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light rail

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.

The timeline for driverless cars

We know they’re coming, but how long it takes them to get here really matters.

For Elon Musk, the driverless car is always right around the corner. At an investor day event last month focused on Tesla’s autonomous driving technology, the CEO predicted that his company would have a million cars on the road next year with self-driving hardware “at a reliability level that we would consider that no one needs to pay attention.” That means Level 5 autonomy, per the Society of Automotive Engineers, or a vehicle that can travel on any road at any time without human intervention. It’s a level of technological advancement I once compared to the Batmobile.

Musk has made these kinds of claims before. In 2015 he predicted that Teslas would have “complete autonomy” by 2017 and a regulatory green light a year later. In 2016 he said that a Tesla would be able to drive itself from Los Angeles to New York by 2017, a feat that still hasn’t happened. In 2017 he said people would be able to safely sleep in their fully autonomous Teslas in about two years. The future is now, but napping in the driver’s seat of a moving vehicle remains extremely dangerous.

In the past, Musk’s bold predictions have been met with A-for-effort enthusiasm and a smattering of polite skepticism. But the response this time has been different. People have less patience for PR campaigns masquerading as engineering timelines. “That’s bullshit,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a research analyst for Navigant, a consulting firm that ranks companies on the viability of their autonomous vehicle plans. “At best, they may be able to create a system that functions under certain limited scenarios. It will not be fully autonomous in 2020 or anytime in the next several years.”

What’s changed? Self-driving cars—and their associated building blocks such as machine learning, computer vision, and LIDAR—continue to improve, but executives other than Musk have been admitting that reports of their impending deployment were greatly exaggerated. Ford CEO Jim Hackett said last month that the industry had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles.” Chris Urmson, the former leader of Google’s self-driving car project, once hoped that his son wouldn’t need a driver’s license because driverless cars would be so plentiful by 2020. Now the CEO of the self-driving startup Aurora, Urmson says that driverless cars will be slowly integrated onto our roads “over the next 30 to 50 years.” That’s nearly as long as it took computers to evolve from IBM’s first mainframe to Apple’s first iPhone.

I touched on this recently in the context of ridesharing companies and their existential future, which is based in part on self-driving technology. I’ll say again, the prospect of driverless cars has an effect on current policy debates. If you believe they will be in common usage in the next five to ten years, then it’s reasonable to expect that they will begin having a significant effect on driving habits and traffic patterns in the short term. In particular, this argues for a change in approach to how we invest in infrastructure and mass transit. As that link suggests, why spend on rail projects when you can build souped up HOV lanes that will accommodate autonomous buses that travel at 80 to 100 MPH?

But if we’re on a thirty to fifty year horizon, then basically nothing has changed and we should proceed as if driverless cars are no more a part of the landscape than the flying cars we were once promised. Fifty years is forever in infrastructure terms. Hell, thirty years is a very long time. All but six MLB stadia are thirty years old or less, and many of the new stadia replaced other facilities that were between 30 and 40 years old. I’ve lived in Houston for 31 years, and every single highway in this town has been substantially rebuilt during that time frame, some more than once. The same argument about whether or not to invest in light rail should apply to the planned mammoth rebuild of I-45, which last I checked isn’t geared towards high-speed robot buses. I say nothing is worth delaying or deferring for a possible future with a timeline that may be measured in decades. I guarantee this issue will come up when the Metro referendum is officially put on the ballot. I’m happy to discuss how we should integrate autonomous vehicles into our traffic and transit planning, but let’s keep this in mind.

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 secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

Metro’s challenge

It’s all about BRT.

Houston transit officials are betting on bus rapid transit as a big part of the region’s long-term plans, at times going as far as calling it the “wave of the future.”

If seeing is believing, however, voters in the region will go into the election booth blind when it comes to bus rapid transit, or BRT. Houston has local buses, MetroLift buses, commuter buses and even articulated buses on major routes, but BRT is MIA.

“(Light) rail seems to be very well maintained and it has a high degree of reliability,” said Lex Frieden, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “BRT, since we have not experienced that, we can only imagine how a bus can be as stable as the sense you have on a train. How can it be as reliable as a train? Part of the issue is familiarity.”

Growing transit, specifically via BRT, is a major component of the $7.5 billion plan Metro developed over the past 18 months. The agency is expected to ask voters for authority to borrow money in November, with the specifics of the projects still under review. Plans include 20 more miles of light rail, two-way HOT lanes along most freeways and about 75 miles of BRT.

Bus rapid transit uses large buses to operate mostly along dedicated lanes, offering service similar to light rail without the cost or construction of train tracks. It has proven successful in communities such as Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The first foray into BRT in the region will be along Post Oak Boulevard in the Uptown area. Drivers already have felt the construction pain, but riders will not hop aboard until next March, months later than initially scheduled when construction began in 2016.

In the interim, Metro will try to convince people to support something most have never seen. Part of that will mean getting people to reconsider their own biases.

“The second people hear bus, they have an image in their mind,” said Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran.

[…]

If voters approve, BRT could become a big part of regional transit. Metro plans BRT along five major corridors, at an estimated cost of $3.15 billion. The routes mostly mirror where Metro previously proposed rail, most notably between the University of Houston and Uptown and from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The former, once dubbed the University Line, long has been a point of contention. Voters in 2003 narrowly approved the Metro Solutions plan that included light rail from UH, through downtown and on to Uptown, but the project sputtered under intense opposition from residents along Richmond Avenue.

Now resurrected as a bus rapid transit project, the pains of the previous rail fight linger. Transit critics still question Metro’s ability to execute a major project that does not disrupt traffic, noting the Post Oak project has taken longer than expected and derailed driving along the street.

Rail backers, meanwhile, insist trains are superior, with some opposed to any Metro plan that does not include trains to and from downtown and Uptown.

I mean, we don’t have BRT now, but we almost had it for the Green and Purple lines back when Frank Wilson and David Wolff were screwing things up at Metro. There were questions about the funding for those lines, which were eventually resolved in Metro’s favor. (I wrote about this stuff at the time, but I’m too lazy to look up the links right now. Please take my word for it.) The concept isn’t completely new to Houston, is what I’m saying.

Be that as it may, I’m not too worried about BRT being a negative for Metro in the referendum. The question, as is usually the case with referenda, is who will oppose this, and how much money they will put into opposing it. Will John Culberson rise like a white walker and raise a bunch of untraceable PAC money to block the issue? (We still don’t know who funded the anti-Metro effort from 2003, by the way.) How will the Mayor’s race affect this? We know Bill King is anti-rail, but I don’t know what (or if) Tony Buzbee thinks about it. It’s too early to say how this will play out. Metro does have to come up with a good marketing plan for its referendum, once it is finalized – they’ve been busy running a bunch of generic feel-good spots during the NBA playoffs – but get back to me when and if organized opposition arises.

Why is allowing ads on Metro buses so hard?

The Chron editorial board weighs in.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority should proceed cautiously as it considers lifting its ban on commercial advertising on buses, rail cars, stations and shelters. That prohibition has served Houston well over the years, working together with old efforts by the city and Texas Legislature to greatly reduce the billboards that were once so ubiquitous here.

Before the laws changed in the 1980s, Houston had more than 10,000 billboard pedestals displaying so-called off-premises advertisements. Thanks to tough laws preventing new structures from being added, that number is now fewer than 1,500.

If Metro changes its rules, the city could suddenly see hundreds of new, large-format billboards on buses rolling through our neighborhoods.

That doesn’t sound like progress to us.

[…]

Fortunately, plans to vote on this proposal have been delayed, as Houston Chronicle transportation writer Dug Begley reported Monday. The matter is being sent back to committee, and a vote isn’t expected until June.

We urge Metro to concentrate on three priorities between now and then:

Let the public be heard. No public hearings are required, other than the always-available public comment sessions at regular Metro board meetings. But the board should hold them anyway, choosing two or more times when riders and non-riders alike can show up to speak for or against the proposal. It’s that important.

Quantify the upside with as much precision as possible. So far, putting a finger on how much revenue can be expected has been difficult, but without a reliable figure any decision made will be made blind.

If the ads are allowed, dedicate the revenue to specific improvements that everyday riders can feel. For example, ads on the buses could be linked to specific increases to frequency or ads on shelters could be linked to building new ones. Dropping the new funds into general revenue to be spent willy-nilly shouldn’t be an option.

See here for the background. I mean, we’ve been talking about this for a decade. Even the US Senate moves faster than this. I’m fine with the three priorities, though honestly I have no idea what there is left to talk about. Let’s move forward and do what basically every other major city has been doing for many years.

We are still talking about Metro maybe allowing ads

This is one of the longer ongoing story lines I’ve followed on this blog.

The red and blue stripes on Metro’s buses and trains soon could be joined by advertisements for Red Lobster and Blue Bell, a nod to the agency’s efforts to seek out new sources of revenue.

Transit officials are considering changes to Metropolitan Transit Authority policies that would allow advertising inside and outside buses and trains, at bus stops and stations, parking garages and perhaps even the station names.

“We’re making our way through it, forming a plan, and then we’ll go from there,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, acknowledging he expects staff to recommend paid ads on and in the agency’s buses and trains.

Transit officials initially were poised to approve some of the changes this month, but held back in favor of more discussion. Authority board members and observers said several matters would need to be resolved before any changes can be made, notably the need for clear rules of what Metro will and will not accept and how large ads can be.

“Part of my concern is not so much doing it, but when you mix a bunch of ads it looks awful,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said officials plan to consider an ad policy as early as next month. If approved, agency staff can begin to solicit proposals from firms interested in overseeing the advertising — essentially selling the space — and then dividing the revenue between the company and Metro.

[…]

Metro does allow certain sponsorships and wraps its own buses and trains for internal marketing efforts. The changes under consideration would open up many avenues of for ads.

“Basically, inside and outside all our assets,” said Debbie Sechler, Metro’s executive vice-president for administration.

Ads could accompany the log-on if Metro offered Wi-Fi, or even the agency’s website, where many riders go for schedule and customer service information.

The goal, Sechler said, would be to use the revenue to improve the system, primarily in enhancements for riders.

Patman said officials are open to ads “in light of our need to look at all conceivable funding sources” as Metro looks to expand bus and rail offerings in city.

Because Metro excludes commercial advertising, companies have been reluctant to discuss how much revenue the system could expect, Sechler said. At a meeting Wednesday, she estimated all types of advertising could generate in excess of $10 million a year, though it is likely an advertising firm handling the marketing of Metro’s buses, trains and shelters would take a portion of that.

Metro’s yearly operating budget is around $700 million.

The decision board members face is whether the financial gain is worth whatever sacrifice could come with paid ads.

“My concern is the difference between what we bring in and what we are obligated to, that may not be enough to justify changing the look of our brand,” board member Lex Frieden said.

We’ve been talking about this since at least 2008, with the most recent mention I can find being in 2015. Previous attempts at this occurred in 2010 and 2012. We have definitely hashed this out, and we have always stopped short. My opinions, for what they are worth:

1. Basically nobody objects to ads inside buses and rail cars, so I have no idea why we aren’t already doing those.

2. People do have opinions about ads on the outside of buses and trains, and I’m fine with everyone who has an opinion getting some input on what the parameters will be for external ads – size, number, placement, what have you.

3. Metro should be very clear about what kind of ads it will allow and reject. There are always controversies whenever there are provocative ads being bought on buses and trains. Having clear and unambiguous standards will help buffer against some of that.

4. The amount of money Metro can make from ads is relatively small compared to its operating budget, but still millions of dollars a year. As the story notes, this can be used to pay for free-fare promotional days, and (my preference) it can be used towards the installation of bus shelters and the repair and improvement of sidewalks around bus stops. Imagine how much of this could have already been done if Metro had taken action to allow ads back in 2008, or 2010, or 2012, or even 2015.

5. In short, do it. Seriously, why are we still talking about this?

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.

The Harris County poll you didn’t really need

From the inbox:

Sponsored by HRBC, a survey was released today that reveals many insights into Harris County voters and their feelings towards political leaders and important issues facing Harris County.

“While Harris County voters feel very differently about various leaders and issues, they overwhelmingly believe that our home is a leader in job creation because of its low taxes and regulations,” said HRBC Chairman Alan Hassenflu. “HRBC looks forward to its continued work with state and local leaders to ensure our region and state remains an economic powerhouse,” continued Hassenflu.

The survey was conducted by Ragnar Research Partners, February 24 through February 26, 2019 by telephone, including landlines (28%) and cell phones (72%). Interviews included 400 Likely Voters (LVs) across Harris County. Quotas on age, gender, education, ethnicity, and region were used to ensure a representative distribution. The study’s margin of error is ±5%.

“Generally, we see that voters have a positive outlook for Harris County which is reflected in the optimistic attitudes towards the County’s continued economic prosperity. The voters believe that Texas continues to head in the right direction, but they have a differing opinion on the state of the Nation,” said Chris Perkins, Partner at Ragnar Research.

Click link to review full survey results:

https://houstonrealty.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/HRBC_Harris-Co_Memo_vF_190320.pdf

HRBC is the Houston Realty Business Coalition, a group that tends to endorse conservative candidates in city elections; Bill King, Bill Frazer, and Mike Knox were among their preferred candidates in 2015. I’d not heard of Ragnar Research Partners before, but Chris Perkins is a longtime Republican operative who’s shown up on this blog before. He was once part of Wilson Perkins Associates, now known as WPA Intelligence. I tell you all this not to convince you that their data is junk, just to let you know who you’re dealing with.

As for the poll results, I’d take them with a modest amount of salt. Greg Abbott has a 52-36 favorable split in the county, which didn’t stop him from losing the county to Lupe Valdez 52-46 in 2018, while County Judge Lina Hidalgo was largely unknown to respondents. (That didn’t stop 65% of them from disagreeing with Hidalgo hiring some New York-based consultants, with her campaign’s money (not mentioned in the question, by the way) after the election, even though I’d bet my annual salary against Chris Perkins’ that basically nobody had even heard of that before being asked the question.) Donald Trump, on the other hand, was at 39-60 in favorability, which let’s just say is not good and does not bode well for Republicans in the county in 2020. And even though they did their best to tilt the question by associating it with Nancy Pelosi, more respondents preferred Pelosi’s position on the border wall.

Earlier in this post I said I wasn’t trying to convince you that this pollster is shady. Well, let’s revisit that. Here, from the full results page, is one of their “local issues” questions:

Bus Services Are Preferred
Likely voters are split initially on whether building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of $2.45 billion dollars. However, when given the choice, a majority of voters are more likely to agree prefer BRT and providing more express commuter bus service over building more light rail tracks.

Seems straightforward enough, right? Now here are the questions they actually asked:

Question Asked:
20 mi Light Rail: Do you agree or disagree that building an additional twenty miles of light rail is the best use of two point four five billion dollars to help address Houston’s transportation needs?

BRT vs Light Rail: Please tell me which point of view you agree with the most. Some people say, Metro should build more light rail. Other people say, Metro should make fares free and provide more express commuter bus service to job centers other than downtown.

Emphasis mine. That’s not the same choice as they presented it above. I’m not some fancy professional pollster, but it seems to me that if one of your choices is something for free, it’s going to get more support than it would have without the free stuff, and more support than something else that isn’t free.

Anyway. I don’t know what motivated a poll of the county this far out from any election, but more data is better than less data. Even questionable data from questionable sources has some value.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

From the “Elections have consequences”, Metro referendum edition

Sometimes, consequences are good things.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

METRO will get more federal support for public transportation projects if Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher has anything to say about it. The freshman lawmaker wants to use her new seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to back METRO’s Regional Transit Plan.

Fletcher says she learned during last year’s campaign just how frustrated her constituents are about their lack of transit options. “I want to be a partner with METRO,” she told Houston Matters Monday. “And looking at their plan, I know it’s undergoing input right now, community input, through all these town halls they’re doing. But I think it’s really important to be a partner and try to help in all the ways that you can in the federal government [to] implement and get funding for those plans.”

Fletcher frequently attacked Congressman John Culberson during the 2018 campaign for blocking METRO’s efforts to build a light rail line along Richmond Avenue. She stopped short of endorsing the project herself on Houston Matters, but indicated she’ll follow METRO’s lead.

The full interview with Rep. Fletcher is embedded in the story, so go give it a listen. Having her fight for funds for Metro doesn’t mean Metro will get them – we all know how challenging it is to get anything done these days. But having someone in Congress fighting for Metro instead of against it will surely help.

More details on the Metro referendum

Still a work in progress.

A planned 110 miles of two-way HOV along major freeways with eight new park and ride stations is expected to cost $1.37 billion, with another $383 million in improvements to operate 25 percent more bus trips across the region.

The projects promote new services within Metro’s core area and on the fringes of its sprawling 1,200-square-mile territory. Inside the Sam Houston Tollway where buses travel most major streets and are more commonly used by residents, officials want to increase how often those buses come. Outside the beltway where more than 2 million of Harris County’s residents live, park and ride lots will be expanded and commuter buses will go to more places more often.

[…]

Big-ticket items in the plan are directed at faster commutes and more frequent service in transit-heavy parts of Metro’s area. As officials prepare for eight new or expanded park and ride lots and two-way service even farther out most freeways, 14 core local bus routes are primed for development into so-called BOOST corridors aimed at making bus trips along city streets faster by sequencing traffic lights to give approaching buses priority and increasing the frequency of buses.

“From the outset, we are very pleased with where they are putting the investment,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation planning.

Still, Blair said the agency is hoping for more specifics on how Metro prioritizes projects, both in terms of funding and the timing with which initiatives are tackled.

“People want to know what they are getting and when,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan will be about getting to bus stops. Officials say they plan to coordinate with city planners and developers to make sure sidewalks lead to accessible and comfortable stops, something many riders say is transit’s biggest obstacle in Houston.

As a reminder, you can always go to MetroNext.org for information about the plan and public meetings to discuss it. In a better world, we’d be starting off with a transit system that already included a Universities light rail line, and would be seeking to build on that. In this world, we hope to build a BRT line that covers much of the same turf west of downtown, and turns north from its eastern end. Which will still be a fine addition and in conjunction with the Uptown BRT line will finally enable the main urban core job centers to be truly connected. The focus on sidewalks, which I’ve emphasized before, is very welcome. We need to get this approved by the voters, and we need to ensure we have a Mayor that won’t screw up what Metro is trying to do. I know we’re already obsessing about 2020 and the Presidential race – I’m guilty, too – but there’s important business to take care of in 2019 as well.

Metro moving forward on 2019 referendum

I’m ready for it.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is expected to ask voters next fall for more than $3 billion in borrowing authority to implement its next wave of transit projects.

The 20-year plan laid out by Metro officials includes roughly 20 more miles of light rail, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and 110 miles of two-way HOV lanes along area freeways.

The plan, based on studies and public feedback, focuses on beefing up service in core areas where buses and trains already are drawing riders and connecting suburban residents and jobs in those areas.

“We are making sure what we are doing here in the metro service area blends into the region,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said. “How do we make sure we are putting together an environment and place that connects one mode of transportation to other modes of transportation.”

The overall price tag for the plan is $7.5 billion, more than half of which would be funded via state and federal transportation monies.

[…]

Unlike previous Metro capital plans that spent roughly $1 billion in local money on the Red Line light rail, its northern extension and the Green and Purple lines, the current plan would spend more on buses — specifically bus rapid transit — along key routes where officials believe better service can connect to more places and, in turn, lure more riders. The estimated cost of about 75 miles of bus rapid transit is $3.15 billion.

Officials believe BRT, as it is called, delivers the same benefits as rail, but at less cost with more flexibility, giving Metro the ability to alter service to meet demand. For riders, it would be a rail-like experience and different from buses that operate on set timelines.

“If you can get a service people can bank on and count on, you don’t need a schedule,” Lambert said.

BRT operates similar to light rail with major station stops along dedicated lanes used only by the buses, though they may share some streets with automobile traffic. The region’s first foray into bus rapid transit is under construction along Post Oak in the Uptown area. Service is scheduled to start in early- to mid-2020.

The MetroNext plan calls for at least five bus rapid transit projects:

Interstate 45 — which is poised for its own massive rebuild by TxDOT — from downtown to Bush Intercontinental Airport

Interstate 10 from downtown to the proposed Texas Bullet Train terminal at Loop 610 and U.S. 290

Gessner from Metro’s West Little York park and ride to its Missouri City park and ride

Extending Uptown’s planned rapid transit to the Gulfton Transit Center

A proposed fifth BRT is a revised version of the University Line light rail that Metro proposed and then shelved because of a lack of progress and intense opposition. The line, which some consider the most-needed major transit line in the region, would tie the University of Houston and Texas Southern University areas to downtown and then the Uptown area.

Since becoming chair of Metro in 2016, [Carrin] Patman has said the downtown-to-Uptown connection is the missing link in major transit investment within Loop 610. However, she has stressed that light rail may not be the best mode.

Though officials have pivoted from trains to buses with much of the plan, nearly $2.5 billion in new rail is being proposed, including the extension of both the Green Line along Harrisburg and the Purple Line in southeast Houston to Hobby Airport. The airport legs alone are estimated to cost close to $1.8 billion even though they are expected to draw fewer riders than any of the bus rapid transit routes.

All the details, which as Metro Chair Patman notes can and will change as the community dialogue continues, can be found at MetroNext.org. A press release with a link to Patman’s “State of Metro” presentation last week is here. I will of course be keeping an eye on this, and I definitely plan to interview Patman about the referendum once we get a little farther into the year. And let’s be clear, even if I didn’t have other reasons to dislike Bill King, I don’t want him to ever have any power over Metro. If we want to have any shot at having decent transit in this city, he’s the last person we want as Mayor.

More Metro regional transit plan meetings planned

There’s more to talk about now.

After gathering input over the past year on how to expand public transportation in the region, METRO says it will soon hold another series of meetings to see what people think of their draft Regional Transit Plan.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said they’re also expecting feedback from a new group of Harris County decision-makers.

“We have a new county government, there are some changes on the congressional level, and we need to take all those things into account,” said Patman. “Because some of the opinions of some of the stakeholders may have changed too.”

As the population grows, METRO says it needs to find better ways to move people to the region’s many employment centers. In the past, most people commuted into downtown Houston. But now, commuters are headed to places like the Med Center, the Energy Corridor, and The Woodlands.

Patman said they also want to tackle mobility challenges within the City of Houston, like providing better connections between downtown and the Galleria.

“The question is what form that will take,” said Patman. “What we’ve been looking at is the concept of bus rapid transit along part of Richmond, dropping down to Westpark, and connecting with the Post Oak BRT. But when we go back out for the public engagement process we’ll get a lot of input into that.”

See here and here for some background, and here for the project webpage. Changes to Commissioners Court as well as changes in Congress may allow for a more expansive definition of what is possible with this. The end result of the meetings and the engagement will be a referendum we vote on in 2019. Go and have your say so what we vote on later is what you were hoping for.

Metro’s post-Culberson future

You might not be aware of this, but famously anti-Metro Congressman John Culberson lost his bid for re-election on Tuesday. What might that mean for Metro?

Lizzie Fletcher

In one of the more stunning defeats of incumbent Republicans on Tuesday night, Lizzie Fletcher beat out long-time Congressman John Culberson in the Texas 7th District. It is the first time this seat has been held by a Democrat in more than 50 years.

While Fletcher campaigned primarily on inclusiveness and healthcare, one portion of the platforms on her campaign website should not go unnoticed. “We need to partner with cities, counties, and METRO to bring additional resources and improvements to our region,” she says on her website. “We need an advocate for policies that both maintain and expand our region’s mobility infrastructure. And we need to make sure that Houston receives its fair share of transportation funding to move our citizens across the region.”

This seems like a logical and rational position given Houston’s congestion issues and rapidly growing size. But, she adds one additional note. “John Culberson has failed to be a partner in this effort. Even worse, his record shows that he has actively worked against expanding transportation options in Houston.”

Some might dismiss this as campaign rhetoric, but the thing is, she isn’t wrong. In a now infamous 2014 fundraising event at Tony’s, the posh Italian eatery in Greenway Plaza, Culberson bragged about preventing light rail from expanding to a line planned for Richmond Avenue. “I’m very proud to have been able to protect Richmond and Post Oak from being destroyed as Fannin and Main Street were destroyed,” he said. “This is the end of all federal funding on Richmond.”

[…]

Now that Culberson’s aversion to rail is removed from the district, it will be interesting to see if Fletcher takes up the mantle of public transportation and acts as less of a hindrance — or even an advocate — for programs that would increase rail and other public transit programs through the Houston-Galveston region.

KUHF also asked those questions.

METRO Chairman Carrin Patman said she thinks Lizzie Fletcher will be a huge help as the agency moves ahead with a new regional transit plan.

[…]

But what does Fletcher’s election mean for any Richmond rail plans?

Patman said for cost reasons they’re now considering bus rapid transit for the Richmond corridor, to help provide better connections between downtown and The Galleria. But she added that project would also require help from Washington, D.C.

“Just as we built two of the three rail lines with a federal match, we will need federal money to help implement our expanded transit in the region,” explained Patman.

So first and foremost, Culberson’s defeat means that when he officially opposes the Metro regional transit plan, as I expect he will, he’ll do so as just another cranky member of the general public. And not just with Lizzie Fletcher in Congress but Democrats controlling Congress, there should be a good chance to get the Culberson anti-Richmond rail budget rider removed. That’s all very much to the good, but it’s a start and not a done deal. But as Christof Spieler helpfully reminds us, there’s a lot of work still to be done, as any federal funds only exist as matches to local money. We need to put up the cash first, then we can try to get federal help. Christof has a few suggestions, and I would submit that the changeover in Harris County Commissioners Court, as well as having a potentially friendlier-to-rail representative from the county on the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council, could be game changers of equal magnitude. You want to see this gap in Metro’s transit infrastructure get filled? Start by engaging on the 2019 transit plan referendum, and tell your local officials to support Metro in this effort.

Second look at Metro’s long range transit plan

Still a work in progress, but there’s beginning to be some focus.

Transit officials inched closer Wednesday to asking voters next year for up to $3 billion for two-way express bus service along many Houston freeways, along with a few more miles of light rail.

The first stop for a new transit vision, however, is additional communication with community groups before a more refined plan is approved by Metropolitan Transit Authority, which ultimately will need voter approval to build any of it.

“The target date is still November 2019,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said of a voter referendum.

During a Wednesday workshop discussing the regional transportation plan, dubbed MetroNEXT, Metro staff detailed a number of proposed projects, developed after months of public meetings during the past 18 months.

The consensus preferences from the meetings, Metro vice president of systems and capital planning Clint Harbert said, is “really taking what we do well and making these trips faster and more reliable.”

As a result, many of the projects rely on roads and freeways, rather than rail. Metro has spent most of the last two decades mired in light rail debates and construction.

Instead, the early draft of the plan – which still will undergo months of community input before it is approved next year – includes only 12 miles of light rail, extending the Red Line north to Tidwell and south to Hobby Airport and the Purple Line to Hobby Airport.

Meanwhile, more than 34 miles of bus rapid transit – using large buses along mostly lanes solely for bus use – would spread westward from downtown. One of the key lines follows much of the path of the proposed University Line, a long-dormant light rail project that has been one of Metro’s most contentious.

The major bus rapid transit corridor would connect Kashmere to downtown, then head west to Greenway Plaza and Westchase. It would have a key connection to the bus transit planned along Post Oak, now under construction.

See here for some background. This represents the least ambitious of the possible plans, and it’s a combination of what’s most doable and what’s least controversial. Nothing wrong with that, I just wish we lived in a world where those conditions allowed for something more expansive. Even at this level, I expect plenty of friction from the usual suspects. Getting the eventual referendum passed will take a lot of engagement. I look forward to doing an interview with Metro Chair Patman about the final version of this for that election.

The autonomous cars/mass transit debate

Seems to me this should be a “both-and” rather than an “either-or”, but you know how I get.

Autonomous vehicles that will outperform buses, cost less than Uber and travel faster than cars stuck in traffic today are two years away. Or 10. Or 30.

But visions of the future they’ll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars — and how soon they’ll get here — could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven’t seen.

“They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time,” said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. “That might be a tad bit unrealistic.”

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

Autonomous cars have entered policy debates — if not car lots — with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly. Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to “19th-century technology” will block innovation and waste billions.

[…]

Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.

“Let’s talk about what we can predict,” he said. “The problem of the city is a problem of sharing space. In 2100, the problem of the city will still be a problem of sharing space.”

By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips — rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighborhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.

This possibility is not radically different from today. Uber and Lyft offer the closest approximation to how people will behave in an autonomous future, when consumers use cars they don’t own. Both companies are frequently cited by opponents of transit. But they also now back big transit investments, without which their riders in congested cities would be stuck in even worse traffic.

No system of autonomous cars could be more efficient than the New York subway, said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. Uber needs that transit, just as it will need electric scooters and bikes and the congestion pricing it also supports in New York to ensure that cheaper transportation doesn’t simply lead to more traffic.

I see a lot of value in finding ways to use autonomous cars as shuttles to help solve “last-mile” problems. Find places where getting people to and from bus stops across large parking lots or other non-pedestrian-friendly turf as a way to entice more bus usage, for example. Here in Houston, that might also mean connecting people in the farther-flung parts of the Medical Center to the light rail stops. I don’t see any value in claiming that autonomous cars will replace transit, or in arguing that transit projects should be put on hold until autonomous cars are more prevalent. We need solutions for the short term, and this is what can help for now. Let’s focus on that.

First look at Metro’s long range plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Given the projections, Harbert laid out two alternative plans.

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

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Enabling better transit

This is great.

For less than the cost of a single bus, however, Metro might be the first transit agency in the country to take a significant step across an entire bus system that could open riding options to scores of vision-impaired customers with the use of a smartphone.

The secret is a small beacon about the size of a garage door opener, placed atop every one of those bus-stop poles.

“It is amazing when you see a need you can address it with new technologies,” said Lex Frieden, a member of the transit agency’s board and a nationally acclaimed disability-access advocate.

Users can plot their location using a mapping program, then the beacons are integrated into the directions. Often, the biggest challenge for some users is finding precisely where a bus stop is located at an intersection, or in the middle of a long block.

“It is about getting that information and getting it in your hands,” said Randy Frazier, Metro’s chief technology officer.

As someone approaches their intended stop, their phone receives signals from the beacon, which can send an alert to their phone. Alerts can be delivered either as audio instructions, such as how a mapping program gives drivers voice instructions to turn left or right, or as tactile directions that use pulsing so someone can understand the instructions via sense of touch. As they draw closer to the stop, the pulses increase until the rider knows they are in the correct spot.

[…]

The beacons are a relatively inexpensive leap that could put Metro at the forefront of making transit more accessible for many potential riders. In addition to an aging population of Baby Boomers, many of whom will need transit in the future as they lose the ability to drive, Metro and other transit agencies struggle to lessen para-transit costs.

MetroLift, which offers door-to-door service for elderly and disabled passengers, costs Metro $2.47 per mile, according to 2016 data. Providing a taxi, where applicable, reduces the cost to $1.26 per mile a passenger is carried.

Conventional transit, meanwhile, costs Metro less, about $1.11 per mile for a bus and $1.17 for light rail. When that’s considered across nearly 590 million miles of transit travel in the Houston area, shifting some of the riders to buses and trains could save millions of dollars and give elderly and disabled riders more freedom to travel without prearranged plans.

Installing a beacon at all of Metro’s roughly 9,000 bus stops is expected to cost $375,000, meaning for less than the cost of a single bus every place that a bus stops will be accessible to the visually impaired and others.

Better service for more people at a lower cost. Gotta love that. I don’t have a point to make here, I just want to make sure you keep this in mind when you hear all the blather from the usual blowhards when Metro rolls out its comprehensive transit plan later this year.

No Metro vote this year

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro will pilot automated vehicle shuttle at TSU

from the inbox:

Texas Southern University students may have another transportation option on campus in the fall semester: an autonomous shuttle. Today, METRO’s Board of Directors gave the nod to the autonomous vehicle (AV) project, a first for the agency.  Although the low speed vehicle will drive itself, an operator will be on board at all times.  The pilot will take place along TSU’s mile-long, famed Tiger Walk. Several members of the public spoke at the meeting in support of the project.

“We are so fortunate to be able to partner with Texas Southern to pilot this autonomous vehicle. The location is ideal and its transportation studies program provides the type of academic expertise needed. It also allows us to explore how this technology can be applied on a greater scale,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert.

Riders will not be charged to use the shuttle, which will be about the size of a minivan, similar to those used in Las Vegas and Arlington at AT&T Stadium.

“Our Texas Southern University family, led by President Dr. Austin Lane and Provost Dr. Kendall Harris,  is thrilled about the METRO decision today. Student, faculty and visitor access will be enhanced, especially for nighttime classes and activities,” said Dr. Carol Lewis, professor and emeritus director of TSU’s Center for Transportation Training & Research.

If successful, the project is designed to eventually extend the AV shuttle route to connect with METRORail and the Eastwood Transit Center.

METRO’s Board approved spending up to $250,000 for the first phase.

“The Board’s action clears the way for us to request proposals from vendors and select a vehicle.  We are excited to begin studying how this could enhance our service overall,” said Kimberly Williams, METRO’s chief innovation officer.

The pilot will help METRO study how autonomous vehicles could be used to improve first and last mile transit connections, as well as other uses in places, such as business parks and medical centers.

Along with METRO, the planning committee for the project includes Texas Southern University, the city of Houston, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Houston District of the Texas Department of Transportation.

“Our university transportation research center will work with the partners to assess a myriad of variables associated with AV operation, such as user acceptance, vehicle operation, accessibility for persons with disabilities and electrical utilization and recharging. The university looks forward to contributing to the advancement of technologies for our Houston community,” Dr. Lewis added.

METRO was a key part of the application that helped Texas secure a designation as an AV proving ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016.

This was also reported on the Metro blog, and Swamplot noted an earlier mention of automated vehicles for Metro outside of this pilot. Using this as a way to help conquer the first/last mile problem makes a lot of sense – I’ve advocated a tighter integration with B-Cycle for the same purpose – so I’ll be very interested to see how this goes and what Metro’s vision for this is beyond the TSU campus if this is a success. For what it’s worth, though, as Streetsblog notes, in a different world we’d already have a light rail line in this same place on the TSU campus. What might have been, you know? Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on this because it’s very likely to start showing up elsewhere in the city. KUHF has more.

The possible Houston high speed rail stations

From Swamplot:

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

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

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

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

Lamenting the lost rail opportunity

What could have been.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Houston is showing to Amazon

Meet the Innovation Corridor.

Houston leaders hope to entice Amazon with a spot somewhere within the four-mile stretch of the Metro rail line that runs from downtown to the Texas Medical Center, an area they’re calling the Innovation Corridor – and the city’s best shot at winning the Seattle tech giant’s $5 billion second headquarters.

The rail line cuts through a part of Houston that includes some of the city’s largest companies and most prominent health care institutions, as well as Rice University, Hermann Park, the Museum District, Houston Community College, NRG Park and the collection of bars, restaurants and apartment complexes in trendy Midtown, according to a document outlining Houston’s confidential proposal.

City officials won’t say exactly where they want Amazon to plant a campus that could grow to more than 8 million square feet and house 50,000 high-paying jobs. But they have proposed multiple sites within the corridor, a slice of Houston that connects the city’s intellectual and cultural assets in the heart of its ethnically diverse population and bustling business hub.

“What’s remarkable is how concentrated all of this is in a four-mile-long area,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the group behind Houston’s bid for Amazon. “Innovation Corridor seems to fit. It’s just like, wow, this is what Amazon is looking for.”

[…]

Local leaders have given Amazon its choice of undisclosed sites within the so-called Innovation Corridor, which, according to the document drafted by the Greater Houston Partnership, offers close access to two international airports, three interstates, 3 million workers, plus key game changers in business and an unparalleled array of amenities.

The document’s 32 bullet points highlighted the nearly 100,000 people who work in technology-related fields as well as the region’s low taxes, low cost of living, reasonable housing prices and eclectic neighborhoods and restaurants.

In particular, the document highlighted the city’s racial and ethnic diversity, which, Harvey argued, should appeal to a company that wants to attract millennial workers to a tech industry that has come under fire for its ethnic uniformity, particularly in Silicon Valley.

“As Amazon seeks to diversify its ranks at the executive, manager and professional levels, there is no better place to locate than in Houston,” city leaders said.

I still don’t think Houston’s efforts are going to amount to anything, but hey, it’s worth a shot. Given what Amazon has talked about for their new location, this is probably the best part of town to meet the requirements. Maybe we’ll learn something from the experience for the future.

Houston signs memorandum of understanding with Texas Central

This makes a lot of sense.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Culberson does his Culberson thing to Metro again

It is what it is. But maybe, just maybe, there’s now a sell-by date on it.

Houston may have stopped building light rail lines, but the fight over them rages on — right to Washington where Rep. John Culberson again has inserted language keeping tracks off Richmond and Post Oak.

For the fifth consecutive year, Culberson, R-Houston, added language to the draft of the House appropriations bill for Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, specific to the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Section 163 of the THUD bill, as it’s called, bars federal officials from spending money that “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

The area in question is within Culberson’s district, and he vigorously has opposed any light rail projects along Richmond, citing resident opposition and his belief that Metro deceived voters when it narrowly won approval for a “Westpark” rail line in 2003.

[…]

In the draft bill released Monday, the language provides for Metro to regain federal funding if it wins voter approval that specifically identifies a route along Richmond and Post Oak as part of a region-wide comprehensive plan for transit.

“The ballot language shall include reasonable cost estimates, sources of revenue to be used and the total amount of bonded indebtedness to be incurred as well as a description of each route and the beginning and end point of each proposed transit project.

Metro, meanwhile is working on a regional transit plan, holding the first of 24 community meetings on Monday night in Cypress. That leaves Metro a long way from any work along Richmond, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“I think, quite frankly, we’re at a point in time right now where we need to see what we should be doing,” Lambert said.

We are familiar with the drill by now. Metro is working on that regional transportation plan, and I feel reasonably confident that a Universities Line 2.0 will be part of it. It just makes sense. We may get to vote on a new referendum next year, at a time when Culberson will be facing his most competitive race in a decade. I have to assume there will be some public discussion about this between now and then. Let’s just say that I welcome the debate.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals

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

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

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

We’re Listening

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

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

No Metro vote this year

One less to worry about.

Agency officials expect to begin public meetings to gather input on where expanded bus and rail lines might go in late June.

But the critical public response – the money to fund preferred projects via a voter referendum – likely is 18 months away, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials said.

“The community input process is going to take a lot of time,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board, calling the chances of asking voters to approve a bond issue this year “unrealistic.”

“My guess is it would not be before November 2018,” Patman said.

The timeline is less rosy than predicted when the regional transit plan was rolled out in February, when Patman and others said a vote this November remained a possibility.

The regional transit plan, meanwhile, could be approved by the Metro board next summer, after a series of meetings with riders and those who rarely interact with transit.

[…]

Metro officials held 13 meetings with agency employees to solicit ideas from bus and rail operators about what improvements are most needed. That feedback, CEO Tom Lambert said, confirmed what many officials already have said about the need to improve bus stops and shelters and make minor adjustments to routes to improve service.

Also key to the plan as officials prep for meetings in late June is soliciting comment from people in places where bus service is nonexistent, board members said.

“Historically, the meetings have been held in places where Metro is already operating service,” said vice-chairman Jim Robinson.

Attracting suburban interest for transit, and properly prioritizing it with other needs, is an important part of the plan, officials said.

See here, here, and here for some background. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred to see this ready to go this November, as there are a lot of needs to plan for and the sooner we begin the better. But I’d also rather get this right than rush it, and there’s certainly a case for not putting this on a ballot that will be dominated by the revenue cap referendum. Which is not to say that 2018 will be better – there will be far more races on the ballot, if nothing else – but it is a reasonable choice. Let’s get the best plan we can, with a compelling vision for the future, and begin selling it with an eye for next year. KUHF has more.

Metro begins regional transportation planning

Metro wants your input.

We want to hear your ideas for a regional transit plan for the future. METRO, led by its Board of Directors and chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services. It will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, approved by voters in 2003.

Our goals are to improve mobility, enhance connectivity, support vibrant communities and ensure a return on investment. We will be guided by these principles: safety, stewardship, accessibility and equity.

So talk to us.

What type of transit would you use? How do you feel about the goals above? If you don’t use transit today, what would convince you to use it? Can you list three important things METRO should keep top of mind as it shapes this regional plan?

Click here to learn more details. You’ll find tabs at the top of the page. One is “Share Your Vision” where you can submit your ideas online. You’ll also be able to see a presentation on our regional transit plan.

At the specified link you can give feedback, review the 2003 referendum, and read a presentation about the Regional Transit Plan. The latter is from February, and it was the first indication of the planning process, though Metro Chair Carrin Patman was talking about it well before then. The ultimate goal is for this to culminate in another referendum to specify and plan for particular projects, which may include more rail lines like the ones we voted on in 2003 but were not able to complete. Metro could aim to have something on the ballot this year, though given the likely presence of pension and revenue cap issues (and maybe another Astrodome vote), it’s not clear if they should aim for this year or next. Whatever the case, they want to hear from you, so go tell them what you want.

Metro still fixing rail car issues

Someday this will all be over.

Houston’s light rail system is fully open, but closing out a complicated rail car purchase that nearly derailed the new lines remains a challenge for transit officials.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials continue withholding $12.9 million from CAF U.S.A. – the builder of the vehicles – as they debate the amount of liquidated damages owed because of delays and delivery of railcars that were overweight, leaky and halted by faulty axles, among other problems.

When those discussions could conclude and what sort of damages Metro could receive is uncertain, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “We are going to continue to work with CAF, address the issues and go from there.”

In the meantime, the Metro board on Thursday extended a contract with Parsons Transportation Group, an engineering and design firm, for oversight of the CAF purchase. The extension carries the contract beyond its previous expiration in May to April 2018 and adds nearly $700,000 to the contract, which has already paid Parsons $29.6 million.

All 39 of the new light rail cars purchased are available for service, and carried a higher-than-normal number of passengers because of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

All of the cars, however, also have a handful of fleet defects that CAF will have to correct, said Scott Grogan, Metro’s senior director of rail operations.

[…]

The cars are only part of the stumbles related to the rail lines that Metro has raced to correct. Axle counters along the line led to delays in service for months, dropping on-time performance, especially on the Red Line, which represents most rail trips.

Timing has improved significantly since a blitz of repairs prior to the Super Bowl held last month in Houston. In January, the Red Line posted its highest on-time percentage, 92.6 percent, since November 2015. For many of the months between, fewer than 80 percent of the trains arrived on time.

Officials said despite the lingering issues and unresolved matters, the system is carrying people and growing. Buoyed by heavy use for the Super Bowl week, light rail weekday ridership was 2 percent higher in February, compared to the same month last year.

On Saturdays and Sundays, use was increased 12 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

“This isn’t limiting our ability to provide service,” board member Christof Spieler said of the railcar repairs.

It’s annoying that Metro is still dealing with this crap, but it will eventually get sorted. I’m focusing on the fact that the Main Street line’s on time performance has returned to normal levels, and that ridership continues to be strong. I’ve done more riding on Metro – mostly bus, but some train – in the last year than in any previous year I’ve been in Houston. The bus system redesign has been great for me, enabling my wife and I to carpool to work without having to worry about it when one or the other of us needs to go in early or stay late or run an errand after work. Sure it helps that we live in the inner Loop, but that’s where transit is most needed, and it keeps one of our cars off of I-45 every day. This isn’t directly applicable to the story here, but I think it’s good to remember that while Metro has its problems, it does do a good job at what it’s supposed to do.

The long-term future of public transit

By “long-term” I mean by 2050 or so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro preps regional transit plan

This could be on our November ballot as well.

A pending long-term regional transit plan, and likely voter referendum as early as November, will determine where Metro goes. More importantly, they will show what level of support people in the Houston region have for more buses, longer train routes and commuter service to increasingly urbanizing suburban communities.

What’s clear, transit officials acknowledged on Feb. 15 during their first in-depth discussion of the transit plan’s focus, is many solutions to traffic congestion will sit on transit agency shelves for years to come.

“We know we will never have enough resources to build everything,” Metro board member Christof Spieler said. “How do we choose which projects are most worthwhile?”

Board members during the discussion said a host of factors will influence transit project priorities, though the critical litmus test will be whether a project can reliably and quickly serve a large number of riders and solve a congestion challenge. Officials predict as the region grows freeways will clog even more with cars and trucks for more hours of the day. Expansion of many freeways is limited, so using the lanes more effectively or drawing people off the freeway will be critical.

“We’re all going to be more transit-dependent because we can’t spend two hours getting to work,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said.

Transit agency staff has started compiling a list of unfinished projects, including those left over from the contentious 2003 referendum and financial commitments from an extension of Metro’s 1 percent sales tax voters approved in 2012.

Along with public input and ongoing discussions, Metro could have a draft of a regional transit plan – incorporating not only service in Metro’s area, but beyond its own boundaries – by April under an accelerated timetable.

[…]

There are options for starting major transit projects within the next five years, but they require transit officials to either come up with alternative sources of money or ask voters to approve more spending, which could mean more borrowing and new taxes or fees to pay off the debt.

Officials are exploring both options. Last year, officials approved soliciting interest from private firms for development of a train line from the Texas Medical Center to Missouri City. The line, estimated to cost at least $400 million, has political support from many Houston area federal, state and local officials. Questions related to the proposal pushed the deadline for companies to express interest in partnerships with Metro from Feb. 7 to March 20.

Metro leaders, after new board members were installed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last year, also have said a voter referendum for more spending is likely. Transit board chairwoman Carrin Patman said the regional transit plan could lead to a vote as early as November, though the plan itself will inform what could end up in front of voters.

“It’s possible,” she said of an election in nine months. “We’ll have to see what kind of response we get to the plan and what is the best course.”

A referendum, officials said, could be approval for a single project that transit supporters consider high-priority or politically palatable. A entire suite of projects also could be put in front of voters.

See here for some background. The plan doesn’t exist yet, so it’s more than a little premature to speculate. The howling chaos in Washington doesn’t help, either. I’d prefer a bigger package to vote on than a smaller one, but a bigger one carries a lot more risk, as the opposition will be more intense. Still, we did pass the 2003 referendum against a pretty fierce and well-funded No effort, and I’d guess the Metro service area is more amenable to transit in general and rail in particular now than it was then. But even people who do support those things may vote against a referendum if they don’t think it gives them something they want. And even if Metro wants to put something up for a vote, there’s an argument to be made to wait till 2018 and do as much public engagement as possible beforehand. There’s a lot of ways this can go, so we’ll just have to see what they present when they have something to show us.