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Can we share these lanes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One year of the Green and Purple light rail lines

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

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

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

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

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

August ridership numbers for the new rail lines

Again, don’t get too excited just yet.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro still dealing with CAF problems

The more things change

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

New rail line numbers notch up in July

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

[…]

The Purple Line runs from downtown to the Third Ward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MetroRail passengers decrease in April, May 18, 2004:

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

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

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

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

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

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

MetroRail ridership rises in June, July 1, 2004:

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Highwayman:

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the East End got its rail line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rail lines officially open

At long last.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

New rail lines set to officially open

I’m so ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Bikes now allowed on light rail all day

Some good news from the inbox:

BikesOnRail

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

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

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

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

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

Metro writes off old light rail studies

What might have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overpass groundbreaking

Progress.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metro’s new rail station

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southeast and Harrisburg line openings delayed again

sigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The downside to downtown’s boom

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

On beautifying the city for the Super Bowl

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

Things More Important Than Beautification Projects to a Super Bowl Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please watch out for the trains

Seriously, people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Southeast and Harrisburg rail line openings pushed back

Well, at least it’s still in 2014.

THERE’S STILL “some uncertainty” over the exact schedule, but all the pieces needed to allow Metro to open Houston’s second and third light-rail lines won’t be in place until late December, according to reports delivered to a committee of the transportation organization’s board of directors last Friday. Previously, an opening date sometime this fall had been projected for the Southeast and East End lines (though the far eastern end of the East End line won’t come on line until a newly planned overpass is built under over the Union Pacific East Belt freight rail line between the future Altic and Cesar Chavez stations). Delays in the delivery of trains aren’t the sole reason for the late openings, however.

The contractor building the lines won’t be ready to turn over the completed tracks until September 30th to Metro, which will then need approximately 60 days to prepare for their operation. Other factors affecting the schedule: delivery of hundreds of newly redesigned axle counters to monitor train traffic on the rail lines, and construction of Houston First’s new Marriott Marquis hotel next to the downtown convention center.

I suppose the optimistic way to look at this is to observe that hopefully this renders the rail car shortage problem moot. And technically, if the opening is on or before December 20, it’s still “sometime this fall”. Right?

If officials can resolve a handful of remaining issues, the Metropolitan Transit Authority will open its two new rail lines in December, according to a revised schedule. It’s a delay from the fall 2014 estimate officials provided earlier this year.

“It is scheduled as of now to open Christmas week,” Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia said. “It is going to open before the end of the year.”

Missed it by that much. Look, just get it done this year, OK? Thanks.

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.

We’ll get our new trains in January

We have a deadline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding that crowded train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

End of year B-Cycle report

B-Cycle has been in Houston for nine months, having launched in early April. So far, it’s done pretty well.

The B-Cycle system’s 29th station was christened earlier this month in front of Clayton Homes. Officials said they hoped to provide new customers for bike-sharing and new opportunities for low-income families.

“The more you use the bikes, the more excited you become,” said Tory Gunsolley, president of the Houston Housing Authority.

In many U.S. cities, bike-sharing has become popular mainly among people who choose to bike for recreation. Critics say bike-sharing hasn’t reached low-income neighborhoods, however.

Houston’s build-out didn’t push into poorer neighborhoods, but it didn’t start in wealthy enclaves either. From three downtown stations, the system pushed south and west into Midtown, Montrose and the Museum District. It subsequently spread to the Heights, Eado and the Northside.

Houston will put B-Cycle kiosks where it can, when it can, as corporate partnerships and funding allow, said Houston Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian. She said having stations at the University of Houston, Rice University and Texas Southern University will be the next important steps.

“We want to double and triple this program and I know that we can do that,” Spanjian said.

Connecting the bikes with communities that need transportation is part of the strategy, Gunsolley and Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. The bikes could be an asset for people who need to travel a few blocks and don’t want to wait for a bus or ask someone for a ride.

[…]

Use of a kiosk near Project Row Houses, a Third Ward arts group, has been brisk, said Assata Richards, community liaison for the group.

“They use it to go to the grocery store, they use it to get around the neighborhood,” Richards said.

Looks to me like the Project Row kiosk is a short ride away from the planned Southeast Line station at Elgin and Scott. That will be an excellent location for future kiosk, since it will make the Southeast Line more accessible to these folks. If the Universities Line ever gets built, a kiosk by the TSU station, at the west end of campus, would serve a similar purpose, just on a much farther out timeline. You know me, I’m all about linking bikes to transit. Two connected networks are better than two separate networks. There’s already a kiosk near the Dynamo Stadium light rail stop, which is the nearest neighbor to the Runnels location, so it’s already networked.

Ridership of Houston’s bike-sharing system, Texas’ first, continues to grow. After a quick expansion from three to 27 kiosks in less than a year, ridership jumped. Use peaked in July with 7,225 checkouts but fell to 4,053 the following month before rebounding slightly.

“The heat in August had an impact on the leisure riders primarily and the cold and wet weather in late November had a similar impact,” Rub said in an email.

I have not used my B-Cycle membership as much as I would have liked. My plan was mostly to use it during lunchtime to expand my dining options and also possibly for certain types of errands. I have done those things, just not very often. One obstacle that I haven’t figured out how to overcome is the helmet. I don’t like riding without one, so I have to plan to bring my helmet with me to the office if I plan to ride later. That has its own logistical issues, as I’m sure you can imagine. I do want to ride more as the weather warms up, so I need to get that sorted out.

On riding the North Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we do to get the Universities Line going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lost canopy

Very disappointing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.