Sunday, July 26, 2015

TXDoT responds to issues with I45N redevelopment plan, no Pierce Elevated Park

A while back I posted my thoughts on TXDoT's proposed plan to redevelop I45N.  Oscar Slotboom, author of Houston Freeways, shared similar concerns and recently met with TXDoT to discuss them.  I've included his summary of his key findings below from his HAIF post here, or you can find a more comprehensive issue-by-issue list and TXDoT response here.  It's important to note that nothing is final at this time, and all of this is subject to change as TXDoT goes through the process, but this is the preliminary feedback he received.

The headliner for most people is that they're intent on selling the land under the Pierce Elevated to fund other right-of-way purchases, so that disappointingly kills the idea of a Pierce Elevated Park (concepts here and here).  I'm also disappointed they're declining to connect Midtown and Memorial to the new downtown connector (or 59, in Midtown's case), which I think is a big mistake (although they are adding one for Allen Parkway, thank goodness).  They're also still not considering connecting up the managed lanes through downtown to create a more comprehensive network - instead they just terminate downtown the same as they always have.  The only benefit left I'm really excited about is fixing the inbound 59S bottleneck at Spur 527 and the elevated, and that could be done without doing the whole project.

Overall, I'm personally pretty disappointed with the response and the constraints of the new plan, and am now concerned that in some ways we may end up worse off than the current configuration (hard to imagine, I know), at least inside the Loop.  I45 actually drops from six to four lanes through downtown under the plan - not an improvement. We could end up spending six+ billion dollars and enduring years of very painful and disruptive construction only to end up with very minor benefits - and that's hard to swallow.  The downtown boosters will be happy losing the 59 and Pierce elevateds, but I think the majority of Houston drivers will see few or negative benefits inside the Loop.  As much of a supporter as I am in freeway investments, I'm now half hoping the funding doesn't come through for this one...

On to Oscar's summary:

On Monday I met with a TxDOT representatives and representatives from HNTB, the consulting firm developing the design for the project. We reviewed my points of concern, and I updated my web page with the status of these issues.

Although most of my concerns cannot or will not be addressed to the extent I would like to see, I appreciate that TxDOT took a close look at the issues and I think the ultimate design will be the best it can be within the financial limits, political constraints and traffic model results.

In most cases, issues are still under study and the any adjustments to the design won't be known until the next round of public meetings when the updated schematic is released. But it appears likely that the following items will be in the next iteration

Note that nothing below is final or officially decided for the next version of the plan until TxDOT officially releases it.
  • Eastbound Allen Parkway will get loop ramp to the northbound downtown connector, similar to the existing loop ramp
  • There will not be connections from Memorial to the downtown connector. Both the City of Houston and TxDOT are against connections. The COH and Downtown Management District are going to provide a recommendation for adjustments to the surface street design around Houston Avenue.
  • The George Brown Convention center uses the area under the US 59 elevated as a staging area, and the need to retain a staging area is expected to require changes to the proposed design and will likely preclude widening the trench for additional I-45 lanes.
  • The current proposed plan reduces Interstate 45 to two lanes in each direction through downtown. It appears TxDOT will try to add lanes, but due to GRB issue, it is uncertain to me how much relief can actually be provided.
  • The proposed design has a built-in bottleneck at I-45 and North Main (Hollywood Cemetery area) due to the right-of-way issue. They are studying ways to get more lanes through, but I'm not optimistic that the choke point can be fixed.
  • TxDOT's preference is to sell the Pierce Elevated land and use the revenue to purchase property needed for the project. Before selling on the open market, TxDOT is first obligated to offer the land to the COH, and then to adjacent land owners. It is unclear what price the COH would have to pay if it wanted the land. But I sensed no indication that the COH is interested in the land. If the COH has any money, it would likely go to a deck park over the trench near the GRB (my opinion, not a TxDOT remark). I expect a full deck park to cost in the $200-300 million range (my number, not TxDOT's).
  • Poor connections to the I-45 managed lanes in the downtown area are likely to be fixed in the next plan iteration.
  • TxDOT agrees that I-45 would perform better with five regular lanes in each direction between Loop 610 and BW8, and this is under study. I'm hopeful we'll get longer sections with five lanes, hopefully the full length from Loop 610 to BW 8.
  • TxDOT's goal is to have signature bridges wherever feasible and is looking to work with neighborhoods and districts to realize local preferences. But signature bridges will cost more and funding could be an issue.
See the web link for the status of all issues.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Firefighter pension solution, disturbing METRORail numbers, #1 Food City in America, and more

A few items this week...
"While the average annual income in Texas is $45,330, only slightly above the national average, says "workers in Texas get good value from those wages." That's due to our below-average cost of living and no state income tax."
"Adding all of this early data up, these three new rail lines are attracting only between 10 – 35 percent of their predicted ridership estimates.
All of this for some $2.2 billion in local and federal tax money. If you apply the U.S. FTA formulas for grant consideration to current ridership on these three rail lines (total capital cost $2.2 billion, multiplied by 7 percent ($154 million), then add the annual operating expense of these rail lines at roughly $1 million per direction mile for $25 – 30 million in annual operating costs), it would work out to costing somewhere close to $50 every time a new rider boarded along these new rail lines."
Ugh. If that doesn't make you nauseous as a taxpayer, I'm not sure what will.  Let's really hope the bus network redesign implementation and fall semester start at UH and TSU boost the ridership big time...

Finally, this data shows that firefighters have increased as rapidly as fires have *decreased*, yet we keep finding new jobs for them to do.  Maybe a solution for Houston's firefighter pension problem could be to scale back the department to just focus on fires and find more efficient ways to meet the other needs like emergency medical response?...

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Monday, July 13, 2015

How Houston can grow gracefully: Snow White and the Nine Dwarves

A lot of people shudder when they see growth projections of the Houston metro area from the current 6.5 million to 9 or even 10 million people over the next couple of decades.  If traffic is this bad now, how can we possibly handle it?  Is there any way this can be handled gracefully, or at least less painfully? I think it can be if we look at it with the right perspective, and I call that perspective "Snow White and the Nine Dwarves" (yes, even the fairy tales are bigger in Texas - I considered "Asgard and the Nine Realms" of Norse mythology, but I think that's too obscure a reference for most people).

If you look at a lot of modest-sized cities, they can operate effectively on as little as two crossing interstates/freeways.  As you can see in this map, Houston's rapidly growing Grand Parkway outer loop is creating many more of these crossings along our radial spoke freeways.

I think each of these crossings will essentially form the center of a new self-contained suburban village or edge city, with the nine "dwarves" being roughly (clockwise from north)
  1. The Woodlands
  2. Kingwood/Humble (already growing that way)
  3. Baytown
  4. Clear Lake/League City
  5. Pearland
  6. Sugar Land
  7. Katy
  8. Cypress
  9. Tomball
If nine makes your head spin, I think most of the growth will likely center on the Big Two of The Woodlands (drawing from Tomball to Kingwood) and Katy (drawing from Sugar Land to Cypress).  Houston remains the center of the big amenities: professional sports, museums, performing arts, bars, live music/nightclubs, signature parks, the zoo, universities, festivals, high-end restaurants and shopping, etc. - thus "Snow White" (no snickering ;-)

I think each of these "villages" could comfortably grow to as much as a million people themselves, which, when added to 2-3 million in Houston, gets us as high as 12 million people in the metro area, almost doubling our current population and handling several decades of growth.  Under this scenario, I would see much of the job growth increasing along Beltway 8, with workers with families commuting in from the villages and young inner loop singles commuting out, with both able to keep commutes under the magic half-hour limit (hopefully).

As part of this vision, I think it would be good for Houston to encourage a healthy competition among the villages similar to the many hospitals of the medical center (and, um, how the dwarves competed for Snow White's attention ;-)  In both cases, the friendly competition makes the overall entity stronger and healthier.  Of course much of that comparative competition would be on quality of life amenities, but I think the most important competition among them would be cooperating with METRO to provide the best express park-and-ride services to the most job centers in the core (downtown, uptown, med center, Greenway, Energy Corridor, Westchase, etc.).  That's how this growth happens without traffic armageddon, and it will be a big factor in which village those young inner loopers choose when they decide it's time to have a family and move out to the suburbs.  I think The Woodlands has a clear lead in this competition and sets the standard for the other dwarves to aspire to - always good to have a role model to point to (guess that's "Doc" in this case - nickname the other dwarf villages as you wish ;-)

This is somewhat similar to how DFW has grown over the last decades, although almost all of their villages/edge cities went straight north and northwest, which has shifted the metro's center-of-gravity towards the airport and has not been very healthy for the City of Dallas itself.  If Houston can encourage somewhat balanced growth among the nine dwarves, it will help the core stay healthy as well, since employers will want to stay there to be able to draw employees from the entire metro (not to mention the young inner loopers) rather than commit to moving out to a single village like Exxon.

That's my vision for how Houston grows gracefully over the coming decades.  I'm looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Summing up Houston, realistic transit, better policy platform for cities, very bad rail, and more

Lots of items this week:
  1. Others will ride it which will clear up the road for me (never happens - transit does not reduce traffic congestion, all of the big transit cities also have big traffic congestion)
  2. The perfect route to my workplace will be created and it will be faster than my drive now with convenient schedules (rarely happens)
Not arguing against good, cost-effective transit - it is absolutely very important - just saying you have to take support surveys with a grain of salt and make intelligent, pragmatic decisions about road vs. transit investments based on real-world usage.
For me, Houston is an intimate and kind-hearted city. A city as innovative as New York but with a Southern pace and a Western openness.
"I ask Glassman a few times in a few different ways, What makes Houston Houston?
There's a "misfit tinkerer" mystique to the place, he finally answers.
"Think of the Astrodome," he says. "The Art Car Parade. Wes Anderson. The Orange Show. The Beer Can House ... "
"We’ve all heard the claim that a rail line can move as many people as an eight- (or sometimes ten-) lane freeway. Not so much. Orlando’s billion-dollar commuter-rail line carries less than 2,000 people to work each weekday morning and home in the evenings. (Amortized over 30 years at 3 percent, it would have cost less to buy every single daily round-trip rider a new Prius every year for the next 30 years.)"
  • I generally like to avoid politics on the blog, but found this a compelling argument that the Republicans should adopt an urban policy of openness and affordability (second item).  Hear, hear!  Would love to see the Democrats adopt it as well!
"As a result of decades of Democratic governance and misplaced priorities…American cities do not offer the opportunities for success and growth that they should, especially for those looking to climb the socio-economic ladder. In many cases, city governments are utterly dysfunctional. And the reason for this dysfunction is that our cities are too often closed—closed to businesses and closed to outsiders. For the middle class and those striving to make it up the ladder, the taxes, housing, and other costs leave cities simply too expensive to afford—especially with a family. Excessive regulation makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to get the permits necessary to start a business. Cronyism and a lack of transparency make it difficult to know whether anyone is trying to fix the situation."
"Housing regulations have been used by the urban left to restrict new construction, as if city neighborhoods are gated country clubs that should never allow change or new people. The liberal business elite have fortified the business permitting process so much that, in many cities, it is nearly-impossible for competing entrepreneurs to enter basic professions like hair-styling. And to carve out a voting bloc, the left has defended unionized public monopolies that deliver services at far higher cost, and less efficiency, than is necessary. 
To the authors, making cities more “open” would mean embracing economic and administrative liberalization. They call for housing deregulation, so that cities can accommodate growing populations; one-stop shops for business permitting; and civil service reform, so that bureaucracies are either held to better standards, or replaced through privatization. They also call for better online data, so that residents can easily view info on their cities’ spending and debt, and gain access to officials."
Finally I want to end with an excerpt from Gov. Perry's National Press Club Speech highlighted in the Wall Street Journal.  Hat tip to Wendell.
"There's a lot of talk in Washington about inequality, income inequality. But there is a lot less talk about the inequality that arises from the high cost of everyday life. In blue state coastal cities you have these strict zoning laws, environmental regulations that have prevented buildings from expanding the housing supply. And that may be great for the venture capitalist who wants to keep a nice view of San Francisco Bay. But it’s not so great for the single mother working two jobs in order to pay rent and still put food on the table for her kids.

It's not just about how many dollars you earn, though there are still pretty substantial opportunities for that in the State of Texas. It's also about how far each dollar that you do earn can take you. After you’ve paid your taxes, you’ve paid your rent, your tuition, your grocery bills. "
Hear, hear!

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