Feb 4, 2024 - News

Houston Avenue median to be demolished

Photo of a people in a crowd, with one man in a blue polo speaking

Councilmember Mario Castillo is pushing for a one week pause on the project and urged people at a rally Sunday to speak up and reach out to the mayor. Photo: Shafaq Patel/Axios

Newly installed medians along Houston Avenue intended to improve safety for pedestrians will be torn out starting Monday.

Why it matters: This is the first glimpse into new Mayor John Whitmire's stance on the city's transportation future.

Catch up fast: The plan for construction along Houston Avenue was initiated in 2023 by former District H Councilmember Karla Cisneros, whose term expired in December.

  • Her office worked with the city's Planning and Development Department and Houston Public Works to design and build a concrete median from Center Street to Memorial Drive in hopes of making it safer for people on foot to cross the street.
  • Cisneros' office paid $100,000 for the project with district service funds, a pool of money each district council member can use on projects.

Between the lines: The project was blasted by both those who said the new median would inconvenience drivers — including leadership at Lutheran church Trinity Downtown, who feared panhandling would become more prominent — and those who said the work didn't go far enough to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

Driving the news: Whitmire announced his inquiry into the Houston Avenue project during City Council's public comment session Tuesday, and on Friday, Public Works confirmed the plan to demolish the medians.

  • "There's considerable concern about the danger if you go over there," Whitmire said, citing an 18-wheeler and Metropolitan Transit Authority bus that allegedly bottomed out on the new median while attempting to make turns.
  • "Someone has really made it a hazard," he said.

Threat level: The announcement sparked a flurry of responses from current District H Councilmember Mario Castillo and safe street advocates.

  • "If something isn't working with the project, modify it, don't waste taxpayer money," Castillo wrote on X.

What they're saying: Castillo tells Axios that after asking Whitmire on Tuesday to be involved in the discussions about the project, he only heard from the mayor's office Thursday that there would potentially be "some small changes" to the project.

  • "Then on Friday, Public Works told me at 4 something that afternoon the whole thing was getting ripped up, and it was starting on Monday," Castillo says. "That's warp speed for the City of Houston, which is one of the things that is concerning to me is the lack of transparency here."

Of note: Axios asked about the fate of the project Wednesday but did not hear back from the city until Friday when a Houston Public Works spokesperson confirmed the new median would be demolished.

  • Spokespeople for the mayor did not answer any other questions Axios posed Wednesday, including whether Castillo's office would be refunded the $100,000 in district service funds — something Whitmire could not answer definitively during Tuesday's City Council meeting.
  • The mayor's office also did not say how much removing the median will cost or who's going to foot the bill.

Meanwhile, Whitmire has ordered a review of several other street rebuild efforts across the city, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The intrigue: Some advocates fear Whitmire could block more road safety projects, including bike lanes prescribed in the Houston Bike Plan that City Council approved during former Mayor Sylvester Turner's administration.

  • "It's our mission to make it easier and safer for Houstonians to walk and roll as they need," advocacy group Walk and Roll Houston spokesperson Kevin Strickland tells Axios. "We need our new mayor to help us do more, not less, in this effort."

However, Houston's chief transportation planner, David Fields, said during a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting last week that his department has been told to continue business as usual.

  • "We've not been given new direction and have been told anything in the works we should just keep working on," Fields said when asked about the future of the city's planned bikeways under Whitmire's leadership.

Flashback: There's precedent for removing newly installed road safety infrastructure in Houston.

What we're watching: Public Works pledged to "immediately begin studying the corridor for proposals that will enhance pedestrian safety" after removing the median.

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