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White Oak Bayou

Two views of the flood bond referendum

View One, from Joe B. Allen and Jim Blackburn: Vote for it because there’s no real alternative.

Proposition A — the proposal to allow Harris County to issue $2.5 billion in flood control bonds — will be on the ballot in Harris County on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. We agree that this bond issue is essential to the future of our community.

[…]

With the passage of $2.5 billion in bonds and an estimated $7.5 billion in matching federal funds, HCFCD would be able to spend $1 billion per year for the next 10 years on flood management. This will not solve all of our drainage problems, but it would represent a dramatic improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced funding for four federally approved and permitted projects: Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. All four projects have a significant local match requirement. If the bonds are approved, these projects could start immediately.

[…]

There is no Plan B. Either this bond election passes or the current flooding conditions continue. The world watched as we came together to help one another in the aftermath of Harvey. Now is the time to come together to show the world that we are willing and able to solve major problems to ensure the long-term success of the place we proudly call home.

We plan to vote FOR Prop. A, and we urge you to do the same. Early voting begins Aug. 8.

Jim Blackburn is a well-respected and very outspoken authority on flooding and related environmental matters, so his endorsement of the referendum carries a lot of weight.

View Two, from Roger Gingell: More flood detention basins, please!

If voters approve Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood control bonds, the County Flood Control District will have more than 41 times its annual budget to spend on flood mitigation. That’s great news if the money is used wisely.

A wise use of the bond money would include water detention basins in neighborhoods that flood, built on land already owned by the public.

Recently, myself and a few others had a private showing of the flood bond proposals for our older neighborhoods in Spring Branch. A friendly gentleman from Flood Control showed us a map with purple circles and green triangles representing projects. If you are lucky, your neighborhood is awarded a purple circle which represents a bigger project. A green triangle on the other hand could be just a tiny, micro-project like fixing some unspecified damage to a drain. None of the projects, however, are set in stone. That is how the bond is being sold — citizens can influence or even add projects.

During that hour intensely staring at a map of triangles and circles, it became clear that the biggest thing missing from the bond proposal was water detention basins actually being located inside the neighborhoods that have flooding problems. There wasn’t a single proposed water detention basin inside the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial City, which flood heavily.

[…]

Having a budget 41 times your existing yearly budget means that new responsibilities will follow. With a bond of this size, Flood Control can’t just be in charge of the bayou while a financially distressed city of Houston is in charge of drainage to the bayou. Thinking must be done outside the box. The institutional mindset of Flood Control must change and grow for the better.

To serve all tax payers who would potentially be paying for the $2.5 billion bond, county planners must take the innovative approach and look for publicly owned land inside neighborhoods that flood. These are the places that water detention basins must be built to save neighborhoods inside the city.

Gingell is the general counsel for Residents Against Flooding, a nonprofit that filed suit against the city in 2016 for approving commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation. He doesn’t explicitly say he’s against the bond, but you can see he has reservations. I don’t have anything to add to these, I just wanted to flag them for those of you who still want to know more about this referendum. I’ll have a couple of interviews next week to add on.

Just a reminder, the I-45 construction is going to be massive

I can’t quite wrp my mind around the scope of it. I suspect a lot of us feel the same way.

Birds flitting in and out of the grass and trees along this strip of marsh pay no heed to the roar from interstates 45 and 10 on the horizon, but to Houston Parks Board officials the sound is an ominous reminder of what could come.

Defenders of this long-sought “linear park” that leads from the Heights to downtown Houston now see a threat from the Texas Department of Transportation and its mammoth, once-in-a-generation project to relieve chronic congestion along I-45 and on the broader downtown highway system.

The project, already years in the making, reflects unprecedented levels of listening by TxDOT, which fairly or not has a reputation of building through communities rather than with them. Yet concerns linger over this pristine spot on White Oak Bayou, which TxDOT would criss-cross with seven new spans under the current version of its ambitious plan to build Houston’s freeway of the future.

“If that happens, the gateway to White Oak Bayou Greenway will be a freeway underpass,” said Chip Place, director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.

The parks board and a handful of other groups — joined by elected officials — have raised these and a number of other issues with the freeway redesign following the release of the project’s draft environmental report. Disenfranchised communities fear rebuilding the freeway and its connector ramps will further cut them off from economic gains so that other people can shave a minute or two from their daily commutes.

Their message is clear: Houston has one chance in five decades to remake the spine of the region’s north-south traffic movements. Good isn’t good enough. It has to address everything to the best of everyone’s abilities.

You can read the rest. We’re two or three years out from the start of construction, which is on a ten-year timeline. I’ll stipulate that TxDOT has done a good job of soliciting and incorporating public input on this thing. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any way to do this that doesn’t fundamentally change the character of every part of town the redesigned highways pass through, and not in a good way – I think the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t do much harm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for a little while.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

More flood mitigation coming

This is ambitious.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After local leaders stood on the banks of Brays Bayou to celebrate a creative agreement that is expected to speed up work on a long-delayed effort to lessen the risk of flooding in southwest Houston, some angry Meyerland-area flood victims peppered them with questions.

The press conference was called to tout a plan under which the city of Houston would borrow $46 million from the state, give the cash to the county to speed up work on Project Brays, then be reimbursed later with federal dollars.

City officials hope to repeat that process for two other bayous – White Oak and Hunting- ultimately forwarding the county about $130  million.

For more background on this effort, click here. For more information on another recent flooding initiative Mayor Sylvester Turner and his “flood czar,” Steve Costello, announced, click here.

And for more information about Project Brays, visit this county Flood Control District page.

[…]

Turner — who, like flood control officials — was mobbed by residents after he stepped down from the podium, answered questions for several minutes before departing.

“There’s no question that there are frustrations and I understand the frustrations,” the mayor said. “Nobody wants their homes flooded once, four times or seven times. And that’s why the city, in an unprecedented move, took the lead and borrowed the $43 million. Now we have certainty that this project will be completed.”

Harris County Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe said his agency expects to complete channel widening through Meyerland to Fondren in the next two years. The city loan, which will be used chiefly for downstream bridge replacements, is important, he said, because bridges that are too low can create significant backups, heightening the flooding risk for those upstream.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and as you can see there are statements from multiple other elected officials, at different levels of government. The plan, which has received preliminary approval from Council, is a bit convoluted, but it’s also an example of Mayor Turner leveraging his experience in the Legislature to forge complex agreements. Homeowners who have been badly harmed by recent floods had some understandable questions about how all this will affect them, not all of which are addressed by this plan. Still, I think we can all agree that bayou improvements are a key component in flood mitigation, and streamlining the process to make it happen more quickly will help. It would be nice if we could come to a similar consensus about preserving flood plains and wetlands, but one step at a time. The Press has more.

More bayou bike trails

Nice.

Laying out the particulars for a new trail section along White Oak Bayou, Chip Place saw something out of place where the trail crossed the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near T C Jester.

It was the stairs connecting the two trails.

“Look at that,” Place said, pointing from the new stairs to the stellar view of downtown Houston. “I said ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to capture this.'”

Starting Friday, the stairs – along with two miles of fresh trail to southeast of T C Jester – are ready for runners, cyclists and others who want a new view of the area.

“It is always fun to create a park and see how people will use this,” said Place, managing director of capital programs for Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit that promotes parks in the city.

Part of the parks board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 efforts, the new segment of the White Oak Bayou Greenway runs from Studemont Street and the Heights trail to the T C Jester trail.

[…]

The new two-mile section – minus an unfinished spot below Yale Street – extends the White Oak trail to about 11 miles, making it the largest continuous portion completed thus far. By mid-2017 that will lengthen to 15 miles once key connections to downtown and the trail is extended from Antoine to the city limits. Once all of its segments are connected, Brays Bayou Greenway will be the longest of the trails at 30 miles, from the Houston Ship Channel to Eldridge in far west Houston.

“I really do believe Houston is at such an exciting point in the public realm,” said Beth White, the parks board’s president.

White, who took over the nonprofit nearly six months ago, moved to Houston encouraged by the “vast” opportunity to develop a large-scale trail system.

“All of the things that cities need to be resilient are being looked at,” she said. “Open space, alternatives in mobility, it’s all right here.”

I’ve been watching this go in – you could see the progress of the construction from the I-10 service road as you approach Studemont – and I plan to give it a ride in the near future. The one thing that is unclear to me at this time is whether it connects to the Heights trail, which among other things would connect it to downtown. There’s a separate trail that begins in front of Stude Park and takes a different route into downtown, but this new one stops a little short of that, and would need a bridge across the bayou to make a connection. It’s a good addition to the area, and will provide a non-car means of local travel for folks in the new housing being built on Studemont across from the Kroger.

Bayou trails update

Coming along nicely.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative will build 150 miles of hike and bike trails along the city’s nine waterways, a $220 million effort that Mayor Annise Parker says is “one of the most exciting things I’ve had the opportunity to work on as mayor” – and which is only now gathering steam.

“It’s a transformative project designed to string the beads of existing trail systems into an integrated whole,” Parker said, “but also designed to put accessible park and green space into every neighborhood of Houston by putting trails along all of the small rivers that cross the city.”

The ambitious plan advanced Wednesday as City Council approved $19 million for the next phase of trails in north Houston and also cleared the way for the purchase of land on which some of the trails will run.

[…]

Bayou Greenways’ construction progress has been modest thus far as the parks board designs the new trails and slogs through the dual permitting process of the Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the parks board’s Catherine Butsch, as both entities have jurisdiction.

About 3.5 miles of trail have been built, mostly along White Oak Bayou, but Butsch said the pace is likely to increase sharply.

Construction is to start soon along a section of White Oak in the I-10 corridor. That follows the recent openings of a new bridge near T.C. Jester and 11th Street over White Oak, and of a new trail section from Antoine to Alabonson.

Along Brays Bayou, a trail section from Mason Park to Old Spanish Trail opened last year, and that segment will soon be extended to the University of Houston.

On Sims Bayou, construction is scheduled to start on the two trail sections at the far eastern and western edges of the city limits by year’s end, in tandem with design work on the middle sections.

Design also will start this year on two sections of trail along Greens Bayou and on a far western section of trail planned along Brays.

“When it is completed by 2020, we estimate that six out of 10 Houstonians will live within a mile and a half of one of these Bayou Greenways,” Butsch said. “That’s really enhancing access to park land. We’re really able to use our natural resources, our bayous, in a special way like no other city.”

I love this project, and I believe it will do a lot to make Houston a better place to live. We have all these bayous, we should be taking full advantage of them. A lot of the funding for this is privately raised as well, making it a better deal overall. I’m especially looking forward to the White Oak/I-10 work, but it’s great to see this happening farther out as well.

Connecting trails

Always good to see.

WhiteOakBayouPathAlabonsonAntoine

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Houston Parks Board recently celebrated the completion of the White Oak Bayou Path, the first in a series of projects creating a more connected system of hike-and-bike trails in the city.

Mayor Annise Parker and District A council member Brenda Stardig joined the organizations for a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, July 9.

Joe Turner, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, said that funding for this project was made possible through a $15 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant for regional bike and pedestrian trails.

The grant will fund six projects.

The White Oak Bayou Path covers a stretch from Alabonson Road to Antoine Drive where pedestrian traffic had been previously blocked.

“We’re trying to close up gaps in different pieces of our trail system,” Turner said. “It’s an eighth of a mile, but it was a crucial piece with a bridge.”

These gaps, where the paths don’t meet, caused users to stop and turn around. Closing the gaps they connects paths to make thoroughfares.

The other projects include the White Oak Bayou Path between 11th Street and Stude Park, as well as a connection to residential neighborhoods from the path and to Buffalo Bayou Path, which will also include a .3 mile gap closure between Smith and Travis.

East downtown will gain connections between transit, residential and commercial spaces, totaling 8.6 miles of gap closures.

Brays Bayou Path will also benefit from a 1.6 mile gap-closure project and a .6 mile alternative transit path.

Turner said that once all of the projects are completed, the city will have an alternative transportation system with connected off-road hike-and-bike trails.

[…]

Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the nonprofit Houston Parks Board, said this segment is an important piece of the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, which will create a continuous system of parks and 150 miles of hike-and-bike trails along Houston’s major waterways.

“We have a fairly large and ambitious project underway,” she said.

Okan-Vick said the Houston Parks Board was successful in securing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant.

“We did the legwork, and we were lucky enough to be approved for the grant,” she said.

Okan-Vick said that there are three gaps on White Oak Bayou that needed to be addressed.

“This is the first one, and if you go further downstream, there is another we are working on,” she said.

When all trail sections are completed, it will be possible to travel the path along White Oak Bayou from far northwest Houston to Buffalo Bayou and downtown Houston, Turner said. “It gives us an alternative to our current transportation system,” he said. “And the hike-and-bike network allows us to connect pieces we’ve never connected before in our city. Lots of trails have been built over time, but they weren’t connected.”

I’m a big fan of this project, which covers a lot of territory and will greatly add off-road capacity for walkers and bicyclists. Longer term, other parts of this project will help make some dense infill development better for residents and neighbors. It will be an enduring legacy of Mayor Parker’s administration. Good work, y’all.

Heights bike trail connection update

Good news from Swamplot:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

OVER THANKSGIVING weekend city workers opened a portion of the proposed hike-and-hike trail that will one day link downtown and Acres Homes.

Work began last October on this new section, one that heads west from the MKT hike-and-bike trail’s former official western terminus at Lawrence Park, under the N. Shepherd Dr. and N. Durham Dr. overpasses, and over White Oak Bayou, west to Cottage Grove and north towards an eventual link with the existing White Oak Bayou trail.

This link legitimizes an unsanctioned though fairly popular “ninja route” long used by off-trail cyclists, who had been pedaling the gravel path from the park to a rickety, burned-out White Oak Bayou railway trestle known to as the “Bridge of Death,” seen below in a 2012 photo.

Click those links above, and see also here for the background. The last bit isn’t quite done yet, but this is some good progress. I look forward to checking it out sometime after the holidays when things are a bit less hectic.

Heights-area bike trails to be linked

Excellent news.

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

Houston’s expanding trail system will soon gain a new leg in the greater Heights area.

The addition will be part of Bayou Greenways 2020, a $215 million project aimed at creating a continuous network of hike-and-bike trails and parks along the city’s 10 major bayous.

“This is just one critical piece that will be a great help to the Heights area and the White Oak Bayou trail system,” said Heights resident Kevin Shanley, a former president of the White Oak Preservation Association.

The current trail along White Oak Bayou originally ran from 11th Street north to Watonga. As it grew in popularity, it was extended north from Watonga to Antoine. The expansion was completed last year.

In addition, a downstream section has been added from Stude Park to the University of Houston-Downtown campus.

Also in place is the Heights Hike & Bike Trail, which runs along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line in the Heights from south of 11th Street near Eureka across the Heights community.

The planned section of trail, 1.35 miles, will connect the Heights segment to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail. The project will include replacing a burnt-out bridge over White Oak Bayou. Groundbreaking on this section will take place this fall, Shanley said. The work could be done by fall 2014.

“When the first leg is complete, you’ll be able to ride from (the University of Houston-Downtown) all the way to Antoine,” he said.

Ultimately, the trail will extend much further west/northwest than that, but it’s the connection between the MKT (Heights) and White Oak trails that specifically interests me. I wrote about this two years ago in response to an earlier story by Marty Hajovsky about the effort to link these trails. In the embedded image above, it’s the purple line that represents what is to be built. Making that connection will do a lot to expand bike transit in this area, and I’m delighted to see it happen.

One of the many nice things about these trails is that for the most part they are off the streets and separated from traffic, which makes riding on them quite safe. There are places where the MKT and Nicholson trails in the Heights do cross streets, and in some places those crossings are a bit hazardous. In an earlier entry, Hajovsky wrote about efforts by the neighborhood to mitigate the dangers at these crossings.

Last month, the HHA board sent a letter to District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, Mayor Annise Parker and other city officials calling for safety improvements at six locations where the Nicholson/SP and MKT Rails to Trails bike trails cross major streets. For those of us who use those paths regularly, frequently with kids, as well as those of us who cross those paths in cars regularly (raising hands as I’m included in both of these groups), this would be a major improvement.

The six locations were identified in an independent traffic engineering study obtained by the Heights Association. According to a report in the HHA newsletter that goes out to members, the group claims that the changes should “enhance the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians without significant delays to motorists.” Here’s an excerpt from that newsletter:

The study recommends (1) installation of pedestrian hybrid beacons (“HAWK lights”) where the trail crosses Heights Boulevard, Yale, West 11th, West 19th, and West 20th; (2) installation of in-roadway lighting where the trail crosses White Oak, and (3) enhanced traffic signals and pavement markings at all six crossings. We note that the City has recently installed “bike crossing” pavement markings on the roadway approaches to the MKT intersections at 7th and Yale, 11th and Nicholson, and Columbia and White Oak.

Driving and riding over those six sites frequently, the safety problems are obvious. At West 19th, the Nicholson/SP trail splits from a single trail north of West 19th, to a split trail on both sides of the street to the south. It is so common to see children on bicycles, jogger or walkers darting across the road there to avoid oncoming traffic.

And since the bike trail covers what once were railroad tracks, the trail is on something of a rise in the street at all six of these locations. That makes the bike path hard to make out for oncoming drivers, whose cars are already “at pace” along all six of those streets. On white Oak and West 19th, with the shops, restaurants and bars, there are plenty of distractions already, further endangering trail users.

I personally would rank the intersections at Yale and 11th as the most dangerous because they’re the busiest and fastest-moving. Heights is basically two separate one-way streets, and I find that a lot easier to cross safely, and there isn’t as much traffic on 19th and 20th in my experience. The HAWK signals are still a good idea for all the locations – I’d like one installed at that White Oak crossing, too – but if I had to prioritize them, that’s how I’d do it. Houstonia has 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.

Houston gets grant for bike paths

Nice.

It’s not a trail to nowhere, but the Heights Bike Path ends abruptly at McKee Street east of downtown, and from there cyclists have to share the road with four-wheeled vehicles.

A peloton of politicians gathered near that terminus Friday afternoon to celebrate an election year bring-home-the-bacon $15 million federal grant that will pay for six projects to link Houston’s fragmented patchwork of bike paths into something more closely resembling a network.

Once the 18 miles of off-street paths, widened sidewalks and roadway bike lanes are completed, pedestrians and cyclists will be able to move from Little York and Antoine in far northwest Houston to Brady’s Landing along Buffalo Bayou east of downtown without ever having to stray from a lane reserved for those biking or walking.

“It’s long past the time for us to what I like to say ‘string the beads’ to connect the trail segments to connect Houston,” Mayor Annise Parker said at a news conference with U.S. Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both D-Houston. “We have focused a lot on hike and bike trails that keep cars and bikes separate, and we’d like to see more of that.”

The Houston Bikeways Facebook page has a list of the projects that will be funded.

– White Oak Bayou Path Alabonson Road Antoine Drive Link (where the extension of the White Oak Bayou ends)
– White Oak Bayou between 7th and 11th Streets
– MKT Spur Connector
– Heritage West to Main Street Connectors
– Buffalo Bayou to White Oak Bayou connector
– Great East End connections to Buffalo Bayou
– Brays Bayou gap filler between Ardmore Road and Old Spanish Trail

I wish I had a map to show you of all this, but I couldn’t find one. Item 2 on that list above is something I’ve noted before, so it’s good to see that happen. While both the story and the Facebook post talk a lot about bike commuting, I want to say that there’s more to this than that. It’s not practical for me to bike to work, but I can and do bring my bike with me to work – having a minivan is good for something – and I use it a couple of days a week to go to lunch. I use it getting around the neighborhood, too – it’s at least as convenient to hop on the White Oak Trail to get to Target than it is to drive there, and takes about the same amount of time. And it’s one less car crowding that stretch of Sawyer and jousting for a parking space. Making it easier for people to ride bikes for short trips will do a lot of good, too.

About that “solution” for bike trail obstruction

Me, last month:

Meanwhile, two weeks ago there was a story about TxDOT closing the White Oak Bayou Hike and Bike Trail between Ella and 34th streets while there is construction on the service road for 610 North at East TC Jester. The closure was scheduled for two years, without an alternate route that bicyclists thought was adequate. Fortunately, after meeting with bike activists, TxDOT made some changes to accommodate riders a little better. I’ve been meaning to get over there and take some pictures but just haven’t had the chance. Anyone here have experience with what’s going on at this location?

A reader named Andy wrote to me that he had had a close look at this area, and it’s not as you would expect based on that report. He sent me some of photos to illustrate, two of which I will show here. First, a view of the White Oak Trail from the north:

That looks pretty blocked to me

And a view from street level:

A view of the blocked trail from grade level

Andy writes:

I took photos of this mess on Monday (Jan 23) […] In short, the construction company working for TxDOT decided to bury the section of White Oak Trail which runs under 610 with the dirt they removed while leveling out other sections. They didn’t have to do this, but it was faster and cheaper than having to haul the dirt somewhere else. Other than the dirt, there is absolutely no construction going on there right now, and there were no construction vehicles there at all on Monday.

TxDOT and/or Karen Othon apparently has been claiming that the trail closure was for safety reasons, but this is simply nonsense. They could use a chainlink and plywood safety barricade over the trail just as other construction companies have used downtown to keep pedestrian access open, and limit total closure of this section of White Oak Trail to the same times that they close TC Jester (when doing overhead crane work, such as lifting and setting beams, the same as they did when rebuilding Ella’s 610 overpass). This however would be less convenient for the construction company, since it would be an additional cost and they would also need to find another place to pile the dirt they removed while leveling other areas.

While taking photos, I also witnessed no less than 20-25 people in about a 30 minute or so time span going around and over the dirt piled on the trail (I had to wait for many to get out of the frame so I could take photos). A number of hikers climbed right up and over the dirt (which is not safe at all for reasons which can be seen in the photos from the north end of the dirt pile), while other pedestrians and bicyclists used the sidewalk on the west side of TC Jester which runs parallel to White Oak Trail, and then crossed under 610, (which is just dirt and loose gravel). This route likely won’t remain an option once demolition and construction begins on the three existing bridges though. I also saw several people walk down the bayou embankment and follow the flat concrete basin to bypass the blocked trail and walk right under 610 (also not terribly safe, due to the steep incline).

Somehow TxDOT is going to have to come up with an option other than blocking White Oak Trail until late 2013 because people are clearly not going to stop traveling through the area.

And in a followup email, Andy writes:

When I was speaking with Tom Gall via email yesterday, he mentioned “My understanding is that the soil on the trail will serve as a platform for the piling cranes and isn’t just spare soil but we certainly need to keep an eye on them.” If that is what TxDOT has been claiming in the public meetings (they only claim they closed the trail for “safety reasons” on their website), then it would seem TxDOT’s contractor needs to use a crane with a longer boom and/or a different sort of jib. I can’t see the ~10ft width of the trail making all that much difference anyway when they bring in a large crane with a diesel-driven pile driver attachment (which is the type of pile driver they would most likely use if they are going to be installing prestressed concrete piles). I would actually be surprised if they located a crane that close to the bayou embankment because of the steep grade and danger of tipping the crane over too. There also appear to be stockpile markings on the soil that has been piled over the trail.

You can see in the photo of the north end of the trail just how dangerous they’ve made it with all that reinforcing mesh/wire sticking up out of the dirt. It was when I was taking photos from grade level (which was around 5:30pm) that I saw people heading north on the trail and climbing over and going through that mess. With all the people clearly unwilling to stop using the trail, if TxDOT and their contractor doesn’t come up with another solution, and soon, someone is very likely to end up hurt and then turn around and sue to city. With all the budget shortfalls, the last thing the city needs is another lawsuit.

Also, the retaining wall made of decorative concrete bricks is still in place. They just buried it under all that dirt. I would like to know what they’ve done with the metal safety railing they removed though. That railing was custom made and expensive

My thanks to Andy for sending this along. It doesn’t sound like a good situation to me. I don’t know who needs to take this up with TxDOT, but they do respond when enough of a fuss is made. Let’s make that fuss for them, shall we?

New bike trail into downtown nearing completion

From Swamplot:

Heritage Corridor West bike trail

It looks like large portions of the 2.8-mile-long Heritage West Bikeway connecting Stude Park to UH-Downtown are close to completion, but the path along portions of the former UP railway won’t open until summer, according to the city. One important still-missing link: a pedestrian bridge over Little White Oak Bayou. Past the University, the 10-ft. wide trail will connect to the Heritage East Bikeway, which continues along White Oak Bayou to Lockwood.

The new western portion will hook up with the MKT hike-and-bike trail both at Stude Park and at Spring St., providing an alternate along-the-bayou path for bicyclists headed downtown from the Heights.

Go visit that Swamplot post for some pictures from the construction. Here’s a map of the MKT Trail for comparison. Both of them will get you from the Heights to downtown, specifically to UH Downtown, with the main difference being that Heritage West is entirely along the bayou and thus off the streets, while MKT goes alongside Spring Street and requires crossing intersections such as at Sawyer and Houston Avenue. MKT is the way to go if you have a destination before UH-D, Heritage is if you want the scenic route. There’s still some construction east of where the two meet up – see the note on the Houston Bikeways Facebook page – so watch out and stay off the trail where there’s still active construction. I know a lot of people who are excited about this, and I’m looking forward to taking Olivia on a ride out that way when it’s done. And when they finally connect MKT to West White Oak, you’ll be able to ride a hell of a long way without having to share space with an automobile. Michael Skelly has more.

UPDATE: Bill Shirley sent me the following picture of the bike trail construction this afternoon:

Making the trail

Way cool.

Connecting bike trails

Marty Hajovsky makes a keen observation.

Bike trails in the Houston area are all-too-frequently a joke at best and dangerous, hazardous, life-threatening situations at the worst.  I’m sorry, but painting a solid white line in the drain gutter on a busy street and calling it a bike lane may get the city federal funds for such things, but no matter how you look at it, this is not a safe and economical way to bike commute around Houston.  It may be a boon for the surgeon community who get paid to stitch these people who get injured there back together again, but when i see one of those things, I feel like John Rhys-Davies in Raiders of the Lost Ark (“Very dangerous. You go first.”)

But the worst part to me is that this situation obscures the fact that the city has some very functional and safe trails in the Houston Bikeways Program, many of them in fact.  The Katy/MKT trail and the White Oak Bayou trail are two near to and in the Houston Heights that spring immediately to mind. I have recently ridden them both and have long been wishing that somehow or other they would hook up.  Enter the Bayou Greenway Intiative.

For those of you not familiar with this little problem.  The White Oak Bayou Trail extends from Watonga in the northwest all the way along White Oak Bayou to the corner of Ella and West 11th in Timbergrove and back. Along the way, it dips under a few streets, stops at others, but most importantly, is not crossed by unregulated traffic. However, it abruptly ends at Ella and West 11th.  The Katy/MKT trail, on the other hand, starts at what would be West 7th (which doesn’t exist over there) at Lawrence Park just next to the North Shepherd Street bridge and continues all the way to UH-Downtown.

So how could they hook up? Look at this Google map right here.  Through an open fence gate the other day, I walked from the Katy/MKT trail at Lawrence Park along the old railroad bed west to White Oak Bayou.  Then I followed the bayou along all the way to West 11th and the White Oak Bayou Trail.  Not once did I encounter a single impediment that would prevent the construction of a tiny spur to connect the two paths. All it takes is will.

The Bayou Greenway Initiative calls for the construction of just such a connector.

I didn’t quite follow what Marty meant when I first read this, but after emailing him and zooming in to the correct location on that Google map, I figured it out. Here’s what he’s talking about:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

I think he meant to say “TC Jester” and not Ella, but never mind that. The red line in the lower right is the end of the MKT bike trail, which is labeled “Height Bike Trail” by Google Maps. The blue line is the White Oak Bayou trail. The purple line connecting them is more or less the path Marty walked, which as he says is completely off the street grid.

I recently got a bicycle and have started riding it around the neighborhood. (I hadn’t owned a bike in nearly 30 years. Fortunately, that old expression about something being “just like riding a bike” is spot on.) I prefer the trails when possible, for the same reasons given above, and my reaction the first time I rode the MKT trail to its terminus at Shepherd was “They should make this thing go farther”. I’m delighted to hear that this is in the plans – as Marty says, it’s a no-brainer. I doubt I’ll ever ride it all the way out to Jersey Village (!), which is as far as it will eventually extend, but it’s nice to know that I could.

I should add, if you’ve never taken the MKT trail, you really should, whether by bike or on foot. Between Yale and Shepherd is a part of the Heights you’ve probably never seen. On my blogging to-do list is to take my camera with me on a ride and shoot some pictures of the sights. I have this slightly grand photography project in mind that I’ll never have the time to do, but maybe on a slow day I’ll create a Tumblr site for it and see if I can convince some other suckers bike-riding neighborhood enthusiasts to contribute to it.

Descendants of Olivewood

I got an email the other day about Descendants of Olivewood, a 501 (c) organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the historic Olivewood cemetery, and thought it was worth passing along. From the site:

Nestled against a bend of White Oak Bayou, and surrounded by rich Houston history, lies Olivewood, the city’s first incorporated African American cemetery. It’s been a jungle for years – the headstones have been literally buried under massive carpets of vegetation. Extending over an estimated 8 acres, only the front quarter of the cemetery had been successfully cleared of the seemingly endless tropical abundance including poison ivy and oak. For a long time, only the larger mortuary architecture rising above the undergrowth has hinted at Olivewood’s location.

Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. is dedicated to the reclamation of this cemetery for the benefit of the present and future generations of Houston. We are committed to restoring, preserving and maintaining Olivewood Cemetery as a historic, educational, charitable, religious and cultural site of importance.

Olivewood was incorporated in 1875, so to say the least it’s a vital piece of Houston’s history. There will be a historical marker dedication ceremony this Saturday, and the organization is looking for folks to help with a variety of projects. If you’re interested, drop a note to info@descendantsofolivewood.org. Thanks very much.