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Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members voted Tuesday to ask voters in November for permission to borrow up to $3.5 billion, without raising taxes. The money would cover the first phase of what local leaders expect to be the start of shifting Houston from a car-focused city to a multimodal metro region — even if it does not put everyone on a bus or train.

“Even if you ride in your car, it is more convenient if there are less cars on the road,” Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

The item will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, the first vote for new transit projects in 16 years for the Houston region.

The bond proposition would authorize Metro to move forward on a $7.5 billion suite of projects including extending the region’s three light rail lines, expanding the use of bus rapid transit — large buses operating mostly in dedicated lanes — along key corridors such as Interstate 10 and to Bush Intercontinental Airport, and creating two-way high-occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy toll lanes along most Houston’s freeways.

“It doesn’t do everything we would like to do, but it does everything we can afford to do,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

In addition, the ballot item calls for extending the general mobility program, which hands over one-quarter of the money Metro collects from its 1 percent sales tax to local governments that participate in the transit agency. The 15 cities and Harris County use the money mostly for street improvements, but they can use it for other projects such as sidewalks, bike lanes and, in limited cases, landscaping and traffic safety and enforcement.

Local elected officials and business leaders will soon stump for the plan, which has not drawn sizable or organized opposition but is likely to require some persuasion.

[…]

Transit officials would also need to secure an estimated $3.5 billion in federal money, most likely via the Federal Transit Administration, which doles out money for major transit projects. Federal officials contributed $900 million of the $2.2 billion cost of the 2011-2017 expansion of light rail service.

The federal approval will largely dictate when many of the rail and bus rapid transit lines are built as well as where the projects run, Patman said. Though officials have preferred routes for certain projects — such as light rail to Hobby Airport or bus rapid transit along Gessner — those projects and others could change as the plans are studied further.

“Routes will only be determined after discussions with the community,” Patman said. “I don’t think anyone needs to worry about a route being forced upon them.”

Metro would have some latitude to prod some projects along faster than others, based on other regional road and highway projects. Speedier bus service between the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, for example, could happen sooner if a planned widening of Interstate 10 within Loop 610 remains a priority for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which has added the project to its five-year plan. Work on widening the freeway is scheduled for 2021, giving Metro officials a chance to make it one of the first major projects.

I must admit, I’d missed that HOV lane for I-10 inside the Loop story. I wish there were more details about how exactly this might be accomplished, but as someone who regularly suffers the torment of driving I-10 inside the Loop, I’m intrigued. This would effectively be the transit link from the Northwest Transit Center, which by the way is also the location of the Texas Central Houston terminal and downtown. This is something that has been bandied about since 2015, though it was originally discussed as a rail line, not BRT. (I had fantasies about the proposed-but-now-tabled Green Line extension down Washington Avenue as a means to achieve this as well.) Such is life. Anyway, this is something I definitely need to know more about.

You can see the full plan as it has now been finalized here. Other BRT components include a north-south connection from Tidwell and 59 down to UH, which then turns west and essentially becomes the Universities Line, all the way out to Richmond and Beltway 8, with a dip down to Gulfton along the way, and a north-south connection from 290 and West Little York down Gessner to Beltway 8. The Main Street light rail line would extend north to the Shepherd park and ride at I-45, and potentially south along the US90 corridor into Fort Bend, all the way to Sugar Land. Go look at the map and see for yourself – there are HOV and park and ride enhancements as well – it’s fairly well laid out.

I feel like this referendum starts out as a favorite to pass. It’s got something for most everyone, there’s no organized opposition at this time, and Metro has not been in the news for bad reasons any time recently. I expect there to be some noise about the referendum in the Mayor’s race, because Bill King hates Metro and Tony Buzbee is an idiot, but we’re past the days of John Culberson throwing his weight around, and for that we can all be grateful. I plan to reach out to Metro Chair Carrin Patman to interview her about this, so look for that later on. What do you think?

Still tweaking the Metro referendum

Extending one rail line to Hobby Airport instead of two has generated some savings in the projected cost, which can then allow for other things to be done.

The expected price of extending the Green Line and Purple Line light rail to Hobby Airport, by combining the two lines and focusing on a route along Broadway, dropped from $1.4 billion to about $1 billion, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said Friday.

Metro’s board is nearing a final vote on asking voters for permission to borrow $3.5 billion for a suite of transit projects, the first portion of the agency’s MetroNext long-range plan. Officials must approve a plan by mid-August and call for an election, in order to have it appear on the November ballot.

Likely projects for the ballot proposal include extensions of the Red, Purple and Green light rail lines, 75 miles of proposed bus rapid transit and various park and ride additions or expansions.

Because of the estimated $400 million savings, those projects could be joined by a $336 million extension of the light rail line from Hobby to the Monroe Park and Ride lot near Interstate 45, and relocating the Kingwood Park and Ride closer to Interstate 69, at an estimated cost of up to $60 million.

Both projects were popular with respondents during Metro’s year-long public meeting process about a long-range transit plan, and also have support from local elected officials.

The Kingwood site was an obvious choice, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, because it was affected by flooding when Tropical Storm Harvey deluged Houston. The existing site along Kingwood Drive also is time-consuming for buses to navigate, compared to a location closer to the freeway.

The Monroe rail extension, meanwhile, would provide a place for suburban residents to park and then ride the rail to various job centers.

“I think we have some conservative votes we won’t get if we don’t do it,” said Metro board member Jim Robinson, who has pressed for more investment in park and ride locations.

I have no opinion at this time about extending the rail line beyond Hobby. I’d be very interested to see what that does to the ridership projections, which to me are the most important factor. I’m also a little curious as to why this extra rail could be added at such a late date but the proposed Washington Avenue extension couldn’t be. Maybe because there was always going to be something at the one end and we were just trying to decide the details, I don’t know. I will admit to some self-interest in asking this question. Anyway, we should have the final proposition soon, and from there the real campaign can begin.

Metro still talking how to get to Hobby

At some point, we gotta make a final call.

Transit and city officials took turns Tuesday trading barbs over the best way to route light rail from Houston’s East End to Hobby Airport.

In a sometimes-testy back and forth, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos and Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman sparred over various scenarios to route rail from the Green Line’s terminus along Harrisburg near 75th to Hobby.

“You are destroying the East End and I am letting you know now I will not support it,” Gallegos said of one plan that would use 75th Street. “If you are going to do this, do it right.”

Patman later fired back that transit officials had gone out of their way to address the concerns, but some compromise was required.

“I have tried to draw them and it has blown up in my face,” Patman said of efforts to find alternatives.

See here and here for the background. There are a lot of considerations to balance, including how much property would need to be taken, what ridership numbers might look like, and how to connect to employment centers. There’s no solution that satisfies everyone, but Metro wants the best plan it can get that will not lose votes for the overall project. I wish them luck.

As rail in the East End remains under review, officials cooled on proposed plans for light rail along Washington Avenue to Heights. The proposal, advocated by the Houston Downtown Management District, would have extended rail service from Houston’s municipal courthouse near Memorial Parkway and Houston Avenue farther west, mostly via Washington Avenue.

The idea generated wide support among transit advocates, but Patman said it may be too late to add more rail to the plan voters will approve.

“We haven’t had a chance to fully vet it and I am not comfortable going to the community with something that is not fully vetted,” Patman said, noting some people have raised concerns.

I hope it’s not too late. This idea makes a lot of sense. Honestly, the biggest problem may be that just ending the line at Heights Boulevard will leave people clamoring to extend it further, and that may be too much to do right now. I’m okay with putting this off for a little while if what we can get in the end is the maximal extension that can be done. Table this for now if we must, but by all means get back to it ASAP.

Still working on the light rail options for MetroNEXT

The most interesting part of this discussion of where a proposed extension of the Green and/or Purple lines to Hobby Airport may go is unfortunately not on the drawing board at this time.

Speaking before the METRO board, District I City Council Member Robert Gallegos said he’s heard a lot of objections to one proposal that would take the train down 75th Street. He said he worries a rail line would interfere with a big park improvement project.

“We have a beautiful green space, Mason Park,” said Gallegos. “We have a master plan. I’ve met with community three times. They’ve had input on what they’d like to see at that park.”

Other proposals for the Hobby line would put the train on major thoroughfares like Broadway Street and Telephone Road. Board Chairman Carrin Patman said the challenge is finding the most efficient route along existing streets.

“The time to get to airports matters for people using it for that purpose,” said Patman. “The more zigs and zags you have the more time is added.”

At their May meeting, board members also viewed a proposal for light rail on Washington Avenue between downtown and Heights Boulevard, but that plan was presented only for discussion.

The Chron story has some more details.

The long-range plan already includes a 0.2-mile extension of the Green and Purple Lines from their western end in the Theater District of downtown to the Houston Municipal Courthouse. The new proposal, suggested by officials with the Houston Downtown Management District, would continue that extension further, likely by taking the line along Houston Avenue and then west on Washington Avenue. Additional stops would be at Sawyer and Studemont.

“I would be really curious what the ridership models will show,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

Officials stressed the proposal is being evaluated and is not part of the plan, yet.

“We’re looking at it,” Patman said.

With few specifics outlined, many residents of the nearby Sixth Ward, bordered by Buffalo Bayou and Washington Avenue, and the Heights cheered the possibility.

See here for the background. Dug Begley of the Chron tweeted what a Washington extension might look like. I like the idea, but I agree with the commenters who ask why stop there. I proposed what was then a stand-alone and now would be an extension of the existing Green and Purple lines all the way to the Galleria way back in 2009. None of this is remotely feasible now, and there would be engineering challenges even if it were politically and financially doable, but it would be high-quality transit through a part of town that could easily support it, and would offer multiple connections to high frequency bus lines as well as to the Uptown BRT line, which in turn could get you to the high speed rail terminal at 290 and 610. The idea is free if you ever decide to use it, Metro.

How many rail lines to Hobby do we need?

Maybe just one.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday agreed to plan on one light rail line to Hobby Airport, as opposed to the two initially proposed as part of the agency’s long-term transportation plan.

The first draft of the plan, dubbed Metro Moving Forward, included extensions of both the Purple Line and Green Line to Hobby. The proposal had the Purple coming from southeast Houston near MacGregor Park and the Green coming from near Gus Wortham Golf Course. The projects represented roughly $1.8 billion of the $7.5 billion Metropolitan Transit Authority plans to spend on major projects and improvements over the next 40 years.

Both of the light rail extensions enjoy support from local officials and residents along the planned routes to Hobby, but the plan of two routes to the same airport also drew criticism. Each of the routes also had skeptics, who noted the Purple Line would travel a loosely developed industrial area for part of the trip, while the Green Line’s straightest path – along Broadway – would anger some residents and force Metro to rebuild a street that the city spent money sprucing up for the Super Bowl in 2017.

[…]

Metro CEO Tom Lambert said staff will study the options and return to the board with a suggestion of which line to advance. Based on board comments, however, the Green Line had an edge. Terri Morales noted after driving the Purple Line’s proposed route, she felt there were many more clusters along the Green Line that made sense as potential stations and places where people would want to go.

Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman agreed, noting the economic potential of an East End line.

“I do not think the Purple route as currently designed to Hobby makes sense,” Patman said.

The primary selling point of the Purple Line is it would directly connect the University of Houston and Texas Southern University to the airport.

That potential left the Purple Line some life, in one scenario officials will examine. At the pressing of board member Sanjay Ramabhadran, Lambert said officials will also study if there is an intersection point where it makes sense to extend the Green and Purple light rail lines, then have one of the routes continue the trip to Hobby. That way, both neighborhoods have easier access, without the higher cost of two distinct rail lines.

“I want to see if we have that flexibility to make something work,” Ramabhadran said.

Officials have about three months to work out the details of a final plan, with the revised rail proposal, and then seek more public input. The long-range plan is tentatively expected to be approved by Metro’s board on July 29. The latest Metro can place an item on the November ballot is Aug. 19.

See here for the previous update. There’s more ground covered in the story, so go read the rest of it. I like the idea of finding a way to join the Green and Purple lines on the way to Hobby so that both can ultimately go there. Maybe that means extending the Purple line to Broadway to join it up with the extended Green line. Seems like the simplest solution, though whether it would be the best, or even a workable one, is one for Metro to figure out. We’ll know soon enough.

Can we share these lanes?

Metro is rethinking how the light rail lines run in parts of downtown.

Traffic woes and collisions along the newest light-rail lines in downtown have Metro leaders toying with the idea of backpedaling on their promise not to close parts of the lanes to cars.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new Green and Purple lines in downtown that run eastbound along Capitol and westbound along Rusk for about a mile continue to confuse traffic signal timing and drivers. The trains and vehicles have had several collisions in these shared lanes as drivers make turns, as well as enter and exit parking garages for downtown buildings.

Now Metro is – albeit cautiously – considering ideas to close the lanes to vehicular traffic where practical.

“There is zero intent to change this without getting a lot of input with the stakeholders,” board member Christof Spieler said, while acknowledging some changes may be needed to improve timing and safety for trains, drivers and pedestrians.

City officials, downtown business leaders and drivers, however, remain skeptical that dedicating the lanes to trains is going to be a solution.

“(Former Metropolitan Transit Authority CEO) Frank Wilson promised the community and the City Council that these would ‘never’ be train-only lanes in order to get agreement to allow them to operate downtown,” said Jeff Weatherford, deputy director of Houston Public Works in charge of traffic operations and maintenance.

I guess I’m not surprised there are issues with the trains sharing a lane with car traffic, but I did not know there was such resistance to the idea of separating the two. I suppose the entrances to and exits from downtown parking garages, which by the way can snarl traffic pretty effectively themselves, are a major obstacle to any kind of change. I’m sure there are some minor tweaks that can be made to improve things a bit, but more than that seems unlikely.

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.

When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.

But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.

What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.

Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.

[…]

The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.

Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.

There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.

The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.

First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.

“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.

Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.

Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.

Metro celebrates ridership increase one year after new bus network rollout

Leah Binkovitz reports.

HoustonMetro

From September 2015 (the first full month after the switch was implemented) to July 2016 (the most recent complete month), METRO saw its ridership on local bus and light-rail add an additional 4.5 million boardings — a 6.8 percent increase.

The numbers are more modest when looking at local bus ridership alone, which saw a 1.2 percent growth in ridership during that period. The light-rail system’s Red Line saw a more sizable 16.6 percent increase.

“METRO clearly views the buses and rails as an entire system, not separate entities, which is a really productive frame,” said Kyle Shelton, program manager at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “They are mutually beneficial and improving the service level on both will likely keep ridership going up.”

Shelton said the lower rate of growth for the local bus routes was unsurprising. “Many of the routes didn’t change that much for many people, and those that did may have resulted in loss of riders — so overall an increase is a good first step.”

[…]

Indeed, local weekend bus ridership is one of the new system’s strongest areas, continuing a trend that begun almost immediately after the redesign was implemented. From June 2015 to June 2016 — the most recent METRO has released more detailed ridership data — local buses saw a 13 percent increase in ridership on Saturdays and a 34 percent increase on Sundays, according to METRO, with similarly strong numbers for rail as well.

Local weekday bus ridership actually dropped over that same time period by 1 percent. However, a 14 percent increase in light-rail ridership amounted to an overall weekday ridership increase of 3 percent. The growth in rail supports Patman’s focus on the new bus system’s strong connections to the growing network of lines. And she said, there’s more to come for the system.

METRO’s data charts boardings, and not trips. Someone who transfers once – in other words, someone who takes two buses – is counted twice. This is because METRO relies on automatic counters on buses and rail cars for these numbers. Because the New Bus Network was intended, in part, to reduce the need for transfers, then theoretically that increased efficiency could also contribute to lower ridership figures.

Overall, total METRO ridership increased from 39.5 million boardings in the first half of 2015 to 42.5 million boardings in the first half of 2016. That’s an increase of 7.5 percent. Jarrett Walker, a consultant who aided with the bus network design, as well as METRO officials, have previously said the aim of the bus network overhaul was to increase ridership by 20 percent after two years of operation.

“We’re focused on better bus stops, more bus shelters [and] improved accessibility,” Patman said. The agency plans to ask for funding for 25 percent more bus shelters in in its next budget.

Spieler said the agency is also in the early stages of planning for more express service. “I’m really thinking of how we built on it,” Spieler said of the one-year old network. “One of the things we’ve talked about is adding more express service, adding more signature routes, [bus rapid transit] routes to sort of make trips faster,” he said. Those routes would likely strengthen major corridors, including along Westheimer Road, the Energy Corridor, downtown and the Medical Center. “That’s an overlay on the network and it’s really possible because of the network,” he said.

I don’t have a whole lot to add to this. We’ve been seeing the numbers as we’ve gone along, and they had all been pointing in this direction. I expect continued growth, with jumps possible when the Harrisburg Line extension is finished and (assuming it doesn’t get sidetracked) the Uptown BRT line debuts. The other BRT possibilities that Christoph Spieler mentions are exciting, if not yet formed. In the meantime, focusing on better bus stops, and the sidewalks around them, will go a long way towards ensuring this trend continues. Well done.

On a personal note, I can say that I take the bus a lot more often now than I did a year ago. I work downtown and carpool with my wife, and had always taken the bus home one day a week because of a regular after-work errand she runs. With the new bus network, I find it completely takes the concern out of pretty much all other variations in our schedules, because one of us can always take the bus home with a minimum of fuss. I’ve taken the bus home from after-work social outings, and I’ve taken the bus to and from after work doctor’s appointments; my wife took the bus one time to a lunch appointment, when I needed the car during that time. None of this was possible before the change. I can’t speak for anyone else, but from my perspective this change has been a big win.

Harrisburg overpass nearing completion

Hallelujah.

HoustonMetro

Six months ago, Harrisburg Boulevard looked almost exactly as it has for more than five years, dotted by construction equipment. East of downtown Houston, the thoroughfare was more exposed dirt than street, and showed little sign of the rail overpass transit officials promised eastside residents.

With no span in sight, residents – not to mention many Metro officials – were over it. For months, board members had called the overpass “a nightmare” and “the project that won’t die.”

“We had nothing,” said Glenn Peters, who Metropolitan Transit Authority brought in about that time to get the project literally off the ground. “Now look at it.”

Months late and many frustrating meetings later, crews have made significant progress on a rail and automobile overpass critical to finishing Metro’s Green Line along Harrisburg spanning a set of Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Cars can choose between crossing the freight tracks at grade on a new roadway, or using the overpass.

[…]

Though much work remains on the $31 million project, completion gets closer with every milestone reached. Provided crews hold to current schedules, Metro could begin testing trains and the track in October and start carrying passengers to the Magnolia Park Transit Center by late December or early January. If the line is ready for passengers, it would be in time for Super Bowl LI, which officials said was a priority.

For now, transit officials are just basking in how far they’ve come.

“It was a wonderful sight to stand out and watch the first cars go over that bridge,” said Peters, who Metro brought in as a consultant to coordinate the project.

Peters, a veteran of construction projects dating to his days as a soldier building a bridge in Vietnam, has extensive local construction experience, overseeing projects at the county and state level.

See here for the last update. Getting everything finished in time for the Super Bowl is the main goal at this point, and all signs point to it getting done. I figure there will be some champagne flowing at the Lee Brown building once this is all done.

Harrisburg overpass update

Progress.

HoustonMetro

Right now the East End light rail line stops a few blocks short of the Magnolia Transit Center on Harrisburg. Metro was going to build an underpass at the Hughes Street railroad crossing, but cancelled those plans because of worries over contaminated soil. The agency is now putting the finishing touches on a new overpass that will carry both cars and trains.

Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they hope to let vehicles start crossing it on July 12.

“You’re beginning to see the concrete pour for the bridge deck,” says Lambert. “They’re almost finished with that.”

As for running trains on the overpass, Lambert says they’ll probably start testing in September.

“There’s a safety certification process that we have to work through,” adds Lambert. “It just takes longer to do that. The track you’re seeing is already being laid. So it’s really the power systems, the power of the train, then testing the train, certifying the process.”

Metro hopes it can start service on the overpass starting in December.

That’s on the same schedule as the last update, so that’s good. It’s been a long journey, to say the least. The good news is that when the light rail line is finally extended to the transit center, there will be a new bus line waiting to take them farther east.

On Sunday, METRO launched a new bus route – the 38 Manchester-Lawndale – which will run seven days a week. The new route will help commuters go to the Magnolia Park Transit Center from as far as the Manchester Docks.

When the Green Line extension to the Magnolia Park Transit Center is completed, riders on the 38 will be able to transfer for free onto METRORail and continue their trip to downtown. Buses will run every 60 minutes.

This new route is part of a pilot program that includes 39 stops and connects to the 20 Canal/Memorial, 28 OST-Wayside, 50 Broadway and 76 Evergreen. By next January, it is scheduled to connect to the Green Line at Magnolia Park Transit Center.

METRO Chair Carrin Patman called the new route a great example of METRO’s partnership with its communities. “Members of the Manchester community met with METRO staff and provided excellent suggestions,” she said. “We are excited to now be able to implement those ideas with the new 38.”

As I recall, there was a similar route before the bus system redesign, and this new one was added in response to community demand. It’s not a high-frequency route, obviously, but it’s there for coverage.

One year of the Green and Purple light rail lines

Ridership keeps trending up, but it’s hard to get a handle on the details from this story.

HoustonMetro

Monday marks one-year of Metropolitan Transit Authority’s two newest rail lines. Well, most of Metro’s two newest rail lines. The last mile or so to the Magnolia Park Transit Center will not open until after a long-delayed overpass is completed early next year.

The lines, which were years behind schedule, also have struggled to exceed expectations each month in terms of average daily ridership, but remain above Metro’s earliest estimates.

The Green Line along Harrisburg failed to average the 2,014 daily riders in its earliest months, but use has since picked up. For the past six months, it has averaged more than 2,600 riders on weekdays.

Meanwhile, the Purple Line, which connects the central business district to neighborhoods southeast of downtown  — passing by Texas Southern University and the University of Houston – has not reached the 3,913 riders Metro predicted each work day consistently, but is close to that over a six-month average.

Still, as some critics note, buses often outperform the new lines, though sometimes the comparisons are not ideal. In Metro’s previous bus system, prior to August, the Route 52 Scott bus that served the universities and southeast Houston residents around MacGregor Park averaged 5,511 daily trips, nearly 1,600 more than the Purple Line.

The bus, however, covered a larger route and hit other major spots the rail line does not.

Though the Red Line – Houston’s original light rail – far exceeds the ridership of bus lines, the Green and Purple lines are still outperformed by some buses. In March, the most recent month for which route-specific ridership is available, 14 frequent bus routes had more than 4,000 riders daily, something neither rail line achieved.

See here, here, and here for some background. I wish reports Dug Begley would just give us the actual numbers, instead of describing them to us. What does “the Purple Line…has not reached the 3,913 riders Metro predicted each work day consistently, but is close to that over a six-month average” even mean? Just give me the numbers and let me figure out the rest. As for the comparison to bus line ridership, it’s apples and oranges. Those high-ridership bus lines also outperform all the other bus lines, too. That’s why they’re part of the high-frequency bus network. If you look at the chart, one of the bus lines with a lot of riders cited is the #25 line, which runs on Richmond. There’s a reason why the Universities Line had the highest ridership projections of all the light rail lines other than the Main Street line. If you can draw a comparison between the new rail lines and the bus lines they supplanted, that’s one thing, though even that would be limited since the old bus lines were longer than the rail lines are. Otherwise, it’s contextless noise. The next comparison of consequence will be next May, when we see if the Green and Purple lines have continued to grow or if they have stalled out.

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

After handling more than a quarter-million rail trips over the four-day NCAA Final Four period, Metro is calling it a slam dunk.

“These are numbers are fantastic for us,” spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Metro said 255,700 rail boardings occurred from Friday until Monday. That’s roughly 87,000 more for the four days than the system would typically carry. The figure also does not include about 4,500 people who hopped buses from NRG Park that ferried them downtown to relieve rail demand after the basketball games on Saturday and Monday nights.

The totals are also significantly higher than Metro reported in 2011, prior to opening three new segments of light rail in the area. Five years ago, about 148,300 people used light rail for the four days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

One reason riders reported a smoother trip to and from the basketball games that increased Metro’s ability to carry people is the light rail expansion, which meant the agency had more cars, Gray said.

In 2011, Metro would have owned 18 rail cars. Today, more than 60 were available, though Metro operates roughly three times as much distance via rail.

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

Major events located downtown helped increase ridership on the Red Line by nearly 50 percent. This year the Red Line saw 219,000 passenger trips compared to 148,000 for 2011.

“Seeing 255,000 boardings on rail during the four day event is very impressive and shows what can happen with an expanded system,” said METRO President and CEO Tom Lambert. “This success comes on the heels of record Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ridership and it shows METRO is a key travel option.”

During the 2016 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, more than 1.5 million boardings were taken on light-rail, compared to 1.3 million last year, a 23% increase.

So that’s 36,000 boardings on the other lines as well. I’m not sure if that includes the North line extension or if that’s counted with the Red line overall. It’s pretty good no matter how you look at it. Honestly, I don’t know why you wouldn’t take the rail to one of Houston’s stadia if it’s at all an option. Park near a station if you need to, or make like you would for the airport and have someone drop you off and pick you up, and ride the rest of the way in. It’s way cheaper than parking at the stadium, and you don’t get stuck in traffic at either end. It just makes sense. KUHF has more.

Harrisburg line overpass delayed again

Ugh. Just, ugh.

A rail overpass vital to completion of the East End light rail line that has divided neighbors and eroded public confidence will be delayed another four months, Metro officials confirmed Monday.

“It has been the project from hell from the beginning,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Cindy Siegel said. “It needs to get done.”

The ongoing construction will pose a hardship for Harrisburg-area residents and businesses.

Beyond those effects, Metro officials worry about the continued impacts of major projects encountering obstacles that prompt apologies from the transit agency.”I am tired of this agency being beat up for not doing what we say we will do,” board member Diann Lewter said.

The overpass was expected to open to traffic in mid-May, but the revised schedule approved Monday moves back completion by four months, to Sept. 12.

This means Metro and others responsible for completing the Green Line will need to hustle to have trains ferrying passengers on its last mile, east of the overpass, by Super Bowl Sunday.

In the interim, Metro and its contractor, McCarthy Building Companies, have agreed to reopen by June 12 the traffic lanes not using the bridge, re-establishing some vehicle traffic in the area. The construction effects have infuriated business owners along Harrisburg.

See here, here, and here for the background. The construction schedule was aggressive, but that was in part because a stretch of Harrisburg was closed to allow for speedier progress. Problems were already being acknowledged in November, and though there was some hope at that time that things could get back to the proposed timeline, it didn’t happen. After all the delays in getting the initial part of the Green and Purple lines open, it sure would have been nice to hit the mark on this one. And heaven help us if we have not-really-finished-yet light rail construction for another Super Bowl. Light a candle and say a prayer for this one, y’all.

Red lights on the Green line

Alas.

HoustonMetro

Light rail is up and running along Harrisburg on the city’s east side, but Metro’s construction continues to be a sore spot with area residents because it seems at every turn the work is taking longer than promised.

The latest delays come from sluggish work to move utilities and excavate for a planned overpass of freight railroad tracks along Harrisburg near Hughes. The overpass is needed to extend Green Line rail service from its current terminus at Altic to its future endpoint at the Magnolia Park Transit Center.

“There is no way to sugarcoat this. We are behind schedule and we are working to get back on schedule,” said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

Construction can catch up, officials said, meaning the overpass remains on track to open in May 2016 as Metro and McCarthy Building Companies – the project’s general contractor – estimated in January. Much of the work occurs in the center of the new street, meaning it doesn’t cut off businesses but does make accessing their driveways trickier.

[…]

One of the first steps in the construction – moving utilities – got off to a slow start, Trevino said.

Moving overhead electrical utilities lagged at first, then crews started finding telecommunications and gas lines that weren’t listed on plans and city documents.

That stalls work as gas or phone company crews have to come out and assess the lines and see if they are functioning.

A potentially bigger pitfall comes from prior industrial uses along Harrisburg, Trevino said, specifically underground tanks used to store fuels that were not listed on many site plans and which proved more problematic than Metro thought.

“We are doing some proactive measures to make up as much time as we can,” Trevino said.

To accelerate construction, additional crews have descended on the job site, and McCarthy has plans to move from doing work for 10 hours six days a week, to seven days a week.

If it’s not one thing it’s another with this construction. I don’t think there’s much that could have been done differently based on what the story says, but boy will everyone be glad when this is over. I just hope they can still make the May deadline.

In tangential news, the Wednesday Metro board meeting was where the long-discussed idea of allowing ads on trains and buses was supposed to come up, but I haven’t seen any news item or press release indicating that it did. Anyone know what happened?

August ridership numbers for the new rail lines

Again, don’t get too excited just yet.

HoustonMetro

Use of Houston’s two newest rail lines increased in August, though it took a strong late showing and free rides to finally meet the ridership expectations Metro officials outlined in May.

According to ridership figures released Thursday, average boardings at the shared stations downtown where both Green and Purple lines trains stop increased to 2,788 daily, from 2,546 in July. Boardings at the stations unique to the Green and Purple lines, respectively, dropped on average, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

Though the use was relatively flat, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said a few things worked against the lines attracting riders, notably five days of 100-plus degree temperatures and four evenings where rail service on the lines was suspended because of construction near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

There were also signs of some improvement, based on the last few days of the month. Metro officials have said once the bus system switched to its new network, which debuted Aug. 16, and students returned to the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, use would increase.

When the days when students returned to school — and a week of free rail rides to usher in the new bus system — are factored, use of the Green and Purple lines increased by 17 percent, to 6,291 daily boardings. On the much more established Red Line, the new students and free rides resulted in a 9.6 percent increase in ridership, meaning the new lines outpaced its ridership growth.

We’ve been down this road before. I’m a little puzzled by the first embedded chart in the article, since the story says that numbers at the non-shared green and purple line stations were down, but the graph says otherwise. Sometimes it’s nice to see the actual numbers. Ridership during the first week of bus system reimagining when fares were free are encouraging but far from conclusive. Hopefully, with UH and TSU now in session, we’ll continue to see steady gains. Check back again in another month.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note, there’s this review of the revised Uptown Line ridership projections, why they’re almost certainly wrong, and why that likely doesn’t matter. Turns out ridership projections are basically guesses, and that’s true for highways like the I-10 managed lanes as well. I’ll say again, if this provides a useful service then people will use it. Not everybody, of course, but enough to be worthwhile. How many that actually turns out to be we won’t know till it’s built, and we won’t really know till it’s been in use for at least a few months.

Metro still dealing with CAF problems

The more things change

HoustonMetro

Metro and the maker of its newest light rail cars have had many costly and time-consuming conflicts. The latest is forcing the transit agency to spend $1 million so its mechanics can lift the vehicles.

The $153 million contract with CAF U.S.A., the American wing of a Spanish firm, has been problematic for the Metropolitan Transit Authority during its expansion of Houston’s light rail network. The company ran into problems complying with requirements for American-made products in 2010. Then in late 2013, Metro and CAF engaged in a dispute over timely delivery of the 39 light rail cars included in the contract, the last of which still has not been delivered to Houston.

Now transit officials and the rail-car builder disagree on who is responsible for a design deviation that prevents Metro’s lifts – which raise the train for mechanical work, much like a lift in an auto mechanic’s garage – from raising CAF’s cars.

“To be blunt, the question is, is it a breach of contract,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

CAF officials did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

To do routine maintenance on the vehicles and get the work completed, Metro will pay to retrofit its lifts so they can hoist the CAF cars. Lambert said Metro will seek to recover some or all of the $1 million from CAF.

[…]

Metro officials have said for more than a year they are confident in the quality of the rail cars. But the procurement process has been chaotic, they say.

Lambert said Metro will hold CAF responsible where practical, while acknowledging the contract has been troublesome.

“There are a lot of lessons learned in this process that will be valuable moving forward,” Lambert said. “We know, and I think there is an acknowledgement from CAF now, that you can’t build a rail car in 24 months. But that’s what they said they could do.”

As you may recall, the original issue with CAF had to do with them not complying with federal law on building the rail cars entirely in the US. That issue was settled in 2010, with CAF building new facilities here in the US to handle construction. That ultimately led to delays in delivery, which was one reason why the new rail lines didn’t open till May, months after the original due date. Let’s just say that I hope we have indeed learned from this process, and that I hope the matter in question can be settled quickly.

New rail line numbers notch up in July

Good to see, but as before let’s maintain some perspective in these early days.

HoustonMetro

Though still below initial estimates, use of two new light rail lines in Houston is increasing, based on July figures released Monday.

After a rocky start, use of the Green Line along Harrisburg increased 25.9 percent from June to July, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority figures. An average of 938 trips were logged each day to and from the stations east of BBVA Compass Stadium along Harrisburg. Use of the Purple Line along Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. dipped 2.1 percent, averaging 1,676 riders per day.

Where the two lines share track in Houston’s central business district, ridership jumped 12.6 percent to 2,546 trips per day.

[…]

Metro officials predict ridership along the Purple Line to increase significantly when the fall semester starts at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Green Line ridership is expected to increase once Metro’s new bus system eliminates bus service along Harrisburg and the light rail line connects to the Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Since the lines opened May 23, officials have said they are monitoring use and looking for ways to improve the system, but are not concerned about the lower-than-predicted ridership.

“It is still premature to derive any conclusions,” spokesman Jerome Gray said Monday.

See here and here for the background. As I said before, I expect it to take a year or more for the ridership numbers to stabilize a bit, and I expect them to continue to grow over time. Our past history shows there may be some fluctuations from month to month, so we shouldn’t get too excited over a single month’s totals. In other words, what Jerome Gray said.

Yes, the new rail lines are off to a slower-than-hoped start

Let’s not panic. Our own history shows that early rail ridership numbers are often highly variable.

HoustonMetro

Slightly more than a month after the Metropolitan Transit Authority christened two new rail lines – built at a cost of $1.4 billion and seen by critics as little more than an unnecessary and expensive replacement for buses – ridership on both is less than expected.

The problem is most acute on the Green Line, which remains a work in progress because of an overpass still to be constructed over some freight lines to connect it to two more stations. The project is prompting fresh concerns from business owners about access and losses during another year of work.

The Green Line, which runs from downtown through the heart of the East End to the Magnolia Transit Center near the Gus Wortham Golf Course, has seen a 13.5 percent decrease in daily boardings in June compared to the few days it was open in late May.

[…]

The Purple Line runs from downtown to the Third Ward.

In June, their first full month of operation, the two lines combined averaged 4,719 boardings per day, including at downtown stations where they share stops. This is well below the 5,927 average officials predicted for the first year, though they cautioned that early estimates will be skewed.

The Purple Line splits from the Green Line near BBVA Compass Stadium on the east side of U.S. 59 near the central business district. From there, it snakes down Scott, Wheeler and Martin Luther King.

Because it serves the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said, officials do not expect its true ridership to become clear until most students return in late August, which could add hundreds of new daily riders.

Downtown stations and those along the Purple Line already are attracting more riders. Compared to the daily average for a few days in May, shortly after the lines opened, June’s average daily ridership was up about 6.3 percent at downtown and Purple Line stops.

Transit officials urged patience: “It is still premature to derive any conclusions,” Gray said.

In Houston generally, rail use has consistently increased, with few exceptions. A 5.3-mile northern extension of the Red Line opened in December 2013 and averaged about 4,500 boardings per day in April 2014. By April of this year, stations north of downtown were hosting about 6,000 riders per day, with half the stations posting growth above 30 percent.

Metro also is adjusting bus routes as part of a complete overhaul of the system, scheduled for Aug. 16. Until then, some buses are operating similar routes to the new bus lines, and eventually some of those riders can be expected to switch to the train.

I had previously complained about looking at the ridership numbers after the first few days of operation, which included a period of bibical rainstorms. I asked that we wait till after we had some normal weather, so I’m glad we’ve at least done that. But it’s still way too early to say how this will go. How do I know? We went though the same sort of thing after the Main Street Line opened in 2004. i went trawling through the Chron’s archives looking for stories about its ridership numbers in the first few months of its existence. Here’s what I found.

MetroRail passengers decrease in April, May 18, 2004:

Daily ridership on MetroRail continues to build, but when weekend trips are included, overall passengers declined in April, according to monthly statistics released Monday.

Metro reported there were 14,043 average weekday boardings in April, an 8 percent increase from March. Rainy days and the lack of a major event, such as March’s RodeoHouston, left plenty of open seats on April’s weekend trains, leading to a 37 percent decline in total ridership. It was the first month where weekday ridership exceeded weekend.

“The April drop-off in weekend ridership is due to some pretty awful weather Easter weekend and the last weekend of the month, ” Metro spokesman Ken Connaughton said. “We anticipate that better weather will bring back riders.”

The data are a mixed result for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which is nearing the end of a five-month phase of limited service on its $324 million Main Street light rail line. Full service starts May 30, when bus routes are adjusted.

The 379,465 boardings recorded in April is the lowest overall monthly total thus far. The number, however, is higher than non-special-event boardings recorded in January and February, months when ridership figures were boosted by several days of Super Bowl events.

Last fall, Metro had projected more than 790,000 train boardings in April. It achieved less than half that number, blaming the delay in modifying bus routes to tie into rail stations.

MetroRail ridership rises in June, July 1, 2004:

MetroRail’s average daily ridership grew to an estimated 26,000 in June as Houston’s first light rail line completed six months of passenger service.

The preliminary June count, released Wednesday evening, represents almost twice as many riders as carried during an average weekday in May and the fifth straight monthly increase. Most of June’s projected increase can be attributed to service changes effective May 30 that tied almost half of Metro bus routes into the rail line and curtailed certain routes to force bus riders onto the train.

Rail critics have characterized these riders as “bus refugees,” claiming that Metro uses them to pump up its train ridership count even though they don’t represent a net increase in transit use and thus don’t reduce traffic congestion.

We’ll come back to this in a minute. In the meantime, Houston rail ridership breezes past other cities, January 17, 2005:

One year into passenger operation, ridership on the Main Street light rail is the highest in the United States per route mile.

[…]

The most common way to measure the success of a mass-transit line is by how many people use it. The Main Street line saw its average daily ridership skyrocket 172 percent in its inaugural 10 months, from 12,102 in January 2004 to 32,941 in October.

“We’ve been told by people around the country that this is one of the most successful light rail lines ever,” said David Wolff, Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman.

The passenger count dropped off in November and December — Metro attributes that to the holidays — and fell short of the 35,000 goal transit officials had set last spring.

After its initial three quarters, Metro’s 7 1/2 -mile light rail line outpaced ridership in seven other U.S. cities. Of the 16 light rail networks that reported their third quarter 2004 ridership data to the American Public Transportation Association, Houston ranked ninth.

The length of these rail systems varies greatly — from six route miles in Buffalo, N.Y., to 60 miles in Philadelphia — so Houston’s ridership is considerably high given the short length of the Main Street line.

In fact, Houston’s ridership is No. 1 in the country when measured by route mile, according to the APTA survey and calculations by the Houston Chronicle.

MetroRail’s 4,053 average daily boardings per route mile rank way ahead of cities such as Baltimore (670), Philadelphia (930), Pittsburgh (980), Denver (1,200) and Dallas (1,290).

Rail ridership bounces back after a dip during holidays, February 17, 2005:

Ridership on the Main Street light rail line rebounded in January after a holiday slump in November and December, according to Metro figures.

January’s ridership report shows 32,384 average daily boardings on MetroRail. That is the second highest monthly average reported since passenger service began in January 2004. The record high average was 32,941 in October.

Boardings had fallen to 29,782 and 29,175 in November and December, respectively.

So there you have it. The Red line now has over 47,000 daily boardings, including better-than-projected-and-growing ridership on the North line extension. Having take that a few times myself, I can vouch for that. I do expect the Purple line to improve as UH and TSU classes begin next month, though the Green line may languish until the overpass is built and it can reach its ultimate destination. The big bus system redesign, which includes integrating the new rail lines more tightly into the bus network, should help as well, as it did with the Main Street line. But if ridership numbers fluctuate for the next ten or twelve months or so, we shouldn’t be too surprised. It happened before and will likely happen again.

Speaking of the bus system redesign, which some of the usual squadron of Metro critics are wringing their hands over – “concern is growing among Metro critics that the whole thing is going to be whopping, epic disaster” is the key quote in there – I would note that Metro did a pretty big change to its bus routes back in 2004, to reflect the existence of the new rail line. How did that go?

Only a few bumps as Metro makes bus, rail changes, June 2, 2004:

Metro reported mostly smooth going on its buses and trains Tuesday as thousands of commuters adjusted to route and schedule changes prompted by an upgrade in rail service.

One train suffered a propulsion problem late in the morning, shutting down service for seven minutes. Some signs were incorrect or missing, and a few signals and announcements malfunctioned. An occasional bus rider mistakenly paid twice, not realizing it’s a free transfer to the train.

Otherwise, “nothing unusual,” said Jeff Arndt, Metro’s chief operating officer, stationed at the newly opened Texas Medical Center Transit Center. “And you know that by the end of the week, it will be pretty much routine.”

Trains began running at six-minute intervals early Tuesday, five months after the Main Street light rail line opened Jan. 1. The increased train frequency — they had been coming every 12 minutes — and modifications to half of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s bus routes completed implementation of the city’s first light rail segment.

Most commuters seemed to be finding their way, but some were confused. They were helped along by dozens of Metro employees stationed at key points — including President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Wilson, who handed out maps and answered questions at the transit center.

So a few problems, but nothing earth-shattering, and within a few days everyone was used to it. This change is twice as big and I am sure there will be some problems, but it’s not unprecedented. We will get through it.

Let’s wait for a normal week before we judge ridership numbers

From The Highwayman:

HoustonMetro

Two new light rail lines have gotten off to slow start, according to early ridership figures from the Metropolitan Transit Authority, but officials and riders still hope the Green and Purple Line will meet expectations.

The two lines, connecting downtown with the East End along Harrisburg and with the Third Ward and southeast Houston neighborhoods along Scott, Wheeler and Martin Luther King, opened May 23.

With May 25 a holiday and May 26 commutes and jobs affected by Houston area flooding, officials didn’t have a normal commuting day until May 27. This provided the first opportunity for officials to gauge typical demand on a day when businesses are open and people are commuting for jobs, shopping and appointments.

For May 27-29, the ridership averages failed to meet expectations, Metro officials confirmed. According to early figures, there were an average of 4,600 boardings per day along the Green and Purple lines as well as the downtown area where the two routes share tracks. The three stations along Harrisburg for the Green Line combined averaged 861 boardings each day.

Ten of the Red Line stations each have more average daily boardings than the three shared downtown stations for the Green and Purple lines.

Prior to the lines opening, officials projected about 5,900 daily boardings, with many more riders flocking to the lines once the remainder of the Green Line past Altic opens next year, adding stations at 67th Street and the Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Officials said a number of factors contributed to the less-than-expected use.

“Heavy rain throughout the week combined with the absence of classes at Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, along with the absence of the highest ridership station on the Green Line, Magnolia Park Transit Center, had a dampening effect on overall ridership, pun intended,” Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

I would argue that there were no “normal commuting” days last week. I was actually in the office three days out of four that week, and downtown was seriously underpopulated. Most of my coworkers worked from home all week, on the advice of the corporate folks. I know we weren’t the only ones sitting it out. I don’t know how much of an effect that all had on the new lines’ ridership numbers, but it had to have had some effect. Let’s wait till we’ve had a truly “normal” week or two and then see what the tally looks like.

How the East End got its rail line

A great overview of how we got here with the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, the genesis of which go back a lot farther than the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

The working- and middle-class Mexican-American residents of the East End lacked political power in Houston prior to the 1960s and 1970s and their communities received little in the way of public resources.

Among those limited resources was a lack transit options once the streetcars on Harrisburg Boulevard and Navigation Boulevard, the community’s two main corridors, were removed prior to World War II. The private bus companies that sought to fill the void ran few and infrequent routes to the East End. Connecting to the rest of Houston from the East End – especially for those without a car – was a challenge.

At the same time, the community’s proximity to the Port of Houston and the Ship Channel meant that truck and freight train traffic dominated local streets and crisscrossed the area. Roads crumbled under the weight of semi-trucks, fumes from idling vehicles filled the air, freight trains blocked intersections for hours at a time, and both systems made life for pedestrians stressful.

During the 1960s and 1970s, as one aspect of a broader push for political, social, and economic rights, Mexican-American residents in the East End routinely spoke before the Houston City Council to complain about the adverse toll this heavy traffic took on their neighborhoods. Their predominately white neighbors in Lawndale and Eastwood, two communities within the East End, often joined to express the same grievances.

Instead of listening to community concerns, however, the City of Houston and the Texas Highway Department aimed to broaden the area’s use as an industrial traffic corridor with plans to build the Harrisburg Freeway, an extension of State Highway 225, through the heart of the East End.

This road was not the form of improved transportation that residents had in mind.

The Mexican-American community’s consistent resistance – through independent planning efforts, community protests, and the use of administrative technicalities to stall the project – combined with a state-level budget crunch to halt the road plan by the mid-1970s.

The highway fight in the East End was a major marker of the growing political power of Mexican-American Houstonians. It also demonstrated to local officials that East Enders cared a great deal about the integrity of their community, how they traveled within their neighborhoods, and how they connected to the city at-large.

Community journalist Maggie Landron, writing in the Spanish-language paper Papel Chicano in 1970, argued that many East End residents resisted the highway because they were “fed up choking on our own exhaust fumes; fed up looking at cement ribbons crisscrossing our cities; fed up with homes and people being destroyed to build more and more freeways; and fed up with others determining what is good for us.”

Landron’s words and the highway protest of East Enders reverberated in subsequent mass transit debates, where the city’s Mexican-American population, concentrated heavily in the East End, represented linchpin voting blocs.

I had no idea there had once been a serious proposal to extend SH 225 into downtown. What a disaster that would have been. The story continues through the creation of Metro, the 2003 referendum, and the fight over the overpass on Harrisburg. Check it out.

New rail lines officially open

At long last.

Two new light rail lines might have been the ones debuting Saturday, but for many riders it was the East End, Third Ward and MacGregor Park neighborhoods themselves that were on display.

After years of construction and months of testing, riders began boarding Green Line trains headed from downtown east along Harrisburg and Purple Line trains toward the University of Houston and Palm Center Transit Center on Saturday morning.

The dual openings mark the end of a sometimes controversial six years for Metropolitan Transit Authority, which first approached voters and won approval for the lines in 2003, with the hopes of opening them in 2012. Numerous delays and setbacks pushed opening day farther away from those original plans, as anticipation grew in the neighborhoods.

With the lines open and shuttling thousands of people around, the communities turned out for various celebrations, where Metro and residents celebrated the end of construction and the beginning of what is predicted to be a major change in how people get around, especially those more dependent on transit for daily trips.

[…]

Local officials hope the area, which hasn’t enjoyed the redevelopment of some areas of Houston during the recent boom times, is helped by the addition of the Purple Line. Already there are some signs of investment in apartments and townhomes, notably around the University of Houston and Third Ward.

“It is kind of nice to see the redevelopment,” Stan Leong said. “It is changing their whole neighborhood, and that is kind of interesting.”

The same hopes are pinned on the Green Line, running along Harrisburg in Houston’s east side, elected officials said.

“This is a $1 billion investment in your community,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston, told a crowd along Harrisburg, flanked by Mayor Annise Parker and city and Metro officials.

Along with the Greater East End Management District, Metro redeveloped Harrisburg to make the rail line the center of a bustling retail corridor, with signature intersections and sidewalks dotted with brick designs.

See here for the background. There is still construction ongoing, as the Harrisburg overpass gets built and that line eventually gets extended by a couple more stops. One of the effects of the Culberson accord will likely be to build another station on the Southeast line as well. But the trains are running, and that’s the big deal. It was nice to read a story about these lines that didn’t include a quote from some hoary rail critic. Now the onus is on to perform and get riders. I look forward to seeing what those numbers look like. 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.

Bikes now allowed on light rail all day

Some good news from the inbox:

BikesOnRail

METRORail is opening its doors to bikes during all regular service hours just in time for Houston’s Bike to Work Day observance, Friday, May 15, 2015. The new hours are made possible with the introduction of a new fleet of rail cars for METRORail’s Green/East End and Purple/Southeast Lines launch on May 23.

The expanded hours coincide with the announcement that one million bikes have been boarded on METRO’s fixed-route fleet of 1,200 buses since the Bikes On Buses program was instituted in 2007. This year in the month of April alone METRO buses carried nearly 21,500 bikes as compared with 1,500 for the month of April 2008.

Riders are showing a strong desire to use both buses and trains as part of their daily commutes. The restricted access hours will be rescinded effective immediately in an effort to keep riders moving in the right direction. For information about how to access and maintain safety on METRORail with your bicycle please refer to www.ridemetro.org.

Beginning Saturday, May 23, 2015 there will be more transit options as two new light-rail lines start serving the community. The Green Line (East End Line) and the Purple Line (Southeast Line) will open to the public and there will be a huge community celebration to mark the occasion. For details about METRORail Fest, including free tickets to the celebration and performances, visit www.ridemetro.org. or click here now.

The effort to get bikes on trains dates back to at least 2008, with Metro allowing them on for most of the day in 2010. I found out about the peak hours restriction the hard way a few years ago – I’d dropped my car off for service at a garage in Montrose near Midtown, and had cleverly brought my bike with me so I could ride to the Ensemble/HCC station and take the train to work. I wound up having to hang out at the station for almost an hour before I was allowed to board. Not any more! Metro has also done very well with bikes on buses – I feel like about half the buses I observe have at least one bike on the rack. I look forward to seeing what the numbers are like for bikes on trains. Kudos all around for this.

Metro writes off old light rail studies

What might have been.

Houston transit officials Thursday wrote off $104 million wasted on multiple studies related to the controversial University and Uptown light rail projects that ultimately stalled due to a lack of funding and fierce opposition from the neighborhoods they would impact.

The studies for the two lines, which were approved by voters in a 2003 referendum, were conducted prior to 2010. The value of those studies have since been carried as assets on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s books, just like buses or real estate, a common practice as major projects are compiled.

Thursday, by approving Metro’s 2014 certified financial report – an audited assessment of the agency’s finances – board members authorized the removal of the studies from the agency’s ledger.

In other words, they paid $104 million for detailed engineering and analysis and got very little in return.

Metro officials remain adamant that transit improvements in the area remain a priority. But if plans for the two light rail lines ever move forward, many alignment studies will have to be redone, reflecting more current conditions.

“It is very frustrating,” said Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “That’s why, when we came in, we stopped that practice.”

[…]

Many of the studies were related to repeated demands by residents or elected officials vehemently opposed to the two lines to reconsider some of the alignment proposals, particularly along the University Line, which would have, in part, run along Richmond Avenue.

“Between 2004 and 2009, 46 additional alternatives, were looked at along the corridor,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, explaining some of the $61.8 million in work related to the University Line.

About $34.2 million was spent to study portions of the Uptown Line, along Post Oak Boulevard. The board also wrote off $8.6 million related to a failed effort to build an underpass along Harrisburg for the Green Line, currently under construction.

Probably all of those Universities Line studies were the result of Metro trying to accommodate all of the malcontents who kept demanding alternatives to the Richmond route we all know was best. All water under the bridge now, but I still get mad every time I remind myself how far along the process Metro got on the Universities Line before it was brutally murdered by John Culberson.

Meanwhile, we finally have an official grand opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines.

Even though trains have been running for several months, Metro CEO Tom Lambert says they’re still in the testing phase mandated by the federal government.

“We’re really working through all the operational experiences, so before we get into revenue service we have a good understanding how that’s going to work,” Lambert says.

[…]

The two new lines will take riders into the East End and Southeast Houston. They’ll link up with the current North Line downtown. The new opening date is now set for May 23.

At last report, the opening was aimed for the end of April. Maybe now that we have an actual date and not a vague time period, it will happen. That date was also noted by The Highwayman, which includes this tidbit about rail ridership:

Peak rail ridership for the rodeo, which ended Sunday, topped out March 19 with about 71,500 boardings on the light rail line, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said. That’s well short of the record day Metro had last year, when the line logged 76,925 boardings.

“Overall (rail) ridership for that three week period is up by about 21,000 boardings, but rodeo ridership specifically was down, apparently due to all the wet weather we had,” Gray said.

Metro did log record ridership for a week, with 448,000 boardings from March 14 to March 20, but that had less to do with the rodeo and more to do with incremental increases in general rail use, officials observed. Gray said last year during the rodeo, there were about 1.28 million rail trips, with 471,000 of those attributed to the rodeo. This year, officials estimate 1.3 million rail trips were taken, but rodeo-related rides slipped to about 421,000.

Overall, since the expansion of the Red Line in December 2013, light rail use has increased. In February, average daily ridership was 46,633, an 8 percent increase over 2014 and 24 jump from February 2013, before the line opened north of downtown Houston.

I’ll take the tradeoff of lower rodeo ridership for higher overall ridership every day of the week. I can’t wait to see what it looks like once these two lines finally come online. The Highwayman has more.

Overpass groundbreaking

Progress.

After years of conflict among community members and leaders, construction of Metro’s new Harrisburg overpass is officially underway in Houston’s East End.

“It’s not just a bridge; it’s going to be a landmark in the city,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Diann Lewter said at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday.

[…]

City Council member Robert Gallegos withheld $10 million from the project’s budget for a month in 2014 to investigate Metro’s claims about an underpass. He eventually agreed to a compromise that included extensive community involvement in the design and development; an overpass that would accommodate trains, motorists and pedestrians; and maintaining street access to surrounding businesses.

Both sides of the overpass will be adorned with references to the history of the East End and the bridge columns lit with blue LED lighting. A garden wall will follow the lower side of the bridge, a fitting tribute to Metro’s “Green Line.”

“We really let the community choose; we came up with different design renderings, and ultimately this is where (they) landed,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “We wanted to do something special so that when you come in, you really feel like you’re entering a wonderful community, rather than just driving (through).”

The $26 million, half-mile overpass is expected to be completed in 18 months, but Metro and community leaders both are hoping to shorten that.

“We want to go at warp speed. The community has been supportive long enough,” Garcia said. “We want to complete this thing so the businesses can go back to do what they need to do.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Everyone seems to be happy with the way this is going, and that’s all you could want at this point. We’re also getting close to the official opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg-up-to-the-overpass lines, both of which should happen sometime next month, though it’s not exactly clear when. I’ve been seeing trains go by regularly on the western end of those lines in downtown. I’m eager to see them go by with passengers on them.

Metro’s new rail station

Houston Central Station is finally open, though in a much less impressive form than it might have been.

Houston’s first new rail station in nearly 14 months [opened] Wednesday, but it won’t serve its main purpose – connecting riders on multiple lines – until Metro overcomes persistent delays in expanding its service.

Central Station Main, as the stop is called, is the link between the existing Red Line along Main and the upcoming Green and Purple lines that will start service in April. The station is on Main Street between the new tracks on Capitol and Rusk.

Metropolitan Transit Authority spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have already seen rider interest in the station as it neared completion. Opening it adds another stop to the Red Line in the bustling downtown area.

“People, I’m sure, are looking forward to it,” Gray said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

[…]

Central Station Main is a scaled-down version of what officials first proposed. The winner of a design competition was a bold proposal by the international firm Snohetta, spearheaded by a New York-based designer, Craig Dykers, a UT Austin grad whose parents live in Houston.

As officials worked to reconcile cost concerns with Dykers design, they feared running out of time to build the station and scrapped the Snohetta proposal in favor of a generic, albeit expanded, station.

See here and here for the background. It’s a shame the design was scaled back, but it’s still good to see tangible evidence of progress. I’ve been seeing trains running along the east-west tracks at the western end of downtown lately. The official opening date appears to have crept back a little, to the end of April, but we’re getting there. It’s only two months away. I’m ready for it, and I’m sure they are, too. Write On Metro has more.

Meet your Harrisburg overpass

Looks nice enough. Going to be painful getting to the finished product, though.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are set to approve a $30.66 million construction contract on the half-mile overpass next week. The overpass is needed to complete the Green Line rail along Harrisburg to the Magnolia Park Transit Center, near Gus Wortham Golf Course, and to cross the Union Pacific freight rail tracks.

[…]

To mend fences with the community, Metro worked with neighbors to make the overpass look better than just a concrete riser. Plans include special lighting and designs in the concrete that reflect the area’s business and cultural heritage.

“The East End might have the most attractive overpass along the lines when this is built,” Metro board member Burt Ballanfant said.

McCarthy Building, the winning construction company, has 18 months to build the overpass, with incentives to finish sooner and costs if the project is delayed. Roberto Trevino, Metro’s capital programs manager, said some factors outside Metro and McCarthy’s control could affect the schedule. Union Pacific Railroad and local utilities must be consulted, and their issues and actions could affect when the work is finished, Trevino said.

Timing is crucial, and important to area residents, because the overpass work will require closing six blocks of Harrisburg for about four months, from Caylor to 66th Street. Detours are planned between Lockwood and Wayside to route traffic to Navigation during the closings.

See here and here for the background. This would take forever without closing that stretch of Harrisburg, but closing a street like that for any length of time is going to be a bug hardship on the neighborhood. This article doesn’t have any reactions from locals about either the design or the schedule, so it’s hard to say offhand how well received they are. Still, this needs to get done, and depending on when the actual start date for this part of the construction is, it could be done by mid- or late-2016. That should be a relief and a cause for celebration for everyone.

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.

[…]

BRT is generally touted as the quickest and cheapest solutions for car-centric cities hoping to provide mass transit options. These projects dedicate separated road space specifically for buses, with the intention of removing them from the common stream of traffic and decreasing the delays for commuters. Stations that protect riders from the elements and with raised platforms allow riders to enter buses as they would a train. Coming in at 1/5 the cost of light rail, BRT projects can provide a very similar level of service, especially when given designated right-of-way.

The Uptown Management District is currently working on installing a contentious BRT system along the medians of Post Oak Boulevard. Such systems could be installed along the esplanades of former streetcar lines and permanent raised bus platforms installed along the routes at a fraction of the cost of a streetcar line. All of this can be installed with the understanding that a streetcar line would go in along the route once the city has reached a more sustainable density.

Reinstalling streetcars in Houston is not a novel idea. The Greater East End Management District has been working on a streetcar initiative since 2011, planning a route through the Second Ward that connects to the light rail line and nearby stadiums. The project is meant to spur development in the area but could provide decent service for a broad swath of Houstonians. The very fact that rail transit is desirable enough to attract developments is a sign that we should be considering more possible additions.

I’m OK with BRT for the Uptown line because that was always going to be locally funded, and it’s what we can afford. It’s been hard enough overcoming other obstacles to just get to the point where things can move forward. This project will do a lot to relieve the fierce congestion in the area and I believe it will help up the pressure to get the Universities line built since the need to connect the Uptown line to the rest of the system will be so obvious. I consider BRT to be a lesser version of light rail, but this is likely the best we were going to get any time soon, so let’s not quibble while there is forward momentum.

As for streetcars, they’re basically light rail without the dedicated right of way, and as such they can and will get stuck in traffic just like buses would. Yes, I know there are things that can be done to mitigate that, but ultimately streetcars don’t add capacity, and that’s an issue. Especially with bus reimagining going on, I’d be hesitant to think too much about streetcars, but there are two situations where they might make sense. One is in areas where there’s enough road capacity to handle sharing a lane with streetcar tracks, and the other is as a short-distance extension of light rail. The Greater East End Management District plan cited above might be an example of the former; as it is intended to connect to the Harrisburg line, it also works for the latter. Another example of the latter I’ve been thinking of is a streetcar extension to light rail in the Medical Center, as there are now so many more buildings that are a decent walking journey away from the existing rail stops. I’m not exactly sure what route this thing might take – maybe something along MacGregor into Holcomb, then somehow to Old Spanish Trail? There are many details to work out – but you get the idea. You might be able to do the same sort of thing with shuttle buses, but streetcar tracks could be laid outside existing streets, and can be in closer proximity to pedestrians since their paths are completely predictable. I’m just thinking out loud here. The basic goal here is to increase capacity and make it easier for more people to travel to dense, hard-to-park places without cars. The more we all think about this stuff, the better off we’ll be.

Metro gets some new rail cars online

Finally.

Eight of the long-delayed railcars needed to expand light rail service in Houston are expected to start ferrying passengers in the first week of 2015, promising some relief from rush-hour crowding, transit officials said Thursday.

The cars, the first of 39 from CAF U.S.A. to clear their testing, are ready to roll, according to Metropolitan Transit Authority president Tom Lambert. Drivers are about a week from completing their training. The new arrivals are the third brand of railcar to run along Houston’s light rail system.

Seven had completed their “burn-in period” as of Thursday, Metro executive vice president Terence Fontaine said. An eighth was likely to finish its 1,000 miles of testing along Houston’s lines by Christmas.

“Our intent is to put those cars into service first of next year,” Lambert told Metro board members.

The railcars, built in Elmira, N.Y., are months behind original schedules. Manufacturing problems delayed delivery, and issues with the first cars caused further setbacks. The final train isn’t expected to arrive in Houston until May and will need weeks of testing before it can enter service.

[…]

Additional cars also allow Metro to pull some of the older trains for service, agency planning director Kurt Luhrsen said. The original Siemens cars, which opened the Red Line in 2004, are ready for some scheduled maintenance. The new trains allow for those to be pulled without disruptions to service.

The surplus won’t last long, however. Officials plan to open the Green and Purple lines east and southeast of downtown on April 4. By then, Luhrsen said, officials plan to have 14 of the new trains in service. A minimum of 12 are needed to have a single car arrive every 12 minutes along the two new lines.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have anything to add here, I’m just glad to see some good news on this. Let’s hope we’ve seen the last of the delays.

From the “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” department

Every dark cloud has a silver lining, y’all. You just have to know where to look for it.

Metro’s four-month delay in opening two rail lines will give the agency time to obtain enough cars to prevent severe crowding when trains start rolling.

Fourteen of 39 new rail cars that the Metropolitan Transit Authority ordered in 2012 will be ready to carry riders by April 1, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said Thursday. An additional 19 cars will still be in testing.

“We are making very good headway,” Lambert said.

The Green Line, east of downtown along Harrisburg, and the Purple Line connecting southeast neighborhoods to the central business district, are scheduled to open April 4. By that time, with Metro’s 37 existing cars and 14 new ones, Metro officials said they can run constant service, though perhaps not as frequently as envisioned.

[…]

When the new lines open, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said, the expected number of cars will allow for two-car sets along the Red Line every six minutes during peak periods – around 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily – and single trains every 12 minutes along the Green and Purple lines.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t really have anything to add to that, so I’ll leave you with this.

Remember, if life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten.

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.

[…]

To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

Southeast and Harrisburg line openings delayed again

sigh

Metro acknowledged Wednesday that it will be unable to open its two new light rail lines this year as promised, the latest in a series of delays and controversies associated with the rail system.

Less than two months ago, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said the agency’s Green and Purple lines would open in December – just under the wire of the 2014 opening they pledged when work started in 2011. Four years ago, the opening date was pushed back to 2014 from 2012 after a federal investigation forced Metro to restart its rail car procurement process.

Continuing problems with axle counters along the route – the counters are part of the system that tracks trains along the line – and a downtown construction error that severed a chilled water line have made it impossible to open the lines this year, officials said. CEO Tom Lambert said agency officials were working to develop a new timetable.

“It is disappointing, but it is more important to get it done right than stick to the 2014 timetable,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

The chilled water line delivers cooled water to Minute Maid Park, and is crucial to the operation of its air conditioning system. The cut knocked out AC at the ballpark over the weekend of Aug. 23 and 24.

The line break occurred under Metro’s new section of track south of the ballpark. Because of the break, an entire section of the roadway, rails and communications system had to be replaced.

The segment serves both the Green Line that runs from downtown through the East End along Harrisburg, and the Purple Line that connects downtown to the Palm Center Transit Center south of the University of Houston. The replacement will delay testing of the lines – a requirement before service can start.

Given the additional work, track replacement and continuing problems with the axle counters, capital projects manager Roberto Trevino said staff was “taking a look at the impact to the schedule.”

See here for the previous delay report. The cut to the chilled water line was done by a construction company working on a hotel project, so that was completely out of Metro’s control, for whatever consolation that’s worth. The axle counter problem is being fixed by Siemens, the rail car manufacturer, so at least the delay won’t cost Metro any extra money. It also makes the earlier rail car delivery problem that much smaller. Silver linings or no, this still sucks. We should know what the revised schedule is when CEO Tom Lambert reports to the board on September 25.

The downside to downtown’s boom

More traffic, less parking, and lots of construction. Where have we heard those complaints before?

Construction crews are clearing city blocks once dedicated to surface parking, readying the sites for multistory office buildings, hotels and residential towers. Adjacent sidewalks and traffic lanes are cordoned off, and two major downtown cross-streets are tied up with light rail construction.

Combined, the parking crunch and cutoff sidewalks and streets have downtown drivers and pedestrians on edge, and many say the problem has worsened in recent months. Building occupancy is putting more workers downtown, and few have convenient transit options, so they drive. More cars means more crowded streets and a mad dash to find parking.

[…]

Development is certainly putting a premium on parking, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and executive director of the Downtown Management District.

“We came into this period with some excess supply,” Eury said, explaining there are about 75,000 garage spaces, 28,000 surface lot spots and 3,500 to 5,000 available on-street spots in the central business district, depending on time of day. “Now there is more demand, but over time that might work itself out.”

For now, though, it’s more difficult and more expensive to find a space.

[…]

As more of the central business district shifts from surface lots to towers looming over the sidewalk, Houston’s skyline isn’t the only thing changing. Scarce parking might lead some to options like transit, Eury said.

“Look at what (the Metropolitan Transit Authority) is doing with the buses,” Eury said, referring to a planned overhaul of bus service. “That is meeting that challenge and offering a solution. Maybe not a solution for everybody, but a solution for somebody.”

Officials are looking for new nighttime parking options and discussing how to handle major events and high-traffic entertainment areas, said Angie Bertinot, marketing director for the downtown district. Some lots near Market Square Park often pull double shifts, catering to workers during the day and diners and drinkers at night.

As residential options and nightlife return to downtown, parking for visitors also is changing. The district is working on maps and signs to help visitors navigate downtown and mark parking options clearly, Bertinot said. Officials are planning another parking lot at the George R. Brown Convention Center in connection with development of a new hotel.

It’s the same basic complaint as the Medical Center, with the same underlying causes: there are only so many ways in and out, and only so much room to accommodate cars. New buildings are more valuable than space for parking. Ultimately, the solution will be for more people to enter downtown via something other than a car, or at least something other than a car in which they are the only passenger. That’s a lesson that will almost certainly have to be learned the hard way by a lot of people, but it’s got to be learned. The opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help, Metro’s bus reimagining will help (though as it happens that won’t help me; I’m one of the ten percent or so whose service will be a little worse with the new routes), and if we ever build commuter rail, that will help as well. In the meantime, remember that an empty downtown generally means bad economic times. What we have here is what’s known as a good problem to have. Texas Leftist has more, including some pictures.

On beautifying the city for the Super Bowl

Chris Andrews has some thoughts about what Houston should and shouldn’t do in preparation for Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Things More Important Than Beautification Projects to a Super Bowl Visitor

As a sports fan, and through my own experience, I would have to guess that a visitor’s experience in a host city will be impacted mostly by:

1. Transit to and from the game
Transit is where cities as a whole may be the most vulnerable during a Super Bowl, but it will probably be the thing that people will care about the least in terms of their lasting experience as a Super Bowl visitor. Hosting major events can help raise interest in local or regional transit systems, but it can also expose deficiencies in transit planning, as evidenced in New York’s latest Super Bowl hosting. Even the “Mass Transit Super Bowl” could not live up to its name. No matter who you’re cheering for or whether you’re a VIP or tailgate fan, everyone will depend on some form of transit to get to the game. Everyone will get to the game somehow. (Hopefully the NFL will not impose the ridiculous restrictions on travel as they did with New York in 2014). Houston will be tested in 2017, but the yearly testing of the transit system with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo had provided the city a regular opportunity to plan for the influx of transit riders.

(As a note for Houston: If plans to demolish the Astrodome and expand the NRG Park complex take shape before the Super Bowl, transit riders may find themselves walking around a complex of semi-truck loading docks and exhibition halls. The plans of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo depict “Phase 2” of their NRG Park expansion and Astrodome demolition as having additional exhibition halls and a new parking garage, which stand between NRG Stadium, the NRG Astrodome and the METRO light rail. Surely the Texas, the Rodeo and Gensler, the architecture, planning and design firm responsible for creating this plan, can do better to serve their visitors. I give them the benefit of the doubt for allowing transit riders to navigate through the exhibition halls, but this is not depicted or considered on their renderings.)

2. Stadium and official event venues
In order to even be considered to host the Super Bowl, your city needs to have an updated stadium. Official event venues typically have sponsors who are keenly aware of their image. It can be expected that at a minimum your host stadium will be appealing and will contain updated amenities.

3. Private event venues
Private party events surrounding the Super Bowl can create just as much of a buzz as the game itself. Sometimes tickets to these events can cost as much as game tickets. With the exclusivity of these VIP events, there can be no doubt that visitors will not be let down by their design or conditions.

4. The teams involved
If you’re a die-hard fan of either team that is playing in the Super Bowl, I would venture to guess that nothing short of seeing your team on that field will matter much. Sure, newly landscaped medians or pocket parks may be nice to look at as you walk inside the stadium, but unless you are an urbanist, these improvements will likely be lost on you as you enter the stadium and see your team on the field.

There’s a lot more, so read the whole thing. Andrews noted a Chron story from a few days back about the creation of a “Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority” to bankroll some improvement projects via private donations; it was tagged when it first came up on Council’s agenda, though I presume it passed but was swallowed up in the Uber/Lyft news this week. He thinks overall we’re taking the right approach, and certainly after the recent Brazil World Cup and Russia Winter Olympics debacles, I think we can all be happy we’re not committing to a bunch of new construction that won’t have any obvious use after the event is over. As far as transit is concerned, having the Southeast and Harrisburg lines in place (even if the latter may not be fully complete as well as Metro bus reimagining in place should be helpful. If we get some roadwork done and some sidewalks improved by then as well, so much the better. Via Lisa Gray.