There are at least two sides to every story, and the story of the Uptown Development Authority’s Post Oak Boulevard project is no different.
At the core of the controversial project, with an estimated cost of $192.5 million, is the dedicated bus lane (also called bus rapid transit) system to be constructed in the median of Post Oak Boulevard. The planned bus lanes will run from Loop 610 at Richmond, connecting on the north side to the Northwest Transit Center at 290 and I-10, and, on the south end, to a yet-to-be-constructed Bellaire Uptown Transit Center at Westpark Tollway and Southwest Freeway. Suburban commuters will be able to use the Park and Ride lots along those corridors. Eight stops are planned for the bus line, which the Metropolitan Transit Authority will operate and for which it will provide special, three-door vehicles.
Meanwhile, a Texas Department of Transportation project will allow the buses to travel along Loop 610 for the segment of the line from Post Oak to the Northwest Transit Center. And in addition to the dedicated bus lanes, the UDA project aims to widen Post Oak Boulevard’s sidewalks to up to 12 feet, plant approximately 800 live oak trees along the boulevard, and increase pedestrian lighting along the walkways.
Sounds great, right? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Although construction began in July last year on the north segment of the boulevard project, vocal opponents of the plan would have that work stopped in its tracks, despite the fact that most of the work done to date has involved rebuilding the 60-year-old utility systems in the area. Then again, utility work isn't the problem.
By the end of this summer, said John Breeding, Uptown Houston president and Uptown Development Authority administrator, the utility work should be completed, in addition to the redevelopment of all three lanes of southbound Post Oak Boulevard between 610 and San Felipe. The three northbound lanes’ redevelopment is scheduled to be completed by November this year, with the entire project slated for completion by early 2019—if Uptown Houston is able to navigate fraught relations with area tenants and residents over the course of the next two years.
Opponents of the plan have taken issue with everything from the necessity of the bus system, concerns the construction will negatively impact the businesses along the boulevard, and the legality of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone that's partly funding the project (more on that below).
Jim Scarborough lives in a condominium on Post Oak Boulevard and first became involved with the project’s opposition when he began researching it and questioned Uptown’s reasoning for the project. “I started looking for a survey that may have been done by Uptown with all the people who work here,” Scarborough said in a phone interview. “The Downtown Management District actually did a survey for transit purposes. It turns out [Uptown] did no survey.”
Scarborough also questioned the UDA’s prediction that the creation of the BRT system would gain 14,100 new riders per day. “Now that was a pretty outstanding number [given] that less than a thousand ride the bus down Post Oak Boulevard right now,” said Scarborough. “There’s no evidence that people [take transit], there’s no studies to show that people are going to do that. Not to mention you’re going to get off in the middle of Post Oak Boulevard and have to walk half a mile to your office. It’s just not going to happen.”
Scarborough, along with Russell Masraff of Masraff’s, is named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the UDA, the TIRZ, the City of Houston and John Breeding, stating that the defendants have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA) and that the TIRZ itself is unconstitutional.
In order to be constitutional, the proposed zone, which the TIRZ funds, must “substantially [impair] and [arrest] the sound growth of the City, [retard] the provision of housing accommodations, constitutes an economic and social liability and is a menace to the public health, safety, morals or welfare in its present condition and use,” according to the City of Houston ordinance regarding TIRZ.
The lawsuit states that the Texas Constitution authorizes tax increment financing, as in the case of a TIRZ, but only in “unproductive, underdeveloped, or blighted” areas. “It is a matter of general knowledge, and could not have been lost on [the] council and the mayor at the time, that Galleria/Post Oak was among the very wealthiest, if not the wealthiest part of Houston,” the lawsuit continues.
Breeding did not comment on the lawsuit or the upcoming hearing.
The Post Oak Boulevard project’s story began in 1999, when the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and the UDA were created. A TIRZ is funded through property tax revenue that is set aside for reinvestment within the zone; which, in Uptown’s case, is “to address the challenges of growth and mobility in the Uptown area,” according to the district. According to the City, the mission of the Uptown TIRZ is to “preserve and enhance the City of Houston’s tax base through investment in mobility improvements and congestion reduction in Uptown Houston.”
Funding for the Post Oak Boulevard project comes in part from the Uptown TIRZ — $105.6 million of it — with $25 million coming from TxDOT for the Loop 610 elevated bus lanes, and $61.9 million from the federal government.
The traffic issue
In 2014, the Uptown District conceived of the bus rapid transit project, citing a lack of commuter transit options for the approximately 80,000 employees who work in the district’s office buildings. And, of course, the traffic congestion in the area is well-known and well-loathed. How it should be alleviated, though, is the tough question.
A third party review of traffic studies conducted on the area by Walter P. Moore and Associates reports that “a major transportation issue in the area is congestion along IH-610. No matter the number of improvements made within Uptown Houston on Post Oak Boulevard or east/west thoroughfares, vehicles will still be caught in long queues along the IH-610 frontage roads and main lanes trying to reach their ultimate destinations. The only effective solution is to provide an alternative to individuals driving alone by creating a transit system that is attractive (proving reliable, frequent service) to residents, employees, and visitors of Uptown Houston, as proven in Downtown Houston where approximately 32% of commuters use transit.”
A separate traffic impact analysis conducted by the Gunda Corporation found that the proposed bus rapid transit system is estimated to attract approximately 2,150 riders during the afternoon rush hour by 2018 (even though the buses won’t run until at least 2019). The traffic impact analysis goes on to report that by 2035 the BRT line will attract approximately 3,120 riders during the afternoon rush hour—a far cry from the 14,000-riders-number found in a separate forecast commissioned by the Uptown District, which predicts daily ridership on the BRT system will increase to at least 14,100 in 2018, and 20,500 in 2035.
The other issues
The Post Oak Boulevard redevelopment isn’t just a transportation project, Breeding asserts. “That is one of the reasons why we’re doing it — to make it much more convenient for people who live in the suburbs and who want to work in the Uptown market. They can basically drive to their suburban Park and Ride lots and take the bus in to the transit center, transfer off to the boulevard project and come into the Uptown area. Also if you want to move around in the area during the day, it’s a high-quality, frequent, very easily accessible transit option without having to go get your car, fight the traffic and park or repark.
“Transportation is the catalyst, but the reality is that we’re rebuilding Post Oak Boulevard into a much more urban experience. Our ultimate objective isn’t for people to come out of a great restaurant and say ‘look at that nice transit project.’ We think it’s important that they come out of a great restaurant and their first thought is ‘Isn’t this a beautiful place? Let’s walk down to this next place and let’s have dessert there. It’s trying to create a much more liveable urban environment.”
Tracy Vaught, who — along with her husband Hugo Ortega — owns Caracol on Post Oak Boulevard, disagrees. She believes the construction and the project itself will hurt the businesses along the boulevard, especially those that are not accessible off of side streets or back entrances. “It’s eventually hard on them,” Vaught said. “If you can only enter off of Post Oak then a lot of people after a while will stop driving [on it].”
She said the buses will not be used to the extent that the UDA predicts. “I just don’t really see the bus being a big alternative for people. I do see Uber or a cab being an alternative to driving your own car, but I don’t really see the bus playing much of a role — and I’d hate to tear up the street for a year and a half, or whatever length of time it’s going to take, to do something that won’t be used much and won’t attract any new people to the area. It’s really going to be an eyesore and an inconvenience for people without the real benefit in the end.”