless. But it’s not a wholescale widening, either. Something like 2/3 of properties are completely unaffected and most of the properties that are affected lose only 2 or 4 feet.

Christof also helpfully included this map to show where property would be affected. I also got some feedback from Jay Crossley, who provided links and excerpts from the DEIS for the US 290 expansion and the Katy Freeway expansion to serve as points of comparison. From the former:

All of the proposed US 290, Hempstead Road, and IH 610 build alternatives would require residential, business, public facilities, utilities, and other relocations. Acquisition of ROW along US 290 and Hempstead Road would displace between 29 and 96 single-family residences, and between 98 and 206 multi-family residential units, respectively, depending on the alternative selected.

[…]

All US 290 alternatives would require relocations of two churches (St. Peter’s Anglican and St. Aidan’s Episcopal), a pipeline transfer facility, an area with Exxon Mobil pipeline equipment, and a United States Army Reserve Center. Hempstead Road Alternatives HR-A, HR-B, HR-C and HR-D would displace the Iglesia Pentecostes Mission Church. Alternatives HR-C and HR-E would require the relocation of the Christ Family Church.”

And from the latter:

“The Preferred Alignment Alternative would result in the displacement of approximately 871 businesses, 72 single-family units, 122 units in multi-family housing facilities, and two non-profit organization facilities.”

Obviously, these are bigger projects, and they’re not really comparable because of that. I include these to note that the kind of person who moans about what Metro is doing never seems to make much of a fuss about TxDOT.

Finally, there will still be opportunities to engage with Metro about what’s going on with the planning and construction. The following was sent to me from the University of Houston:

How will METRO’s new light rail lines along Scott and Wheeler affect you? What’s the good news? What’s the bad news?

METRO will detail its plans for the Southeast Line and the University Line in an information sharing session sponsored jointly by the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, and the Student Government Association.

Please come – Wednesday, January 27, 2010, 10 AM, Elizabeth Rockwell Pavilion, 2nd floor of M.D. Anderson Library.

As UH is a public university, this meeting is open to the public as well.

Grand Parkway will not get stimulus funds

As the Chron story headline says, it wasn’t so shovel-ready after all.

Harris County officials will request that $181 million in federal stimulus funding for portions of the county’s controversial Grand Parkway tollroad project be shifted to other projects, citing delays in obtaining federal permits that “might never be issued.“

This summer, the court approved the use of stimulus funds earmarked for Texas highway projects, declaring Segment E of the Grand Parkway outer loop project was closest to “shovel-ready“ status. The 15-mile portion of the road would link U.S. 290 with the Interstate 10 in west Harris County.

The stimulus money is supposed to be used for “shovel-ready” projects, or those that are closest to actual construction but awaiting funding to begin.

The recommendation to withdraw the project from the Texas Department of Transportation’s list of stimulus projects was made by Art Storey, who heads Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department. Storey declined to comment on his recommendation until it is considered at Harris County Commissioner Court’s meeting next Tuesday.

“Staff and consultants have worked diligently and successfully to be on schedule to meet the deadlines to enable Segment E construction to qualify for and receive the stimulus funding, but the federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot be completely processed by the required mid-February date,“ Storey said in a letter to the court. “In fact, because of conflicts over environmental impacts and mitigation, that permit might never be issued.”

Well, good, in the sense that this was bad public policy. Not so good in the sense that it’s a missed opportunity – surely there was something else we could have requested funds for instead. Too late now.

Commissioner Steve Radack, whose precinct contains the proposed roadway segment, described the loss of stimulus funds as “huge” development in the decades-long saga of the Grand Parkway project.

“When it comes to expecting Harris County to turn this into a shovel-ready project almost overnight, people need to realize that Harris County is a government, not a funeral home,” Radack said. “When it comes to getting any permits and working our way through any possible litigation, between federal permits and the lawsuits, it’s hard to calculate how many years something could be delayed.”

Um, whatever you say, Steve. Houston Tomorrow suggests a reason for the permitting issues.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) formally opposed the proposed Grand Parkway Segment E wetlands permit, according to the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition. Both agencies submitted comments to the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is considering the permit application.

The Segment E mitigation plan states that the project would impact 45.63 acres of wetlands, and it calls for the Harris County Toll Road Authority to purchase 23 acres of credits in the Katy Cypress Wetland Mitigation Bank and 22.63 acres in the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank.

However, FWS states that the project would impact a larger area, including areas outside the immediate right-of-way. In addition, the agency classifies the impacted wetlands as “medium quality,” while the mitigation plan calls them “low quality.” Medium quality wetlands require more mitigation than lower quality wetlands. In addition, FWS says it is “not appropriate” to use the Greens Bayou Wetland Mitigation Bank, which is 30 miles to the east of Segment E and in a separate watershed. Instead, the agency says that mitigation efforts should all be located in the Cypress Creek watershed.

I know Steve Radack will never believe this, but maybe this really was a bad idea that is getting the fate it deserves.

Stimulus funds and road projects

Stimulus funds are coming to a road that may be near you.

Texas received $2.25 billion from the stimulus for transportation. That’s on top of the $3 billion it got in federal highway funds this year. The regular federal allotment comes with restrictions. Certain percentages must go to improving safety, relieving air pollution and repairing bridges, for example.

The stimulus money has comparatively few restrictions.

Critics say decision-makers took the money and went on a lane-building binge — directing too much money to new roads, which will encourage more driving, and not enough to mass transit or repairing existing infrastructure.

“Widening roads ultimately gives rise to congestion,” said David Crossley, founder of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that explores urban growth. “They’re asking for more cars to drive on the roads.”

A little-known regional body, the Transportation Policy Council, decided how to spend most of the stimulus funds in the Houston area. The council represents the eight counties of the Houston metro region, and its 24 voting members are drawn from local governments and agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

It either chose stimulus projects directly or approved ones desired by TxDOT.

The stimulus has one big requirement: Projects must begin soon, to create jobs and boost the economy. The Transportation Policy Council focused on projects that were “shovel ready,” meaning the necessary government and environmental approvals were in place. After that, the council looked for projects that had been waiting a long time for funding.

[…]

The transportation money is just one stream of stimulus funds flowing into Houston. The Port of Houston got $98 million to dredge the Ship Channel. The Federal Transit Administration allocated $105 million for buses, light rail and Park & Ride lots. But that’s still less than the $181 million set aside to build a section of the Grand Parkway outer loop in an undeveloped part of west Harris County.

Except for the Grand Parkway and a road widening in Stafford, all 15 major road projects getting a boost from stimulus money will be fully funded by it. The Grand Parkway segment is estimated to cost $607 million, and some think that won’t be money well spent.

“There are no people out there,” said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

Holzer said the money should have been spent to relieve traffic on U.S. 290 or for commuter rail.

No question, spending stimulus funds on the Grand Parkway is a terrible idea; of course, the Grand Parkway itself is a terrible idea, but it’s one that has juice behind it. It’s a damn shame there wasn’t a better process in place, one that would have rejected this project for stimulus funding, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.

Smart Growth America, a national urban planning coalition, said Texas spent almost half its stimulus road funds on new roads or extra lanes. By contrast, Maryland and North Dakota spent all of theirs on maintenance. Studies show that repair work on roads creates 16 percent more new jobs, according to the coalition.

You can get that full report here. As we know, Metro will get a little bit of stimulus money. More would have been nice, but what really matters now is getting funding through the regular appropriations and approval process for the remaining light rail lines. If we can get that done, it’s all good.

Commissioners Court OKs Grand Parkway Segment E work

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved an agreement to build and maintain a segment of the Grand Parkway connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290, but questions over what would happen if the county ultimately decided the project was not financially viable could delay work indefinitely.

The agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation clearly states that Harris County would be reimbursed for its investment in Segment E of the proposed “outer outer” loop around Houston if another entity agreed to develop the entire 185-mile project.

But the agreement does not describe what would happen if the county decided not to build the segment after spending money on the segment and no one ever agreed to build the whole project.

After a lengthy discussion during Tuesday’s meeting, the court voted to accept the agreement anyway. But Commissioner Steve Radack said later he does not want the county to spend any money until he knows for sure who would reimburse those expenses and how quickly that would happen.

“I am not going to put $20 million-plus dollars worth of county money on a toll road roulette wheel,” he said after the meeting.

TxDOT spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis declined to speculate on whether the agency would agree to those terms.

In other words, it is unclear whether or not there’s a “No Backsies” policy in effect. May I suggest that when this inevitably winds up in court that the county retain Harvey Richards as their attorney?

On a more serious note, this vote went through despite there being numerous unanswered questions about the project’s financial viability, and the use of stimulus funds on a toll road.

Citizens’ Transportation Coalition chairwoman Robin Holzer said the county should not invest any more money in the segment until that study is completed.

“Harris County has a responsibility to every toll road user in our region to slow down and do this right,” said Holzer, whose mobility advocacy group argues that Segment E will do little to address pressing traffic concerns while helping developers get rich building sprawling subdivisions on the Katy Prairie.

Art Storey, the executive director of Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department, acknowledged that deadlines associated with accepting $181 million in stimulus funding for the project are prompting county leaders to move expeditiously. Construction must be completed within three years, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Storey said the county has been negotiating with TxDOT for permission to build the road since last June, hoping it would ease traffic on U.S. 290 by diverting some drivers to the expanded Katy Freeway.

“Stimulus money was not in anybody’s vocabulary when we asked for permission from Commissioners Court to negotiate with TxDOT,” Storey said. If anyone truly started moving more quickly after the stimulus money became available, it was TxDOT, he added. The $181 million allocation was among $1.2 billion in stimulus projects the Texas Transportation Commission approved last week.

[…]

The new “investment-grade” study would build upon similar but less detailed analyses conducted in 2004 and 2008 that showed the segment is toll-viable, meaning it would pay for itself over time. An investment-grade study involves an extensive analysis of local traffic and economic data to let potential investors know what kind of risk they would be taking.

Previous studies showed most of the other Grand Parkway segments would not be used enough individually to recoup the cost of building them. However, the entire project could be revenue neutral over the years if the highest-grossing segments subsidized the lowest-grossing ones, Storey said earlier this year.

The real question is whether existing toll roads such as the Westpark or the Sam Houston would be used to cover any shortfalls on the Grand Parkway. “Could be revenue neutral over the years” leaves an awful lot of room for things to not go as hoped, after all.

Grand Parkway Segment E gets a go-ahead

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved an agreement to build and maintain a segment of the Grand Parkway connecting the Katy Freeway and U.S. 290, but questions over what would happen if the county ultimately decided the project was not financially viable could delay work indefinitely.

The agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation clearly states that Harris County would be reimbursed for its investment in Segment E of the proposed “outer outer” loop around Houston if another entity agreed to develop the entire 185-mile project.

But the agreement does not describe what would happen if the county decided not to build the segment after spending money on the segment and no one ever agreed to build the whole project.

Here’s a copy of the agreement (large PDF), which I got via an email sent from Robin Holzer to members of the CTC. She states:

The agreement stipulates that Harris County will be responsible for funding right-of-way acquisition, engineering and design, utility work, environmental studies and mitigation, compliance with TAS and ADA, and any other aspect of the project not mentioned in attachment D. According to this agreement Harris County will be on the hook for the entire estimated project cost in excess of $500 million.

Before voting Cmr. Steve Radack pushed staff to clarify the County’s financial obligations saying, “I don’t want Harris County tax payers to be out one penny on this project.” He asked what happens if the County moves forward on segment E but decides not to finish the project.

Attorney Bob Colley, who worked on the agreement for the County, explained that the County will only be reimbursed for segment E costs if TxDOT or another entity ultimately assumes responsibility for it and the entire Grand Parkway. If HCTRA develops segment E and no one takes it over, the County will be out the entire cost.

Commissioners also clarified the County’s obligations stemming from this agreement. In conclusion, today’s vote allows the County to pursue segment E, but does not obligate the County to begin spending money on it.

Emphasis in original. That’s a lot of money hanging on a what-if, isn’t it?

Back to the Chron:

About 10 representatives from environmental and neighborhood groups that oppose the project spoke against it during Tuesday’s meeting, calling it a magnet for sprawl that will be too far north to have much of an impact on U.S. 290 traffic. They said the court should use the money to build commuter rail or toll lanes on the freeway instead.

A detailed list of reasons why this isn’t such a hot idea can be found in this post from last year, when this project was fast-tracked. I agree with the point Jay Crossley made in the comments to that post, which is that this represents urban planning in another form. Somehow, though, those who object to that idea don’t ever seem to have a problem with it when it’s done this way.