Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

commuter rail

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

It’s big, with smaller components that could be done as lower-cost alternatives.

After a bus system overhaul that garnered the attention of other cities looking to do the same, Houston’s transit agency is in the midst of creating its long-range plan, MetroNEXT, to take the multimodal system well into the future. The agency presented several preliminary draft plans Thursday that would update the previous long-range plan created in 2003 and that include projects like rail extensions to airports, a bus rapid transit network and big increases in potential riders.

The agency was careful to say, however, that, given current projections, any plan would likely face serious financial limitations, partly due to federal policies. “We’re going to have to pick and choose because we can’t do it all,” said Carrin Patman, the board chair.

Patman added that little was set in stone and that even the types of transit modes used in the draft plan were provisional; “it is entirely possible that new technologies will supplant some of the modes we use in this study.”

The agency offered three plans: a blockbuster conceptual plan and two, smaller alternatives given the agency’s current financial projections.

“This is big, it’s bold,” said Clint Harbert, vice president of system and capital planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, told the board of the $35 billion vision. “It would create a 460 percent increase in people served and a 120 percent increase in employment areas covered within one-half mile of high-capacity transit.” In total, the plan includes 90 miles of new bus rapid transit, 100 miles of extended light rail with 211 new light rail vehicles, 448 new buses and investments in 33 high-frequency corridors.

The plan would expand access to light rail and bus rapid transit for low-income households by 440 percent in the mayor’s Complete Communities, according to Thursday’s presentation. “A lot of this focused where we have transit-dependent populations,” said Harbert.

The preliminary plan was developed after 25 public meetings plus dozens of other meetings attended by board and agency representatives.

[…]

Patman described that vision as “almost a pie in the sky plan” given the financial constraints facing the agency, which estimates only 3 to 8 percent, or roughly $1 billion to $2.8 billion-worth, of the projects included in the long-term vision plan could be completed by fiscal year 2040. Art Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer detailed those constraints, including projections about available tax returns, maintenance costs and cash reserves.

“I’m very curious about what we’re really accomplishing,” asked board member Troi Taylor. “It seems like it’s going to be a very small drop in the bucket.”

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

You’ll need to click over to look at the diagrams and explanations. There’s also a long story in the Chron that captures a lot of the discussion and feedback. Nothing is close to being finalized, so what we will eventually vote on on 2019 is still very much up in the air and dependent on what feedback Metro gets and how much the usual gang of anti-transit ghouls scream and wail. The project website is here, with an events calendar and various ways to get updates and give input. It’s early days so there’s not much there yet, but there will be. What about this interests you?

No Metro vote this year

One thing that won’t be on your ballot this fall.

Voters will have to wait a few more months to decide Houston’s transit future, as Metro officials said Monday they are taking a more deliberative approach to developing a long-term plan for bus and rail service.

“We really want to get it right,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors.

As a result, Patman said she has no intention of placing any bond referendums in front of voters in Harris County and Missouri City in November, a delay from earlier plans for the MetroNEXT process.

[…]

Patman said she wants more analysis of possible modes along certain routes, something that could take staff more time to develop.

“We need to do a more thorough evaluation for each mode along each corridor,” she said. “Before we go to the voters, we need to take our best information back to them.”

Plans for MetroNEXT should be finalized by the end of the year, she said.

It was about this time last year that we learned there would be no Metro vote in 2017. I was hoping we’d get a vote this year, but ultimately I’d rather Metro get all their ducks in a row before they put something out there. We know there’s no such thing as a non-controversial Metro referendum, so best to have all the details nailed down and as much support as possible in place for each item. I am very much looking forward to the finished product.

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s speech Tuesday may have included jabs at state lawmakers, but it was a hit with transit advocates for a single line.

“We cannot go back in time and undo some poor decisions, but we can learn from those decisions,” Emmett said in his prepared remarks, alluding to freeway projects that have exacerbated flooding woes. “One of the most glaring mistakes was the failure to convert the abandoned Katy rail line to commuter rail.”

[…]

Though the rail line was removed, Metropolitan Transit Authority paid for overpasses along I-10 to be built to rail standards, meaning that if the region ever wanted to use the freeway for light rail, that is possible. Larger, commuter, trains, however would not be able to operate in the freeway.

Still, the regret voiced by Emmett – whom many consider a proponent of road building as a champion of the Grand Parkway – demonstrates a shift, if only in tone, regarding regional transportation.

“I totally think what the Judge said is important,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which has pressed for commuter rail development. “Judge Emmett has always been a supporter of the rail district, but it is important when you hear him say there was an opportunity for commuter rail.”

Yes, we could have had a rail component to the I-10 expansion. It was a choice not to do that. It wasn’t hard to see that at some point after the initial expansion, the new capacity would be exhausted. Having a means to move people that didn’t rely on that capacity would have been helpful. The powers that be – read: Harris County and John Culberson – were not interested in that. We won’t have as many options going forward – it’s not like there’s a bunch of available space to build more lanes, after all.

To be sure, Metro express buses make heavy use of the HOV lanes, which move a lot of people and didn’t require a big capital investment on Metro’s part. One commenter on Swamplot thinks that’s a perfectly fine outcome.

The train isn’t going to travel that much faster than buses, if at all. Also, buses in the Katy corridor make just one stop at most between the burbs and Downtown (the major route is express from the Park-and-Ride lot direct to Downtown). And people play on their phones on the bus (have you never been on one? the park-and-ride vehicles have nice cushy seats and baggage racks). And unless one’s destination is outside the CBD, no transfers are required; you are likely dropped off within a few blocks of your destination, an easy walk. Furthermore, on the highly used Park-and-Ride routes the buses leave every several minutes; you don’t have to time your arrival, the wait time to depart is minimal. Commuter rail never works like that (though light rail can). The assumption that rail is going to provide superior service simply isn’t true. In fact, it’s likely to be worse service for the patrons than what we have now with the Park-and-Ride buses. Especially since most everyone will have to drive to the station anyway, so no difference there.”

I agree that the park and ride experience is a good one, and a lot of people use it. But even with a rail corridor built in, there would still have been HOV lanes, so we could have had both rail and express buses. Build it as light rail and you can have local service, too. Lots of people are using I-10 for shorter trips that neither begin nor end in downtown. We didn’t know it at the time, but the subsequent local bus system redesign would have provided a lot of connections to and from this could-have-been light rail line, thus reducing the need for parking around the stations. It’s not a question of whether rail would have provided superior service to express buses, it’s that rail plus express buses would have been better. But we’ll probably never get to see that for ourselves, thanks to short-sighted decision making more than a decade ago.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

For an agency that’s spent decades guiding freeway expansion, it was a stark admission for members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation policy council.

“Future growth and the resulting travel is expected to surpass our ability to meet regional mobility needs by relying solely on increased roadway capacity,” the agency’s staff wrote.

Facing a future in which 14.2 million people will live in the eight-county Houston area in 2050, transportation planners are proposing a special task force that will work on the region’s long-range transportation plan so that high-capacity transit can start to gain a foothold after years – perhaps decades in some cases – without traction in car-crazed Houston.

The regional transportation plan is updated every five years, for a 25-year period. The current plan, approved in 2015, covers until 2040. The next version will reflect plans for highway, transit, bicycle and maritime projects for 2020 to 2045.

Though plans always have some bold transit components – ranging from commuter trains to major expansions of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s light rail system – they rarely proceed in earnest.

“Some of them have been in three or four editions of our plan and they are no farther along than they were 15 years ago,” said Alan Clark, director of transportation planning for the area council, which acts as the local metropolitan planning organization responsible for doling out federal transportation funds.

On the one hand, it’s very encouraging to see official recognition of the reality that road capacity is a finite thing, and that expanding transit in the greater region is going to be vital to meeting our mobility needs. On the other hand, I’m going to be 79 years old in 2045, so my expectations are necessarily modest. Gotta start somewhere, I guess.

Coming back to the US90A rail extension

Lots of talk, and a case for action sooner rather than later.

HoustonMetro

A Metro rail extension from southern Houston to Missouri City is gaining momentum, fueled by rare near-unanimous support from local, state and federal officials who represent the area.

The hope is one day whisking commuters from Fort Bend County into the Texas Medical Center and other nearby job hotspots. But as the rail project picks up speed, a few officials worry the transit agency might get ahead of itself, to the detriment of other possible bus and rail improvements as money and resources perhaps shift to the rail line.

“I don’t know that I see it as being the next project,” said Metro board member Lisa Castaneda, who urged officials to slow down on some aspects of studying the rail link and soliciting possibilities for private investment in it.

The issue earlier this week touched off a sometimes-contentious exchange between Metropolitan Transit Authority board members, though most were supportive of moving forward with some of the rail plan. Still, even those eager to advance the line stress Metro has not made any final decisions, and still has no firm way for how to pay for the line despite vocal support from U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and John Culberson, R-Houston.

[…]

At a Metro committee meeting last week, board members had what one called a “spirited” discussion about potential private investment in local commuter rail projects. The discussion was prompted by a request for information prepared by Metro staff, which could be circulated to gauge interest in development deals.

Metro board chairwoman Carrin Patman said while staff was authorized to release the request without board approval, she sought their input before sending it out. The action, however, was delayed when board members, primarily Castaneda, chafed at moving ahead.

While not opposed to the rail line – as it requires much more study – Castaneda balked at some of the eagerness other board members showed to press ahead and seek proposals from private developers interested in joining with Metro for a Missouri City rail line.

“I am not optimistic we are going to get a back a product that doesn’t require a lot of commitment from Metro,” she said.

Patman countered during the discussion that transit officials won’t know their options unless they explore them, especially when local elected leaders are eager to press ahead. Mayors, including those outside the Metro service area such as Stafford Mayor Leonard Scarcella, have offered full-throated support for the line for more than a decade.

“The lost capital of not doing something… is going to send I believe the wrong signal, and I believe a very costly one,” Patman said.

Green, who has committed to use his role in Congress to muster support and potentially federal money for the line, said “it is my hope that the real prospects for this continue to move forward judiciously as well as expeditiously.”

See here for some background. The main issue here is how to pay for this line, as for once there’s basically no political opposition. Metro has no more funds available from the 2003 referendum, and the short-term budget outlook is not optimal. Metro could float another bond referendum, but I can’t see them doing so until they have a full rail package put together to vote on all at once. There would likely be some federal money available for this, but that would not cover the whole thing. Metro will have to come up with something, which includes the money needed to do environmental impact statements. There’s also the question of how this would work inside Fort Bend County given that Fort Bend is not part of Metro. (Look for my interview with County Commissioner Richard Morrison next week, as this question will come up with him.) A public-private venture is certainly one option, one that we may also consider when and if a rail line connecting the proposed high speed rail terminal to downtown happens. I’d like to see this line get built – it makes a lot of sense, and we did vote for it back in 2003 – but I want it done in a way that works for Metro as well as for the potential riders. Let’s keep this moving, but don’t rush it. Get it right and go from there.

RIP, Lone Star Rail

This really does appear to be the end of the line.

On a 17-1 vote late Monday, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board decided to kick off a two-month process to remove from its official 25-year transportation plan the proposed 117-mile rail line from San Antonio to Georgetown. A final vote will have to be taken in October, but the tenor of the discussion and the lopsided vote made it clear that Lone Star will soon be history.

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero voted no. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and TxDOT Austin district engineer Terry McCoy abstained.

“We are going to look for real solutions up and down (the Interstate 35) corridor and stop living in a fantasy land,” said Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, who chairs the CAMPO board and carried the motion to oust Lone Star from the transportation plan.

In the intervening 60 days, at Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s request, TxDOT and local officials will take one last stab at trying to get Union Pacific — whose rail line runs through the heart of the Austin-San Antonio corridor — to come back to the negotiating table. For its entire history, Lone Star’s focus has been on using the UP line for its commuter service.

[…]

The resolution approved Monday also asks TxDOT to direct Lone Star to stop spending money on an $8 million environmental impact study of the line. If that occurs, Lone Star — which after $30 million of spending produced various engineering and financial studies but yielded no real progress toward funding the line — would be out of business.

It will almost certainly occur, a TxDOT official said Monday evening before the vote.

“If they (the CAMPO board) make that local decision to remove the rail line from the plan, we will sit down with the Federal Highway Administration and Lone Star and figure out how to conclude the environmental process,” said Mark Williams, TxDOT’s deputy executive director. “Which, in effect, would mean a ‘no build’ conclusion.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Lone Star Rail had worked all along to get Union Pacific to agree to share its freight tracks for its proposed commuter rail line, and when UP finally said No, there was no plan B. It’s a shame it’s come to this, because the idea of commuter rail between Austin and San Antonio has a lot of merit, but in the end Lone Star Rail could not get it done. There’s always the hyperloop plan, so keep hope alive. CAMPO member Cynthia Long and the San Antonio BizJournal have more.

UPDATE:: The Current offers a small bit of dissent.

More on commuter rail to Fort Bend

The Chron picks up the ball.

HoustonMetro

In a blog post for Off the Kuff, a local progressive politics blog, former Fort Bend Democratic Party chairman Steve Brown said now is the time for local officials to form a commuter rail district. Under state law, the district, if formed, could work with Metro to develop the line and apply for grant funding.

“Adding a commuter rail district would ensure better local accountability and avail us to more options to secure private investment, issue revenue bonds or even impose taxes to finance this project,” Brown said.

[…]

Rail districts are not unique to the Houston area. The Gulf Coast Rail District – which spans a large part of the Houston region – has a host of freight and passenger rail projects in mind, though it lacks funding for many of its major projects. Gulf Coast is already empowered to act as a commuter rail district, said its executive director, Maureen Crocker.

In fact, Crocker said, Gulf Coast is preparing for more study of a freight rail bypass in the same rail corridor around U.S. 90A that Metro is exploring for its rail line. The freight bypass could make commuter rail along the tracks more likely, as it could address concerns by freight haulers that passenger trains would delay their operations.

Though a regional rail district has a role, Brown said he envisions Metro working with a more focused commuter rail district to develop the 90A line.

“I feel pretty strongly that empowering an entity comprised of local Fort Bend community and business leaders to take the lead on this project is the only way to ensure that it happens,” he said.

Importantly, a dedicated district could be a conduit to increased state investment, he said.

Always happy to help move the conversation along. I’m also happy to have the Gulf Coast Rail District involved, whether as the lead entity or as a component. Whoever is at the rein, let’s get started on a vision for where this line ought to go, and what action is needed by the Legislature to facilitate it. State a vision, get stakeholders behind it, and let’s get moving.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Metro revives US90A commuter rail line

The possibility of it, anyway. No promises or commitments at this time.

HoustonMetro

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday approved a resolution authorizing transit officials to “place” the project in the “Federal Transit Administration process” and look for ways to pay for it. When officials essentially placed the project on inactive status in September 2012 after spending $1 million on feasibility studies, it was estimated to cost about $400 million to build the rail line.

Board members stressed restarting the project was not tacit approval of it, or a promise for a single dollar toward building it.

“I just want to make sure we are clear,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said. “This is to allow the possibility of federal funding, but isn’t a commitment.”

Since voters approved the project in 2003, plans for a train line along U.S. 90A from south Gessner Road to Metro’s Fannin South rail station south of Loop 610 have been the exception among Houston’s contentious rail plans. For example, unlike intense opposition to a proposed rail line on Richmond Avenue that has been a point of contention among lawmakers, the 90A project enjoys robust support from Houston officials, elected officials in smaller cities and the area’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who represents the southwest Houston area where the rail line would run, has long called it one of his district’s top transportation priorities.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who has been a constant opponent of the Richmond rail project, last year said the 90A line should be Metro’s first priority once it has sufficient money for rail projects. Culberson’s office on Thursday did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

[…]

In reviving the dormant rail project, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said it was important to gauge support for it and move forward. Technically, as the project remains approved by voters from the 2003 referendum, Metro officials can talk to federal transit officials anytime about its prospects.

“I don’t think it was absolutely necessary,” Patman said of the fresh resolution, “but I wanted to involve the board in the decision. I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page.”

The vote, she said, was “a clear mandate for us to get back in the process.”

How to pay for the project, Patman said, will be worked out later. “There is no financial commitment to this point,” she said.

Patman says later in the story that a public/private partnership is possible. We’ll see how that goes. Another question is how much preliminary work would have to be re-done. Metro had been working towards getting a Draft Environmental Impact Statement as recently as 2012, but the project was put on hold in September of that year (the “Current Projects page” on Metro’s website that used to document it and that had announced its suspension no longer exists). There’s also the question of whether the line would have to end at the Harris/Fort Bend County line or if it could be extended (at greater cost) into Fort Bend County. Metro would need to seek legislative approval to expand into Fort Bend, which ought to be doable but is never a guarantee. All of this is to say we’re a ways off from anything happening. I’m glad to see this step being taken, but it’s very much the first step of a long journey, if indeed we embark on that journey.

One more thing: As you know, since Metro reached its detente with Rep. Culberson, I’ve asked about the status of his promises to help change federal laws to allow Metro to apply some funds it has already spent on other rail projects as matching funds for the proposed US90A line. I asked Carrin Patman about that at the meeting a group of us bloggers had with her some weeks ago. She said that Culberson did indeed work towards making that happen, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. C’est la vie, I guess. Perhaps he can try again now, or try some other tactic to help Metro move forward on this. I hadn’t written anything about Metro rail projects since then, so I wanted to note here that he did keep his word on that. KUHF has more.

My vision for Metro: Expansion

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses
Part 2: Marketing itself

One of the things that new Metro Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about is a regional transportation plan, to get everyone – including cities and counties not currently involved with Metro – to agree on what transit is and how we best go about doing it in a way that serves the greater region’s needs. I am fully on board with this idea, and my purpose today is to discuss a few specific ideas towards that end. My assumption throughout this post is that Metro can and should take a leadership role in this discussion. One can argue for an organization like H-GAC to take the lead, but I see them as more of a facilitator. Metro is the dominant transit provider in the region, and any meaningful regional plan for transit necessarily goes through them. They need to be the driving force to make things happen.

To me, the first principle in a regional transit plan is that it should be possible for anyone in the region – and I am talking about the ten-county greater Houston region that H-GAC covers – to plan and execute a trip on any transit line, from any point of origin and to any destination – from a single app or website. That includes mapping out the trip, estimating total trip time by the published schedules, and paying for the fare. It shouldn’t matter which agency or agencies are involved – any transfers, whether inter- or intra-agency, should be seamless. All you as the transit customer need to do is say that you want to start here and end there, and the rest is made available to you.

The first step towards this is for every transit agency in the greater Houston area to make all of its data available for the other agencies to use. Routes, schedules, fares, alerts, outages, whatever else – put it into a standard format that can be shared and used by applications. The city of Houston has done a lot of work to make its data available, so there’s an example to follow. Metro undoubtedly has the most data to make available, and likely also has the most IT resources at its disposal, so they ought to take the lead on this.

Once the data has been made available to all, the next step is to thoroughly review it, to see what obvious holes exist and what simple things – relocating a station, adjusting a schedule, and so forth – can be done to fix them. See Raj Mankad’s story of taking transit from Houston to Galveston for an example of what I’m talking about.

Now it’s time to build all that data into an app so that people can plan their trips. And as long as that is being done, there may as well be a parallel effort to allow for payment from within the app. Metro is already developing a smartphone payment system, so this shouldn’t be a stretch. The bonus here would be for the app to allow for payment on any system. Along those same lines, Metro Q-cards should be accepted as payment on any other regional system, with a reciprocal agreement in place as well. (*) I know there are reasons why so many different transit systems exist in our region. All I’m saying is that if we really want a regional transportation solution, as Metro appears to want, then we need those differences to be made transparent to riders.

So that’s the goal, and the path to meeting it. I think about this on the days when I take the bus home, because the stop where I pick up the 85 is also a pickup point for various Woodlands buses. I don’t have a need to go to the Woodlands, but if I ever did I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own what I need to do to get there. If Metro and its peer agencies get this done, I wouldn’t have to.

Finally, any discussion of expansion needs to include the fact that Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend County. That becomes an issue if and when the promised US 90A commuter rail extension – you know, the one that our buddy John Culberson made some promises last year to help get moving – gets funding. That line makes a lot more sense if it can be extended into Fort Bend, but that can really only happen if Metro operates in Fort Bend. For that to happen will take legislative action, and possibly a local referendum; I’m a bit unclear on the exact details. The legislative part I am sure of, and we know how dicey that can be, and how long you have to wait for a second crack at it if at first you don’t succeed. Getting started on that sooner rather than later is probably the better way to go.

(*) – When you think about it, why shouldn’t Metro’s Q-cards work on Via and DART and every other transit agency in the state? The EZ Pass we bought from HCTRA pays for tolls anywhere in the state. Why shouldn’t this also be the case for transit agencies? I’m just saying.

Lone Star Rail reboot: It’s all about the money

Isn’t it always?

The message was clear: If San Antonio-area officials aren’t willing to commit millions of dollars to planning a regional passenger rail line, Austin-area officials will reconsider their financial commitment to the project.

The Capital Area and Alamo Area metropolitan planning organizations met Wednesday to discuss the status of a proposed passenger rail line known as LSTAR and what role the agencies should have in it. The project, which would connect San Antonio and Georgetown, recently suffered a setback when Union Pacific pulled its tracks from a possible route.

In February, UP nixed the Lone Star Rail District’s proposal to use the company’s freight line tracks that parallels Interstate 35 for passenger rail service. The district, a government-funded agency that represents counties, cities and organizations in the I-35 corridor, is in the midst of an environmental study that has focused heavily on that route.

The district’s board met last week to discuss alternate routes — which could include building new tracks parallel to I-35 or Texas 130 — and voted to continue the environmental study by examining those options. But several officials at the joint MPO meeting expressed concern about the effect UP’s decision could have on the cost and timeline of a project that already has been under discussion for more than a decade.

“The financing of it is really a big question mark,” said Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, vice chairman of the Alamo Area MPO. “We’ve already done a lot of work (on planning). Will we be able to utilize any amount of that data in choosing a different alternative?”

In 2007, the Alamo Area MPO set aside $20 million for the passenger service. Those funds, reserved for final design, right-of-way acquisition and construction, have not been spent yet.

In 2011, CAMPO also gave the district $20 million, nearly $12 million of which has been spent on planning the line. The board debated freezing the remainder late last month but ultimately decided to take a closer look at the project and reconsider the issue in June.

Hays County commissioner Will Conley, CAMPO’s chairman, said the board’s final decision on the matter could depend on whether the Alamo Area MPO agrees to foot some of the costs of planning the rail service. He said that commitment would demonstrate San Antonio-area officials’ confidence in the direction of the project.

“There are a lot of us — a majority of us — on the CAMPO board who have lost a lot of confidence in where we’re currently at,” he said. “Are you comfortable with the status quo? If you’re comfortable with the status quo, we would very much like you to make a commitment on the rest of the environmental document.”

See here and here for the background, and click over to the Express News story to see a map with the different route options specified. If the Union Pacific decision to not allow LSR to use its right of way is the death knell for this project, then the planning organizations’ eventual decision to reallocate funding will be the shovel and dirt to bury it. If they vote to keep the funding going, then there’s still a chance. We’ll see how it goes.

Lone Star Rail: Not dead yet

Just a flesh wound, actually.

The decision by Union Pacific to end its working relationship with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) in February, was a blow in efforts to develop a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin.

But in a special meeting Friday in San Marcos, district directors reaffirmed their commitment to find a solution to growing traffic congestion along the Interstate 35 corridor.

The district’s board of directors voted 12-1, and asked the organization to continue its current Environmental Impact Study process, and ensure that the process includes all alternative options.

[…]

LSRD board members, in a special meeting, went over the progress of the district’s environmental impact process and current list of options. The district did pause work on the alternative involving UP, and moved onto focusing on exploring other options.

Many board members said Union Pacific’s choice to stop working with Lone Star Rail was disappointing, but that they hoped the company would return. The completion of the impact study is crucial to the project, because it would enable future funding, including federal money. The district expects to finish the environmental impact process by 2018.

John Rinard, senior programs director at Parsons Corp., an international construction and engineering organization, told the board that Union Pacific has a history of taking part in large-scale transit projects elsewhere in the country only to step back or withdraw altogether. In some cases, UP would return to a project.

“What you’re experiencing is not unique in the business world,” Rinard said, adding that rail companies such as UP are often concerned about project factors such as liabilities.

[…]

Rinard suggested that the Lone Star board, which includes several elected city and county leaders from all along the I-35 corridor, assert its political will and press forward with its goal of passenger rail.

“I wouldn’t say stop,” he said. “I cannot see them walking away from the project permanently. It’s a fantastic project. It has all the good points.”

Other alternatives being evaluated by LSRD include using the State Highway 130 corridor, the abandoned MoKan rail alignment, and new right-of-way parallel to the Union Pacific mainline, as well as hybrids of these options.

See here for the background. I have no idea how badly UP’s pullout affects the long-term likelihood of this project, but it can’t be good. I have always believed the concept has merit, but if they can’t use existing tracks, the price tag may well be too high. We’ll see if the governments that had been involved in this so far remain on board or not. The Statesman and the Current have more.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

Lone Star Rail setback

Bummer.

Union Pacific dealt a major blow to a proposal to connect San Antonio and Austin with passenger rail by pulling one of its tracks from a possible plan.

UP ended its agreement with the Lone Star Rail District to study the feasibility of running passenger trains on a freight line that parallels Interstate 35. The idea underpinned the district’s plans to build the passenger rail line, known as LSTAR, between San Antonio and Georgetown.

The agreement, signed in 2010, allowed UP and the district to study the corridor and the possibility of relocating the freight line. But Jeff DeGraff, spokesman for Union Pacific, said the district’s proposals didn’t adequately address concerns about how the passenger rail would affect the company’s freight operations.

“We chose to cancel the (agreement) and move forward with other projects and other things we need to deal with,” he said. “We just don’t think they’ve been able to come up with an arrangement that’s suitable for the needs of freight railroad as well as a passenger railroad.”

[…]

Bill Bingham, an attorney with the Austin-based law firm McGinnis Lochridge, said UP announced its decision in letter Tuesday. His firm represents the district.

“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “We thought really that we had been able to answer any concerns they had as we were proceeding.”

The district is in the midst of an environmental impact study that examines several possible routes for the passenger train, and Bingham said it could revise the plan if the UP tracks stay off-limits. But the UP tracks were the district’s best chance of advancing a proposal more than a decade in the making.

“That is really not a good thing,” said District 9 City Councilman Joe Krier, a longtime proponent of the passenger train. “You have to have an agreement with UP at some point to have access to their right of way.”

The decision could be a major setback in the district’s plans to secure a public-private partnership to establish the service. Several cities, including San Antonio, have put money toward planning the train service, but the district lacks the $2.4 billion needed to build it and relocate the UP route.

See here and here for the background. It’s a shame, because this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, it’s a financial one. You’re not going to find a road-based solution to add capacity between Austin and San Antonio for $2.4 billion, and SH130 has clearly demonstrated that rerouting traffic around those cities has plenty of problems as well. Building a rail line in this increasingly populous corridor – remember, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Georgetown are also growing like gangbusters – makes a lot of sense. This ought to be doable with a combination of local, state, and federal money. It sure would be nice if we could figure it out. The Statesman, Austin Business Journal, and KSAT have more.

More on the Gulf Coast Rail District and the high speed rail line

The Chron reports on the story.

Officials with the Gulf Coast Rail District, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Texas Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transit Authority are involved in a comprehensive planning study of rail, generally in the Washington Avenue and Interstate 10 area.

The study, building off numerous previous reports and research by the agencies, is intended to provide a template for how to develop rail between a site at or near Northwest Mall and the former downtown post office.

The study could be persuasive should local officials want to encourage the Federal Railroad Administration or Texas Central Partners, the sponsor of the Dallas-to-Houston rail project, to rethink extending high-speed rail service to downtown, said Maureen Crocker, the rail district’s executive director.

“Really, time is of the essence at this point,” Crocker told rail district officials about changing the high-speed rail plans.

[…]

A 2012 study commissioned by the rail district found that commuter rail along the U.S. 290 corridor would carry an estimated 5,960 riders in 2035 without a direct connection to the central business district. With access to the urban core, ridership increased to 22,580 per day. The study did not examine the effect of the connection on intercity trains.

[…]

Though they were absent from earlier discussions, Metro officials now are engaging in the process. Metro is by far the region’s largest public transit agency and the only operator of passenger rail in Houston, apart from national Amtrak service.

“For such a study to be successful, Metro has to be a full working partner,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, the transit agency’s appointee to the rail district.

The various agencies, including Metro, also have different priorities. Even among those interested in a rail link, the demand and types of traveler vary. Metro must consider the needs of all transit users, not just those hopping off high-speed rail, board member Christof Spieler said.

See here for the background. The involvement of Metro is good to hear, as they’re the only outfit that would be capable of operating such a train line, were it to come into existence, and because if you’re going to do something like this you may as well make it as useful as possible. Like, make it have useful stops along the way at places where people would want to go and where connections to bus lines exist. Remember, the two endpoints of this hypothetical train line are themselves hubs – downtown is obviously a locus for lots of other transit options, but so is/will be the Northwest location, which has a park and ride lot now, will have an Uptown BRT station in a couple of years, and may also serve as a stop for a commuter rail line, all in addition to the high speed rail line. You can see why there might be a lot of interest in this. There’s a lot of potential benefit at stake here, so let’s get it right.

More rail options being studied

This caught my eye last week.

The Gulf Coast Rail District says to make the system viable the train needs to come into downtown, or there has to be some sort of commuter rail option that would link downtown with the high-speed line.

The Rail District now wants to study the possibility of a rail line along the I-10 corridor that would get passengers close to the downtown Amtrak station.

Gulf Coast Rail District Executive Director Maureen Crocker says a train could possibly run on the median or along the embankments. Crocker adds if the high-speed rail line doesn’t have an easy connection into downtown it could cause problems for everyone.

There’s not much more to the story, and to say the least this raised more questions for me than it answered. So, I reached out to Ms. Crocker with my questions:

Are the endpoints for this simply the proposed high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610 on one end and downtown on the other, or is there more to it than that?

The study will be focused solely on the segment you reference. It is important to note that GCRD has been in discussions with TCR about the operation of regional rail service below the HSR structure it will build. Previous studies completed by GCRD have indicated that regional rail ridership triples if the rail continues to downtown from the Northwest Transit Center area near Loop 610. GCRD has studied regional rail to Hempstead in essentially the same corridor that TCR has identified. In addition, TxDOT has studied an extension of the regional rail corridor to Austin using abandoned freight rail ROW and rail ROW owned by Cap Metro. Maximizing the synergies of the HSR corridor and the regional rail corridor will be a win-win for the Houston region.

I-10 does not have a median inside Loop 610, so I am confused about where this might be located. Can you be more specific?

Several options will be evaluated including an elevated structure between the eastbound and westbound lanes of IH-10 east of Loop 610. More options will be identified during the initial phase of work. TxDOT will be very involved in this effort.

I realize that this is barely even in the embryonic stage, but if this goes forward in some fashion, who would be responsible to build it?

It is too early to predict what a final partnership will look like. Agreements are being developed for this phase of work to be led by GCRD and H-GAC with strong participation from TxDOT, METRO and the City of Houston.

Are there other possibilities under consideration? I’m thinking of the “Inner Katy” light rail corridor that was part of the 2003 Metro referendum as such an alternative.

The focus of this phase of work is to determine the feasibility of a direct, nonstop rail connection from Loop 610 to downtown for HSR travelers, regional rail commuters, and local commuters for whom the Loop 610 station is convenient. All parties will be at the table to coordinate related planning efforts. Future phases of this work could address more localized distribution from the Loop 610 station such as the proposed Inner Katy LRT service.

So there you have it. Still a lot of details to be worked out, and who knows how long this all might take, but I do have a clearer idea of what’s being discussed. I noticed the mention of commuter rail in there as well, which is another point in favor of the HSR station being located at 290 and 610, as well as another argument for finishing the link into downtown. I’ll be keeping an eye on this, I’m very interested to see how it goes. My thanks to Ms. Crocker for her helpful answers.

Lone Star Rail District to ask SA Council for funding

Not so much for now, but over time there will be real money spent.

Officials with Lone Star Rail District (LSRD) have asked City Council to allocate up to $500,000 in the city’s 2016 fiscal year budget to help fund staffing and consulting services in anticipation of the $2-3 billion passenger rail project.

Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) project supporters see the project as a means for commuters to avoid congested roads between San Antonio and Austin and the potential for economic development and higher educational opportunities in one of the fastest growing regions in the nation.

LSRD officials made their case for initial funding during the Council’s B session on Wednesday. The plan includes improving the existing Union Pacific railroad that runs parallel to Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin for passengers at an estimated cost of $800 million. LSRD would first build a $1.6 billion freight line east of San Antonio that would take on the freight traffic of the exiting line. These one-time capital construction costs would be funded by state and federal grants as well as the private sector. But first, it needs assurances from municipalities along its route from San Antonio to Georgetown, just north of Austin, that they will pay for continued maintenance and operations of each stop.

The idea is to pull 18,000 vehicles, or 20,000 people, off I-35 daily. LSRD proposes 16 station locations, including six in the San Antonio area, one in New Braunfels and one in San Marcos. The inner city locations would be Loop 410 at the San Antonio International Airport, the University of Texas at San Antonio Downtown campus, Port San Antonio, and Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

“It’s a very big, complicated infrastructure project,” said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the LSRD Board of Directors representing San Antonio. “You can’t solve all of the congestion and the risks it poses to the economic vitality in our region by pouring more concrete alone. Lone Star Rail alone won’t solve all the transportation problems in this region, but it’ll be a very important part of the solution. We’re going to have two million more warm bodies along this corridor in the next 25 years and we need a way to move them.”

At full capacity, there could be up to 32 trains running per day, including midday and evening service in each direction for commuters, students and other regional travelers – depending on demand. The system would support a 75-minute express service from downtown San Antonio to downtown Austin with stops in San Marcos and New Braunfels. LSRD promises modern, safe passenger cars with wireless Internet access, especially beneficial to business travelers and college students.

If all goes well, San Antonio’s $500,000 initial contribution in FY 2016 would consist of funds from the City’s general fund budget and property tax revenue derived from Transportation Infrastructure Zone (TIZ) around the LSR stations.

There would be continual financial commitments each year over the duration of a 36-year funding agreement, which would accompany a 36-year TIZ agreement. LSRD officials pledged not to seek any other funds from San Antonio’s proposed FY 2016 budget. Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni explained that in 10-year increments, from 2021 to 2051, TIZ funds would cover most of the annual funding commitment with San Antonio.

Financing for the entire system is supposed to be split among San Antonio, Austin, and a coalition of seven “smaller” yet major cities along the LSR route, including Schertz and New Braunfels. LSRD estimates that annual funding for the system could reach $75 million by 2050, split among participating cities and taxing entities.

See here for some background. The LSRD still has some gaps in its long-term funding plan, and they’re still working on getting other cities to pony up, but that ought to be solvable. I support this project and I absolutely agree that just pouring more concrete will not solve the region’s mobility problems, but I’d like to see the LSRD aim a bit higher on its ridership numbers. Eighteen thousand cars a day off the road isn’t nothing, but it’s less than half of what the SH 130 boondoggle is currently doing. Maybe they’re being conservative in their projections, or maybe they need to add more trains so the service is more frequent, and figure out how to pay for that. Maybe they need to pay more attention to the question of how people get to and from the stations to their destinations. Whatever the case, this region needs a robust solution.

Lone Star Rail faces Council vote in San Antonio

It’s a big step.

While there is little opposition to the idea of a commuter rail line (the LSTAR) between San Antonio and Austin, the City takes serious pause when confronted with the yearly costs of operation and maintenance.

But there are no tax or fee increases on the table, [Lone Star Rail District Director Joe] Black explained. “And we have not asked any city to make a dollar commitment.”

Instead, LSRD has been working with municipalities to form Transportation Infrastructure Zones (TIZ) unique to each city. The zone would establish a perimeter around each station – there are five proposed so far in San Antonio – and a percentage of property tax increases within the zone would go directly towards LSRD’s operation and maintenance costs.

Where are these property tax increases coming from? The stations themselves, as the property value surrounding them will, almost certainly, rise as the amenity comes to the neighborhood. Most agreements, like the one with San Marcos, also includes a sales tax revenue contribution. Austin City Council approved a 56-year agreement, with commitment stipulations, in December 2013.

LSRD is currently working with City staff on an agreement unique to San Antonio, but will likely have the same elements of agreements with other cities, Black said. The cities of Kyle, Buda, and Round Rock have yet to draft final agreements. Georgetown, New Braunfels, and Shertz city councils will likely vote on final agreements in August. Once local agreements are met, LSRD will be hunting for investment from federal, state, and private entities to foot the $2-3 billion bill for the commuter and freight lines. Once the Environmental Impact Statements are complete, and the new freight line relocation is complete, then work can begin on the commuter rail.

If all goes as planned, Black said, the LSTAR will begin trips in 2021 or 2022 – about 17 years in the making.

Interstate 35 is one of the most congested interstate segments in the U.S., most of which is because of commuter and truck traffic. About 80% of Mexico’s trade with the U.S. and Canada comes through the bottleneck on I-35. More than 9,000 accidents occur between San Antonio and Georgetown, the LSTAR’s northernmost stop, resulting in about 100 deaths per year.

“The LSTAR could provide the (transportation) equivalent of eight additional highway lanes (four lanes in each direction),” Black said. “The space implications are huge — moving more vehicles isn’t going to do it, we have to move people.”

The 118-mile commuter line would utilize existing Union Pacific lines, but not until after a new freight line is constructed in the east – a critical step for the LSTAR operation. While local freight will still use the old line through San Antonio, regional freight will be diverted to the new line, freeing up time and space for the LSTAR to provide reliable, frequent trips.

[…]

Black said there will also be consideration for bicycles on the LSTAR. Connecting the stations to transportation options that complete that “first mile/last mile” portion of travel – like bikes, bikeshare, rideshare, or bus transit to get to final destinations.

See here for the most recent update. I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays out as the vote approaches. LSRD is going to need federal money to make this happen – I suppose they could be in line for some state money, but I don’t have much belief that TxDOT will do anything – and they will have a much easier time making a case for themselves if the cities along the way have all bought in. I’ll keep an eye on this.

The future of Fort Bend transit

Public transportation in Fort Bend County has grown quite a bit since its inception, and there’s a lot of potential for future growth if the pieces can be put into place.

On Tuesday, county leaders, staff and transit partners gathered in Richmond to celebrate the rapid evolution of the Fort Bend Public Transportation Department since it was formed 10 years ago. They marked projects that moved from the initially limited efforts of the 1990s, which benefited a few hundred people a month, into a system that serves tens of thousands of riders. Leaders also talked about what might be next for public transportation in the suburban county west of Houston.

“In 2003, we were providing 300 rides per month,” Patterson said. “This last six months, we transported 33,000 rides per month.”

This year, the transit department will create a master plan to outline priorities and possibilities through 2040, coordinating with the roads department to anticipate future needs.

“Where is the growth going to be in Fort Bend County? Will it be residential or commercial? What will the overlay of transportation needs be?” Transportation Director Paulette Shelton asked, listing the core questions to be considered as the plan is developed. “We pull out 37 buses every day to do service. If I look ahead five years, we’ll probably be around 60 or 70 buses.”

How the system expands will depend on “where the development happens and the needs in the cities,” she said.

County Judge Bob Hebert said he does not intend for the county to ever operate a major bus system with fixed routes, but still expects to add new services. The future of the department will hinge “to some extent on where Harris County goes,” he said.

Because Fort Bend’s future is linked to the wider region – with about 60 percent of residents working in Houston, according to Census figures – many transportation and roads projects will require coordination with Harris County and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro.

Hebert said the most common question about public transit that he is asked is, “When are we going to have commuter rail?” He compared the undertaking to the construction of Fort Bend toll roads.

“They have to be tied into a bigger system,” he said. “When Harris County started building the Westpark Tollway, our Westpark Tollway became viable. It gave you a path somewhere people wanted to be in large numbers. We will not put in rail until we know for certain there is rail coming out to the Harris County line.”

Commissioner Richard Morrison lists a commuter rail out to Missouri City and along Highway 90 as a top priority, but said a more practical concern must be considered first: funding.

Here’s the FBPTD website. Note that their buses are “demand response service”, which means you call at least a day in advance to schedule a stop by your house or wherever, and they take you where you want to go as long as it’s within their service area. Sounds an awful lot like the Flex Zones in Metro’s reimagined bus network, which have caused so much anxiety. I wonder how well this service has worked for Fort Bend. Might be nice for their to be some reporting on that, to get a better feel for what Houston Flex Zone riders might expect.

As for commuter rail into Fort Bend, that may well hinge on the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, as working to secure funding for that line was among the goodies Rep. Culberson promised to work on. The Lege may need to get involved to authorize Metro to operate in Fort Bend, but if there is a plan in place to get that rail line going, I would expect such authorization to be a formality. Mostly, I’m glad that this is such a persistent question for Judge Hebert, as that is surely a key component to moving this along. For now, I’d say the ball is in Congress’ court, and there is some motion (finally) on a transportation bill, so we’ll see what happens.

The Chron on how Metro and Culberson came to an accord

Read all about it.

HoustonMetro

Houston’s buses don’t run at 2 a.m., but that’s when Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson began to see real movement toward a deal to improve area transit service.

“We got really intense one night and literally worked line-by-line,” Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Gilbert Garcia said last week, explaining how months of on-and-off talks helped Metro leaders and Culberson overcome years of distrust and division.

“There was a point where the congressman said, ‘Gilbert, we’re there,’ ” Garcia recalled.

Culberson, a Republican, credited Garcia with breaking through a long history of distrust by acknowledging errors in previous Metro plans and focusing on areas where transit officials and suburban politicians could find agreement.

Last week, Garcia and Culberson inked a deal that puts aside the bitter fight over rail along Richmond Avenue. The agreement delays that issue until after voters get a chance to weigh in, which could be years from now, and instead identifies other projects Culberson can help the transit agency bring to fruition.

Both said they feel confident about this deal. In the past, Culberson and transit officials have spoken of cooperation, only to resume lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another a few months later.

“It’s in writing,” Culberson said of the new agreement.

The deal, described by Garcia as Metro’s “grand bargain” with one of its staunchest critics, is hailed by both sides as a big win- a clear delineation of what each will do for the other.

The cessation of hostilities gives Houston a chance to secure federal funding for projects caught in the crossfire of Culberson’s refusal to open a door for a Richmond Avenue light rail project and Metro’s attempts to make the Richmond line the region’s next signature rail project.

Much of this is stuff we already know, especially if you listened to my interview with Gilbert Garcia and/or Houston Matters’ interview with Culberson. There is of course the question of whether you believe this is for real or not – the Chron expressed a fair bit of skepticism in a recent editorial – but as I said, this is how it is with every contractual agreement ever. Either you believe the other side will do as they say or you don’t. The one piece of new-to-me information in the Chron story was the involvement, on Metro’s behalf, of Republican lobbyist and former Rick Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. I don’t know what to say about that except that politics really does make for strange bedfellows, and lobbyists really are like roaches in the sense that they’re everywhere whether you can see them or not. For now, I hope the next thing to say about any of this is to hail the news of funding being secured for each of those projects that the agreement touched on.

Now how much would you pay to drive on that toll road?

How about ten bucks each way at peak times, beginning on May 30?

Toll rates on the I-10 lanes, also known as the Katy Managed Lanes, will increase as officials seek to ease congestion by reducing use of the lanes during peak hours through a process called congestion pricing. The rates will go up by as much as $1.20 at each of the three tolling points along the 12-mile route. The price of a complete trip will jump from $7 to $10 at peak commuting times.

Officials said the increase was necessary to reduce congestion and to encourage people to find alternatives to driving.

“This is the only tool we have to manage the congestion on the lanes,” said Lisa Castaneda, deputy director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority.

[…]

The goal is to have 1,800 to 2,000 vehicles use the HOV lane and the same number use the toll lane each hour. Prices are set to achieve that.

Castaneda said at the current rate of $3.20 at Eldridge and $1.90 at Wilcrest and Wirt during peak commutes, about 20 percent more vehicles are using the lanes than optimal. More people will choose alternatives such as public transportation or a car pool if tolls are higher, officials said.

[…]

Setting prices to create incentives for using transit is common in other major metro areas struggling with traffic. Tunnels and bridges in many places have extremely high rates based on huge demand. The George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland tunnels in New York cost $13 one-way for access to Manhattan.

It might not match New York demand, but traffic is choking I-10, despite a $2 billion widening project that made the freeway the nation’s widest – 26 lanes when local frontage roads are included. At the spot where the HOV and toll lanes end near Post Oak, more than 338,000 vehicles use the freeway each day, according to 2013 Texas Department of Transportation figures.

“The only tool we have been using is to pour more concrete,” Castaneda said.

In 2003, before the widening work began, about 215,000 vehicles used the freeway outside Loop 610, according to TxDOT figures.

Further relief along the route is likely to come from people choosing other options, something Castaneda said the toll increase was meant to encourage.

I’d been wondering how traffic today compares to traffic pre-widening. Look at it this way: There were four outbound lanes on I-10 from 610 in 2003, three free lanes plus one HOV lane. It’s a little harder to get a handle on it now because lanes come and go, but it’s something like five plus the two toll/HOV lanes. That means in 2003, there were 54,000 vehicles per lane, and today it’s 48,000. All that for $2.8 billion. Did we get our money’s worth or what? And remember, all those extra cars are helping to clog up the Loop and I-10 inside the Loop and I-45, not to mention the surface streets that connect to I-10. I know, the growth in the area meant a lot of that traffic was coming whether we widened I-10 or not, but as people were arguing at the time, we could have done things differently to allow for some of those “other options” – commuter rail, more park and ride lots, who knows what else. But we poured a bunch of concrete, and now a decade later we’re right where we were before we expanded I-10, with far fewer options going forward. What we do now, I don’t know. But maybe this time more people will listen when we say we need options beyond more concrete. The Highwayman has more.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, after numerous delays, will christen the Green and Purple lines Saturday with free rides and community celebrations, just in time for Memorial Day. The openings signify the end of a long, sometimes painful journey that tested nerves and frustrated supporters and opponents alike.

Officials are encouraged the process has led to greater understanding of rail among supporters and opponents. Prospects for additional rail in Houston brightened late last week, meanwhile, with the announcement that Metro had reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, softening the language Culberson added to a transportation bill to block a long-planned line on Richmond that was part of the same 2003 referendum that led to the Green and Purple lines.

Completing construction is hardly the end of the discussion about rail and its place in Houston, however. How efficiently the new lines operate, and how well they serve the residents, students, workers and travelers looking for an alternative to driving, will determine if the political fighting and price tag were worth it for Houston area taxpayers and Metro riders.

If riders flock to the lines, elected officials and transit board members agreed, it could wash away the stain of political infighting and many missteps – including a controversy over buying American rail car components that threatened hundreds of millions of federal dollars, a botched design of a signature downtown station, repeated delays and a failed attempt to build an underpass along Harrisburg that nearby residents preferred.

A lackluster rollout, weak community support and a rash of accidents as drivers adjust to the new trains could give currency to critics’ predictions of a boondoggle “danger train.” Metro officials acknowledge the opening is a huge opportunity for the agency, but they warn that nothing goes perfectly.

“There are going to be accidents,” chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “But those in my view are not the litmus test. There are accidents on (U.S.) 59.”

[…]

Officials point to the extension of the Red Line, from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons, as an indication of the demand. Since the 5.3 mile extension opened in December 2013 its ridership has exceeded expectations and continues to grow.

March light rail ridership was 12.5 percent higher than March 2014, while overall bus ridership dropped by 3 percent. Even accounting for bus lines the train replaced, rail is carrying more riders, and its expansion north has meant more people can make direct trips downtown and to the Texas Medical Center.

It’s been a long road to get here. Some of that is Metro’s fault and some of it isn’t. The Main Street Line and the North Line extension have both been very successful, easily reaching ridership milestones well ahead of schedule. I am confident the new lines will do the same, even more so for the Harrisburg Line when its extension is finished. Should we continue to build on to the system – if we extend the Main Street Line out to Fort Bend and into Fort Bend via US90A, if we build the Universities Line to connect the current system to Uptown, if we build an Inner Katy Line, perhaps to connect a high speed rail terminal to downtown – who knows how big an effect we can have. We’ve already been more successful with this than we thought we could be. There’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

Lone Star Rail District update

Haven’t heard from these guys in awhile.

According to [Lone Star Rail District], the [proposed rail line] will provide essential relief from the I-35 highway congestion. The express trip from downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio would take 75 minutes.

Completing the project, however, crawls slowly forward as the approval for the train involves several different counties, including Austin, Bexar, Travis, Hays and Williamson.

In January of 2015, the LSRD hosted several informational events in both Austin and San Antonio with the intention to gain support for local and state funding of the project.

The rail system will cost taxpayers roughly $1.7 billion.

[…]

The Texas Department of Transportation has already given their consent for the project to move forward, and the LSRD has formally “kicked off the federal environmental process” according to an email sent in September of 2014 from a staff member of LSRD, Allison Schulze, to Alamo area officials and advocates of the project.

The LSRD intends to transform an existing Union Pacific rail line into the commuter line. Thus, in adhering to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal government will evaluate and improve the safety of the rail for transporting people.

LSRD, in an report with KVUE news, states if kept on schedule the project from now until finish will take about 5 years.

The last update I had on this was back in January of 2012. More recently, as that KVUE story from this January notes, the LSRD held a series of public information meetings, which is part of the environmental review process. Last December, the Austin City Council voted to support the funding to maintain and operate a regional passenger rail line, which is obviously a big step. That story indicates that this approval is contingent on a “legislative decision to tweak a state law” as well as an agreement from Union Pacific to share its tracks. No clue what the “legislative decision” is about – I presume it’s a bill that needs to be passed to allow for funds to be spent on a project like this. One hopes it will meet less resistance than the Texas Central Railway has met.

I should note that a travel time of 75 minutes is about what it took to drive from Austin to San Antonio 25 years ago, when much of that stretch of I-35 was farmland. I doubt one can drive it that quickly any time during the day now. Note that there would be multiple stops along the way, so we’re not talking express service. I presume this also means that several other city councils, in places like Schertz and New Braunfels and San Marcos and Buda, will have to take similar votes to approve funding for maintenance and operations. A five year timeline seems awfully optimistic given all the things that could go wrong, but I’m rooting for them to succeed.

Metro board seeks to expand

It’s change that has been anticipated since the 2010 Census data was released.

HoustonMetro

With all indications pointing to more people in the Metropolitan Transit Authority service area living outside Houston than inside the city, Metro officials are asking to accelerate a state-mandated expansion of the transit agency’s board. The change would mean more members appointed by Harris County and smaller municipalities and a dilution of Houston’s majority control of the board.

“I believe this region is ready for this to be a regional agency,” said Allen Watson, Metro’s vice chairman. “This is the time to do it.”

The board is made up of nine members – five appointed by Houston, two by Harris County and two by the smaller 14 cities included in Metro’s service area, covering 1,303 square miles. That composition has been in place since 1982, when, by state law, the Metro area population grew to warrant four non-Houston slots.

The next step would be an 11-member board, with the county getting another appointee, and the chairman’s post shifting from Houston to a choice made by the 10 Metro board members. Houston would continue to have five appointments.

A board expansion would be triggered once the population outside Houston within Metro’s area is larger than the city’s population, as calculated by the U.S. Census. The balance nearly shifted as part of the 2010 decennial census.

Rather than wait for the official census in 2020, Metro officials – working with state lawmakers – are seeking to speed up the transition, saying it is the right way to apportion transit power in the area, and something they will have to do eventually. State laws govern how transit boards are organized, so any early move to an 11-member board would take legislative action. State Rep. Garnett Coleman and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both Houston Democrats, have filed bills to help Metro make the move.

The legislation also would clear up some hiccups in board rules and procedures, setting deadlines for cities and Harris County to make appointments and staggering terms so board members rotate in and out annually. Board member terms still would be two years, with a maximum of eight years.

[…]

The change also would allow Metro to pivot to serve an increasing demand for service to and from suburban communities into the city, which comes with more non-Houston seats at the table, said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

“There needs to be additional focus on commuter rail, versus what you see in downtown,” Radack said. “Right now, Houston has total control, but the service area and needs are bigger than that.”

Radack balked at the idea more county-chosen Metro members would dilute and weaken core transit service.

“I don’t think the move needs to be away from what’s been going on with Metro,” he said. “I think it needs to be expanded.”

See here for some background. At that time, this was seen as a way to shift power on the Metro board, which a lot of people including me th0ught was detrimental. As this story notes, Metro is in much better financial shape and there’s a lot less tension between it and Harris County. As such, everyone is on board with this, and it’s being seen as a way to expand service, not move things around. As Jay Crossley, who also had some concerns, said in the article, it’s a good thing if more people see themselves as represented by Metro and want to have access to its services.

Not part of the scope of this issue but worth asking anyway: Is it a good time to bring up the issue of expanding Metro’s service area, to include places like Fort Bend? If there is momentum again to build some commuter rail lines, including the US90A line that could and should go into Fort Bend, it would be nice to have that piece of the puzzle in place. Maybe that’s too complex a thing to deal with now, and maybe there are good reasons to wait till other business has been conducted, I don’t know. I just thought I’d ask, and this seemed like as good a chance as any to do so.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

How about high speed rail plus light rail?

Now here‘s an interesting idea.

More than 200 people turned out Thursday to voice their concerns over the proposed track of the High-Speed Rail (HSR) train that would take travelers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes.

“I think that the HSR is a great solution for inter city travel but I believe it doesn’t really have to go into the Central Business District,” said opponent Tammy Merrick. “I believe we’re too congested in the routes they’ve selected.”

As of now, one of the two proposed routes cut through the heart of the city near Memorial Park.

“Our neighborhoods would be further separated by this massive infrastructure that is necessary to put in to track a high speed rail system,” said Super Neighborhood 22 President Tom Dornbusch.

[…]

Opponents of the plan even offered an alternative route, suggesting that the tracks stop at the Northwest Transit Center outside the loop.

“We’re really urging Metro to step up and take a light rail line over to the Northwest Transit Center. That would take more folks to this high-speed rail train and would not disturb the urban neighborhoods.”

There are some big advantages to taking this approach instead of running the high speed rail line all the way into downtown. First, it turns one group of opponents into supporters. As this route runs west of Montgomery County it avoids that county’s demands, though that may trade one set of problems for another. The presence of the Uptown BRT line means that this station would be transit-connected to more than one business district; a downtown station would not be connected to the Galleria area unless the Universities line gets built. The presumably lesser right-of-way needs for light rail should make its construction less expensive than HSR would be along the same route.

How it gets constructed, and who pays for it is where things get complicated. An Inner Katy line more or less along this same corridor was on the 2003 Metro referendum, but it’s never been actively pursued and as things stand right now Metro would not have the resources to do it on their own. This corridor is also a possible route for a commuter rail line, meaning that there are three entities with a stake here – Texas Central HSR, Metro, and the Gulf Coast Rail District. There’s also a Super Neighborhood 22-produced Transportation Master Plan that gives possible design specs, though it’s now four years old and might need some updating. If the stars align, this could work very well and provide a lot of benefit. The question is whether Texas Central would be willing to finance, in part or in whole, something that wouldn’t be theirs but which would make what they’re building more valuable. I’d like to think there’s a way to make this work, and I hope there will at least be some discussion about it. If Texas Central prefers a different route that would make this moot, but if they do prefer this route then I hope this possibility will be on the table. I like it a lot, that’s for sure.

More concerns about the high speed rail route

Some people who live not far from me are not very happy about the high speed rail line possibly running through their neighborhood.

The prospect of a high-speed train crossing through First Ward into downtown Houston has residents scrambling to weigh in on the proposal.

“I’m completely opposed to this project. I believe we can work collaboratively, but I don’t think the infrastructure of our neighborhood should be destroyed,” says Alexandra Orzeck, whose home is next to existing rail right-of-way eyed as a potential route for Texas Central Railway’s “bullet train” between Houston and Dallas. Property she owns in Rice Military also could be impacted.

Many of her neighbors agreed during a recent meeting to discuss the project with TCR President Robert Eckels, who is a former Harris County judge and state legislator, and David Hagy, the company’s community outreach director.

[…]

Ideally, the train would enter Houston’s central business district and connect riders with other local transit, maybe even other high-speed routes. But the train route might end elsewhere, like on Loop 610 or even further out on Beltway 8, Eckels said. A draft environmental impact statement being devised now by the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation will factor into those decisions.

[…]

Local neighborhoods are particularly concerned since the rail company would have eminent domain authority to acquire property needed to build the high-speed rail.

Over the past decade, First Ward has enjoyed a residential and artistic renaissance. New, multistory townhomes continue to wedge their way into the neighborhood, which has a recently designated historic district. The well-known Winter Street and Silver Street artist studios helped establish a state Cultural Arts District here. More studios are coming soon.

Stakeholders say one of two preferred routes for the TCR project could bisect the Washington Avenue corridor on existing rail lines, either on Winter Street or Girard, where rail right of way is squeezed to 50 feet in some place. TCR has said it needs 80 feet.

Local leaders hesitate to support the other preferred route, too, because it impacts Near Northside neighborhoods. TCR should continue to investigate a third route that follows the Hardy corridor into downtown, they said.

Similar concerns are expressed in this Leader News story. A route along the Hardy corridor would make a Woodlands station feasible, so the folks here will have at least one set of allies in that quest. As we’ve discussed before, these are the same issues that will have to be dealt with if a commuter rail line moves forward as well. Of course, commuter trains don’t move at 200 MPH, so there’s that. At the very least, you’d want to review the Super Neighborhood 22 transportation master plan from 2010 that called for putting the existing freight rail tracks in that corridor into a trench to avoid at grade street crossings. It should be noted that Tom Dornbusch, one of the architects of that study, doesn’t think trenching would be sufficient to accommodate the high speed line; among other things, the corridor is too narrow, by Texas Central Railway’s own design specs.

Eckels mentions other possible locations for the line’s terminal, but putting it downtown really needs to be the goal. Just from a connectivity perspective, it makes the most sense. If that makes a Woodlands-friendly I-45/Hardy Toll Road approach the best option, then so be it. Someone will need to convince TCR and the state and federal officials of that.

The process of drafting an environmental impact statement will require TCR to respond to concerns including social and cultural impacts.

The process has been extended to Jan. 9. First Ward residents are asking that the railway administration schedule a public meeting in Houston.

That sounds sensible to me. Give everyone who would be affected the chance to have their say.

The Woodlands wants to be on the high speed rail route

Can’t blame ’em.

The Woodlands Township is urging federal and state officials to take another look at the potential benefits of adding a high-speed rail corridor along Interstate 45.

Last month, the Federal Railway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation revealed two potential routes for a proposed bullet train that could one day connect Dallas and Houston by rail, but neither of the routes under review would come down I-45 in fast-growing Montgomery County.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs and transportation manager for The Woodlands, said there is still time for it and surrounding communities to have some influence on the direction of the project.

“We’ve taken and written a letter asking them to reinstate the I-45 corridor for consideration and to think about it one more time and at least assess it before condemning it,” he said.

State and federal transportation officials recently narrowed the list of potential routes from nine to two. The excluded lines seemed a bit longer, which could prove more costly for a project that already has a price tag of more than $10 billion.

The route that local leaders wants transportation officials to explore is referred to as the Green Field Route. It would begin in Dallas and travel along I-45, passing through Huntsville and Montgomery County before ending in downtown Houston.

The interstate highway runs the length of Montgomery County, whose population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040.

Given the growth of the area, McKinney said, it may be wise to ask transportation officials leading the project to consider adding a rail station north of Houston, near the Grand Parkway and The Woodlands.

See here for the background, and click the embedded image to see all of the proposed routes. I can’t argue with the logic, and in fact in past conversations I’ve had with the Texas Central Railway folks, I myself have suggested that a Woodlands-area station might make sense for them. The two “recommended” routes were chosen because they were the lowest cost, which is a non-trivial consideration in a $10 billion project. A big complicating factor is how routing the trains along I-45 might effect the cost and feasibility of bringing the trains to downtown Houston, where the terminal ought to be and is most likely to be. One possible route into downtown involves the same corridor as a proposed commuter rail line along 290, which obviously isn’t compatible with a Woodlands-friendly location. I don’t know what the best answer is, and unfortunately not everyone can be accommodated. Good luck figuring it all out.

By the way, the Central Japan Railway Company, one of the backers of Texas Central Railway, recently began test runs of a maglev train that can reach 300 miles per hour. By the time this line is finished, it could provide an even quicker ride between Dallas and Houston. Yeah, I’m excited by the prospect.

Bringing the high speed rail line downtown

Building that high speed rail line from Dallas to Houston is one thing. Bringing it to a centrally-located terminal is another.

Plans for a high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas are moving relatively quickly beyond a recent initial round of public meetings. Questions about the route are dominating discussions.

Though still years away – a 2021 launch is predicted under the best of circumstances — backers of the privately funded train are making the rounds to drum up support. Thursday, they met with the Houston City Council’s transportation and infrastructure committee.

Based on preliminary maps, one of the two likely routes for the train within the Sam Houston Tollway has residents on edge. The option follows property near an electrical transmission line, then parallels U.S. 290 before hugging the Union Pacific Railroad line along Washington Avenue.

What has residents, and by extension their council members, worried is what the elevated tracks — one for each direction of travel — would do to nearby properties. Residents are concerned about whether buildings will be bulldozed to make way for the train.

“I do not see how that is accommodated in the existing right of way,” said Tom Dornbusch, president of the Super Neighborhood 22 Council.

Dornbusch and others have grave concerns about what the train would do to the Washington Avenue corridor, which has seen rapid residential and commercial growth over the past decade.

Northwest of Washington Avenue, council member Brenda Stardig said, the high-speed line could have far-reaching effects on the rural landscape along U.S. 290.

Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, president of Texas Central High-Speed Railway, said backers are conscious of the worries. Previous high-speed rail plans have been doomed by opposition, something Eckels said the current team is trying to avoid.

Eckels stopped short of making any assurances, saying the company would have to balance many factors in finding the best route. He acknowledged that any route within Loop 610 would prove complicated and costly.

See here and here for the background. No question that downtown is the right place for the Houston terminal, but getting the train those last few miles into downtown is no easy task. We’ve discussed this in the context of commuter rail, and the issues here are the same but bigger since the trains in question would (presumably still) be moving a lot faster. That existing track along Washington Avenue crosses major thoroughfares such as Shepherd and Heights at grade, which would have to remediated given the obvious safety risk. I don’t know what the best answer is, but I’m fairly certain that there is no answer that doesn’t upset someone.

Time to comment on the proposed high speed rail routes

Check ’em out, and tell ’em what you think.

Observers have long known that only a few options were available for the route of the privately funded high-speed train line between Houston and Dallas. Now a firmer picture of where the trains might run is emerging.

As part of the federally required process to evaluate the line, the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation released maps of the nine routes they are considering and the two chosen for deeper evaluation.

[…]

All follow rights of way of railroads, TxDOT or utilities, which is pretty standard for rail development. Those are the agencies or companies that own long, thin swaths of real estate that are relatively clear. Backers of the train, who are paying for the analysis, would acquire the property.

The route has long had support of elected officials in both metro areas, as well as state transportation leaders.

Looking at the southern end in the Houston area, the real decision — which could quickly get political — is which of the two preferred routes is the top contender. While the BNSF Railway option grabs a lot of Tomball area and then hooks along Loop 610 before coming south, the utility alignment connects with Cypress and follows the crowded U.S. 290 corridor in.

Both routes have also been prime candidates for commuter rail service, which Houston area officials have said would definitely complement any high-speed line, along with local transit.

See here for the background and here for more about those commuter rail proposals, which would be an enticing add-on for this project at some point. There were a total of nine routes proposed, but the embedded image shows the two that were selected for “detailed evaluation” – see here for the other picture. Public meetings begin tonight in Dallas, and continue through October 29 at locations along the potential routes, with the last one on the 29th at the NRG Center beginning with an open house at 4:30. See here for the full schedule and related information. Dallas Transportation and the Star-Telegram have more.

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.