Nearly six months since trains began rumbling north of the central business district along Main and Fulton on the north side, residents and community leaders said the train is becoming a valued part of the neighborhood and a critical link for many transit travelers, even as it contributes to record-setting use of the rail line.
“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy construction time,” said Rebecca Reyna, executive director of the Greater Northside Management District. “No construction is easy. Now that it’s there, it is slowly becoming a part of the fabric of the north side.”
After adding 5.3 miles of track from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons outside Loop 610, the Red Line posted more trips for the first three months of 2014 than in any three-month period in the light rail system’s history. Based on ridership data compiled by the American Public Transit Association, more than 3.5 million trips were logged on the Red Line from January to March.
What’s harder to calculate is how many of those rides were skimmed from the bus system. Route 15, which largely followed Fulton, was discontinued when the northern extension opened. Two lines that run a similar north-south path along nearby streets, Route 78 and Route 24, have experienced slight decreases in ridership.
When the bus and rail routes are all compared, overall ridership on the Red Line, Route 24 and Route 78 was 4.7 percent higher for the first four months of 2014 than the same lines – and the discontinued Route 15 – during January through April of 2013.
We knew that the first month’s ridership numbers were strong, so this is just a continuation of that. It should’t be a surprise – the Main Street Line has far exceeded its initial ridership projections from the beginning, and the North Line is an extension of the Main Street Line. It would be weird if its ridership numbers weren’t strong. But since one of the criticisms that the anti-rail crowd has long made – and continues to make, despite all the evidence to the contrary – is that nobody really uses the train, it’s important to highlight the fact that they are still wrong.
Speaking of which:
Skeptics point to the $756 million cost - $142.6 million per mile - for the north line and suggest the money could have been better spent adding bus service. Federal funds awarded solely to rail projects covered $450 million of the cost.
I was going to start this sentence by saying “I’d take our local rail skeptics more seriously if…” but the honest truth is that I don’t take them seriously because they’ve never given any reason to be taken seriously. They’ve never been about anything more than hocking spitballs at light rail. Oh sure, they’d occasionally intone somberly about how Metro really should pay more attention to its bus service. And that’s the tell, because as we know Metro recently completed a vast, overarching redesign of its bus network that will simplify routes, provide a lot more service, and have a goal of increasing ridership up to 20%, all without adding any cost to the system, yet the silence from the anti-rail peanut gallery has been deafening. Bill King still hasn’t written a single word about this, for crying out loud. So yeah, I don’t see any point in mistaking them for people with a constructive role to play.
As for the cost, I mean, look, we’ve spent countless billions on widening highways, and we still have terrible traffic. All that widening ultimately does is shift the mess to other parts of the highway and the surface streets. We’re already at a point where simply adding more lanes to existing highways isn’t practical or in some cases even possible, so the solutions being put forth are esoteric, to say the least. Light rail is scalable and sustainable in a way that highway construction just isn’t, and it has other benefits besides. As I’ve argued before, there are no single solutions. There’s a suite of ways to improve access and mobility, and light rail is a key part of that. It’s definitely doing its part, and we should be glad for that. The Highwayman has more.