Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Commuter Rail Districts

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.