Third Ward bike-lane project moving forward despite pushback from Houston City Council member

Council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz has organized a townhall meeting Thursday to discuss the details of an ongoing road reconstruction project that includes the addition of bike lanes and reduction of vehicle lanes. But Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, putting up most of the money for the project, says it’s proceeding as planned.

Blodgett Street bike lane road work
Mark Norris/Houston Public Media
Road construction work continues Wednesday on Blodgett Street near the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston.

A Houston City Council member’s change of heart on a bike lane project in her district seems unlikely to halt the effort, which is already under construction.

Council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz expressed support for a Third Ward bikeway project on Oct. 7, 2020, saying during a virtual public engagement meeting that she was "excited" about the upcoming roadway work and thought her community would embrace it as well. She had been introduced to the online audience by Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, her former cousin-in-law, a driver of the initiative and its most significant supporter from a financial standpoint.

"I'm going to work along with the commissioner to see how much money we can pull together to get this completed," Evans-Shabazz said at the time. "Because it's going to be beautiful."

Two years later, with the first phase of the project having already been completed and the second phase under construction, Evans-Shabazz is pushing back against the addition of bicycle lanes and reduction of vehicular lanes on a stretch of Blodgett Street that runs alongside Texas Southern University.

Evans-Shabazz recently led the city council in tabling a proposed payment of nearly $400,000 for its part in a 2018 agreement between the city, university and Harris County for transportation and drainage improvements in the area – although the work already has been contracted and paid for by the county, according to Ellis.

Evans-Shabazz, who represents that part of the city and has long lived there, said community members including impacted residents and businesses along Blodgett Street have expressed concerns about the potential for increased traffic congestion and limited street parking as well as the necessity of bike lanes. She also said the community was not adequately engaged and consulted before work began, so she has organized a townhall meeting to discuss the issue from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Pilgrim Congregational United, a church at 3115 Blodgett St.

But the city council member acknowledged the fate of the project and its specifics are largely up to Ellis, an avid cyclist and supporter of bike infrastructure whose office is covering $11.7 million of the estimated $12.1 cost for the work on Blodgett and some nearby streets, where water and sewer lines already have been replaced and the addition of two bike lanes and wider sidewalks are planned. Ellis said the Blodgett project is part of a broader transformation of a corridor that includes TSU and the University of Houston. And like some other recent and upcoming transportation infrastructure initiatives across the city, it calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes from two in each direction to one each way in an attempt to reduce speeding and traffic accidents.

Ellis said Wednesday he is not open to amending the planned design for Blodgett, which would add millions of dollars to the cost of the project and at least another year to its timeline. Executed contracts would need to be cancelled, design work would need to start fresh and impacted stakeholders would need to be reengaged, he said, adding that he invites the city to undertake and fund its own road reconstruction project if the one underway is not satisfactory.

"We cannot amend the project. ... I'm not going to do that," Ellis said. "If (Evans-Shabazz) puts an item on the (city council) agenda and gives Precinct 1 $12 million, we'll walk away right now."

Blodgett Street bike path
Mark Norris/Houston Public Media
A sign near the Texas Southern University campus illustrates the details of an ongoing road reconstruction project in Southeast Houston.

The ongoing work on Blodgett, including the addition of bike lanes, has the support of Texas Southern University, a historically Black school of which Ellis is a graduate. The university said in a statement to Houston Public Media that it looks forward to "meeting our neighbors and enjoying the expanded access for our students and the community upon completion," which is slated for September 2023.

Erin Jones, a spokesperson for Houston Public Works, said the Blodgett project is 33 percent complete and construction continues even though the city council opted not to authorize the allocation of $396,471.60 for the project from the city's Water & Sewer System Consolidated Construction Fund. Instead, council members voted unanimously Nov. 29 – on a motion made by Evans-Shabazz – to send the item back to the administration of Mayor Sylvester Turner for further deliberation and potential consideration at a future council meeting.

Jones said the council's action does not figure to impact construction and is more of a funding concern, because the interlocal agreement called for the city to cover the water and sewer line work that already has been paid for and completed. Ellis said he expects to be reimbursed by the city one way or another.

"If we're not committing that money, we still have to reimburse (the county)," Jones said. "It was committed."

Mary Benton, a spokesperson for Turner, wrote in an email the mayor has the "option of indefinitely tabling the issue or considering new information to bring it back to the agenda." When asked which option Turner planned to take, Benton said he generally defers to district council members if they do not support items relevant to the areas they represent.

Before Evans-Shabazz "tagged" the proposal at a previous council meeting on Nov. 15, meaning she chose to postpone a vote until a subsequent meeting, Turner suggested she talk to Ellis and added, "One of the things that's important in the collaboration with the county are these bike lanes."

Evans-Shabazz's pushback against the Blodgett project drew the ire of BikeHouston, a nonprofit that advocates for cycling safety and infrastructure. Executive director Joe Cutrufo said the work aligns with the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and Turner's Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by 2030.

Cutrufo said 66 cyclists have died in Houston traffic collisions since 2017, but none on streets with protected bike lanes, which he said illustrates the effectiveness of such safety measures. He also said data compiled through the city's complete streets initiative shows that 29 percent of Third Ward households do not have automobiles, illustrating the need for other modes of transportation there.

Blodgett Street bike lane construction
Mark Norris/Houston Public Media
A road reconstruction project on Blodgett Street began earlier this year and is expected to be complete in the fall of 2023.

Ellis' office said there were 117 traffic collisions on that stretch of Blodgett, between Scott Street to the east and Ennis Street to the west, between 2017-21. The intersection of Blodgett and Scott, on the southeast corner of the TSU campus, also has been identified as having a higher-than-average rate of traffic deaths and serious injuries compared to other Houston intersections.

"This is a safety project in a city that has made a commitment to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030," Cutrufo said. "What are we doing? Why is the city council member standing in the way of a street safety project?"

Evans-Shabazz said she does not oppose bike lanes or bike safety, adding she is a cyclist herself, and supports safety measures for the Third Ward community in general. She also said she has historically had a good relationship with Ellis, who represents the area as part of his precinct, and knows they both have their constituents' best interests in mind.

So before bike lanes are physically added and vehicle lanes are reduced, Evans-Shabazz said she hopes Ellis will listen to more feedback from the community and consider amending the proposed redesign of Blodgett. She said there are other nearby streets where bike lanes could be utilized – including Cleburne Street on the north end of the TSU campus, where they were implemented as part of Phase 1 of the ongoing project.

Evans-Shabazz said she led the effort to table the funding allocation because, "Once the bill is paid, there's no opportunity for discussion." But according to Ellis, there's no more room for that because the bills already have been paid.

Ellis acknowledged that more community engagement could have been done prior to the start of construction this year, but said his office communicated with impacted residents after the October 2020 meeting and that, per the agreement with the city and TSU, those entities were to take the lead on community outreach for the project.

"At the end of the day, if (a project amendment) doesn't happen, it'll never be said that I didn't fight for my community and get them a place at the table for them to be heard," she said. "That's what I'm charged to do."

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