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In Houston, Driving Capital of US, Cyclists Say Bike Commuting is Possible

Friday, May 20, 2011


(Houston — Edel Howlin, KUHF News) With rising gas prices more and more Houstonians are looking at other ways of getting around the city. Cycling is one of those options. As Bike To Work Day kicks off this morning, how realistic it is to cycle around Houston and whether more people are pedaling past the pumps? (Houston dwellers have longer automobile commutes than anywhere else in America, according to a Brookings Institution study on commuting.)

Nic Alvarado like many learned to ride a bike when he was a kid. Now as an adult he regularly bikes to work and can’t help but sing its praises.

"I’ve always just loved it, it’s like flying. It’s the same sensation. You feel like you can go anywhere and the winds rushing by it’s exhilarating. Exhilarating."

Alvarado is one of hundreds of commuters hopping on their bikes this morning for Bike to Work Day. Riders take off from different points all over Houston and finish at City Hall. Then everyone makes their way from there to work. Alvin Wright is with the city’s Public works department who is heading up this event. He hopes to show biking to work is possible in a city known for its freeways. And with gas prices over the four dollar mark Wright says they decided to shift gears for this year’s event.

"We’re actually incorporating the assistance of several bike shops in the city of Houston located north, south, east and west of downtown."

Wright says it’s important to include bike shops because they can take the message into the biking community the city is trying to reach. He was also eager to point out that biking to work is not a new thing in Houston.

"The Energy Corridor here in Houston is probably one of the most active biker communities. A lot of businesses in that particular section, which is along I-10, near Eldridge, actually have a lot of their workers who actually bicycle to work."

Matt Wurth is the owner of I Cycle bike shop on West 18th st. He’s seen a change in the type of customer that’s coming through his door.

"Well I’ve definitely seen an increase in people buying bikes for transportation and not just recreation. I think it’s a combination of gas prices and I think it’s just an awareness that we can’t continue driving cars all the time and that it’s actually fun to get around by bikes."

The hundreds of bikers showing up for Bike To Work day prove it’s possible but how safe is it to bike around a city that is essentially built for automobiles. Matt Wurth again:

"You know I log thousands of miles per year on the city streets and I think in the city of Houston, inside Loop 610 it’s pretty safe. I think as you go out to the suburbs the infrastructure drops off, the roads network is not designed for cyclists at all."

If that’s the case, then the city has more work to do to make cycling a viable form of transport. But in the meantime, those who can cycle to work but haven’t bothered might benefit from Alvarado’s enthusiasm.

"A lot of people think it’s all or nothing. You’ve gotta bike every day or you’re just a bike failure. Springtime and fall are the optimum times to bike. And I think if people could find that they could bike 15% of the year, it’s still 15% of the time you’re biking. So jump out there and get on your bike. Stop making excuses and ride."

For more information about bicycling in Houston, go to www.bikehouston.org .

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Texas Wins Bid for HSR $

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Texas has secured $15 million dollars in federal funds for the development of a proposed high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas. The money will pay for environmental and engineering studies of the corridor, which is identified as one of the most viable route in the Texas Rail Plan.

The amount is a tiny fraction of the $2.2 billion the US DOT awarded in grants for 22 rail projects across 15 states.

But Bill Glavin, the director of the Texas Department of Transportation’s (TxDOT) rail division, says he was gratified, “. . . that the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) has recognized the progress [the state] has made over the past year.” He says Texas has made a lot of headway in developing a “unified vision” of what its passenger rail network should look like. Texas has routinely missed out on high speed rail money in the past, snagging only tiny portions of the overall pot.

The grant, Glavin stresses, means TxDOT is “one step closer to being able to implement high speed rail in the state.” But he cautions that there’s “still a long road ahead of us.” He points out that that it could be more than a decade before passengers will be able to board a train in Houston and travel to Dallas at 150 mph.

More than 90 applications were sent to the FRA, totaling about $10 billion dollars in requests for rail projects.

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Texas Goes After HSR $ for Dallas-Houston Line

Friday, April 08, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is hoping to snag a portion of Florida’s unwanted high-speed rail money. TxDOT, which submitted its application to the Federal Railroad Administration this week, is hoping to secure nearly $43 million of the $2.4 billion dollars that’s available. The agency wants to spend $18 million on preliminary engineering and environmental studies for the proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail line, which is considered the most economically viable route in the state—not surprising given that, with a combined population of 3.3 million people, they’re two of the most populated cities in the country. “We feel like it’s time to connect those two,” said Jennifer Moczygemba, the rail system director with TxDOT’s Rail Division. There’s not a whole lot going on in between the two cities though, which is why Moczygemba says it would likely operate as an express service with speeds up to 150 miles per hour and few or no stops.

TxDOT wants to spend the remaining $24.8 million on the final design and construction of a federally-mandated safety system (called Positive Train Control) for the Trinity Rail Express corridor, which operates between Dallas and Fort Worth. The safety technology monitors train movements to prevent rail collisions and derailments on tracks that carry both passenger and freight trains.

But Texas isn’t the only one chasing the money. California, the District of Columbia, and 23 other states are all vying for the heavily sought-after funds too. And it’s hard to say how Texas will stack up against all that competition. Moczygemba says TxDOT put in “a pretty good application and we’ll just have to see how everything plays out.”

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Renewable Power Comes To Texas Electric Car Owners

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Richey Cook with his EV home charger

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Austin-based power company Green Mountain Energy unveiled Texas's first pollution-free electricity package today for owners of electric vehicles (EVs), and Houston resident Richey Cook became the first to sign up for the package.

Cook says he liked the idea of driving a car that's not only tail-pipe emissions free, but downstream emissions-free as well. It’ll be a couple weeks before his Nissan Leaf gets delivered to his home. But when it arrives, he’ll be ready. Cook will be the first in Texas to drive a mass-produced electric car powered by wind-generated electricity. He’ll be charging his car with his home charger, which was just installed in his garage. The electricity will be produced by wind farms right here in Texas, which generates more wind power than any other state.

Cook says one of the reasons he’s making the switch to electric is to save money. “I was paying about $250 dollars a month in gas on my four-cylinder Mazda. And that’s gone up over $300 dollars," says Cook. He boasts that his EV will cost him around $45 dollars a month -- "and that’s using 11 cents a kilowatt which is the national average for electricity.”

Cook will be getting the electricity for his car through Green Mountain Energy. The power company has just launched a home electricity service specifically for EV owners. Green Mountain Energy’s Helen Brauner says when Cook charges his battery at home, the electricity won’t be coming from a fossil-fuel burning power plant, but from a renewable source. If you’re going to buy an electric vehicle, and if you charge it with just traditional electricity, then your electric vehicle is still essentially polluting," she says, "because the generation of that electricity is the largest source of industrial air pollution in the United States.”

NRG Energy, the parent company of Green Mountain, is rolling out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles around Houston this year. NRG plans to install 25 chargers by Labor Day, which will be available for public use. But unlike Cook’s home charger, the electricity for the public charging stations won’t necessarily come from a renewable energy source.

Listen to the story over at KUHF News.

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TxDOT: Road Projects Need To Be Bike and Pedestrian-Friendly

Monday, April 04, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has adopted a new policy: all road projects must make room for pedestrians and bicycles, not just cars. In some cases this would require building narrower car lanes to make room.

The new rules mean Houston should start seeing more bike and pedestrian-friendly roadways in the future. TxDOT’s requirements come a year after the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a policy statement underscoring the importance of integrating walking and bicycling into transportation projects.

TxDOT says its new mandate emphasizes its commitment to invest in projects that cater to those on bike and those on foot. Under the guidelines, any shoulder on a new or reconstructed road must be at least 14 feet wide.  That will give cyclists a tad more space to ride since the norm has usually been between 11 and 12 feet.

Tom Beeman, an engineer with TxDOT’s Design Division, says the wider lane will also give cars more room, “to either maneuver around [cyclists] or move into the other lane a little bit." He believes the extra couple of feet will create a safer environment for all modes of transportation. "That would be our minimum design," he notes.  Where feasible, says Beeman, more feet of pavement can be saved for bike and pedestrian use.

Beeman says a road's main lanes may become slightly narrower in some cases to allow for a wider shoulder.  TxDOT will also be adding more sidewalks and widening existing ones in some places to make it easier for people to walk on a continuous route.

So why has TxDOT decided to revise its policy? Well, according to Beeman, "The world’s changing. A lot of people are now walking, or they’re using bikes for fitness, or to commute just to cut down on the gas price. The cost of gas is going up so they may be taking shorter trips or living closer. We’re developing communities that are much more dense and we have all modes of transportation that we’re trying to provide for."

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"Talk Text Crash" TxDOT Launches Distracted Driving Campaign

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Distracted-Driving Simulator

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is launching its “Talk Text Crash” campaign at the University of Houston. TxDOT hopes the month-long campaign will raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. Students were able to get behind the wheel of a driving simulator at the event to see how easy it can be to lose control when sending a text.

Listen to the story here.

I met Emil Helfer--student and frequent texter-- at the event. Typing on his phone while driving, admits Helfer, may not be such a smart idea. “It’s definitely not the best decision but sometimes it vibrates in your pocket and you have to get a hold of somebody.”

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Houston Contemplating Natural Gas-Powered Buses

Thursday, March 31, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Over the last 10-15 years or so, transit agencies across the country have been switching to natural gas technology to fuel their bus fleets. Many cite the rising price of oil as an incentive for the shift. In Los Angeles, nearly 100 percent of the bus fleet runs on natural gas-powered vehicles. Transit officials there estimate that ditching diesel-fueled buses has slashed nearly 300,000 pounds of CO2 emissions per day. Other major cities, such as Chicago, are also considering adding CNG buses to their systems. Now, Houston's jumping on the bandwagon. . . well, maybe.

Houston's Metro has just launched a study into the viability of natural gas-fueled buses. Right now, Metro operates around 1250 buses, more than a quarter of  which are diesel-electric hybrids. The question is whether it would make sense to diversify the fleet with other kinds of alternative technologies. “One thing that’s happened is, all these technologies have come closer together in terms of their environmental impact," said Metro president and CEO George Greanias at today's board meeting. "They all work better in terms of keeping the environment as pristine as possible.”

The study will help determine what the overall cost will be for operating and maintaining a bus that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). Greanias notes that cost factors, such as the price of CNG, are some of the big questions the study will address. "Can we control the cost factor better with a CNG vehicle?" he wonders. "But on the other side of the coin, there’s also significant infrastructure up front that you have to use with CNG technology.”

Metro tested natural gas buses a decade ago, but found it was too costly for the agency. Back then, the fleet had four CNG buses. They were converted into diesel-electric hybrids in 2002. But the technology has advanced a lot since then, which why METRO is taking another look.

Greanias says, in addition to cost, Metro will have to weigh the environmental benefits of CNG against other fuels, such as the hybrid technology that the agency has already adopted. Metro will also have to decide if it would be best to use the same technology across the entire fleet, or if it would work to mix it up a bit. “Right now we've been moving in a single direction," he says, referencing the diesel-electric hybrids. "As we go forward, will we want to expand that and have one or two or three different options?[That raises] operational questions and maintenance questions.”

Metro board member Christof Spieler stresses that it's important the agency not rush into anything. "When we’re buying a new bus it’s not like buying a new car; this is a 12 year commitment. We want to keep these buses on the road. So when we’re making a decision now it’s going to have ramifications for a long time to come.”

METRO expects to have the results of the natural gas study by autumn.

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New Bi-Partisan Smart Tech Transportation Bill Introduced In House

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) U.S. Reps. Mike Rogers, R-MI, and Russ Carnahan, D-MO, have introduced a new smart transportation technology bill (H.R. 995) into the House that would give six cities the opportunity to share in $1.2 billion dollars—as long as the money is used to fund innovative transportation technologies.

Cities would have to compete for the grants, which would be paid out over five years. “For far too long these great ideas about intelligent transportation have been sitting on the shelf, but have not been actually implemented into our national transportation strategy,” said Carnahan. “This, I think, is a very big step to get these technologies off the shelf and into American communities so we can really show their value.”

The SMART Technologies for Communities Act, which was discussed during today’s House Transportation and Infrastructure hearing, would establish pilot programs in selected cities, where innovative tech solutions would be deployed and tested, such as electronic toll collection, vehicle to vehicle communication systems, and real-time traffic information applications. The goal would be to see whether these intelligent transportation systems (ITS) save money, reduce congestion and traffic collisions, and improve the overall quality of the city’s transportation system.

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Houston Policy Makers Maintain Funding for Bike/Ped, But Give Rest to Roads

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) For the past month, local policy makers have been ruminating on whether it would be a good idea to renege on a promise to give $12.8 million dollars to certain bike and pedestrian-oriented projects. The money is part of a $345 million dollar pot of discretionary funding. Some goes to bike/ped projects, some to road/freight rail projects. The proposal to take that $12 million and put it toward road and freight rail project stemmed from the stark reality that resources for transportation projects in the Houston region are dwindling, and the view by many members of the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) that the funds would be better spent on highway improvements.

But the plan wasn’t received well by bike advocates who came out in large numbers to sign petitions and voice concerns during last month’s TPC meeting. So, after hearing from the public,  the proposal was shelved to allow time for more deliberation on how to split up the funds. That time ran out at this month's meeting where the issue finally came to a vote.

Listen the full story here.

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Ruth SoRelle and her husband Paul rode their bikes to the meeting. They joined dozens of other cycling advocates to hear how the TPC would vote. Before the meeting I asked Ruth SoRelle what she hoped the outcome would be. “We are not asking for extra money," she said, "we are asking for them to maintain the funding we have. We need to develop alternate ways of transportation. So if we develop bikeways and pedestrian walkways then we’ll accomplish that goal.”

In the end, the SoRelles got their wish. The TPC decided to preserve the money for bike/ped initiatives. But despite the seeming victory,

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New Transportation Advocacy Group Forms In Houston

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) As Texas lawmakers struggle to trim the budget, transportation advocates are hoping the legislators keep their scissors away from the dwindling pot of transportation dollars. A new organization called the Transportation Advocacy Group - Houston Region (TAG) is calling on politicians to find more ways to finance highway and transit projects.

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TAG has around 50 members so far. Most are business leaders in the Houston region: engineers, attorneys, contractors, property managers, etc. Wayne Klotz helped start the group. He’s been a civil engineer in Houston for more than thirty years. He says with money for road and transit projects drying up, lawmakers need to come up with other solutions to the region’s transportation problems. “We’ve got all these things floating around but no ability to pay for them," says Klotz. "And if there is no way to pay for them they won’t get built."


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Who Will Win? Houston's Roads or Bike Lanes?

Friday, March 18, 2011

(Houston--Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston-area transportation policy makers have $80 million federal dollars to distribute at their discretion. At the monthly meeting of  Transportation Policy Council (TPC) advisers went around the table giving input on how the funding should be divided between bike and pedestrian projects, and road and freight rail projects. There was no consensus on exactly how to do that. (Should 45 percent go to non-road projects or should that number be closer to 11 percent? The former is by far the less likely of the two.)

But there was a lot of chatter on how divvying up the money would shape Houston’s transportation system in the future. Robin Holzer heads up the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, a group that wants more money to go to projects that would build bike lanes and widen sidewalks. “I think the question of how to spend this $80 million has kick-started a really important policy discussion that’s going to play forward into our future investments and in particular into our long-range transportation plan," says Holzer. "And that’s a good thing,” she adds.

Clark Martinson is the general manager of Houston's Energy Corridor district. He’s also a technical advisor to the TPC. He notes that the majority of the conversation circled around alternative types of transportation. “I have not heard anybody discuss that we want more roadways in any of these discussions. I’ve heard people asking that we want to create a more livable environment that’s safer to walk, for our children to walk to school, to be able to ride a bicycle to work and not be in fear on the roads," he said. "And so I think that with that kind of dialogue that’s happening, it’s a real transportation shift in our region.”

Last month cycling and livable centers advocates succeeded in getting the TPC to reconsider a proposal that would have cut all bike/pedestrian funding from that $80 million dollar pot. The TPC decided to delay the vote for a month. It will make its final decision on how to slice up the pie during its March 25 meeting. Almost 3,000 bike and pedestrian activists have signed two petitions calling on officials to save funding for non-road projects.

Listen to the story here.

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De-Sprawling Houston

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Galina Tachieva & Tom Low

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Ever since post-war communities like Levittown and the advent of cheap gasoline, the suburban model has been one built around the automobile. But that model may be changing, even in the sprawling suburbs of Houston. Old strip malls and shopping centers are being retrofitted into walkable town centers, and high density, pedestrian-friendly enclaves, where people can live, shop,  and grab a bite to eat, are popping up around the region. I sat down with two sustainable development experts, Galina Tachieva and Tom Low, to talk about this move to urbanize the suburbs. They're in Houston today to lead an urban planning workshop, where they'll talk about how their ideas can be applied to Houston. (You can listen to the interview over at KUHF News.)

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Texas Lawmakers Consider Statewide Distracted Driving Bills

Thursday, March 10, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Texans used to juggling phone calls and emails during their drive to work may have to come up with another way to multitask soon. Several states have passed laws making it illegal for people to fumble around with their mobile phones while driving, regardless of their age. Texas isn’t one of them, but that could change soon.

Members of the Texas House of Representatives are considering bills that would make texting and emailing while driving illegal. Joel Cooper is a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute. He testified before the House Transportation Committee on the dangers of texting while driving. “Text messaging turns out to be a perfect combination, the perfect storm, if you will, of three distraction types," he said. "It’s both a cognitive task, you have to think about it, you have to look down at your device, and manipulate it with your hands. So because of that it’s not really surprising that the data are suggesting that text messaging is so dangerous.”

Listen to the story over at KUHF News.

State Representative Tom Craddick suggested combining four of the bills into one that would ban texting while driving. Another bill, introduced by Representative Jose Menendez, would ban both texting and talking on the phone behind the wheel. Charmane Walden, with the National Safety Council’s Texas chapter, says both texting and talking on phones should be outlawed. “People who text and also talk on the phone... might look ahead and see street signs and see other cars, but cognitively they only process about half of what they see," she said. "So we’re in support of eliminating cell phones while driving.”

Mobile phone use while driving is particularly prevalent among younger drivers. A poll out this week found that 63 percent of drivers under 30 admitted to using a wireless device while driving in the last month. Thirty percent reported texting behind the wheel.

The U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has made his opinion of distracted driving clear: He’s not for it. He calls the practice an epidemic and insists that distracted driving will stay on the top of the Department of Transportation’s list of priorities. But the verdict is still out on using hands-free device to talk while driving. Earlier today Secretary LaHood said he would not yet advocate for a ban on drivers using blue-tooth technology until more research is done.

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Small Victory for Houston Cyclists, Pedestrians

Friday, February 25, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Cyclists in the Houston area won a small victory Friday. At its monthly meeting the Transportation Policy Council, decided to postpone a vote on a proposal to stall several bike and pedestrian projects.

[Listen to the KUHF audio version of this story]

The decision comes after more than thirty people showed up at the meeting to voice their concern.  Barbara Jusiak was one of them. “I ride my bicycle to and from the Texas Medical Center every day. And I believe that the ability to cycle safely and to get around on foot is very important to quality of life in a city.”

The Transportation Policy Council allocates money for transportation projects throughout the greater Houston region. The proposal in question has to do with how the TPC will divvy up $345 million dollars that’s coming from two parts of a federally funded program.

Alan Clark is the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. He calls this particular funding the flexible part of the program. “Because although they are highway dollars, they can be used in some cases to support funding for transit, pedestrian, bicycle-type facilities,” he says.

Clark says what’s also unique is that the TPC has control over how the money is used, as opposed to that decision being made in Austin or Washington. If the proposal is approved, $12.8 million dollars that’s planned for transit, bikeway, and walkability projects would possibly be stalled one or more years. That would mean 78 percent of the pot would go to roads and freight rail while just over 11 percent would be spent on building bikeways, sidewalks, and other initiatives that would take people out of their cars. Matthew Reisdorf is a father of two.

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Funding For Some Bicycle, Transit, And Pedestrian-Oriented Projects in Houston May Be Stalled

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Transportation policy makers may vote this Friday on a proposal that would stall money for bike and other alternative transit projects in greater Houston.

A portion of the eight-county region’s four-year $8.1 billion dollar transportation budget may see a reduction in funding for bike, transit, and other pedestrian-oriented projects if the Transportation Policy Council (TPC) votes in favor of the proposal. That means a number of these so-called “alternative mode” projects could be delayed by one or more years.

Alan Clark, the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says if the proposal is approved, up to $13 million dollars that would have been spent on “alternative mode” projects could go to road and freight rail projects instead. He says the money could be made available for projects like, "intersection improvements, additional improvements to ramping or interchanges, the widening of an existing road, construction of one that’s in poor condition, that sort of thing.”

But Clark says none of the scheduled “alternative mode” projects are at risk of losing their funding, it just means the money for some of them might come later. Clark says there will still be money available for bike paths, sidewalk improvements, and other bike/transit/pedestrian projects. Fifty-four percent of the total budget is going to transit, while just under two percent is going to bicycle and pedestrian-oriented initiatives.

But BikeHouston board member Aaron Chang thinks that last number should be much higher. "Pedestrian, bicycle, and livable centers have been severely underfunded," said Chang.  "And we can’t keep looking toward old solutions to tackle new problems that we’re trying to solve right now."

Wang says he and other BikeHouston members are going to Friday’s meeting to make their case against the proposal.

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Controversy on the Texas Prairie: Road to Nowhere - or a Must for Houston's Future?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Will a highway cut through Texas' Katy Prairie?

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News)  Houston is preparing to complete an 88-mile ring road this weekend -- as controversy continues to simmer around another, even larger ring road that critics say will induce sprawl.  That road, called the Grand Parkway, would cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy prairie (pictured.)

But for now, after 23 years of construction, the final section of the city’s outer beltway, called the Sam Houston Tollway, will be complete come Saturday.

It’s the second road to circle Houston. The first was Loop 610, which was completed in 1976.

Alan Clark, the director of transportation and planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says the final $400 million dollar section will serve the rapidly growing communities in Northeast Harris County. “It should shorten their travel time significantly," he said. "And by that I mean maybe twenty minutes, thirty minutes - it could be even longer.”

But critics argue that it induces suburban sprawl and doesn't fix congestion problems in Houston's denser, more populated areas.

Those arguments are getting even more heated around another concentric road that has only just begun its giant circle around Greater Houston.

It's called the Grand Parkway, and it would be the third road to ring around Houston.  Some want it, some loathe it. It would be a massive 180-mile toll road encircling greater Houston, and it's been part of the city's planning since 1962. Less than thirty miles have been built so far, but 14 more could be added soon. That's because the Texas Department of Transportation recently announced that it expects to have the nearly half -billion dollars it needs to construct the next segment.

With Houston poised to gain 3.5 million people over the next thirty years, proponents of the road say it's a crucial part of the region's transportation system. Critics say the road is superfluous, arguing that the money should be spent to tackle existing congestion problems in places where more people live and commute. But opposition to the road heats up even more over this next segment -- known as "E" -- because it will cut through the environmentally sensitive Katy Prairie, west of Houston.

You can listen to the story - and see a slideshow - at KUHF.

For more on KUHF's coverage of Segment E -- including a look at the route it would take, and reaction from locals and one tenacious environmentalist -- visit here.

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Houston's METRO Gets Money Back From Spanish Rail Car Supplier

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's METRO has officially received a $14 million dollar refund from the Spanish-owned rail car vendor Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF).

METRO had hired CAF to build 103 light rail cars for the North and Southeast rail lines. But last December METRO had to cancel the contract after the Federal Transit Administration said the $330 million dollar deal violated federal purchasing laws and Buy America rules. That has stalled $900 million dollars in federal grants. “The Federal Transit Administration made it clear that unless we terminated the CAF contract and purchased cars under a new program that they were comfortable with, we would not be eligible for the full funding grant,” said George Greanias, METRO’s president and CEO.

METRO was able to recover $14 million dollars of the $41 million it had already paid to CAF. Greanias says the money will go toward re-procuring the light rail cars. “We just issued a notice over the weekend that we’re going to be going out to take bids on rail cars," said Greanias. "And we’ve been working very closely with the Federal Transit Administration to make sure that every step in the process that we’re going through right now meets with their approval.”

Earlier this week the Obama Administration submitted its proposed budget for fiscal year 2012. It includes $200 million dollars for the North and Southeast rail lines.

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Obama Puts Money on Houston's METRO

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

(Houston - Laurie Johnson and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) There could be more money on the way for Houston's light rail system. President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2012 sets aside a hefty $128 billion dollars for transportation projects across America - a 66% increase from 2010. It’s part of a new six-year transportation bill, pegged at $556 billion dollars. "We view this as a big win for public transit," said Peter Rogoff, the Federal Transit Administrator. Obama's budget includes a record $3.2 billion dollars for 21 capital transit rail and bus projects.

If passed, METRO's light rail project would receive another $200 million allocation - that's up $50 million from last year. The money would go towards the construction of the North and Southeast rail lines. George Greanias, METRO's president and CEO, points out that the proposed money is in addition to the $300 million already allocated to the agency. "We worked very hard last fall to regroup after a very difficult summer," Greanias said. "And I think the way we approached that regrouping work has made an impression on the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), on the Obama Administration."

The transit authority got in trouble with the FTA last year after a four month long investigation found the previous METRO administration had broken federal Buy America laws when it handed over two light rail contracts to a Spanish rail car manufacturer. That violation put $900 million dollars in federal grants on hold. METRO was able to come to an agreement with the Spanish company, ultimately canceling its contract in December. The settlement helped put METRO back on track to qualify for the total federal funds.

Obama's $200 million dollar bump for METRO is part of that pending $900 million dollar grant. Rogoff says there's no question last year's debacle delayed METRO's funding. But he says members of METRO's new administration have been willing to work with the FTA to fix the situation. "We have always said that we were not going to punish the commuters of Houston for the misdeeds of prior METRO leadership," Rogoff said. "And I think the amounts of money we have for both these lines in the budget reflect that." He said the FTA expects to finalize the full funding grant agreements before the end of 2012, and adds that both rail projects are on the list.

The transportation money is part of the Obama Administration’s latest $3.7 trillion dollar budget proposal that would slash spending by 2.4 percent.

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Houston's METRO Looking to Expand Rail Service to the 'Burbs

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority may expand its rail service out to the suburbs. The line would link Houston with Missouri City, roughly paralleling the existing freight rail track along the US 90A corridor for eight miles. It would begin just south of the Medical Center and end just inside Missouri City at Beltway 8. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service design and development with METRO, says traffic in the southwest Houston area will only get worse --  so it's crucial to have other transportation options on the table. Slaughter says METRO is studying this corridor "to find another way to provide high-capacity transit to move people in [the southwest Houston] region."

Listen to the story over at KUHF.

Alignment options for Southwest Rail Corridor

METRO is floating five possible options for the rail project. Most involve light rail technologies. Just one considers commuter rail. They would all require laying down brand new track. Sharing track with freight rail has been talked about in the past, but Slaughter says it isn’t possible now because there's just too much freight traffic. The project is expected to cost between $200 and $250 million dollars.

METRO is holding four  meetings this month to get public input on the project.  “We’re asking the public to come and join us," said Slaughter. "We’re asking for all stakeholders, public agencies, residents, landowners...employees in the area, to come to the public meetings and tell us what else should we consider; what other alignments we should consider,” she said.

Slaughter says if all goes smoothly, construction could begin on the rail line by late 2017. But finding money for transportation projects is difficult in this economic and political climate, so METRO may have trouble coming up with the cash.

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It's Official: TxDOT Takes On Houston's Grand Parkway Project

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Last month Harris County commissioners voted in favor of letting the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) build a portion of the Grand Parkway.  The state has accepted the job and says it will construct three segments of the 180-mile ring road which will loop around Greater Houston. Harris County stepped back from the project after learning that TxDOT expects to have $425 million dollars available for the road this year. TxDOT spokesperson Karen Amacker says it’s now up to the department to" deliver the transportation system the state needs and we believe that the Grand Parkway is an important part of that system."

Grand Parkway Segment Map

TxDOT will be developing all of the segments located in Harris County – three out of the proposed toll road’s eleven segments. Amacker says Segment E, which would connect Interstate 10 with 290, is likely to move forward first because “it’s the most shovel-ready.”  She says it’s also one of the more “financially robust” segments of the Grand Parkway. The 14-mile section would run through the Katy Prairie and is expected to cost around $400 million dollars.

“It is certainly possible that the commission could identify funding for Segment E before the end of this year," says Amacker.  "As for the other segments of the Grand Parkway, it will be a challenge, as it is with funding any transportation project in this challenging environment.”

Amacker says money for the Grand Parkway will come from a number of sources, including the State Highway Fund and bond proceeds. But the state is running low on money for new construction projects, so it’s unlikely funding for the other segments will be available anytime soon. As for Segment E, Harris County has yet to obtain a federal permit that would allow wetlands to be filled in for the construction of the highway. And without it, Segment E can’t be built.

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