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What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

This story is about the opening of the North Line, but it’s also about where Metro goes from here.

The opening of the lines won’t spell the end of the construction. To complete the final mile of the East Line, Metro must build an underpass at Harrisburg and 66th Street at the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad tracks. The agency struggled to accommodate neighborhood concerns and figure out what it could afford, leading to delays. The final mile will open in December 2015 at the earliest.

The fate of the planned University Line, between the University of Houston and the Westpark Tollway, is even less certain. Metro officials haven’t detailed how they plan to pay for its construction.

Earlier this year at Metro’s behest, city officials designated Richmond as a transit corridor, limiting new development that encroaches on the ability to add a rail line without committing officials to any decision or affecting current buildings.

On Thursday, Metro board members extended the contract for design of the University Line for another year, to Dec. 21, 2014. The extension did not increase the fee to engineering firm AECOM, though the contract has been amended and the fee increased 10 times.

Since 2006, the design contract for the University Line has grown from $17.2 million to $50.8 million, of which $3.7 million remains unpaid.

The added time gives Metro a chance to adjust the designs if necessary, interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

Some Metro board members suggested the agency might be throwing good money after bad.

“We know that line can’t be built, or by the time we have it built, all that work will be obsolete,” board member Jim Robinson said.

Board member Dwight Jefferson said Metro should build what officials said they would when they spent money to study the route.

“If we can save it, that’s what we need to be looking to do,” Jefferson said.

Light rail continues to face vocal opposition from property owners along Richmond, especially west of Shepherd Drive. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who represents the western area segment of the route, has consistently opposed federal money for the project.

[…]

Washington has its own set of challenges funding transit projects. Still, [Federal Transit Administrator Peter] Rogoff said federal officials will consider helping Houston when it’s ready for its next light rail line. Technically, the University Line application is already filed with federal transit officials.

“We are sort of awaiting clear direction (from Metro),” Rogoff said. “They have seemingly taken a bit of a timeout.”

The North Line extension had a successful opening on Saturday despite the lousy weather. The political situation, by which I mean Rep. Culberson and his fanatical opposition to rail on Richmond, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The need for the Universities Line hasn’t changed, either – if anything, it’s more urgent now. We can’t wait for Culberson to retire or lose or get redistricted out of this part of town. What can we do in the meantime to move the ball forward?

One possibility is to start building the portion of the line that isn’t in Culberson’s district. That would run from the Eastwood Transit Center to Shepherd. That would provide connectivity to the Main Street and Southeast lines as well we better access to UH and the Third Ward. The Richmond portion of that truncated line falls within Rep. Ted Poe’s district, and as we know, Rep. Poe supports construction of the Universities Line because his constituents support it. With Rep. Poe behind this, one would hope that getting federal funds would be possible. On the other hand, chopping the line in half like this may well invalidate all of the previous filings and approvals Metro now has for this project, and might require Metro to start from scratch and do them all again. Given that ridership would surely be a lot lower for this partial route, there would be no guarantee that it would even qualify for FTA funds. It’s worth exploring, but only worth pursuing if it doesn’t represent a step backward.

Another possibility is to commit to building the whole thing, but only seek federal funding for the eastern half of the line, unless something changes to make funding the western half of the line feasible. That would of course require a large amount of local funding. To my mind, that local funding should come from Metro, the city of Houston, and Harris County. How likely that is I couldn’t say; when I bring it up to other people, the reaction I usually get is to be asked if I also believe in the tooth fairy. It might not be fiscally possible even if you accept the premise that Harris County could be persuaded to play ball. The FTA might not think this is such a hot idea, either, and even if they did Culberson could fight against it even though he’s made a point of saying that he has never opposed funding for rail construction that wasn’t in his district. I’m just throwing out ideas here, I don’t claim to have all the details worked out.

Look, I recognize that these ideas may be completely unrealistic. There may not be anything that can be done under current conditions. But the need is there, whether a plausible path forward exists or not. We need to be talking about this, with the understanding that this really matters and we need to figure it out one way or another. The Universities Line, when it is finally built, will do a lot to enhance mobility in a part of town that desperately needs the help. It will facilitate travel in neighborhoods that are already dense and heavily congested and getting more so every day as one new highrise after another gets developed. It will provide a critical link between east and west, and when the Uptown Line is completed it will make traveling to the Galleria and its environs a lot less nightmarish. Maybe once we start this conversation we’ll also remember that there are other routes on the drawing board that ought to be back in the conversation, like the Inner Katy line and the US90 commuter line. Again, the need is there, and it won’t go away if we don’t do anything about it. So what are we going to do about it?

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2 Comments

  1. Christian N. Seger says:

    Considering the present shaky financial situation at METRO and our outrageous Federal government debt, METRO should be planning to build the Westpark Line in the right-of-way already owned by METRO.

    The cost of Westpark would be half of the Richmond route, and METRO might even be able to build it without federal assistance.

    Here are ten points in favor of Westpark (WP) over Richmond Avenue (RA).

    • The cost of land acquisition for WP will be very low. The WP right-of-way is already owned by METRO, so few land takings will be needed to build there.
    • It is estimated that $300 million of the $1 billion cost of RA rail is for street repairs and infrastructure upgrading. Most of those costs will not be present on the WP route.
    • WP does not have a 66” high pressure water line lying just five feet below the surface of the street for a distance of over three miles. This line is a time bomb under Richmond Avenue.
    • No bridge will be required across the Southwest Freeway at Cummins Lane. The WP line will connect with METRO’s existing Main Street line south of the freeway near Main Street.
    • There are six bridges already in place over the Southwest Freeway in the Near Town and Montrose area which invite riders to walk across the freeway and board the METRO train on the WP line. METRO is now claiming that Houstonians can walk a half mile (2,640 feet) to catch a bus, so they can easily stroll three blocks over one of these bridges to reach the WP line from Montrose.
    • An air conditioned tunnel can be built under the Southwest Freeway from the WP Greenway station, which would feed directly into the underground system of Greenway Plaza, the Renaissance Hotel, and Lakewood Church. A METRO rail rider would never leave an air conditioned environment from the Greenway station to his destination in Greenway Plaza, only 900 feet away.
    • No structural modifications will be needed for the WP train to pass under Loop 610 South.
    Uptown Houston has agreed to fund Bus Rapid Transit to pick up passengers at WP and bring them down Post Oak; the portal for the BRT to get to WP is already in place. In the last nine years much growth has occurred along the WP corridor, and in West University. (Remember, West U. was to be served by the Westpark Line, but cannot be reached from Richmond Avenue.) The demographics along WP have changed for the better, yet there is still room for private, high density development all along the route, at a much lower cost for land than on Richmond Avenue.

    Here is how the WP line could be built. Open up “Google Earth” to this area and follow along, please.
    We start at METRO’s Main Street Line, where the WP line would join at Blodgett Street, south of the freeway and just a few hundred feet from the existing Wheeler Street Station. The WP line will then take a southwesterly curve and cross Main Street near Wentworth Street. It will continue west on columns through the water retention pond, through the skateboard park (which will be relocated) and several parking lots until it reaches the METRO owned right-of-way at the end of the Montrose bridge.
    The right-of-way is narrow in the easternmost part of the WP line, from Main Street to Montrose, but outbound and inbound rail can be “stacked” here. METRO has already done engineering drawings on that solution and it can be done. I have seen those drawings and that engineering work at METRO.
    You can the follow the right-of-way on Google Earth to Kirby Drive. Along the way there have been several encroachments made since 2003 for parking lots, but these are temporary only. At Kirby the right-of-way widens considerably and remains quite open all the way to the Union Pacific tracks, where a bridge or tunnel will be required, as would be the case for the Richmond Avenue route.
    The line continues west through the Bark Park (which will be relocated) until it reaches Loop 610, where it will go under the Loop. The rest of the route is straight west to the Hillcroft Transit Center. A dip under the Southwest Freeway is required in the same manner as the Westpark Tollway dips under the freeway there.
    Westpark is a near perfect, cost effective route and it restores what the referendum of 2003 originally intended. Congressman Culberson will have no objections, and Congressman Poe can support the line for his constituents.
    Christian N. Seger
    cnseger@gmail.com

  2. Garrett says:

    This whole conundrum is giving me a headache and I actually fully support all kinda of rail for Houston. It just seems there are more and more examples of Metro/city leaders dragging their feet or not being committed to a single task at hand. I’m sure there are plenty of issues and road blocks with fed funding.. But it seems more and more people are welcome to the idea. If only there was more information out there.. More social media that openly supports rail in Houston that could help unify all of the supporters together.

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