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Houston: Metro's Light Rail Opens in the Citadel of Asphalt

Light Rail Progress – January 2004

For decades, Houston, Texas has been presented by motor vehicle advocates as a paragon of the "success" of a transportation system based exclusively on highways – a veritable citadel of dependency on asphalt, concrete, petroleum, and rubber-tired vehicles. Buses, according to pro-highway ideologues, were sufficient to meet Houston's public transportation needs – and, indeed, Houston Metro (the area's mass transportation agency) constructed perhaps the most impressive system of "transitways" for "BRT" in North America. (See our article A Tale of Two Cities.)

New Year's launch of new mobility system

But, clearly, the all-highway, buses-alone approach has not been deemed such an uncompromised "success" by key Houston-area decisionmakers and planners. This has led to Houston's MetroRail Main St. LRT (light rail transit) starter line project, totalling 7.5 miles ... followed by this past November's voter approval of the Metro Solutions areawide public transport plan, which includes 7 new LRT lines, totalling nearly 65 miles, plus at least one regional rail ("commuter rail") line totalling about 8 miles. (See our article As Houston's Light Rail Project Nears Finish, Major Vote Looms Nov. 4th; also see map below.)

LRTAnd on 1 January 2004, Metro's Main St. starter LRT line finally opened, on time, within budget, and to the almost universally enthusiastic accolades of some 15,000 Houstonians and other visitors who came to ride the system on its first day. Amid what one TV station described as "a festival-like atmosphere", including "opening ceremonies filled with music, confetti and speeches", and attended by the thousands of people who waited (mostly patiently) hours in line for a free ride, the first train of Houston's $324 million LRT system was rolled out on its inaugural trip, breaking through a banner amid showers of confetti, with Mayor Lee Brown, one of the system's staunchest supporters, at the controls. Free rides were offered New Year's Day and the entire following weekend, between 14 stations, as trains ran between the University of Houston campus downtown and Reliant Stadium, where the Super Bowl will be held on Feb. 1st. The entire route, with 16 stations, runs further south to the South Park & Ride at the Fannin South station (see map below).
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004; KTRK-TV News, 1 Jan. 2004; photo: Houston Chronicle]

LRT map

The rollout of the first train "was a sight rail supporters loudly cheered, exuberant that three decades of debate and three years of construction had finally come to an end" reported the Houston Chronicle, noting that "Many labeled it a historic day for the city and a turning point for its development, forever changing the Bayou City's face."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

"This is the kind of load we want every day" Metro's President and CEO Shirley DeLibero enthused while standing in the crush of riders aboard the first train. "When I came here, I said, 'We are going to build rail in Houston.' I knew it was going to be a fight, but I didn't know it was quite as tough as it turned out to be. But you know what, anything good is worth fighting for."

Mayor Brown related how his thoughts drifted back to his initial campaign for mayor in 1997, when he promised voters he would get the transit agency to build a rail line to make Houston a "world-class city."

"You really get a different view of the city riding the train" Brown told the Chronicle reporter after deboarding at the University of Houston-Downtown station. "You can see all of the development taking place along Main Street. It's really a delightful ride. I'm extremely happy. A good way to end my term."

"Houston's light rail is a trip" enthused Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman. "it's like a bus, because it travels on the street. It's like a train, because it glides along a track. It's like a trolley, because it's powered by electricity."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

"it's like a great idea whose time has come, long past due", Hoffman added.

Houstonians jam new rail system

The public turnout to welcome and ride the new LRT system appeared to exceed Metro's expectations, and all 15 available railcars were put into service (Metro expects delivery of three more in February). "The masses almost overwhelmed Houston's newest means of transportation ... during Metro's four-hour public opening of its first light rail line" reported the Chronicle.
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

According to a report on KHOU-TV, "So many people wanted to ride the entire light rail route that Metro had to change its plans Thursday. Some riders were forced to get off the train at one end and take a bus back to where they parked."
[KHOU-TV News, 1 January 2004]

"It was constant movement on the streets of downtown" related the TV reporter. "Crowds of people gathering on New Year's day, not to welcome in 2004 but to be a part of Houston history. it is light rail, and thousands of people waited in long lines for the chance to be the first to ride for free."

LRT crowdsCrowds jam Metro's new LRT at the University of Houston station on opening day.
[Photo: Mike Harrington]

However, "Despite the long waits, nearly everyone appeared patient and enthusiastic" noted the Chronicle, adding that "It was the first appearance of transit trains in Houston since the last trolley stopped running in June 1940." [LRP NOTE: While Houston Electric urban streetcar service was indeed abandoned in 1940, the Houston North Shore interurban railway continued to run electric rail transit service from McCarty Ave. (then on the outskirts of the city) eastward until 1948.]
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

"Many of the first passengers were glowing with joy after the inaugural run" reported the paper. "My little heart got warm" chuckled Bob Eury, director of the Houston Downtown Management District and president of Central Houston, which built Main Street Square, a pedestrian plaza along the LRT line that also opened Thursday.
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Metro Chairman Arthur Schechter called the event "really a little overwhelming." He added that he expected the rail project to play a major role in "making Houston a better city for our future, a better place for our children and grandchildren."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Betty Luehr, a 77-year-old native Houstonian, compared being able to ride the light rail in Houston to the 1969 landing on the moon. "Who would have ever thought?" she said to a Houston Chronicle reporter while riding a southbound train. "I wouldn't have missed this first ride for anything."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Another rider interviewed by the Chronicle, Marilyn Park of southwest Houston, said she doesn't expect to take the train often herself, but believes many others will. "Houston has needed this for many, many years and we're excited to have it finally here" she told the reporter. "it's added so much to our city."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Julia Toness, a resident of Houston suburb Katy, while riding a southbound train later in the day, called the light rail "a big step in the right direction ...." She added that "it's kind of nice to be here and feel like getting rail to Katy might happen."
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Not all the onlookers were supportive – particularly those who had bitterly opposed LRT and the Metro Solutions plan in the recent election. Some of those, supporters of alternative transit modes, such as buses and monorails, had joined with pro-highway forces in a united, but vain, effort to roadblock rail.

"They should have made this an elevated monorail" groused David Peak, a northwest Harris County resident, while his train moved slowly on Fannin through the Texas Medical Center. "isn't this why they did away with the trolleys to begin with?"
[Houston Chronicle, 1 Jan. 2004]

Adjacent businesses applaud rail line

But some of the most enthusiastic celebrants of what KHOU-TV called "the light at the end of the tunnel" were small businesses along Main Street and the other thoroughfares where the line had been installed. They had weathered several very difficult years while the combined LRT and street rehabilitation project (which included replacement and upgrading of underground utilities many decades old) disrupted traffic and access to their businesses.
[KHOU-TV News, 1 January 2004]

"Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Muy bonito." That was the opinion Jesus Garcia gave as he cleaned tables at the Dancing Marlin. He also told the TV reporter believes it will help business. "Mucho. The metro, mucho, more business."

Amir Alani, proprietor of Live Sports Café, was also happy that the LRT line was finally open. "We are one of the places that survived here" he told the TV reporter. "We watched our neighbors and colleagues, one after another close down cause they couldn't make it." His cafe declared bankruptcy but stayed open. "His partners never thought they'd see this day" reported KHOU.

The TV story also interviewed Lisa Martinez, who had driven in from Spring (another Houston suburb) with her two children. "She liked what she saw" noted the reporter.

"They've revitalized downtown" exclaimed Martinez. "There's lots to see and walk around, restaurants and shops. Maybe we'll make it a day."

"That's music to the ears of the business owners who gambled on rail and to those who are hoping its still not too late to catch the train" observed the TV reporter. She added, "There's no one who knows for sure how many businesses failed while waiting. This day was for those who survived. By the time, the first train arrive, the platforms were jammed. Everyone wanted to ride. There were more people than seats. To the businesses along Main, it was a sight to behold."

Janis Scott, described as "a lifelong bus rider", anxiously waited her turn to rider the new rail system. "This is special, this is historic!" she told the KHOU reporter. "I am so excited, so I wore my go-to-meeting clothes."
[KHOU-TV News, 1 January 2004]

Although on board the train, it was standing room only, and some passengers were grumbling about the extra-slow hour-long ride from downtown to Reliant Park, Scott said that nothing could diminish her first light rail experience. "This is great. I love it, that's why I'm waving."

Houston MetroRail Main St. Starter LRT Line
Quick Facts

Line length 7.5 miles (12.1 km)
No. of stations 16
No. of LRT vehicles 18
Average operating speed 17.0 mph (27.4 kph)
First-year ridership forecast 31,000 boardings
Corridor residential population 32,000
Corridor employees 245,000
Project budget US $325 million
Cost per mile (km) $43 million ($27 million)

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/01/04

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