A public meeting on the Uptown light rail bus rapid transit line

Image credit: Pixabay

This past Monday, July 21st, 2014, a public meeting was held at the Hilton Post Oak hotel in the Galleria area concerning the construction of the Uptown light rail bus rapid transit (BRT) line. I had been tipped off to the meeting about 1-2 weeks before, but because I’ve gone through a change of where I work, these days I have to put in more effort to do my unpaid, time-consuming, citizen journalism.

The meeting was to last two hours, and was to be chaired by Andy Icken, one of the high-up, long-time tax eaters who has lurked down at Houston City Hall for years. He now holds the title of chief development officer in Mayor Annise Parker’s regime. I had no idea how many people would show up, but I did get a tip that the local Smart Growth brigade at Houston Tomorrow sent out a last-minute, desperate plea for Houstonians to show up in droves because Post Oak Boulevard was a key corridor for Houston’s future that can’t afford silly anti-transit ideas.

No comment on the fact that METRO has run the #33 Post Oak bus route along Post Oak Boulevard for decades, which traverses not only all of the proposed rail line BRT line, but runs all the way down through southwest Houston through to South Post Oak, terminating at the Hiram Clarke transit center, located on Fuqua. The #33 bus route runs some three times the overall length of this BRT line, but I’ve already written before that political thinking causes some people to think that when it comes to transit, if it isn’t at least a light-rail line, then it isn’t really transit.

What was said and what happened at the meeting?

With those thoughts on my mind beforehand, I made it to the Post Oak Hilton about 30 minutes before the meeting started. As I was driving down Post Oak, I noticed a Metro bus stop directly across the street from the hotel. It was about 5:30 pm during the start of the work week. There was only one person waiting under the bus shelter for the next bus to show up, amidst a sea of motor vehicles meandering their way up and down Post Oak Boulevard.

There were some 20-30 people who had already arrived at the meeting when I got there. I noticed long time tax eater and Uptown TIRZ administrator John Breeding in the hotel lobby, talking nervously with someone on his cell phone, clearly trying to size up the political situation (something tells me Mr. Breeding has been doing this for most of his working life). As the ballroom filled up, I eventually ran across state representative Sylvester Turner, busily shaking hands and asking everyone “how you doin’?” whether he knew them or not. Houston City Council member Oliver Pennington, who has already declared himself a candidate for Mayor of Houston in 2015, was on hand, quietly chatting with people he knew in the crowd. Shortly before the meeting commenced, I spotted CM Jack Christie, walking down the side of the room, wearing a long face and quietly eyeballing the crowd. A sure sign of a politician who was putting his finger in the air while taking the temperature of the room. And last, but not least, Congressman John Culberson was in attendance.

It occurred to me that the field for the November 2015 City of Houston mayoral election is likely to be a crowded one. It also occurred to me that it was Andy Icken doing the honors tonight, and not Mayor Annise Parker. It can be helpful for rulers to keep high-level henchmen on the taxpayer dime.

But it was the crowd itself that was most interesting. I don’t know how much of my time on earth I’ve spent in public meetings, but this one was rather unique. The room eventually filled to having perhaps 250 people as Mr. Icken finally got up to speak. Nearly everyone in the audience was in a suit. Clearly, there were both landlords and tenant business owners in attendance, and this was a well-heeled crowd — nothing like the poor folks who were railroaded along Metro’s North Corridor.

Paul Magaziner, a Richmond Avenue businessman who has dogged Metro for some nine years (after having an encounter with a Metro operative who told him that a chunk of his property would need to be clipped off for a METRO rail line), was working the crowd. Paul came up to me and told me the format of the meeting had been changed. Originally, Mr. Icken was to speak, followed by a Q & A. Now, there was not going to be a verbal Q & A. Rather, attendees were to write in their questions for Mr. Icken to read and go through.

Icken went to the podium and made his presentation for the light rail BRT line along Post Oak, which lasted for perhaps 30-45 minutes. Mr. Icken told the crowd that this light rail BRT line was voted on as part of the 2003 referendum. He then went into some interesting issues on the line. He told the audience that the project was not going to be built or funded by METRO, but rather by the Uptown/Galleria TIRZ, which was going to issue bonds, along with the City of Houston. METRO’s involvement would be to operate the rail line BRT line. Mr. Icken did not say why METRO would not be funding the rail BRT line, but the answer to that not so small issue is that METRO is already broke (and will be broke for years to come) from building the three rail lines currently under construction.

Mr. Icken told the audience that the price tag of the rail BRT line would be $192 million. Some $26 million of the cost would be in the form of a transit center/parking garage at the southern end of the rail BRT line. Icken then showed the crowd an interesting map, perhaps the most interesting one of the presentation. It was a survey map of the zip codes where the 30,000 or so employees who work in the Galleria area live. I didn’t get a photo of the map, but the map showed that some 95 percent of employees live either along Westheimer, in nearby neighborhoods like Tanglewood or Briargrove, in the Memorial area, or along an arc that runs along the west side of Houston from the Spring Branch area down to Sugar Land. Very few employees were shown as living inside the 610 Loop.

Icken also, notably, did not invoke any of the political rhetoric that has been used in the past to justify construction of rail lines — namely that people would ride light-rail lines to do their daily shopping; that wide sidewalks needed to be built to encourage walking along the line; or that bicycle lanes needed to be carved out on Post Oak Boulevard to make the street a pedestrian realm. Nope. Such rhetoric would not likely have flown with this crowd. Instead, Icken told the audience that Post Oak Boulevard was jammed with automobile traffic and needed a way to get the buses off the street lanes for vehicle traffic. Icken told the audience that 40 percent of downtown office workers took transit, but stated that the survey data on hand showed that only 1 percent of Galleria area workers took transit to get to work. He then went into a discussion of road and intersection changes, takings, and the hoped-for schedule for the project (roughly starting late this year and completing in 2017). Icken did tell the audience that it was the judgment of the political classes that a rail line was not the right project.

Mr. Icken then started making his way through the list of questions that were written down on cards. I didn’t pay attention to any of his answers, but one person spoke up, noting that Icken was picking and choosing which questions he would answer. I do know that Mr. Icken didn’t answer my question, namely: Why is this project justified when METRO’s own ridership data show that the #33 Post Oak bus route has fallen from 6,500 – 6,900 boardings per day during the last decade down to 4,700 to 5,000 per day in 2013-2014? Why spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on a project when transit ridership has fallen some 30 percent, or 2,000 boardings per day along the existing bus route?

What did the audience say when they did speak up?

Paul Magaziner spoke up at one point during Mr. Icken’s talk, announcing that just about everything Icken had told the audience was a lie. Since Mr. Magaziner was not allowed to address the audience, we will not know what he would have said. However, there was another man who spoke up at one point — Larry Levine, CEO of Levcor, a real-estate development firm with a big presence in the Galleria area. In Mr. Levine, I beheld a dignified, confident man, who spoke quietly but firmly. I didn’t capture all of what Mr. Levine said, but one thing that I did note was that Mr. Levine said that he had information that the actual cost of this project was going to be roughly double what Mr. Icken told the audience. Furthermore, there was information that the justification for building this project based on the idea that people would transfer to the rail line BRT line after riding in to one of the transit centers was suspect because only 200 transit riders per day now were transferring from the Northwest Transit Center and taking the #33 Post Oak bus to the Galleria.

The meeting did get hot at points, but ended with relatively little fanfare just after 8:00 pm. I went for a walk down the street with some friends to one of the restaurants along Post Oak, noting along the way that vehicle traffic flowed freely. On the way back to the hotel, around 9:00 pm, I noted one transit rider waiting at the same bus stop that I had spotted the previous bus rider. It was another warm and humid summer night in Houston.

What to make of this issue?

All of the signs point towards the Post Oak rail line BRT line being yet another taxpayer disaster, not unlike the Harrisburg rail line, a $587 million rail line that runs along a bus route that attracts fewer than 4,000 boardings per day. The only saving point of this project is that, first it is not a light-rail line, avoiding big-ticket costs like utility relocations that a light-rail line would require. Second, it could be argued that it could conceivably be converted to another lane for general motor vehicle traffic along Post Oak. If the project does go well over budget, it may well financially break the Uptown/Galleria TIRZ, which is intent on issuing bonds to pay for the bulk of the project (since METRO doesn’t have any money, nor does the City of Houston).

It was also clear from seeing who showed up for this town hall that this project, and perhaps who sits on the board of the Uptown/Galleria TIRZ itself, are going to be hot-button items for the 2015 City of Houston elections. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill Inner Loop crowd, in love with government. It was a crowd of people who were not about to be rolled over because of what a high-level government bureaucrat told them. They also have money — lots of it. The next 18 months to two years in Houston politics are about to get interesting.