HGAC Tables New Funds for Uptown Bus Project

On Friday, HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) tabled a funding request from the Uptown TIRZ for an additional $16 million for its Post Oak bus project.

Several dozen Uptown residents attended the meeting, and several addressed the TPC, voicing their opposition to the project and the request for additional funds.  No one, other than Uptown’s executive director John Breeding, spoke in favor of the request.

 

County Judge Ed Emmett, who has opposed the project from the outset, grilled HGAC officials about the process.  Sugar Land mayor Joe Zimmerman also weighed in with a number of questions.  The principal point of concern was that Uptown had issued a press release claiming that the project was “on budget” and “fully funded”, begging the question of why it was asking for more money. HGAC officials struggled to answer Emmett’s and Zimmerman’s questions.  At one point, an HGAC official said that Uptown had told them in 2013 the project was only going to cost $130 million, compared to the current budget of $200 million.  This is, at least, the third explanation that has been offered in an attempt to justify the additional funding.  I have not found any documentation showing that the costs were ever estimated at $130 million.  But if so, it would be gross incompetence to underestimate the cost by over 50%.

It is hard to know what HGAC will do now, but Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack may have put the final nail in the coffin on the request by ominously calling for HGAC to have outside counsel conduct an investigation to make sure that there are no legal problems with the request or the project.  That legal review is likely to raise a number of questions.  For example, I found this statement in Uptown’s most recent audit:

“As of the June 30, 2016, reporting period, the Authority purchased a parcel of land from WMJK, Ltd. The Authority Director and District Chairman is an owner in this property. The Director filed an affidavit and recused himself from the Board vote. Subsequent to the June 30, 2016 reporting period, the Authority purchased an additional Post Oak Boulevard parcel from a District Director. The Authority has chosen to keep the purchase prices for property acquired along Post Oak Boulevard confidential until the Authority closes each parcel, this information is excepted from disclosure under 552.105 of the Texas Government Code. Total cost of acquisition is available upon request.”  Click [here] to see the complete report.  This related party note is highlighted on page 35.

Now, this all may be perfectly legal.  But the optics of a bunch of wealthy landowners coming to HGAC, begging for more state and federal highway funds, which are desperately needed throughout our region, when they are lining their own pockets and then don’t even want to disclose how much they were paid, is, to say the least, unseemly.

There is an old saying: “Pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered.”  Uptown’s overreach on this request may be leading it to the slaughterhouse.  TIRZs were originally created to redevelop “blighted” neighborhoods.  That laudable purpose has increasingly been subverted by special interests which have in many cases turned the TIRZs into opaque quasi-governments frequently benefiting a few at the expense of the public.  And, as is the case here, the TIRZs frequent cram projects down the throats of residents and businesses despite their vehement opposition.  As one of the speakers said on Friday, “This is Robin Hood in reverse.  We are stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.”

It is past time that we re-examine the whole TIRZ/Management District paradigm.  I am sure there is some good work that is carried out by some of these organizations.  But the case for their existence – as entities wholly unaccountable to taxpayers or the public – is becoming increasingly tenuous.

 The Texas Monitor has more at https://texasmonitor.org/uptowns-funding-bus-project-shelved-john-breeding/.

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Uptown Bus Lanes Already $30 Million Over Budget

     One of the worst public works boondoggles in our region is about to get worse unless our elected officials step in.  In 2014, the Uptown TIRZ proposed to build dedicated bus lanes down the middle of Post Oak Boulevard.   The cost of the project at that time was estimated to be $196 million, with over half that amount coming from local property taxes and the balance coming from State and federal transportation funds.  Last week, the Uptown TIRZ went to the Transportation Policy Council asking for an additional $30 million for the project.  And trust me, this will not be the last time Uptown comes back with its hand out.
     Most of you have probably never heard of the Transportation Policy Council (TPC), but it wields enormous influence over regional mobility projects.  It is a committee of the Houston Galveston Area Council (HGAC), which is one of twenty-four regional councils of local governments that were established by the Texas Legislature.  Transportation policy councils in each of these regional organizations are made up of local officials who allocate State and federal transportation funds to various road and transit projects within their regions.
     There are 27 members on our TPC.  Most are elected officials but there are also some appointed positions (such as the Metro chair and TXDOT’s district engineer).   You can see a complete list of the members [here].
     The TPC was notified of Uptown’s request for additional State funds on September 22.  Because of the size of the request, it could not be approved until the following meeting.  Fortunately, both County Judge Ed Emmett and Commissioner Steve Radack expressed concerns about the budget overrun in the meeting.  From their comments, it appears they will likely vote against bailing out Uptown, especially since Emmett voted against the project originally.  You can watch the video of the meeting [here].  Uptown’s request is discussed in agenda item number 5.
     Personally, I am very skeptical that the proposed bus lanes will ever achieve the projected ridership or congestion mitigation Uptown claims.  We have seen time and again that ridership projections are almost always overly optimistic.  Of particular concern is that the project is based on the assumption that commuters will either drive their car or take a park-and-ride to one of the ends of the bus lanes, then switch to the buses for the final leg of their trip.  In the transit world this is known as “two-seat trip”, meaning that the commuter must change modes during trip.  Historically, commuters have been reluctant to take two-seat trips except in the most congested areas, such as Manhattan.
     And the project will undoubtedly impede the flow of vehicular traffic in the Galleria.  There is a particularly problematic proposed interchange at Post Oak and the Loop where the bus lanes will transition onto the Loop.  I cannot imagine that traffic will not be permanently snarled at that intersection.
     But regardless of the future effectiveness of the project, it is simply an idiotic use of $200 million of taxpayer money.  I could come up with a list of at least 100 other transportation projects that would represent a better value.
     This project was pushed through by TIRZ bureaucrats trying to justify their existence and special interests along Post Oak, some of whom have received multi-million dollar right-of-way payouts.  It is wildly unpopular with most of the businesses along Post Oak and residents in the Galleria.  Post Oak went from being one of our signature boulevards to a war zone.  I cannot even imagine what a nightmare the traffic is going to be during the holiday season.
     Much of the work that has been done so far is utility work and right-of-way expansion.  Almost nothing has been done to actually begin construction of the bus lanes, which means that it is not too late to scrap this project.  A good step in that direction would be for the TPC to turn down Uptown’s request for additional funding.
     So, I am encouraging everyone to first call Judge Emmett and Commissioner Radack to congratulate them on questioning the request and to encourage them to vote against it when it comes back to the TPC for final approval.  You might also consider calling Houston City Council Members David Robinson and Larry Green, who also serve on the TPC, and ask them to vote against the increase.
     Finally, it is also time for residents in the Galleria to make it clear to the Uptown board that they are opposed to this project.  You can reach the Uptown office at 713-621-2011 or you can email it [here].   You can see a list of their directors at http://www.uptown-houston.com/about/page/tirz-uda-board.  If you know any of these members, call them and let them know you are opposed to the project.
     This project is crony capitalism at its worst.  TIRZs were originally established to help “blighted” neighborhoods.  This project is using $200 million of taxpayer money to subsidize a project intended to benefit the most expensive real estate in the City.  In the meantime, there are many neighborhoods in our City going begging for basic services, like flood control projects!
It is time to put an end to this boondoggle.
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The Tale of Two Transit Systems: The Folly of Rail in th 21st Century

     Metro is in the process of re-examining its long-term strategy and mission.  It is an examination that is overdue.  In considering where Metro goes from here, we should look carefully at the comparison between its experience and that of Dallas’ DART.
     At around six million people, METRO and DART have roughly the same population in their service areas.  However, DART’s service area is only about half the size of METRO’s (1303 sq. mi. vs. 657 sq. mi.) making its population density considerably higher, which is a significant advantage when developing a transit system.
     Shortly after their formations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, METRO and DART took very different routes to build out their transit systems.
     DART made an early commitment to rail, snagging federal grants and investing heavily with local funds, eventually building 119 miles of rail transit.  Houston, on the other hand, has been slow to commit to rail, only recently completing its 43-mile network.
     Conversely, METRO has continued a much more robust bus service, operating a fleet of nearly 1,400 buses while DART’s fleet is light less than half that number.
     By almost every objective measurement, METRO’s strategy of relying more on buses has worked out much better than DART’s reliance on rail.
Ridership
     In 2016, METRO carried about a third more riders than DART (89,000 vs. 66,000).   Both organizations have struggled to attract new riders.  Since 2000, DART’s ridership has only increased by about 10% notwithstanding its extensive investment in rail.  METRO has lost about 12% of its ridership since it began investing in rail in 2000.
     In 2012, DART completed a significant expansion of its rail system, yet its ridership has since declined almost 10%.  METRO recently opened the expansion of its light rail system and rolled out a new bus schedule.  Initially, the new light rail and revised bus schedule had little effect, but the 2017 monthly ridership so far has seen some modest improvement.  We will have to see more data to assess whether the improvement continues and whether it is the result of METRO’s changes or a firming up of the local economy.
Financial Costs
     The most dramatic difference in the agencies’ comparative strategies has been the effect on their finances.  METRO’s revenues and expenses are about 15% higher than DART’s.  But METRO has a significant advantage in the overall cost per rider at $9.27 versus DART’s $11.28.  Fares pay less than 10% of the cost of the service at both agencies.  (Why taxpayers should pay 90% of the cost of transit is another question for another day!)
     The differential on the balance sheet is stunning.  DART now carries over $4 billion in debt, more than double METRO’s.  That works out to a debt per daily rider of about $62 for DART compared to $21 for METRO.  The debt DART has incurred to build its rail system will be an albatross around the necks of Dallas taxpayers for decades.
Conclusion
     For years rail advocates have told us that if we build a robust rail system it will attract riders and reduce congestion.  They rarely discuss the costs because rail systems are so hideously expensive.
     But the DART experience clearly disproves their argument.  DART had every advantage to develop a successful rail system.  It began early when federal grants were paying a higher percentage of the costs.  Its service area is smaller and considerably denser than METRO’s.  It had local support to incur billions in debt to build out the system.  And yet, its ridership has only marginally improved since it began its massive investment of taxpayer funds and it has actually begun to decline in the last few years.
     Interestingly, transit ridership nationally also stalled out about a decade ago and has also declined for the last three years, very similar to the DART experience.
     Notwithstanding the massive investment in rail over the last two decades made throughout the country, only about 4% of the total daily trips made by Americans are on any form of transit, and less than 2% on rail.  Bus ridership has been unchanged for the last two decades.  It would be interesting, but ultimately impossible to know how bus ridership might have improved if even a fraction of the billions spent on rail had instead been invested in improving the bus service.
     With the advent of disruptive transportation technologies like ride sharing, self-driving cars and the electrification of transportation power systems, any further investment in this highly inflexible technology would be folly.  We need to be building a transportation system for the next century, not the last one.
    But there is something akin to a religious belief in rail that I have never been able to understand.  The late, great Bob Lanier best summarized it:
"First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'"
     Dallas’ multi-billion dollar experiment with rail has proved Mayor Bob right.  Sorry to all my friends that continue to believe rail is the solution to our mobility problems, but time is up.
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