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North line

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.

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.

August ridership numbers for the new rail lines

Again, don’t get too excited just yet.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

From the “Good problems to have” department

Metro will have a few million dollars left over when it is done building the remaining light rail lines.

After more than three years of construction, Metro officials estimate $39.9 million of the $900 million awarded by the Federal Transit Administration is left over and unlikely to be spent as work wraps up. Contingencies for cost overruns often are built into financial estimates for large transportation projects, notably rail. Metro’s costs have stayed largely in line with estimates of $1.58 billion for the two lines.

None of the federal money applies to the Green Line, which was locally funded. Both the Green Line to the East End and the Purple Line to the southeast are scheduled to open in April.

[…]

Most of the leftover money, $24.9 million, is dedicated to the northern segment of the Red Line light rail route, which opened in December 2013. Another $14.5 million is available along the Purple Line, between downtown and the Palm Center Transit Center south of MacGregor Park in southeast Houston.

If the money from the October 2011 agreement isn’t spent, it would go back to federal coffers.

The money can be used only for those two lines, and only for projects related to developing the rail routes, though that does give Metro officials leeway.

Officials on Thursday outlined for a Metro committee some projects they are considering, though more talks are likely as the list is winnowed.

Two of the most significant projects are at the ends of the rail lines, near Northline Commons along the Red Line and at Palm Center Transit Center where the Purple Line terminates.

Metro has a bus transit center near the Red Line terminus, a few steps from the tracks on land owned by Houston Community College. Officials said tying the bus center and rail line together with an elevated walkway would improve conditions for riders.

Metro’s lease for the bus center land expires in 2021, and the agency is working with HCC on a long-term plan for the area incorporating the campus and the transit connection.

Lambert said a rail-bus terminal at the location would be years in the making but would be more affordable if included in the long-term, federally backed rail development.

Additional parking spaces at Palm Center Transit Center would serve a similar purpose, giving more potential riders a way to park at a rail station.

Board members Thursday said it was vital the money be used in ways that benefit riders and residents near the rail lines.

“I think we should be looking at projects that increase ridership,” Christof Spieler said, noting rail use can often be affected by how people arrive at the station. “I absolutely want to look at bus stops.”

Board member Dwight Jefferson said more stations closer to where people live could be beneficial.

“You have the station at Elgin and you do not have another station until a mile down on the other side of the freeway,” Jefferson said. “You have a whole huge stretch of neighborhood that is totally not served on the rail line.”

Remember how the I-10 widening was originally supposed to cost $1 billion, then wound up costing about $2.7 billion? I love having another excuse to bring that up. As far as this goes, I’m with Spieler – projects that would help boost ridership should take priority. That leaves a lot of possibilities, and I hope Metro takes the time to brainstorm and get public input for more suggestions. This is a great opportunity, so let’s make the most of it.

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.

Moving out of Fitzgerald’s

Big music news in Houston.

The successful concert promotion group behind Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival has secured land just north of downtown Houston to build a three-stage music venue complex with two indoor stages and an outdoor stage.

Pegstar Concerts head Jagi Katial said Monday the project has been two years in gestation. Plans for the development at 2915 N. Main and North Street were leaked onto Houston’s Reddit outpost Saturday afternoon in part from a resident who attended a meeting about the development, which lead to Katial wanting to clear the air on some details that were bandied about.

This new venue would call for Pegstar to leave its current digs at Fitzgerald’s music venue on White Oak Boulevard, and set up shop at the new site five minutes away. This new complex as of now does not have a name, Katial says. He predicts that the doors could be open by late 2015.

“It’s very much a work still in progress,” Katial says, surveying the grounds late Monday afternoon. As of now there is nothing on the property aside from a real estate sign, trees and a concrete slab. A group of tight-knit investors has been working on the nuts and bolts for some time, he said.

The property backs up to what is called Little White Oak Bayou. Katial says engineers have said that flooding should not be an issue. It’s located just a few blocks from Metro’s North rail line, which could make it easier for concert-goers to commute to the venue.

There are a handful of vacant homes on the western end of the property which will be converted into other things, like parking, farmer’s markets and storage. He wants to get Houstonians acquainted with the area when they aren’t there for a show.

Sarah Fitzgerald, who has owned the Fitzgerald’s venue since 1977, said Monday that Pegstar’s lease is up in September 2015.

Pegstar has leased it from her since September 2010, when they remodeled the venue and began booking live music and comedy on the two stages, downstairs and upstairs, most nights of the week. The revitalization of the building has been a boon for development on White Oak Boulevard, which now has a number of bars and restaurants that are full almost every night.

“This is a bittersweet thing for me, straight up, because I love Fitzgerald’s and the idea of me being a concert producer was forged at that venue years ago,” says Katial. “I’ve seen some of the best shows that I will ever see there.”

Swamplot has a view of the new location plus some design illustrations. Fitzgerald’s, which is walking distance from my house, is an institution in Houston. I have no idea what will happen to the space after the current tenants leave. The owner could make a fortune if she sold the place to developers, but I kind of hope she doesn’t. There’s not many places like it left in Houston, and I’d hope the music scene is big enough here to accommodate both Fitzgerald’s and the new place. As for the new place, it sounds really interesting, and I love that it will be near the North Line. I’m looking forward to seeing what Pegstar does with it. See this Chron gallery of 1980’s photos at Fitz’s for more.

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.

When are we getting those trains again?

The Metro board has some doubts about railcar manufacturer CAF’s ability to keep its promises.

Houston transit officials, worried that the light rail system might run short of trains for months after two new lines open, are not satisfied with a new schedule for delivery of delayed rail cars.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials expressed deep frustration as they got their first update Thursday on CAF U.S.A.’s revised schedule to deliver 39 new trains to Houston, meant to expand the city’s light rail service.

Two new rail lines are expected to open later this year, possibly in September or October. To have enough trains to run timely service, Metro needs most – if not all – of the new rail cars to increase its fleet from 37 to 76.

Under the most optimistic scenario, Metro would have 45 trains ready to ferry passengers if the lines open in September.

Board members told Metro staff and a CAF representative Thursday that they were skeptical that even the revised schedule is feasible. Even if the company holds true to its latest delivery promises, it still leaves light rail service in a lurch.

“We have gone out on limb, and we are hanging there,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said, turning her attention to a CAF employee in the audience. “I still don’t have a lot of confidence, and you can carry that message to your CEO.”

[…]

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 would lead to severe crowding, officials and riders said.

See here, here, and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I think Metro can muddle through with a shortage of trains for a little while, but the longer it goes the worse it gets, especially if the endpoint is unclear. At this point, I hope they’re warming up the lawyers, because however much oversight Metro may exercise at this point, I have a feeling they’re going to need to enforce some consequence clauses in their contract.

Transit ridership up nationally

Some encouraging news here.

More Americans used buses, trains and subways in 2013 than in any year since 1956 as service improved, local economies grew and travelers increasingly sought alternatives to the automobile for trips within metropolitan areas, the American Public Transportation Association said in a report released on Monday.

The trade group said in its annual report that 10.65 billion passenger trips were taken on transit systems during the year, surpassing the post-1950s peak of 10.59 million in 2008, when gas prices rose to $4 to $5 a gallon.

The ridership in 2013, when gas prices were lower than in 2008, undermines the conventional wisdom that transit use rises when those prices exceed a certain threshold, and suggests that other forces are bolstering enthusiasm for public transportation, said Michael Melaniphy, the president of the association.

“Now gas is averaging well under $4 a gallon, the economy is coming back and people are riding transit in record numbers,” Mr. Melaniphy said in an interview. “We’re seeing a fundamental shift in how people are moving about their communities.”

From 1995 to 2013, transit ridership rose 37 percent, well ahead of a 20 percent growth in population and a 23 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled, according to the association’s data.

Stronger economic growth is playing an important role in the increased use of public transit, as more people are using the systems to get to an increasing number of jobs, the association reported, and transit agencies are nurturing growth by expanding their systems or improving services.

“We’re seeing that where cities have invested in transit, their unemployment rates have dropped, and employment is going up because people can get there,” Mr. Melaniphy said.

Overall public transit ridership increased by 1.1 percent from 2012, with the biggest gains in rail service and in bus service for smaller cities.

The APTA press release is here, and the full report is here. The picture for Houston is somewhat murky. Overall, ridership is up 2.76% in 2013 over 2012 (see page 27). That’s driven by increases in bus (3.44%) and demand response (5.35%), which I’m guessing is MetroLift, but offset somewhat by declines in light rail (-0.72%) and vanpool (-1.11%). Complicating the picture further is that both bus and rail saw declines in October and November 2013 from 2012, but then had a big increase in December. The latter is likely helped, though not completely explained, by the North Line opening; the increase in bus rides is less clear. And December 2013 was still the slowest month of the quarter, just better than it had been the year before. I don’t really know what causes the fluctuations. And even with some recent encouraging news, Metro still has a way to go to catch up to their ridership numbers from 2006. It’s likely that Metro will see bigger increases in ridership over the next couple of years, as the updated bus service and two new rail lines come online. It would be nice to have a better understanding of what has happened between then and now, and for Metro to get back to the point where it should be and beyond it. Dallas Transportation 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.

Metro reports good first month North Line numbers

Off to a fine start.

In its first month of operation, the Red/North Line extension exceeded ridership projections by 62 percent.

METRO launched its 5.3-mile extension of the Red/North Line last Dec. 21 – extending the line from HCC-Downtown Station eight more stops to Northline Transit Center/HCC.

In January, the first full month of operation, the Red/North Line averaged 4,200 weekday boardings. That’s 1,600 more than what we had forecasted for the average daily ridership by Sept. 30, the end of METRO’s fiscal year.

“This speaks volumes about the value of rail in the community, and how expanding the reach of one form of transit enhances others like our bus service, “ said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia in a statement. “It’s providing better connectivity and improving the customer experience on many fronts.”

Consider these stats since the North/Red Line expanded:

  • The amount of transit service has increased, adding 192 rail trips each weekday, replacing 149 weekday bus trips.
  • The frequency of service has increased with peak and midday service running every 12 minutes, compared to 15 minutes on previous bus route.
  • On-time performance has improved. Route 79, which serves the Northline Transit Center, rose to the Top Ten routes for on-time performance from the bottom 10.

Ridership on the Red/North Line is expected to surge when two more light-rail lines open later this year, the Burnett Transit Center opens and a redesign of our bus system is implemented.

That last link goes to Metro’s System Reimagining page, which is all about what you think it is. The draft of their new system plan should hit the streets in the spring, so probably in two to three months. In the meantime, I’m encouraged by the North Line’s first month numbers. It would be great to see Metro’s overall ridership numbers really rebound after several years of decline.

UPDATE: I sent an email to Christof Spieler for a response to the comment left by chefmegan. Here’s what he sent me:

Comment from METRO staff:

“METRO does have next train departure signage and announcements at the Northline Transit Center. It’s not clear if this was an isolated case where the audio message didn’t clearly indicate, or the passenger may not have heard, which train was leaving. As for parking, METRO currently only has 7 parking spaces at this location. This location was designed as a transfer spot for our buses coming into the transit center and the foot traffic from the adjacent neighborhoods. Based upon our experience to date, we will continue to look for ways to work with community partners to try and identify additional parking around the Northline Transit Center.”

I’ll add this: the new rail lines are designed primarily to serve riders who reach the trains by bus, on foot, or on bike. Parking lots at stations are expensive to acquire, build, and maintain; more significantly, they make the area around the station less pedestrian friendly and disconnect the transit line from the neighborhoods around it. We’ll provide parking where it makes sense and where it will not negatively impact neighborhoods, and private property owners can (and already do) provide parking on their properties around stations.

My thanks to Christof for the information.

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.

I got those “can’t get my rail cars built on time” blues

Actually, I don’t, but Metro does.

The company building 39 new Metro railcars has yet to deliver an acceptable vehicle almost six months after the original due date, potentially delaying full service for rail lines scheduled to open later this year.

The first car hasn’t passed a required water leak test and exceeds the maximum weight specified in the builder’s contract with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. In a Dec. 30 letter to CAF USA, the American subsidiary of the Spanish train-building giant, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert demanded that the company explain how it will deliver all the cars by the Sept. 25 deadline.

“It is imperative that CAF demonstrate to Metro that it is seriously willing and able to meet its obligations,” Lambert wrote. Metro is withholding a $12.8 million payment until an acceptable rail car is delivered, he wrote.

In a reply, CAF’s worldwide CEO, Jose Maria Baztarrica, assured Lambert that U.S. representatives of the company would come to Houston to “fix all the various issues.”

Continued delay would leave Metro officials with options for opening the lines on time, but possibly not on a full schedule. Fewer railcars ready to hit the street could mean that trains operated less frequently or failed to cover the entire route.

“We can work through it, and we will,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, stressing the important factor is that CAF deliver high-quality vehicles. “We have to be prepared that the cars are delayed and now we need to have a plan going forward of what we’re going to do.”

The railcar manufacturer is now promising swift action to get this resolved.

“If they are having a problem, then to me it is a big problem, even if it is a minor fix,” said Andres Arizkorreta, CEO of Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, commonly known as CAF. “These are things we must do.”

[…]

Arizkorreta flew to Houston on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, he assured Metro officials the water leak would be fixed within 10 days by installing a gasket

Remedying the leak, which was minor, is necessary before the car can enter service by undergoing weeks of on-track testing, interim Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

“The best thing we can do now is get this one at the test track,” Lambert said. “The sooner we do that, the sooner we can build the others.”

Additional cars might come at a brisker pace. Manufacture of the cars will accelerate as CAF U.S.A. expands its Elmira, N.Y., plant, Arizkorreta assured Metro.

Officials said they were pleased with the quick corrections.

“I am convinced this is moving in the right direction,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said.

About 100 workers will be hired specifically to handle Houston railcar building, roughly doubling the staff now handling the order. CAF agreed in writing Thursday to give Metro a revised delivery schedule by Feb. 15.

That all sounds good, but the weight issue remains a problem. It’s not clear how that will be fixed. I’m going to be optimistic and say that this will mostly get worked out before the Southeast and Harrisburg lines open, but we’ll know more in a month. I hope it doesn’t cause any operational problems, or force reduced frequencies when the new lines open. Metro had already set its schedule back by a year after nearly blowing its Full Funding Grant Agreement due to the shenanigans of previous CEO Frank Wilson, who was trying to circumvent the FTA’s Buy American requirements. It’s possible that in the absence of those requirements, or at least in the absence of Metro trying to get around them and getting caught at it, that we’d be farther along now. Nothing can be done about any of that now, so let’s keep CAF’s feet to the fire and hope they have good news in February.

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?

North Line opening today

From the inbox:

ALL ABOARD FOR SATURDAY RAIL ROLL-OUT

METRO is inviting the public to get on board for the Saturday, Dec. 21 grand opening of the new 5.3-mile North/Red Line!

Riding the train will be free all day as part of the grand opening celebration taking place at Moody Park.

Festivities at the park include acts like A.B.Quintanilla III y Los Kumbia King All Starz, Mango Punch, Fama and special guest Tamar Davis. The free event will also feature booths with food from north-side vendors and activities for children (like 80,000 pounds of snow) – from 11:30 AM to 5 PM. Click here for the lineup.

Moody Park (3725 Fulton Street) is located right off the Red Line and has its own stop, Moody Park station.  Party patrons can hop on board any of METRO’s 24 stations and make tracks for the celebration.

Prior to the Moody Park celebration, there will be a 10 AM photo opportunity when Congressman Gene Green, METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia and others, board the first southbound train from Northline Transit Center/HCC  (8001 Fulton).

The UHD campus will host an additional commemorative event beginning at 1:30 PM Saturday for a gathering of select guests including community leaders and dignitaries. UHD President Bill Flores and METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia will welcome guests who will board a specially decorated “Polar Express” train traveling to Moody Park for the celebration.

Assuming the weather holds up, I’ll take the girls and check it out. Bounce houses and food trucks are a fine combination for folks like me with kids to entertain on a weekend.

Here’s the Chron story about the opening.

The opening of the first new rail line in 10 years is going to bring “positive changes for the community,” interim Metro president Tom Lambert said.

As the first to serve residential neighborhoods, the line will allow Metro “to see how we can use a bus system to feed into rail. And it will give people more transportation options.”

Transportation options are just the beginning. It also opens up new residential possibilities for residents who live nearby. Some are looking at the rail extension as a way to grow their businesses. For others it will provide easier access to shopping and dining on Houston’s near northside.

“We anticipate an increasing number of shoppers using the rail to get to our stores, especially those shoppers who depend on the public transportation,” said Jeff Procell, general manager for Northline Commons Mall.

The open-air mall is at the Red Line’s northernmost terminus, the Northline Transit Center.

The transit center was part of a nearly 20-year-old negotiation between Metro and the mall’s owners.

“We did that deal in the mid-’90s. Lucky us for having the foresight to make certain the rail would stop here.”

Procell points out that while there are many small strip shops along the Red Line, Northline Commons will be the only major retail center on any of the rail lines (current or coming).

Depends on if you consider the Universities Line to be still on the drawing board for someday or not. If you do count it, then the Costco at Richmond and Weslayan would count as well. There’s also the Uptown BRT line that may someday be a rail line, but now we’re wandering pretty far afield. Moving on:

Realtor Tim Surratt, with Greenwood King Properties, said interest in Northside homes started picking up last year.

“It’s one of the last affordable close-in neighborhoods,” Surratt noted, adding that it has a lot of appeal for young, first-time home buyers.

The draw is the affordability of the housing, but “they’re really excited about the rail,” Surratt said. “These young people just aren’t as interested in driving. They want to use public transportation.”

So far this year, sales of 80 homes in Northside neighborhoods such as Lindale, Irvington and Ryan have been closed. If the 18 homes currently under contract close, it will mean an increase of 38 percent in home sales over last year.

Surratt also is impressed by the escalation in home prices. In 2012, the most expensive sale was $181,000. This year, one Northside home went for $371,000.

The Fifth Ward to their east is also affordable and close in, but they don’t have the infrastructure or the transit to be as attractive just yet. Someday, I hope they will. I also hope housing prices there stay reasonably affordable for at least a couple of years. The good news is that with transit, real density becomes a lot more feasible and desirable. I hope we see a lot of new multi-unit projects in the area. I am really looking forward to the rest of the lines opening up. It’s a new era for Houston.

North Line opens this Saturday

Exciting times.

Two major transportation projects scheduled to open in Houston this week – perhaps on the same day – represent distinct and sometimes warring visions of regional mobility and growth.

On Saturday, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will open its Red Line light rail extension from downtown to just north of Loop 610. And state transportation officials tentatively plan to start service Saturday on Segment E of the Grand Parkway, giving toll-paying drivers an option to get from Interstate 10 in Katy to U.S. 290 while avoiding some of Houston’s most tangled interchanges.

[…]

The North Line is one of three new light rail lines set to open in the next 12 months, representing the first expansion of train service outside the line serving the central business district, Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park area. For the first time, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, rail will come to neighborhoods where people live.

“It fits into improving mobility inside Loop 610,” Emmett said, noting it gives those without a car much better access.

The light rail will run longer hours and more frequently than the bus service it is replacing, said Tom Lambert, Metro’s interim CEO.

Already, signs of change in the north side neighborhoods around the rail line are evident. A few new houses and apartments are popping up along Fulton Street and the surrounding blocks. Many believe the rail line is a factor.

Metro board member Dwight Jefferson noted that while north side residents will have improved transit service, visitors will have improved access to the area.

“People will get to see parts of the city they haven’t seen before,” Jefferson said on a recent test trip up the North Line.

There’s going to be a big party at Moody Park on Saturday to celebrate the North Line’s opening. I’m excited about the North Line opening because it’s the closest line to my house. According to Google Maps, it’s 1.7 miles to the Quitman station. Too far to walk, but easily accessible by bike. For now, that probably means weekend trips only, but a few years down the line, when the kids no longer require being dropped off at school, who knows? In the meantime, it’s an extra option, and for things like sporting events or other downtown and Med Center activities, it’s not having to worry about parking. We’ve waited for this for a long time, and I’m ready for it. Houston Strategies, who had a preview of the North Line last week, has more.

Metro gets more money

Good news.

Southeast Line

Congress has appropriated $189 million for two of our light-rail lines – the North/Red Line extension and the Southeast/Purple Line.

Each line will receive $94.5 million. The funds are part of the $900 million Full Funding Grant Agreements signed by federal officials in November 2011.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia called this appropriation vital. “This is another key development in our progress towards building light rail for Houston. We want to extend thanks to our Congressional delegation and the many people who have supported efforts to improve the METRO transit system,” he said.

We expect to begin receiving this latest appropriation within the next 30 days. We’ll be spending the money to complete the 5.3-mile extension of the North/Red Line, which is an extension of our current Main Street Line. We’ll also be using the funds to build the Southeast/Purple Line, a 6.6 mile-line traveling through historic African-American communities, connecting to Texas Southern University and the University of Houston.

“Congress is giving us a critical tool with this funding, and we are taking every step we can to make sure these dollars are well spent,” said Tom Lambert, METRO interim president & CEO.

The North/Red Line is scheduled to open in December, and the Southeast/Purple Line and the East End/Green Line are expected to open in 2014. The locally-funded East End/Green Line is 3.3. miles, running from downtown to Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Here’s more on the full funding grant agreement they received from the FTA in 2011. Metro received a similar amount of money in 2012. Nice to know Congress isn’t so dysfunctional yet that simple stuff like this gets derailed, no pun intended.

On a tangential note, The Highwayman ponders the question of how much a ride on a Metro bus or train should cost.

Two concepts seem to bog down any debate about buses and trains.

1. Transit doesn’t pay for itself.

2. The fare system is terrible, so we should just make it free and then more people will ride it.

As a story in Monday’s paper pointed out, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning to make all buses and trains free for Labor Day weekend. The agency hopes to lure some riders to try the bus, and it hopes some of them will stay. Many transit agencies do the same thing. So does Netflix. It’s a marketing tool, and the reason I used AOL CDs as drink coasters in college.

It also opens up discussion of the two points noted above, which seem stuck in already-drawn conclusions.

Both premises miss the point of what transit is about and compare it to things it really isn’t. Public transit agencies are not businesses, they are governmental entities. Even in the best of cases, like New York and San Francisco, the systems do not pay for themselves.

Neither do roads, libraries, parks or other amenities that some people think make a community more livable.

Based on 2011 federal data, fares pay for 19 percent of Metro’s operating budget. That’s higher than any other major public transit system in Texas, but far lower than more robust transit systems on the coasts. We score about as well as Phoenix, which like Houston isn’t exactly a transit town yet.

On the other hand, Metro can’t just give it away, though some people argue that fare evasion on light rail is so rampant that the rides might as well be free. Federal officials want to see local officials make some effort to help pay for the system.

I discussed the matter of eliminating fares here; short answer, I think making transit free would cause it to be stigmatized by certain elements as a form of welfare, and that would ultimately be very bad for the concept of mass transit. I don’t have a problem with Metro doing the occasional free-ride promotion, but I think its plans to redesign and extend the bus system will be much more successful at boosting ridership; the addition of the three new rail lines will help, too. I carpool with my wife downtown these days, but I wind up taking the bus home about once a week because she needs the car after work for various errands. It’s convenient and fairly quick, and having that option prevents us from doing stupid and wasteful things like driving (and parking) two cars downtown. I commuted by bus, ferry, and subway for four years of high school in New York, so this idea isn’t strange to me. I think many people are reluctant to be without their car under any circumstances, and that’s an obstacle to be overcome if we want more transit usage in Houston. A lot of younger folks are not getting drivers licenses these days, at least not as early as folks my age did, so perhaps there will be a generational effect to help boost Metro a bit. I wouldn’t expect to see much of that anytime soon, however.

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.

North Line on track to open early

Excellent.

Metro’s North Line light rail extension will open ahead of schedule in December, officials said Thursday, providing the first new light rail service in Houston in almost 10 years.

The announcement at the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s monthly board meeting followed a series of delays and setbacks for the agency’s light rail expansion project, authorized by voters in 2003. The Main Street “Red Line” opened Jan. 1, 2004.

Better-than-expected construction progress means the North Line is scheduled to open before Christmas, Metro officials said Thursday. The line runs from the University of Houston Downtown, the northern end of the Red Line, along Main and Fulton streets to Northline Commons north of Loop 610.

Officials said they are ecstatic the $756 million line is ahead of the construction schedule established in 2011.

“You under-promise and over-perform,” said Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia. “We’re very pleased to be bringing this in.”

[…]

To meet the December opening date, a lot of work remains, but it is not dependent on weather or other factors Metro can’t control, officials said.

“Very shortly, you’re going to see us powering up the system,” interim Metro president Tom Lambert said.

Rail and concrete for platforms are in place, and most of the remaining construction involves electrical work, landscaping and finishing the eight stations along the 5.3-mile extension.

At the Burnett station under construction north of Interstate 10, workers were laying communications wiring and placing the glass panels at the passenger platforms Thursday.

By June, work will shift to internal components such as electrical connections for the overheard power wires and communications among the train signals, Metro’s downtown headquarters and Houston TranStar, where the system is maintained.

Metro will test the line by running trains without passengers. The first test is scheduled for Tuesday, when Metro plans to drag a train car along the tracks with a special sled vehicle that’s essentially a tractor. The test will make sure a train car doesn’t strike any of the overheard wires, station canopies or other items, project manager Michael Krantz said.

Work continues, meanwhile, on the East and Southeast lines, both set for late-2014 openings, Lambert said.

It’s exciting to know that this will be ready to go in just a few months. We’ve been waiting an awfully long time. Metro will be doing some testing on the line beginning today as a “shuttlewagon” tows a light rail car along the North Line – imagine a tugboat pulling a barge behind it, except on train tracks. I trust someone will get a photo of this as it’s happening. Anyway, great news about the North Line. Hopefully we’ll hear some equally great news about the other lines someday soon. Swamplot has more.

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.

FTA writes another check for light rail construction

Keep ’em coming.

I still hope we get to have all this some day

The expansion of Houston Metro got another boost from the federal government with the allocation of $188 million in additional construction funding for the North and Southeast light rail lines.

Congressman Gene Green, the Houston Democrat who is dean of the metropolitan area’s House delegation, said the money is part of Houston Metro’s full funding grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration.

“I’ve been a long time supporter of light rail in these areas because it will greatly increase people’s transportation options and incentivize economic development along the routes,” said Green, a career legislator who served in the Texas legislature before election to Congress.

“I am glad to see these projects moving forward.”

Metro had signed the full funding grant agreement with the FTA last November, and had received some funds for the North and Southeast lines last June. I don’t recall if that was an advance on the FFGA or if was separate; I suspect the former but the details are fuzzy to me at this point. Either way, there’s still a lot more of those funds to come. Rep. Green has definitely been a strong advocate for Metro and these lines, which run through parts of his district. I’ve begun work on my candidates interviews for the fall, and he happened to be first in line, so you can hear him talk a bit about this when I run his interview on Monday. Those of you who live in CD07 and would like to see your rail lines built while you’re still young enough to use them, I hope someday you’ll have a member of Congress like Gene Green who’ll work with you to get it. KUHF has more.

Metro signs Full Funding Grant Agreement

Full speed ahead.

The head of the Federal Transit Administration on Monday signed $900 million in grant agreements to help pay for two Houston light-rail lines under construction by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The grants, the first federal funds ever provided for rail in Houston, were formally approved in a ceremony attended by the FTA chief, Peter Rogoff, Mayor Annise Parker, Metro officials, local members of Congress and others. They will pay half the costs of the North and Southeast lines, scheduled for completion in 2015, which will extend Houston’s light-rail network by 12 miles.

Local officials have been trying to secure the federal funds since voters approved a plan to expand Metro’s rail network in 2003.

It took a hell of a long time, and it nearly got derailed thanks to the previous Metro regime and its Buy America foolishness, but it got done. And remember, some people said it would never happen.

Here’s Metro’s press release:

METRO Inks Houston’s First Ever Full Funding Grants for Light Rail

Houston’s light-rail expansion is now cleared to receive $900 million dollars as part of two federal Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA).  A special signing ceremony for the grants was held [Monday] morning at a rail expansion construction site overlooking downtown. The observation at 800 Burnett St. brought METRO officials together with FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff and a host of elected officials to sign long-awaited FFGAs for the North and Southeast rail lines.

Gilbert Garcia, chairman of the New METRO’s Board of Directors says, “The rail expansion team, METRO Board members, past and present and our entire staff, past and present, should be proud of accomplishing an enormous task. We’ve never lost sight of the prize and finally it is Houston’s. We thank all the community patriots for all their help in making this day happen. This is a major investment in the region that will not only create jobs but boost economic development.”

METRO President & CEO George Greanias says “The $900 million federal grants more than double the local dollars being used to construct the 5.3 mile North (Red) extension* and the 6.6 mile Southeast (Purple)* lines and mark the first time rail projects here have received FFGAs. This is a great example of how we can leverage our local dollars to improve mobility in the region.”

The total construction cost for the two lines is $1.6 billion dollars. Each line is receiving a $450 million dollar FFGA. The federal government has already set aside $484.5 million dollars for the two projects as part of the FFGAs. Of that amount, METRO has received $84.5 million dollars. The transit agency expects to continue receiving the federal funding over the next few years.

More than 30 percent of commuters heading into the downtown area and the Texas Medical Center ride METRO. The rail expansion approved by Houston voters in 2003 includes the North (Red) Line and extends the current Main St. Line starting at UHD to the Northline Transit Center, Houston Community College and Northline Commons Mall. The Southeast (Purple) Line connects downtown with local universities including Texas Southern University and the University of Houston central campus. The two federally funded lines and a third, locally funding East End (Green) Line currently under construction, are all expected to be completed by 2014.

For PDFs of work being performed see: METRORail North Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF) METRORail Southeast Line Construction Map – Nov. (PDF)

The Harrisburg line is also under construction, but it is using only local funds. Still out there waiting their turn are the Universities line, the Uptown line, which will also be built with local funds but is entirely dependent on the completion of the Universities line to be feasible, and the Inner Katy Line, which was on the 2003 referendum but was not officially part of the 2012 Solutions plan. The Universities line received a Record of Decision (ROD) on the Universities line last July, and now awaits final design approval, which had been hung up to a degree by the other Metro projects in the queue ahead of it and now is waiting for Congress to get its act together and pass an adequate transportation bill so there will be more New Starts funds to grant. An Inner Katy line will likely be part of a larger next phase project – Metro Solutions 2020 or some such – that may be packaged together for another vote. I’m mostly speculating here, but such a line makes all kinds of sense and is already supported by the neighborhood. What it needs now is a funding source.

That’s something farther out to look forward to. For now, we have the North and Southeast lines and their historic funding agreement. It’s a good day for Metro and for Houston. The Metro blog and Dallas Transportation have more.

Signing date for Full Funding Grant Agreement announced

From the Metro blog:

On Monday, Nov. 28, METRO will be joined by federal officials, along with members of Houston’s congressional delegation, to sign the long-awaited Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) for the North and Southwest light-rail lines.

President & CEO George Greanias announced the signing date [Wednesday] at the Greater Houston Partnership’s luncheon.

This is the first time rail projects in Houston have received FFGAs. These are matching federal funds that help us leverage local dollars to complete the construction of the North Line (extension of the Main St. Red Line) and the Southeast Line (Purple Line).

It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? And they said it couldn’t be done. Well, some people said it wouldn’t be done, anyway. Here’s one of those people, who’s been saying it for a long time:

Local attorney and light-rail critic Bill King said it’s foolish to bank on that money, given the tenuous status of the federal budget, especially New Starts funding.

“With what’s going on in Washington, can you see that they’re going to come down here and say, ‘Here’s $1 billion to go build light rail in Houston?’ ” King said. “That seems so fanciful to me, and I certainly wouldn’t bet on it.”

And you would have lost that bet if you’d made it, Bill. You were wrong, and on November 28, we’ll get to see the FTA and a bunch of other people prove it. In the meantime, you can see video of Greanias’ speech here, and the accompanying presentation, which includes some cool time-lapse photography and video of the rail line expansions, here.

Construction pains

I feel for the people and businesses that are being affected by Metro’s light rail construction. I wish that these large construction projects could be done without that kind of disruption, but it happens, and it sucks. What amazed me in reading this story was what some of those folks had to say about it:

Despite his troubles, Townley supports the rail project.

“Metro has not lied to me,” he said. “The fact that (construction) is killing me doesn’t change the fact that it’s for the greater good.”

Greanias and other Metro officials have met with various business owners. The agency is discussing whether to adjust the assistance fund guidelines, but no decision will be made before the November board meeting.

Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia said Metro is sensitive to business owners and is trying to finish the rail lines as quickly as possible.

Sochia Muschia told the board Thursday that her family’s Cuz-N-Laws Wholesale restaurant supply business at 3510 Leeland has applied twice for the $25,000 award but doesn’t qualify because its pre-construction revenue exceeded the allowed maximum.

“People at Metro have been very kind, but it doesn’t change the fact that it has nearly destroyed us,” she said.

It’s easy to joke about the exuberance of the “New Metro”‘s branding campaign, but this is what it’s all about. They’ve been honest brokers with the community, and that makes a big difference even if the financial support they’ve been able to give has fallen short. Think about how this story might have been written a couple of years ago. Quite the difference, no?

Metro officially back on track with the FTA

The “Buy America” nightmare is now history for Metro.

In September 2010, the FTA announced that the process Metro had used to award a rail car contract to CAF USA, the U.S. subsidiary of a Spanish company, violated federal law and “Buy America” requirements that were designed to protect U.S. jobs.

To requalify for federal funds on the two lines, the FTA said Metro had to cancel its contract with CAF USA and solicit new proposals for rail cars. Metro complied.

Last week the FTA notified four congressional committees – House Transportation and Infrastructure; Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; and House and Senate Appropriations – of its plan to execute two grant agreements that could bring Metro a total of $900 million over five years.

[…]

FTA spokesman Paul Griffo confirmed that the agency sent notice to Congress on Sept. 7. The next day, President Barack Obama mentioned Houston public transit construction in his nationally televised jobs speech.

Hallelujah. Even before this delay, the process of getting the full funding grant agreement had been excruciatingly slow, but at least there has been some progress lately, and actual track has been laid for the Southeast line. Going back through the archives, the first wind of trouble came in May of 2010, about a week before then-CEO Frank Wilson took a powder. The “New Metro” and new CEO George Greanias received a second chance from the FTA in September of 2010; the prediction that this would tack on a year to the production schedule has proven eerily accurate. Metro settled with CAF in December, and had funds appropriated to them in the President’s budget in January. It’s true that the rest of the funding will depend on the whims of Congress, and that there’s still the opportunity for the transportation bill in Congress to get screwed up by the radicals in the Republican Party, but that’s no reason to be a party pooper:

Bill King, a Houston attorney and light-rail critic, said the rail funding was not guaranteed even if the FTA signs the agreement.

“The real issue is always whether Congress will fund it or not,” King said.

Yes, as noted, Congressional Republicans could always screw things up. But why fixate on that? An asteroid could collide with the earth and wipe us all out like the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous Era. Global warming could accelerate and put the entire city under eight feet of water by the end of the decade. Terrorists could start blowing up light rail lines. Rick Perry could be elected President and prove that the Mayans were right all along. There’s no end to the doomsday scenarios, so what’s the point in worrying about them? There’s plenty of things you can control to worry about.

Metro gets more light rail funds

From the US Department of Transit:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced $1.58 billion for 27 transit projects nationwide that will improve public transportation access for millions of Americans while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and curbing air pollution.

“Investing in a modern transportation network is a key part of President Obama’s strategy to win the future by out-building and out-competing the rest of the world,” Secretary LaHood said. “America’s long-term economic success requires investing now in transportation infrastructure capable of moving people and goods more safely, efficiently and quickly than ever before.”

“Our investments in expanding America’s transit networks will not only improve reliable transportation access for communities across the country, they will support construction jobs and economic development,” said Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff. “And, a more efficient and reliable transit network means new opportunities for Americans to keep more of their paychecks in their wallets and spend less at the gas pump.”

Twenty-seven transit projects across America are on a path to receive funding under the New Starts program, through which Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides federal support for major capital construction projects such as subways, light rail, streetcars, and bus rapid transit.

Among those projects, all of which you can see here, are Metro’s North Line and Southeast Line, each of which are slated to get $75 million each. Note that this is happening even though the Full Funding Agreement is still pending with the FTA, though as I heard Metro CEO George Greanias say at a Livable Houston presentation in May, you’d think that after giving Metro all this money up till now they’re probably not going to reject the FFA at this point. This announcement comes as Metro gets ready to start laying actual tracks for the Southeast Line, too. Great to see such progress being made. Via Houston Tomorrow.

Bye-bye, intermodal center

In the process of writing off some bad assets in what one hopes is the last ritual cleansing of the Frank Wilson era, Metro says good-bye to something we hadn’t heard of in awhile.

Metro has given up on what it calls an intermodal terminal just north of downtown at Main and Burnett streets on the planned North rail line despite having spent $41 million on it.

“We’re not going to put the public’s money into monuments. We’re going to put it into transit services,” Metro President and CEO George Greanias said.

The design for the terminal included bus bays, a kiss-and-ride area, light rail, commuter rail and possibly a Metro RideStore, restrooms, food service, newsstands and gift shops.

Greanias said there will be a light rail stop at Main and Burnett, but it has not been determined whether the station will serve other modes of transit. He added that the now-shelved design called for a facility that would have cost far too much to maintain and operate.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years after Christof, then still in his pre-Board days, noted that the intermodal center “has been shelved (for now, at least)”. The last bit of news about it since then came two months later, when Swamplot found a picture of the proposed design, which as I look at it today reminds me of a curvier and less-pointy version of the new Dynamo stadium. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. In any event, those of us who remember the intermodal center now bid it adieu.

Metro in the President’s budget

They did all right.

Houston Metro’s expansion is getting a $200 million boost in Obama’s budget request to Congress. The money for the North Corridor and the Southeast Corridor projects is $50 million more than the $150 million set aside by Obama in his last two budget proposals.

The Metro project is part of a wider bid by the administration to upgrade transportation infrastructure nationwide so that 80 percent of Americans have “convenient access” to a high-speed passenger rail system within 25 years.

Metro is pretty happy about this as you can see in their press release. This isn’t the final budget, of course, and much can happen between now and its adoption, but this is a reminder that the President considers transit to be a priority, so just because some Republicans want rail defunded doesn’t mean it will happen.

I should add that I had the same opportunity that Neil and several other bloggers had yesterday to visit with Metro board members (Board President Gilbert Garcia, board member Christof Spieler, and board member Allen Watson), CEO George Greanias, and numerous other Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. It’s an impressive facility and deserves a post of its own, but I’m bringing it up here because I had the chance in the conversation we had to clear up a couple of things from this story. One is that the money being appropriated for the North and Southeast lines counts towards the $900 million New Starts grant for those lines, though the full funding agreement is still pending the rebid process for rail cars (for which notice went out over the weekend, according the Greanias) and some other procedural matters; if all goes well, it should be in hand before the end of the year. You don’t get the full grant all at once, you get it in portions as you proceed with construction, with the last check usually coming in after completion. Having the full funding grant agreement means you’re not subject to the whims of the appropriations process, but the fact that Metro got even more money from that this time around is a strong sign they’re back in the FTA’s good graces. And now we have some confirmation of that.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said this afternoon that the Obama administration would not have proposed $200 million for Houston light rail projects “if we didn’t feel like we were getting to the finish line.”

[…]

Last year, the city of Houston replaced five of the nine Metro board members, who in turn brought in new CEO George Greanias. Rogoff called the FTA’s communications with Metro “honest, straightforward, productive dialogue.”

“They have been very willing partners in rectifying the problems that we identified in our audit,” Rogoff said. Metro canceled the contract with the Spanish firm and is preparing a new procurement plan for FTA approval.

Metro has proceeded on the two rail lines at half speed as it awaits the full funding grant agreement. Rogoff said he expects that agreement to be finalized by the end of fiscal year 2012 but would not be more specific.

That’s genuinely good news and a testament to the hard work they’ve been doing at Metro since Greanias and the new board were put in place. Hair Balls has more.

The President’s budget, while it contains a lot of funding for transit projects, does not have anything to do with the University line, which has been qualified to receive funding but has not gone through the competitive process yet. In addition, Congress must authorize the next transportation bill before there is any further funding for New Starts. That’s where things could potentially get dicey with the slash-and-burn elements of the Republican Congress. That said, Houston Tomorrow notes that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is optimistic that Congress will pass a “sweeping bill to authorize funding for road and transit” by August. So we’ll see.

Overall the transportation budget has some good things, like an emphasis on safety and a prioritization of repairs to existing infrastructure, but it avoids the question of paying for it with an increase to the gas tax. That’s a discussion that really can’t be avoided.

Oh, and one more thing: Remember that settlement with CAF, the Spanish rail car builder that the old Metro violated Buy America with? Metro was to receive $14 million from CAF as part of that settlement. Greanias told us that as of that morning, the funds were now sitting in Metro’s coffers. So again, it’s been a pretty decent week for them.

Yet another threat to light rail expansion

Great.

The House could vote as soon as mid-February on a plan by the conservative House Republican Study Committee to end the 35-year-old Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program,” which pours $2 billion-a-year into urban transit projects such as Houston Metro’s bid to complete five light rail lines across the 579-square-mile city of 2.3 million.

Many Republican deficit-hawks see those costly projects as perfect targets for large savings.

Indeed, Houston Metro is caught in a political squeeze that suddenly endangers projects in dozens of metropolitan areas. The reason: Republicans elected from suburban and rural congressional districts are targeting federal mass transit programs that traditionally benefit Democratic metropolitan congressional districts on the West and East Coasts.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she remained confident the federal government would enable her to fulfill the commitment to Metro expansion made by predecessors.

“We believe that Congress would not act in bad faith for cities – not just Houston but cities across the country – that have expended funds with the expectation that those funds would be reimbursed,” Parker said.

Metro also was counting on another $740 million from the FTA program for future development of the University line.

“Cuts in federal transportation spending are on the way,” says Joshua Schank, director of transportation research for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank created by four former Senate majority leaders. “Historically there have been few partisan battles over transportation, but that’s changing – and not everyone realizes it.”

Actually, I have no trouble believing that the Republican Congress will act in bad faith on this. They don’t care. I didn’t include John Cornyn’s crocodile tears quote about how they’d just love to honor their commitments if only they had the money for it, but you can expect that to be the prevailing attitude.

Having said that, there is some evidence that the issue is overstated. The RSC’s proposal isn’t universally accepted by Republicans, and there are Republicans in Congress that support high speed rail, which is a different kettle of fish but which might translate to support for other forms of rail as well. And of course, the Senate gets a say, the President has a veto pen, and the Democratic phrase of the moment is infrastructure, by which they mean “jobs”. So I’m not going to panic just yet. But as with everything else lately, we’ll have to do it the hard way if we want to get anything done.

In the meantime, the Metro board has voted to increase the capital budget for rail this year, having completed several requirements for doing so, and pointed out that suspending work until it has all of the promised federal funds in hand presents risks and carries costs of its own.

If rail plans were canceled, the $600 million to $700 million Metro already has spent would gain the Houston area little more than some newly paved streets and underground utilities, President-CEO George Greanias said.

“If I were to say to the board and the board accepted the idea we’re stopped today, we’d be walking away from $900 million (in federal money), we’d be walking away from everything we invested already, we’d be walking away from any chance to get (federal) money for University,” Greanias said. “That, to me, is not a logical response. The logical response is to say, ‘We’ll move forward prudently, managing the risk.’ ”

[…]

Much like public officials who suggest that demolishing the Astrodome instead of rehabilitating it still would involve big costs for taxpayers, Metro officials said it would cost $150 million just to clean up the work in progress and close up shop. Meanwhile, there are costs to delay as well, they said.

“The businesses and the residents along these lines are saying to us, ‘Get this done as quickly as you can. We want to be back to having a street that has no orange barrels, no construction equipment, no pavement torn up,’ ” said Metro board member Christof Spieler. “Every bit of delay we do to sort out contingencies is another month that that business has more difficult access.”

They say they have a Plan B to scale things back in the event of a worst-case, RSC-approved budget. Let’s hope they never have to use it.

Metro restarts some light rail construction

As if to punctuate Gilbert Garcia’s op-ed, the news for Metro at the start of 2011 is good.

Last month, the Federal Transit Administration sent the first $50 million of the grant money for use on the North and Southeast lines. Last week, the FTA issued pre-clearance letters Metro needed before it could proceed with more than $12 million worth of projects for which it is relying on federal reimbursements. Ultimately, the FTA will pay about half the cost of the North and Southeast lines.

“This is just further evidence that we’re on track and the relationship with the FTA is progressing,” said Metro board Chairman Gilbert Garcia, one of five board members appointed by Houston Mayor Annise Parker last year to try to rescue the jeopardized federal grant money.

The pre-clearance letters are a bureaucratic step, but they also put construction crews to work almost immediately to get the orange cones off streets Metro left scarred when it put the brakes on rail construction last year.

A subsequent press release from Metro spells out where these construction crews will be:

Construction activity for the North Line includes the start of communications duct banks, concrete pavement, sidewalks and asphalt paving on Fulton Street from Cavalcade to IH – 610, and from Boundary to Collingsworth. In addition, construction can begin on the new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad and the retrofit of the Main Street Bridge at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Work on the Southeast Line includes the start of communications duct banks, concrete pavement, sidewalks and asphalt paving on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd from Winnetka to just north of Griggs Road and on Scott Street from Polk to Coyle.

Also as part of the North Line project, new construction activity will occur at METRO’s Rail Operations Center at Fannin South, including installation of tracks for rail vehicles in the maintenance yard, construction of an expanded parking lot for maintenance vehicles and expansion of the building.

Next up, hopefully, is the FTA’s blessing on the new plan for buying rail cars, which would begin this month if allowed. The current timeline, which has these routes opening in late 2014, will be much more secure if that happens.