Sunday, February 11, 2007

TXDoT scandal, rail, roads, rss, and more

The miscellaneous queue has finally hit critical mass, so much so that I'm going to have to break it up into two separate posts. But a couple items before we get to the list.

First, if you use a news reader, Houston Strategies now has an RSS feed link (Atom), which you can find in the right-side column under Links. I checked this option in the Blogger admin from day one of this blog, but recently realized that, even though the link has been active, Blogger didn't automatically put it anywhere on the page, so I manually added it.

Second, is some hot inside information to pass along on a scandal at TXDoT. This blog seems to have enough readership now that people send me tips from time to time, and this one has requested anonymity for obvious reasons, but I believe it to be a reliable inside source:
I caught wind of a pretty big deal at TxDOT today.... Looks like TxDOT underallocated state gas tax revenue to Houston, Dallas, Arlington and San Antonio and spent the $$ to build roads down near the border. It appears they owe Houston about a billion dollars from this underallocation over the past six years. The top Texas Transportation Commissioner is under fire, creating lots of momentum for the anti-concessionnaire movement in Texas. Story is slowly leaking.
A billion dollars is no chump change. Looking forward to coverage of this in the big media...

On to our miscellaneous list of smaller items:
  • If you didn't catch Robin Holzer's Sunday Chronicle op-ed responding to Congressman Culberson on the Metro Uline, be sure to give it a read (permalink with the fancy map). Very well argued, and makes a compelling case for running the line on Richmond as far as Greenway Plaza before jumping over to Westpark. You have to hope petty politics doesn't force a boneheaded routing decision that will hobble our core transit network for decades. Let your voice be heard!
  • Continuing on the rail network, Christof has had a great series of posts lately, with a very cool map of the whole planned network, fixing the transfer flaws downtown, optimizing the routes and stops around UH and Greenway, and adding some stops in Gulfton to pick up a whole lot more potential passengers. Hope everybody at Metro is paying close attention...
  • Speaking of mobility infrastructure investments, I hope you caught Nancy Sarnoff's Chronicle piece last week on the real estate development projects blossoming along the under-construction Katy Freeway. It goes to show that freeway widenings with eminent domain and right-of-way expansion can also renew an area, vs. the "conventional wisdom" of "economic devastation." Surprise, surprise - it's even spawning some mixed use developments. Mobility and access begets vibrancy.
  • Ashley Cecil calls herself the "painting journalist," and has recently visited Houston and done a series of paintings worth browsing on her blog. Just search the page on the word "houston" to find all the relevant posts.
  • Well, since transportation seems to be the major theme of this post, we'll end on a little transportation humor from The Onion, "Urban Planner Stuck In Traffic Of Own Design". It's urban-geek humor, but I laughed hard. So much of trendy urban planning these days seems to be anti-car, and the comeuppance is well deserved.
That's enough items for today. To be continued...

15 Comments:

At 9:50 PM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Kevin said...

You have to hope petty politics doesn't force a boneheaded routing decision that will hobble our core transit network for decades.

No, I don't have to hope anything.

I would prefer that METRO honor its promises as per the 2003 referendum.

No matter how many times Richmond enthusiasts want to say Westpark really meant Richmond in that referendum, it doesn't make it so.

METRO runs into political problems when it's too clever for its own good, promising one thing to voters and then trying to finesse changes later. METRO is on its strongest political ground when it adheres to its promises to voters. This is true on the Westpark routing, and in other areas.

Which reminds -- where is that 50% increase in bus services that METRO also promised?

 
At 10:07 PM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

With all due respect, I'm gonna disagree with you on this one, Kevin. The wording has been debated to death. IMHO, it was a sloppy mistake by the pre-Bill-White Metro administration. The new group is trying to do the right thing to get the most ridership and the most utility out of the lines (and therefore the most federal dollars), and they're doing it within the reasonable scope of the language on the ballot. If Metro loses and this goes all on Westpark, we end up with a more expensive line that carries fewer people, less likely to get federal funding. I know that would be a satisfying outcome for some, but the right criteria at the end of the day is "What's best in the long-run for the city of Houston?" - and that wouldn't be it. Encouraging failure to feel vindicated is not helpful.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I may have had concerns about this system getting built in the first place, but once that decision was made and it's definitely going to get built, then we need to make sure Houston gets the most value possible out of it.

 
At 10:07 PM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:13 PM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 10:15 PM, February 11, 2007, Blogger Max Concrete said...

In terms of the TxDOT "scandal", I think the diversion of funds to the Rio Grande Valley and border areas actually began under the Governor Bush administration (for political reasons, of course). When one region gets more money than it contributes in taxes, obviously it has to come out of someone else's shares. Normally the richest areas get docked, which means Houston and DFW.

As far as I know, the Texas Transportation Commission is not obligated to give any region its "fair share", although some formula changes in recent years have claimed to help ensure fairness. And when a region is in conflict with the commission, as Houston is, it is not favorable for funding.

The real problem is that the Transportation Commission is headed by the arrogant, self-righteous, and unaccountable Ric Williamson, who is Governor Perry's chief toll henchman. Controversy over TxDOT's iron fist for tolling and lack of respect for regional interests is brewing in just about every major urban area of Texas, including Houston (regarding TxDOT's demand for billions from HCTRA). Dallas-Fort Worth has recently reached some peace with TxDOT by caving in, but hostility lingers and the state legislator taking the lead to get some reform is Senator Carona of Dallas.

TxDOT needs to remember the lessons of history - transportation agencies that overreached and paid a heavy price when the political climate changed. That includes Robert Moses in New York and Caltrans, which was devastated in 1975 and California still suffers because of it.

So, I think some changes to promote reform and personnel changes (especially retiring Ric Williamson) would be a good thing and keep TxDOT strong in the long run.

 
At 11:28 PM, February 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is just ridiculous, to build down westpark at all. Even moreso if it crosses over before greenspoint. I agree with tory, I am ambivalent about wether it gets built at all, but if it is going to be built it needs to be the alignment that will get the most bang for the buck in the long term. I say don't build it now, but leave it in the long term plan. Wait for the politicians to change and for Afton Oaks to start changing, and then build it all the way down richmond.

 
At 11:37 PM, February 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

whoops, meant to say.

...and then build it all the way down richmond, if thats going to work better.

 
At 6:31 AM, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

The logic for crossing over from Richmond to Westpark in a nutshell:

There are more people along Richmond than along Westpark east of Greenway Plaza.

There are more people along Westpark than along Richmond west of Greenway Plaza.

The argument for avoiding Afton Oaks can be made without looking at politics at all.

 
At 10:39 AM, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay, but lets make sure it gets the most it can from Greenway plaza.

 
At 5:36 PM, February 12, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

Also, in transportation you speak in corridors. The US 290 corridor included Hempstead Highway inside the Beltway all the way to I-10. Metro classifies the commuter rail line (which i personally do not want installed) on the northwest side as in the US 290 corridor, but it isn't planned along US 290.

 
At 5:57 PM, February 12, 2007, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory said

Speaking of mobility infrastructure investments, I hope you caught Nancy Sarnoff's Chronicle piece last week on the real estate development projects blossoming along the under-construction Katy Freeway. It goes to show that freeway widenings with eminent domain and right-of-way expansion can also renew an area, vs. the "conventional wisdom" of "economic devastation." Surprise, surprise - it's even spawning some mixed use developments. Mobility and access begets vibrancy.

Tory, that is not the only area out west which has blossomed when opened up to new roads. Here is a story from the Chronicle archives, dated July 27, 2006, about Westchase sprouting when the Westpark Tollway finally came online (registration required). A whopping nine new major projects are completed or are close to being completed in Westchase, including a Jacobs Engineering building, a 104 acre mixed use project, a two story 200,000 square foot office complex, and a 510 unit mid-rise.

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives
/archive.mpl?id=2006_4159642

In fact here is another Chronicle archives article which states that the Westpark Tollway is getting so popular during rush hour that the authorities are thinking about upping the tolls with variable pricing:

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives
/archive.mpl?id=2006_4207659

And finally, here is one last article where a certain somebody asserted that:

"The lack of connections to Westchase in the Metro Solutions plan is a huge problem for the region,"

http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives
/archive.mpl?id=2006_4112016

Too bad the above articles contradict those remarks. It seems that Westchase is doing quite well for itself without having been roped into Metro Solutions.

Meanwhile, what have we seen downtown since the downtown tram was built? Well, we know that Metro located the new Lee Brown temple along the track, but what else has developed along the tram in the past 2-3 years? Not much.

You assert that mobility and access begets vibrancy, but that only holds true if an area has something to offer which would cause people to go out of their way to visit the area in the first place.

 
At 8:07 AM, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Christof Spieler said...

Neal, the facts:

In the Medical Center, there have been something like 10 new mid-rise and high-rise buildings built within two blocks of the light rail line since it opened, and there are more on the way.

In Downtown, there were three highrises completed right around the time the rail line opened, and space is being leased more quickly than any time since 1981. There is a major renovation project within one block of the rail line right now, and the Chronicle reports that by the end of the month, we'll see two new buildings break ground.

Meanwhile, UHD has built two new buildings since the rail line opened.

Highways filling up is a sign that Westchase is booming. But it's also a hurdle for them to overcome. Consider Uptown, once the hot suburban office market. There hasn't been a large new office building there since the Transco Tower in the 1980s, and that's largely because traffic is so bad. Westchase has the same issues: access from only two highways, not enough aterials, and minimal transit alternatives. These days, Downtown is much easier to get to than Uptown, and therefore it's growing as an office market while Uptown isn't (though it's booming int erms of retail and residential).

 
At 2:41 PM, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget Houston Pavilions downtown as well.

Also, some of the congestion in Uptown could have been solved by allowing the rebuilding of I-610 to be a "capacity-added" project. If not a "4-4-4-4"-lane collector-distributor configuration, then at least add 1 lane to each side. This could have been done in addition to (not instead of) the Uptown BRT and University Line LRT. Let's hope Uptown can maintain its low vacancy rate and that the rail lines will help out somewhat with mobility.

 
At 1:09 AM, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Tory, you need to check out The Onion's article about the U.S. govt. threatening to leave Washington if a new Capitol is not built. It includes an artist rendering of a new, "retro" styled Capitol with a warehouse brick exterior, retractable dome, and luxury boxes. Memphis is mentioned as a possible relocation city if the new venue is not built.

 
At 7:33 AM, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I remember that. Very funny. Here it is:

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/27828

 

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