Residents in Uptown have done everything from filing a lawsuit against the Uptown Management District over the Post Oak Boulevard bus project to holding press conferences protesting it — but so far nothing they'e done has stopped the management district from using residents' tax dollars to rip up Post Oak and put two bus dedicated lanes, elevated on a platform, right in the middle of the busy road.
As though $186 million weren't a big enough price tag for a project that residents have opposed, Uptown Management District President John Breeding is now requesting an additional $31 million in funding to cover unanticipated costs — a request that has raised the eyebrows not just of residents, but of public officials.
The request for yet more funds was first reported by The Texas Monitor's Trent Siebert, who published a letter Breeding wrote to the Houston-Galveston Area Council — the organization in charge of approving funding requests — in which Breeding said the additional funding would "reduce the overall shortfall." Weeks earlier, Siebert reported Breeding had told the Monitor the project was "fully funded." The apparent inconsistency was a topic of debate last Friday, when the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council decided on a voice vote to put this proposal on hold until it could be further investigated.
Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, a member of the council, told the Houston Press he has asked that the council's legal team examine the proposal to see if it would even qualify for federal or state grant money, which is funneled through the council. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, also a council member, had joined the chorus of skepticism as well.
"When a project is supposed to be fully budgeted, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to ask for more money," said Radack, who has constituents in Uptown. "We’re talking about a lot of money, and obviously, there’s a lot going on with the recovery and everything else. I think it’s important to have a real understanding about how all of this comes together. And is it the place of Transportation Policy Council to even be looking at this if they’re within budget?"
Radack, who said he has not heard of "any huge support, really, at all, for the additional funds, said a big part of the problem is it's unclear how exactly the Uptown Management District would use the $31 million for the bus project, saying it appears it's more like the district just wants, rather than needs, the funds.
"Thirty-one million dollars can create questions when it doesn’t seem real clear how that money will be used," he said.
Breeding said the costs would cover water distribution and service connections, storm drain improvements and sanitary sewer improvements that were added while Post Oak was under construction. The additional funding would also include crosswalk and pedestrian lighting and street pole lighting, Breeding said — none of which was included in the original grant application.
They didn't exactly seem essential: Asked what would happen if Uptown Management District didn't get the $31 million, Breeding had written back, "The project is not affected." He said the costs are "eligible" for federal funding and that the district is aiming to secure funds from the feds for these eligible items rather than using local sources, such as TIRZ money.
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Still, since the management district splits costs 50-50 with HGAC, that would still leave local taxpayers on the line for $15.5 million — and David Wurdlow, a transportation planner with HGAC, said the management district does not need any approval to spend TIRZ money, for example. HGAC approval would only change the type of taxpayers footing the bill, he said.
At the meeting on Friday, residents said the fact that Uptown Management District wanted more money "leaves most people totally disgusted," and questioned whether the project was "economically justifiable" since most people working in that area don't commute by bus.
As the Press reported last year, the Uptown Management District did not conduct any survey to capture the demand for a bus project, instead relying on forecast data projecting that 14,000 people per day would take the bus into Uptown by 2018 instead of driving.
That forecast hasn't meant much to Uptown residents and commuters, who see the Post Oak dedicated bus-lane project as an inconvenience only increasing congestion while construction continues, leaving them with fewer lanes for cars.