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As Houston's Light Rail Project Nears Finish, Major Vote Looms Nov. 4th

Light Rail Progress – October 2003

Houston, Texas is quickly heading toward opening America's newest modern light rail transit (LRT) system, on schedule for January 2004. But while railcars are being tested and the finishing touches added by Houston Metro, the transit agency, Houston voters are also facing an upcoming vote on major expansions being proposed for Metro's entire bus and rail system – the Metro Solutions plan.

On November 4th, Houstonians will vote on the Metro Solutions Transit System Plan, described by Metro as "a long-term plan designed to address Houston's growing transportation needs." Metro Solutions includes over 72 miles of rail extension and a 50% expansion of bus services (see map below). The total cost: $7.5 billion. However, this November's vote actually authorizes only the next phase of bus and rail expansion – funding a "more modest" rail initiative, according to the Houston Chronicle, a $640 million bond issue that will pay for only 22 miles inside Houston's Loop 610 freeway. The transit agency believes that staging implementation and voter authorization in this fashion will enable Houstonians to "hold the agency accountable", prior to voting on the next phase of the plan in 2009.
[Source: Houston Metro website, Oct. 2003; Houston Chronicle, 22 Oct. 2003]

Huge expansion of bus service

Metro Solutions is much more than simply a rail transit plan. The bus system component of the plan provides for a massive, 50% expansion and upgrade of Metro's bus services (see map below), with about 44 new bus routes to provide transit access to currently underserved portions of Metro's service area, 9 additional Transit Centers, 9 additional park & ride (P&R) lots, totally new two-way, all-day P&R service, and introduction of a de facto Quality Bus ("BRT"-like) service. in addition, MetroLift service for the mobility-impaired would be significantly expanded.

Metro Solutions' proposed new bus services include 29 new local and express routes, 5 new "Signature Express" routes, and 10 new P&R routes. The new "Signature Service" is, in effect a Quality Bus or so-called "BRT"-like service, described by Metro as "a fast, all-day limited stop crosstown service using specially designated bus stops and specially marked buses along a route to reach major activity centers. Travel times can be reduced by operating in bus lanes and giving signal priority to Signature Service buses, as appropriate."

By 2025, under the Metro Solutions plan, the transit agency will operate a total of 34 P&R lots (9 more than today), with attractive facilities providing "a place for patrons to park their cars and to board a bus or carpool in a weather-protected environment." Metro would also have a total of 24 Transit Centers (9 more than currently). These are described as "sheltered waiting areas that are located where multiple transit routes converge. The Transit Centers serve as 'hubs' to allow riders from various locations to assemble at central points where express trips or other route-to-route transfers can occur." in other words, Metro Solutions would move the entire transit system further toward a conveniently interconnected network of routes permeating the service area – more accessible to neighborhoods and activity centers, and capable of matching many more origins and destinations for many more travellers.

Centerpiece: Rail transit

While these massive bus system improvements are impressive, clearly the centerpiece of the Metro Solutions mobility blueprint is its significant rail component, which has been the focus of virtually all the media and public attention directed toward the plan.

The Metro Solutions plan includes nearly 73 miles of rail transit (see map below), which, together with the 50% expansion of bus services, represents Metro's effort to deal with the projected two million new residents who will be in the Houston area by 2025 (the target year of full buildout of the plan).

The Metro Solutions rail component would add 7 new LRT (light rail) lines, totalling 64.8 miles, with approximately 54 new LRT stations . These would stretch into key travel corridors through the more developed parts of the urban area, providing increased and upgraded access to activity centers, and rail service to both Houston-area airports. (See map.)

In addition, the plan would install at least one regional rail ("commuter rail") line totalling about 8 miles), with approximately 3 regional-rail stations. This line, which would be installed in partnership with others, would connect the MetroRail LRT line to Missouri City and other points in Fort Bend County.

Designed to represent "a plan that provides Houstonians with transportation options", Metro Solutions Is described as an "integrated transportation plan" developed "through public review and hundreds of meetings with the community." But many transit supporters and other observers are somewhat surprised that Metro is sponsoring a vote for more LRT before its first line is even completed and up and running – in fact, while several of the central city's primary north-south arteries are still torn up with both LRT and urban rehabilitation construction (such as the installations of new sidewalks and underground utilities).

Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey, with tongue in cheek, captured some of this puzzlement:
[Houston Chronicle, 19 Aug. 2003]

In Denver, Dallas and other more conventional places, they opened a relatively modest stretch of rail to build support, then waited for citizens in outlying areas to clamor for extensions.
Here, however, the train is scheduled to open in January and we're voting in November – after several years of the urban equivalent of a root canal.
We're still in agonizingly slow street construction pain. It's like asking a woman in labor if she wants more babies after this one.
And why? Because, we're told, if we don't get into line for federal
matching grants quickly we'll be shut out for seven years -- and we can't trust key congressmen (Tom DeLay and John Culbertson) from the area to save us a place in line.

Main St. starter LRT line

To be sure, as with any big construction project – particularly one that stretches through miles of the city – installing Houston's MetroRail Main St. LRT starter line project has been an eyesore and headache for many Houstonians since construction started in April 2001 (see our article Houston Breaks Ground for First Light Rail Line). But fortunately the payoff for all that hard work and hardship is coming soon.

In January 2004 Metro's Main St. LRT line is due to start boarding its first passengers. Running 7.5 miles from Houston's Downtown to south of Reliant Park, the line follows the Main and Fannin Streets corridor, linking Downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Hermann Park, the Texas Medical Center, and Reliant Park.

The Main St. LRT line is intended as the central distributor/circulator spine of an ultimately regional network – the foundation for future light rail or corridor extensions, if voters approve them. But the line makes sense and stands on its own as a high-quality, high-capacity transit service in the central city. Altogether, as of 1999, there were 245,000 employees in the Main-Fannin corridor, and a total residential population of 32,000.

With 16 stations, including the high-traffic Downtown and Texas Medical Center Transit Centers, the Main St. starter line will serve a number of important activity centers along the corridor. Passengers will be able to transfer to and from Metro buses and make connections to the University of Houston's Downtown campus, two Houston Community College campuses (Central and Southeast Galen), Rice University, the Houston Zoo, Market Square, Minute Maid Park, the new NFL stadium and the Harris County Exposition Center, and many other popular destinations. The Texas Medical Center alone represents an extremely busy travel hub, with 50,000 employees, 20,000 students, and 75,000 visitors converging on an average weekday.

Since MetroRail LRT trains will be operating at street level, they won't travel faster than the posted speed limit, resulting in an average speed, including stops, of about 17 mph. However, this is considerably faster than buses now traveling in the area – prior to street construction, the #8 and #15 bus routes, for example, travelled the same route at an average speed of just 10 mph. (However, possible future extensions, if approved by voters, would likely be much faster, with trains travelling in dedicated alignments at speeds up to 66 mph.) Current plans call for Metro's light rail cars to run every six minutes in peak periods and every 12-15 minutes during off-peak times.

Speeding operations in the Main-Fannin corridor will be briefer station stops, made possible because passengers will be able to board at any of several extra-wide doors on each car, with up to 2 cars per train. Fare collection will be handled by the passenger-proof-of-purchase (PPOP) method, widely used in Europe and most new North American LRT systems. Passengers will purchase tickets from station vending machines, and will be expected to present them to inspectors performing spot-checks.

Trains on the Main St. starter line will have priority at traffic signals, so that the trains will travel on a continuous "wave" of green lights between stations, thus moving faster than other street traffic. According to Metro, "When compared to driving a private vehicle in the same corridor, METRORail will offer additional advantages that are less easily measured. For example, drivers would have to factor in the time it takes to find a parking space and the time it takes to walk from the parking lot to a destination. METRORail will offer the ease and comfort of being able to accomplish something while you travel – be it reading, resting or simply collecting your thoughts in a clean, safe and quiet train."

One of the major benefits expected from MetroRail on Main St. is the elimination of about 1,200 daily bus trips in the corridor. Ridership (total annual boardings) is estimated to reach 10 million to 13 million by 2020, or about 40,000 rider-trips each weekday. The initial "base forecast" estimates about 31,000 trips, with about 3,400 generated by special events, and about 3,600 by new development.

And that's another major benefit anticipated: MetroRail is projected to stimulate approximately $500 million to $1 billion in economic development along its route. Transit-oriented development, or TOD, in particular is considered especially valuable because it clusters activities, attenuates sprawl, and helps "build in" mobility habits oriented toward public transportation, not cars. Rail systems seem to have a uniquely powerful tendency to attract TOD, and this was recognized in the original Major investment Study which recommended LRT for the corridor. Already, some of that development can be seen happening in the corridor.

The budget for the Main St. LRT project is $324 million, which calculates to about $43 million per mile (US $27 per km) for the total 7.5 miles (12.1 km). Some of this includes special urban amenities. As Metro reports:

Rebuilding and replacing sidewalks along the rail line is part of METRORail construction. This includes replacing the city's aging underground water and sewer system along the Main and Fannin alignment. METRORail construction on Main Street is timed to coincide with METRO''s Downtown/Midtown Transit Streets Project, a more than $250 million program to repave streets and to add lighting, sidewalks, bus shelters and landscaping. The federal funds for this project run out in 2005, so the work must be completed quickly. While construction would have proceeded on Main and Fannin streets with or without METRORail, coordinating the projects with light rail construction will make traffic flow better and lessen disruption to motorists and bus riders. The fast-track METRORail schedule includes longer construction hours on some spots along the line, allowing much of the work to be done during off-peak hours. METRO also pays incentives to contractors who finish early.

Metro has already started taking delivery of its initial fleet of 15 high-tech LRT vehicles, and testing has been underway. These cars, a version of the Avanta S-70 made by Siemens Transportation Systems Inc., are electrically powered from an overhead contact system (OCS), much of which is simple trolley wire (rather than the more elaborate catenary) to minimize visual intrusion. These vehicles are 70% low-floor, so all passengers will be able to board from the 14"-high station platforms directly onto the vehicle floor without climbing steps. Metro has also already invoked an option to purchase another three of these cars at the bid price, bringing the ultimate fleet total to 18.

Struggle for future mobility

Ordinarily, you might think that providing a system which is 70% faster than existing bus service, eliminates 1,200 bus trips a day, is helping encourage adjacent people-friendly development, substantially increases the people-moving capacity of the streets where it runs, and provides the core central-city spine for a future regional rapid transit network – and does all this for about the cost per mile of a single central-city freeway lane – would be universally hailed as a tremendous benefit and breakthrough. But this is the USA, dominated by Highways, Inc., and this is Houston, long the domain of powerful Road Warriors. indeed, as our previous reports on Houston's rail travails have pointed out, Metro has had to fight for the Main St. MetroRail project against powerful highway champions like US Rep. Tom DeLay (who single-handedly scuttled federal aid for the project) and other Road Warriors such as the lavishly financed Texas Justice Foundation (associated with the San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation).

So it's not really that surprising that the Main St. LRT line, even before it's carried a single passenger, has become a target in the steadily escalating battle over the Metro Solutions mobility plan – and this despite the pro-rail backing of important highway enthusiasts such as former highway commissioner and ex-mayor Bob Lanier. A vigorous campaign, led by Road Warriors, has rallied a wide swath of like-minded oppositionists, from motor vehicle and highway boosters, to far-right anti-tax, anti-government ideologues, to small business owners impacted by Main St. construction, to monorail fanatics – uniting around a slogan of "costs too much, does too little".

Major political figures have jumped into the fray. Republican US Rep. John Culberson, for example, has taken a leading role in the effort to attack the Main St. line and shoot down the Metro Solutions plan. On the other hand, other major political leaders, such as Democratic US Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Chris Bell, have leaped to defend Metro, the rail project, and the Metro Solutions plan.

Leading the campaign to get voter support for for Metro Solutions is Citizens for Public Transportation. Oppositionists are organized in two main groups: Texans for True Mobility (TTM, supposedly an "educational foundation") and Business Committee Against Rail (BusCAR). TTM is currently embroiled in a legal struggle over its refusal to reveal its list of donors, in compliance with Texas law (it claims its anti-rail vote activities are "educational", not political).

A particularly hot issue emerging in the vote war is the systematic deception used by many rail opponents to disparage the Main St. rail line and the Metro Solutions plan. Much of this disinformation campaign is aimed at discrediting Dallas's spectacular DART LRT and Trinity Railway Express regional rail system.

Ironically, while Houston has writhed in controversy, Dallas has been chalking up stellar success after success with an LRT system that has brought down unit operating costs and steadily attracted more and more riders to the point that it barely has enough railcars to handle the demand (and for a short period even had to turn back busloads of riders from outside the service area). More and more suburban communities have been clamoring for DART to extend the system out to them, and bonds to accelerate the pace of construction passed overwhelmingly in the summer of 2000. And just last month (September 2003), several major towns in Denton County voted themselves an extra half-cent sales tax to fund construction of their own much-coveted rail connection with DART.

Dallas's successes have not been lost on Houston public transport supporters, and they are trying to convey the lessons of those successes to the Houston voting public. Much of all this ongoing debate will be of interest and value to other mass transportation advocates waging similar campaigns for public support elsewhere, and we intend to publish more news and information on this subject. in any event, one can only expect that this blazing battle will simply intensify between now and election day on Nov. 4th.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2003/11/02

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