HOUSTON — A request for tens of millions of dollars more for a controversial bus system that would run down the middle of Post Oak Boulevard was tabled Friday after about a dozen residents raised concerns about conflicts of interest, the danger posed by the buses, and potential traffic problems for the neighborhood.
The vote by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council to shelve the $31 million proposal by Uptown, a high-profile and powerful management district, also came the day after The Texas Monitor published a story which showed apparent inconsistencies in comments made by Uptown President John Breeding.
Breeding said earlier this month that his special district’s $200 million Post Oak bus project was “on budget” and “fully funded,” but documents showed him saying in writing that the project is facing a “shortfall” and that Uptown needs more money for the bus line.
“Is it funded or not funded?,” Post Oak resident Rick Cody asked the panel, which is made up of local elected officials and community leaders. “Who’s paying for this difference?”
Resident Milton Frankfurt said Uptown’s ask for additional money for a project that is already budgeted ”leaves most people totally disgusted.”
“I don’t think that you have any idea of the amount of anger, disgust, and negativity that people in our part of the city feel about this project, including the retailers up and down Post Oak,” he said as a packed crowd applauded him.
Their concerns were echoed by Bill King, an area resident and columnist. He pointed to Breeding’s statements about the bus project being “fully funded” and “on budget.”
“If that’s the case, they don’t need any more money,” King said. “Why would you give more money to a project that is fully funded and that’s on budget?”
Breeding told The Texas Monitor Friday that the project is indeed on budget and fully funded.
“The request is for available federal funds for eligible costs not included in our initial grant application,” Breeding told the policy council. “If approved, these funds will be invested in increased transit center parking, [bus] communications, and other capital projects.”
He explained that his reference to being on budget was in connection to Houston’s cost to develop the project. But there are additional federal funds available that Breeding said he wanted to capture.
“We have eligible expenditures that warrant federal funding support,” he said. “The money is meant for transportation improvements. If we can reduce our reliance on local funds, I think that’s a good thing.”
See a full explanation given by Breeding here:
The proposal was tabled by council member and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long been opposed to the project.
“I thought it was a project that didn’t make any sense,” he said. He also suggested there were many other, and better, uses for $31 million in transportation tax dollars.
The vote by the Transportation Policy Council was a voice vote.
It is unclear when the proposal will be addressed again.
Council member and Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said he wanted a full accounting of the deal.
“I recommend that we refer this issue to our counsel to have them review,” Radack said. “There are a lot of moving pieces here. There are lots of different governments involved. I think it’s important that this body have a good legal analysis to see how these parts come together and how all this money comes together.”
The bus project has had critics from the beginning.
It is being spearheaded by the Uptown Authority and the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, known as a TIRZ, and is a project that Uptown said would “transform” Post Oak Boulevard with mixed-use development, pedestrian improvements, and dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit.
Post Oak, home to shopping mecca the Galleria, is one of the wealthiest stretches of roads in Houston and is home to high-end shopping and tony restaurants. A group of the residents and shop owners have tried a number of ways to halt the project but with little effect.
But those residents made their voices heard Friday.
Watch some of the comments here:
Resident Stan Simmons suggested some large property owners connected to Uptown may be benefiting from the deal.
“Our concern with this project all along is that it’s not a win for all affected,” he told the officials. “This project from the get-go has only seemed to have been a win for certain interests. Why do I want additional tax money to fund this project, which so negatively impacts myself as a homeowner, a resident, and a commuter? It’s a win for a few and a major loss for many. So please, do not fund this project.”
Joan Silverman had similar sentiments.
“This project is for the benefit of Uptown TIRZ property owners only,” she said. “This project will not benefit the public.”
Resident Jim Scarborough agreed.
“Remember Robin Hood?,” he said. “He robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Well, now we have the reverse of that… Rob the poor and give to the rich.”
Scarborough also said safety is a concern, referencing METRO, which manages the area’s light rail and bus systems.
“METRO has killed eight people with their train system,” he said. “It leads the nation. Now we’re going to put buses down the middle of Post Oak Boulevard? Who is going to be the first fatality there?”
Other residents believed the number of people that Uptown predicts will use the buses are too rosy.
Neal Meyer cited numbers that he said were from a Houston city survey to point to the lack of popularity in commuting workers using a METRO bus that currently travels the same route.
“Of the 30,000 people who work in the Galleria, only one percent of them, or 300 people, use transit,” he said.
Cody said that he has seen the evidence of a lack of excitement for using the bus.
“The most I’ve ever seen on any of those buses at rush hour, or in the middle of the day, is about eight people,” he said. “This morning when we were driving by we saw two people. Is this economically justifiable?”
Breeding told The Texas Monitor that the project will continue and he said he believes that Uptown’s request will ultimately be approved.
Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.