I’m an insider now

April 1st, 2010

April Fool’s Day posts are a running tradition on Intermodality. But, when I started this blog in 2005, this April 1 news would have seemed the most unlikely of the bunch:

1. REQUEST from Mayor for confirmation of the appointment of the following individuals to the BOARD OF THE METROPOLITAN TRANSIT AUTHORITY:
· Position One – MR. GILBERT ANDREW GARCIA, for a term to expire 4/7/2012
· Position Two – MR. ALLEN DALE WATSON, for a term to expire 4/7/2012
· Position Three – THE HONORABLE DWIGHT E. JEFFERSON, for an unexpired term ending 5/1/2010
· Position Four – MS. CARRIN F. PATMAN, for a term to expire 4/7/2012
· Position Five – MR. CHRISTOF SPIELER, for a term to expire 4/7/2012
· – PASS

I was not nominated because I’m a blogger, but had I not blogged, I never would have been nominated. The web is a virtual community, but it also creates real communities. I met readers in personal, go to know them, and was lucky enough to be able to work with them. Their support got me named to the transition committee and then to the board. I thank you all. I’m grateful, humbled, and amazed. This is one testament – and there are many – to the power of the internet to organize and the willingness of Houston to embrace outsiders. I was an outside agitator; now I’m an insider. That’s pretty remarkable.

The decreasing volume of posts on Intermodality was already a testament to the fact that my energies were going elsewhere. I was still spending lots of time on transit, but I was serving on committees and working with neighborhoods rather than writing. Now, I expect, the trickle will stop altogether. I am now limited in what I can say – I can’t really write a “METRO should do this” blog post. I also have only so much free time. I may post now and then, but don’t count on it. But I’m not going to be hiding away, either: I’m staying involved, and my ctc email (cspieler@ctchouston.org) will still get to me.

Luckily, others are writing away more prolifically than I ever did. We need outside agitators to keep the discussion going, to raise new ideas, to reveal different perspectives, and to keep the insiders honest. That’s where change comes from. We are making decisions all the time that will shape Houston for decades, and we need every bit of input we can.

A decade of megaprojects and hints of the future

December 31st, 2009

The time has come to make end-of-the-decade lists (or, if you’re the Chronicle sports department, end-of-the-21st century lists).

It has been a busy ten years in Houston transportation. It was a decade of huge projects, some controversial, some nearly unnoticed. It’s also been a decade of more modest projects that give a clue to what the next decade (or two or three) might be like. Here’s 11 built projects that represent 2000-2009 in Houston transportation.

Katy Freeway Expansion

After a 2003-2008 rebuilding, The Katy Freeway is now one of the widest freeways in the world, with 8 mainlanes, 6 frontage road lanes, and 4 HOT lanes all the way from 610 to beltway 8. There is no doubt that it has (for now) improved traffic and spurred development. But the cost was significant. The project was originally estimated at $1 billion but ended up costing $2.8 billion; it displaced hundreds of business and an entire street of homes; and it removed a rail line that could otherwise have been used for transit. The Katy Freeway was the culmination of decades of freeway widening. This may be the last project of its kind: the last time that Houston planners thought that that more lanes along were the solution to transportation in a major corridor. 290, the next major freeway project, includes a reserved right of way for transit.


Hobby and Intercontinental Airports

A decade ago, Houston’s airports were an embarrassment: awkwardly located security checkpoints, low ceilings, carpeted walls, bad food. That was before $4 billion in new construction. Intercontinental got a new terminal (E), renovations and expansions at terminals A, B, and C, a new international arrivals area, a new people mover, a new car rental facility, and a new runway. Hobby got an all-new concourse and a new Southwest Airlines ticket hall. At the same time, Southwest continued expanding, and Continental kept adding international routes. Flying in and out of Houston has gotten a lot more pleasant (except for the ever increasing security procedures.)


Southwest Freeway expansion

The Southwest Freeway expansion from Shepherd to Spur 527 was a landmark of a different kind: the first Houston freeway to be rebuilt to reduce its neighborhood impact. After intense lobbying by neighborhoods alarmed by a proposed second level of freeway, a mile of elevated freeway was depressed into a trench. It was part of a national trend to rethink how freeways fit into the city that included Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, but so far it’s unique in Houston.


West Loop reconstruction

The West Loop past Uptown is one of Houston’s traffic bottlenecks. It was rebuilt from 2003 to 2006 — but while it got extended flyovers (putting lie to TxDOT’s “no added capacity” claims) and new on- and off-ramp configurations, it did not get additional mainlanes. That may be a trend: finding the land to expand urban highways is getting harder and harder. The Uptown District is now counting on light rail to help recreate the Galleria area as a more walkable, less car-dependent place.


Westpark toll road

Toll roads were the talk of the transportation community all decade. In Houston, we got our first EZ tag-only toll roads along Westpark ($256 million, completed and south to Fort Bend as well as our first toll lanes in a freeway median. With state highway funds running low, they may be the wave of the future.


Main Street Light rail

The light rail line was cheap compared to the freeway projects — only $320 million — but it’s gotten more attention than any other transportation project in Houston. Nationally, we were known as the place where rail projects never get built; now we’re the busiest light rail line in the country in terms of riders per mile. The next step — approved by voters in 2003, but just barely under construction today — will be one the big stories of the next decade.


Downtown/Midtown Transit Streets

In fact, the light rail was only just barely the biggest Houston transit project of the decade. METRO spent $215 million and 5 years rebuilding 34 miles of Downtown streets with new pavement, new computer-controleld traffic signals, and improved sidewalks. That construction, which coincided with light rail construction, the collapse of Enron, and the 9/11 recession, was hard on businesses. But, along with the Cotswold Project, which rebuilt streets around Market Square and the courthouses, it’s made Downtown a better place to drive, walk, and use transit and created infrastructure that should last a long time.



The Port of Houston’s brand new container and cruise ship terminal was approved by voters in 1999; in 2004, neighbors and environmental groups failed in their attempts to stop it, and the first container ship pulled in in 2007. The ultimate master plan (pdf) calls for 1,133 acres, with berths for 10 ships, a dedicated rail yard, and room to hold 50,000 containers (in addition to the 10 berths at the port’s older terminal, Barbour’s Cut.) The cruise terminal has been a bad bet so far; it hosted ships for a brief time after Ike but has otherwise stood empty as ships call in Galveston instead. But the container port is busy, and the Port of Houston Authority hopes for more traffic as the Panama Canal is widened to hold larger Asian ships.



The City of Houston’s bikeway program dates back to 1992, but construction didn’t start until 1999. The $43 million project included 125 miles of on-street bike lanes, 70 miles of multi-use trails (including the just opened MKT train in the Heights and the First Ward) and another 165 miles of signed on-street routes. Houston has bike trails before, but Houston’s project was probably the first time that bicycles were treated (and funded) as a mode of transportation. That became something of a trend, with Bill White bicycling to work on TV, METRO putting bike racks on buses, and the Energy Corridor focusing on bicycles in their master plan.


KCS Macaroni Line

Thirty years ago, many had given the US railroad system up for dead. But then came deregulation, containerization, and higher trucking costs. Since 1980, U.S. freight railroads have grown market share and nearly doubled the volume of freight they carry. Now, railroads are reinvesting, not retrenching. The most visible sign of that in Houston is Kansas City Southern spending $164 million to lay 90 miles of new track along an abandoned rail right-of-way from Victoria to Rosenberg; the new line opened in June.


Ashby highrise

The Ashby highrise is a proposed apartment tower, not a highway or transit line. But it has broken new ground in transportation policy. After a politically connected neighborhood protested the project, the City of Houston used a driveway construction permit to block the project, then wrote new rules that prohibit construction that adds to traffic congestion in already congested areas. Those rules require traffic studies for all large projects in the City of Houston. More significant, perhaps, is the precedent: limiting construction based on available transportation capacity. Were that principle applied everywhere in the region, it would be illegal to build new homes anywhere near 290, 288, or 45. Luckily, other agencies like HGAC are starting to conclude that density — done right — will actually reduce traffic.

Houston starts the new decade with a new mayor, planning for new projects (like 290 and Galveston commuter rail), and many more transportation challenges. Tell us what you think the next ten years will hold (or look back, if you like) in the forums.


December 30th, 2009

The Chronicle has an article this morning on Harris County’s new transit service in Pasadena:

The neighborhood loops connect Crosby to Baytown, La Porte to Pasadena and South Houston, and Clear Lake to La Porte.

The routes aren’t designed to deliver riders to downtown jobs — or to even connect to Metro trains and buses that could.

When asked how much he had consulted Metro in devising the routes and schedules, Fickes said, “Very little.”

And a Metro spokeswoman asked about the new routes said she wasn’t sure she had even seen them before Tuesday.

Both agencies should be ashamed of themselves.

Our goal for regional transit should be one system:

One card to ride them all. One farecard — METRO’s Q card is the obvious choice — should be valid on all transit systems in the region. Ideally, this should involve free or discounted transfers between systems, but even if it doesn’t being able to use one card is much easier than fishing for change.

One map to show them all. Look at METRO’s system map and you wan’t have a clue that Harris County Transit, Woodlands Express, or TREK exist. That’s silly. The map should show include service in the Harris County area.

One planner to understand them all. There should be regional trip planner website that includes schedules for all transit services in the region, so that it’s easy to plan a trip that connects two different operators.

Many connections to bind them. Whenever routes meet it should be easy to transfer: schedules should be coordinated, stops should be co-located, signage should be obvious.

This does not mean we need one operator. It’s OK to have multiple transit agencies; in fact, smaller agencies can be more accountable and easier to govern. But we need multiple agencies to coordinate.

Coordinate with your fellow citizens in the forums.

Let’s talk about service

December 30th, 2009


This is a commuter rail line: San Jose’s Altamont Commuter Express (ACE). It connects nine stations, one of them sort of close to a medium-sized employment center, one with a light rail connection to a suburban employment center, and seven which are basically no more than parking lots. There are six trains a day: three towards San Jose in the morning, three away from San Jose in the afternoon. The last train leaves at 5:35 p.m., and there’s no weekend service.


This is also a commuter rail line: Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. It connects 29 stations. All of them are in walkable places, including several major employment centers; all but 2 have connections to other rail transit lines. Trains run every 2.5 minutes at rush hour, and nearly as frequently the rest of the day, from 4:30 am to 1:20 am, seven days a week.

Yes, these are both commuter rail lines. But “commuter rail” is a technology, and what matters in transit is not technology but level of service. There is no doubt that a train every 2.5 minutes is different than a train every half hour (or no train at all), that a station that’s within a 5 minute walk from thousands of jobs is different that a station in an open field, that a connection to a reliable transit service that runs every 5 minutes is different than a connection to an occasional shuttle bus that gets stuck in traffic.

These two lines are the same basic technology, but entirely different sorts of operations. And the numbers back that up: ACE carries 3,700 trips a day, while the Yamanote Line carries 3,500,000. It’s not technology that really matters, it’s service. And there’s a whole range of service: these are two ends of a spectrum with many other possibilities in between.

“We need commuter rail” is an incomplete statement. So is “we need commuter rail to Galveston.” “We need rail transit from Houston to Galveston that runs every 20 minutes all day every day, makes the trip in about an hour, and connects conveniently to UTMB, NASA, Downtown Houston, UH, the Texas Medical Center, and Uptown Houston” is the kind of statement you can design a line around.

The Houston-Galveston commuter rail study now underway (without the support of METRO, Harris County or the Gulf Coast Rail District) is considering four alternatives: no-build (AKA do nothing) and three technologies — express bus, BRT, and commuter rail. The commuter rail alternative is described as:

Commuter Rail Alternative provides service along the Galveston Houston & Henderson (GH&H) Railroad between Galveston and Houston. The GH&H is a freight rail line that runs parallel with SH 3 and IH 45 for almost the entire corridor. This Rail Alternative will be studied for its suitability to provide commuter rail service and efficiently address the corridor’s mobility problems. Current freight operations along the majority of this corridor are from six to eight trains per day. This alternative would include the exclusive use of this rail alignment for three hours in the AM peak and three hours in the PM peak, providing two-way commuter service from Downtown Houston to Galveston and the 11 cities along the corridor.

If that’s the only commuter rail option on offer, this isn’t a real alternatives analysis. We’re settling for a rather low level of service from the get-go, a level of service that will be useless to a lot of potential riders. What about an option that runs all day? How often should the trains run? These questions matter now because they factor into both cost and ridership: more frequent service means more riders, but it also requires more tracks. Now’s the time to analyze a few different options and compare, rather than beginning with a (rather limited) assumption of what “commuter rail” means.

What kind of service do you want? Do you want ACE? The Yamanote Line? Somewhere in between? Tell the study team at one of three public open houses:

Tuesday, January 12th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

La Marque Community Meeting Room

1109-B Bayou Road

La Marque, TX, 77568

Wednesday, January 13th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

University of Houston-Clear Lake,

Bayou Building, Atrium II

2700 Bay Area Blvd

Houston, TX 77058

Thursday, January 14th, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Cleveland-Ripley House Neighborhood Center

720 Fairmont Parkway

Pasadena, Texas 77504

And tell us in the forums.

Finding the center

December 12th, 2009

A while back, I wrote about how planning divides Houston voters. But this year’s mayor’s race has been fought in the center. Read CTC’s candidate questionaires or the Houston Press’ last-minute primer and you’ll see the mayoral candidates more or less agreed on planning and transportation issues. I believe a broad consensus is building on some key issues. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, but most people do, and nobody’s going to get kicked out of office in the City of Houston for supporting these ideas:

Houstonians want to protect neighborhoods. The devil here is in the details — noone agrees on how — but the massive amount of new development in existing neighborhoods has lead to real problems with parking, drainage, infrastructure, building scale and historic preservation qand a recognition that there have to be ways to mitigate.

Houstonians want to enable good urban development in the right places. The “right places” bit is the rub here — nobody minds a new residential highrise on Main Street, but Bissonnet is another issue.

Houstonians want predictability when it comes to development regulations. In the current system, most urban projects require a lot of variances. That means neighborhoods have to watch the planning commission agenda closely. It also means that developers don’t know what they can build on land they’ve bought.

Houstonians want better transit. There’s disagreement on what and where, but just about everyone’s in favor of better transit (The Houston Area Survey: 78.6% think improved transit is “very” or “somewhat” important). 18 years after Bob Lanier defeated Kathy Whitmire on a platform of spending less on transit, it was the conservative candidate in the mayor’s race — Roy Morales — who proposed building a monorail, and the Republican county judge is the most vocal proponent of commuter rail.

Houstonians want a plan. Zoning is as divisive an issue as ever (and many planning professionals now think the idea of use-based zoning is obsolete), but the idea that different government agencies should coordinate their projects to improve the quality of life is uncontroversial.

Houston today is not Houston in 1991. Policymakers see that the world has changed: development patterns are different, highway funding is limited, new right-of-way is harder to get. The old battles are over, but the new way of doing things isn’t figured out yet.

Find more consensus in the forums

Pecha Kucha commuter rail!

November 18th, 2009


This Thursday, Domy Books (Westheimer and Dunlavy, in the same compund as Brasil) is hosting Houston’s first Pecha Kucha night, and I’m one of the speakers.

For the uninitiated, Pecha Kucha is a form of PowerPoint where the presenter gets only 20 slides, each of which stay on screen for exactly 20 seconds. The result is something very unlike a typical corporate Powerpoint: few bulleted lists (there’s not enough time) a lot of images, and fast presentations.

The speakers are “local creatives”: home builder, street artist, designer, etc. I’ll be doing my 20×20 on commuter rail: what, where, who, when, and why. Given the status of commuter rail right now, I’ll be asking more questions than I answer. But that’s important, too.

This should be a fun event — I’m looking forward to seeing the other speakers. Join us if you can…

Pecha Kucha Houston
Thursday, November 19, 2009
6:00pm – 9:00pm
Domy Books
1709 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX

Political foursquare (and what it means for the mayor’s race)

October 20th, 2009

Today, with early voting underway, I offer a detour into politics: I think disagreements over development are splitting the electorate in unexpected ways — and I think there’s an opportunity to form a new governing coalition.

We’ve gotten used to thinking of politics as a two way split. In terms of urban form, that split is around planning:
matrix1 [UPDATE: To be clear, "planning" in this context means the government attempting to shape the location, form, or type of private development. Private planning, and the government planning infrastructure to meet existing needs, is uncontroversial.]

That split roughly matches the pro-goverment/anti-government partisan split. But in urban form, there’s another divide as well: pro-growth and anti-growth. That divides the electorate into four pieces.


Let’s think about who’s in each piece.

Pro-Planning and Anti-Growth people don’t want their neighborhood to change, and they want the government to protect it. These are NIMBYs; in local terms, they’re the “Stop Ashby Highrise” crowd.

Pro-Planning and Pro-Growth people think the city will grow and change, but want that growth to guided. Locally, this is Blueprint Houston.

Pro-Growth but Anti-Planning people think the city should grow, but that private developers should be left on their own to figure out how that growth will happen. That’s Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Anti-Planning and Anti-Growth seems like an oxymoron in a city like Houston. But there are people in this group — they see their city is changing and they don’t like that change, but they think that change is being driven by government. Call them the tea partiers.


Here’s what makes that split important: none of these four segments are big enough to govern the city alone. Pro-Growth/Anti-Planning ruled the city for decades — but Pro-Planning/Anti-Growth neighborhoods are pushing back. And, as the Ashby Highrise shows, they’re nearly at a stalemate.

So winning the day means building a coalition between two groups. So far, coalitions have been built around pro-planning and anti-planning lines. But those coalitions can split — witness the rift in the Republican party between the (pro-growth) business groups and the (anti-growth) social conservatives. (In Houston, growth often speaks Spanish.) And we’ve seen the anti-growth coalition form around specific issues — “No Rail on Richmond” is a prominent example. Especially on the issue of development in the urban core, we could see a realignment.

So how does this apply to the mayor’s race? Consider who the members of each group are most likely to support on development issues:

The pro-planning pro-growth group finds an obvious candidate in Peter Brown. The pro-planning anti-growth group will tend towards Annise Parker, who talks in terms of historical preservation and neighborhood protection. The pro-growth anti-planning group won’t like either; they’ll prefer Gene Locke. And Roy Morales captures the anti-growth anti-planning contingent easily.


Obviously, these aren’t the only issues at play, and none of the candidates fall neatly into these categories. So we can’t take the election as a referendum of growth. But to win (either in the regular election or a runoff), and, more importantly, to govern, the mayor will need to build a coalition between at least two of these groups. And that coalition could literally change the shape of Houston.

UPDATE: Robin pointed out that Houstonians for Responsible Growth has endorsed both Gene Locke and Annise Parker for mayor. That hints at another coalition, one that’s solidified elsewhere: Pro-Growth/Anti-Planning+Anti-Growth/Pro-Planning. The inherent contradiction is usually resolved geographically: “As long as you protect my neighborhood you can build whatever you want elsewhere.” That equates to restrictions on construction in existing urban neighborhoods coupled with no restrictions on new development at the urban fringe. That’s turned into a powerful coalition in Austin, where older urban neighborhoods like Hyde Park have pushed for strict building regulations (like restricting the size of houses) while square mile upon square mile of new subdivisions go in in places like Round Rock. If that coalition solidifies in Houston, it could rule the city easily. But there are inherent internal pressures: at some point all those new suburbanites are going to want to widen the freeways that run through those urban neighborhoods.

High speed rail in Texas: options

October 8th, 2009

I already looked at the sorry condition of megaregional transit in Texas. But that could change quickly. At the megaregion conference, politicians – Republicans and Democrats — from Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, and College Station all called for connecting Texas with intercity passenger rail. They also agreed that highway-centric state government needs to pay more attention to rail, and indeed, TxDOT has created a (tiny) rail division. There’s a sense that a political consensus is building for megaregional transit. There are good ideas. But we’re a long way from building anything.

On a local level, political consensus is already showing results. Twenty years ago, Texas had no rail transit systems. Today, it has five (Dallas light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar, Houston light rail, and Galveston streetcar.) Both of those light rail system are in the process of massive expansion, Austin is about to open its first rail line, and Denton is building a diesel light rail line connecting to DART. In the planning stages: commuter rail in Fort Worth, a second commuter rail line in Dallas, commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio, commuter rail in Houston, and streetcars in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Austin. (San Antonio is also in the early stages of a light rail/streetcar study.) Thus, within another decade, we could have 15 rail transit systems:

us passenger rail texas 2

As we’ve seen across the United States, local transit strengthens intercity rail. It’s a feeder system, it shares urban alignments and terminal stations, and it builds a transit habit. So all these regional projects can begin to have a megaregional impact.

So what kind of system might link these cities?

The first option is high speed rail, with a top speed of 150 mph or more. That’s Amtrak’s Acela, Japan’s Shinkansen, France’s TGV, or Germany’s ICE. At this speed, trains need a dedicated, grade-separated line with minimal curves. Where existing freight lines are straight, you could lay new tracks alongside, but most lines are curvy and go right through the middle of small towns. Freeway medians are more promising, but any route is likely to include so new greenfield alignments. 150+ mph also means electric power: diesel can’t handle the speed. All of this adds up to fast and reliable trips (Houston to Dallas in 2:00, Houston to Austin in 1:30) but also to a big price tag.

Texas got close to full high speed rail 15 years ago with the “Texas TGV.” The initial proposal called a for a triangle connecting Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio, with additional stations near Austin, Waco, and College Station.

us passenger rail texas 2

By the time the Texas TGV project died due to opposition from airlines, rural landowners, and small government conservatives, the plan had contracted to a “T,” reducing the miles of track required. That idea is being pushed today by the private (but politically broad-based) Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation. It’s not as direct as the triangle, but at 200 mph, that doesn’t matter that much. There’s also been another proposal — a constricted triangle — but ultimately the route choice doesn’t change the overall magnitude of the cost or travel times.

us passenger rail texas 2

These proposals resemble California’s high speed rail plan. That will cost $40 billion for 800 miles and carry 247,000 daily trips. Frances’ SNCF recently estimated $13.8 billion for a 350-mile Dallas-San Antonio line (for a 1:50 end-to-end travel time) with 34,000 daily trips.

There’s no doubt we can afford high speed rail: Texas spends $5 billion on highways yearly. But it’s not yet clear we have the political will for it. That’s lead some to suggest that we should do what California did 30 years ago: improve regular-speed rail. Conventional passengers trains on tracks shared with freight trains can do 80 mph easily, given straight enough track and/or tilting equipment (like the Talgo trains in use in the Pacific Northwest) they can do 110. That’s not as good as 200, but it comes at a fraction of the capital cost.

The first option might to upgrade the existing Amtrak service. We have 0.9 daily trains from Houston to San Antonio; why not 4? We have 2 daily trains from San Antonio to Dallas; why not 6? This plan, however, has about 200 problems: there are a lot of freight trains to dodge on the same tracks. Even with preferential dispatching, passenger trains take 8 hours from San Antonio to Dallas and 5 hours from Houston to San Antonio, and they run over 30 minutes late about 20% of the time. That’s not going to work. We could upgrade those busy freight lines: add double track and build bypasses around some urban areas. But that doesn’t come cheap: a San Antonio-Austin freight bypass is estimated at $2.4 billion.

But there may be other options: intercity rail lines that don’t carry a lot of freight traffic or that have been abandoned. Here, we have to pay for upgraded track, but on existing trackbed. That’s cheaper than new double track or new lines.

Planning money for one such project – 290 passenger rail — is included in Texas’ request for high speed stimulus funds. Even if those funds aren’t coming to Texas (and I see no cause to be optimistic) TxDOT says they may fund the study with state funds. This would use the Hempstead commuter rail alignment (an existing freight line) from Houston to Hempstead, a Capitol Metro-owned line from Austin to Giddings, and an abandoned rail line from Giddings to Hempstead via Brenham. The Houston to Hempstead line continues to College Station, so that would be an obvious extension, providing Houston to Austin service (the burnt orange line?) and Houston to College Station service (the maroon line?). On the other end, those trains could be extended to Galveston. I’m calling this the Brain Train.

Some rough numbers: 2 1/2 hours from Houston to Austin, 1 1/2 hours Houston to College Station, That’s slightly faster than car, and, given airport security times, about as fast as a plane (but much more comfortable.) Cost: maybe $800 million.

us passenger rail texas 2

Ed Emmett – who’s been talking up the 290 project – also suggests another similar project: BNSF has expressed interest in selling its rail line from Houston to Dallas (the one that runs out 290 to Tomball.) In 1936, that line hosted Texas’ first streamlined train, the Sam Houston Zephyr on a 5-hour schedule from Houston to Dallas. With modern equipment and few stops (the only city of note on the way is Corsicana, pop. 24,000), that could be 4 hours, maybe 3:30. That’s car-competitive (and the fact that you can work/eat/sleep on the train is a selling point there), but not airplane-competitive.

us passenger rail texas 2

This debate — slow/cheap (aka incremental) vs. fast/expensive (aka ground up) — is going on across the country. The Pacific Northwest and the Midwest have chosen for slow/cheap; California has chosen fast/expensive. The choice is not absolute — Europe has combined the two approaches on the same network, even on the same route. In some cases, where existing rail lines are nearly straight (like Houston-Hempstead), an incremental line could be upgraded to full high speed rail later. There’s no doubt that dedicated means better service, but the cost — and the impacts of new alignments — can be hard to swallow.

This is perhaps the most important decision we have to make, and it comes down to political will. How much are we willing to spend? Do we have statewide leadership (which would make an ambitious project easier) or only regional leadership (which might only be enough to cobble together an incremental approach)? Do we believe in great or in good enough?

In that sense, the discussion about the perfect alignment is premature. The triangle vs. the contracted triangle vs. the T, maglev vs. steel rail, is something that can be figured out in a good study. The fundamental prerequisite is the decision to move forward, the political coalition that will move it forward, and the funding source that will permit it. We have lots of ideas. But ideas are the easy part.

Do you have the will to discuss this in our forums?

The commuter rail turf battle

October 7th, 2009

Carolyn Feibel’s Chronicle article does a good job of outlining the growing turf battle over commuter rail in the Houston region. METRO, Galveston, and the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (with support from Harris County) are all pursuing their own, independent commuter rail plans. We have two uncoordinated studies for commuter rail from Houston to Galveston, both studying the same technology on the same alignment.

Clearly, everyone needs to get on the same page. Duplicate efforts waste money, reduce the odds of getting federal funding, and may well lead to an uncoordinated system.

So who should be in charge? Fundamentally, I don’t think prospective riders care. If they get where they want to go, if their connections are smooth, if the same ticket works for their whole trip, if they can go to one place to get all the schedules and information they need, it doesn’t matter which agency does what.

In fact, it’s normal for commuter rail systems operated by one agency to connect to local transit operated by another:

  • In New York City, commuter rail lines in New York and New Jersey are operated by the MTA, which also operates New York subways and bus. But New Jersey commuter rail lines, which share a station with New York lines, are operated by New Jersey Transit, which also operates local rail and bus, and they connect to PATH, a local rail system operated by a third agency.
  • In Los Angeles, MTA operates subway, light rail, and bus, multiple cities operate additional local bus networks, and a multi-county agency operates commuter rail. All these systems connect.
  • In Chicago, the “El” and local bus are operated by the CTA while commuter rail is operated by METRA, but a regional agency (RTA) coordinates the two. Another commuter rail line, the South Shore, is operated by a separate Indiana agency.
  • In Washington, the WMATA heavy rail system, a D.C.-Virginia-Maryland interstate agency, connects at multiple stations with commuter rail lines operated by Virginia-based VRE (a multi-county agency) and the State of Maryland’s Department of Transportation, which also operates bus and light rail in Baltimore.
  • In San Francisco, two commuter rail lines (operated by two multi-county agencies) and two high-frequency intercity corridors (overseen by two more multi-county boards but operated by Amtrak under contract from the state) connect to a heavy rail system and two light rail systems, operated by three more agencies.
  • In Philadelphia, SEPTA operates bus, light rail, subway, and commuter rail. But it also connects to commuter rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit and a heabvy rail line operated by the Port Commission.
  • Boston has one agency that does everything: subway, light rail, commuter rail, us, ferry. The commuter rail system extends outside the MBTA service area, so it has interlocal agreements with those areas to fund that service.
  • In Dallas, DART operates light rail and bus, but the commuter rail line is operated by TRE, a DART-Fort Worth T joint venture.

The same pattern (or lack thereof) continues for smaller cities: Miami, Seattle, San Diego, and Albuquerque have commuter rail operated by one agency and local transit by another. Portland, Salt Lake City and Nashville have commuter rail operated by one local local transit operator.

Multiple agency systems can be well coordinated. Interagency transfers, schedules, and tickets are common even in the United States. And, even when a single agency operates multiple modes, they aren’t necessarily coordinated. And we have more than one transit agency already.

In fact, more than agency can be involved in a single commuter rail system, since implementing a system involves multiple tasks:

Funding and governance, both for construction and operation
Scheduling, ticketing, and public information

For planning, funding, and governance, political representation is important. Every area that’s served by a system needs to have representation. That’s most easily done by an agency that covers the entire system, especially one that’s linked to local elected officials. It can also be done by a board of local governments that then uses a different agency to do the work. Where the majority of a system falls within the area of one agency, that agency can put agreements in place with the local political entities that cover the rest.

Operations, scheduling, ticketing, and public information take place under the supervision of the governance entity, so the political representation is already there. Many systems actually subcontract these functions to a private company. Others use local public agencies that already have experience, or even Amtrak.

In that light, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the local contenders?

  • METRO has experience and staff expertise in planning and operations. But its service area only covers a part of the region. METRO can easily handle the planning, governance, and funding of lines that fall within its service area (like the proposed 90A line) and it could reach agreements with outlying cities or counties for extensions to those lines (like Sugar Land). But that’s much more difficult for lines that extend far outside the METRO area (like Houston to Galveston.) Any system will rely on METRO to connect to Houston job centers, so METRO is also well suited to planning and building commuter rail terminals that serve the urban core. METRO’s existing infrastructure makes it very well suited for operations and even more so for scheduling, ticketing, and passenger information.
  • Other transit agencies in the region aren’t broad enough in scope to contemplate commuter rail, and they generally don’t have the manpower, either. But they need to be involved to coordinate local transit connections.
  • HGAC, which did the Commuter Rail Connectivity study, has a lot of expertise in planning and in administering federal and state funding, and it covers the entire region with representation from counties, cities, and transportation agencies. But HGAC does not construct or operate, and it probably doesn’t want to. Nor does it have a revenue source.
  • The Gulf Coast Freight Rail District is being expanded to cover the entirety of the Galveston-Houston-Hempstead lines, with representation from the counties along the way and the City of Houston. But it has only a small staff and no local funding source. That could be remedied, though.
  • Individual counties and cities have tax revenues and experience in construction. But they generally aren’t big enough to cover an entire commuter rail line (let alone a system), so they’d have to band together to make anything happen (which the Freight Rail District provides a political structure for.) Counties and cities may well have to be part of the funding picture, and they may well have a role to play in building stations and providing transit feeders.

Thus, we don’t have an entity that’s perfect for making commuter rail happen. But we have pieces: the Freight Rail District has the right political scope, HGAC has planning experience, counties have tax revenues, and METRO knows how to operate and could easily be the public face to riders. The final solution may well be a consortium of the different entities with different strengths.

The reason why there are so many transit agencies on most large metros is ultimately political. Everyone who’s paying for a service wants to feel like they have representation and like they’re getting their money’s worth. Suburban areas are often reluctant to join urban transit systems out of fear (whether justified or unjustified) that their voice will be diluted by the population of the large city and their tax dollars will subsidize urban transit service. But cities can be reluctant to expand service areas, too, because it dilutes their influence and increases the demands on the agency. A superagency that can do everything sounds good on paper. But it easily becomes the kind of unwieldy animal that voters, taxpayers, and local elected officials hate.

Ultimately, commuter rail is a political problem. This will cost real money — estimates for just the Galveston line are $450 million in upfront capitol costs and $17 million in annual operating costs. HGAC estimated a mutli-line system as $3 billion capital and $89 million operating. The feds generally fund no more than half of the capital cost, and commuter rail systems cover typically cover at best half of operating costs with fares. Where that money comes from — and how taxpayers can be satisfied that it’s well spent — is the real challenge here.

So how does this settle out? Nobody quite knows yet. One person has the power to figure this out, but we don’t know who they are until November. The mayor of Houston can tell METRO what to do and commands considerable city resources and public prominence as well. The city and the county (which, under Ed Emmett, has already reached out to other counties) getting together could be the key to making this happen. The city and the county butting heads could kill all of it.

So what do you think will happen? Or should happen? Tell us in the forums.

Megaregional transit

September 22nd, 2009

This Thursday and Friday, Houston Tomorrow is sponsoring a conference on “Megaregions and MetroProsperity.”

The America 2050 initiative explains:

As metropolitan regions continued to expand throughout the second half of the 20th century their boundaries began to blur, creating a new scale of geography now known as the megaregion. Interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and common transportation systems link these population centers together.

Those economic links lead to travel. A megaregion needs a megaregional transportation network. We have megareigonal highways and megaregional airlines. We also need to be thinking about megaregional transit.

This is by now means a novel thought. A linked megaregional transit network is taken for granted in Britain, Japan, and most of the world’s industrialized countries. The German railway actually offers a trip planner for the entire country: any bus, light rail, subway, commuter rail, or regional rail stop in the country to any other.

We had this kind of network in the United States once, too. We let much of it disappear, and the rest has been divvied up by a confusing array of local, regional, statewide, and national agencies. The separation between Amtrak and commuter rail, for example, is arbitrary: commuters can ride Amtrak and intercity travelers can ride commuter rail. But federal law distinguishes between the two. The result is a fragmented network, one that can be hard to comprehend in its totality.

But now that we are talking about high speed rail, our existing networks become relevant. High speed rail wants feeders. Some riders will arrive by car and depart by taxi, but there’s no doubt that good local and regional transit connections make megareigonal high speed rail more relevant. And, make no mistake, high speed rail is an interregional mode. It’s cities less than 3 hours — 600 miles or so — apart where high speed rail is most effective. Houston to Dallas makes sense. Houston to Chicago doesn’t.

So let’s take inventory.

The closest the United States gets to megareigonal transit is in the Northeast. Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, the fastest railroad in the Western Hemisphere, links Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington. The Amtrak station in each of those cities is also a commuter rail hub and is connected to an extensive urban rail system. This network befits a region that is still the densest in the United States and the most prosperous: 4 of the 10 largest metropilitan areas and 8 of the 10 states with the highest per capita GDP are in the the Northeast.

On this map, black lines are Amtrak routes and red lines are commuter rail routes. The thickness (and the little italic numbers) indicate trains per day. Orange dots are major cities with local rail transit systems; white dots are major cities served by regional rail without local rail. Of course, not all cities are created equal, so the grey circles indicate metropolitan area size: the area of each circle is proportional to population. All these maps are to the same scale.

us passenger rail northeast

Those dense red bundles are eight of the ten busiest commuter rail systems in the country. This is the heavy-duty infrastructure I talked about last time. Boston has two stations with 183 and 378 commuter trains a day, respectively; New York gets 529 commuter trains a day at Grand Central, 734 trains a day (and 150 Amtrak trains) at Penn Station, 286 trains a day at Hoboken, and 145 trains a day at Flatbush; Philadelphia gets 458 commuter trains a day through its downtown spine, Baltimore sees 95 trains a day at two stations, and Washington Union Station sees 115 commuter trains a day. Those systems carry 1.2 million people a day, 4 times as many as Amtrak does in the same region. But that’s nothing compared to the local transit: the New York Subway alone carries 7.6 million.

The coherent spine of this system is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor: nearly 100 long-distance trains a day on up to 4 electrified tracks. It connects the old port cities that have been the economic engines of this area since colonial times. It has literally defined this region. But you don’t have to go far inland to find a completely different world. The struggling Rust Belt towns in the inland valleys see little or no rail service. There are frequent Amtrak routes to Hartford, Harrisburg, and Albany. But beyond there, frequency falls off, often to only one daily train in each direction. Cities like Scranton and Reading have no service at all.

The region that seems closest to new high speed rail service is California. Despite the state budget crisis, planning moves ahead to link San Francisco with Sacramento. California is not as populous as the Northeast, and the cities are further apart. But you have the 2nd and 6th largest metropolitan areas on each end and a string of cities in the Central Valley between Sacramento and Bakersfield — a ready-made corridor. Moreover, California’s been building a lot of local transit and laying the groundwork for high speed rail with regular speed rail: state-funded Amtrak corridors from the Bay Area to Sacramento, from the Bay Area to Bakersfield, and from San Luis Obispo through Los Angeles to San Diego are the busiest Amtrak routes outside the Northeast. Californians are getting used to thinking of train travel, and that makes high speed rail an easier sell.

We have left the land of first generation commuter rail behind, with the exception of San Francisco to San Jose’s Caltrain. Commuter rail service is much less frequent than it is in the Northeast, and these systems carry a lot fewer riders, too.

us passenger rail california

Up the Pacific Coast, Oregon and Washington, the 13th and 27th most populous states, seem unlikely high speed rail candidates. But much of that population is in a narrow strip along the coast, and in the 1990s the two states partnered to buy tilting Talgo trains that can make 80 mph (110 with track upgrades) on a curvy route. Portland and Vancouver have long had good local rail systems, and Seattle is getting its act together, too. The topography makes 250 mph high speed rail prohibitively expensive. But continued expansion of medium-speed rail service seems likely.

us passenger rail northwest-01.jpg

Chicago is the third largest metro area in the country, with arguably the second best rail transit network. But the rest of the Midwest pales by comparison: Detroit is #12 and sinking, Minneapolis is #15, St. Louis #19. A lot of the population is spread out across the prairie, in a series of 200,000 to 600,000 metro areas.

Chicago has been a railroad hub for 150 years; it’s no surprise it has a major commuter rail network and Amtrak routes in every direction. But overall, the Midwest rail network is poor. The rail lines were built across the prairie towards distant destinations, and they missed many of the smaller population centers. Illinois funds three Amtrak lines, but the third, fourth, and fifth largest metro in the state are unconnected. Indiana and Wisconsin, which don’t fund service, are even worse: the state capitol and college town of Madison, WI is an obvious candidate for a rail connection to Milwaukee and Chicago, but today you have to take a bus.

The Midwest has been planning 110 mph rail for over a decade. In a flat landscape crisscrossed with active and inactive rail rights of way, that’s not technically difficult. The problem is getting seven states to agree on anything. So far, the only fruits of that work have been some basic track upgrades. For a few miles across southern Michigan, Amtrak actually goes 110 mph already. But then it has to get in line behind freight trains again.

us passenger rail chicago-minneapolis

So where’s Texas? Our Amtrak network is pathetic, to put it mildly. The busy routes are two trains a day (one in each direction); Houston gets 0.9 (three trains a week in each direction.) The Texarkana-San Antonio and Beaumont-El Paso routes are long-distance trains, so they come through at odd hours and are likely to be late. Fort Worth-Oklahoma City is state-funded corridor service, so it’s better, but it’s still only one round trip daily. You can take a day trip from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, but not vice-versa. The local transit picture is getting better: Dallas and Houston have successful local rail systems. But San Antonio doesn’t have a local rail system, and Austin is about to open a stupid one.

But here’s what we do have: the #7, #9, #29, and #39 metro areas within 300 miles of each other with a big flat plain in between. And it’s all in one state, so if that state government got behind rail, it could happen pretty easily.

us passenger rail texas

Ultimately, high speed rail can’t been seen in isolation. Every country that’s built high speed rail added it to a system of urban rail transit, regional commuter rail, and regular-speed intercity rail. It’s going to be easiest to make high speed rail happen where some of that network already exists. But where that network doesn’t exist, this is the time to build it.

Comments in our forums.

Third generation commuter rail

September 12th, 2009


In 1985, 7 U.S. cities had commuter rail systems. Today, 14 (including Salt Lake City, above) do. Those new starts differed in significant ways — especially in level of service — from the existing systems. But now we may be seeing a third generation of commuter rail. The good news is that it offers more frequent and more reliable service. The bad news is that it costs more.

The first generation systems — Boston, New York (below), Philadelphia, Baltimore-DC, Chicago, San Francisco — date from before the 1920s. Railroads never made money on commuters, but they made a lot of money as the dominant mode for freight transportation, so they could afford to spend money on passenger rail facilities. They also had an incentive to do so: the industrial executives who decided which railroad to ship their freight with were often commuter train riders, as were railroad executives’ friends and neighbors (it’s no accident that the cities with the best commuter rail systems were those with railroad headquarters.) This money bought excellent infrastructure: double, triple, and quadruple track, grade separations, flyovers at junctions, electrification, elaborate terminal stations reached through urban tunnels. That long-lived infrastructure still sustains those cities today.


The second generation systems were born in a different world. In the 1970s, the U.S. railroad system seemed on the brink of collapse. Some major railroads were in bankruptcy; others were weak. Industrial decline was taking traffic away from urban rail lines, trucks were taking much of what remained, and a series of mergers made many lines redundant. Railroad executives, having seen two decades of contraction, were in a cost control mindset. When transit agencies looking to build low-cost suburban transit looked for railroad lines, the railroads were glad to rent space on their tracks or sell lines outright. Sometimes, those sales were the only thing keeping weak railroads afloat.

Thus, second generation commuter rail was transit shaped by opportunity. The goal was minimal investment. This usually meant operating trains on single-track lines, using occasional sidings to pass other commuter and freight trains (as in Dallas, below). It meant simple stations (though many of the old downtown stations had survived to be reused), diesel power, and a lot of grade crossings. This was cheap. But, as usual, you got what you paid for. he old commuter rail lines in Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia operate between 50 and 90 trains a day on over 10 lines each; New York has multiple lines with 100 trains a day. The second generation commuter lines often run only at rush hour, and only in rush hour direction. 10 to 20 trains a day are typical; some lines have only 8.


But the era that created second generation commuter rail has passed, too. Freight traffic is increasing; the railroads are dealing with problems of growth, not the problems of decline. Surplus rail lines are few and far between, and active lines don’t have much spare capacity. Railroads now regret the opportunities they lost in the line sales of the 1980s and 1990s, and, since they have no problem getting money from investors, they don’t need to sell lines for cash.

But the demand for commuter rail hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s greater than ever, and more political support for transit means more federal, state, and local funding. That assure we’ll see more commuter rail. But it’s going to look different.

For a hint of the future of commuter rail, go to Utah. Ignore the empty deserts: Utah is surprisingly urban. Most of the state’s population crowds in a narrow strip along the Wasatch Front. The resulting traffic congestion is nonpartisan, and thus conservative Utah has become a major transit supporter, with 69% of Salt Lake City metro area residents voting to tax themselves for transit. But it’s also at the core of the Western railroad system, with Union Pacific lines radiating out to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Omaha, and Denver, and the intermountain west’s biggest industrial cluster surrounds those rail lines.


Thus, there were no spare freight rail tracks to be had. So the Utah Transit Authority bought a strip of land alongside the freight rail line from Union Pacific and built 38 miles of new passenger-only railroad from Salt Lake City to Ogden. Previous commuter rail lines have upgraded signal systems or added a few sidings. But there hasn’t been a new line this long since before World War II.


So what does $611 million buy, besides new tracks, 7 stations, locomotives, cars, and a 2,000 foot bridge to separate commuter rail from freight rail on the approach to Ogden?


It buys a lot of service. FrontRunner every 30 minutes in each direction all day long, from 4:00 AM to midnight. That’s 74 trains a day. And, since they are the only traffic on the railroad, they’re fast (79 mph) and on time. 30 minutes isn’t quite “don’t need to look at the schedule” frequency, but it gives riders a lot of choices: what to work late? Go home early on a Friday? See a basketball game at night? Commuter from Salt Lake to Provo rather than the other way around? No problem. It also buys “futureproofing”: add more tracks and you could run every 15 minutes.

But here’s a caveat: commuter rail is only a good deal if it goes where people want to go. Fast, frequent service to nowhere is useless. In older cities, commuter is integrated into the urban fabric. Downtowns grew around stations like Grand Central in New York, so passengers are dropped off within walking distance from work. Front Runner’s station is a mile from Downtown; it’s a convenient transfer to light rail, but a transfer nonetheless. In older cities, commuter rail is also integrated into the suburban fabric: stations are in town centers, a short walk from stores and residential neighborhoods. In Salt Lake, the stations are parking lots off of the freeway. Salt Lake’s TRAX light rail line extends from the center of Downtown 5 miles south to Sandy. That line cost $300 million to build; it exceeded expectations with 20,000 average weekday riders. After a $118 million extension to the university, the system now carries 53,000. FrontRunner cost more to build but carries only 4,800.


Still, Frontrunner may be the face of the future. Other cities face the same freight rail challenge. Houston commuter rail, for example, will require new tracks to get inside 610. New Mexico and Maryland have built new rail lines to go to places that didn;t have tracks before.

Frontrunner is also a flashback: this is the kind of rail infrastructure we were building 100 years ago. With dedicated tracks, flyovers, and frequent service, third generation commuter rail looks a lot like first generation commuter rail.


Transfer to our forums for some discussion. And see more Salt Lake photos here.

deleted post

September 7th, 2009

this post was deleted because it was full of spam.

Ten transportation opportunities for the next mayor

September 7th, 2009

It’s Labor Day. The summer is over and, sooner or later, the public is going to start paying attention to the Houston mayoral race.

The mayor of Houston is one of two local elected officials — the other is the Harris County Judge — who can get media attention pretty much whenever they want. Thus, in addition to the considerable official power the mayor has in our strong-mayor form of government, they have a large bully pulpit. Even when an issue isn’t under the city’s control, the mayor has a lot of influence. And, thanks to term limits, a Houston mayor tends to stay in office for six years unless they do something really stupid. Six years isn’t a long time when it comes to planning transportation projects, but it is long enough to make a real difference.

Unfortunately, Houston mayors haven’t made much of a difference when it comes to transportation, with one exception. That exception is METRO: the mayor appoints a majority of the board, and major accomplishments like the Main Street Line are generally the work of the mayor. But the (critical) details of those projects, as well as operations, tend to be left to the board, and in other modes — highways, toll roads, the airports, the port, freight rail — our recent mayors have been nearly invisible. Bill White is typical: he has focused on operational improvements like Safe-Clear and left the big project planning to TxDOT and the county.

But January is a new slate, and the new mayor has the opportunity to take advantage of their position and show leadership on transportation issues. If they do, here are some areas where they could make a big difference.


1. Get the light rail lines built — and figure out what the next ones are. This was on Bill White’s to-do list when he took office 5 1/12 years ago, and there’s little in the ground to show for it. Some of the blame for that goes to the federal government, but METRO’s — and thus the mayor’s — decisions have a played a big role as well.

Now that things are moving forward, there will be a new problem: construction. We’re going to see streets torn up across the city. That will surely be painful, but how painful is up to the new mayor. METRO has to watch its contractor closely and communicate with neighborhoods constantly. Meanwhile, the city’s Public Works department has to work closely with METRO to make sure city utility coordination doesn’t delay construction and that other nearby projects don;t compound traffic and access problems. So far, METRO and Public Works have been at odds as often as they’ve been on the same page. That needs to change.

The mayor also needs to watch to make sure the lines get built right. Details like crosswalks, street trees, and intersection geometry really matter, and once they’re built they’re set in concrete. This is another case where METRO and Public Works need to work together, and the mayor is the only person who can make that happen.

Meanwhile, we need to keep going. We need a plan for the next set of lines — and this time around, the mayor needs to be ahead of METRO, building the neighborhood and citywide consensus behind the plan.


2. Improve bus service. Houston’s local bus systems has needed a rethink for at least 20 years. Route structures are confusing, stops are inadequate, service levels are inconsistent, and passenger information is pathetic. And, while the service is excellent, the commuter bus system is intimidating to new riders. Fixing this won’t take a lot of money; it will take concentrated attention. METRO can do that at the same time as they build rail but it will take a separate, dedicated staff and, perhaps most importantly, a political mandate.


3. Guide good urban development. One unfortunate result of the Ashby highrise controversy could be regulations that make construction more difficult everywhere. A better result would be new rules that make it easier to build what we do want. Growth is going to happen somewhere; incentives and regulations that make it easy to build good projects will reduce market pressure to build bad ones. This will likely take the p-word: plans that identify what works and what’s needed in a particular area. The city could start with Midtown and East Downtown — two areas where everyone agrees new development is good thing.


4. Target infrastructure to growth. New density in inner neighborhoods has many positive effects: it reduces how much people drive, gives people more choices on where to live, supports more retail and services, reduces habitat loss on the outskirts, and strengthens the city’s economy. But the neighborhoods that have seen the brunt of this growth have seen their infrastructure — drainage, parking, pavement, green space– get overloaded. There’s a simple solution: better infrastructure: roads, parks, storm sewers, transit. Some of that might be paid for with impact fees. But that new development is creating new tax revenues, so it only makes sense to bring some of those revenues back where they came from in the form of city-funded projects. It wouldn’t be hard to create metrics — based on building permits or on population growth — to identify which areas need the investment.

The new infrastructure needs to be guided by a new public works manual — one that takes into account the challenges of limited right of way and is designed to create “complete streets” that serve motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and neighbors alike.


5. Rethink parking. Parking is an issue in numerous ways. In Downtown, paid parking on Saturday afternoons helps drive away customers from restaurants, but those same street are packed at midnight. In Midtown, parking regulations make it hard to open new businesses. On Washington Avenue, spillover parking from clubs in jamming up neighborhoods. In Montrose, bungalows are being torn down for new parking lots. There’s a common theme, though: the city isn’t using the tools at its disposal. The city puts up meters, create neighborhood parking districts, enforces parking restrictions, regulates how much parking businesses have to provide, and runs its own parking garages. But it does so, for the most part, unintelligently. Why is Downtown parking free when it’s in highest demand and paid when there’s no demand? Why is it cheaper to park on the street instead of in a garage when street parking is more convenient? Why are parking requirements the same in Midtown as on FM1960? Why isn’t the city using the property it owns around Washington to build off-street lots? Wherever parking is a problem, the city ought to be identifying that problem and then using every tool is has to solve it.


6. Fix the freeway bottlenecks without destroying neighborhoods. TxDOT’s strategy for 40 years has been to keep adding lanes. Their future plans are more of the same — more lanes on I-45, more lanes on 290, more lanes on 288. But the biggest traffic problems now are bottlenecks — the Pierce Elevated, 610 and 59, 610 and 290, 59 at Main Street, 288/59 at I-45. Adding more lanes to put more traffic into those bottlenecks will only make traffic worse. So the focus should be on the bottlenecks. But any major construction in an urban area has to be designed to improve surrounding neighborhoods, net harm them. And solutions have to include more effective use of existing right of way through more intelligent lane configurations, better connections to surface streets, and electronic traffic management.


7. Finish the bayou greenways. The trails along Buffalo Bayou from Downtown to I-10 and along Braes Bayou west of the Medical Center are among the most loved green spaces in Houston. They’re also useful bicycle commute routes. Our other bayous should have similar trails. There are already fragmented trails along Braes Bayou and Buffalo Bayou in the East End, White Oak Bayou, and Halls bayou. They need to be made continuous and linked to each other as well as to the surrounding neighborhoods. Sometimes, as in Downtown, the gaps are only a few hundred feet long; sometimes, only 20 feet of dirt separate a path from the street. Some other bayous already have room for trails, but need pavement; some need agreements with adjacent property owners. These are not expensive projects; they simply need attention.


8. Get commuter rail (and high speed rail) right… and fix freight rail while we’re at it. The county and METRO are planning commuter rail; the state is pursuing funds for high speed rail studies. Both of these projects would be connected, and Houston is literally in the center of that combined network. The mayor will be in an excellent position to make sure they connect well to major job centers and local transit. The mayor will also be the best protection inner city neighborhoods have against potentially destructive projects. Commuter rail and high speed rail projects also need to be seen as an opportunity to improve our freight rail system so it can carry more feeight with less impact.


9. Clarify construction. Our transportation system is always belong worked on somewhere. Lane closure, detours, and cones are not occasional interruptions; they are part of life. We won’t change that. But we can do our best to reduce the impacts. To start with, we need a lot of signage. The “lane closed” at the construction site isn’t enough — we need another set of signs blocks away, where it’s still possible to take an alternate route. We need coordination, so we don’t have that alternate route torn up as well. And we need construction management that puts the focus on getting in, getting the job done, and getting out. The city needs a “construction czar” who can watch over all city, county, METRO, and state projects and manage the impacts.


10. Involve the public. Today, it’s nearly impossible for a mere taxpaying resident to find out what’s planned near their house. Even elected officials have trouble keeping track of the projects a dozen different agencies are working on. We need one source for that information: type in a zip code, find put everything that’s going on nearby. The city could be that source. Gathering information from Public Works and Parks and Recreation is easy. METRO reports to the mayor, so that’s not a problem either. And while agencies like TxDOT can easily stonewall the public, they can’t do the same for the mayor, so the city can get and share that information as well. And, once the information is out there, the city can make sure the public get a voice. It can publish contact information and public meeting schedules for every project, with rss feeds and email notifications by zipcode. If the implementing agency won’t hold a public hearing, the city can hold one for them.

So far, the transportation plans out of the mayoral candidates seem timid. That may seem appropriate in a time of recession with limited budgets. But those budgets will go a lot further if they’re used strategically in pursuit of a greater vision. They’ll also go further if the city works with other government agencies and with private institutions, non-profits, and developers. That’s the biggest opportunity of all: the city, the county, METRO, and the state can do a lot more together than they can do alone. A mayor who can work well with others will be a much more effective mayor, not just in transportation but in many other areas as well.

Share your ideas with others in our forums.

Think of the cargo

September 1st, 2009

Carolyn Feibel has a great piece in the Chronicle on freight rail. Not only does it take a big big picture look at transportation — which doesn’t happen very often — but it focuses on freight, not people.

Where ever you are, look around. We are all outnumbered by stuff: food, clothes, gadgets, appliances, furniture, building materials. And while that stuff doesn’t travel as often as we do, it all had to get to us. And there’s more stuff moving behind the scenes to make our lives possible: a lot the electricity that’s keeping this computer running comes from coal, and that coal had to get to Fort Bend from Wyoming somehow.

So moving stuff is as important a part of our transportation system as moving people. But look at the comments on the Chronicle web site: light rail, high speed maglev, commuter rail. Invariably the conversation turns to moving people. Our transportation planners and policymakers are the same way. Freight rail was virtually ignored — except as an obstacle for commuters or an opportunity for rail transit — for 50 years. We have a sophisticated model that estimates how people travel to evaluate highway and transit projects, but no such model for freight (A bit of good news, though: stimulus funds are going to a regional goods movement study, and HGAC is now seeking a firm to do that work.) We don’t even know how many trucks use which road. With that lack of data, freight is sidelined to an appendix in the regional transportation plan. But look around: our roads are full of trucks, our tracks are crowded with trains, and the port keep growing. We can’t figure out our transportation system without understanding freight.

And while we’re speaking of the stuff that sustains our lives, I should plug Cite 79, which will be going out to Rice Design Alliance members and to bookstores including Brazos, Issues, and the MFAH soon. It’s about the city as a machine and the often hidden infrastructure that keeps it running. We have maps of sewage, water supply, and landfills, an inside look at a nuclear power plant, a tour of the dispatch center that controls Houston’s trains, and a history of pipelines.

And, yes, Cite is part of the reason this blogs’ been quiet: sometimes, I write online; sometimes I write for Cite; sometimes I make powerpoints (i.e. two hours on Texas transit for a UH architecture class this afternoon.) I can’t usually do all of them. Expect to see more here again soon. Meanwhile, make your own content in our forums.

The pieces are falling in place for piecemeal commuter rail

July 31st, 2009


There hasn’t been much public movement on commuter rail since the HGAC’s study was released a year ago. But quietly, gears are meshing, and we may have commuter rail to Galveston and Hempstead as early as 2012.

On Thursday, the North Houston Association hosted a high-powered group: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, METRO CEO Frank Wilson, Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) Chairman Mark Ellis, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation (THSRTC) chairman (and former Harris County Judge) Robert Eckels, and Union Pacific’s Joe Adams. Introducing them was former Harris County Judge and State Senator Jon Lindsey, father of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. If there was ever a visual demonstration of the political will that’s aligning behind commuter rail, this was it.

Commuter rail in Houston faces three questions: which agency will implement it, who will pay for it, and how will it connect to the core?

The first question, it seems, may be close to answered. The GCFRD just advertised for and received qualifications for firms to do $2 million (pdf) in engineering studies, to be completed by June 2010, for 90 mph commuter rail lines sharing freight rail tracks along 290 from Hempstead to just inside 610 and from Galveston to just inside 610. This spring, the Texas Legislature expanded GCFRD’s mission to include intercity passenger rail; despite its name, the district has already been empowered to build commuter rail. Waller and Galveston counties are now joining the GCFRD, making the district the only entity short of TxDOT that covers both of those lines.

But it’s not clear that everyone agrees with that answer. In his remarks, Wilson called METRO “the regional transit agency” and noted that they had the ability to plan, fund, and operate any mode of transit. Both the Hempstead line as far as Cypress, and the Galveston line as far as Clear Lake (the limits of METRO’s service area) are on METRO’s maps; clearly, METRO would like to run these trains. Whether we’ll see a protracted turf war or cooperation depends on the Harris County Judge and the Mayor of Houston. Emmett clearly wants to see cooperation, but he doesn’t know who his counterpart will be come January.

The second question isn’t answered, but there’s some ideas here, too. High speed intercity rail and regional commuter rail can share the same tracks; they can also share the same funding. The Obama administration put $8 billion in the stimulus bill for high speed rail and plans another $1 billion a year. Where there’s a plan in place for a high speed rail system, that funding can go to project that will enable high speed rail but also serves commuter rail. California, for example, is asking for funds for grade separations on the Caltrain commuter rail line that will carry high speed trains into San Francisco. GCFRD’s studies will specifically address long term high speed rail.

Texas has a high speed rail proposal – TSHRTC’s Texas T-Bone – but it has not been studied enough to qualify for federal funding. So TxDOT is asking for $1.7 billion in stimulus money to do an environmental impact study and preliminary engineering. That would require the feds to make an exception from the rules, which allow only a small fraction of the $8 billion to go to studies. That seems unlikely when other states already have studies in place and “shovel-ready” projects. But if Texas gets its act together locally, future high speed rail funds could be part of the answer to capital funding for commuter rail. (We still need local/state matching funds for those federal funds, and commuter rail also needs operations funds, and those can’t come from federal funds.)

There are also at least two ideas for high speed rail. THSRTC wants to build 200 mph+ rail connecting Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. That would result in airplane-competitive trip times, but it would require all new alignments (the Houston alignment and station location are undetermined). Emmett suggested that it would be possible to build 110 mph rail from Houston to Austin largely using existing corridors. That would be much less expensive and still qualify for federal funds, but it would of course result in longer trip times.

The third question is far from resolved. Each of the speakers emphasized the need to connect commuter rail to METRO’s system to get riders to their final destination. But neither of the lines described in the studies actually connects to light rail. One could rely on shuttle buses to connect out-of-the-way commuter rail stations to employment centers, but that’s a recipe for low ridership. Alternately, the Uptown and East End light rail lines could be extended two miles to meet commuter rail; that adds cost and still results in a fairly long ride to Downtown. Ideally, the commuter rail would get close to the major employment centers, but that will take major construction since the freight rail lines inside the loop are congested.

Ulitimately, the answers to the first and second questions will shape the answer to the third. The ideal would be a continuous line from Galveston to Hempstead (and beyond to College Station and Austin). That would enable more regional trips (from Cyfair to NASA, for example) and get riders close to Downtown and Uptown. But it requires more money and more coordination between multiple agencies. Disconnected is (relatively) cheap and (relatively) easy. Connected is more expensive and harder. Stay tuned…


NoZone: good questions, no easy answers

July 14th, 2009


Last week, the candidates for Mayor of Houston talked about land use at an unusual forum at the CAM. There were five candidiates, one moderator who posed quite length questions (the first was no less than 600 words), and seven “respondents” who were able to comment on the candidates’ answers.

If you want to hear the candidates’ answers, check out this .wav file (82 mb.) But none of the answers were really all that interesting. These are hard issues, and addressing hard issues head-on is rarely the best tactic for getting elected.

Bu these are important questions, so I figured I’d try my own answers. I’m not running for anything, so I have no problem proposing unpopular answers. And I encourage you to propose your own in the forums.

First Question: Land Use Policy
Question proposed by Hugh Rice Kelly, attorney

A novel approach to zoning within defined boundaries for the otherwise ‘no zoned’ City of Houston, was proposed in House Bill 4648 in this spring’s 2009 Texas legislative session. Please respond if you were able to participate and had to vote on such a bill, would you have voted YES or NO. In addition, please provide an explanation for your decision.

Sponsored by Representative Garnet Coleman, this bill would apply the area zoning concept with the zoning district governed by state law. The statute would define a process under which residents of area having no less than 90 percent single-family homes could petition the City to create a Residential Management District. This District would have zoning power as well as any other power defined in its charter.

The justification for the creation of such districts is that deed restrictions legally cannot be created or reinstated to protect some single family residential areas in Houston, mostly in older neighborhoods developed before 1950:

• There are certain single-family areas of the city where deed restrictions lapsed so long ago that they cannot be revived. This is true for some of the neighborhoods in the Riverside area of Third Ward.

• There are certain single-family areas of the city in which there are numerous but scattered individual properties whose deed restrictions have long since lapsed, or which never were subject to deed restrictions. This is true for Boulevard Oaks, for example, but not Southampton, which adjoins the south side of Boulevard Oaks.

• Deed restrictions cannot protect these single-family residential areas from a development such as the Ashby High Rise.

• The strong and extensive deed restrictions used in postwar master planned communities cannot as a practical matter be imposed on existing neighborhoods. Most of these modern deed restrictions impose land use controls as strict or stricter than a zoning ordinance.

Mixing single-family residential with commercial and multi-family residential is a good thing. Mixed uses mean people have to travel less (reducing traffic, travel time, and transportation costs) and make it less likely that people will be displaced by increasing property values (since they can move from a house to a condo or apartment rather that leave the neighborhood.)

Zoning by uses is an old-fashioned system, developed based on assumptions on urban economy and health and that have proven flawed. Mixed uses (with the exception of industrial) create wonderful places.

Protecting neighborhoods really means something else: it means protecting against impacts, like noise, all-day shadows, lack of parking, flooding, and sunbaked sidewalks. We can start with enforcing existing ordinances. And then we can look at good form-based codes that regulate not what happens in a building but how it relates to the streets and buildings around it. But the key is to regulate only what matters, not what doesn’t, and to make the regulations clear and predictable.

Second Question: Transportation
Two part question proposed by the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition

Mobility is multi-modal. Transportation and land use are increasingly acknowledged as major factors affecting neighborhood quality of life. Roadways are used by cars, buses, and bicycles. and sidewalks can provide access to pedestrians, wheelchairs, scooters, and transit users. Better planning will benefit Houston neighborhoods; however, within the City of Houston, transportation-related planning functions are divided between the Planning & Development department and the Public Works & Engineering department.

First, would you support a policy to make sure every transportation-infrastructure project within the City of Houston—regardless of the implementing agency or department—preserves or enhances the full spectrum of mobility uses, including auto, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access and how would you encourage developers in their proposed projects to provide easy access to these systems?

Secondly, should the City have a single department with responsibility for transportation planning? Please provide a YES or NO response. In addition,
please provide an explanation for your decision.

Yes. Yes. Obviously.

But coordinating the city’s transportation efforts is not enough. County, state, METRO, port, and freight rail district projects affect the city too, and need to coordinate with the city’s own projects. And the mayor’s prominence puts her or him in the position to influence all of those projects. How well the mayor can work with their fellow elected officials and explain issues to the public will determine how good a transportation system we will build.

Third Question: Education
Question proposed by Gerald Frug, the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of the
CITY BOUND, How States Stifle Urban Innovation and City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls

Unlike most major cities in the country, Houston has several different schools districts rather than one city-wide district. Do you think that this system segregates education within the city and, if so, would you pledge to do something about correcting the problem and what would that be? Please provide a YES or NO response. In addition, please provide an explanation for your decision.

55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, educational segregation is directly related to the economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods. The size of school districts has little to do with it: HISD’s schools are each more segregated than the district as a whole.

We don’t enforce the racial segregation of neighborhoods. But we do enforce economic segregation: minimum lot sizes, prohibitions against apartment complexes, duplexes, and garage apartments, and minimum house sizes all effectively set minimum income levels in neighborhoods.

If you really want to desegregate the schools, look to deed restrictions, not school district boundaries. Or maybe we should focus on something that’s a little more politically tenable: improve the quality of education at every school, regardless of what neighborhood it’s in.

Fourth Question: Growth and Incentives
Question proposed by Samuel Jacobson, undergraduate at the School of Architecture, Rice University

Houston has grown with the proven formula of private investment following public investment in infrastructure. The City has been able to use its authority over Municipal Utility Districts within its extraterritorial jurisdiction to guide greenfield development on the city’s edge— ensuring a good business climate for developers , economic growth, and the continued expansion of the property-tax base. Another potentially similar form of control over infrastructure is the city’s control over mass transit and its investment in the light rail system. This has not been very effective at guiding development in the city’s urban core, where developers seem to be more responsive to taxbased programs (for example, Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones or TIRZs) than direct investment in infrastructure.

Given the controversy over Buckhead Investment Partners’ proposal for a highrise at 1717 Bissonnet (the “Ashby Highrise”), might the city have been able to take a more proactive approach and incentivize the developers and the community to transfer the project to a site along the Main Street Corridor and Metro’s light rail line, in exchange for limiting the size of the proposed development on the Bissonet site. This type of planning would encourage innovative thinking and development for the future of the City of Houston. How might infrastructure be used to proactively shape or reshape Houston’s already existing urban fabric?

That “proven formula” has a significant problem: it’s increased the cost of providing infrastructure. We pay for roads, storm sewers, wastewater lines, and utilities by the mile; the lower the density of development, and the longer people must travel to go to reach jobs, stores, and entertainment, the more was pay to build and maintain infrastructure.

So it would make sense for the city to incentivize development where the infrastructure is most efficient. For example, Midtown, where there’s a lot of street capacity, good utilities, and excellent transit access, should be less expensive to development in than elsewhere.

The problem is that we actually do the reverse by using property taxes to fund infrastructure. The places that have the highest infrastructure costs — the outer suburbs — have low property values. The places that have the lowest infrastructure costs — the urban core — have high property values. So we’re incentivizing development that will cost the public more in the long run.

On the other hand, the Bissonnet site actually has good infrastructure: it’s on a major arterial and a busy bus route, close to employment centers, and on a site that’s already developed. So infrastructure has nothing to do with that issue — it’s about scale, and it can be addressed honestly only with form-based code.

Fifth Question: The Future
Question proposed by members of the Sharpstown Civic Association

Mayor Bill White has had some of the highest approval ratings of any elected mayor and was recently named one of seven “eco-mayors” for his commitment to improving the sustainable practices in the city of Houston. By this time next year, the stimulus funds allocated for proposed and ‘shovel ready’ projects will be underway and one of you will be the new elected mayor of the city of Houston. The city has been referred to as many things, but in terms of industry, ‘energy capital of the world’ is the historical moniker that the city rightfully cultivated and owns. Today, it would be hard-pressed to retain this classification without qualification.

This spring the same state legislature session that killed the ‘zoning’ bill for Houston also voted against a bill for solar rebates, as well as a bill that would make it harder for homeowner’s associations to ban solar panels. The city itself is making every effort to incorporate these technologies into its own buildings, practices and policies. This is evidenced by the creation of the Public Works & Engineering Green Building Department; the creation of the park and application of solar arrays at Discovery Green; and the proposed weatherization and retrofit programs for aging subdivisions that will begin later this summer. It seems nearly impossible, however for private businesses and homeowners to afford these renewable technologies.

If renewable energy is not accessible or affordable and it only exists as a municipal showcase; if the utility companies do not facilitate the buy and tie back into the grid; what incentives do the solar manufacturers, energy companies and other renewable energy technologies have to set up manufacturing, marketing and servicing facilities as well as job training programs in the Houston area? What if a location like the Sharpstown Mall (that suffers from an ill-gotten perception problem that bleeds into an affordable, stable, and diverse, middle-class community) was to be redeveloped into an area for the incubation and application of these renewable technologies? If elected mayor, what would you propose as an expansive proposition for the future of the city of Houston that would eliminate the necessity of this qualification to truly make it the ‘energy capital of the world’. (Please provide in your response a specific program or incentive for homeowners, businesses or industry and how this would be done, where it would be done, or idea for the response.)

Cities rarely become “the ____ capitol of the world” because they create a program to that end. Cities attract industries like we attracted oil: by bringing together smart people, good ideas, investment capital, and infrastructure. That means education, research institutions, good connections to the rest of the world, a culture that celebrates innovation (and regulations that don’t stifle it), and places that people want to live in. The government has a role to play in all of these.

The best thing we can do to encourage renewable energy is to price energy appropriately. If something’s cheap, it will be wasted. Cheap oil is stupid policy. So is cheap electricity. But there’s little the city can do to help on that count.

So, yes, provide incentives. Make it easier for people to weatherize, upgrade to efficient systems, and put solar panels on their roofs. Build green public buildings. But that’s not going to make us the energy capital.

America’s longest toll road has no pavement

July 5th, 2009


You’re on Cajon Pass, in the mountains that separate the Los Angeles Basin from the high desert. On a hillside in the distance, big rigs are grinding up I-15. But you’re about to see a lot more trucks on the tracks in front of you. A train is approaching: 4 locomotives pulling 100 truck trailers, belonging to many of America’s biggest trucking firms, in between. And right behind it is another, this one with 250 shipping containers. The two rail lines in this pass combine to carry 100 trains a day. The majority of them are carrying trucks.

What you’re seeing here is the western end of one of the world’s greatest railroad lines, BNSF’s “Transcon.” It links San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix to Texas, the Midwest, and the East. Where all those traffic streams combine, across Arizona and New Mexico, the line carries 100,000 containers and truck trailers a day. That’s as many as travel by truck on I-40, which runs alongside. All that cargo started its trip by truck and will finish its trip by truck. In addition, the railroad carries another 50,000 trucks worth of freight in tanks cats, flat cars, hoppers, and boxcars. This is an interstate – with a difference. And it’s only one one of two major transcontinental rail lines across Arizona; the other, operated by Union Pacific, links the same places and is similarly busy.


Over the past decade, railroads have been steadily picking up market share from trucks: in 1996, they carried 33% of U.S. ton-miles; in 2005, they carried 38% (pdf). The Transcon saw a 50% increase in rail freight from 1994 to 2004. And this gain in market share has come despite that fact that the railroad was raising its prices.

Trains are benefiting from two major efficiencies: energy and manpower. Because steel wheels on steel rails have less friction that rubber tires on a concrete road, and because a 4,400 horsepower engine is more efficient than a 500 horsepower one, trains are much more fuel efficient than trucks. A train can move a ton of freight 400 miles on a gallon of fuel; a truck can do only 130. Every time the price of fuel goes up, railroads look better. And when the price of labor goes up, railroads look better, too. That train with 200 containers requires a 2-person crew in place of 200 truck drivers. And drivers have been harder to find lately – few people want the life of a long distance trucker.

Meanwhile, railroads have overcome some of their natural disadvantages. By moving traffic in trailers and containers, they don’t need to maintain a spur track to every industry; they can concentrate their traffic on a few main lines. U.S. railroads have 1/3 of the track they did in 1920 but carry 3 times as much freight (pdf). And every shipper in the United States is a potential rail customer; in fact, since most trucking firms use rail as an integral part of their networks, many shippers are using rail without knowing it. Likely, so are you: the biggest railroad customer in the United States is UPS.


But railroads have one huge disadvantage, courtesy of the government. Those trucks on the interstates are being heavily subsidized. One 18-wheeler does as much damage to the highway as 50,000 cars, but it pays only as much fuel tax as 5 cars. That does not even take into account the fact that building highways with clearances, lane widths, grades, and curves to accommodate trucks likely adds a third to the cost of a automobile-only highway. The mainline railroads, meanwhile, get no taxpayer support to maintain their tracks; in fact, they have to pay property tax on them.

The truck subsidy distorts the market in two significant ways. One is that it favors one mode over another. Rail is inherently more economically efficient – the fact that it’s taking traffic from trucks even with the deck stacked against it proves it. Were the playing field level, trains would carry more, and the overall cost of moving goods would decrease. The other distortion is that, by making transport artificially cheap, we’re encouraging firms to do more of it. The loss of industrial production in the United States can be blamed directly on cheap transport: a $1 widget can be shipped halfway around the globe so cheaply that we can make it in China for use in New Jersey. If shippers had to pay the actual price of transport, they would shift supply chains, production, and distribution to be more efficient, and, once again, the overall cost of moving goods would decrease.

Railroads have been investing in improving their infrastructure to increase capacity. Cajon just got a 16 mile long third track at a cost of $90 million. That added as much capacity as two freeway lanes at less cost (pdf). But while those freeways lanes would be funded by the taxpayer, the railroad had to pay for its additional track itself, and as long as we subsidize its competition, the amount of money available to do that will be insufficient to meet the need.

Libertarian think tanks like the Reason Foundation are calling (pdf) for the government to create a network of transcontinental tolls roads to carry truck traffic. But they’re missing something: those toll roads already exist, and they’re maintained and operated by private enterprise without taxpayer help. They just don’t have any pavement.

For more pictures from Cajon, see my gallery. And piggyback your thoughts in our forums.


Of the developers, for the developers?

June 17th, 2009


Days after the City of Houston’s draft corridor urban corridors ordinance was released, Houstonians For Responsible Growth – a developer group that generally opposes any new building regulations – endorsed the new ordinance.

Why would developers be so enthusiastic about a new piece of regulation? Because they wrote it.

Here’s the makeup of the committee that drafted the ordinance, sorted by their day jobs:

Governmental Agencies (1)

  • Theola Petteway, representing OST/Almeda Redevelopment Authority

(see also Todd Mason, below)

Non-profits (1)

  • David Crossley, representing Houston Tomorrow

Consulting architects, engineers, and planners (4)

  • Doug Childers (Morris Architects), representing AIA (also co-chair, richmondrail.org)
  • Sheila Condon (Clark Condon and Associates)
  • Stella Gustavson (HDR)
  • Jennifer Peek (Walter P. Moore), representing Houston Council of Engineering Companies

Developers and brokers (6)

  • Bill Huntsinger (Metro National), representing Houston Real Estate Council (also a member of Houstonians for Responsible Growth)
  • Mark Kilkenny (Mischer Investments), representing the Planning Commission
  • Todd Mason (McDade, Smith, Gould, Johnston, Mason + Company), representing METRO
  • Alex Sutton (Woodlands Development Company)
  • Zane Segal (Zane Segal Projects), representing Urban Land Institute
  • Ed Taravella (Taracorp), representing Greater Houston Builders Association

With developers and brokers making up half of the committee, and people who make their living as part of the building industry making up another third, it’s no wonder the developers like the rules that it drafted.

Developers aren’t evil. Obviously, they and others involved in the building industry have a useful perspective here, and they may in fact have other relevant qualifications – for example, there are at least two people on this list who live or work within a block of Richmond along the proposed light rail line. People are also capable of looking beyond their own economic interests. But everyone’s judgment is unavoidably colored by their background and their experiences, and there are a lot of perspectives and experiences not represented on this committee.

The committee’s makeup would matter less if the public was extensively consulted. That did, in fact, happen in the first part of this process, which was lead by The Planning Partnership, a Toronto-based consulting firm with extensive experience in transit corridor planning. There were well-attended public meetings (see above), including meetings in every corridor, and a large group of stakeholders, including many neighborhood leaders, were consulted. That lead to a series of reports that actually recommended far more extensive regulations than were finally adopted. But the consultant’s work ended with that report – they were not brought in to speak to the committee. Every committee member had access to those reports, but they were not the starting point of the discussion, just an incidental reference.

Committee meetings were held in a conference room, upstairs in the public works building, on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. These were officially public meetings, and notices were posted. But there was no serious attempt to inform the public. And who can make it to a public meeting on a weekday afternoon? People whose firms will pay them for attending because those firms have a stake in the outcome. So the audience, like the committee, was made up largely of people in the industry, people whose livelihoods are entwined with building regulation.

This ordinance may well have been stronger if neighborhood groups were better represented on the committee and the public had had more input. It may well have been better, too: people who see an issue from a different perspective bring different information, and that makes for a more better informed final product. That product would also have more legitimacy: a development ordinance written by developers will never have the credibility of an ordinance written by a broad spectrum of Houstonians, no matter what the actual merit of that ordinance.

This regulation does not limit anyone’s ability to build on their property. It does make good urban buildings – buildings that could already be built through the variance process – easier to build. And it does make builders lay two more feet of (inexpensive) concrete. If you like minimal restrictions – as the builders who build in Houston do – that’s a good thing. But it’s no accident.

So here’s a simple suggestion for the next mayor: when it comes to writing regulations that will shape our city, include the public. You’re included in our forums, which meet any time of day.

Proposed ordinance: better sidewalks are required; better buildings are optional.

June 7th, 2009


The City of Houston has spent the past three years on a process to develop new planning ordinances for the streets around METRO’s light rail stations. That process has now culminated in a draft ordinance, which will be considered at a public hearing before the Planning Commission meeting this Thursday, June 11, and will then go to City Council for a committee meeting on June 11.

The ordinance applies to the streets that the light rail lines (and any future light rail lines) run in (so-called “Transit Corridor Streets”) as well as to streets that intersect the transit streets within 1/4 mile of a station (“A Streets”). It contains two provisions, one mandatory and one optional:

The mandatory provision increases the required width of sidewalks on Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets. It requires a 6 foot wide and 7’6″ tall paved pedestrian clear space, free of obstacles such a trees, utility poles, fire hydrants, and signs. However, the city engineer may waive this requirement where there is not sufficient space between the curb and the property line or where it is “technically infeasible.” At the same time, required sidewalk width on other streets is increased to 5 feet, but without the clear space requirement.


The optional provision reduces the required setback on Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets if the building complies with all of the following provisions:

  • The street must have a pedestrian realm at least 15 feet wide, with no more than 20% plantings (which must be at least 2 feet from the curb if onstreet parking is permitted.) Existing ordinances already require street trees.
  • The building must be within 10 feet of the pedestrian realm for at least 50% of the width of the lot.
  • Any buildings within 10 feet of the pedestrian realm must have a door or window every 20 feet and 30% of the facade within 8 feet of the ground must be transparent.
  • Any fences along the property line must be transparent above 4 feet.
  • No parking may be located between the pedestrian realm and te building if the building is within 25 feet of the property line.
  • Any parking alongside the pedestrian realm must be buffered with 2 feet of plantings.
  • The building must have a front entrance onto the pedestrian realm (though doors may not swing into the pedestrian realm.)


If a building follows these requirements, it may extend to within 15 feet of the back of the curb. If the curb is more than 15 feet from the property line, that means the building can be built up to the property line; if is less, the property owner must create a public access easement that combines with the public right of way to create a 15 foot pedestrian realm. Currently, city ordinances require building to be set back 25 feet from the property line on major thoroughfares (though some exceptions already exist on chapter 42, and variances are issued.)

These provisions are optional because developers on the committee that developed the ordinance objected to mandatory rules (except sidewalk width, which is very inexpensive.) For dense developments, allowing buildings to fill more of the lot is a significant incentive, so I’d expect that this provision will be used in areas like Midtown with high property values and demand for mixed use development. In other areas, developers can continue to build strip malls with parking in the front.

Both of these provisions will make for a more walkable city. A six foot wide sidewalk is enough for two people to walk comfortably alongside each other, or for two wheelchairs to pass each other. Frankly, that ought to be the minimum everywhere, but it’s particularly important around transit stations. Buildings alongside the sidewalk make it easier, safer, and more pleasant to walk.

But this ordinance is a shadow of what it could have been. The original recommendations of the Toronto-based consultants who started this project, recommendations from the Urban Land Institute, and discussions within the committee went a lot further.

Some of the optional provisions in this ordinance ought to be mandatory. A path from the front door to the sidewalk and plantings between the sidewalk and surface parking are safety issues that help prevent sidewalks from being blocked and pedestrians from being hit.

The ordinance also ignores some issues entirely. The most significant omission from the ordinance is parking requirements. Current parking rules are a “one size fits all” solution for the entire city except Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Uptown, and Greenway Plaza. A restaurant one block from a rail station in Midtown requires as much parking as a restaurant on FM1960, despite the fact that the Midtown restaurant will have more people arriving on foot or on transit and that Midtown has a high supply of on street parking. That makes no sense, and parking requirements have proven to be a considerable obstacle to developing small lots in places like Midtown.

The Chronicle notes:

City officials, however, said relief from parking requirements would not have been practical because lenders and project tenants are likely to insist on the same amount of parking the city requires.

“It really is kind of a non-issue,” said Michael Schaffer, deputy city planning director.

That’s a strange argument: “The market will take care of this, so we should keep regulating it.” If the market will take care of it, we don’t need regulations.

Another problem is the scope of the ordinance. By limiting both the required and optional provisions to Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets, the ordinance excludes maybe half the streets that are within 1/4 mile of stations. The optional provisions ought to apply to any property within that area. And experience in Houston suggest that quite a few people will walk more than 1/4 mile: most of the Rice Campus, Toyota Center, and Minute Maid Park are all over 1/4 mile from light rail yet attract quite a few light rail riders.

By defining A streets, the ordinance is trying to identify the main feeder streets that will bring pedestrians to rail. But Houston’s often irregular street patterns confound a simple definition. Consider this example from the North Side, which planning staff has used as an example to show how the ordinance would apply.


The purple street (Fulton) is a Transit Corridor Street and the blue streets are A Streets. I’ve marked some streets in yellow that aren’t A Streets (because they don’t intersect the Transit Corridor Street) but are more direct paths from the station than the A Streets are. A sensible definition ought to include these streets. That will require either a more expansive definition (every street inside the radius is an A street) or a looser definition that gives staff some leeway in creating the official maps that will define A Streets for property owners and city plan reviewers.

The ordinance also has strange consequences for larger developments. Consider a hypothetical development bounded by Main, Berry, Winbern, and Fannin. Main is a Transit Corridor Street, and Berry and Winbern are A Streets. Thus, the development could be built to within 15 feet of the curb on thsoe sides if it follows the rules. However, Fannin is not a A street, so the ordinance doesn’t apply there. Ironically, Fannin, unlike Berry and Winbern, is a Major Thoroughfare with the required 25 foot setback, so that’s where this ordinance would do the most to help. It would make a lot of sense to allow the 15 foot pedestrian zones on all block faces of a development that faces an A Street or Transit Corridor Street on at least one side.

Finally, there’s a huge loophole:

The city engineer shall have the authority to modify the requirements of this section to the extent neccesary to accomodate the sidewalk when determined that it is technically or otherwise infeasible to comply, such as where there is a lack of public right of way or when there is a presence of fire hydrants, mail boxes, utility poles, or other improvements lawfully permitted within the public right of way.

The whole point of pedestrian clear space is that it is clear. But under these rules, every possible obstacle — even newsracks or trees — can be exempted. When it comes to cluttering sidewalks, the biggest offenders are utility companies and the city itself. Today, pedestrians — and especially the elderly and the disabled, who are less able to squeeze around obstacles — are having to walk in the street all over Houston because of electric poles, hydrants, and signs in the sidewalk. Sometimes, they get hit. That is not acceptable. We don’t allow utility poles or fire hydrants in traffic lanes; we should not allow them on sidewalks either.

The biggest flaw within the ordinance, though, cannot be addressed by altering its language. City planning ordinances apply only to new projects. Thus, the wider sidewalks will happen only as vacant lots or existing buildings are replaced with new buildings. Currently, many of these streets don’t have sidewalks at all. If this ordinance is our only tool to improve sidewalks, we will be waiting a long time. Instead, the city and the county ought to use general funds to improve existing sidewalks and build new ones in key locations like transit stations. Sidewalks, like traffic lanes, are transportation; like traffic lanes, they ought to be paid to be paid for with public funds.

We know that Houstonians will walk if they are provided with a good place to walk. And the more people walk, the fewer cars there are on the street. This ordinance, flawed as it may be, is a key step forward. And there’s still time to improve it: show up on Thursday, June 11, 2:30 p.m. at the City Hall Annex to speak to the planning commission, write your concil member, or speak to the Regulation, Development and Neighborhood Protection Committee of City Council on Monday, June 22, 3:00 p.m., at City Hall. Meanwhile, join the discussion in the forums.

A high speed rail to-do list

May 25th, 2009

On Friday, the Federal Railroad Administration comes to town with a high speed rail workshop.

Texas is surely one of the top five high speed rail prospects in the county. Houston, Austin, Dallas, Texas and San Antonio have 16 million people between them, all potentially within 2 hours of each other by high speed rail. That’s no as many as California’s system (33 million) but it’s more than Florida (12 million) or the Pacific Northwest (7 million) and it requires maybe a quarter as much track as the midwest system (37 million.) And, unlike Florida, we’re building good local transit systems that can get people from the high speed rail station to their destinations.

But we’re behind all of those places in implementation. That’s what the FRA wants to talk about. President Obama wants to see high speed rail happen in the United States. He’s putting money in his budgets. But without local effort to organize projects, that’s money’s useful. So what do we need to do to get started on high speed rail in Texas?

We need to get Houston connected to the rest of Texas on the federal map. The feds are only going to fund projects in officially designated corridors. So far, Houston isn’t on the same corridor as Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. But a bill passed in October requires the Secretary of Transportation to study adding Houston to that corridor. With a push from out local congressional delegation, that should be a no-brainer.

We need to get the state government involved. A private entity — the Texas High-Speed Rail Corporation — is studying high speed rail. Private capital and operations could be a key part of high speed rail. But the state government has to be on board for property acquisition, to accept federal funding, and likely to add some funding of its own. TxDOT says it’s putting together plans. But we have yet to see how large a role the state is willing to play.

We need studies. High speed rail will require environmental analysis, cost estimates, and ridership estimates. California spent ten years laying that groundwork. We don’t have any of it.

We need to figure out where the terminals are. Dallas already has a ready-made rail station. We don’t. And we need to get the trains into IAH and DFW as well. Texas, unlike California, is flat. Getting tracks between cities is easy. Getting them into the cities will be the big challenge.

We need to coordinate with commuter rail.
We’re talking about commuter rail in Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth is planning to expand its network, and Georgetown-Austin-San Marcos-San Antonio are doing studies. High speed rail and commuter can share corridors and even tracks. By integrating the two, we can offer better connections, save cost, and minimize impacts. That also opens up more funding sources: federal high speed rail funds and federal transit funds can be combined.

That’s a lengthy to-do list. Texas tried for high speed rail once before; politics killed that attempt. This time, the politics seem better, especially with Continental and American on board. But we still need leadership to bring the pieces together.

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