Gas Station Owners Are Preparing for an Electric Vehicle Future

Gas StationEnergy companies have been extracting crude oil from the Permian Basin at unprecedented rates in recent years, but an oil boom is the last thing on the minds of most gas station owners in our area. Instead, many gas stations are looking for creative new ways to stay relevant in a world where electric vehicles may soon become the norm.

Although gasoline demand in the U.S. has remained relatively steady for the past decade, electric vehicles could cut demand in half by 2035, according to the Boston Consulting Group in Dallas.

Meanwhile, many younger Americans are choosing to forego car ownership in favor of using ridesharing apps and public transportation to get around. While electric vehicles haven’t begun to put a dent in gasoline demand just yet, this unique confluence of market forces is already pushing gas stations to stay ahead of the curve.

“For these stores to survive, they need to focus on the mobility more broadly and what customers need while traveling beyond just fuel,” said Tony Portera, managing director of Boston Consulting Group in Dallas during a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle.

In addition to installing electric vehicle charging stations, gas station owners are working hard to stay competitive by offering new products and services as well. You can now find fresh produce and ready-made meal options in many gas stations, for example, while others are adding Amazon lockers to the storefronts in an effort to increase foot traffic.

In the early 1990’s, there were about 200,000 gas stations in America. Today, there are less than 150,000. While this downward trend is almost certain to continue, the electric vehicle revolution doesn’t necessarily spell doom for America’s gas stations. Instead, it means that business owners will have to figure out what the travelers of the future will need when gasoline is no longer a necessity.

Two-Story Crates Roll Through Houston en Route to South Korea

Oversize LoadIf you were driving on Houston-area roads early last week, you may have found that your ride was disrupted by an unusual caravan of trucks and state troopers escorting two massive wooden crates on flatbed trailers.

These crates – the largest of which measured 135 feet long, 27 feet high and 24 feet wide – were in the process of traveling 108 miles from Spring Branch, Texas to their destination at the Bayport Cruise Terminal. From there, the crates will embark on a month-long Journey to South Korea. Each crate contains components for a new mobile drilling platform which will be constructed upon arriving at the Korean Peninsula in September.

As you might imagine, the historically-huge heavy haul required a great deal of logistical planning and preparation.

During the journey, utility crews had to disconnect power lines and traffic signals at intersections to make room for the crates as they crawled closer to their destination. Towards the end of the caravan’s ride through Houston, a portion of I-45 had to be closed for several hours as well. The crew of more than 100 workers moved the crates primarily at night to avoid major traffic disruptions, but the trip was not entirely without incident. At one point in the haul, two motorcycle officers were injured when a suspected drunk driver blew through a blocked intersection and hit them.

Despite slowdowns and setbacks, the crates reportedly arrived safely at their destination in Bayport, Texas late last week. Now, they’ll be loaded onto a ship so they can continue on their trip around the world to South Korea.

Work Begins on First of Three Bridges Over Brays Bayou

Buffalo BayouIf you’re hoping to catch a home game at NRG Stadium this football season, you may need to build some extra time into your travel plans. Earlier this month, work began on a project to lengthen the Stella Link Bridge in southwest Houston, which serves as a major thoroughfare for drivers traveling in and out of NRG park.

This bridge expansion constitutes a major step forward in a plan to significantly reduce flooding along the Brays Bayou.

This plan, which was introduced in November of last year, involves widening 21 miles of Brays Bayou to provide additional flood protection to nearby neighborhoods. Once complete, Project Brays is expected to reduce the number of structures at risk of a 100-year flood from 16,800 to 1,800.

In the meantime, however, road crews will be expanding the Stella Link Bridge, Ardmore Bridge and Buffalo Speedway Bridge to facilitate the flow of stormwater in south central Harris County. Work on the Ardmore Bridge is slated to begin in august, and work on the Buffalo Speedway Bridge will begin when the Stella Link Bridge expansion is finished. The Stella Link expansion alone could take up to a year to complete.

In addition to causing travel delays for Texans fans, the bridge construction may also disrupt traffic to and from the Texas Medical Center. By staggering the three bridge expansions over the course of several months, the Harris County Flood Control District hopes to keep these traffic disruptions to a minimum. Currently, the northbound side of the Stella Link Bridge is closed and all traffic has been rerouted to the southbound side of the bridge.

Barbara Jordan Post Office to Become Sprawling Mixed-Use Hub

Houston at NightFor the past four years, the old Barbara Jordan Post Office has sat vacant on the northern end of Downtown Houston. Soon, however, the massive monument of modernist architecture will receive a new lease on life thanks to an ambitious adaptive-reuse project that’s being spearheaded by current property owner Lovett Commercial.

In late June, Lovett Commercial unveiled the highly-anticipated plans for POST Houston, a dramatic redesign of the 16-acre complex that will include workspace, restaurants, a hotel, retail space, a concert venue and a rooftop park and garden. Rather than demolish the old post office, architecture firm OMA New York will integrate its new design into the existing structure.

“A lot of these mixed-use projects are actually what would be considered adjacent-use projects, in the sense that the way that the different programs interact with each other is still distinct and disparate, whereas our vision for POST is about a melting pot of programs that cross-penetrate and influence each other,” said Lovett Commercial Project Manager Kirby Liu in a recent interview.

For example, project developers envision a future where restaurants in POST Houston will be able to source their fruits and vegetables directly from the complex’s rooftop garden, called Skylawn. OMA also plans to open up three sections of the building, creating new atriums with elaborate staircases that connect the various levels of POST Houston. Each of these atriums will be covered with a translucent ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) roofing material that insulates the space, acting like a huge air-filled Ziplock bag.

With such a diverse collection of attractions occupying more than 550,000 square feet of space, POST Houston is sure to become a new landmark in the city’s theater district. The first phase of the project is expected to be complete by summer of 2020.

Houston’s Grand Parkway Draws Interest From Developers

Houston HighwaysAfter more than two decades of construction, work on Houston’s Grand Parkway entered its final phase earlier this year. When the last section is completed in 2022, the 184-mile parkway will be the largest highway loop in the nation.

Since the idea for the parkway was first conceived in the 1960s, it has become one of the most ambitious infrastructure improvement projects ever undertaken in our region. And while the Grand Parkway was designed to accommodate increased traffic around the Greater Houston area, it could become a new corridor for residential and commercial development as well.

According to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle, a number of companies are purchasing property near the parkway with the intent of developing new homes and businesses along its route.

“The Grand Parkway has just been a tremendous catalyst,” said Kirk Laguarta, a broker for Land Advisors Organization in an interview. “all along the Grand Parkway as soon as it was announced on the west side, you saw the activity of sales occurring, of people going out and buying sites, especially where the interchanges are. Those are very critical.”

Laguarta is quick to point out, however, that although interest from developers is strong, some of their efforts have been slowed by new regulatory requirements that were implemented in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

“all of the requirements are changing, which I think everyone would agree, needs to occur, but it’s getting the approvals now that’s taking longer.”

Despite these hurdles, many developers are confident that with enough patience, building along the Grand Parkway will ultimately prove to be a worthwhile investment. Stay tuned – you won’t have to look far to find new developments cropping up along the Grand Parkway in the coming years.

Phase One of the Hardy Toll Road Connector Project Is Well Underway

Road ConstructionWhen the Hardy Toll Road was built in the 1980s, it was originally intended to extend into downtown Houston. As a result of budgetary restraints, however, the plans had to be revised and the 21-mile toll road’s southern terminus was moved to the Interstate 610 North Loop. Now, roughly three decades later, construction crews are working on the 3.6-mile extension that will finally bring the toll road south to US 59.

The first phase of the Hardy Toll Road Downtown Connector project began in 2014 and is expected to conclude in 2020.

This phase involves relocating the Houston Belt and Terminal rail lines, as well as constructing three grade separations at Collingsworth, Lorraine and Quitman streets. Relocation of the rail lines is already complete, and extensive excavation work is currently being conducted at the Lorraine grade separation. The three grade separations are ultimately designed to eliminate the need for vehicles on the toll road extension to interact with train traffic.

Once the grade separations are finished, the Harris County Toll Road Authority (HCTRA) will begin paving the new four-lane stretch of the Hardy Toll Road. The extension is being funded entirely by revenue generated through the existing tolls, and it’s expected to offer significant benefits to commuters.

“It will provide a new connection directly into the Central Business district from north Houston, relieving existing highways of some volume,” said Matt Kainer, assistant director of maintenance and construction engineering of the HCTRA in an interview. “Once the project is complete, both drivers and pedestrians will have safer, faster access through the corridor.”

There’s still plenty of work to be done, however. The Hardy Toll Road Downtown Connector is currently slated for completion in the first quarter of 2023.

New Houston Office Building Will Be a Model of Sustainable Design

Houston SkylineThe 47-story office building that will occupy the former site of the Houston Chronicle will be more than just an attractive new addition to the city’s skyline; it will also be one of the most energy-efficient and environmentally-sustainable buildings in the nation. Earlier this month, the developers of Texas Tower announced that the building has received Platinum pre-certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system.

This constitutes the highest available rating for energy efficiency and sustainable design.

“Texas Tower will be an excellent example of how we can achieve a sustainable, high-performance building that, as a result, operates at a lower comparative cost over time, benefiting tenants, owners and the environment alike,” said Clayton Ulrich,  Senior Vice President of Corporate Operations at Hines.

The one-million-square foot tower on the 800 block of Texas Avenue will be equipped with a variety of innovative features designed to minimize the structure’s carbon footprint over time. These include a rainwater and condensate recovery system, LED light fixtures with daylight control systems, reflective roofing materials, high-efficiency chillers and electric-vehicle charging stations for the building’s occupants. Texas Tower will also include flexible, customizable workspaces to optimize the building’s floorplan.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Texas Tower, however, will be its appearance from street level. The tower will be oriented diagonally on its site, offering stunning views of its glass façade to passersby from all sides. With 33 percent of the building already leased to its future tenants, Texas Tower is currently slated to open in late 2021.

2019 Will be a Big Year for Hotel, Retail Construction in Houston

Retail DevelopmentAs state and local officials continue to invest in flood control infrastructure developments and transit improvements, there’s another type of construction boom that’s poised to take off in Houston as well. According to commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), there is a virtually unprecedented amount of hotel and real estate space slated for construction in our area this year.

In their 2019 Construction Outlook report, JLL found that Houston currently ranks #1 in the nation for retail space under construction, and #5 in the nation for the number of hotel rooms that will open this year. More than 4,500 new hotel rooms are expected to welcome guests this year, which accounts for roughly 3 percent of all new lodging facilities in the country. Houston will also add an estimated 4.1 million square feet of retail space in 2019, which is the equivalent of more than 20 Walmart Supercenters.

Analysts at JLL attribute this huge volume of commercial construction to the steady, prolonged population growth that Houston has experienced in recent years.

“Houston has been one of the national leaders in population growth for a decade now, with over 100,000 people per year moving into the metropolitan area,” said Matthew Parson, senior vice president of JLL’s Houston office in a recent interview. “With the population growth and no true barriers restricting the expansion, suburban sprawl continues to expand suburban communities.”

Meanwhile, the Dallas-Fort Worth area ranked high on JLL’s list of hotel and retail construction leaders, too. Keep an eye out—you probably won’t have to look far to find spacious hotels and retail centers coming to a neighborhood near you in 2019.

Harris County to Launch Flood Tunnel Feasibility Study

Concrete TunnelA year and a half after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, Harris County officials continue to explore new ways to protect Houston and the surrounding communities from future catastrophic weather events. In February, for example, the Harris County Flood Control District was awarded a $320,000 federal grant to assess the feasibility of an ambitious plan that would involve digging deep underground tunnels to carry stormwater from upstream bayous to the Houston Ship Channel.

 

This study, which is expected to take about four months, will evaluate whether or not stormwater tunnels could serve as a viable addition to the area’s long-term flood control strategy.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Pope, executive director of the flood control district in a recent interview. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

Although Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have all successfully implemented stormwater tunnels into their own flood-control infrastructure, the unique soil conditions and topography of Houston could make it more difficult for engineers to design an effective tunnel system in our area. Preliminary plans involve digging 20-foot-wide tunnels 150 feet deep that would use gravity to move stormwater as far as 30 miles to the ship channel.

Despite the anticipated challenges that are associated with building stormwater tunnels underneath Houston, flood control district officials argue that tunneling could actually be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than widening bayous and channeling existing waterways with concrete. For now, however, we’ll just have to wait and see what the results of the feasibility study reveal.

Metro to Ask Voters for Transit Improvement Funding in November

Houston Metro Rail

With Houston continuing the grow at an unprecedented rate, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County is preparing to undertake an ambitious 20-year plan called METRONext that could dramatically improve our area’s public transportation infrastructure. Proposed improvements include the addition of 20 miles of light rail service, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes on local freeways.

Last year, METRONext officials surveyed Harris County residents to find out what transit improvements they’d most like to see included in the 20-year plan.

Based on the feedback they received, they identified five key needs that the plan should address: “Increased connectivity within the system, quicker travel times, reliable and safe rides, enhanced customer service and advanced technologies.”

Now, after tailoring their plan to suit the most immediate needs of Houston-area residents, METRONext is preparing to ask voters for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to kick start the first phase of transit improvements. The project is expected to cost a total of $7.5 billion, most of which will be provided by state and federal transportation funding.

Although $3 billion might seem like a steep price tag, Metro board officials have been quick to point out that this money won’t be borrowed all at once. Rather, it will be borrowed in increments based on the timelines of individual projects.

“This plan will change. There is no doubt about that,” said Metro board chairwoman Carrin Patman in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “What we get back from the community governs how much we ask for.”

Voters will find this bond issue on the November 2019 ballot during the Houston Mayoral race. Until then, it will be up to METRONext to convince Harris County residents that their plan is a worthwhile investment.