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Gulf Coast Rail District

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

ONE OF THESE 3 spots revealed in a report from the Federal Railroad Administration will be the planned site for the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail line’s Houston terminal. All 3 are near the intersection of the 610 Loop and the BNSF rail tracks that run parallel to Hempstead Rd. just south of 290.

In the map at top, the station takes the land directly north of the Northwest Transit Center, where an industrial complex home to Icon Electric, Engineering Consulting Services, and others exists now. Hempstead Rd. is shown fronting Northwest Mall at the top of the plan.

Another proposal puts the station in the spot where the mall is now.

See here for the background, and click over to see the locations. We’ve known for some time that the station would be near the 610/290 junction, so now it’s just a matter of picking the precise spot. All three should be proximate to the Uptown line when it finally gets built, and of course there have been discussions with the Gulf Coast Rail District about connecting the line to downtown. So even after the final decision is made, there will still be a lot more to do.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

At City Hall, Houston and Texas Central Partners announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which commits both sides to share environmental surveys, utility analysis and engineering related to the project and surrounding area and work together to develop new transit and other travel options to and from the likely terminus of the bullet train line.

In the memorandum, Texas Central notes the likely end of their Houston-to-Dallas line will be south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610 and north of Interstate 10. The exact site has been long suspected as the current location of Northwest Mall.

[…]

The cooperation between Houston and Texas Central is no surprise. City officials, notably Mayor Sylvester Turner, have praised the project, with the mayor citing it among examples of his goal of reducing automobile dependency.

“We also look forward to the project’s creation of job opportunities and economic development,” Turner said in a prepared statement.

Here’s the longer version of the story. You can see a copy of the MOU here. I’ve highlighted the most interesting bits below:

3. Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees to coordinate with the City, Harris County, METRO, TxDOT, and GCRD to plan and create the design of the Hempstead Corridor. Texas Central agrees that the design of the Hempstead Corridor must preserve feasibility for high capacity commuter transit. Upon the submission of final approved design plans, and the final approved Definitive Agreements, the Mayor may present to City Council for consideration and approval a resolution or ordinance allowing Texas Central use of the Hempstead Corridor for the purposes contemplated by the Project.

4. Houston Terminal Station Intermodal Connectivity. Texas Central shall ensure the Houston Terminal Station is highly integrated with local transit systems. Texas Central will choose a location for the Houston Terminal Station for which a high level of integration with local transit systems is feasible. Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, GCRD, and other agencies as needed on the location and layout of the Houston Terminal Station and ensure the Houston Terminal Station provides convenient, efficient, and direct access for passengers to
and from local transit systems.

5. Houston Terminal Station Location. Texas Central has advised the City and the City acknowledges that Texas Central proposes to locate the Houston Terminal Station in the general area south of U.S. 290, west of Loop 610, and north of I-10. Texas Central will consult with the City prior to finalizing the location of the Houston Terminal Station.

6. Connections to Major Activity Centers. In order to minimize mobility impacts on existing mobility systems and enhance local transportation options, Texas Central will coordinate with the City, METRO, TxDOT, the GCRD, and other agencies as needed for the study, design and construction of connections specifically related to the Project to facilitate efficient multi-modal connections between the Houston Terminal Station and the City’s major activity centers. If Texas Central or the City engages a third party to provide services related to such study, design and construction of connections, the allocation of costs and expenses related to such study, design and construction of connections contemplated by this paragraph 6 shall be mutually agreed upon by Texas Central and the City prior to engaging the services for same.

First, this confirms what everyone basically knew, that the terminal will be at 290 and 610. Of interest is the terminal as an intermodal center, designed to connect people to other forms of transit, as well as the discussion of what those other connections will be. The Uptown BRT line will be one such connector, and then there’s the possible “Inner Katy” light rail line, which as we know from previous entries would involve all of the groups name-checked in point #6. Whether that is dependent on the next Metro referendum, which would likely be in 2018, remains to be seen, but I hope it means we start seeing some activity on possible design and routes for such a line. I’m excited by this. Swamplot and the Press have more.

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.

Still seeking a downtown connection for the high speed rail line

I’m hoping one gets found.

Texas Central Partners, the private firm proposing the Houston-to-Dallas line, briefed a city council committee Monday, telling officials they remain on track to break ground in late 2017.

“That might slide into early 2018,” said Shaun McCabe, vice-president of Texas Central Railway.

Any connection to downtown, which would likely require public funding, would be built later, said Holly Reed, manager of external affairs for Texas Central Partners.

[…]

“I am concerned there is a possibility of land-locking my district,” District A Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said, noting details have made it hard to determine the traffic effects the line will have.

The train line would run parallel to U.S. 290, Hempstead Highway and a freight rail line, which Stardig said could be too much for the area to overcome in terms of crossings and large impediments cutting the neighborhoods in half.

The lack of a downtown connection, meanwhile, continues to worry some officials, including [District K Council Member Larry] Green and Mayor Sylvester Turner. Houston Public Works has a pending request for proposals for an engineering firm to study the downtown link in greater detail. Green said the study would give Houston more information about the importance of a downtown link, which would then be turned over to the company so they can consider a possible link.

“It might make sense for them to do it,” Green said. “We as a city want to know what the impact would be and is there another way.”

Reed, the Texas Central spokeswoman, said the company would consider any alternative outside its own plans as “complimentary” to its own plans. She compared the Houston discussion to a similar conversation happening in the Dallas area, where a link to Fort Worth is being studied.

That extension, however, is predicated on public funding, Reed said.

I would point out that the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying this issue as well, and as noted in that first link if anything comes of this it would involve multiple entities, including the GCRD, H-GAC, Metro, TxDOT, and the city of Houston. How that would work, where such a connector would be located, who pays for what – those questions and many more remain to be answered. The point is that someone is at least thinking about them. As for TCR, their draft environmental impact statement is expected in summer or fall, and there will be public meetings after that, as there were with Metro and the light rail lines. I’m sure some of them will be quite eventful. The deadline for responses to the city’s request for a study of options connecting the high speed rail terminal to downtown is May 27. KUHF has 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.

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.

Bringing commuter rail into downtown

From The Highwayman:

290 Commuter Rail options

As has been reported, the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying the best possible routes for commuter rail in the Houston area, and one of the biggest challenges is bringing the trains into downtown. From the looks of the initial analysis of the U.S. 290 corridor, the trip to the central business district might have some unexpected stops along the way.

Relying on potentially available right of way, the analysis conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates found that the two most feasible routes from a hypothetical train station at 43rd Street and Mangum Road would largely rely on land next to existing freight rail lines, heading east, then south, or south, then east. The study involved finding a route where land would be potentially available without obstacles like buildings. Those who did the study also were tasked with avoiding flood-prone areas, environmental impacts and technical challenges. Officials also had to avoid affecting the major freight railroads, said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district.

One scenario would send the line eastward parallel to the BNSF Railway tracks, then south along land near where Harris County plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road inside Loop 610. From there, the trains would briefly use space next to the Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, into the Amtrak station near the downtown U.S. Post Office.

The other option would bring the trains south along Mangum Road and Post Oak Boulevard before heading east along Katy Road and then parallel to the Union Pacific tracks north of Washington Avenue and into downtown.

[…]

Commuter rail — not the light rail system that Metropolitan Transit Authority has built — would bring travelers from much longer distances than light rail would, connecting areas far outside the Sam Houston Tollway. If Houston ever developed a robust regional passenger rail system, Lott said, the potential northwest station could be the hub of up to eight rail lines, coming from as far as 100 miles away.

The addition of passenger trains could also revitalize the downtown Amtrak station, which only serves a handful of passenger trains each week. In other cities where transit and train service has led to increased traffic, train stations are experiencing a renaissance.

See here for the background. This conversation has come up before, most recently as I recall about a decade ago when one of the options was to bring the line through the Heights, along the former rail right of way that is now the White Oak bike trail. Needless to say, that’s not on the table. You can see the presentation with all of the routes that were considered this time at the link above. I don’t know much about the northern path that would go to the Hardy Toll Road right of way, but the Katy Road/MKT option would basically run along one possible path for the Inner Katy light rail line, if it ever gets onto a drawing board. It might make sense to build a station or two along the way for this configuration, given the population and employment locations along Washington Avenue. I just hope that if they do this, they consider doing something about the rail crossings at Durham/Shepherd, Heights, Sawyer, and Houston Avenue. Traffic gets snarled up enough with the infrequent freight train schedule; with commuter rail frequency it would be a nightmare, especially at Durham/Shepherd. I’m sure that will add another hundred million or two to the price tag, but come on. The need and the benefit are obvious.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

Environmental impact studies can begin for Texas high speed rail

Another step forward.

The Federal Railroad Administration published a document on its website Wednesday officially kicking off a highly anticipated environmental review of a proposed high speed rail line between Dallas and Houston.

The document, called a Notice Of Intent To Prepare An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), marks the start of a process that will involve public input on Texas Central High-Speed Railway’s ambitious endeavor, which aims to connect travelers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes or less. The company has said it plans to operate the country’s fastest and only profitable high-speed rail line without public subsidies. Company officials have been preparing for the federal review for more than a year and have quietly worked on the logistics of it with federal officials in advance, according to people involved in the discussions.

The EIS, which could take more than a year, will examine possible routes for the rail line and how each scenario would impact the region’s environment, including agricultural land, streams, floodplains and wildlife, as well as various federal regulations including the National Historic Preservation Act. The review will also investigate “the potential impacts of stations, power facilities, and maintenance facilities to support HSR operations,” according to the federal notice.

Local entities as well as the public have 90 days to submit written comments on the scope of the EIS to ensure “that all issues are addressed related to this proposal and any significant impacts are identified.”

The doc is here. As you may recall from the light rail process here in Houston, there will be public meetings, in this case organized by TxDOT and held in the affected area, which is more or less the I-45 corridor between Houston and Dallas, to present information about the project and allow for further feedback. This process will take some time and will if all goes well lead to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, a Final Environmental Statement, and a Record of Decision. How long that takes is at least somewhat proportional to how contentious or smooth the process is.

The Chron had a preview story from the morning before the Notice of Intent was published.

“It is now more than just talk,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District, which is supportive of passenger rail projects in the Houston area. “When they do this, it’ll give everyone a much clearer idea of what this is going to be, and lay out the plan that so far has been private.”

Robert Eckels, president of Texas Central Railway, the company proposing the line, said in a statement that the notice begins a process, “which, true to our overall philosophy, will be funded with private dollars.”

[…]

Initiation of the environmental process doesn’t lock public or private officials into anything, or set specific deadlines.

“Timelines for these kinds of projects vary widely,” said Mike England, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Public agencies, notably the railroad administration and Texas Department of Transportation, must conduct the review – including soliciting public comment and holding meetings in areas affected by the plan.

Crocker said the local rail district currently has a study examining how to bring passenger trains into downtown Houston.

“We’ve kind of kept the high-speed rail line in mind when we’re doing that,” Crocker said.

See here for my previous blogging on this, plus PDiddie and Texas Leftist for reports on a recent meeting some of us bloggers had with the TCR folks. The optimistic time frame for the start of construction is 2016. TCR will undoubtedly have a few wish list items for the Legislature next year as well, mostly to smooth out the state regulatory process, but nothing that is likely to be a big deal. I’ll keep my eyes open for announcement about the public meetings and will let you know when I know more about them. Dallas Transportation has more.

Railroad crossings

There are a lot of freight rail lines in the East End. Some big changes will be coming to them.

Railroad-Crossing

A series of underpasses and street closings east of downtown represents the latest effort to seal off railroad corridors and take vehicle traffic over or under the tracks, while closing off other roads.

“If you look at the plan we have … you’ll see every place we closed a road is by a grade separation,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

Eliminating crossings by separating roads and rail lines with overpasses or underpasses is the best solution, but also the most expensive, officials said.

“Anywhere a grade separation is done, you take away the conflict,” Crocker said.

Where officials can’t eliminate the conflict, they are working to make drivers more aware of the trains, or to cut off access.

Five grade separations and five road closings are planned along nine miles of double railroad track, known as the West Belt, that extends from northside neighborhoods to southeast of the Third Ward. Most of the projects are east of downtown.

At an estimated cost of $107.7 million, the closings and underpasses will create a roughly five-mile quiet zone where trains won’t blow their horns when they approach an at-grade crossing. That means fewer whistles for the 15,000 nearby residents, officials said.

Funding for the project will come from federal, state, local and railroad sources, Crocker said, and potentially involves applying for a competitive U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

There have been a number of collisions, resulting in 27 injuries and one death, at rail crossings in Harris County since 2010. In addition to the changes at these crossings, there will be billboards put up to remind people that trains take a long time to stop, so you really ought to think twice about crossing a rail line if there’s any question about your ability to make it safely. You wouldn’t think that would be something people would need to be reminded about, but it is. One hopes this will help.

Keep Houston Houston argues that street closures are a bad idea.

Basically, closing a crossing is like parking a freight train in front of the gates 24/7. This is true if there’s no alternative for miles, and it’s equally true if there’s an overpass or underpass a block a way.

Consider, for instance, the pending loss of Sherman Street. Right now there’s a bike trail that starts in downtown and ends one block away. But using Sherman you can keep going east, all the way to the Ship Channel, on a quiet, low-traffic, residential street.

What happens if you close Sherman? Sure, it’s only a two block detour over to Harrisburg. But Harrisburg is a big, noisy street, with through traffic and light rail trains. This can only discourage cycling. And how ’bout if you’re on foot? That two block detour represents about six or seven minutes of walking time. It costs about as much time as a one-mile detour in a car. And slowly, bit by bit, neighborhoods are cut off from each other.

It’s already happened in the First Ward. There used to be a nice quiet cut-through, Silver Street, that would take you from anywhere in the First all the way across Washington and down to Memorial. It was a great way to avoid the jam-up on Sawyer Street, or the racetrack on Houston Avenue, where HPD cruisers regularly hit 50-60mph on the way to and from headquarters. But now, it’s gone. Google shows the transformation. In Streetview, a nice straight shot. In 45-degree view, dead.

All of this is enabled by laughable “cost benefit analyses” that weigh the “benefit” of crossing closures in terms of the accident reduction without considering any “cost” other than $50,000 for the barricades, signing and striping to close the thing. Lost time due to cars taking a longer route isn’t considered. Lost connectivity for peds and bikes isn’t considered. Lost ridership and productivity on transit routes forced to detour is not considered.

If this same methodology was used on all transportation projects, the Interstate highway system would have a 10mph speed limit.

It’s a good point. Silver Street is in the Washington Quiet Zone, and KHH is right that there aren’t any good alternatives for non-car traffic now that it’s closed. I think the effect is less pronounced west of Studemont, but that doesn’t help anyone who used to bike on Silver. No question, under/overpasses are the best option, if you can pay for them. I sympathize with the folks in the East End, who have dealt with freight rail traffic for a long time. I hope this is what they wanted.

Hempstead commuter rail update

Here’s a look at how commuter rail along 290 might work.

Commuter trains from Hempstead to Houston could start running by 2019 if the Gulf Coast Rail District can secure $300 million and if Union Pacific Railroad lets passenger cars use its track along Hempstead Highway.

It would be the Houston area’s first commuter rail service between cities in at least 50 years and would help ease severe traffic congestion on U.S. 290, a major route for rapidly growing northwest Harris County.

At the outset, the service would operate only between Hempstead and Loop 610 near Northwest Mall. From there, express buses would carry passengers to four employment centers – downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria/Uptown area.

To succeed, however, the project must extend the track from the loop into downtown, according to a report on a year-long study by Klotz Associates and TranSystems. Commissioned by the rail district, the report was presented Tuesday to the board.

The study was commissioned last March. All of the documents related to the Hempstead rail project can be found here. The initial presentation was made last November. The report that was given to the GCRD this week is here. Of interest is that one of its operating assumptions is that the METRO Solutions Phase II plan has been “Fully Implemented” by the projected start date of 2019. It’s not clear to me if this includes the Uptown Line, which would conveniently have an endpoint at or near the Northwest Mall, which is given as one of the possible terminal locations for the Hempstead line. There is a slide with the title “Interim Terminal Bus Needs (Peak)”, which says two buses to the Galleria/Uptown area would be needed, so presumably at least at the outset the Uptown Line is not assumed to be in the mix.

I would think that having the Uptown Line running would have a positive effect on ridership projections – who wants to get stuck in traffic on a bus after getting off a commuter train? – but the study doesn’t explicitly mention that. What it does discuss is continuing the line into downtown, which would have a huge effect:

By 2035, the time reference used in the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s, regional transportation plan, the commuter service would see about 6,000 daily boardings without an extension to downtown.

If the track is extended, ridership is expected to jump to as many as 22,578 daily boardings by 2035.

I will note that the Super Neighborhood 22 comprehensive transportation plan explicitly discusses a commuter rail connection from Northwest Mall into downtown, so there is a basis for planning that extension. I’m sure the SN22 folks will be happy to talk to the GCRD about how this can be made to happen, with maybe a few of their other ideas thrown in for good measure.

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

From the Inbox:

East End community meeting to consider Harrisburg grade separation

Wednesday, June 15

Union Pacific’s East Belt rail subdivision is one of the busiest in the city, carrying more than 30 freight trains a day through Houston’s East End. For years, the crossing at Harrisburg has created delays and headaches for motorists and trains alike. The City of Houston first targeted this crossing for grade separation in 1953. Harris County recommended an underpass at this location in 2004. The Gulf Coast Rail District identified this crossing as a priority in 2009.

METRO is currently constructing the East End light rail line down Harrisburg. They must either go under or over the freight rail line, which poses a timely opportunity to finally grade separate the road and the freight line as well. The remaining questions are whether to construct an underpass or an overpass, how much it will cost, and who will fund the improvements.

For more than three years, East End business and neighborhood leaders have fought for an underpass. An underpass will be less obtrusive, require less right-of-way, and project less noise than an overpass, minimizing impacts to Harrisburg businesses. It will also will provide a neighborhood-friendly crossing that’s accessible to bicycles and pedestrians. They recognize that the success of METRO’s rail transit investment depends on creating pedestrian-friendly development around stations, and that an overpass is likely to stymie that process. The underpass proposal has widespread support from both businesses and residents in the East End, including:

  • Greater Eastwood Super Neighborhood (SN 64 & 88), Eastwood Civic Association, Houston Country Club Civic Association, Magnolia Pineview Civic Club, East Lawndale Civic Association, and Idylwood Civic Club
  • East End Chamber of Commerce, East End Management District, Harrisburg Merchants Association, and Historic Harrisburg

In 2010, the City of Houston commissioned a study to determine the cost differential between two overpass options and an underpass. The study estimates that an underpass will cost $43.4 million, or $13.4 million more than a vehicle overpass. You can review the draft executive summary (4.7 mb pdf) which explains the options but does not include final cost estimates. The City should release the final Harrisburg Grade Separation report this week. City leaders have identified some of the funds needed for the underpass, but a significant gap remains. There’s potential to defer other City capital projects to make up the difference, and also for Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman and Union Pacific to help close the gap.

Community meeting Wednesday!

On Wednesday night, Mayor Parker, Council Members Gonzalez, Rodriguez, and Noriega, and METRO CEO George Greanias will host a community meeting about the grade separation. You’re invited hear an update on the state of funding for the project, and have the opportunity to express whether other projects in the City’s capital improvement program (CIP) for the area should be deferred to help the underpass move forward.

What: Harrisburg grade separation update meeting
When: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Where: Ripley House, 4410 Navigation Blvd, Houston, 77011 (map)

I realize money is tight, but in the grand scheme of things $13 million isn’t that much, especially considering the benefit those extra dollars will yield. Everyone with a stake in this – the city, Harris County, Metro, the Gulf Coast Rail District, and so on – should do whatever it takes to get this right. Those of you who live in the area, please do your part and show up to tell them so. Thanks to the CTC for the heads up.

Department of rail-related corrections

Council Member Sue Lovell writes a letter disputing certain aspects of the recent story about Galveston commuter rail being off track.

Barry Goodman blames lack of a regional transportation policy as a big obstacle. The eight-county transportation planning region represented at TPC has begun review of commuter rail options with the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study that analyzed existing freight rail lines for their commuter service potential.

More importantly, Harris County and Fort Bend County joined with the city of Houston in 2007 to create the Gulf Coast Rail District. Since then, Galveston County and Waller County have joined, and Montgomery County Commissioners Court is expected to approve membership.

Each of these entities understands that the region cannot continue to rely on roadways for movement of goods and commuters. H-GAC estimates that the exceptional regional growth will double freight truck traffic, causing significant increases in congestion for all vehicles. New capacity will be required, and even the Texas Department of Transportation will admit that it cannot all be on roadways.

I disagree with Bill King, who was incorrectly identified as a current member of the TPC, when he asserts that rail projects “don’t add any extra capacity for cost.” Freight rail lines represent existing capacity that could be used for commuters.

It is incumbent upon regional officials to determine if, where and at what cost partnership with the railroads is a viable option. The Gulf Coast Rail District is charged with that responsibility for the region. Only when those costs have been determined can there be real discussions about how to pay for these projects.

Elsewhere, the Chron story that was the basis of this post about a more suburban Metro has been amended to include the following:

Correction: A story on page B1 of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle incorrectly stated the manner of appointment of new board members if the Metropolitan Transit Authority board were to expand from nine to 11 members as a result of the federal census. The Texas Transportation Code calls for one new member to be appointed by Commissioners Court and an 11th member, who would be the chairman, to be appointed by a majority of the 10 other members.

As we know, currently five members, plus the Chair, are appointed by Houston’s Mayor, with two members being appointed by Commissioners Court and two by the other cities. The change described, if and when it happens, isn’t quite the seismic shift that Commissioner Steve Radack made it out to be. The relevant statute is 451.502 of the Transportation Code, in particular subsection (e):

(e) In an authority having six additional members, the additional members are appointed as follows:

(1) two members appointed by a panel composed of:

(A) the mayors of the municipalities in the authority, excluding the mayor of the principal municipality; and

(B) the county judges of the counties having unincorporated area in the authority, excluding the county judge of the principal county;

(2) three members appointed by the commissioners court of the principal county; and

(3) one member, who serves as presiding officer of the board, appointed by a majority of the board.

So now you know.

A more suburban Metro?

Another possible feature of the Census data, of which I had not been previously aware, could be characterized as Metro redistricting.

The city of Houston could lose its majority control of the Metro board if the 2010 Census shows that population in the part of Metro’s service area outside the city limits has grown enough to trigger a provision in state law that calls for adding two seats to the Metro board.

Houston’s mayor has effectively controlled Metro since its 1978 creation through the authority to appoint five of its nine board members. Mayor Annise Parker demonstrated this power nine months ago when she replaced all five of the city’s appointees. The new board then installed as chief executive officer a former Houston city controller, George Greanias, who was the point man on transportation issues for Parker’s transition team.

No one is yet projecting that the demographic change will come to pass when the Census Bureau releases population figures for cities, counties and metropolitan areas in a few months. But recent county population trends suggest it’s possible.

The population of the county’s unincorporated areas has grown at nearly four times the rate of the cities over the past decade, according to a recent county study.

State law requires that 75 percent of county residents outside Houston must live within Metro’s service area before the transit board would expand to 11 members with six non-Houston seats. Numbers gathered from Metro and census estimates indicate that the percentage is already above 70.

Some local transportation experts say an expanded board is not likely to cause fundamental policy changes at Metro. But to Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, it could be a game-changer.

“If we got a new board over there that’s interested in things other than electric trains, we might be able to do a heck of a lot more mobility,” Radack said. “I believe Metro money should be spent on transportation.”

Radack suggested that a new board with greater non-city representation might not support plans to spend billions of dollars on five new light rail lines. Harris County spends its share of so-called general mobility payments from Metro on road projects, and the four commissioners decide how to spend that money.

Where to start with this? Metro has, of course, spent a ton of money on park and ride service to the suburbs. Maybe Radack doesn’t consider anything that isn’t a toll road to be “transportation”, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I’m always amused by the way that light rail critics like Radack and Bill King always manage to ignore the results of the 2003 referendum as they plot to get their hands on the funds for it. Just an inconvenience to be brushed aside, I guess.

Unfortunately for Radack and his grand plans, the Metro board has generally acted in unison, as noted in the story. And for the time being at least, the Board also includes people like former West U City Council Member Burt Ballanfant, who is both a strong light rail supporter and an inside-the-Loop guy. So even if the Census requires a change to the membership of the Board, it’s unlikely it will change direction.

Having said this, I wouldn’t mind seeing a change to Metro’s board if it were accompanied by a change to Metro’s service area, to see if places like Fort Bend County might reconsider joining in. Given the logistical issues involved in building a rail line to Fort Bend, it might make more sense to have them on the inside, if they want that. If something like that were to happen, then of course the Board structure would need to change as well. I’m just thinking out loud here, but between that and all of the other commuter rail talk that we’ve seen recently, it’s worth considering whether the structure we have in place is adequate. Yes, I know we have the Gulf Coast Rail District driving the metaphorical train on this, but you’re still going to need someone to build and operate any future commuter rail lines, and you’re going to need a way to properly fund that service. I don’t know what the optimal solution is here, I’m just suggesting we think about it.

Montgomery County wants in on rail district

Get on board, Montgomery County.

Montgomery County may join a regional rail group to upgrade freight lines and add commuter services throughout the Houston area.

“It’s time that we need to be a part of this,” said Commissioner Ed Chance of Precinct 3.

For the second time, Montgomery County Commissioners Court will vote on joining the Gulf Coast Rail District after first rejecting the plan in 2007.

The agency was created by the state Legislature in 2005 to enhance the economic benefits of rail while improving the regional quality of life.

The agency has identified $3.4 billion in freight rail improvements needed by 2035, when freight traffic is expected to double in the area, and nearly $3 billion to build five commuter rail lines out of Houston.

“It is something that everyone needs to do as they look at future transportation issues,” said Mark Ellis, chairman of the district

Among the projects being considered for Montgomery County is a commuter rail line, which would run from Houston to Tomball along Texas 249.

Montgomery County also would be a future stop for high speed rail lines that link Houston with Dallas and San Antonio, said Maureen Crocker, interim executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

This is a no-brainer in many ways. I don’t know what the role of the GCRD will be in eventually delivering these projects, but they will certainly have one, so getting Montgomery County involved with them makes all kinds of sense. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the tip.

Spieler on commuter rail

From the Offcite blog:

Wednesday, Mayor Annise Parker gave Christof Spieler, Chair of the Cite editorial committee, a big hug after swearing him in as a Metro board member. A picture of their embrace landed on page B3 of Thursday’s Houston Chronicle. It was a landmark moment for the Rice Design Alliance and Cite. Spieler joined the Cite team 11 years ago while still a graduate student at Rice, wrote numerous articles on Houston’s transit, and guest edited several issues. In the current issue of Cite (81), he contributed “Are We Setting Up Commuter Rail to Fail?” Written months before Spieler knew he would be appointed a Metro board member, it went to press before the announcement of his nomination by Mayor Parker but is now reaching mailboxes after his confirmation. This rare bird of an article is one last critical and independent analysis by Spieler, who because of his new position inside the system cannot speak without representing the city government and Metro.

That article, which drew on and combined a number of themes explored on his Intermodality blog, is well worth reading. The issue isn’t whether or not we do commuter rail, since at least for now there is a lot of political support for it, it’s whether or not we do it right. There are a lot of ways to do it wrong, and if we do we’ll be stuck with it. Go read what Spieler has to say, and hope we get it right. David Crossley has more.

The Hempstead line

Here’s another story about progress on a proposed commuter rail line, this one out US 290. A study to determine ridership on the line, which would go as far west as Hempstead, will be done.

The Houston-based engineering firm Klotz Associates will do the $715,000 study. The Gulf Coast Rail District got the money from federal stimulus funds.

The line as presently envisioned would start somewhere near the junction of U.S. 290 and Loop 610 and head north along an existing freight rail line.

In other words, the eastern end of this line would be proximate to the northern end of the Uptown line. Hold that thought for a minute.

The launch of the study is a milestone, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who is not a formal participant in the planning but has promoted it the commuter line as vital to the region.

“It’s a real step as opposed to people just talking about it, and real money is being spent to get this process moving,” Emmett said.

Part of the Klotz work is to determine whether what is known as the Eureka corridor line is a viable option. [Gulf Coast Rail District Board Chair Mark] Ellis believes it will be.

[…]

The Gulf Coast Rail District would also need to strike a deal with the Metropolitan Transit Authority because the commuter rail line alone will not complete most commutes.

Passengers delivered to the Northwest Transit Center near U.S. 290 and Loop 610 will need quick passage to downtown and other employment hubs.

I trust we can all agree that the value of this Hempstead line declines considerably if there is no Uptown line for it to connect to, and no University line for the Uptown line to connect to. Same for the ridership projections. I hope that Klotz presents different scenarios in its report, one with a fully functional rail system, and one without. I for one would not be surprised if the line isn’t feasible without this connection.

(Another scenario to consider is that someday Metro may finally get around to building the Inner Katy light rail line that was also approved in the 2003 referendum but not made part of the initial expansion plans. That, or at least one variation of it, would be the logical extension of the Hempstead line into downtown. Again, you have to figure that would have a positive effect on ridership numbers, which in turn makes the whole endeavor that much more worthwhile.)

But of course what we’re talking about now is whether, not when, the two U lines will be built because maybe Metro doesn’t have the money for them. I think by now you know where I stand on this. I’m bringing it up again as another reminder that the value in having a built-out rail system is bigger than just the light rail part of it. I have observed that commuter rail has a lot of support from people who aren’t fans of light rail. Some people argued before the Main Street line was built that we should have built commuter rail first. I have always felt that unless there’s something for those commuter rail lines to connect to, they’re not doing much more than what the existing buses from the suburbs provide. Each part has value, but sum of the parts, which maybe someday will include high speed passenger rail as well, is greater than the parts themselves. A letter to the editor that I missed in Saturday’s edition from Metro executive vice president John Sedlak about its bus service is beneath the fold. David Crossley and Andrew Burleson have more on related topics.

(more…)

Emmett on commuter rail

County Judge Ed Emmett’s op ed piece is one part an argument for commuter rail, and one part an argument for who should be in charge of it. I suppose the fact that he’s making that case is a good sign for commuter rail to actually happen – if we’re not talking about why but instead are discussing how, that would seem to indicate that “why” is a settled matter. That’s not really the case, of course – without figuring out who will lead the commuter rail effort, it won’t happen no matter how much it’s wanted. But at least it gives everyone something to work towards. Anyway, Emmett wants the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District to be on point.

No matter who manages regional commuter rail, it must tie seamlessly to the Metro light rail and bus systems. Not only schedules, but fares and other operational characteristics must work together. Metro officials have expressed an interest in developing commuter rail themselves, but that is unrealistic. Metro is limited in its jurisdiction and is widely viewed outside the city as being dominated by the City of Houston because a majority of its board is appointed by Houston’s mayor. Besides, Metro has plenty to do in completing its various approved light rail projects, plus a possible line into Fort Bend County.

The federal government, state government and the region’s representatives in Austin and Washington must know who speaks for commuter rail from our area. Just as in all transportation projects, much of the funding will come from the federal government, likely passed through the state. Getting funding for commuter rail should be a cooperative effort, not a competition.

Finally, Union Pacific officials have stated in writing that they want to work only with the Gulf Coast Rail District. No matter what anyone argues, the tracks in question belong to Union Pacific, and the railroad must be our partner in this effort. This will allow maximum coordination in bringing about improvements to the freight rail network while simultaneously converting freight rail tracks to commuter rail service.

Honestly, I don’t care all that much who wins this fight, as long as it all gets done. Christof lays out the pros and cons of each entity. I suspect some kind of hybrid will ultimately win out, since as Emmett notes any useful and usable system would need to tie into Metro anyway, and would thus need to integrate with it in some way. Again, as long as we get there I don’t much care about who drives. If we’re still arguing about that next year at this time, I’ll feel a lot less sanguine about commuter rail becoming a reality.

Don’t let politics get in the way of commuter rail

For once, we have a broad consensus about the need to build rail lines. Let’s please not let turf war pissing matches be an even bigger obstacle to getting them built than old-fashioned opposition ever was.

Three agencies are actively promoting commuter rail schemes: the city of Galveston, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the newly formed Gulf Coast Freight Rail District. The latter is a partnership among Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County; Waller and Galveston counties plan to join soon.

Political insiders say it’s urgent that all the jurisdictions come together — and soon — or risk jeopardizing Houston’s position in the national competition for federal dollars. Even with local political consensus and federal funding, most estimates are that it would take at least five years to get a system running.

“It’s probably past time to get all the boys and girls in the room and get on the same page,” said Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough. “So when we interface with the federal partners and elected officials, we don’t send them conflicted messages and they don’t have to get involved in local squabbles.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is backing the freight rail district, formed in 2007 to deal with freight rail congestion, especially around the Ship Channel.

The freight district has no funding, but expects $2 million in federal stimulus money. It will use that to study how to put commuter trains along U.S. 290 toward Hempstead, and along Texas 3 between Houston and Galveston.

The freight district has a close relationship with the primary local railroad, Union Pacific, which must consent if commuter trains are to use its tracks along 290 and 3.

Emmett argues that the rail district should lead, because it eventually will include all three counties between Galveston and Hempstead.

But critics suggest that Emmett is getting ahead of himself. And some see a duplication of efforts in the rail district’s use of stimulus funds to study commuter rail along Texas 3, when the city of Galveston is already conducting a study on that route.

I don’t really care who wins on any of this. What matters is that it gets done and that it gets done well. Ultimately, whether this all falls under the jurisdiction of one agency or multiple ones, they’re going to have to interoperate in a way that makes it convenient for a passenger to step out of one train and onto another, whether they be commuter rail, light rail or even high speed rail, which will hopefully be a part of this network in the future. As long as it all works and gets people where they need to go, the rest is just details. Christof, who was quoted in the story, has more.

Fixing freight rail

Good story about freight rail in and around Houston and its present and future needs.

The recession has eased the rail traffic problem temporarily, but transportation leaders warn the reprieve will not last. Houston’s population will grow and the widening of the Panama Canal could bring a massive influx of shipping containers to Houston’s port starting in 2014. Train freight could triple by 2035, according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a planning agency.

But clearing the blockages in the rail system will not be easy. “Everyone agrees the system is broken,” [Mark Ellis, chairman of the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District] said. “But there’s a lot of fear of change and people wondering who would pay for it.”

Freight railroads are private businesses, and the big players in Houston have already been spending money to upgrade tracks and switches and keep traffic moving through. But they want public help for the more expensive solutions, like building bridges to separate streets from railroad tracks. In exchange, the railroads may consider sharing their tracks or rights-of-way with commuter trains.

When interstate highways were built, many people thought railroads would wither away. Across Houston and elsewhere, rail corridors were sold off and developed. But now railroads seem poised for a comeback.

They have triple the fuel efficiency of trucks, and that makes them cheaper and less polluting.

In Houston, moving freight onto rail could help a lot with air quality: While commercial trucks account for less than 10 percent of vehicular traffic, they emit more than half the region’s nitrogen oxide (the primary ingredient of smog), according to the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

Freight trains could move more smoothly through Houston if there were bigger rail yards and fewer points where roads and tracks cross. The Ship Channel is also a big geographic barrier.

If you haven’t already, read this Washington Monthly article from January about investing in freight rail; see also this post by Christof. Ideally, some of the things that need to be done here and elsewhere would receive state and/or federal funds. I can see some of this happening at the federal level, if we ever get past the health care debate. It just makes a lot of sense.

Improving the freight rail network may also allow for more commuter rail.

Although it is done elsewhere, Union Pacific, which owns most of the tracks in Houston, would prefer not to share its tracks with commuter trains. “We would have concerns about the safety of commingling commuter and freight operations,” said Joe Adams, a vice president for public affairs. “And we have concerns about losing present and future freight rail capacity.”

That means that commuter rail along U.S. 90A is scarcely a possibility right now. That route, which would serve commuters in Sugar Land and other Fort Bend areas, is a critical Union Pacific route, bringing in containers full of Asian-produced goods from ports in California.

But two other freight lines have less traffic, and Union Pacific is working with government planners to free them up for commuter trains. One runs out the U.S. 290 corridor and one runs along Texas 3 to Galveston. TxDOT is considering granting $2 million in stimulus funds for two engineering studies on those routes.

“My goal is to have trains running in three years,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

That would be a huge accomplishment if it can happen. The pieces are coming together, though there are still a lot of issues, including getting the trains inside the Loop and connecting them to light rail lines. The story notes that there’s an abandoned freight rail line that runs through the Heights that isn’t being considered for use right now, as Judge Emmett doesn’t want to fight that battle. My understanding of this is that it wouldn’t necessarily be all that disruptive to the surrounding areas, but there would need to be a lot of communication done with the neighborhoods to get everyone to buy into the idea. I hope some of that happens while progress is being made on the rest of it. Christof has more.

Commuter rail update

Christof has some surprisingly good news for those who want to see commuter rail in the Houston area.

There hasn’t been much public movement on commuter rail since the HGAC’s study was released a year ago. But quietly, gears are meshing, and we may have commuter rail to Galveston and Hempstead as early as 2012.

On Thursday, the North Houston Association hosted a high-powered group: Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, METRO CEO Frank Wilson, Gulf Coast Freight Rail District (GCFRD) Chairman Mark Ellis, Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation (THSRTC) chairman (and former Harris County Judge) Robert Eckels, and Union Pacific’s Joe Adams. Introducing them was former Harris County Judge and State Senator Jon Lindsey, father of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. If there was ever a visual demonstration of the political will that’s aligning behind commuter rail, this was it.

Color me pleasantly surprised. As Christof notes, there are still some big questions to be answered about things like who would implement and run it, how much it would cost and how it would be paid for, and where it would connect to the existing Metro system and the city’s core, but just knowing that all these players are on board and pointing in the same general direction is reason for a lot of hope. From the interviews I’ve done so far, I feel confident that Houston City Council at least would be ready to work on this. Getting it in place would greatly enhance the existing Metro system, and would give momentum for the case to expand further. Keep yout fingers crossed.