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More on the high speed rail station in Houston

The Chron frets about it not being downtown.

After hearing so much about how the proposed Central Texas Railway will help people commute between the central business districts of Houston and Dallas, it turns out that the Houston station will be built near the Northwest Mall at U.S. 290 and Loop 610.

Unless your business is antiques, that location isn’t exactly central. In fact, the French have a phrase to describe rail stations that sit outside central business districts, surrounded by little more than a parking lot: beet field stations.

We’ve heard arguments that, while it isn’t an economic core itself, the proposed rail terminus serves as the center of Houston’s economic footprint, balanced between the energy corridor, Galleria area, downtown, The Woodlands and the Texas Medical Center. But it isn’t just about placing riders at the physical center of a region. Central business districts offer convenient connections to riders’ end destinations. This means walking to hotels or businesses, grabbing a cab or connecting to a local mass-transit system. Downtown Houston is one of the few parts of town that can meet all those standards.

Rail stations on the edge of urban areas aren’t necessarily a bad thing, according to a June report by Eric Eidlin of the U.S. Federal Transit Administration that documented best rail practices from around the world. Sometimes it makes sense to build on more affordable, suburban property. However, those stations function best when they’re at the core of a transit node. Metro’s Northwest Transit Center isn’t enough.

[…]

Metro’s version of commuter rail – Park and Ride – has stations that are little more than parking lots. Those are the dreaded beet field stations that, according to Eidlin’s report, do little to attract economic development.

There’s plenty of opportunities for Houston’s high-speed rail station to connect with the rest of the city, such as a Metro’s planned dedicated bus lanes in Uptown, or even light rail toward downtown. But according to best practices, that groundwork for a mass-transit hub should already be laid by the time the new high-speed rail station is built. Keith said the Central Texas Railway planned to break ground in 2017. Where is Metro’s corresponding local plan?

Jarrett Walker has a response to this.

In Citylab, Eric Jaffe gives us the supposedly bad news that the proposed Dallas-Houston High Speed Rail (HSR) line won’t go to “downtown” Houston.  Instead it will end atNorthwest Mall, just outside the I-610 loop in the northwest of the city.

But most of the Houston transit-advocates I’ve talked with aren’t sounding nearly as upset.  That’s because:

  • the proposed terminal is close to the centroid of Houston as a whole.  It’s also very close to Uptown-Galleria, the region’s second downtown, and to Northwest Transit Center, the busiest transit hub in the western 2/3 of the city.
  • the terminal station area is massively redevelopable.  You could easily build yet another downtown there, and if HSR is built, they probably will.
  • the project will provide great impetus for light rail or Bus Rapid Transit linking the station to the original downtown.  These projects have been sketched many times and could include either I-10 nonstop links or a refurbishment of Washington Street, a promising old streetcar street linking the two nodes.
  • in high speed rail, the cost of the last miles into an historic downtown can be a huge part of the cost and grief of the whole project.  So if you want high-speed rail to happen at all, provoking this battle is not always a sensible part of Phase 1.

The bigger challenge, for folks from strongly single-centered cities, is to notice the limits of the term downtown.  As cities grow, there is no correlation between the sustainability of a city and its single-centeredness.  On the contrary, single-centered cities present huge problems for transportation, because they use capacity so inefficiently.  New York, for example, is spending over $10 billion on a project to fit more Long Island commuter trains into Manhattan, and to put them closer to jobs there.  The demand is mostly one-way, so this requires either storing trains all day on expensive Manhattan real estate, or running them all empty in the reverse-peak direction.   It’s very inefficient compared to the transit problem in a multi-centered place like Paris or Los Angeles, where demand is flowing two-way most of the time.

So growing a single downtown isn’t the key to becoming a great transit city.  Quite the opposite, it’s best to have a pattern of many centers, all generating high demand, and supporting balanced two-way flows between them that let us move more people on less infrastructure.  This is the great advantage of Paris or Los Angeles or the Dutch Randstad over Chicago or Manhattan.

There’s a good discussion in the comments to that post, if you want to read some more. My thoughts are as follows:

1. The decision to put the terminus at 290 and 610 was as much a political choice as anything else. Right now, Texas Central mostly has political enemies in the rural and suburban counties between Houston and Dallas, with some spillover into neighboring rural counties. The legislators who represent these areas include some fairly powerful people, but there aren’t that many of them. The one key vote regarding Texas Central, in a Senate committee, went in their favor because there were more Senators from urban areas like the Metroplex and Harris County who favored the idea. The last thing Texas Central needs is more enemies, and that’s what they would have gotten if they had pushed for a downtown terminus, as plenty of inner Loop folks didn’t like the idea of the trains whizzing through their neighborhoods. Yeah, there’s a NIMBY aspect to this, but the fact remains that a downtown terminus would have had more legislators aligning with the anti-high-speed rail folks. Texas Central didn’t need or want that, and this was the easiest solution to that problem.

2. As long as we’re noting the politics of high-speed rail, let’s also note that Metro is where it is today in large part because of political forces, which among other things have forced them to make dubious promises about not building light rail in the dedicated lanes now being intended for the Uptown BRT line. Metro did plenty to sabotage itself during the early days of the light rail approval process, but they have also had to fight against considerable headwinds, for which the main casualty has been the Universities line. I don’t know what the landscape would look like if there had been a more favorable political climate over the past dozen or so years, but I think we can all agree that it would be different.

3. The area around 290 and 610 where this would be built isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be clear: Pretty much everywhere along 610 between I-10 and TC Jester is a wasteland right now, largely because of freeway construction. At some point, all that construction will be over, and the area can begin to develop into something. When that might be, I have no idea. Prospects for that area may be limited regardless, because access to it is limited by the various freeway interchanges. But if there was ever a time to build something around there, now is as good as any because it’s all going to change over the next five to ten years anyway.

4. I think a lot of concerns go away if 1) the Uptown BRT line gets built; 2) an Inner Katy line, which would connect downtown to Uptown via Washington Avenue and the Northwest Transit Center, gets on the drawing board; and 3) the Universities Line gets back into the discussion. Put those things in place, and this terminus much more accessible to the rest of the city. #1 will happen on its own if nothing torpedoes it. #2 has been the subject of what-if speculation for financial assistance from Texas Central. Not clear how that might work, but it sure would be worth talking about. As for #3, I think everyone agrees that once the Uptown line is built and assuming it’s a success, the argument for connecting it to the Main Street line becomes nearly unassailable. Metro would have to hold another referendum to make that happen per the terms of the peace accord with John Culberson, and for sure all the usual forces against any kind of spending on rail construction will come to the fore. But it could happen, and if these things do happen we’ll be much better off.

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One Comment

  1. Jules says:

    No, Texas Central will not pay for “an inner Katy line”. Texas Central will soon be asking for federal, state and local tax dollars.