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A solution in search of a problem

We were out of town over the weekend, so I managed to miss this Bill King op-ed about the “need” to elevate the Main Street line on Fannin in the Medical Center area. Having now read it, I have three things to say.

Generally it only takes one trip through the Texas Medical Center (TMC) on Fannin for a person to swear off the route permanently. It is a driver’s nightmare with dozens of indecipherable signs and lights giving directions. There have been several train-pedestrian and train-auto accidents in the area. And the traffic … well, let’s not even go there.

Many have questioned the wisdom of a multibillion-dollar investment that crams a new modal system into the same horizontal plane already crowded with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Most of the great, iconic transit systems, such as the New York subway, Washington’s Metro or Chicago’s “L,” are grade separated from street traffic. Even Dallas’ DART is largely grade separated.

The problem with grade separating our rail system is, of course, the increased cost. Estimates range from twice to five times as expensive. When we built the Main Street line, we did so without any federal funds. As a result, Metro took a number of shortcuts to contain the cost. One of those shortcuts was the contorted maze through the TMC.

[…]

The line could begin a gentle incline around Hermann Park and continue above the street level to the south side of Brays Bayou. The rail line could be tied into the elevated walkways between the buildings on either side of Fannin, providing easy, ADA-compliant access. Elevating the rail line both relieves the congestion on Fannin and insulates its circuits from the surrounding infrastructure.

1. Has Bill King forgotten just how congested that stretch of Fannin was before the rail line was built? Because I haven’t. It was a mess, and it took forever to drive through. Among other things, there are bunch of traffic lights on Fannin between Dryden and MacGregor, many of which are not at intersections but at the entrance to parking garages. Those lights are all still there and would continue to impede traffic in the event that the rail line magically disappeared. And it would still be confusing to drive through, especially if you’re headed for one of those garages – I speak from the experience of turning into a garage other than the one I intended to, more than once.

2. King is completely disingenuous about the cost. For one thing, as Metro President David Wolff points out in a letter to the editor, Metro would be competing for federal dollars to do this against its other light rail lines, including those that are in the final stages of getting funding. For another, despite the approving murmurs King’s op-ed got from the anti-rail crowd at blogHouston, doing this would surely garner opposition from those who want to see more rail being built, as it would be a poor use of limited funds, and it wouldn’t make the idea of rail any more popular among the antis; if anything, this would be used as ammunition by them for their argument that rail is “too expensive”. There’s just no value proposition here.

3. Finally, perhaps King hasn’t noticed the large number of people who now park in lots well away from the Medical Center and take the train in. I work a block away from the Smithlands station, and I see people in scrubs coming out of that lot and getting on the train (or getting out of the train and going into the lot) all day long. Every one of those people represents a car that is no longer being driven on Fannin. The rail line does more to relieve traffic congestion there than anything we’ve ever done, and when there are more lines connecting to it, thus making more of the city accessible without getting into a car, that will do even more.

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8 Comments

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    We should have had monorail but then the people promoting monorail weren’t “insiders” and, well, you know how that goes.

    I haven’t noticed that much more or less traffic on Fannin either although I avoid it like the plague. I don’t think anyone said rail would have much impact. I doubt it has.

    The reason why is the majority of people who ride the rail to and from the Med Center as you point out are staff. And they weren’t driving to begin with. They were using one of the various shuttles. Some who live in the area still use the shuttles. Particularly the UT students and staff. It’s easier than walking to the rail station.

    This points out the fear of many, however, which is that Metro will become another Gulf Freeway with regard to rail. Constantly under construction. Never really completed.

  2. Excellent blog, and thanks for doing it. I wonder if Bill King thinks the real congestion on Kirby and FM1960 and many other places is the fault of the Main Street light rail line? What weird illogic.

  3. Mike Harrington says:

    Not sure why Snooks is enamoured with monorail.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Vegas_Monorail

    It takes the Las Vegas monorail fifteen minutes to go 3.9 miles. That is almost exactly the speed of Houston MetroRail. The Vegas monorail carries little more than half the riders of light rail in Houston. There is nothing dainty about the elevated structure.

    The Las Vegas monorail charges $5 for a ride. Fitch just downgraded their bonds.

    There are a lot of light rail projects underway in the US. No one is building any monorails. You don’t need a PhD in transportation policy and planning to figure out why.

  4. JJMB says:

    I think your #3 point is very interesting. But for a different reason.

    Don’t all the employees who park and ride 1 or 2 stops into the Med Center really skew Metro’s ridership numbers? They like to brag that this is the most used light rail line in the country, or something to that effect. But to really be honest about it, should we count them? They are hardly “communters”. They are using cars for 90-95% of their commute. Did we really need to build a train to do something that a bunch of shuttle buses (or a 1 mile monorail) could do? Frankly, plenty of people in NY and Chicago WALK a distance equal to that.

    I think if you take those 1-2 stop shuttle bus people out of the numbers, then that rail segment starts to look far less successful. And make far less economic sense.

  5. Mike Harrington says:

    JJMB:

    Rail carrying capacity is higher. The rail cars are far bigger than you could practically build a three-axle bus. Plus, wheel hubs on buses take up valuable floor space. You can couple rail cars together for peak loads. Metro were able to replace twice as many buses for the eighteen light rail cars they bought. I’ve tracked the bus timetable changes since before the light rail line went into operation, and it looks to me like MetroRail bumped about forty buses during peak hours. Some of those buses were for the Smithlands TMC parking lot. One light rail operator can move almost 400 people. The biggest buses can’t even come close to half of that number. The light rail line has saved Metro a fortune in labor costs. Direct labor cost, not depreciation or fuel or electricity, is the most expensive expense of providing public transit service.

  6. Appetitus Rationi Pareat says:

    The Metro line through the Medical Center is the best part of the entire system. The setbacks are close to nil and the density is to a point that makes it very effective. I take it whenever I go down there and it is very easy and convenient. If someone is too stubborn or too stupid to drive, then it is there own fault.

    And as far as monorails….every time I hear someone propose such a thing I think back to that famous Simpsons episode…..and laugh.

  7. JJMB says:

    My point was that it would be interesting to figure our how much of the entire rail line ridership is just Med Center employees going back and forth to their parking lot 1 mile away.

    It sounds like rail cars are bigger than buses and thus you need to employee fewer drivers as a result. I haven’t before heard the argument for light rail that we can put more people out of work. But we can go ahead and try to factor that into the analysis.

    And I am sure that some people take the rail to the Med Center. I once rode it from Hermann Park to an Astros game and it was easy and cool. But I go to maybe 3 games a year. So anecdotal reports of “I ride it and other people are stupid” are not real helpful to my trying to evaluate whether it is worth the cost.

    I just wonder if you took the parking lot shuttle out of the equation whether it still makes sense. METRO always argues “We have 1.2 million boardings per month” (or whatever the number is). What if the number-minus parking lot is 500,000? Is that ridership worth the $400 million it cost to build?

    I just want us to try to get to the real facts. The pro-people say “rail is great, it carries 1.2 million people” and the anti-railers say “rail is terrible, all the buildings are going to fall down because of stray current”. I happen to think both of those “facts” are fairly suspect.

  8. Mike Harrington says:

    Yes, there is a ridership spike at the Medical Center. But it is not the only one. And throngs of people ride to the TMC that do not use the Smith Lands park and ride.

    http://www.ctchouston.org/blogs/christof/wp-content/uploads/2006/11/passenger%20volume%201.jpg

    But not all the the TMC riders are for the park and ride at Smithlands. There is a major Metro Transit Center to buses at TMC Transit Center. Also, MetroRail has a big reverse commute at rush hours *from* downtown and midtown *to* the Medical Center.

    Metro did not count the the rodeo ridership in 2006 in it’s “typical day” ridership.

    http://www.ctchouston.org/blogs/christof/wp-content/uploads/2006/11/northbound%20boardings.jpg

    Of the average weekday northbound boardings of ~20,475 in February 2006, excluding the rodeo, 15% were from Smith Lands. Some people board at Smith Lands from the apartments nearby, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume all were park and riders. Notice that 16% of the northbound riders board the light rail at the two stations south of Smith Lands.

    The Smith Lands park and ride is big, but MetroRail would still be one of the busiest light rail lines in the country without it.

    Read the whole article by Christof Spieler:

    http://www.ctchouston.org/intermodality/2006/11/09/who-are-these-people-and-where-are-they-going/