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Westpark

Feds rescind Universities line funding

Not a surprise at this point.

A proposal for a light rail line along Richmond Avenue, long left for dead because of strong opposition and years of languishing, has lost its shot now for funding from the Federal Transit Administration.

In a letter released Friday by U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, FTA associate administrator Lucy Garliauskas confirmed federal money is no longer available for the University Line light rail project “due to inactivity and lack of demonstrated progress on the project’s design and local financial commitment over the last several years.”

Culberson, a long-time opponent of the line proposed in his west Houston district because it runs along Richmond, applauded the decision.

“My primary responsibilities as a congressman include protecting the taxpayers and protecting the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” Culberson said in a statement.

[…]

The effect is limited, however, because the University Line plan had been bogged down for years, and could be revived at any time should Metropolitan Transit Authority restart the process and gain voter approval for more transit funding.

Metro officials received notice of the funding recision earlier this month, spokesman Jerome Gray said.

“I am not sure it does anything with the project because the project was dormant,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

[…]

Culberson and Metro officials last year came to an agreement that any further rail development using federal funds in the Houston region first will go back to the voters. If Metro receives approval and the local money needed, transit officials could go back to Washington looking for funding.

Patman, who took over as Metro chairwoman last month, said inaction on the University Line should not be construed as the end of a broader discussion about better transit in Montrose and along U.S. 59.

“A corridor between downtown and the Galleria and Post Oak is a priority, and I expect that to be a part of the regional transportation plan,” Patman said, referring to Metro’s interest in assessing area-wide bus and rail needs. “We are looking at alternatives, of course, to going down Richmond… And we’re looking at what mode would be best.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the Culberson/Metro peace accord, which was announced just over a year ago. Because of the terms of that agreement, Metro was always going to have to go back to the voters to get a Universities line going, and in fact then-Metro Chair Gilbert Garcia, who negotiated the treaty with Culberson, was already talking about a sequel to the 2003 rail referendum. New Chair Carrin Patman has also spoken of a need to go back to the voters for more bonding authority. If I had to guess, such a vote is a couple of years out, almost certainly after Mayor Turner has had one to repeal or modify the revenue cap. When that happens, if it passes, Metro will have to start from scratch, including the designation of an actual route, but given how old the existing work was by now, that’s probably for the best anyway. I choose not to cry over spilled milk but to work for a better outcome next time.

Two things to think about as we look towards that hoped-for future day. First, here’s a Google Earth view of the area around Westpark at Newcastle:

Westpark at Newcastle

Westpark at Newcastle

The original Universities line route had shifted over to Westpark at Timmins, so the line was on Westpark at this point, and there would likely have been a stop at Newcastle. (My in-laws live near there, so I’m quite familiar with this area.) Notice all the apartments west of Newcastle and south of Westpark, as well as the HCC campus. Those would all be easily accessible from a train station at Westpark and Newcastle, except for one tiny thing: There’s no sidewalk on Newcastle south of Westpark. Any pedestrians would have to walk in the street, which is a two-lanes-each-way thoroughfare, or on the grass. Once you cross into the city of Bellaire, just south of Glenmont Drive, there’s a beautiful, wide sidewalk that’s basically a hike-and-bike trail that goes all the way to Braeswood, but until you get there you’re on your own if you’re on your feet. What you could do is move the fence back ten feet or so on the empty lot on the south side of Newcastle – I suspect this is Centerpoint property; the lot on the north side of Newcastle has power grid equipment on it – and build a nice sidewalk there to at least get you to Pin Oak Park, which has its own sidewalks and can get you to the other places from there. The Westmore apartment complex between Pin Oak Park and Glenmont fronts on the street so you’d have to close off a lane on Newcastle to extend this hypothetical sidewalk further, but it’s not like this is a heavily-trafficked section of road. It’s all doable if one has eminent domain power and a reason to take action. If we’re going to talk about near-future rail referenda and Universities Line 2.0, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this sort of thing as well.

Second, among the things that Culberson and Metro agreed upon last year were the following:

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

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

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

Anyone know if any of these things are happening or have happened? I would hate to think that Congressman Culberson has not kept his word. An update on these items would be nice to hear.

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.

Culberson says he’s killed the University Line

And maybe he has, though it wasn’t going anywhere at this time anyway.

Residents and business owners along Richmond Avenue are breathing a sigh of relief — at least for now — as U.S. Rep. John Culberson has had his way, quashing federal funding for light-rail along Richmond, west of Shepherd, and on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond. Rail proponents on the other hand will be disappointed to hear that Culberson succeeded in getting the key amendment tacked onto the transportation leg of the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill recently passed by the Senate.

“I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” Culberson told CultureMap following a fundraising luncheon at Tony’s, which not so coincidentally is located on Richmond.

Culberson trumped METRO in his long-running feud with the local transportation agency. He has been threatening and attempting to get his law passed for several years. “It’s a permanent federal statutory law. So it’s a felony if any governmental entities attempt to spend any federal money to push rail on those routes,” he said.

METRO board chairman Gilbert Garcia called the move “very disappointing.” He noted, however, “This is not our focus. We’ve got a full plate right now and we are not taking steps to complete the University Line. First and foremost, we want to complete the other two lines, get time under them.”

The water is muddy on the potential for future federal monies for rail along Richmond and Post Oak Boulevard. Culberson says the federal funding prohibition is permanent. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond,” he said.

I’m pretty sure Culberson, who tried this trick before, does not have the power to tell future Congresses what they can and cannot do. Congress will pass other budget and appropriations bills after this one, so some pro-University Line member of Congress, like maybe Rep. Ted Poe, could get an amendment in there to undo what Culberson did. Doing something is certainly harder than stopping something that hasn’t been done, so Culberson has the advantage now, but it’s not the final word. Despite his protestations about the popularity of rail on Richmond, opposing its construction has not been an electoral winner in the precincts along the proposed line. Perhaps this will galvanize rail proponents and they will help defeat Culberson in an election; a future Republican primary is the more likely path for that, but anything could happen. Perhaps Metro and the other stakeholders will get tired of Culberson’s act and find their own funding. The options aren’t great, but they never have been. The point is that the fight isn’t over just because Culberson says it is.

One more thing:

Not completely opposed to rail, Culberson noted that he has already begun working with Congressman Al Green on possible rail connections from Fort Bend County and that he would support the US 90A southwest rail corridor. On another potential east-west light rail route, Culberson said, “West Park would be perfect. They have the right of way.”

That was news to Garcia. “We would welcome him to shift his approach,” Garcia said. “That would be new information to me. If he told you that, that would be great.”

I suspect Culberson is peddling snake oil here, but let’s take him at his word for the sake of argument. Westpark only runs as far east as Kirby, and east of Shepherd you’re literally in people’s backyards. How do you connect the east end of the line at Montrose to the proposed Westpark part of it? That subject came up in 2006 and the non-Richmond options generated a lot of neighborhood opposition as well as some creative but impractically expensive solutions. Even if there is an affordable way to do this that the area residents would support, the simple fact remains that Richmond is where the people are, and Westpark isn’t. Getting to Richmond from Westpark or vice versa means walking under US59, which is not terribly appealing from a pedestrian perspective. Putting it another way, rail on Westpark will have lower ridership and thus be less useful. Why would we want to do that? If the choice truly is “Westpark” or nothing, then “Westpark” is better, warts and all. I see no harm in Gilbert Garcia giving Culberson a call and seeing if he’s willing to put some money where his big mouth is. I don’t think he means it, and even if he does I don’t think it’s the right answer, as I don’t think this fight is over. But let’s go ahead and find out, so we at least know what’s on the table. Link via Swamplot.

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.

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

I feel like I’ve heard all this before.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bellaire “urban transit village”

Very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uptown agitation

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A bunch of business owners along a proposed light rail corridor are upset with Metro.

Business owners along Post Oak Boulevard met for about two hours Thursday in an effort learn about — and block — plans for a Metro light rail line that would run in front of their businesses.

After the gathering, many left Kenny & Ziggy’s Deli, 2327 Post Oak, expressing what attorney Chris Begala described as “disappointment, even shock.”

Begala, who organized the meeting on behalf of his client and relatively new Post Oak tenant Jim “Mattress Mack” MacIngvale, characterized those attending as “like-minded people,” who feel the Metropolitan Transit Authority is going beyond what it has been charged to do.

“They (business owners) are going to raise the bar, raise awareness,” he said, of the group’s plans.

More info about the Uptown line design is here. While the story focuses on what Metro is doing, it’s the Uptown Management District that has done the design work on this. There are no quotes in the story from anyone associated with the UMD, or with Metro for that matter, so it’s hard to objectively evaluate the complaints from this story. On Monday, I will publish an interview with UMD President John Breeding, in which we discuss this story and what their plans are for Post Oak. I hope that will help to clear this up a bit.

One thing to add is that Chris Begala was one of the anti-Richmond agitators, and he took that act up to the North Line back in 2007, with little effect. He can talk all he wants about blocking the Uptown line, but the fact remains that this was voted on in the 2003 referendum, and they’re not even claiming some bogus “The ballot said Westpark!” logic to claim that the line isn’t supposed to be built where Metro is planning it. If the goal here is to get Metro and the UMD to do a better job of communicating with them about their plans, then I wish them all the luck in the world and I expect them to be successful. If they think they can actually stop this, I have no idea what legal justification they think they have for that. Thanks to Swamplot for the link.

Bellaire officially opposes Dynamo Westpark Stadium

Bellaire City Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday night that opposes the construction of a Dynamo Stadium on Westpark.

“To ignore it and not speak up for our residents would be the wrong thing to do,” said Mayor Cindy Siegel, after introducing the resolution, which stated:

“Whereas, the proposed Midway stadium site is not compatible with the existing Bellaire and Houston residential neighborhoods that surround this site and would negatively impact their quality of life with significant noise, traffic gridlock, cut-through traffic, event parking on the CenterPoint Energy easement immediately adjacent to Bellaire and Houston homes’ backyards, and overflow event parking on Bellaire and Houston residential neighborhood streets.”

The council vote came on the heels of continued negative reaction from residents after news of the Midway proposal surfaced in late January.

“The Dynamo stadium in that area would be a logistical nightmare,” said resident Cynthia Freeman to the council.

Councilman Will Hickman said he conducted a survey of 110 residents on the issue and revealed that 89 percent of the respondents oppose any stadium plan near city limits.

Mayor Siegel was an early opponent of this idea. The proposed location is outside the Bellaire city limits so the resolution has no force, but it is a pretty clear expression of what the locals want. Given that the folks on the East End are strongly in favor of the original downtown stadium idea, perhaps this will give that project another nudge. Dynamo President Oliver Luck certainly hasn’t given up on that.

Dynamo President Oliver Luck said the council’s resolution doesn’t change his thinking because he is already trying to make the downtown site work.

“We won’t say no to any other reasonable proposals until we have a shovel in the ground but certainly the East End has been our focus,” Luck said.

So you’ve got one location for which nearly all of the pieces are in place and there’s community support, and another location that would have to start from scratch and overcome opposition from its closest neighbors. Makes you wonder why we’re even having this conversation, doesn’t it? Instant News Bellaire has more.

“There’s no such thing as a project like this without public money”

Dynamo President Oliver Luck throws a little cold water on the claims that a Westpark Stadium could be built exclusively with private funding.

“We have not been presented a plan by the Midway Companies,” Luck said. “I can’t say whether there’s ‘no public money’ involved.

“We (the Dynamo) won’t talk to the city or county about this deal — we have pushed that responsibility to Midway. We know what our conditions are, and basically, it’s replicating the financial structure of the downtown deal. That’s sort of a threshhold question. If they can do that, we’ll go ahead. If they can’t, it won’t happen.”

[…]

Midway recently completed a major mixed-use development in the Memorial area, City Centre, where there is a TIRZ — a tax increment reinvestment zone — in place with the city of Houston, that reinvests some property taxes into infrastructure improvements to help spur development.

Sources familiar with the Midway proposal say it is relying on extending a similar TIRZ in the Uptown/Galleria area, which ends at Highway 59, to encompass the Midway property south of Westpark.

That was news to John Breeding, who serves as executive director of both the Uptown TIRZ and Uptown Development Authority, who said neither agency is involved and is waiting to hear more.

Which comes around, again, to Oliver Luck, who knows a thing or two about stadiums from his four years as CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “There’s always infrastructure involved, public services that need to be provided,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a project like this without public money.”

Well, yeah. As I’ve said all along, it’s a matter of how much money the city and maybe the county would have to invest to make this happen, and whether or not that would wind up being less than what the East End stadium would require. Until there’s a real proposal on the table, we can’t make that evaluation. In the meantime, claims about “private financing” just distort the picture.

It should also be noted that the East End stadium deal is much farther along, and really just needs buy in from County Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia. That deal could be completed quickly if they signed off on it. Residents in the area, who are facing the prospect that the city might view the location as suitable for a new jail facility if the stadium deal falls through, are pushing for it to get done. There’s no organized opposition to the East End proposal, while the Westpark concept would have to overcome pushback from Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel and possibly others. The bottom line is that if any stadium deal happens, the East End is still the heavy favorite to be the choice. David Ortez has more.

Finally, on a related note, freshman Bellaire City Council Member Corbett Parker, who has expressed support for the Westpark location and who is a friend of Oliver Luck, explains his relationship with Luck and the Dynamo.

Bellaire versus Westpark Stadium

Still more on the proposed Westpark location for Dynamo Stadium: The Mayor of Bellaire doesn’t like the idea.

[Bellaire Mayor Cindy] Siegel has scheduled an executive session of the Bellaire City Council Monday following the 7 p.m. State of the City address and indicated she’s optimistic other councilmembers will join her in opposing the 20,000-seat stadium that would reportedly double as a concert venue and feature a 3,000-vehicle parking structure.

“I would hope council would see the negative impact and would listen to residents, who I’m already hearing from by e-mail,” Siegel told the Examiner.

In that interview, she called the plans by the Midway Companies “a betrayal of the vision” that had been worked out among Bellaire, Metro, Thompson + Hanson Nursery and Midway. Those parties had funded an architect’s conceptual plan for a transit-oriented development at the location, in the southwest corner of the 610/59 intersection, bordered on the north by Westpark Drive.

But [County Commissioner Steve] Radack says Bellaire doesn’t have to sign off on the deal, and that he sees support for the private funding.

“Bellaire does not have jurisdiction over any of this…If this deal gets worked out then there will be a whole lot of citizens a lot happier by seeing private money being spent than public money being spent,” he told the Examiner’s Steve Mark.

Sounds an awful lot like Radack is telling Siegel to sit down and shut up. It’s true that this location is not inside Bellaire, but it’s right next to the boundary line, and for sure a stadium there would have an effect, mostly negative, on Bellaire. Mayor Siegel’s letter to Midway CEO Brad Freels lays it out:

Quite frankly, Brad, I have to tell you that I was blindsided by your company’s proposal to use your land at S. Rice and Westpark for a Dynamo stadium. This proposal is completely contrary to what was envisioned for the transit oriented development that included your property and the Bellaire Research and Development District (RDD) when Bellaire, Metro, Thompson and Hanson, and Midway shared the cost of an architect to develop a conceptual plan for a transit oriented development at this location. As I have stated at every joint meeting that your company has attended with Metro and City of Bellaire officials – our primary concern has always been to protect the integrity of the Bellaire residential neighborhood directly south of this site, in addition to protecting the interests of the Bellaire property owners in the RDD.

In reviewing your plans further over the weekend and driving by the site Monday during the day and rush hour traffic in the evening. I cannot see any benefit to locating a soccer stadium (that would also be used as an outdoor entertainment facility) at your site. I believe strongly that the proposed stadium site on your property has serious limitations and will have an extremely negative impact to the residential Bellaire and Houston neighborhoods that adjoin your property and the RDD. As we discussed, the S. Rice and Westpark intersection already experiences significant delays due to traffic backups. (This traffic problem has been discussed several times in prior meetings regarding the placement of a Metro Rail transit station here.) Additionally, traffic backs from Fournace on the 610 Feeder road up to Westpark daily during evening rush hour. A stadium at this site would just increase exponentially what is already a significant traffic problem!

Additionally, there is an existing traffic problem at the 610 and 59 interchange that has been a tremendous drain on emergency personnel responding to accidents that would be compounded further if the stadium was built on your site. Bellaire and Houston emergency personnel (but primarily Bellaire) already respond s several times a day to accidents at this location. To add stadium traffic to what is already a horrible problem would be a financial and manpower resource burden that Bellaire cannot accommodate.

My in-laws live near there, so I can attest to the traffic issues in that area from personal experience. I do think that the University line will help to abate that somewhat, but it won’t be enough. Besides, last I checked that area wasn’t very walkable, so either parking is going to have to be right there, or a whole lot of money is going to have to be spent on infrastructure improvements. In response, Freels and Radack appear to be telling Mayor Siegel that she shouldn’t worry her little head about it.

The Midway site is in Radack’s Precinct 3.

“I think that that (Midway) area needs a shot in the arm and I believe when the Dynamo are playing, it’s not peak times for traffic,” Radack said.

Freels made much the same point.

“I think when she understands the plan in toto she’ll embrace it,” Freels said. “I wish she would have full information before she makes full judgment.”

Well, maybe if fuller information were available, we could all make fuller judgments, but how much more do you need to know to say this is going to affect traffic in that area? As for Radack’s pronouncement, looking through Dynamo schedules for past years (the 2010 schedule hasn’t been published yet), they have played most of their games on weekends. I don’t know if that’s been to accommodate UH, or if that’s just the norm. If that’s how it would be going forward, then it would lessen the impact somewhat, but the inclusion of retail properties on the site would have the opposite effect. Again, until someone does a study and produces a report, we’re all just guessing. I do remain convinced that none of this can happen without some public money being spent to improve the infrastructure around Midway, and as I said before, it’s not at all clear to me that this site would require less public spending than the east downtown one. It’s just too early to say. More on this from the Examiner here, with video from KTRK.

UPDATE: Bellaire City Council Member Corbett Parker has more.

More on the Dynamo’s Westpark option

Here’s an updated version of the earlier story about the Houston Dynamo and the possibility of their stadium being built on Westpark.

“The deal downtown started stalling a little bit. We started wondering if that stadium could make sense at this property,” said Brad Freels, chairman and CEO of Midway.

Freels envisions a 21,000-seat soccer and concert arena as part of a multi-use project on 30 acres the company owns at the intersection of Westpark Toll Road and South Rice. The property is just west of the 610 Loop, about a mile south of the Galleria.

Mayor Annise Parker said she has been briefed on the plan.

“It is a completely privately financed alternative, which I’m glad to see on the table,” she said. “This is an excellent option that takes the city taxpayers largely or completely out of the loop on this.”

Parker noted that the city would consider contributing infrastructure work or tax abatements to the Midway development, just as it would any other large project.

The main difference seems to me to be that the land for the downtown site was bought by the city, while this site is owned by Midway. I feel confident that it’s still the case that the city would need to contribute in some form, as noted by Mayor Parker. It’s just a question of how much, and as I said before I think traffic will be a bigger issue at this location, so the infrastructure work may well be more expensive as well. I hope we get a handle on that before any commitments are made.

The Dynamo contemplate their options

Is the future of Dynamo Stadium on Westpark? Could be.

Dynamo President Oliver Luck is in talks with a developer about building a soccer stadium on private land about a mile south of the Galleria.

The Dynamo have not abandoned plans to build on a 12 acres of city-owned land downtown, Luck said.

But the Midway Companies approached Luck recently with a concept that would put the stadium in the midst of a 30-acre mixed-used development just west of Loop 610.

“They have not yet presented a full-blown plan to us,” Luck said. “It’s an interesting location and certainly worth looking at.”

Swamplot had the first inklings of this, while Miya, Prime Property, and Hair Balls have more. The good news is that this location appears to be near a University Line station. The bad news is that vehicular access is pretty limited, and I would expect traffic getting in and out to suck. I’d call this better than nothing, but not better than the downtown location. If as Hair Balls indicates, however, that Commissioners Court considers this to be the city’s baby and not any of their business, then it may get serious consideration. I just wonder, if it comes to that, how much money the city and/or county will have to spend at that location to make it viable, not just for a soccer stadium but for that 30-acre mixed use development. The roads are narrow, there are no sidewalks, and I’d bet drainage will be an issue. Midway CEO Brad Freels may say he likes doing things through the private sector, but I don’t see him putting up the cash to fix those things. I think it’s fair to wonder not just if this is a better deal for the Dynamo, but if this is any better a deal for Houston and Harris County than downtown would be.

Anti-Metro amendment officially dead

Good.

State lawmakers today voted unanimously to kill a provision that could have complicated the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light-rail plans.

The House removed language from a local transportation bill for Austin that would have put limits on Metro’s authority to acquire property through condemnation.

Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, quietly placed the provision in the bill, apparently at the request of rail critics who contend that a 2003 referendum didn’t specify that a portion of the planned University Line would run on Richmond rather solely on Westpark.

Technically, it was one critic, though as has been suggested to me I’m sure there were others behind him. Way to operate in the daylight, y’all. But then that’s been the hallmark of rail opponents around here, going back to Texans for True Mobility in the 2003 referendum, and no doubt much farther than that. No surprise there at all.

Would-be Metro killer outs himself

I had wondered who was behind that anti-Metro amendment from the weekend. Now I know.

A local light rail opponent claimed credit Tuesday for working with an El Paso legislator to try to block Metro’s ability to build the University Line along Richmond Avenue.

Don Hooper, who owns property along the thoroughfare, said he persuaded Democratic state Rep. Joe Pickett to amend a bill involving Austin’s transit agency last week.

The amendment would prevent Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority from using condemnation powers to acquire land needed for the proposed line running from the University of Houston through downtown to near Westpark and U.S. 59.

Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, did not return calls for comment Tuesday. But other legislators and Metro officials confirmed that the amendment — which now looks unlikely to pass — would have posed a big threat to Metro’s plans for four new lines.

[…]

Houston-area lawmakers and Metro lobbyists worked over the weekend to block the amendment.

State Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, said Tuesday that Pickett had agreed to pull his amendment, which had been attached to a bill allowing Austin’s transit agency to hire officers to catch fare evaders.

By late Tuesday, the bill still contained Pickett’s amendment, but it hadn’t been placed on the local and consent calendar — a crucial step in getting the bill to a floor vote. As a backup, the part affecting Austin was added to a separate Texas Department of Transportation measure, so if the bill fails Austin’s agency can still hire fare enforcement officers.

I reported that on Monday. SB1263 is on the Local, Consent, and Resolutions calendar for today. The bill text still has the offending amendment in it, but that likely doesn’t mean anything at this point. Still, vigilance is called for, so keep making those phone calls.

So what we had here was one dude laying a bunch of baloney on a legislator from outside Houston who didn’t know any better, and in the process nearly sinking a huge project that had been approved by the voters. I suppose the fact that it won’t happen should be a sign that the system works, but that’s pretty cold comfort. And in the irony department, a Metro Solutions News Flash that touted the Saturday days of wine and roses editorial hit my inbox yesterday afternoon, with nary a mention of Hooper’s assassination attempt. Way to communicate, guys! Though I suppose there are days when the head-in-the-sand approach has its merits. The idea is that if you do that, whatever’s bothering you will go away, right? Maybe they’re onto something after all.

Anti-Metro amendment removed

I’m pleased to report that the anti-Metro amendment that was in SB1263 has been removed. I am told that Rep. Ellen Cohen discussed the matter with Rep. Pickett, who agreed to remove the Houston-specific language. This is great news, not just for the fate of the Universities line, but as Christof notes, for the rest of the system:

Item (1) [of the original amendment] does not actually apply to the University Line, since there was no route set for the University Line before the referendum. But it does apply to the North Line (which was shifted from Irvington to Fulton at the request of neighborhood groups) and the Southeast Line (which was shifted from Scott to MLK, again at neighborhood request.)

Item (2) applies to every single one of the lines. METRO’s ballot named lines and described end points; it did not call out every street a line would run on. It was not required to, and METRO had not yet done studies on all of the lines.

So this legislation would [have stopped] all property acquisition on all 5 new lines immediately.

Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and for that I thank Rep. Cohen for taking the lead and to Rep. Pickett for listening to reason. (The text of SB1263 has not been updated on the Texas Legislature Online site, but I have been assured that the offending will be removed.) What this shows to me – again! – is that there’s never been a difference between the anti-rail-on-Richmond forces and the opposition to the 2003 referendum. The only constituency that could credibly claim to be anti-Richmond-but-pro-Westpark, and only interested in that, were the people in Afton Oaks, and they got what they wanted. Everyone else involved in this has been dedicated to doing whatever it takes to stop rail in Houston. The will of the people doesn’t matter to them. Clearly, we can’t rest easy till everything has been built.

Anyway. Even without Rep. Pickett’s change of stance, it’s possible this bill won’t make it onto the calendar before tomorrow’s deadline for the House to approve Senate bills, so one way or another this crisis will be averted. I’d still like to know who it was that got to Rep. Pickett and filled him full of lies, but I suppose we never will learn their identities. I do plan to hold this incident up as a shining example of the anti-Metro forces’ hypocrisy the next time I see someone complain about the agency acting in a secretive manner. I’m sure it won’t be long before that happens.

Westpark zealots try to pull a fast one

Just yesterday, the Chron wrote an editorial about how everything was coming up roses and daffodils for Metro lately, thanks to some federal funding (with more in the pipeline) for the light rail expansion and a generally favorable political climate. So naturally, what do we see today but this article about a sneak attack in the Lege on the Universities line.

The proposal, which still faces an uphill battle in the final days of the legislative session, was quietly attached last week to a loosely related bill by House lawmakers.

“It effectively kills the light rail program,” said George Smalley, Metro’s vice president for communications and marketing.

The new restrictions, if enacted, would limit the agency’s eminent domain authority, needed to buy property for the rail lines, if a route differs from the 2003 referendum that authorized the light rail program.

The restrictions mirror the rhetoric of rail critics, who say the location of the controversial University Line down Richmond and Westpark doesn’t conform to the referendum.

“If you lose a line like the University Line because you lost the power of condemnation, then the whole thing is at grave risk,” Smalley said.

[…]

State Rep. Joe Pickett, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he added the new restrictions at the request of rail critics by amending another bill, which regulated fare enforcement by mass transit agencies.

The El Paso Democrat said they convinced him that the transit agency hadn’t complied with the referendum. He said he hadn’t talked with the agency, though, before adding the language.

At issue is whether it’s lawful to build a line partially on Richmond when the ballot described it as being on Westpark.

The agency says the largest share of the line would, in fact, be on Westpark, adding that the ballot referred to a general location, the details of which should be based on federally required cost and ridership studies. Those indicate that a segment should be on Richmond.

Pickett said he is open to changing the language.

“If … they intend to meet their promise that they made, then they shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “It was pretty clear that there was a referendum that did state where (the line) was going, and we were just asked to ratify that.” The legislation came to light just as agency officials were hopeful that, after years of debate and uncertainty, they would have the funding and political support to move forward.

So once again, the people who lost the election and whose lawsuit is currently going nowhere have shown that they will do anything to overturn the will of the people and stop light rail in Houston. I’m amazed that they were able to influence Rep. Pickett, and appalled that he couldn’t have been bothered to at least ask Metro for a response. I’m sorry, but that’s just ignorant. Clearly, Rep. Pickett needs to hear from some people who are not anti-Metro crusaders. Feel free to give his office a call and tell him – politely! – that you support light rail in Houston, that you support Metro’s current expansion plans as they now stand, and that you oppose any effort by the Legislature to affect those plans. His Austin office number is (512) 463-0596 and his district office number is (915) 590-4349. If you do make a call, leave a comment here and tell us what kind of response you got. Thanks very much.

The bill in question is SB1263. Here’s the committee substitute version of the bill. The relevant text is the underlined section that begins “This subsection applies only to an authority created under Chapter 451, Transportation Code, that operates in an area in which the principal municipality has a population of 1.9 million or more.” You could mention that you oppose this amendment that’s been added to the committee substitute version of SB1263 when you call Pickett’s office.

By the way, there’s a real irony here in a sneak attack, made behind closed doors with no public input or notice, on an agency that’s often criticized for not operating in a transparent manner. I daresay some of the people who are behind this covert operation have been quoted in the Chronicle at one time or another berating Metro for not being more open about what it’s doing. And yet here they are, skulking through a back door, without the rest of us even having any idea who’s behind it. Way to go, y’all.

The good news is that Houston lawmakers are not going to take this lying down.

The bill had been planned for a local and consent calendar reserved for non-controversial or limited measures that draw little debate, perhaps on Wednesday. But the controversy appeared likely to force the measure to be considered like any other complex legislation.

With only a week left in the session, and with hundreds of bills in line for consideration, the bill might never get a vote.

Several lawmakers have also said they would fight any attempt to tie the agency’s hands.
“I’ve got my eye on it,” said state Rep. Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, who predicted that the bill wouldn’t survive in its current form.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also planned to investigate the issue, saying that prohibiting the agency’s eminent domain powers “would prevent the common good.”

“I’ll get after it with all my might,” he said. “I’m a great supporter. Rail is a vital component of our future and our transportation system.”

That’s nice to hear. It would also be a good idea to call your own Rep and Senator and tell them you oppose Pickett’s amendment that removes Metro’s eminent domain power in the committee substitute for SB1263. Especially with all that’s going on right now in the House, let’s take nothing for granted.

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.