(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to dump a thirty-five year old federal urban transit program, called New Starts. The program, governed by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), doles out $2 billion dollars a year to mass transit projects across the country. The House Republican Study Committee has proposed to ax the program to trim back federal spending. Transit projects all over the U.S. could be in jeopardy if the committee's recommendation is heeded - and Houston's light rail expansion program is one of them.
Paul Magaziner, a vocal opponent of METRO’s light rail system, thinks the program should be cancelled. “Like it or not, the 112th Congress will decide the fate of METRO," he told board members at this week's meeting. "The jury is out. Cease and desist until you know what Congress and the FTA will choose to do and be able to approve.”
METRO is currently waiting on at least $900 million dollars from the FTA’s New Starts program for use on the Southeast and North rail lines. The authority has already begun work on the lines under the assumption it will be reimbursed through the federal grants. But Magaziner says METRO should halt all rail construction until it has every penny in the bank to fund the program in its entirety.
But METRO president and CEO George Greanias says stopping now isn't logical. “I understand that we’re all wondering what the new Congress is going to do," he said. "And there’s certainly a lot of statements being made about what the proper course for the country is. I don’t see many businesses in this country, I don’t see many folks just sort of shutting down and saying, ‘We’ll wait for a year or two while the Congress decides which way their going to jump.’”
Greanias says he’s confident METRO will receive the much-needed funds from the FTA. He points out that the FTA sent METRO a $50 million dollar advance on the grant last month and also issued pre-approval letters allowing the authority to commence work on the lines without delay. Greanias says calls to stop Houston’s light rail expansion are imprudent. “To simply shut the program down would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars and you’d have nothing to show for it,” he argued.
Plus, he says, construction is already underway. Roads have been torn up so the project can’t just be abandoned. The METRO board more than doubled this year’s budget for the light rail program, increasing it from $143 million dollars to $345 million.
Board member Christof Spieler says canceling the program due to speculation on the political future of Congress would "go against the will of the voters," who voted in favor of the light rail program in 2003.
The proposal could come to a vote in the House by the middle of February.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Nissan's 100% battery powered Leaf has already been delivered to patient customers in California, Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon, and Washington. Now the first mass-produced all-electric vehicle (EV) has arrived in the Lone Star State. Some may have speculated that the state's first EV would end up in Austin, Texas's most liberal city--but they would have been wrong.
The first Nissan Leaf to come to Texas has landed in the hands of a suburban family in Houston - the oil capital of America. The Sauers family picked up their new ride at a dealership in Clear Lake. But with Nissan confirming that production of the car is moving slower than anticipated, the Sauers will likely be the only ones driving the Leaf around here for a while.
Hear the the story--and watch the unveiling-- over at KUHF News.
Jimmy Sauers and his wife Christie are the happy owners of Texas's first Leaf. The Sauers have three little girls and live in Seabrook, southeast of Houston. “Last time I bought a car, it wasn’t quite like this,” said Sauers with a laugh.
It wasn't your typical auto purchase experience. The family had to wait through speeches and a lot of camera flashes before they were free to drive their shiny blue car home. In ideal conditions the Leaf can go up 130 miles or so on a single charge. The fact that the Leaf has zero tail-pipe emissions was a major part of their decision to sign up for the car.
“We’re a Christian family we believe God gave us this earth to be good stewards of it," said Sauers as he sat comfortably behind the wheel of his new commuter car. "And so anytime we can use our resources more efficiently – whether it’s our natural resources or whether it’s our personal finances, or our time, or our energy – we believe that we should use everything as efficiently as possible.”
He said he won’t support a tax increase, but would possibly favor raising fees, namely on vehicle registration. Alan Clark, the director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, says if nothing is done, money for road projects could actually fall over the next ten years. “I’m very encouraged that the legislator is talking about it," says Clark, "and I think that there are many things they could do that would be a step in the right direction. Raising the vehicle registration fee could be one of those.”
Listen to the story here.
Clark says if everyone in the greater Houston area paid $20 more for vehicle registration, that would generate an additional $60 to $70 million a year. Clark says the extra money would help repair some of the roads and pay for some new projects in the region. But he says it wouldn’t solve all of Houston’s congestion problems.
(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) If you need a ride to Bush Intercontinental from downtown Houston, consider this: For four dollars and fifty cents METRO will drive you there. The new price tag for the 45 minute shuttle ride is 70 percent less than the old price of $15. METRO’s Airport Direct was criticized in the past for its lack of ridership. The 52-seat coach rarely saw more than a handful of passengers per trip. Kimberley Slaughter, vice president of service, design, and development at METRO, says the cost of the service probably deterred some would-be riders. “For our everyday customers,I think, especially with this economy, $15 may have been a little more expensive for them," she said. "$4.50 makes it more affordable.”
Hear the story over at KUHF News.
The shuttle will also stop at more downtown locations - five in total. Slaughter says the majority of people who use the service are out-of-towners, here on business. But she says with the changes, it’s now a viable option for everyone. The agency is also working to make more people aware that the Airport Direct line exists. “We are looking to do a lot more marketing,” said Slaughter. There are signs and pamphlets at the airport, but Slaughter says they may install permanent monitors advertising the service as well.
But even though METRO expects the changes will increase ridership, it will cost METRO about the same, some $1.9 million dollars a year. “We’re not reaping any cost savings here," she said. "What we are trying to do is to make it more appealing, add more customer service to it, and make sure that we’re providing the service that the customer wants.”
The revamped service started Sunday and will still run every thirty minutes, seven days a week.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston commuters were fortunate to spend less time sitting in traffic in 2009 than in 2008, according to a transportation study released by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). The slight drop in congestion was due to the lagging economy and higher prices at the pump. But the respite from bad gridlock has most likely come and gone.
Researchers with TTI looked at 439 urban areas, both big and small. Tim Lomax, a research engineer with TTI, found that commuting in Houston in 2009 was less time consuming than in 2008. "The amount of extra time that people spent on the roads in Houston went from 63 hours to 58 hours," he said.
So why the improvement? Lomax says it’s closely tied to the state of the economy. Economic slow-downs, he says, "bring declines in congestion." Lomax notes that with more people unemployed, fewer people had jobs they needed to get to by car. The high cost of gas also persuaded people to drive less.
Still, a five hour savings over 2008 isn’t much. Let’s face it; spending fifty-eight hours twiddling your thumbs in a stationary car is a bit extreme, even if it is over the course of a year. "You’re still spending on the order of a week and a half worth of vacation extra in your car," Lomax pointed out.
Listen to the story over at KUHF News.
So, despite the slight reduction in traffic jams, Houston ranks 4th on TTI’s list of the most congested big cities of 2009. Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles topped the list. And it wasn’t just time that was wasted.
(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) If you've ever forgotten (and I really hope you haven't) to obey the traffic signal when approaching rail crossings, METRO's new safety campaign should help remind you.
The agency rolled out a new light rail car wrapped in a bright red safety advertisement warning people to "Stop" and "Think" when traveling near rail tracks.
METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia says the purpose of the new paint job is to remind people to be more alert when approaching rail crossings. “METRO has a very important mission, which is to get people from A to B," Garcia said. "But the key is we have to do that safely." He pointed out that Texas ranks highest in the nation in highway-rail grade collisions. The Lone Star State had 177 incidents in 2009. California, which is number two on the list, had 114.
(Houston, TX -- Pat Hernandez and Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) A state-county debate over who will build a ring road around Houston is picking up steam and heading toward resolution this week, but that doesn't mean everyone is happy with the progress.
Harris County handed over responsibility to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Tuesday for building a segment of the Grand Parkway, a proposed 180-mile ring road that will cross seven counties around Greater Houston.
Fifteen months ago, Harris County took control of the project under the assumption TxDOT didn't have the money to build the road and the two planned to come to an agreement on how tolls would be collected and distributed. More recently, Harris County Commissioners challenged TxDOT to build a 15-mile segment from Interstate -10 to Highway 290 after the state said it has $425-million to spend on the project.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was happy with Tuesday's vote to waive the county's right to build the Grand Parkway, also known as state highway 99. He says it means the Grand Parkway could be built sooner. "It will also then let us focus on other parts of our own toll road system. For example widening South Belt, looking at new projects, like Hempstead, and it'll allow us to focus on other transportation projects. And let the state build State Highway 99, which is the Grand Parkway."
Emmett says they have an advanced funding agreement with TxDOT, which includes reimbursement for the design and money already spent on the project. The Grand Parkway is expected to cost in excess of $5 billion when completed.
For him it’s a win-win: The state will begin construction on part of the Grand Parkway, and the county will be able to direct its energies on other transportation projects that could help ease traffic congestion. This is good news, says Robin Holzer, Chairwoman of Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.
“By all accounts the 290 corridor is the most congested transportation corridor in the entire Houston region. So if letting the Grand Parkway go gets the county to focus our tax dollars on a project that will make a difference – like the Hempstead managed lanes, or perhaps a rail project in the northwest corridor – that’s a good thing.”
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) While Houston has a number of sightseeing tours, most of them focus on the city's attractive destinations. But there is one tour that offers a sobering look at the dark side of Houston's industrial landscape.
More after the jump:
(Houston, TX -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Earlier this year we learned that Houston has five of the top ten most congested roads in Texas. Now, Houston’s been given the title of third worst place to commute in America.
Bundle.com and reporters at TheStreet.com compared data to come up with the rankings. The study factored in travel time, hours wasted in traffic, and car expenses like gas and vehicle maintenance. Alan Clark is the manager of Transportation Planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council. He says more and more people are transplanting themselves in Houston every day, making it nearly impossible for the infrastructure to catch up. Clark points out that growth in job activity, in population, and in travel, "far outstrips the increases in new roads and expansion of existing roads to carry that traffic.”
Hear the story over at KUHF News.
Clark offers a pretty bleak outlook for Houston commuters . With funding options limited, he says there’s not a lot of cash for transportation projects. “The resources for improving our road system continue to decline, and are expected to decline further in the next ten years, says Clark. "We’ve really been spending a lot of time prioritizing the dollars that are available,” he says.
Clark says some of the money is going into transit alternatives, like vanpools, carpools, and public transportation. H-GAC is also working with employers who can provide compressed work weeks or tele-working from home. Clark hopes all of these things will reduce the number of cars on the roads.
Still, if current projections hold true, you may have to leave earlier to get to work on time. Clark puts the problem in perspective this way: "Today, let’s say that you’re able to get to work in about 40 minutes; in the future that travel to work might take more than an hour.
Of the 90 American cities studied, Houston came in at 88. We’re better off than our northern neighbor though–Dallas came in dead last.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The legal battle over Houston’s red-light cameras has taken another turn. At a hearing with a federal district judge today, the city and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) presented arguments over whether the city is liable to pay out its contract with the red-light camera company. Mayor Annise Parker asked a federal district judge to mediate the dispute.
Houston residents voted to turn off the cameras during last month’s mid-term election, but ATS argues the measure shouldn’t have been on the ballot in the first place. The reason? It was illegal. ATS says the vote wasn't legit because the cameras were still under contract with the city. ATS attorneys argue that the city has to cough up millions of dollars for breaking its contract.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the city of Houston contend it doesn’t owe ATS a dime since Houston voters nullified the contract when they cast their ballots to get rid of the cameras. ATS is hoping the judge will reactivate the devices (which are still up but switched off) and invalidate the referendum.
The loss of revenue from the decommissioned cameras has added to the city's budget woes, which is now roughly $26 million in the hole. The red-light cameras brought in around $10 million a year.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Texans feel less safe on the roads than they did five years ago, according to a study released by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI). Researchers asked drivers how they feel about traffic safety, and most say too much technology behind the wheel is getting in the way.
TTI Safety Culture
Despite the falling rate of traffic fatalities across the state, more than a third of Texans who participated in the survey say they don’t feel any safer. Just twenty percent of respondents reported feeling more safe then they did five years ago. Quinn Brackett, a senior research scientist with TTI, says more than half of the people surveyed believe aggressive driving is on the rise. But even more — over eighty percent — say talking or texting on cell phones is worse than it was five years ago. The results didn't surprise Brackett. He says people know that cell phone use "interferes with safety while driving."
The participants’ concern with distracted driving is reflected in their answers to another question: "Are you in favor of or opposed to a law against any type of cell phone use while driving?" Supporters of a ban outnumbered opponents by a margin of two to one. Texas of course has no state-wide ban, but lawmakers are expected to file several bills seeking to prohibit or limit cell phone use while driving when the 2011 Texas Legislative session starts in January.
The ban is just one of many initiatives the majority of respondents say they would back. They also favor of sobriety check-points, ignition interlock devices for DWI offenders, requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, and red light cameras -- which are still a hot button issue here in Houston.
Listen to the story over at KUHF News.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) The Obama Administration recently gave out $2.4 billion dollars for passenger rail. Some states are desperately vying for federal funding, while others are sending the money back to Washington. The newly elected governors in Wisconsin and Ohio are rejecting their grants because they believe rail will be a burden on tax payers. California, on the other hand, is hoping it can secure enough money for its ambitious plans. Meanwhile, Texas is still trying to position itself to even qualify for major funding.
Texas got $5.6 million out of that last round of rail funding to study a possible line from Oklahoma City to South Texas. The grant isn’t much considering it was just one quarter of one percent of the total funding doled out to states. But the recent approval of the Texas Rail Plan, may help the state's chances of getting a bigger slice of funding in the future. The plan passed unanimously, but it’s only a start.
Listen to the full KUHF story on this:
Karen Amacker, spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation, admits
(Houston - Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston's ambition to become a model city for the electric car just got a major boost from NRG Energy. The power giant is launching the biggest charging network in the nation right here in the oil capital of America.
NRG, a power company, just announced plans to build the country’s first privately-funded electric charging network, called eVgo. And, perhaps surprising to some, it’s starting with Houston. The energy company is spending $10 million on public charging infrastructure, so as to assuage any of that pesky range-anxiety we all keep hearing about. Glen Stancil, with NRG EV Services, says the electric vehicle (EV) chargers will be installed along major roadways in Houston and in the parking lots of retail chains like Walgreens and Best Buy. “Really it’s a commuter car," says Stancil, "and we want to make sure commuters have confidence that when they need power they’ll get it.”
NRG says it will install 150 charging stations by the end of 2011. Some will take thirty minutes to give a full charge, others will take hours. But the majority of EV charging is expected to take place at home — some 80 to 90 percent. David Crane, CEO of NRG, underscores the significance of this, asserting, "the service station of the future is actually your garage."
And NRG, being the electricity company it is, hopes to take over that part of the charging equation too. It’s serving up home charging stations as part of a package, if you sign on with one of their utility partners, that is — like Green Mountain or TXU. The charging packages are akin to a TV and internet bundle. Buyers would get a home charging station plus electricity for the charger and access to the public charging network around Houston. The most expensive plan is $89 dollars a month.
Crane says he hopes to have 1000 subscribers to NRG’s plan by the end of 2011. But he says the demand could increase exponentially in the future. He gave reporters at NRG's press conference a little food for thought:
“I would remind everyone that in 1980 the leading management consulting firm in the United States told AT&T that there’d be no more than 900,000 cell phones in the country by the year 2000. By the year 2000 there were a hundred million cell phones in the United States. So they were off by a factor of 120.”
NRG’s investment in charging stations is unique because it’s the first electricity provider to do it without any money from the federal government. But it could be a while before NRG gets any return on its investment, since the charging stations will sit mostly unused until there are more EVs on the road.
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston will be one of 19 U.S. cities to debut Ford’s first all-electric vehicle (EV) next year. The automaker says it chose the initial launch markets based on how amenable they were to the electric shift.
Other cities on the list include Austin, San Francisco, New York, Tuscon, and Washington D.C. Ford is jumping into the electric car market slightly later than two of its competitors, Nissan and Chevy, which are rolling out a small supply of their electric models in the coming months. Ford's Focus Electric won't be hitting the streets untill late next year.
Whereas the Chevy Volt is powered by both electricity and gas (a matter of great contention among EV purists), the Focus Electric will be more like Nissan's Leaf -- 100 percent battery-powered. That means the passenger car will go around 100 miles before it needs to recharge. It's still unknown what the price tag will be for a Focus Electric, though there is some speculation it will be a cheaper EV option for budget-conscious consumers.
Carl Chudy, fleet manager with Lone Star Ford, a dealership north of downtown is excited to be getting the electrified version of Ford's Focus. “With all the green advocates living here," he says, "it should be a big seller." Chudy sees Houston as being a good market for electric cars because people here still largely depend on the automobile to get around. "We don’t have great mass-transportation here," he points out, "so everybody needs a car to get from pretty much one side of town to the other.” And he says electric guzzlers like the Focus Electric give drivers a cleaner alternative to gas engines.
Hear the rest of the story over at KUHF News.
(Houston - Pat Hernandez, KUHF News) Houston's red light cameras are now officially switched off, but the controversy surrounding the traffic enforcement measure is far from over. The city has filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to determine liability with the contractor that operates the cameras.
Proponents of the devices say the technology saves lives by deterring would-be red light runners, while those behind the anti-red camera campaign argue the cameras increase the number of rear-end collisions and are more about making money than about safety. The cameras went dark after the votes were canvassed from the November 2nd election. Of all the ballots cast, 53.2 percent rejected Houston's red light camera program. For many spectators, the final results came as a surprise, as a pre-election poll showed far more support for the cameras than opposition.
City attorney David Feldman told the mayor and council that two things happened after the votes from the election were confirmed: "I sent a formal notice to ATS, advising that the cameras were to be turned off. In addition, at the very same time, the city filed in federal district court against American Traffic Solutions, seeking a declaratory judgment as to the rights and obligations of the parties under the contract."
(Houston -- Wendy Siegle, KUHF) With Houston well on its way to becoming the third largest city in the nation, providing sufficient public transportation should be a top priority, says Metro president and CEO George Greanias. But the agency has a lot of past mistakes it has to overcome first. Greanias delivered the State of Metro address to stakeholders in Houston’s business community today to discuss what he called the second biggest issue the city is facing, after education: mobility. Translation? The entire Houston region (eight counties worth) needs solutions to its traffic woes, in the form of both roads improvements and transit services.
According to recent polls and surveys, the majority of Houstonians want more transportation dollars to go toward public transit than roads, but at the same time, people don't trust the Houston transit agency to get things done. Greanias says one of the agency’s biggest challenges is restoring faith and trust in Metro– something that was lost during the previous administration. But Metro is still having a hard time getting it back and keeps running into major funding hurdles.
Hear the rest of the story over at KUHF - Houston Public Radio.
(Houston, TX –– Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houston is planning to let solo drivers pay to drive in a special, faster lane, for the right price. The plan is expected to reduce traffic overall, though it raises some equity concerns that rich drivers can buy a faster commute while everyone else pays the price.
In its latest budget, Metro put aside $20 million in federal funds to turn 84 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes into High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes. That means cars with just one person in them will be able to pay a fee to access the HOV lane and skip the stop and go traffic. The lanes be controlled by a transit agency, not the Harris County Toll Road Authority, the agency normally in charge of toll roads in the area.
Houston Metro president and CEO George Greanias says the existing HOV lanes are practically empty around 80 percent of the time. "With the exception of just some peak periods, there’s usually additional capacity there that’s not getting used," says Greanias. "In the meantime, you’ve got the lanes adjacent to HOV lanes that are congested due to all the heavy traffic."
Carpools, vanpools, and buses will be able to
(Houston, TX — Wendy Siegle, KUHF) Houstonians anxious for Metro to finish its light rail project are going to have to stick it out a while longer. Metro’s President and CEO George Greanias announced today that, due to budget restraints, work on the rail expansion project is going to slow down dramatically. Metro’s budget for the project, which seeks to add five more lines to the existing Main Street line, has been slashed by almost 70 percent – dropping from $458 million to $143 million. According to Greanias, the transit agency has no choice but to make some serious adjustments in order to reduce project costs. “We’re just having to take some very difficult and regrettable steps, but we’re doing them,” Greanias lamented.
Metro has identified more than one hundred engineering, construction, small business, and community outreach contracts that will be either suspended or reduced. Utility work on the North and Southeast lines will continue at the current pace till the end of the year. But for now, work on the University and Uptown lines is stalled. Greanias says the agency has to take the necessary steps, “to make sure we don’t put the agency or its long term programs in jeopardy.”
Metro’s overall budget, which was adopted last month, was trimmed back by 31 percent. The agency was depending on federal funding for two of the light rail lines, but was told last month that the money would be delayed because it violated federal purchasing and Buy America laws. More on that here.
(Houston-Wendy Siegle, KUHF News) Houston has a lot of nicknames: Space City, Petro Metro, H-Town, The Bayou City. It got that last appellation because of the city's vast network of bayous. Ten of those bayous are slowing transforming into a series of parks and pathways thanks to The Bayou Greenway Initiative, an expansive project that started earlier this year. The goal is give Houstonians an alternative way to get around the city on multi-use trails that connect all ten bayous. Trails are already in place along many of the bayous, the key is to link them.
The project received a small, but still noteworthy grant recently, which will allow an important section on one of the bayous to be finished.
But before we get to that, let's start with some history:
Almost 100 years ago a Harvard-educated landscape architect proposed a comprehensive park system along Houston’s bayous. His name was Arthur C. Comey, and he believed the city’s network of bayous could ultimately become a web of interconnecting parks and trails. In 1913 he wrote that the “bayous and creek valleys readily lend themselves to trails and parks and cannot so advantageously be used for any other purpose.” Well, 97 years later it looks like his vision is finally coming to fruition through the Bayou Greenway Initiative. It’s a massive undertaking stretching from Spring to Clear Creek, which will take 10-15 years to complete. The goal? Three-hundred miles of connected trails along ten of the region’s bayous.
A short time ago, the city and the Houston Parks Board received a $2 million dollar transportation enhancement grant to go toward the Brays Bayou part of the initiative, which is located south of downtown. Considering the total cost of the initiative is $490 million dollars, the grant is a tiny drop in the pond. Still, the money means a crucial portion of Brays Bayou will be completed.
Listen to the rest of the story over at KUHF News.
(Wendy Siegle, KUHF - Houston) Suburban America has never been a place where public transit thrives. In suburbia, the car is king. But as communities look to the future they're finding residents want more options for getting around. Sugar Land, Houston's southwestern neighbor, is one of them.
Like most suburban communities in the Houston region, Sugar Land is growing, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop any time soon. A 30 million dollar minor league baseball stadium is expected to be completed around 2012 and the historic Imperial Sugar Mill next door is getting refashioned into a new multi-use development in the near future. Both projects mean this older part of Sugar Land is likely to become much more popular, making it ripe for heavy congestion.
Sandy Hellums is on Sugar Land’s citizens’ Mobility Advisory Committee and says the biggest problem right now is lack of options. “It is very difficult to move around as a pedestrian in a lot of our entertainment districts," she said. "There is no alternative in terms of pubic transportation. There’s no rail; there’s no buses; it’s pretty much your car and that’s it." Sugar Land's Transportation director Patrick Walsh says more transit alternatives are exactly what the city’s exploring and is part of the reason it’s spending $200,000 on a long-range mobility plan.
Hear the full story over at KUHF News.