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Metro referendum is set

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Metro celebrates ridership increase one year after new bus network rollout

Leah Binkovitz reports.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Main Street Line having on-time issues

Not good.

HoustonMetro

Poor on-time trends for Metro trains are costing riders time along the city’s most heavily-used transit route, and potentially leading some to consider other options for trips, a transit agency board member said Wednesday.

“I think we are losing ridership to this,” said Christof Spieler, during a Metropolitan Transit Authority committee meeting.

While no data indicates for certain that ridership is affected, Spieler said a handful of issues are hurting the reliability of trips on the Red Line, mostly as the line passes through downtown and Midtown. The primary cause is a problem with devices along the line which verify that the train is cleared to cross certain intersections.

Officials have been working for more than two years to find a fix to the axle counters, though its effect on the on-time performance of trains is worsening when coupled with traffic signal timing issues in downtown Houston. High heat and humidity also makes the problem worse, said Andy Skaowski, Metro’s chief operating officer.

The problem is longstanding, according to Metro’s monthly performance data. The last time Red Line trains finished a month with an on-time performance better than 95 percent – the benchmark Metro set for acceptable performance – was October 2013. In some months, fewer than 80 percent of trains arrived on time. Metro was unable to calculate on-time performance along the line for 10 months after a 5.3-mile extension of the line opened in December 2013.

[…]

Often, a single problem along the line can stall numerous trains, Skabowski said. The goal is to have trains arrive at each station every six minutes most of the day. If a train is stopped by a faulty axle counter, the delay cascades as trains behind it are held up so they do not bunch together.

That can make the delays even more mystifying to riders, Skabowski said.

“What you’re seeing in front of you is not your train, it is two trains in front of you,” he told Spieler.

The problem is being addressed, so one hopes the on-time performance will bounce back. For what it’s worth, I can only recall one time in recent months where I experienced one of those “why aren’t we moving?” delays. I don’t take the train that often, however, so that doesn’t mean much. Metro has gotten a lot done over the past few years, and it seems like their biggest problems lately have been caused by their suppliers and contractors. Those are still their problems to manage, and this one needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

One year of the Green and Purple light rail lines

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to buy a big piece of land near the Medical Center?

Here’s your chance.

A single tract of land large enough to hold multiple office towers, high-rise residential buildings and a hotel doesn’t often come available inside Loop 610. One near the Texas Medical Center is even more uncommon.

After 45 years, Shell Oil Co. is selling 21 acres it owns at the southwest corner of Old Spanish Trail and Greenbriar, just south of the Medical Center’s main campus and directly west of the Woman’s Hospital of Texas.

The site houses a midrise office building, a parking garage and several warehouse structures.

As far as most people in real estate development would be concerned, they’re all teardowns. The value of the property is in the land, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars.

The land is next to a giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center that is the proposed location of a medical research project to be called the TMC3 Innovation Campus.

The facility would bring together several Medical Center institutions and for-profit commercial components, such as hotels, shops and restaurants. It would have a large plaza shaped like a double helix, a nod to intertwining strands of DNA.

The Shell property is along the light-rail line and represents the largest contiguous redevelopment site in the Texas Medical Center area, according to Cushman & Wakefield, which has the listing.

I used to work out that way, and I can tell you, the stretch of Old Spanish Trail from 288 to where it meets up with Main Street, just to the west of this property, used to be mostly run down and vacant lots but is now packed with new Medical Center complexes and residences. The “giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center” referenced is in front of the Smithlands light rail station, which is two blocks from the main entrance to the for-sale tract. That lot is always full – there was a dedicated traffic light put in for it on OST between Greenbriar and Stadium – so I have no idea what will happen when it gets developed as well. I would also note that the large tract of land at Main and Greenbriar where The Stables once was is still a vacant lot after just shy of a decade has passed. In other words, just because a large tract of land is coming on the market, doesn’t mean something will get built on it any time soon. Anyway, if you have a few million bucks lying around, this might be a nice piece of land to pick up.

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

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

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

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

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

Metro posts solid ridership increase

Nice.

METRO’s chosen path to increase ridership by delivering improved routes, with improved connections, is producing solid, steady and most impressively significant, numbers – across the board. Ridership on all fixed routes grew to nearly 7 million in November 2015. That is an 11 percent jump from November 2014.

Local bus ridership numbers for November 2015 are up more than 4 percent from a year ago. METRORail’s Red Line ridership is up nearly 26 percent and Park & Ride boardings have increased nearly 6 and a half percent.

“We are in the first year of a five year plan to improve mobility options for the Houston region,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying. The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

“This is a good start and we expect our new transfer policy will increase ridership even more,” said METRO CEO Tom Lambert. “ The ability to transfer in any direction will not only make our network easier to use, it will give our riders more freedom and can save them a significant amount of money.”

METRO will unveil its new two-way transfer policy on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The new Board policy changes a one way fare into a three hour ticket, allowing fare cardholders free transfers in any direction on local bus or light rail within that three hour window. Currently, transfers are free in one direction.

Not too shabby. You can see the numbers in the embedded image. A few extra details, taken from Metro Board member Christof Spieler’s Facebook page:

“November ridership, @METROHouston reimagined local network: +8% over last year weekday, +9% Saturday, +30% Sunday.”

and

“Red Line now carries nearly 55,000 a weekday, and 11 local routes (all frequent) with over 5,000 weekday boardings, 2x many as before.”

Again, that’s pretty darned nice, especially at a time when there is also some annoying news about Metro’s light rail car supplier. It shows that the whole system is seeing increases – existing light rail, local buses, and Park and Ride buses. Demand is clearly there for transit, and part of this increase is the result of new service – the two new light rail lines, buses running on normal schedules on weekends, and so forth. Keep all that in mind when you hear Uptown BRT naysayers claim that no one will use it. The same people said the same things about the Red Line once, too. Beyond the Uptown line, there are a lot of other service expansion projects being talked about. It’s time to start making some of them more concrete. The demand is there. We need the supply.

New rail line numbers notch up in July

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

[…]

The Purple Line runs from downtown to the Third Ward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MetroRail passengers decrease in April, May 18, 2004:

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

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

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

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

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

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

MetroRail ridership rises in June, July 1, 2004:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Bikes now allowed on light rail all day

Some good news from the inbox:

BikesOnRail

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s new rail station

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Metro gets some new rail cars online

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Please watch out for the trains

Seriously, people.

Three MetroRail collisions this week highlight persistent safety concerns that arise when trains share the road with cars – a problem that Metro officials hope to control as they prepare to open two new rail lines.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has experienced a relatively high number of accidents in its decade running light rail along Main Street. The agency has made adjustments to improve safety, but this week’s accidents show the problem is far from solved.
Raw Video: Car swerves into path of Houston…

A car veered into the path of an oncoming Metro train headed north. The Tuesday morning crash…

The collisions occurred Tuesday and Wednesday over a period of less than 36 hours. The Tuesday crash occurred along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center, where cars can cross onto the tracks to make left turns. The Wednesday incidents were in the Medical Center and along Harrisburg, where Metro is testing trains in advance of a December opening of its Green Line.

Preliminary analysis indicates the train operator was at fault in one of the Med Center crashes, and motorists likely caused the other incidents. Two of the accidents led to reported injuries.

Metro officials said Thursday that they don’t see the need for any immediate changes to address problems at the crash locations, but they are always looking for ideas to improve safety. Many Metro critics have cited an at-grade system’s potential for accidents in arguing that Metro should have built its lines above or below street level.

Of course, it costs a lot more money to elevate or build below street level. These same critics would have been first to declare that Metro couldn’t afford to build any lines if that had been the plan. I’m just saying.

From October 2013 until the end of June, Metro reported 47 light rail collisions. None of the months has exceeded Metro’s goal of no more than six collisions per month.

Regardless of cause, Metro has seen far more collisions than other light rail systems when the system’s size is factored in.

The eight serious collisions Metro reported last year were the same number as Portland, Ore., where the light rail system travels five times as many miles. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which also travels five times as many miles as Metro, had one fewer accident. Both cities have at-grade systems, but most of Dallas’ system is separated from auto traffic.

Based on Metro’s analysis, 22 of the accidents in the past decade – an average of about two per year – were deemed preventable by the train’s operator.

“In a large sense, it is a motorist who is making a call that is not a good one,” said Margaret O’Brien-Molina, spokeswoman for Metro.

In fact, accidents among automobiles as a whole are up in 2014, compared to the past four years, according to Houston TranStar. In June 2014, emergency officials responded to 874 accidents along major freeway and highway corridors, compared to 799 in June 2013 and 733 in June 2012.

Clearly, this is the fault of the red light cameras. (Sorry, my sarcasm reflex was on autoplay there.)

As MetroRail officials prepare for the December openings of the Green Line along Harrisburg east of downtown and the Purple Line along Scott and Wheeler southeast of downtown, they have focused on community awareness.

“Metro has been out talking to every citizen group it can get itself in front of,” said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End Management District. “They have lights at every intersection that flash. It is very difficult to think what else can be done.”

Still, Schenke said, the new line is “weighed against years and years of people driving on this road. Change is hard.”

[…]

Few of the conditions present in the Medical Center – spots where cars sit on the tracks to make left turns – exist along the Green and Purple lines. In many spots along the two new routes, the track is on a slightly elevated platform and largely fenced in, said Andy Skabowski, operations director for Metro.

That might be enough of a buffer to make a difference, Schenke said. Still, she acknowledged transit officials face a challenge.

“There are people to this day that do not pay attention to pedestrians and bicyclists,” she said. “We are conditioned in Houston not to expect anything but cars on the street. That’s what some people think.”

And a lot of those people think they’re the only car on the street. We’ve all experienced drivers like that. There’s only so much Metro can do to prevent accidents. Maybe you think they’ve done enough and maybe you don’t, but at some point it’s on all of us to avoid them. We have a role to play, too, and it’s far from clear that we’re doing what we should be doing.

Commuter rail status

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

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Line ridership continues to be strong

Awesome!

Nearly six months since trains began rumbling north of the central business district along Main and Fulton on the north side, residents and community leaders said the train is becoming a valued part of the neighborhood and a critical link for many transit travelers, even as it contributes to record-setting use of the rail line.

“I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy construction time,” said Rebecca Reyna, executive director of the Greater Northside Management District. “No construction is easy. Now that it’s there, it is slowly becoming a part of the fabric of the north side.”

After adding 5.3 miles of track from the University of Houston Downtown to Northline Commons outside Loop 610, the Red Line posted more trips for the first three months of 2014 than in any three-month period in the light rail system’s history. Based on ridership data compiled by the American Public Transit Association, more than 3.5 million trips were logged on the Red Line from January to March.

What’s harder to calculate is how many of those rides were skimmed from the bus system. Route 15, which largely followed Fulton, was discontinued when the northern extension opened. Two lines that run a similar north-south path along nearby streets, Route 78 and Route 24, have experienced slight decreases in ridership.

When the bus and rail routes are all compared, overall ridership on the Red Line, Route 24 and Route 78 was 4.7 percent higher for the first four months of 2014 than the same lines – and the discontinued Route 15 – during January through April of 2013.

We knew that the first month’s ridership numbers were strong, so this is just a continuation of that. It should’t be a surprise – the Main Street Line has far exceeded its initial ridership projections from the beginning, and the North Line is an extension of the Main Street Line. It would be weird if its ridership numbers weren’t strong. But since one of the criticisms that the anti-rail crowd has long made – and continues to make, despite all the evidence to the contrary – is that nobody really uses the train, it’s important to highlight the fact that they are still wrong.

Speaking of which:

Skeptics point to the $756 million cost ­­- $142.6 million per mile ­­- for the north line and suggest the money could have been better spent adding bus service. Federal funds awarded solely to rail projects covered $450 million of the cost.

I was going to start this sentence by saying “I’d take our local rail skeptics more seriously if…” but the honest truth is that I don’t take them seriously because they’ve never given any reason to be taken seriously. They’ve never been about anything more than hocking spitballs at light rail. Oh sure, they’d occasionally intone somberly about how Metro really should pay more attention to its bus service. And that’s the tell, because as we know Metro recently completed a vast, overarching redesign of its bus network that will simplify routes, provide a lot more service, and have a goal of increasing ridership up to 20%, all without adding any cost to the system, yet the silence from the anti-rail peanut gallery has been deafening. Bill King still hasn’t written a single word about this, for crying out loud. So yeah, I don’t see any point in mistaking them for people with a constructive role to play.

As for the cost, I mean, look, we’ve spent countless billions on widening highways, and we still have terrible traffic. All that widening ultimately does is shift the mess to other parts of the highway and the surface streets. We’re already at a point where simply adding more lanes to existing highways isn’t practical or in some cases even possible, so the solutions being put forth are esoteric, to say the least. Light rail is scalable and sustainable in a way that highway construction just isn’t, and it has other benefits besides. As I’ve argued before, there are no single solutions. There’s a suite of ways to improve access and mobility, and light rail is a key part of that. It’s definitely doing its part, and we should be glad for that. The Highwayman has more.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

We’ll get our new trains in January

We have a deadline.

The company building Metro’s new trains will deliver the final car to Houston five months late, according to a revised schedule submitted to the transit agency.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is reviewing the schedule, spokesman Jerome Gray said, and hasn’t agreed to the new timeline. The revision was one of the  promises the rail car builder, CAF U.S.A., made when the company acknowledged substantial delays in production in January. Rather than deliver the last batch of 39 train cars in August, the company now expects to deliver the last train in January.

Production problems with the first railcar, sitting at Metro’s south Houston rail maintenance facility, led to substantial delays in production. Workers at CAF’s facility in Elmira, N.Y., are building the second car now, with a fix to a troublesome water leak that led to the problems on the first car. Once the second train passes its tests, and the fix is verified, production will accelerate.

To catch up and deal with other production issues, CAF is expanding its plant, but it still will not meet the contractual deadline to deliver the trains. Under the deal signed in 2011, Metro should already have 16 trains in Houston ready to test and start service. The new train cars are critical to starting service on the East and Southeast lines, set to open later this year.

Without the trains, Metro plans to start limited service on the two new lines by taking trains off the Red Line. Reducing  double-car trains to single cars on the Red Line will lead to severe crowding, officials and riders said.

Based on the revised schedule, Metro would have 21 rail cars by the end of September, when service on the lines could begin. Not all of those trains can immediately enter service, however, as they will need testing and final assembly in Houston.

See here and here for the background. That’s longer than I’d have liked for this to take, but at least there’s a target date. Other than having to temper our expectations for the ridership numbers in the first few months of service, and continuing to be prepared to sue if necessary, I don’t know that there’s anything else to be done but wait and hope this time they mean it.

Riding that crowded train

Metro ponders its options for dealing with potential delays in the delivery of new railcars.

Metro officials said Wednesday that the best solution to an expected shortage of railcars might be to limit trains on the main light rail line to one car rather than two, freeing up cars from the current fleet to serve new lines scheduled to open in September.

Currently, Metro tethers two cars together most of the time on the decade-old Main Street line to ensure sufficient capacity.

Officials acknowledged that the decision would frustrate riders, likely leading some to abandon using the line.

“If you try to use our current fleet to run East and Southeast,” said board member Christof Spieler, referring to the new lines set to open this year, “that means leaving passengers behind.”

Officials are waiting for 39 new railcars from the manufacturer, CAF U.S.A., but they still don’t know exactly when the cars will arrive. At least two are likely to be in service by September, Metro officials said.

The company is months behind a schedule that calls for it deliver the final car by September, and it has yet to deliver a viable vehicle. The first car to arrive in Houston came in December – five months late – and still hasn’t passed a key leak test. The train also exceeds weight specifications, meaning it will cost more to operate.

Metro’s board met Wednesday to examine options for operating the new East and Southeast lines and the existing Red Line with the agency’s 37-train fleet. Both new lines are on pace to open in September, said David Couch, vice president of rail construction for Metro.

To have trains arrive every 12 minutes on the two new lines, and assuming no CAF cars arrive by opening day, Metro will have to pull 10 trains from the current route.

See here for the background. Assuming that the two that Metro thinks are likely to show up on time do so, then eight cars will need to be diverted. If “at least two” turns out to mean “more than two”, so much the better. On the other hand, any unexpected maintenance will be that much more disruptive. I don’t see how Metro has much choice for how to deal with this in the short term, so it’s really just a question of how short the short term is. A month, maybe two months, to get enough cars in so that the Main Street line doesn’t need to be cannibalized any more, that’s probably not a big deal. Longer than that, especially if the deadlines are fuzzy and promises get broken along the way, that’s a problem. Other than be prepared to sue for damages if it comes to that, I don’t know what else Metro can do about it right now.

On riding the North Line

Can we wait until we’ve had at least one non-holiday work week before we start talking about North Line ridership numbers? Thanks.

The changes brought by the rail line, an extension of the Main Street Line now known as the Red Line, might develop more gradually than some residents and businesses hope.

Early signs are that riders are flocking to the train. On opening day, when rides were free, Metro estimated 22,054 total boardings, a 59.8 percent increase over the Saturday average for December 2012. This occurred despite sprinkles of rain and an otherwise dreary start to the day.

Officials estimated about 4,500 of those boardings were along the North Line extension. Bus Route 15, which the light rail extension replaces, averaged 1,637 Saturday boardings in October, the latest month for which figures are available.

Ridership was brisk during Christmas week as curious residents hopped aboard and frequent transit riders checked out the extension.

In the documents filed with the FTA in 2009, Metro projected an average weekly ridership of 17,400 daily boardings for the new North Line. That was a projection for 2013, when it was presumed that the line would be operational by then. Let’s assume that’s our projection for 2014. For comparison, the average weekday ridership for the Main Street line was 38,000 daily boardings for the twelve month period running through October. My suspicion is that the 2009 estimate of opening year daily ridership on the North Line will be a bit optimistic due to the Harrisburg and Southeast lines not being operational, but that the totals will rise next year once those lines are up and running. The Southeast line, by the way, had a nearly identical projection of 17,200 average weekday boardings for 2013 back in 2009. The Universities Line, if it ever gets built, has a projection of 32,100 average weekday boardings for an opening year of 2020. The Harrisburg line is funded solely with local money, so there’s no FTA documents for its projected usage, and I couldn’t find anything with some cursory Google searching.

One thing Metro could do a better job of right now is communicating how the “extension” part of the North Line actually works.

Beyond the Northside itself, using the trains takes some adjustment.

Trains run every six minutes during most of the day between the Fannin South station, south of Loop 610, and the Burnett Transit Center north of downtown. North of Burnett, trains run every 12 minutes, meaning half of them turn around at Burnett while half continue northward.

Some riders, unaccustomed to this variation, are finding it difficult to catch the right train.

The schedule is designed to accommodate the line’s ridership without Metro putting too many trains in service, according to David Couch, the transit agency’s vice president for rail construction. As use of the trains increases, he said, wait times will shorten.

The trains rolling through the Northside will pick up more riders when the two lines headed east and southeast of downtown begin service next year. Already on the Northside, riders say they want to see more tracks.

As it happens, Tiffany rode the North Line home from work on Friday, having dropped her car off at the mechanic on the way in. She was on one of the trains that turned around at the Burnett station. Unfortunately, according to her, there was no announcement that passengers needed to disembark – the conductor turned off the lights and exited the train without saying anything – and Metro personnel at the station were uninformed about the situation. She eventually figured it out and caught another train for the remainder of her trip, but it would do Metro and its new riders a lot of good to be very clear about what to expect when you reach the Burnett station. Let’s please not have the next story about the North Line be one whose subject is confused riders who are upset about not having the route properly explained to them, OK?

On another note, the North Line is providing an opportunity to measure the effect of transit on health in Houston.

Now that Metro’s North Line has opened, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute are preparing to begin taking the pulse – figuratively, not literally – of the light rail line extension’s impact on physical activity.

“This is a great opportunity to study a mass transit project as it goes forward,” said Harold Kohl III, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology in the UT center’s School of Public Health and the study’s principal investigator. “We know systems such as Metro light rail can improve traffic congestion and connect people to more places in a city, but not so much about the extent to which they encourage walking in nearby residents.”

Kohl said the answer is particularly hard to know in a car-crazy place like Houston, which doesn’t seem a ripe candidate for the sort of active culture one sees circulating around mass transport in, say, Boston, New York, Portland or San Francisco.

If the study finds a significant increase in physical activity, Kohl said, it could be used to help design future rail lines, principally in Houston, but also in other cities. He said the idea should be to incorporate practical destinations – places to work, shop, worship – that encourage people to make the lines part of their everyday lives.

I have no doubt that I was in the best shape of my life in high school, when I was commuting by bus, ferry, and train each day. I didn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at any point, but there were multiple points at which I did have to walk, and several of them involved going up or down stairs. Do that twice a day, five days a week, usually in a rush because you don’t want to miss the next connection, and you’d be in pretty good shape, too. I doubt anyone’s experience will be like that here in Houston, but making daily walks a part of one’s routine surely can’t be bad. I’ll be interested to see if any differences are detected. Of course, the whole idea of any form of transit is to incorporate practical destinations – no one would use it otherwise – but if there’s a measurable health benefit as part of the bargain, that would be nice.

What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

This story is about the opening of the North Line, but it’s also about where Metro goes from here.

The opening of the lines won’t spell the end of the construction. To complete the final mile of the East Line, Metro must build an underpass at Harrisburg and 66th Street at the Houston Belt & Terminal railroad tracks. The agency struggled to accommodate neighborhood concerns and figure out what it could afford, leading to delays. The final mile will open in December 2015 at the earliest.

The fate of the planned University Line, between the University of Houston and the Westpark Tollway, is even less certain. Metro officials haven’t detailed how they plan to pay for its construction.

Earlier this year at Metro’s behest, city officials designated Richmond as a transit corridor, limiting new development that encroaches on the ability to add a rail line without committing officials to any decision or affecting current buildings.

On Thursday, Metro board members extended the contract for design of the University Line for another year, to Dec. 21, 2014. The extension did not increase the fee to engineering firm AECOM, though the contract has been amended and the fee increased 10 times.

Since 2006, the design contract for the University Line has grown from $17.2 million to $50.8 million, of which $3.7 million remains unpaid.

The added time gives Metro a chance to adjust the designs if necessary, interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

Some Metro board members suggested the agency might be throwing good money after bad.

“We know that line can’t be built, or by the time we have it built, all that work will be obsolete,” board member Jim Robinson said.

Board member Dwight Jefferson said Metro should build what officials said they would when they spent money to study the route.

“If we can save it, that’s what we need to be looking to do,” Jefferson said.

Light rail continues to face vocal opposition from property owners along Richmond, especially west of Shepherd Drive. Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who represents the western area segment of the route, has consistently opposed federal money for the project.

[…]

Washington has its own set of challenges funding transit projects. Still, [Federal Transit Administrator Peter] Rogoff said federal officials will consider helping Houston when it’s ready for its next light rail line. Technically, the University Line application is already filed with federal transit officials.

“We are sort of awaiting clear direction (from Metro),” Rogoff said. “They have seemingly taken a bit of a timeout.”

The North Line extension had a successful opening on Saturday despite the lousy weather. The political situation, by which I mean Rep. Culberson and his fanatical opposition to rail on Richmond, is unlikely to change anytime soon. The need for the Universities Line hasn’t changed, either – if anything, it’s more urgent now. We can’t wait for Culberson to retire or lose or get redistricted out of this part of town. What can we do in the meantime to move the ball forward?

One possibility is to start building the portion of the line that isn’t in Culberson’s district. That would run from the Eastwood Transit Center to Shepherd. That would provide connectivity to the Main Street and Southeast lines as well we better access to UH and the Third Ward. The Richmond portion of that truncated line falls within Rep. Ted Poe’s district, and as we know, Rep. Poe supports construction of the Universities Line because his constituents support it. With Rep. Poe behind this, one would hope that getting federal funds would be possible. On the other hand, chopping the line in half like this may well invalidate all of the previous filings and approvals Metro now has for this project, and might require Metro to start from scratch and do them all again. Given that ridership would surely be a lot lower for this partial route, there would be no guarantee that it would even qualify for FTA funds. It’s worth exploring, but only worth pursuing if it doesn’t represent a step backward.

Another possibility is to commit to building the whole thing, but only seek federal funding for the eastern half of the line, unless something changes to make funding the western half of the line feasible. That would of course require a large amount of local funding. To my mind, that local funding should come from Metro, the city of Houston, and Harris County. How likely that is I couldn’t say; when I bring it up to other people, the reaction I usually get is to be asked if I also believe in the tooth fairy. It might not be fiscally possible even if you accept the premise that Harris County could be persuaded to play ball. The FTA might not think this is such a hot idea, either, and even if they did Culberson could fight against it even though he’s made a point of saying that he has never opposed funding for rail construction that wasn’t in his district. I’m just throwing out ideas here, I don’t claim to have all the details worked out.

Look, I recognize that these ideas may be completely unrealistic. There may not be anything that can be done under current conditions. But the need is there, whether a plausible path forward exists or not. We need to be talking about this, with the understanding that this really matters and we need to figure it out one way or another. The Universities Line, when it is finally built, will do a lot to enhance mobility in a part of town that desperately needs the help. It will facilitate travel in neighborhoods that are already dense and heavily congested and getting more so every day as one new highrise after another gets developed. It will provide a critical link between east and west, and when the Uptown Line is completed it will make traveling to the Galleria and its environs a lot less nightmarish. Maybe once we start this conversation we’ll also remember that there are other routes on the drawing board that ought to be back in the conversation, like the Inner Katy line and the US90 commuter line. Again, the need is there, and it won’t go away if we don’t do anything about it. So what are we going to do about it?

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

Metro officials on Thursday scaled back plans for an iconic downtown Houston transit hub where three rail lines will cross after board members grew frustrated with what they called inexcusable delays and cost overruns.

“This has been mismanaged from the get-go, and there cannot be situations where things are not budgeted fully,” Metropolitan Transit Authority board chairman Gilbert Garcia said during a board meeting. “This is precisely why we get criticism.”

Faced with a proposal to modify a design after investing time and money, board members instead chose the cheaper option of spending $1.05 million to build a basic canopy. That’s still $450,000 more than they budgeted for the hub, located between Capitol and Rusk along Main.

The block will be a major crossing of the Main Street Line, which opened in 2004, and the East and Southeast lines slated to open in late 2014. Because of its status as the transfer point from the rail lines, Metro officials wanted to brand the stop with a larger canopy and features that drew attention to the rail line as a special downtown asset.

“This is the kind of thing where if you look at successful transit systems, they are not bare-bones systems,” board member Christof Spieler said.

Metro officials solicited teams to propose iconic designs and assembled a jury to choose a preferred plan. The panel made its recommendation on schedule in February 2012, but Metro did not ratify the winner until September 2013, 18 months later than planned.

Interim CEO Tom Lambert said officials still were piecing together exactly how the station planning got off course. By the time officials started assessing the cost overruns and timing, Lambert said, they found themselves in a predicament.

“There was not enough time,” he said. “We cannot have a station without any cover.”

Clearly, someone dropped the ball, and no one noticed it lying there on the ground until it was too late. Not having it – having it replaced by a more mundane canopy – won’t break anything, but Spieler is right that successful transit systems have character to them. If you’ve ever used New York’s subway system, especially at certain stations, you know what I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s still possible to salvage something out of this – the firm that submitted the winning design is still committed to it and has been trying to rejig it to lower the cost – but that may require someone with deep pockets to step in and clean up the mess. Let’s hope Metro figures out what happened and makes sure it doesn’t happen again. The Highwayman and Swamplot have more.

On closing Main Street to cars downtown

Houston Tomorrow runs a post by Kyle Nielsen that he originally published in May advocating for more of Main Street downtown to be like Main Street Square, that is, closed to automotive traffic.

What if we were to close Main Street to motor vehicle traffic and make it an exclusively pedestrian and bicycle corridor?

It seems to me that it would enhance cyclist and pedestrian safety, encourage the type of walkable retail and bars/restaurants that Downtown needs, decrease motorist frustration at being stuck behind a bicycle, and enhance motorist and transit safety by eliminating the motorist [illegal] left turns that still hit the Metro rail cars sporadically.

Already, driving Downtown on Main Street is not ideal for a motorist. The ban on left turns and the pedestrian zone that cuts off Main Street at Main Street Square make it not very useful to a motorist for traveling through Downtown. If you add in now being stuck behind cyclists as well, it just seems to make more sense to re-route that traffic to Fannin or Travis, where there are plenty of lanes for cars to travel.

With all of the new businesses coming in on the North side of Downtown (Goro & Gun, Pastry War, Batanga, Bad News Bar, OKRA, Clutch City Squire, El Gran Malo, etc.), having an even safer pedestrian environment for customers to move about promotes greater economic activity. This also ties in nicely with the city’s new BCycle rental bike program. Tourists or Houstonians visiting Downtown and renting a BCycle could be directed to our fantastic Main Street bike lane to check out the rest of Downtown or as a way to get to points in Midtown.

Swamplot, Hair Balls, and PDiddie, who heartily approves, are on this as well. I too think this is a good idea; note that it is only traffic on Main that would be closed, not the east-west traffic that crosses Main. I’m old enough to remember, and to have worked downtown, before the rail line was built. Main was two lanes each way, and left turns were forbidden downtown. You didn’t get stuck behind a bike if you drove on it for some strange reason, but you did get stuck behind buses. There are plenty of good alternatives for north-south driving downtown, and in my experience now hardly anyone drives on Main anyway, since why would they? I’d limit the closure to between Pierce and Franklin – the train stays on Main through Midtown, but the driving options dwindle as you head south, and there is more vehicular traffic on that part of Main – but otherwise, the argument in favor of a fully pedestrian-and-bike corridor through downtown seems clear. I don’t know what the city has to do to make this happen, but I’d like to see them study it.

Please try to avoid getting hit by the new light rail trains

Seriously, watch where you’re driving when you drive along or past the new rail lines. The train is bigger than you and your car, and if you pick a fight with it you will lose.

Metro is working to make sure drivers and pedestrians get that message. Starting next year, Houston will have 15 new miles of operating light rail tracks.

“It’s a change in mindset for Houston. It’s an absolute change in mindset.”

That’s Metro Margaret O’Brien-Molina.

“This is bigger than just the East End, it’s bigger than the North Line, it’s bigger than the Southeast Line. This means all of Houston, because at some point or the other, we’re all going to cross those tracks.”

O’Brien-Molina says the big thing drivers need to remember is that the trains hardly make any noise, so if you’re driving along a street like Fulton, Harrisburg, or Scott, a train could appear at any time.

That means drivers need to be especially careful when they make left turns. There are also new lights and signs, and crosswalks for pedestrians to get to rail stops.

“We’ve already educated 14,000 children and asked them to bring that message home. We’ve prepared packets to show kids exactly how this works, what the lines are going to look like.”

I sure hope it works, because that first year after the Main Street line opened was ridiculous. Many of the problems occurred in the stretch of Fannin where cars did have to drive onto the light rail right of way to make a left turn. I’ve done that in recent years, after many changes were made to make it less confusing, but it was still a bit unclear, and a bit nerve-wracking. Be that as it may, the vast majority of the accidents were caused by driver error – running red lights, making illegal left turns, and just plain not checking their six to make sure there wasn’t a train right behind them that they were about to turn into. There wasn’t much of an awareness campaign back in 2003, at least not one that I remember, so whatever is being done now will be an improvement. I hope the message sinks in.

Fare enforcement for Metro

Dodging the fare on the light rail lines could become more difficult to do.

Provided a key piece of state legislation comes through, Metro officials said the plan is to have new monitors in place when the new North, East and Southeast lines start ferrying passengers along the city’s rail system.

“It is growing a bunch, and this is the first time Houston’s had transit like this,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “I see this as a great opportunity to reach out to new customers who’ll need to know how to ride.”

Garcia said he prefers to consider the new hires “ambassadors” as opposed to officers, but agency officials acknowledge a critical role will be to enforce payment of fares, a key lapse in Metro’s current system.

[…]

A bill by state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Tomball, to allow Metro to hire nonpolice fare checkers passed the House last week by a wide margin. Fletcher said last month Metro approached him about the bill, and he thought it made sense as the rail system grew.

Fletcher’s bill allows Metro to hire fare enforcement officers who do not have to be deputized law enforcement officers, but who can inspect and verify fare payments on behalf of the transit agency. They would also issue citations.

“We want them to have fare enforcement authority,” Metro interim CEO Tom Lambert said.

But he added that revenue related to fines will not fund them. Lambert said under the current rules, that fine money goes to the county if the person pays the fine in court, and not to recoup Metro’s operating costs.

“This has nothing to do with fines coming back to Metro,” Lambert said.

The bill in question is HB3031. If you had asked me to guess who carried it, or if you had asked me before the session to suggest someone from the Harris County delegation to carry a bill like this for Metro, I would not have come up with Rep. Fletcher. He got the job done, though, so kudos to him. Metro estimates that about 15% of rail riders currently do not pay the fare when they ride. At about 5,700 fare-shirkers a day, that works out to about $2.6 million in annual revenue, not a huge piece of Metro’s budget but not nothing either. It will be very interesting to see what the effect of this bill will be, assuming it makes it through the Senate.

Tell Rep. Culberson how you feel about rail on Richmond

From RichmondRail.org:

We’ve learned recently that US Congressman John Culberson is soliciting input regarding the planned METRO rail line on Richmond Avenue. While the Congressman has directed his request to property owners and occupants on Richmond Ave., rail transit on Richmond would have an impact throughout Houston. We believe it’s important for as many people as possible to share their thoughts on this matter. So we encourage you to take a couple of minutes to provide your opinion by downloading and filling out this short survey: PDF, DOC. (To ensure your responses are saved in the form, please save the blank form to your computer, fill in the saved form, save again.)

Please send your completed survey as an email attachment, or print and fax or mail, as soon as possible but no later than the end of March, to Lindsay Pepper in John Culberson’s office at:

Email: lindsay.pepper@mail.house.gov
FAX: 713.680.8070
Mail: 10000 Memorial Drive, Suite 620, Houston, 77024-3490

We’d also like to know what you think — please copy your responses to support@richmondrail.org.

I think we all know what kind of response Rep. Culberson is looking for, which he will publicize if he gets it. Let’s make sure he gets a truly representative sample of opinions. Please take a moment to fill this out and give your respectful and polite opinion to him. I for one neither live nor work near this line, but I know I’d use it if it ever gets built. I do work near the Main Street line, and there are plenty of places I’d go if I had this option to get there.

Metro’s new trains

Last week, Metro announced that it had received delivery of a new train, the first of a batch of new light rail vehicles (LRVs) scheduled to arrive in town.

Gilbert Garcia, METRO board chairman, said the light-rail Siemens S70 represents a savings of almost a year’s time in getting optimal service to our riders. METRO was able to do this by exercising a contract option with the Utah Transit Authority when it “piggybacked” in an inter-agency agreement to procure the light-rail cars from Siemens.

“These units will help us offer timely and comfortable trips,” said Garcia.

This train is the first of 19 light-rail trains METRO secured in an $83 million contract.

George Greanias, METRO president & CEO, called it a great day for METRO.

“METRORail has a very busy fleet, which this year surpassed 90 million boardings. The new units will take the strain off those already in service and provide more flexibility to our current system,” said Greanias.

Step inside, and you’ll see more standing room and a bike rack that allows a passenger to secure his or her bike upright vertically. Each car will also be equipped with two designated wheelchair spaces. A knee-to-back seating arrangement and a big standing area, with extra hand straps and grab bars, maximize interior space, designed for about 200 passengers.

Train No. 201 is expected to be operational sometime after Jan. 1, said Scott Grogan, senior director of METRORail Service Delivery. Purchasing these 19 Siemens cars would allow us to operate two-car trains all day on our Main Street line.

There’s video at the link above, and more pictures in the accompanying press release, which says there will be two bike racks in each car, one at the front and one at the rear. You know how I feel about bikes on trains, so I sent an inquiry about whether this meant that the hours for which bikes are currently allowed on the trains, which begin at 9 AM, will be extended. The response I received was as follows:

There is no change to the hours currently in effect. We will be evaluating the situation as the new vehicles come on line, however, to see if there is an opportunity to add hours for bike boardings without compromising passenger safety. The remaining Siemens units will be delivered and put into service over the next year.

I remain hopeful.

Take the train to your dining destination

Katharine Shilcutt writes about how she gets to some of her favorite restaurants.

When owner Staci Davis decided on a location for her restaurant, Radical Eats, one thing was extremely important to her above all: Davis wanted her vegan paradise to have access to the new Metro light rail North Line that’s currently being built along Fulton. When the line is completed, riders will only have a few short blocks to walk from the Moody Park station to her restaurant. For now, the construction and the dust are a bit of a nightmare, but Davis insists that it’s worth it.

And at the new 8th Wonder Brewery that’s being built in EaDo, the planned Stadium stop on the East End Line will not only service the Dynamo’s shiny new stadium — it will bring visitors to the craft brewery as well as to concert venues like Warehouse Live and restaurants like Huynh.

[…]

I ride the light rail to the Museum District and to Reliant Stadium so that I don’t have to deal with parking. I ride it to my doctor’s appointments or to visit hospital-bound friends in the Medical Center (or to eat at Trevisio) because the only thing more confusing than the hospital corridors themselves is trying to recall where you left your car. I ride it to the Best Block in Houston to see shows at the Continental Club, to get cocktails and coffee at Double Trouble, to eat brunch at Natachee’s or dinner at t’afia. I ride it to the Preston station and get my movies at Sundance or my culture at Jones Hall.

And, as you would expect, I ride it to restaurants up and down the line. People will often complain about walking in the Houston heat — that’s why we have tunnels, after all — but the funny thing is this: You get used to it. Really fast. And walking off a meal is one of my favorite activities to do outside of eating the meal itself. If more of us did this (myself included, as I don’t walk nearly as often as I should), Houston would undoubtedly remove itself from the running each year as the Fattest City in America. Walking is good. Try it.

On that note, we’ve put together a handy visual guide — to scale, no less! — of all the lunching and dining options off the main stops on the light rail. Some will require a bit of a walk (perhaps five blocks at most) while others are literally right in front of the stop itself. If you use it online, you’ll note that you can click on the restaurant names to be taken to a site about the restaurant itself. If you print it out, you can use it as a visual reference when you take your first heady steps into the rail car before it rattles and shakes off into city.

You can see the map here. That’s a link I plan to keep handy for visitors who are staying or doing business downtown or in the Medical Center. Be sure to read through the comments, as several people noted places they overlooked. There will be a version of this map the June 28 dead tree edition of the Press, so look for that as well. This map is just for the Main Street line, but Katherine says (in response to my comment) that they will do this again later for the three that are under construction. I’m looking forward to that.

Couple things to add. One, I totally agree with Katharine about walking and the heat. It really isn’t that bad, especially if the sidewalk you’re on has some tree cover. I’ve been bringing my bike with me to work and using it to get to lunch instead of driving, and I’ve actually been surprised by how little the heat has affected me as I bike around. Sure, I do work up a bit of a sweat, but I haven’t melted yet. And remember, eight months out of the year the weather is generally pretty darned nice here, much better for the most part than in many transit-and-pedestrian cities around the country. This is Houston, y’all. We don’t let a little heat get us down.

If you look at the map, you’ll note that the vast majority of dining locations are at or north of the Ensemble/HCC station. They didn’t bother to extend the map any farther south than the Museum District station, and as someone who works near the Smithlands stop, I can confirm the dismal lack of lunch options in the vicinity. The sheer paucity of eateries in the Medical Center – there’s a Subway and a Chipotle at the Dryden/TMC stop, and pretty much nothing else there or at the other two stops, unless you walk to Hermann Park to go to Little Big’s – is as frustrating as it is confounding. With the thousands of people that work and visit there daily, you’d think some entrepreneur would see a golden opportunity to fill a giant niche. Available space is an issue, of course, but still. That’s got to be a huge potential market. All those people have to eat somewhere. What do you do for lunch if you work in the Med Center?