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The Bill King alternative to light rail

In case you missed it, Bill King wrote a column lat week that was based on an email exchange he had with me awhile back in which he laid out his alternate vision for what Metro ought to be doing. Some of the items on his list are things I’d support, like adding amenities to park and ride stops. Some are things that sound interesting but I’d need to know more about before I could comment on, like his trolley-bus-circulator idea. Some are things that I would consider to be a waste of money for no discernable purpose, like elevating the Main Street line through the Medical Center.

Most of the rest are things I don’t have any strong feelings about one way or the other. One reason for that is because they would not do anything to improve mobility for people like me who live and work inside the Loop. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I believe a critical function of an expanded light rail network in Houston is to add capacity to the congested-and-getting-worse street grid of Houston’s inner core. We cannot address this problem the same way we’ve done for our highways, which is to build more lanes, because there isn’t the room for it. (There’s not the room for it any more on most of the highways, either, but that’s another story.) I don’t want to rehash all of that here because I don’t have anything new to add to what I’ve already written, but to me any plan or vision that doesn’t include a solution to this problem is completely inadequate. I’m open to the idea that there’s something other than light rail that can achieve this, but what King proposes ain’t it.

I should also note that King is trying to pull a little sleight of hand when he says “We must also ask what else we could do with that $3 billion to $4 billion”. That money he’s referring to comes from FTA grants specifically geared towards the construction of new rail lines; hence the name New Starts grants:

The New Starts program funds new and extensions to existing fixed guideway transit systems in every area of the country. These projects include commuter rail, light rail, heavy rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars, and ferries.

With the possible exception of the LRT elevation, to which he tacks on the commuter rail to Fort Bend proposal, I don’t see any of King’s suggestions meeting that requirement for the money that Metro is still waiting to get. There may be other grants available for the remaining items, but Metro would have to apply for them and beat out other hopefuls. If there’s one thing we’ve definitively learned from the Buy America debacle, it’s that the FTA very much expects its funds to go to the things it says they must go to. To imply that some of this money could be repurposed for things like rebuilding the I-45 South HOV or the FM1960 corridor is highly misleading. Peter Brown, who responded to King on Facebook, has more.

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10 Comments

  1. If you substitute “Bill King” for “Obama” on this spoof, you’ll come fairly close to the truth:

    http://www.theonion.com/video_embed/?id=18473

  2. Ron in Houston says:

    Bring back the trolleys!

  3. Bill King says:

    Kuff,

    Three problems with your analysis:

    1. Of the $3-4 billion the LRT will cost, FTA grants will only cover about $1.2 billion of the cost, a roughly 30-40% raito. The rest is local funds. Almost any transit program, such as building HOV lanes or purchasing more buses, qualifies for a higher percentage reimbursement. Frequently the reimbursement is as much as 80%. The LRT gets us the least FTA funds for each local dollar invested.

    2. HGAC studies show that the inside the loop has the LEAST traffic congestion in the region.

    3. Metro traffic studies predict that congestion in the LRT corridors will get worse, not better.

  4. Bill,

    You’re still lumping that money in with everything else, even though it cannot be used for the purposes listed in your piece. At the very least, you should be more clear about that.

    It’s also the case that several of the items you mention aren’t transit related. For instance, your suggestion to expand SafeClear. As this is a Houston program, that would require Commissioners Court to take action, perhaps first lobbying the state for legislation that would allow them to do this. I don’t have a problem with this, though of course the county is even more strapped for cash than the city is right now, but I don’t see why Metro should be providing funds for it. What does SafeClear have to do with Metro’s mission and purpose?

    Whatever the HGAC studies may say, it’s still the case that we do have congestion inside the Loop, that it’s getting worse, and that your alternative would do nothing to address it. At this point, I can only conclude that you either don’t see it as a problem, or that you do but you don’t have an answer for it.

  5. Bill King says:

    Actually almost eveything on my list would qualify for FTA funding and at a higher reimbursement percentage than the LRT. Remember that most of the cost of the current HOV system was provided by federal grants (at about an 80% reimbursement rate). The point is that the LRT will require an local investment of $2-3 billion (to get about $1-1.5 billon of FTA funds). We have absolute discretion over that $2-3 billion and if spent it on other public transporation improvements, we would actually get more FTA dollars.

    As far congestion inside the loop, the fact is that congestion is much worse in other areas like FM1960/SH6 and SH290. All those folks are in Metro’s service area and pay the same tax we do. Why should we not be directing the funds to the areas with the worst congestion?

    You also continue to ignore Metro’s traffic studies that clearly show that if you build the LRT inside the loop (as almost all of it is), the congestion will get worse. At grade rail destroys more capacity as it creates. It will not solve the problem of congestion inside the loop.

    It is beyond me to understand why we would build a system that minimizes federal grants, makes traffic congestion worse, will not significantly increase transit ridership and will require the dismantling of the bus system upon which many working class families rely to get to work everyday.

    You and Peter try to frame this discussion as a choice between building ever widening freeways or the proposed at-grade LRT. However, those are not the only choices as I attempted to demonstrate with this list.

  6. Temple Houston says:

    Gee, I thought part of the reason for going to light rail was because white people won’t ride buses unless they are going to The Woodlands or Kingwood. I also thought another reason for light rail was to get cars off the roads and reduce gasoline consumption, i.e., dependence on foreign oil. Bringing back the trolley circulator idea is great, but Downtown is not the only place they could work. There are whole neighborhoods like Montrose where trolley circulators to the rail stations would dramatically increase ridership. I gather that making moving around the city easier for visitors is not a terribly important consideration to Mr. King. I guess the money tourists spend is unimportant. Of course, reducing fares will also increase ridership, but then the naysayers would complain that the system is supposed to pay for itself. Light rail is an investment for more reasons than just moving people from the suburbs to their day jobs. Who knows, they might even discover that living in a city could mean being able to attend the theater, concerts, etc. without having to spend all your time looking for a parking place. Finally, that HGAC study that alleged the Inner Loop areas had the least amount of congestion is a crock.

  7. Ship Channel Liberal says:

    You engage the guy in a discussion that he mentions in the paper and you spend all this time on your blog—Yet Mr. King did not use your actual name in his column in the Chronicle.

    He failed the “mention me and spell my name right” test that is the true measure of a real friend or of a sportsman like foe.

  8. Ron in Houston says:

    So does anyone have any data on the Main Street line? When I see it downtown I don’t see it particularly full, but perhaps more of the traffic is in the med center area.

  9. Bill, Charles;
    The way I see it is that the two of you are argueing the relative merits of old technology. The merits, or lack there of, are widely known. Isn’t it time to look at something new, easy to install and low cost. www,tubularrail.com
    Robert Pulliam
    Tubular Rail Inc.
    Houston TX

  10. […] know. Be that as it may, I’m always amused by the way that light rail critics like Radack and Bill King always manage to ignore the results of the 2003 referendum as they plot to get their hands on the […]