Sunday, April 11, 2021

What Houston Could Lose Because of Harris County's Anti-NHHIP (IH-45N) Lawsuit

This week we have a guest post from Oscar Slotboom making a very compelling case for a long list of benefits from the I45N redevelopment project as well as the risks of cancellation or delay - a list which seems to be getting lost in all the controversy.

Despite the support of the HGAC Transportation Policy Council, Harris County recently filed a lawsuit to block the IH-45 North Houston Highway Improvement project. Let's review the extensive and transformative benefits the NNHIP will provide for Houston, starting at the south end and proceeding northward.

The NHHIP will

  • Remove nearly a mile of elevated IH-69 freeway through Midtown and sink the freeway below ground level. This will be especially beneficial to the new innovation district hub and the Ion, which is adjacent to the freeway.
  • Provide relief for the chronic congestion on northbound IH-69 at Spur 527
  • Remove existing elevated ramps connecting into Chenevert Street
  • Add new long-span arched bridges at Elgin, Tuam and McGowen, providing an attractive architectural enhancement to the area
  • Retire the Pierce Elevated, providing the opportunity for redevelopment or creating one of the most distinctive urban parks in the country, Houston's version of NYC's High Line.
  • Provide relief for the chronic back-ups which occur for traffic connecting to the northbound Pierce Elevated
  • Remove a mile of elevated freeway through east downtown, sinking the freeway below ground level.
  • Provide the opportunity for new parks over the freeway, seamlessly connecting to Eado with the potential to transform the area similar to Dallas' Klyde Warren Park.

  • Provide all displaced residents of Clayton Homes the opportunity to relocate to public housing in the immediate area, or to receive vouchers
  • Relocate IH-10 so it no longer goes through the middle of UH-Downtown
  • Provide the opportunity to consolidate east-west railroads on the north side of downtown, removing the railroad from the UH-Downtown campus and improving development opportunities for the proposed North Canal project.
  • Reduce the footprint of freeways on the west side of downtown and at West Dallas, opening up more space for parkland and recreation. Plans include a new pedestrian crossing at Andrews Street.
  • Apply high-quality architectural standards to all the freeway structures, far better than the utilitarian and unattractive existing concrete structures from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
  • Improve pedestrian and bicycle accommodations at all freeway crossings
  • At IH-45 and North Main, add a deck over the freeway, which substantially improves the situation as compared to the existing design.
  • Reduce the risk of flooding on the flood-prone section at North Main by applying modern flood control design standards.
Flooding on IH-45 near North Main
  • Provide four managed lanes on IH-45 north of downtown to Beltway 8, which will be an important part of a future interconnected managed lanes network for Houston to promote public transit, carpooling and technologies of the future. The managed lanes will provide the opportunity for two-way high-speed bus service to Bush Airport.
  • Modernize the antiquated interchange at I-45 and Loop 610, which has seen only minimal improvements since its opening in 1962. These improvements will provide relief for the chronic backups on eastbound Loop 610 approaching the interchange.
  • Provide the opportunity for new architectural enhancements and landscaping along the freeway from Loop 610 to Beltway 8, which is currently one of Houston's most unattractive freeways and unfortunately the first impression of Houston for many visitors arriving at Bush Airport.
  • Remove 58 billboards, with most along the North Freeway (reference FEIS page ES-19)
  • Between Loop 610 and Beltway 8, bring the frontage roads up to modern standards to facilitate safe and convenient access to businesses along the freeway.
  • Improve job access for the segment 1 workforce (from Loop 610 to Beltway 8).
    The City of Houston request, which is supported by Harris County, aims to make traffic congestion worse and force people into public transit that goes downtown. But when you think about it, this is entirely wrong for the corridor workforce. This workforce is generally not going to find a match for its job skills downtown. This workforce is far more likely to find a match for its skills at employment locations like Bush Airport, warehouses, industrial facilities, medical offices, factories and construction sites.The Hispanic workforce in particular is heavily represented in the trades, construction and landscape. This workforce goes to on-site work locations and is more heavily dependent on highways than other sectors of the workforce. Making traffic worse will impart disproportionately large cost and inconvenience to this workforce.
  • Provide congestion relief throughout the corridor. The NHHIP will improve freeway sections which currently are ranked among the most congested in Texas, with the following rankings: #3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17. Nine of the 17 worst congested freeways in Texas will be improved by this project, which is an amazing and remarkable amount of congestion relief for a single project.
As this list shows, this is not just a mobility project, but also a transformative urban improvement project for Houston. TxDOT is spending $7 billion including $5 billion in the downtown area to achieve these improvements for Houston. The FEIS plan was forged over 10 years, and like any complex plan it is a compromise plan, with elements for both sides to like and dislike. As with any compromise plan, you don't come back at the end and say "Oh, I want to keep the parts I like and get rid of the parts I don't like." That's not how a compromise works.

With the lawsuit, there are numerous scenarios in which the currently committed funding of $5.05 billion could be lost
  • Due to delays or insufficient local support, TxDOT could rescind the funding and reallocate it to other projects statewide.
  • The court could require a redo of the environmental process, which would take years and also wipe out existing plans. There's no assurance TxDOT will be willing to fund the Pierce removal and below-grade Eado freeway if the process restarts from scratch. When the West Loop expansion was canceled in 1992, the revised plan was a basic, low-cost plan. We know how that turned out, with the West Loop perennially among the top two most congested freeways in Texas, and usually #1 most congested.
  • Long delays could cause inflationary cost increases in the billions. Construction costs are down about 10% due to Covid, but as the recovery progresses we could see a severe inflationary surge similar to the increase seen after the Great Recession. In the five year period from 2011 to 2016, construction costs increased 60%, which would increase the project cost around $4 billion to $11 billion. (source)
  • Probably now or never. With TxDOT's generally declining financial situation due to reduced fuel tax receipts and declining oil severance tax (which funds Proposition 1), there is no assurance there will ever again be funding for a project of this scope if current funding is lost. TxDOT's funding is currently slated to be in steep decline in the 2030s, as Proposition 7 expires in 2029 and 2032.
  • The Biden "infrastructure" plan, if passed, would to be minimally helpful to TxDOT's long-term financial situation. Only $115 billion (5%) of the $2.3 trillion proposal is slated for highways and bridges. If Texas receives a share proportional to its population (which it probably won't), that would be $10 billion over 8 years, or $1.3 billion per year which is around 8% of TxDOT's $15 billion annual budget. Of course there would likely be numerous strings attached to the money, possibly restricting it to maintenance and repair.
If NHHIP is canceled or defunded because of Harris County's actions, it will be a huge loss for the future of Houston.

UPDATEWe're not the only ones that see the benefits of this project:

Houston Chronicle:  Supporters of I-45 widening say pause puts promises of relief on hold, too

'Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.'

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Monday, April 05, 2021

Are we entering the Distributed Age? Plus perspectives on Houston, TX #1 for infrastructure, and more

My leads this week are a couple of great quotes about Houston:

"Houston has actively deregulated, with the result that it's the only major city in the U.S. today undergoing a transformational change from suburban to urban densities. Houston makes thinkable the unthinkable." 

-Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Land Use without Zoning book letter 

"Once a planning pariah, Houston, with its peculiar lack of zoning, increasingly looks like the future." 

-Nolan Gray in the afterword of the newly updated Mercatus edition of "Land Use without Zoning" by Bernard Siegan.

If you're curious about the recently re-released book on Houston, "Land Use without Zoning" by Bernard Siegan, you can find it here.

Moving on to this week's smaller items:

"Other American cities—notably Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Miami—are challenging NYC’s supremacy in communications, legal and financial services, the arts and business. Political and economic leaders in those cities encourage inclusive growth, development and change." 
"No state handles more of America’s cargo than Texas. In fact, no state comes close. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Lone Star State handles around $2 trillion worth of commodities per year. And Texas has the infrastructure to handle it. Port Houston, the nation’s second biggest, has surpassed Rotterdam as the world’s largest petrochemical complex, officials say."
“A year after the coronavirus sparked an extraordinary exodus of workers from office buildings, what had seemed like a short-term inconvenience is now clearly becoming a permanent and tectonic shift in how and where people work. Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families.” … 
Still, about 90 percent of Manhattan office workers are working remotely, a rate that has remained unchanged for months, according to a recent survey of major employers by the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, which estimated that less than half of office workers would return by September. … 
“We believe that we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time,” said Alexander Westerdahl, the vice president of human resources at Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming music giant that has 6,500 employees worldwide.
"As Houston prepares for unprecedented population growth in the coming decades, I predict that the versatile ADU concept will continue to help make our inner-city neighborhoods more affordable and sustainable."
"In 1976, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared that Houston was “the American present and future. It is an exciting and disturbing place,” one that “scholars flock to for the purpose of seeing what modern civilization has wrought.” In her account the city's distinctive character lay in its decenteredness, its seemingly limitless capacity for shape-shifting, and its utter lack of history. Like many observers then and since, Huxtable was struck by the experience of juxtaposition—of form, scale, type, and space—that was a consequence, in part, of the city's infamous lack of zoning regulations and its unapologetic accommodation of private real estate interests"

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Baylor forfeits to UH after positive covid test - UH goes straight to national championship game!

In an absolutely unprecedented occurrence in NCAA March Madness tournament history, Baylor is being forced to forfeit its upcoming Final Four semi-final basketball game against the University of Houston after their star player Davion Mitchell tested positive for Covid-19, sending UH directly to the national championship game Monday, April 5th! UH is now redefining the classic March Madness "Cinderella story" after being the first team to make the Final Four without defeating a single-digit seeded opponent and now skipping right past the semi-final game straight to the National Championship game - just when you thought pandemic craziness couldn't get any crazier! 

Baylor is of course completely devastated by the news and trying to appeal, but the NCAA covid safety protocols are very strict and pretty clear. Even if every other player tests negative, there's no way to know if they haven't already been exposed and will develop it before the game Saturday.

UH Chairman and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta issued a statement congratulating the Cougars on getting to the national championship while offering a generous consolation prize to the Baylor players after their sudden season-ending disappointment: once they clear covid protocols they're all welcome to immediately join the cellar-dwelling 13-34 Rockets as an "obvious and immediate upgrade," according to Fertitta.

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Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D 
Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

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