The proposed “BRT” (Bus Rapid Transit) project along Post Oak Boulevard is proceeding despite growing protests from affected businesses and the few residents who are aware of it.
The BRT is a dedicated bus lane, to be built in the middle of Post Oak Boulevard, connecting the Northwest Transit Center (the “NWC”) at the intersection of I-10 and 610, with a yet to be determined southern destination somewhere near the intersection of Post Oak and the Westpark Tollway (to be known as “BU” or the Bellaire Uptown). The project’s stated purpose is to relieve traffic congestion along Post Oak by asking suburban commuters who work in Galleria area office buildings to use Park ‘n Ride facilities; travel on existing bus lines along 290, 59 and I-10; transfer to the BRT at the NWT and BU; and then board the BRT to their office destinations. They are to reverse the process in the afternoon during their return commute home.
This project – a venture of Metro, the Uptown TIRZ and the City of Houston — represents many of the failings of local government that I have been writing about these past few months. Even if the proposed transit solution were to solve all the Galleria area’s congestion – which seems virtually impossible — the project leaves many issues open:
No congestion along the Proposed Route – While Galleria rush hour traffic is difficult along Westheimer, San Felipe and 610, there simply is NO congestion on Post Oak Boulevard, the proposed route, except at the Loop. The project is shooting at the wrong target.
No ridership – The proposed transit plan expects commuters to ride buses to the Galleria on 290, 59 and I-10. But, six of seven of these bus routes have been cancelled recently by Metro for lack of ridership.
No public meetings – Despite committing to spend approximately $200 million, the Uptown TIRZ has held NO public meetings. Count them – NONE! The public is nearly totally uninformed. True, there is a website, but who knows to look for it?
No final plans – Mayor Parker, together with TIRZ and Metro leadership recently announced that construction will begin within the next few weeks, thus kicking off its major investment. But, the TIRZ has not even acquired land for its southern transit facility, nor completed much of its design. There are numerous discrepancies in many details – traffic signal preemption, for instance (will the buses trump traffic flow?).
No final numbers – No one knows what the project will cost. Many real estate observers believe the TIRZ’s preliminary estimates are very low. Meanwhile, the TIRZ simply says it will sell bonds to finance the costs — whatever they may be. (How will the TIRZ also finance the renovation of Memorial Park, another major capital project it has undertaken at the request of the City?
No public support – Many property and business owners (the retailers along the route) are bitterly opposed to the project, given that similar Metro projects have killed retailing on Main Street and Harrisburg. I have found no property owner or business owner that supports the project, except those who will sell frontage to the TIRZ for expanded right-of-way.
No transparency – This is the most troublesome, from two perspectives. First, the Uptown TIRZ can borrow to fund construction by selling the bonds with only a vote of the TIRZ board – not the voters of the City. These bonds will be repaid from and secured by property taxes. If the City were to sell these same “general obligation” bonds, a public vote would be required. Second, and more egregious, at least three of the TIRZ board members are on both sides of this deal – the board alone can vote to incur the debt by selling the bonds, and the organizations represented by these three board members will receive payments from the proceeds of the bonds through sale of right-of-way (although they will recuse themselves from this specific vote).
None of these issues is new – opponents have been raising them and others for months now. But, there has been no public response from the TIRZ, Metro or the City. The Mayor appoints the TIRZ board members, and City Council approved the project in 2013, and its (incomplete) budget earlier this year. The City did hold one public meeting, in July 2014, but the cost estimates have moved significantly since then.
Meanwhile, opponents – primarily the property owners and business owners along Post Oak who fear that their businesses will be harmed or ruined and who will not receive any payments from the project – continue to protest. Some have filed legal action that may subject the TIRZ to liability. Opponents have asked for the Mayor and the TIRZ simply to delay — to reconsider the project and hold public hearings. But, the answer is the recent groundbreaking announcement.
It is astounding to me that any public official – elected or appointed – would undertake a project of this significance without overwhelming public support. But, the TIRZ, Metro and City officials choose to keep the public in the dark. It makes me wonder why.
A version of this article appeared in the Houston Business Journal on June 23, 2015.