Tuesday, August 26, 2014

18 August 2014 Strategic Planning Committee meeting Commentary

As Christof Spieler said, this particular meeting of this committee was to be the Big, Huge, Giant System Re-imagining Draft Plan with public comment once-over.  That bit of fun has been moved to the Regular Board Meeting to be held two days from now.  It will be a long and arduous meeting, to be sure.

The meeting video may be had at http://www.ridemetro.org/AboutUs/BoardVideoStreaming.aspx and its from this video the timestamps below come.

1:30  Kurt Lurhsen wishes the Board would approve the System Re-imagining Plan..right now!  haha

1:40  240 unique schedules - three for each of the eighty routes in the current plan: What an enormous job it will be to get these schedules together.  We can only hope they have revised and special schedules for Xmas-time-December-Galleria!

2:23  Amen, Christof!  However, I am still convinced bus-stop spacing will require a full-blown consolidation effort with public input.  This, however, I think will have to be a job for the 2016-20?? Board.

2:35  Oh, brother.  Few things in the system frustrate me more than drivers having to slow-drive through a route because they are ahead of the computer-clock.  Being early for a bus operator is a cardinal sin for so many reasons, and because of this, METRO has on every bus a clock-machine that lets a driver how much ahead or behind they are relative to the various timepoints they need to make.

If a driver is ahead of schedule, they must either drive the bus slower than molasses to get back in-sync with the timepoints or just stop the bus altogether.  If my trip is making really, really good time, it's a real pain in the neck to have to stop for three minutes at some intersection or wherever because of the seemingly-arbitrary nature of this system - a schedule and system that does not take into account Christimastime traffic and other traffic variables.

Here's an idea: we currently have three times of the year for service changes: June, August, and January.  Add another service change time: late-November to deal specifically with Christmas-time traffic in the Galleria.  It will take a year or two with the re-imagined system to fully come to grips on what a Christimastime schedule should be, but it can and must be done to deal with traffic in the Galleria.

3:25  Yeah, System Re-imagining implentation is going to be massive on a scale METRO has never before experienced and may not experience again for a half-century.

4:10  Heck, if METRO is looking for volunteers, I'll have to see if I can step in and help out.

5:19  The very moment the Board approves System Re-imagining is the moment the significant others of Jim, Kurt, etc. become METRO widows/widowers for the next ten months or so.

6:44  Earlier, Kurt mentioned field-testing of schedules being an element.  Lots of field-testing, we hope!

8:55  Yes, but we all know the Board will, whether anyone has concerns or not, will approve the Final Plan.  If Christof Spieler, whose blood, sweat, and tears have been spent on this much-needed project, has to make a pact with Mephisto and Baal to ensure Board approval, he will see it done.  I know that from now through the September Board Meeting there will be lots of preliminary things that could be done in this interim time.  Let's allow the agency to spend a little money to save a lot of time later on.

10:20  This is why we love Burt Ballanfant.  He asks the right questions.  And yes, it's for that reason we love Jim Robinson, too!

11:00  Jarrett Walker is a public-opinion and education guy as well as a philosophy guru.  Traffic Engineers, Inc. is nuts-and-bolts.  Not sure if this was made clear through the System Re-imagining process.

12:23  Hee, hee, hee...  You know it, Christof!  7 June 2015 = the Mother of All Service Changes!  LOLOL!!!  Hey, Christof!  More like "twenty magnitudes" of changes!

14:00  What will be involved with bus-stop changes?  A post of mine from a few months ago goes into great detail.

14:58  Yes, Kurt, but what is the protocol for bus-stop spacing?  Couldn't we go to wider bus-stop spacing outside of Downtown?  In Downtown, I've been made to understand ridership will not tolerate wider bus-stop spacing, unfortunately.

16:00  Oh, my Sweet Mother of Q-Card Terminals, I wish the Board could approve this thing NOW!!  The lead-time in ordering parts, but the biggest job will be the Board's: figuring out what needs to be on all the signs plus branding, etc.  17:50  Go, Diann, go!!

17:56  Mr. Ballanfant, the TripApp is in my mind still in a Beta-testing phase, especially with System Re-imagining coming up.  Is the fleet fully-equipped with the GPS thingies the TripApp needs to track all the buses?

19:10  Ye gods, all these details!!  Diann is absolutely right.  To have to go over all ten-thousand bus stops.. a second time ...to correct something done wrong would be horrible.

19:49  YES!!  Every bus stop needs its own number available to the general public!

21:23  Our current in-bus stop announcement system is pretty good, already, but it does get 'off' at-times.  After sunset, this can be a problem.

22:25  Many congratulations to METRO, and particularly to Kurt Lurhsen, for being able to retain such a staff through the years.  Bravo!

26:20  Succession planning - yes!!  Especially when the next Board comes on board in 2016...

I wonder if METRO is getting set for a wave of retirements at the Administration Building...

28:00  Methinks Kurt was not quite detailed enough in his initial talking to the Committee re staff request budgetary considerations

For a while, the meeting goes into mind-numbing (but necessary, I know) contract minutiae...  35:45  Good lord, even Dwight can't keep it all straight - haha.

38:00  The second presentation begins...with a request for a study that could ultimately lead to the Wonkatania, that Mystical Train to Galveston of surprise, whimsy, and fun!!

46:47  The problem is, Kurt, aside from UH and TSU, the Southeast Line doesn't really go anywhere.  The East Line goes to the middle of nowhere.  Not high-density of population and jobs.  And no great landmarks.  

48:00  The East and Southeast Lines were most-likely built for developers and not for the public at-large.  Had there been a real push from The Powers-that-Be in the late '90s and early 2000s, we could have had train service from airport to airport and to the Northwest Transit Center, Galleria, etc.  

The Powers-that-Be put the trains where they wanted them, and no amount of preaching, mediums, séances, etc. would have swayed them to build otherwise.

I have no faith this new study will go anywhere.  Until Galveston becomes a place where umpteen people will want to get to via train, a return of passenger train service between Houston and Galveston will never, ever come about.

The meeting lasted about fifty-two minutes and is a perfect prelude to Thursday's shin-dig with the full Board.

Friday, August 15, 2014

No August Special Board Meeting after all - This is a good thing!

As I write this (on Thursday evening), and only a few moments ago, I got word from as good a source there is METRO will not be holding a Special Board Meeting solely dedicated to System Re-imagining after all.  The Regular Board Meeting on Thursday 28 August of this month will be mostly dedicated to going through citizen input regarding the Draft Proposed System Map the agency will hopefully implement in June 2015.

The fact the Board has decided to not hold a Special Meeting tells me two things: 1. Board members were not able to move their schedules around and 2. The nature of public comment on the Draft plan is such that having a Special Board Meeting to discuss same is not needed after all.  The vibe I'm getting is there has been at METRO a lot of work behind-the-scenes in this very-busy agency, but that there have been no indications in the landscape of public opinion of there being landmines to bring down System Reimagining or water it down such that a resultant network would be much like what we have now.

From what I've heard, public comment has been pretty good, though again, it will be veeery interesting to see what the FLEX areas and Acres Homes has to say along with West University residents.

This month's Board meeting is going to be a long one.  An exceedingly long one...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Annise Parker METRO Board's greatest task

In the spring of 2010, Houston's then-newly-minted Mayor Annise Parker, part of whose election platform included a cleaning-house of our region's beleaguered mass-transit agency, appointed replacements to the City of Houston's majority on METRO's Board of Directors: Gilbert Garcia (her nomination for Chairman), Allen Watson, Christof Spieler, Dwight Jefferson, and Carrin Patman (later replaced by Diann Lewter).

Annise is now in her third and last two-year term as Mayor, and with the ascent of her successor in January 2016 will presumably come a new slate of METRO Board members.  And God knows what clown or brilliant saint We, the People of Houston, will elect.

Mayor Parker took office in January 2010 and immediately appointed a METRO Transition Task Force, the findings of which in March 2010 gave her cause to bring in her five new appointees to replace the ones put in by the previous mayoral administration.  The first Board meeting of these new Board members was in late April 2010.

This Board's history may be divided into three phases, the first beginning in April 2010 and consisting of righting METRO's ship in regard to getting rid of its controversial then-President/CEO, Frank Wilson, restoring the agency's standing with the Federal government regarding transit funding and BuyAmerica, and a host of other issues.

This phase could be said to have been concluded for the most part by mid-2012 when the Board transitioned into finally being able to go forward into the future.  System Re-imagining began at this time and in spring 2013, the immense process of bringing about a more-streamlined and organized Procurement Manual was begun (more on that in a future post), thereby making it easier and less-confusing for small businesses to get the ball rolling on doing business with METRO.

We are now in August 2014, at which point the new Procurement Manual is just about or is altogether complete and in-force.  Revamping certain aspects of how METRO goes about its public safety and real estate doings is in the works as the agency heads toward a foregone-conclusion-approval of System Reimagining in September-ish of this year, which will be another milestone and one that marks this METRO Board's transition into the third and most-important phase of its existence: setting up METRO for success in such a way the 2016 Board can take up the reins easily.

In part, it will take the Board appointees from the Multi-Cities and Harris County to speak out and loudly when and if the new Board decides to go back to the bad-old-days of 2004-2010.  

As to what Gilbert, Allen, and all angels will need to do to leave things in good order and to do as much as they can to leave behind a Board culture in which doing the right thing is not only possible, but expected, I don't know.  They are wiser than I, and are doubtless thinking on these sorts of matters already.

It will above all require the election of a Mayor of Houston who genuinely cares for mass-transit and who is competent to appoint quality people to the Board and then goes ahead and appoints those people

Without this, we are sunk.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Predictions for this month's Special Board Meeting

With the close of public comment on METRO's Draft Proposed Network Map, work has begun on integrating as much as possible the tenor of the public comment and input on same gathered over the past three months into a Final Proposed Map that will go before the METRO Board for a final vote in what is most-likely to be Thursday 25 September.

In advance of that fateful day will be at least one Special Board Meeting this month in lieu of a normal Strategic Planning Committee meeting, the sole agenda item being the presentation to the Board by the agency the public comments and the going-through these comments, including responses to the Online Survey (now closed).  I've mentioned this meeting before, and it promises to perhaps be the longest Strategic Planning Committee meeting to date.  It will certainly be among the most-interesting!

In advance of that meeting, I feel the need to make some startling predictions as to what the biggies issues raised at that meeting might be - in no particular order...

1. The numbering of the Acres Home bus

It doesn't matter me personally how any bus in this system is numbered, but if Acres Homes can retain a route numbered '44', it would be a good thing!

2. The lack of a single bus taking one from Town & Country (or further west) along I-10, servicing Memorial City, Northwest TC, and Downtown

The current 131 Memorial, even as infrequently as it runs, is as close to a 'rocket-bus' as any local route we currently have.  It's awesome!

3. The lack of deviations to the Hillcroft TC of the proposed 41 Fondren and particularly the proposed 42 Hillcroft

Riders of the current 132 Harwin and the current 163 Fondren are on those buses to get Downtown.  As currently proposed, the 41 Fondren and 42 Hillcroft (Hillcroft not even being on the Frequent Network!) would require an ill-conceived transfer to and from the Harwin Frequent Segment to get to Hillcroft TC.  This is untenable.

4. The lack of inclusion in the Draft Proposed Map of the Heights TC

In writing, one has to sometimes 'kill their darlings'.  I cannot imagine the same does not hold true for mass-transit.  However, the proposed 20 MLK Lockwood Calvalcade and proposed 54 Airline Montrose hardly route away from the Heights Transit Center whatsoever.  A deviation to that transit center for both buses would not hurt anything, yes?  Ditto for 53 Almeda N Main.

However, it is true these three routes already intersect at the west terminus of W. Calvacade @ N. Main, negating in theory the need to deviate to a transit center and waste minutes in doing so.  I say let's trust in the wisdom of METRO planners, put a bunch of good shelters at this intersection, mothball Heights TC for now... [CORRECTION: I had originally lamented the lack of a bus running directly on Heights Blvd.  Wrong!  In my gorgeous Google Map of the Draft Proposed Network, I had omitted the north (blue) section of that route that runs all along Heights Blvd.  Mea culpa.]

5. Clarewood House no longer having direct connectivity to Westheimer or Richmond, and therefore Downtown therefore requiring a transfer - 30-minute frequencies in the current system, but with a required transfer in the new system to get to the Frequent Network.

Deviating the proposed 7 Richmond to pick up Clarewood House would be a real problem.  The whole point of System Reimagining is to fix the rampant inefficiencies inherent in a deviation like this one, not make new ones.

I'm not sure what METRO is going to be able to do for Clarewood House. 

6. The lack of a single bus route taking one to multiple hospitals in the TMC as the current 1 Hospital does, however inefficiently.

7. The lack of Quicklines, rapid east-west transit including light rail

Quicklines, as METRO envisions them, work well in terms of return on ridership where there are, as is the case on Bellaire Blvd., a small number of stops with lots of ridership on each.  Contrast that to Westheimer, where there are umpteen stops with very few people on each, certain stops of course being the exception.

This is why, as I understand things, METRO is not currently envisioning Quicklines on Westheimer or anywhere else.  The current 402 Bellaire Quickline will in the coming network as the 5Q Bellaire Quickline serve as a guinea pig.

We have to remember, folks, the coming reimagined local bus network does not just change utterly our local bus route system, but also force-changes the time-schedule for each and every route in the system.  Every old data model, paradigm, scenario, etc. we have used for our current network becomes next 7 June obsolete.  Though how certain routings work in certain ways will remain relevant to the discussion, literally everyone on earth will start with our new local bus network in the same patch of unchartered territory.

8. And of course...  FLEX.

Look to that Special Board Meeting lasting at least two hours, and if public comment is on the agenda, Lord help us!

UPDATE: As of at least 14 August, there will be no Special Board Meeting about all this in the month of August.  Most of the regular Board Meeting on 28 August will be concerned with sifting through all the public comments about the Draft Plan.  It promises to be a very, very, very long meeting. - JR

Friday, August 1, 2014

Draft Map public comment...closed!

As of this past Midnight, the nigh-on-three-month window of time for you to give METRO a piece of your mind over the System Re-imagining Draft Proposed Map is over and done with.  8 May of this year was the big huge unveiling of this draft proposed network to the greater Houston public and the world which began this time of public comment which has included numerous public meetings as well as an online survey.

With this ending of public comment comes the process of bringing about and (hopefully) adopting a Final Proposed Network Map as our new transit network going forward - a reimagined transit network carrying us into a bright future.

+ + +

Kurt Luhrsen, Jim Archer, and all angels in the Planning Department are chomping at the bit to get the Final Proposed Map approved as soon as humanly-possible.  Everything in their implementation-logistical plans hinges on the 'switch' being flipped to the new network from the old on Sunday 7 June 2015.  To that end, the Board needs to give the green light.

In lieu of a normal monthly Strategic Planning Committee meeting in August will be a Special Board Meeting with all Board members for the sole purpose of going through all the public comments, online survey responses, and voodoo incantations from happy and irate individuals and making sense of all of them.  This meeting should take place in the first two weeks of August (hopefully - this is speculation on my part only as of this writing).  Everyone has been warned it will be long, 'grueling', and very interesting.  I have not been to a METRO Board Meeting in a few months, but I'll definitely be around for this one.

Once that meeting is done, METRO will continue the behind-the-scenes process of getting the Final Map together, accommodating as much public input as it can while keeping the integrity of the efficiency of the new network, and if all goes well, this final map will be presented to the full Board at its regular meeting on Thursday 28 August.  Presumably, there will be lots of continued Board discussion that day followed by the post-meeting taking the map back behind-the-scenes and working on it even more.

Look to Board Member Cindy Siegel and others to successfully push for another Special Board Meeting in the first two weeks of September to further work on the thing.  The Board will get the final, final, Final Map sometime in advance of the 25 September regular Board meeting at the same time it is presumably posted to METRO's website for public consumption.

Thursday 25 September is currently the date slated for the METRO Board to vote System Reimagining up or down.  By this time, I cannot imagine the map not being worked on to at least the passing satisfaction of every single Board member.  Archer, Luhrsen, et al are breathing down the Board's neck for its okay to go forward with implementation.  We may rest assured there being a 99.999% chance the final Board vote will be on this date, and we may rest assured there is (at least in my estimation) at least a 95% chance of this plan being approved.

And once that vote is done and approval is given, Kurt and his friends as well as Dominick Mazoch, Mark Hogue (hopefully), Mark Smith (perhaps), I, and many others in and out of METRO will breathe a huge sigh of relief.