Sunday, July 14, 2019

45N not a boondoggle, beating gentrification, HTX vs global warming, mixed rankings, and more

A whole lot of items came up this week:
Finally, a cool video on the ruins of the old Westbury Square, a faux Italian shopping village created in Houston in the 50s. Great aerial drone footage. Hat tip to Chris and Richard.


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Sunday, July 07, 2019

Hobby rail critique, livable city ranking flaws, Houston tops Dallas for homeless reduction, and more

This week's items:
  • I've come around to accepting light rail to Hobby in the MetroNext plan as a less-than-optimal compromise among many different constituencies, but this Urban Reform blog post by Connor Harris of the Manhattan Institute makes a pretty strong case about the cost-inefficiency of such a line at $167,000 per new daily rider. His alternative:
"For improving service to Hobby Airport, Houston Metro has a much faster and cheaper option: express buses. 
Currently, bus route 40, the only direct bus line from the airport to downtown, takes a scheduled 55 minutes to cover a distance that is less than 9 miles as the crow flies. An express bus alongside Interstate 45, however, could easily make the trip in 20 to 30 minutes—substantially faster than light rail, which currently averages only about 15 miles per hour. Buses could make the trip this fast even during rush hour: Interstate 45 has a separate HOV lane all the way from the airport to downtown, and adding an entrance at Airport Boulevard for express airport buses would just require repainting a few lane markings. Special-purpose express buses could also be fitted with luggage racks, which would compete with rush-hour commuters for space on light rail trains."
"Issues such as housing affordability are taken into account, for example, but have to balance against more rarified qualities such as access to opera, high-end restaurants, and other amenities. This isn’t all bad—for those who can afford them, opera and restaurants are wonderful things. The result is still that rankings often end up assessing cities in terms of a small band of citizens for whom almost all of such metrics are relevant. They assess, broadly, how much potential a city possesses when seen from a privileged point of view: that of a straight, affluent, mobile, and probably white couple who works in something akin to upper management and has children. Remove even one of those characteristics from the equation and the results often seem way off the mark.  City rankings are thus a window onto the projected tastes of a highly specific elite."
  • This month’s edition of the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston: The Economy at a Glance analyzes recent population estimates and discusses how the region's population has grown since '10, provides an employment update, and summarizes the Partnership's recent publication, Global Houston.

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Monday, July 01, 2019

Reimagining the $7B 45N project

There has been a lot of back and forth in recent weeks about TXDoT's 45N redevelopment plans, including a Kinder essay series, a supportive Houston Press column (how the heck did that happen?!), Kuff columns, and a very biased pro-transit/anti-car group labeling it one of the largest boondoggles in the country (full report - why am I not surprised?) Oscar Slotboom has updated and simplified his list of flaws in the project as well.

In regional TXDoT director Quincy Allen's piece at Kinder, he vigorously defends the project and makes a not-so-subtle threat that we need to take seriously:
"To be clear, the funding allocated to delivering the I-45 improvements cannot be made available for transit expenditures.  If Houston decides they don't want the highway improvements, the funding will ultimately be re-allocated to highway improvements in other areas of our region or the state.  Imagine where that would leave Houston in addressing congestion in the nation's fourth-largest city.  "
On the whole and on balance, I'm a supporter of the project (although it can always be tweaked to be better, of course).  It's probably the last realistic opportunity Houston will ever have to fix this freeway.  But it is mighty expensive and I greatly fear what a decade of disruptive construction will do to downtown, including a potentially major exodus by employers as their leases expire and they decide to head out to the suburbs for an easier life like Exxon did.  There's also the issue of tremendous land loss/takings in EaDo and no funding for the imaginary deck parks over the newly sunken freeways.  And I'm personally not a fan of losing the Pierce Elevated's six lanes of capacity, which really reduces the impact of new capacity on the north and east sides around downtown.

If someone made me all-powerful dictator-in-charge, here's what I'd consider doing instead with $7 billion of TXDoT's money:
  • Take the $1-2B already allocated in the short-term budget to start work on the 59-288 piece (which everyone agrees is a major bottleneck) as well as 45N north of the loop (with all needed mitigations for Independence Heights).  That lets us use all the existing filings/process/EIS as-is and not lose that money.
  • Keep the downtown tangle pretty much as it is today, including the Pierce Elevated.  Downtown will always need surface parking lots - put them under the elevateds.  Give the surface streets under the elevateds some nice treatments so they're more inviting for pedestrians to cross under to EaDo and Midtown.  Lighting, paint, noise insulation, whatever.  There are good examples all over the world on how to do this.  And if we want more park space downtown, put it cheaply where it belongs along the bayou or on existing land rather than on an extremely expensive deck park over a sunken freeway.
  • To solve the capacity problem, build a single set of 4 new MaX Lanes down the center of 45N inside the loop (as planned), but when they get downtown wrap them around the north and east sides of downtown elevated on their own single pylons - not disrupting any of the existing freeways nor taking much land from EaDo (like over Chartres St).  In addition to exits downtown, connect them into MaX Lanes on 45S, 288, and 59.
  • Take the billions saved from doing it this way to build out the rest of the interconnected MaX Lane network across the city.  This will do far, far more to improve long-term mobility across the region.
I know I'm really oversimplifying things here vs. real, detailed plans, but I think it conveys the broad alternative concept.  In my mind, this is the 80/20 solution: 80% of the benefits for 20% of the cost and disruption (at least for the downtown portion).

An alternative variant of this Michael Skelly has proposed would bring the Hardy toll road downtown (as planned), but congestion price it like MaX Lanes so TXDoT won't need them on 45N.  This would be even less expensive and disruptive, but requires cooperation from HCTRA and Metro (moving their planned IAH BRT).  And I believe they would still need to continue to wrap around the east side of downtown in addition to offering downtown exits, so they can connect up with MaX Lanes on the south side of town.

That's my proposal for what it's worth. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And if an all-powerful dictator-in-charge position opens up, I'm happy to offer my services... ;-)

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