"See this right turn lane filled up?" consultant Wayne Dolcefino asked about a dozen angry Uptown residents, standing along Post Oak Boulevard near the intersection with San Felipe Street on Monday morning. "That's going away. The right lane at Westheimer? That's going away too."
A woman's jaw dropped, as though what Dolcefino said was inconceivable.
But pretty soon, it will happen. One of the most congested roads in Houston will soon be ripped up by construction for two and a half years — brought down to just two lanes, plus a left turn lane where necessary — as Uptown Houston makes ground on a public transit project that residents have been protesting for a year: the Post Oak Boulevard dedicated bus lanes project.
Uptown Houston, the neighborhood management district, claims the biggest problem facing the overcrowded Uptown area is the "lack of effective commuter transit service." To solve that problem, the district has decided to rip out the center median and replace it with two elevated bus lanes — similar to how the rail works in the center of Main Street. The buses will come every six minutes, running from the Northwest Transit Center along 610 and Post Oak to a new Bellaire Uptown transit center, at Westpark and U.S. 59. While Uptown Houston will pay for construction and development, Metro has agreed to team up and provide the transportation once the project is complete.
On Monday, though, Uptown residents held a press conference along Post Oak as part of a last-ditch effort to ask Mayor Sylvester Turner to halt the $192 million project. Among many things, residents claim this project is going to make traffic worse, will put stores along Post Oak out of business because drivers won't want to bother with the headache, and that the project is "stained ethically" because of conflicts of interest within Uptown Houston. On top of those concerns, a 39-story apartment building is set to go up nearby, which residents say is only going to make this a bigger mess.
"Mostly, it's a safety and a quality of life issue," said one resident, Dave Volz. "This is traffic central most of the time. It's brutal. You'll see, there's not many people riding the buses here. But they're going to tear it up and remove traffic lanes to add these bus lanes, and it's just crazy already. In the morning, it's nearly impassable."
Residents assert Uptown Houston board members have financially benefited from property sales along Post Oak Boulevard to make way for the project.
Dolcefino said that when residents complained about what they perceived to be a lack of transparency on the part of Uptown Houston, the management district responded by setting up a special committee that would hold public meetings about these real estate transactions and the bus project. But Dolcefino claims he was unable to find any meeting warnings or agendas. He filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, alleging that Uptown Houston had violated state open meetings laws.
"We should never have allowed people who have conflicts of interest, who stand to benefit millions from this project, to make the decisions. It's too much money to let people make money on the deal vote on it," Dolcefino said. "We believe this thing is a serial violator of transparency funds."
John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston, denied every accusation Dolcefino and the residents made. He said that no one at Uptown Houston has made any money off these deals, and also said that "this project has been vetted more than any public project I've ever been associated with" in response to critics who say it hasn't been transparent.
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Still, the success of Breeding's bus project depends on whether people will actually use it. Breeding said he doesn't see it as something that Tanglewood residents, for example, will be riding, but that people from the suburbs and surrounding areas will take it to commute to work, escaping the hellish morning traffic. Asked whether Uptown Houston conducted a survey to see if Uptown workers would indeed hop on board, Breeding said no, but said the district based demand for the project on an independent ridership forecast. The numbers predict more than 14,000 people per day will use the Post Oak bus dedicated bus lanes by 2018 and more than 20,000 by 2035.
But here's what the Houston Chronicle's transportation writer, Dug Begley, had to say about ridership predictions in a critical piece about the bus project: "Simply put, anyone who claims to know what effect a transportation project will have is lying, or foolishly believes their point of view is absolutely correct. In fact, they're making the same judgment doctors made when they treated fevers with leeches: it was confined to their experience, agenda and perspective."
In any case, despite residents' protest, the dedicated bus lanes are scheduled to be built, short of a lawsuit that dismantles the project. Homeowners sued Metro last year for agreeing to the project, claiming that in 2003, the transportation agency agreed after a voter referendum to eventually build a rail in the area and the decision to provide the elevated buses violates that promise. The residents have also set up a legal defense fund at SaveUptown.com just in case Turner fails to step in and halt the construction. Dolcefino said they may end up taking Uptown Houston to court instead.
He said he likes to call it the "legal offense fund."