(Houston, TX — Gail Delaughter, KUHF) Following a trend that began during the Memorial Day weekend, AAA Texas says more Texans are planning to hit the road for the Independence Day holiday this year. The organization predicts close to three million Texans will travel at least 50 miles from home. That's nearly a five percent increase over last year's numbers.
AAA Texas Vice-President Rhonda Wilson says a lot of people are extending their vacations due to the the fact that Independence Day falls in the middle of the week. The holiday period this year is defined as Tuesday, July 3 to Sunday, July 8. Wilson says people are also encouraged to travel because of lower gas prices. Some stations in the Houston area are selling regular unleaded for as low as $2.89.
Of the three million Texans who will travel, 2.5 million are expected to drive to their destination. AAA Texas says the average traveler will make a round-trip of a little less than 1,000 miles and spend about $700 on transportation and travel.
(Houston, TX — Gail Delaughter, KUHF) As more people move to the suburbs northwest of Houston, officials hope extra money from the state will help speed up improvement projects on U.S. Highway 290, one of the most congested roadways in Texas. Highway 290 begins in the scenic Hill Country west of Austin, but once it approaches its eastern terminus at Houston's I-610 Loop, the drive is anything but peaceful as commuters face hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Alan Clark heads up transportation and air quality programs for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, an association that helps local governments with planning issues in a 13-county region along the Texas Gulf Coast. Clark says the population of Houston's northwestern suburbs is expected to grow to close to a million people over the next couple of decades, but the congestion problems on 290 are already there. Another reason for the urgency is that 290 is also a major hurricane evacuation route, as it hooks up with State Highway 6 from the coastal city of Galveston.
So what needs to be done? Clark says along with widening the roadway, they also need to improve the ramps at Beltway 8, one of the two loops that currently encircle the city. Another trouble spot is near the 610 Loop, where frontage roads don't go all the way through.
"We don't want all the traffic to have to be on the freeway to get anywhere in the corridor," Clark says. "So being able to go along those frontage roads keeps some of that traffic off the freeway itself."
Texas recently identified $2 billion in transportation funds to be used for improvements to congested corridors around the state. Clark says the 290 project will now get an extra $350 million, and that means work that was supposed to be done over 15 to 20 years can now be compressed into five or six years. One of the projects they're looking at is managed lanes.
"We're going to develop three managed lanes that can be reversed. So it's like getting six lanes for the price of three. They'll operate a bit like we see some of the HOV lanes operate. Only these will be tolled."
But as the population grows, Clark says they'll eventually have to look at ways to help people get to work without getting on the freeway. He says officials are also looking at the possibility of commuter rail along a nearby railroad right-of-way, but that project is still a few years away.
You can hear the KUHF story here.
(Houston, TX — Gail Delaughter, KUHF) "The sun has riz, the sun has set, and we ain't out of Texas yet." The old saying is attributed to a train-hopping hobo but it still holds true for the modern traveler barrelling across Texas on I-10 or I-20. East-west driving distance from the Louisiana state line to El Paso is close to 800 miles. Drivers traveling out of central Texas face many hours on the road before they even get out of the state.
That could be the reason why many road-tripping Texans like to stay close to home. According to a new survey by AAA-Texas, the two top destinations for Texas travelers this summer are San Antonio (home of the Alamo and the Riverwalk), and Galveston, the Gulf of Mexico resort town south of Houston. Other popular destinations include Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Big Bend National Park.
AAA-Texas spokesman Doug Shupe says they polled about 400 members and found that 75 percent are planning to travel this summer. That's about three percent more than last year. Forty-four percent of travelers say gas prices are affecting their travel plans very little or not at all. Gas prices in Texas have been dropping steadily over the past month, with prices in the Houston area now as low as $3.21 a gallon.
But Shupe says prices at the pump are still too high for some Texans. Nineteen percent of respondents say they're not going anywhere this summer. Of that group, 42 percent cite gas prices.
Other Texans say they're not traveling because of too many household expenses, or they can't afford rising prices for hotels and meals on the road.
(Houston, TX -- KUHF) As work on Houston's new light rail lines reaches the halfway point, Metro is now looking at plans for the area's first commuter rail line that would bring people into the city from the suburbs.
Right now Metro is gathering public input on the proposed US 90A/Southwest Rail Corridor. It would be a nine-mile line that would bring commuters from Missouri City to the Fannin South Station. Riders could then hook up with the Red Line that runs through downtown and the Medical Center.
Metro's Jerome Gray says they're estimating about 24,000 people a day would use the new line to travel into the city from the southwest. "That corridor, that area, census projections show that we're going to see quite a population boom, about 25 percent until 2035."
Gray says they're looking at two proposed track alignments that would run along Highway 90 and they're now studying how the rail line would affect the local environment. They also have to figure out how to pay for the project, which is expected to cost about $500 million.
"While we're still going through the process of considering and figuring out where the money would come from," Gray says, "we also have to go ahead with this FTA (Federal Transit Administration) process, this environmental impact study, and the various things that we must do before requesting any type of federal assistance."
Construction on the line is still several years away and could start close to 2020.
For more about this project -- and to listen to the radio version of this story -- visit KUHF here.
(Houston, TX — Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The nation's fourth-largest city will have a second international airport, now that the city council has approved plans for Southwest Airlines' new terminal at Hobby Airport. The 16-1 vote gives the discount carrier the go-ahead to build five new gates and a customs facility at Hobby to accommodate flight to Mexico and the Carribean. Southwest hopes to begin those flights in 2015.
The vote came despite the protests of United Airlines, the main tenant at Houston's larger hub airport, Bush Intercontinental. As part of a massive PR campaign against the plan, United presented city officials with a study saying a split international gateway would cost the local economy about $300 million. The carrier says it would also be forced to cut over 1,000 jobs, reduce flights, and drop its plans for a new $700 million terminal at Bush. That's in contrast to a study from the Houston Airport System which says international service at Hobby would translate into a $1.6 billion economic gain as well as cheaper flights for travelers.
Hobby is the smaller of Houston's two commercial airports, handling just under 10 million passengers in 2011. Bush Intercontinental handled about 40 million.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker called the vote a big win for Houston and the traveling public. "Competition will lead to jobs, lower fares, and a positive economic impact for the city. My goal is a strong international presence at Hobby and a continued strong presence at Bush Airport. We will also continue our commitment to ensuring there is adequate customs and immigration staffing at Bush and at Hobby when international service begins there in 2015."
Employees and executives packed city council chambers to witness the vote, with supporters from Southwest dressed in yellow t-shirts and United's contingent in blue.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The texting and driving simulators are like the ones used to simulate drunk driving, except in this one you're constantly glancing between the computer-generated roadway on your simulation goggles, and the phone keypad you're clasping under the steering wheel.
Like in any video game, a loud crash signals you've messed up. Come to find out, I was on the wrong side of the road the entire exercise.
My simulation was conducted by Dylan Richardson with Peers Awareness, a firm that puts on simulation exercises for young drivers. He says no one gets it right. "All people have some type of infraction, or they will crash."
A local TV station brought along two sisters who drive race cars. Even they couldn't do it.
The event in front of Houston City Hall was sponsored by AT&T to mark the 100 deadliest days for teens to be on the road, the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day. AT&T Regional Vice-President Alice Aanstoos says a new driver with a smart phone is a dangerous combination, considering it takes about five seconds to look at a text. She says the simulator ride proves to be a rude awakening for teens who think they're experts at multi-tasking behind the wheel.
"Because they realize that, again, just one split second from looking away from the road can cause troubles. We haven't seen a single person actually pass this simulator test without either some sort of accident, a wreck, or some kind of infraction."
Aanstoos says it's not just teens who text while driving. She says adults do it too, and often they're texting their own kids while sitting at a red light.
"I hear a lot of them say it's okay to just check their phone and read a text at a red light or something because they're obviously not moving, so it's okay, right? But that's dangerous too."
You can listen to the KUHF story here.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) On the eve of a Houston City Council vote to decide whether Southwest Airlines can build a new international terminal at Hobby Airport, Mayor Annise Parker is formally throwing her support behind the proposal -- and a majority of city council members are also behind the plans.
The city council is set to vote next week on whether to allow Southwest to build a new $100 million facility at the smaller of Houston's two commercial airports. Southwest wants to build five gates and a customs facility to accommodate flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, but the proposal has faced a huge protest from United Airlines, the main tenant at Houston's hub airport, Bush Intercontinental.
United launched a huge lobbying and PR campaign against the move, predicting dire consequences for the local economy if international traffic is split between the two airports. United's own economic study forecasted a $300 million economic hit if the plan goes forward. But according to another study from the Houston Airport System, international service at Hobby would translate into a $1.6 billion economic gain.
At a Hobby Airport news conference, Parker announced that Southwest has agreed to cover the entire cost of the terminal's construction and the city will incur no debt. She also stressed that Southwest is required to abide by the city's minority and small business contracting requirements.
"That helps guarantee our local workers get a chance at the construction jobs," she said. "From the beginning I have said that my decision would be based not what is best for one or another airline, but rather on what is best for the city, the local business community, and the traveling public."
The Houston City Council is set to vote May 30 on whether to allow Southwest to begin construction. Seven council members appeared with Parker at her news conference and an eighth council member has also expressed support. That indicates a vote in Southwest's favor. If the plan wins approval, Southwest hopes to start construction on the terminal next spring.
United issued a statement after Parker's announcement, saying it's not backing off on its position that a split international airline hub would cost the city jobs and hurt its competitive advantage.
Bush Intercontinental carries the bulk of Houston's airline traffic, with about 40 million travelers passing through its gates in 2011. Hobby handled just under 10 million.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) Houston City Council staffers had to set up spillover rooms for hundreds of airline employees and executives who converged on City Hall for a contentious meeting on a proposed international hub at Hobby Airport.
Southwest Airlines wants to build a $100 million international terminal at Hobby, the smaller of the city's two major airports, and it's looking at funding the project through a $1.50 fee on tickets. The new terminal would include a customs facility along with five gates that would accommodate flights to Mexico and the Caribbean. Southwest hopes to get those flights off the ground in the next three years.
Opposed to the plan is United Airlines, the biggest tenant at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. The legacy carrier has launched a massive lobbying effort to try to convince the city that international service out of Hobby would harm the local economy.
Houston city officials are faced with two different studies on the economic impact of a second international terminal. A study commissioned by the city says international service at Hobby would create about 10,000 jobs and pump $1.6 billion into the local economy. But according to a study by United -- which is opposed to Southwest's plans -- the city would take a $300 million hit and lose close to 4,000 jobs.
United recently broke ground on a $700 million dollar terminal at Bush, and officials told the City Council the airline may rethink its plans if Southwest is allowed to proceed with international flights at Hobby. United's senior VP of financial planning, John Gebo, says a second international airport would force United to cut flights and move some of its operations to other hubs.
"Houston has built a very, very strong connecting hub complex at Intercontinental over the course of the last 40 years," he says. "And what that hub complex brings to the city is for the ability for airlines, including United, to offer a larger number of flights and a larger number of direct destinations than would be possible from the population of the city alone."
Bush Intercontinental is a sprawling complex 23 miles north of downtown Houston that handled about 40 million passengers in 2011. Hobby Airport is a smaller facility 12 miles to the south that saw just under 10 million. Passengers have convenient access to Hobby's terminal from an adjoining parking garage -- or they can even walk to the airport from the nearby neighborhoods. Gebo says passengers on the south side of town may not be happy about making the long drive to Bush if they're flying out of the country, but he maintains those passengers would lose in the long run if international service comes to Hobby.
"We'd like to be able to offer convenient departure times and convenient flights to everyone as would Southwest and as would all the other carriers that fly out of Intercontinental. But I think what I would tell the customers on the south side of the city is that you will get more service to more destinations with a strong hub than with a split hub. So while you might get some additional destinations from the Hobby expansion, you'll lose more destinations from Intercontinental and on the whole, the city will not have as many options as it does today."
Southwest CEO Gary Kelley told Houston city officials that the low-cost airlines has always had to battle the legacy carriers for a place in the market. Kelley recounted Southwest's fight to reopen Hobby Airport in 1971, two years after traffic started flying out of Bush Intercontinental. Continental Airlines, recently acquired by United, was one of the carriers that fought in court to keep Southwest out of Texas.
Houston City Attorney David Feldman says the city has an obligation to negotiate with Southwest Airlines "to provide reasonable access to Hobby Airport." In his legal opinion, Feldman says the city needs to base its decision on whether the airport property can handle another terminal, and if there would be a negative impact on the environment and the surrounding neighbor. He says the city cannot reject Southwest's plans based on economic projections.
The Houston City Council is expected to vote on the issue later this month.
(Houston, TX -- KUHF) Houston is now joining cities like Chicago and Washington, DC in providing bikes for short-term rentals. Riders can buy a yearly membership for $50 or they can purchase a one-day membership directly at the kiosk for $5.
Mayor Annise Parker says the program is starting with just 18 bikes but they'd like to have about 200 bikes by the end of the year.
(Listen to an audio version of this story and see a slide show here.)
"Currently we're just in the downtown area with three locations: Discovery Green, Market Square, and here, so you can do the downtown triangle. But we hope it will be embraced by Houstonians, as it has been in other cities, and we'll be able to expand the system."
Parker says along with helping locals get around without having to get behind the wheel, Bike Share will also give visitors a new way to see Houston.
"I think it's going to be something that the folks who are involved in conventions around the George R. Brown will find very interesting. If they're over in the convention center hotel or at a conference, you can just jump on a bike."
Outside Houston City Hall, a B-cycle representative shows how riders use a card to check out one of the sturdy silver bikes lined up next to a self-serve kiosk. With big fenders and chain guards, riders can safely hop on in a business suit.
State Senator Rodney Ellis was one of the local officials who gave the bikes a tryout.
"It is a very comfortable bike. The key thing is the seat is comfortable. And for those of you who are not into Spandex just yet, it is extremely important."
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) A line of Texas Transportation Department workers in orange safety vests stood before a memorial that lists the names of 24 Houston-area highway workers who've been killed on the job since 1951. They held photos of friends they work with and family members they go home to every day.
TXDot supervisor Jeff Volk says they all have stories about close calls in work zones. He keeps a crumpled hard hat to remember his brush with a big rig. "I was out on State Highway 146 in a coned-off lane of the freeway, when an 18-wheeler doing 65 miles-per-hour sucked the helmet right off my head, and it banged down the concrete pavement in the draft of that big truck and five or six people ran over it."
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia was one of the speakers at a Houston event marking National Work Zone Awareness Week, an annual campaign sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. Garcia doesn't mince words when he talks about the dangers TXDot employees face every day.
"Construction workers are having to dodge flying debris, tires that come off, tread that comes off other vehicles, rocks that are being clipped by tires, loads that are being lost. They are having to dodge all of these dangers and they don't need an idiot of a driver not paying attention." He says all that stands between a worker and a fast-moving vehicle is "a flimsy cone, a simple barricade, a sign. That's all that's protecting them."
TXDot says at any given time there are more than 1000 work zones on the state's 80,000 miles of highways. 100 people were killed in work zone accidents in Texas in 2010. That includes both workers and people in vehicles. The Houston area had over 2800 work zone crashes that left 21 people dead.
Houston Police Chief Charles McClellan says drivers need to realize there's little room for error when crews are working in the next lane. "People don't realize how just trying to change the station on your radio, or making a call on your cell phone, or exceeding the speed limit can change someone's life instantly by having a fatal crash."
So what's behind these wrecks? TXDot says they're caused primarily by drivers who are drunk, speeding, following too closely, or simply not paying attention. Of the the 100 Texas fatalities in 2010, officials say more than 60% had to do with alcohol, drugs, distracted driving, or a combination of the three. Statistics show 45% of fatal work zone accidents are caused by drivers under 35. Most of the people who die in work zone accidents are drivers or their passengers.
Former TXDot District Engineer Delvin Dennis remembers the phone call he got back in 2008 telling him a worker had been killed by a drunk driver on a freeway near downtown Houston. "Life is busy, time is precious, but please understand when you're in a hurry and drive dangerously through a work zone, you're not just putting the lives of highway workers at risk, you're risking your own life and the lives of other motorists."
Texas law is tough on drivers who are ticketed in work zones, even if there's not an accident. The law allows for the usual traffic fines to be doubled.
You can listen to the KUHF story here.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) As we've reported, a new study quantifies how much American's will save, in money and pollution, from higher-mileage cars hitting the roads. Well, the state that tops the list of savings is the oil state itself, Texas.
The report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that U.S. drivers could save $68 billion under new fuel efficiency standards set to be implemented in 2030. Texas drivers will save more than $7 billion under a 54 m.p.g. standard.
Auto industry analyst Alan Baum says automakers are already creating new vehicles in advance of a 35 m.p.g. standard that goes into effect in 2016. That includes pickup trucks, a popular vehicle with Texans.
"The consumer can pick the vehicle they want to serve their purpose and then find vehicles that have much better fuel economy," he said.
He's also seeing more people buy new vehicles because of high gas prices. "People are coming in and saying, I understand I've got a lot more choice here, there's better fuel economy, and I don't have to make a compromise in buying my vehicle. Please get me out of this thing and sell me a new product."
As for gas prices in Texas, the average price has been hovering around $3.83 a gallon, much less than the $4.00 mark currently seen in places like New York and California.
Texans do a lot of driving, and large vehicles such as pickup trucks are popular modes of transportation in both urban and rural areas. Federal transportation figures show Texas has close to 15 million registered motor vehicles. The state ranks just behind California in the number of licensed drivers, with over 13 million people behind the wheel.
You can hear the KUHF story here.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) Houston public school bus driver Wretha Thomas says she's just about seen it all.
"We have kids that are jumping out of the back of the school bus while buses are moving. We have kids that come on the bus every day smoking marijuana. We have kids on our buses every week fighting."
On a warm spring morning, Thomas gathered with fellow bus drivers in front of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) headquarters to appeal for help in dealing with rowdy students. She's president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel Union, which represents bus drivers, teachers' aides, and other school workers in the state's largest school district. Members chanted, "Stop the bullying on the bus, we demand respect." They carried signs reading "Enough is Enough."
One by one, drivers told their stories. John Sears says he's seen his share of fights and drug use, and he also recalled one incident in which someone shot at a bus. Sears says they have to safely transport kids to school every day but he feels they get no support.
"We could write a kid up for disciplinary problems and there's nothing done about it."
"Kid got on the bus just fine, all of a sudden he's sluggish talking. I mean, if I hadn't been there and it had been a sub driver that kid could have died because I had to call the ambulance to come get him."
According to its website, HISD operates about 1,000 buses that transport about 40,000 students daily. The district's bus fleet travels about 80,000 miles a day. That's about 18 million miles a year. Each bus has at least two video cameras to record incidents. But driver Lizzie Revels says that doesn't deter some students.
"You know, as we travel down the road, they're throwing up gang signs, and people call in and say they're throwing up gang signs, or they're raising the window down and hollering at people."
HISD spokesman Jason Spencer says he understands why drivers are frustrated. "As any parent or teacher can tell you, maintaining order on a school bus, or any group of children, that's a hard job," he said.
But Spencer disputes drivers' claims that the district isn't following through in disciplining kids who misbehave. He says transportation supervisors have 24 hours to review bus surveillance videos after getting complaints from drivers. Incidents are then reported to schools and possibly HISD police.
One of the drivers' demands is that the district clarify what punishment a student will receive for acting up on a bus. Spencer says officials have agreed to take another look at the Code of Student Conduct to "determine if we need more stringent language in there, particularly when it comes to addressing the times when it's appropriate to remove a child from a school bus."
HISD has a team of bus safety monitors that can ride along with drivers who are having problems. But officials say budget constraints prevent them from placing a monitor on every bus. Drivers meanwhile are appealing to parents, churches, and community groups to help them keep the buses safe.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The Port of Houston will turn 100 years old in 2014 and as part of the observance, a local arts organization is recording oral histories of longtime port workers, everyone from executives to deck hands, in an effort to tell the stories of the individual people behind one of Houston's biggest industries.
Houston Arts Alliance Folklife Director Pat Jasper is working to record 100 interviews for the centennial. She says she was drawn to the work because she wanted to explore how people develop their identities around their occupation.
With the help of a grant from the Library of Congress, Jasper launched the "Working the Port" project, with the goal of capturing the voices of the men and women who work in the diverse businesses that support the shipping industry. She says she also wants to create a better understanding of the port's role in the city's development.
"It's really amazing to think about the scale of the work they are doing, the size of those docks, the heft of those lines they are responsible for," she said.
The Port of Houston is one of the busiest ports in the world. The sprawling 25-mile complex along the Houston Ship Channel contributes billions to the local economy but Jasper says it's not really part of the everyday lives of most Houstonians. For one, much of the port's operations are tucked away on Houston's East End, a working-class neighborhood east of downtown that's away from the other major centers of the city. They've also tightened up security since 9-11. That means there aren't many viewing areas where the public can see what goes on at the port.
One of the people she talked to is Steve Bennett. He's a boatman, and his job is to help tie up the big ships. He talked about what it was like when he was first hired and learning from the older guys.
"When I joined the union what they did: they said, 'Okay, when you come to a union meeting, bring you a big Coke and a bag of popcorn, sit back in the back and just shut up. We don't want to hear anything from you.' So you know that kind of opened your eyes, what's going on here. But they treated you good."
Another person Jasper spoke with is Lou Vest. He's been a ship pilot since the 1980's. There's a lot of competition to become a pilot and Vest was interviewed about how he learned he'd gotten the coveted job.
"In the maritime industry being a pilot is like being invited to be in the major leagues, and it's like being invited to play with the St. Louis Cardinals. I was very pleased."
Vest is also a photographer, and has used his access to the port to capture vibrant images that are currently on display in the Houston Arts Alliance's gallery. As for Jasper's project, her interviews will be housed at the Library of Congress once they're complete. Several Houston organizations have also also expressed interest in preserving the voices of the port for future generations.
(Houston, TX -- KUHF) Texas transportation officials are studying the viability of a new Amtrak line in northeast Texas. The 200-mile route would follow the I-20 corridor between Dallas-Fort Worth and Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana -- a popular gambling destination.
Three Amtrak lines currently serve Texas. There's the Sunset Limited, which passes through Houston and San Antonio as it travels between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Heartland Flyer has daily service between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. The Texas Eagle takes a jagged route through northeast Texas on its way between Chicago and San Antonio.
TxDOT Rail Division Director Bill Glavin says they're looking at passenger rail as a way to provide better connectivity between Shreveport's airport and the big international airport located between Dallas and Fort Worth. The train would make up to seven stops on two daily round-trips. The Texas Eagle's current route passes through Marshall, Texas, west of the state line, and Glavin says they'll examine whether to extend that line into Louisiana or build a new route.
TxDOT is using $265,000 in federal funds to do the study. Glavin says they'll look at the costs associated with setting up the new route. The train would operate on existing rights-of-way and would share routes with freight trains, and Glavin says they may have to construct additional sidetracks. They'll also study projected ridership. Since the train would be a short-distance route as defined by Amtrak, Glavin says the route would be state-supported. That means filling the gap between revenue and operating costs.
The study does not include the cost of building rail stations. TxDOT says that would be the responsibility of local governments.
Funds for the study were secured by the East Texas Corridor Council. Amtrak says any new route would have to be approved by state legislatures in both Texas and Louisiana. Officials in the Shreveport-Bossier City area have expressed support for the route, saying it would help bring in visitors to the area's attractions, including its popular casinos. Shreveport hasn't had passenger rail service since 1969.
This isn't the only proposed passenger line TxDOT is currently studying. The agency is working on a $15 million, multi-year study of a possible high-speed route between Houston and Dallas. They're also looking at Amtrak routes between Houston and Austin, and Oklahoma City and south Texas.
TxDOT says it hopes to complete the Dallas-to-Shreveport study by the end of 2012 or early 2013.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The big state of Texas has all kinds of stuff when it comes to infrastructure but there's one thing you won't find in abundance, and that's underwater traffic tunnels. There's only one in the entire state, the Washburn Tunnel east of downtown Houston.
The toll-free tunnel goes under the Houston Ship Channel, connecting the communities of Galena Park and Pasadena (the refinery town made famous in the 1980 movie "Urban Cowboy".) Officials say during the week it carries up to 27,000 vehicles a day.
Built in 1950 at a cost of $7 million, the Washburn Tunnel is just under 3800 feet long, taking drivers 68 feet below the ship channel. Atop the tunnel's entrance there's a large midcentury structure containing high-speed blower fans that provide ventilation. Because of its unique trench design, the Washburn Tunnel was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Also in 2008, all large vehicles were banned from the tunnel including 18-wheelers. But in September 2010, that didn't stop a big rig driver from trying to enter. Gail Miller is with Harris County Precinct 2, the governmental entity that operates the tunnel, and she tells what happened next.
"We had an 18-wheeler, about 3:30 in the morning, drive by the guard shack. The guard was out, the flags were out, he drove right around then and headed into the tunnel. Well, he's too big to get into the tunnel, and he hit the north portal wall, damaging the brick and the metal behind it."
Once inside the tunnel, Miller says the truck collapsed and it took about seven hours to remove the wreckage. The driver wound up going to jail. Now two years later, crews are at work repairing the damage.
Miller says at the time of the accident, the damage wasn't considered severe enough to close the tunnel to traffic. As for why it's taken so long to do the repairs, Miller says they had to settle insurance claims, and because of the tunnel's historic status, they had to find the proper materials to make the repairs to the tunnel's entrance.
"Any changes to a historic building have to be run by the Texas Historical Commission, and they have to be matched in terms of brickwork."
The tunnel will be closed to traffic on weekends through April 2 to make those repairs. So what does that mean for drivers? Traffic will be funneled onto several other ship channel crossings, including the East I-610 Loop, the Sam Houston Parkway toll bridge and the State Highway 146 Fred Hartman Bridge (which replaced another tunnel, the Baytown Tunnel, in 1995). Drivers also have the option of using the Lynchburg Ferry, which will have expanded hours during the Washburn Tunnel's closure.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) A new study shows many Houston neighborhoods considered as "affordable" may turn out to be a lot more expensive when you factor in the cost of transportation. According to the figures, some people in and around the nation's fourth-largest city find themselves paying more to travel to work and school than they do for a place to live.
Using data from census block groups, the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood technology calculates 25.4 percent of their income for a place to live. That's considered affordable under standards from the real estate industry and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But when it comes to transportation costs, people in the region are shelling out close to 26 percent of their pay. CNT's Scott Bernstein says it peaks out at 36 percent for commuters living in some of the far-flung areas, including the Bolivar Peninsula 50 miles to the southeast and Bay City about 80 miles to the southwest. Those commuters could find themselves in a situation where they're paying in excess of 60 percent of their income for the cost of location.
Bernstein says house hunters hit U.S. Highway 59 to the north, I-10 to the east and west, and I-45 to the south, in a situation known as "drive until you qualify."
"You've found the more affordable house, but you might need to go to one to two cars per household. And if you have a teenager in the house, and an extended family, maybe three cars per household. Then all of a sudden the price of transportation is more than the cost of housing. Your cost of housing may drop, but your net costs of housing versus transportation can go up."
Figures show households around Houston on average pay a little over $13,000 a year for transportation but Bernstein says a lot of people don't take these figures into consideration when putting together their financial plan.
He says you get a lot of information when you buy a house concerning property taxes and utility fees, but nothing concerning the costs of commuting. Bernstein's organization is encouraging local governments and the real estate industry to adopt disclosure requirements so when properties go up for sale or rent, information about the "hidden" costs of transportation are made available.
Bernstein cites as an example the city of El Paso, Texas, which has passed an ordinance requiring that housing intended to be affordable not be located in areas with high transportation costs.
Bernstein says local planning agencies need to look at these costs when allocating resources for developing new modes of transportation. He says new transit lines would lower the cost of living for people who reside far from their jobs, and he says the cost of living will drop for many Houston-area residents once three new light rail lines begin operation.
As for educating prospective homeowners on the real cost of living, Bernstein says financial literacy programs also need to do a better job of helping people balance the cost of their dream home with the practical costs of getting around.
Jimmy Sauers was the first person in Texas to take delivery of a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. "Both my wife and I are engineers," he said, "and so we were very meticulous about doing cost-benefit analysis." Sauers uses his Leaf to drive from his home in Seabrook to his job in downtown Houston. That's about a 75-mile round trip. He charges his vehicle at home and on the road. So how much money have they saved? "In 13 months, based on the miles I've driven," he said, "it's been about $3,000 dollars."
Sauers was one of the electric car drivers on hand for the unveiling of a new charging station at Memorial City Mall, just off I-10 in west Houston. The charging station is operated by the eVgo company, a subsidiary of NRG Energy. Electric car drivers can use the station as much as they want for a monthly fee. They can add about 50 miles of range in a 15-minute charge. Laura Spanjian, the sustainability director for the City of Houston, said the new station will be a huge benefit to drivers along the I-10 corridor. "It will give them the confidence," she said, "that if they do need a little more electricity to power their car, they can quickly get off the freeway."
Spanjian said the city is encouraging the use of electric vehicles by teaming up with private partners to install charging stations around the city. She's hoping drivers will see hundreds of new stations by the end of the year. "There's been statistics out there that say that by 2020, fifteen percent of the cars on the road will be electric."
The city of Houston is also adding to its fleet of electric vehicles. Spanjian said the city will soon have about 40 electric cars, one of the largest alternative fleets in the country.
To listen to this story, visit KUHF.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) With his giant yellow tape measure, walkability expert Dan Burden darted into Houston's Navigation Boulevard. It's a shady street in an old neighborhood east of downtown, with two lanes in each direction and a grassy median. As he took measurements, Burden showed neighbors how angled parking can help slow down truck traffic on the way to the nearby Houston Ship Channel. That's good news to longtime resident Gloria Moreno, who says some of her older neighbors have a tough time getting around because the sidewalks don't have ramps.
Moreno pointed out how the sidewalks don't have curb cuts to accommodate older residents who use wheelchairs and scooters, especially those who live in a nearby senior housing development. She also says there are too many close calls when people try to cross the street, and she's worried about neighbors who walk on side streets where visibility is poor.
Moreno was one of the people taking part in Burden's pedestrian audit. Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and he was brought in as part of redevelopment efforts spurred by Houston's Greater East End Management District. The district was set up in 1999 by the Texas Legislature as a way to promote economic development and improve infrastructure on Houston's east side. Burden says the goal is to create a place where longtime residents who invested in the neighborhood can stay there.
"We're looking at ways in the historic core, that is the old trolley car neighborhoods, how do we get the speeds down so we can support people living, and then being able to walk, live in place, age in place."
Burden says angled parking with one lane of traffic in each direction would encourage drivers to slow down, and he adds the work can be done while preserving the neighborhood's trees. Along with sidewalk curb cuts for people who use mobility devices, Burden says the street also needs more accessible bus stops so people can better connect with the new light rail line that's being built nearby. He adds the improvements aren't just for residents.
"With the new investments coming in, especially the soccer stadium, it's really important that people be able to walk through the area, park their cars further out if they choose to. Truly the road will support that with the new designs, the new concept of keeping the speeds slow but keeping the traffic moving."
Navigation Boulevard is lined with several popular restaurants and other neighborhood businesses. It's just blocks from the city's downtown sports venues, including the new $95 million dollar stadium for the Houston Dynamo soccer team that's set to open this spring.
The Greater East End Management District is getting help in its efforts through a $5 million dollar federal stimulus grant. District president Diane Schenke points out that about 30 percent of the neighborhood's residents depend on mass transit, and new wider sidewalks will help residents better connect. Work on nearby streets is already underway and construction should come to Navigation Boulevard in the next few months.
The Management District says it's also pursuing funding for other projects. Burden says once the district makes improvements, businesses will be encouraged to move in, and that should generate more revenue for city and the neighborhood.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) In a festive event at a transit center near downtown Houston, car-themed music blasted from speakers as colorful "art cars" lined up for a brief parade. The lively occasion was the kickoff of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's first HOT lane, which gives solo drivers the option of paying a toll if they want to drive in the high-occupancy lane.
Along with running Houston's bus and rail service, Metro also operates HOV lanes on area freeways. The roadways are maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, but Metro is in charge of opening and closing the HOV lanes as well as handling accidents.
Metro is opening its first HOT lane on a segment of I-45 known locally as the Gulf Freeway. The freeway runs south of downtown, taking commuters to suburban communities and on to the coastal city of Galveston. The segment that just opened is a little over 15 miles long. Drivers will have the option of entering and exiting the lanes at several points along the route.
The toll for solo drivers ranges from $1.00 to $4.50, depending on the time of day and the level of congestion. Inbound lanes will be closed to solo drivers between the heavy traffic hours of 7:00 and 8:00 in the morning, and outbound lanes are closed between 4:00 and 6:00 in the evening. They'll also be closed to solo drivers if traffic on the lanes slows below 50 MPH.
Metro CEO George Greanias is touting the program's benefits. He says the HOV lanes are an under-utilized resource, and there are times when they can carry more traffic. "I don't know if you need to do a study to ask, would you like to get some relief from driving on the Gulf Freeway. I don't think it really takes a study to get an answer to that one."
Greanias said putting more vehicles in the HOV lane will save wear and tear on the main lanes, and easing stop-and-go traffic conditions will put a dent in vehicle emissions. He adds the addition of the HOT lane drivers will not slow things down for HOV carpoolers.
"The notion behind this concept is to make sure that when we do have capacity, when the lane is not full, vehicles with just one person can get on the lane."
KUHF took an informal poll of some of the folks at the transit center as to whether they would pay a few dollars to get home quicker. One driver said it was a good idea.
"If you don't have a friend with you and you have to pay a couple extra dollars, spending resources doing it by yourself, then that would be a worthy cause to spend money, I guess."
But others thought it was unfair.
"It's a special access lane for the affluent, and people who can't afford to pay two or three extra bucks every day are stuck in traffic. It's not very democratic."
HOT lane drivers will have several access points along the route, which are controlled by remote-control gates. Solo drivers will be directed to the "All Others" lane where they'll pay the toll with a toll tag. They can use toll tags supplied by Metro, and they can also use tags from the county toll road authority. As for driving solo on other HOV lanes, Metro says it plans to expand the program to other HOV lanes, including U.S. 59 North and South, U.S. 290, and I-45 North.
A Metro spokesman says they counted about 700 HOT lane drivers on the first day of operation.
(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF) The Texas Department of Transportation says it's moving forward on the next phase of the Grand Parkway, an ambitious plan to build a 180-mile ring road around the greater Houston area. Once finished, the Grand Parkway is expected to become the longest beltway in the country. It will pass through seven counties and encircle the two existing loops, the 45-mile Interstate-610 loop and the 88-mile State Beltway 8.
State transportation officials say the goal of the Grand Parkway project is to improve connectivity between the major north-south and east-west arteries that head into downtown Houston, helping commuters avoid surface streets and traffic lights. Some suburbs north of the city have seen a 40% population increase in the past decade.
Critics say the project fuels sprawl.
The Grand Parkway project started showing up on regional planning maps in the 1960's. Once the project was designed, it was divided into 11 segments, and currently only two of those segments are open to traffic. Segment D, a 17-mile stretch that connects U.S. Highway 59 to Interstate-10 west of the city, opened in 1994. Another 14 mile segment east of Houston opened in 2008. Construction is now underway on a third segment, Segment E, a 15-mile section connecting Interstate-10 and U.S. Highway 290. That segment is set to open in late 2013.
The state will now begin work on three new segments. Segment F-1 is a 12-mile section connecting U.S. Highway 290 and State Highway 249/Tomball Parkway. From there, segment F-2 runs another 12 miles, connecting 249 with Interstate 45. Segment G will run 14 miles between I-45 and U.S. Highway 59.
In November, TxDot requested qualification statements from companies interested in working on the project. The agency's Kelli Petras says they'll soon issue a request for proposals and use a "design-build" strategy. "The company or team that wins this contract is able to start construction as soon as the contract is executed," she explained. "So they're basically designing and constructing at the same time."
Petras says the cost of the three new segments is about $839 million, and they hope to begin construction in early 2013. The new segments are expected to open to traffic in 2015.
More TN coverage of the Grand Parkway:
Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere – or a Must for Houston’s Future? (link)
It’s Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston’s Grand Parkway Project (link)
Construction Begins This Month on Next Segment of Houston’s Grand Parkway (link)