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Tom Lambert

Culberson does his Culberson thing to Metro again

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

No Metro vote this year

One less to worry about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes the fully extended Green Line

Hallelujah.

Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s going on with Metro’s ridership numbers?

I have no idea what to make of this.

Houston’s heralded bus system redesign – garnering kudos from local riders and transit supporters around the country – is running into the reality that nothing can boost transit when fewer people are riding to work.

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority revamped its bus system in August 2015, officials said it would boost ridership by 20 percent in two years. However, transit use in Houston has been declining.

In November, fewer people boarded Metro buses, hopped on trains and commuted to work via the park-and-ride system. When all types of transit except service for the elderly and handicapped are considered, Metro handled 13,625 fewer trips daily, a 4.6% decline last month, according to figures released last week. Commuter bus ridership has plunged by more than 10 percent each of the last two months.

Now likely unable to reach their predicted ridership growth, which would have been unprecedented in the history of Houston mass transit, Metro officials concede more refinement is needed to gain riders on buses and trains.

They blame the declining ridership on fewer oil and gas industry jobs in the area and the transition of many jobs away from downtown Houston. Though the job cuts have been evident in the region’s economic outlook for months, the switch to the new bus system last year might have hidden the negative effect of fewer daily commuters.

“What I think we are seeing is the unemployment rate has had a real effect on ridership and it is just now exhibiting in our numbers,” Arthur Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer, said.

I say I don’t know what to make of this partly because I can’t tell what the numbers actually are. They’re presented in bits and pieces throughout the story, and it’s not always clear to me when the stated declines are in comparison to the previous month, or to last year at the same time. I realize that I’m more number-oriented than most people, but please give me a table or chart with all of the relevant data. Context is everything.

As for the reasons for the decline, the recent slowdown in the local economy, specifically with energy sector jobs, is one possible factor. Others, not mentioned in the story, may include continued low gas prices and possibly a side effect of Uber’s penetration into the market. No one felt confident putting forth a firm idea, and with much of the decline coming on park-and-ride routes and high-volume local routes that didn’t really change in the system redesign, I’d say more study is needed. It was just four months ago that we were celebrating a big increase in the first year of the new local bus system map, so I’d say it’s a little early to panic. Maybe ridership fluctuates for reasons that aren’t always clear. Let’s do some work to figure this out, and then see what if anything we can do about it.

Harrisburg overpass update

Progress.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilbert Garcia will be a tough act to follow at Metro

Let me bid an early and fond farewell to outgoing Metro Board Chair Gilbert Garcia.

Gilbert Garcia

With only weeks to go as chairman of Metro, Gilbert Garcia bounds down the hallway to his transit agency office greeting workers, talking about how much he’ll miss the place.

He’s not shy in expressing pride about what he’s leaving behind.

“This is probably the most successful board in the history of Metro,” Garcia said, pulling up a list of the agency’s accomplishments on his phone.

Metro leaders often leave the agency with riders and elected officials dissatisfied, with uncertainty lingering about the future, or both. The current board, despite some stumbles, leaves not with a legion of complaints – though there are some – but with a legacy of accomplishments shaped by some members who have departed, some who will soon leave and a few presumably hanging around for a few more years.

In the past six years, Metro has opened three new light rail segments, redesigned its bus system, re-established its financial footing and – perhaps most importantly – healed some of the political strife that divided the city and suburbs for years.

“It has to be a regional agenda,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, describing the mission of an agency that serves most of Harris County.

Previous boards often were divided between city appointees who make up a majority – including the chairman, often a strong presence over a weak board – and county and suburban city interests.

“Getting everyone in the tent has been a great thing,” Garcia said.

[…]

When Garcia took over as Metro chair, his predecessor, David Wolff, was the only city appointee to show up. He accepted a plaque as thanks for his service and immediately left. Garcia, in contrast, is planning a celebratory handoff to [incoming Chair Carrin] Patman.

“This might be the first time that’s happened,” he said.

There should be a celebration, because Gilbert Garcia did a tremendous job as Metro Board Chair, and he deserves a lot of thanks. Sure, there are still problems, as the story points out in painstakingly obligatory fashion. There are lots of things Carrin Patman and the rest of the Board can do to make things better (and yes, I know, I really need to write down what I think some of those things are). The point is that they’re starting out in a much better place than Garcia did, and can focus their energy on making improvements rather than putting out fires. So thanks for all the hard work and big achievements, Gilbert Garcia, and best of luck in whatever comes next.

Chron story on the bus map tweaks

A few bits of interest here.

HoustonMetro

Metro leaders hope more frequent service on popular routes will build on the ridership gains the system is experiencing.

“I think as you get higher frequency and people know it is going to come, we are going to see higher ridership,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert told board members Wednesday.

In November, the last full month with verified ridership information, average weekday ridership was up 8 percent compared to the same month in 2014. Sunday ridership – more weekend service was a centerpiece of the bus changes – increased 30 percent to more than 114,000 average boardings.

The comparisons are problematic, however, because they involve different bus systems. Metro officials say they do not believe figures are skewed as a result of the new system requiring more transfers, a criticism skeptics have voiced since the bus network change.

At the same time, Metro is collecting less money from riders, as a result of changes in policy and fewer commuters than expected using park and ride service. From September to December, the first full four months under the new bus system, fare revenue was $1 million below 2014 collections for the same months.

[…]

“How do you have a system where I have to take three buses to get to work?” Ray McClendon asked as he waited for a bus on Antoine.

McClendon, 33, who is transit-dependent as he saves money for a car, blamed his transfers on the lack of a route on T.C. Jester outside Loop 610.

While the numbers show that ridership has increased, it is unclear whether more people are riding or the same number of people are taking more trips. Critics said overcrowding on some routes has driven some to stop taking the bus.

I have sympathy for Mr. McClendon, but this is a challenge for Metro. If you look at a map, much of TC Jester runs alongside the bayou, and even where it isn’t next to the bayou, the street grid around it is mostly cul-de-sacs. Point being, there’s very little potential ridership for a line that runs along TC Jester. In the meeting we bloggers had with Metro, board member Christoph Spieler talked about “frequency” routes versus “coverage” routes for their buses. There are numerous high-frequency routes that intersect with TC Jester, but someone who lives along TC Jester probably would have to take two or three buses to get where they needed to. Maybe someday a low-frequency coverage route can be added on TC Jester to fill this gap. In the meantime, trading a low-ridership, low-frequency route along TC Jester for more buses on Shepherd or Antoine/Washington is a clear win for most people, even if it does suck for people like Mr. McClendon.

There are a number of references to “critics” and the various things they say in the story, though none of them are named other than Mr. McClendon. I have a hard time taking that seriously – are these the same critics who predicted catastrophe for the changes and threatened to file civil rights claims but never followed through? Or are they people who have specific concerns and no axes to grind? A story that talked to some of the latter people, then got responses to their questions and criticisms from Metro would be enlightening, much more so than passive voice generalities. From where I sit, we have a pretty good understanding of what Metro has been doing lately, why they are doing it, and how it has been going. Let’s keep that discussion going, and figure out what they are missing and where else they should be.

Yes, there are some people complaining about the new bus routes

The Houston Press talks to a few of them.

HoustonMetro

The 87 still runs—just not right here. While the previous bus network had 89 routes, the new one has 79—and as a result, low-income communities like Hersey’s lost access to 12 routes, while non-low-income communities gained three. That’s according to the April 2015 analysis Metro was required to conduct under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act—analysis to make sure any major transportation changes won’t have a disproportionate impact on minority and low-income communities. The conclusion, in every category—such as travel times and route changes—was no.

But since the new system has been in place, dozens of riders in these communities have spoken up to disagree, claiming everything from significantly longer commutes, to longer walks, to doubled transfers. And next week, Paul Magaziner, a Houston business owner who has both frequently and unabashedly criticized Metro for years, plans to file a Title VI complaint with the Federal Transit Authority, accusing Metro of discrimination. “They’ve basically created a transit desert in low-income, minority areas,” he said. “And this is very un-beneficial to those who are transit-dependent.”

Metro CEO and President Tom Lambert said that, with a transportation change as sweeping as this one, the push-back was expected, and the board plans to respond to every complaint and make proper adjustments. Last week, roughly 25 people spoke at a Metro board meeting to explain how the changes have unraveled their daily lives. Hersey was one of them. “I’m ready to move from the whole area, because it’s too much,” she told the board. “I’m just asking you guys to look over everything, because that bus stop, it was a helping hand.”

[…]

Metro has frequently cited that 61 percent of all routes will have faster travel times in its new network. Thirty-nine percent would be slower only by less than 15 minutes, and just 5 percent would be slower by more than 15 minutes (all of which are located along low-income/minority routes). Those numbers are based on 452 sample travel patterns, tested in the April Title VI analysis. But of those 452 test trips, none consider transfers to other routes—what many in the low-income neighborhoods in southeast and northeast Houston have found most cumbersome. And so, because 57 percent of the routes classified as low-income were still found to have faster travel times as well, the conclusion is still that there is no disproportionate impact.

“The routes are really much worse for the poor people—the people who really need transportation,” said Daphne Scarborough, a Houston business owner who frequently attends Metro board meetings. “All you have to do is look at a map and see that so many routes on the poorer side of town have been taken away, and then all the routes on the wealthier side of Houston have more buses running every 15 minutes.”

Lambert said that higher frequency was a main focus of the redesign, along with increasing rail ridership in a more integrated system (52 of the 79 routes now connect to the Metro Rail). Overall, 80 percent of the budget was focused on ridership, while 20 percent focused on geographic coverage. But that’s exactly what Magaziner criticized, given that the places benefiting the most, he said—such as stops along Westheimer where buses are coming every eight minutes—are not where the people who rely on public transit the most are actually living. “What they’ve done is they’ve robbed lower-income, minority service to shift the service to southwest and west,” Magaziner said. “It’s not going to work.”

Charles X. White, President of Sunny Side/South Park Super Neighborhood, has also been fighting for an additional group of people he’s seen affected by the changes: the elderly and disabled. In the Title VI complaint Magaziner plans to file next week, White says that American Disabilities Act noncompliance will also play a role.

According to Metro, less than 0.5 percent of people are walking more than a quarter mile to get to their stop. But to White, the problem—in addition to many bus stops not being wheelchair friendly—is access to MetroLift, a ride-sharing service that, as an alternative to the public buses, aids people who are unable to either walk to their stop or make it onto the bus. Riders have to apply, but White says he’s seen many who truly need it being denied.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the problems anyone is having with this change, which is big and radical and which everyone knew would leave some number of people worse off. Before I get to the questions and issues I have with this story, I want to say that I’m glad the Press pursued it. Even in a best case scenario, some things are going to go wrong and some fixable problems are going to arise that no one saw coming. I’m glad someone is trying to find this stuff out.

Now then. Paul Magaziner is the guy who was quoted in numerous stories about system reimagining before implementation talking about what an impending catastrophe it was going to be, with many people losing their jobs because they wouldn’t be able to get to work. Daphne Scarbrough is a longtime anti-rail activist, who has sued Metro more than once. Basing a story that’s critical about Metro on what they have to say is like basing a story that’s critical about the New York Yankees based on what David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia have to say. There may be something to the criticism, but I’m sure not going to take their word for it.

This story adds to the fairly modest pile of anecdotal evidence of problems affecting people post-reimagining. Again, I don’t doubt the existence of this evidence or the effect on real people that it’s having. But what I notice is that it continues to be individual accounts, here and there. The Sunny Side/South Park Super Neighborhood issue seems to be about MetroLift more than anything else; it’s unclear how much system reimagining has to do with that. Maybe that promised Title VI complaint will give some indication.

As far as that goes, here’s the process. I guess the question is what happens if Magaziner and Scarbrough aren’t satisfied with the outcome. A federal lawsuit is a possible path, but that’s a big, expensive undertaking. Whether it gets that far or not, I’ll be interested to see what if any official support this action draws, from elected officials, business and/or labor leaders, other neighborhood organizations, the NAACP/LULAC/TOP, and so forth. Not everyone supports every fight, but a fight that has merit will draw someone to its side.

And let’s not forget that while it has always been known that some people would have a longer trip or a longer walk to a stop, this is supposed to be balanced out by bus service being better and more accessible for a lot more people. One way this would manifest itself is by more coverage on weekends and holidays, when a lot of people still need to get to work and a lot of those who don’t still need to get to other places. While we should absolutely keep an eye on those who have seen their level of service go down, we should not lose sight of those who have been helped by the change. This is ultimately how Metro will be judged – did they make the service better for enough people, and do the ridership numbers and customer feedback reflect that? As above, official support, if there is any, will be telling.

Finally, on a side note, Purple City takes a closer look at the complaint of the first person featured in that Press story. It turns out, Metro didn’t really move the bus route further away. The route was moved from the street bordering the eastern side of her apartment complex to the street bordering the west side. The main difference for her, and the reason why she has a longer walk now, is because the only pedestrian access gate is on the east side. If there were a gate on the west side – which Purple City believes is a request that the property management company would likely consider to be reasonable – she would have a walk that was about the same length, possibly even shorter. Perhaps that would be a good idea to pursue, rather than trying to force Metro to change this route. This is only one example, but in a story built on anecdotal data, it sure weakens the basic premise that a lot of people are needlessly and negligently worse off.

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.

So can we call the Metro bus system reimagining a success yet?

If no news is good news, then Metro is swimming in good news, because I haven’t seen much coverage of its new bus system rollout since the opening days. Perhaps all that concern (expressed by one person) about disaster and mass firings was a tad bit overblown. I don’t want to jinx anything, but if there’s a disaster out there in the bus lanes, it’s an awfully under-reported disaster.

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

Just northeast of downtown, in Houston Fifth Ward, it’s difficult to find a fan of the new network.

There are few shaded bus stops here. At the corner of Jensen and Lyons, what appears to be a temporary bus stop sign is attached to a pole on a yellow stand. A rider took cover in the shade of a nearby tree — a shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“They need to do something out here,” said Sherry Green, waiting on the #11 Lyons bus to take her to work in the med center.

The lack of shelters is a problem, according to Joetta Stevenson, of the Fifth Ward Civic Association and the Super-Neighborhood Council. But there is more, she says, that needs to be addressed.

The area depends heavily on public transit and has for generations. “Buses aren’t an amenity, they’re a necessity,” she said. And some of those bus routes by which people would set their watches have changed. “We knew where the buses would take us and now it’s total chaos and confusion. People don’t know and they don’t understand,” Stevenson said.

Outside the community center, seniors whose day revolves around the activities inside, complain that they’ve waited longer for buses for two days. One man said he boarded the bus he always took, but suddenly it took him to somewhere he’d never been before.

The makeover is a change for METRO, and it appears, for a lot of people in Fifth Ward. A METRO app that explains what buses will take you where and when is available, but few seniors at the community center have a smartphone or the interest in using an app.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said the agency met with Fifth Ward community groups earlier this year. He said new bus shelters are in the works for the area — nearly 40 by the end of next year. He sees the shelters as a way to encourage more ridership in Fifth Ward.

In response to the complaints and confusion expressed about the new routes, Lambert said METRO is addressing the issues constantly, refining and correcting to make it work for those who use it.

So two issues – the lack of shelters, and some people not liking the new system and/or not knowing about it beforehand. The lack of shelters isn’t actually related to system reimagining. It’s a longstanding issue that Metro plans to address (as noted above) thanks to the additional sales tax revenue it receives thanks to the 2012 general mobility provision referendum. Perhaps that could be accelerated a bit, but those shelters weren’t there before system reimagining and wouldn’t be there today if the old map were still in place. I guess if you’re doing a story about people being unhappy with Metro you go with what they tell you, but this is a tangent and not actually germane to the issue.

As for people complaining about waiting longer for buses, it’s hard to know what to make of that without knowing any details. How long are we talking, and how long were they used to waiting? Which bus line are we talking about? Maybe there was a problem that day, maybe it was a matter of good or bad luck with timing, maybe it was a perception issue more than anything else, or maybe there used to be more than one line that ran along the street in question and now there’s just one so your odds of getting lucky on the timing have diminished. Perhaps if the reporter doing this story had checked on any of that she could have attempted to answer some of those questions objectively, or at least provided the information I’m talking about so someone else could look it up. Without it, all I can do is speculate.

I don’t want to minimize the confusion issue. If you’re not on the Internet, I expect the change would be especially confusing, since you wouldn’t have been easily able to try and figure it out beforehand. I don’t know how much engagement Metro had in the Fifth Ward – one meeting? more than one? – but it would be a good idea to schedule a few more, to make sure everyone now understand how the new system works. We always knew this was going to be hard. The fact that things seem to be going well overall doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t get anyone off the hook for fixing the problems that remain. This is fixable, and I do believe that the people in the Fifth Ward and elsewhere will find that the system overall is better and more useful to them. But we do have to get over the initial bumps first.

That’s it for negative stories that I’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, since the Fifth Ward is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and since there have been questions about how Metro’s service will change in areas like that that are transit-dependent but not heavily populated, I checked a couple of the African-American news sites to see if they had anything my Google searching might not have picked up. Both the Defender and the Sun Times had Day One stories about the unveiling of the new network, but nothing after that that I could see. Make of that what you will. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen anything about the often-controversial flex zones, either. Again, maybe there’s stuff happening that isn’t being reported, but I can’t know what I can’t find.

Other stories: Kyle Shelton rode the bus on Day One with his one-year-old, and came away impressed.

We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.

I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.

We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.

Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.

As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.

We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.

In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.

The 56 runs along Montrose/Studemont/Studewood, which makes it the closest bus route to my house. I have to say, I’ve seen a bunch of these buses go by as I’ve been going about my business. Reading this account made me realize that my best bet for getting to the Art Car Parade next year is likely going to be hopping one of these buses. The possibilities here are definitely intriguing.

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

I am a daily rider and I happened to benefit from the irrational inefficiency of the old system. Two different and relatively frequent buses passed by my house on the way to Downtown. In the new system, only one relatively frequent bus serves my street. Wasted resources like the doubled-up bus lines by my house were distributed to a grid that brings high-frequency lines to our multiple job centers and densely populated areas. I am willing to give up a little service to my street if the whole system works better for me.

The morning of my first ride I experienced some confusion. The bus blew by me as I tried to find a stop on a long, previously unserved stretch by my kids’ school. (Note to METRO: Please put a stop for the 44 at Houston Avenue and Bayland.) It was a minor inconvenience. I waited in a shady spot, the next bus arrived in about 15 minutes, and I transferred to the train at the Downtown Transit Center.

At a table of friendly if harried METRO representatives, I picked up a copy of the new METRO system maps. Designed by Asakura Robinson, METRO, and Traffic Engineers Inc., the new maps are a huge improvement. One bus rider claimed that the old maps were deliberately designed to confound you. Living carless in Houston can be so alienating that you start to believe that METRO’s failures are a nefarious plot. I never looked at the old maps. Taking the bus was a form of mysticism for me. You relied on your intuition. The new maps are so clear they are a revelation. Houston almost makes sense.

The old bus lines were like coils that had been pulled out and stomped on. The ends spiraled around neighborhoods and the middles jogged back and forth across the street grids. Having every bus converge Downtown doesn’t make sense when our city is a multi-nodal conurbation, as Rice School of Architecture professor Albert Pope puts it. Why should I have to travel Downtown from the Heights to get to Uptown?

The new maps are beautiful to behold because the designers had a far more rational and orthogonal set of lines to work with. The Frequent Network map is the piece de resistance. Job centers, parks, freeways, and bayous are shown with the right line weights and opacities at a legible scale. You see our key assets with transit links in the foreground — a view I much prefer to the decontextualized spiderweb of freeways normally used to represent Houston. (The clarity of the map also reveals the service gaps on the east side.)

The Park & Ride, Express, and Key Local Routes map is also gorgeous. Finally, you can see that we already have a commuter system to build on. This new map would have been helpful when I rode the 292 from Missouri City to Rice University for a year, and when I figured out how to get to Galveston by bus.

The 44 is an alternate option for me to get home from work – the 30 would drop me closest to home, but the 44 would do in a pinch. Reading Raj’s story made me look again at the very useful interactive service map and realize that if I wait at Capitol and Smith for a bus going home, I’d actually have three options – the 30, the 44, and the 85 down Washington, connecting to the 56. Given that the 30 is the least frequent of these, that makes my odds of a reasonably short bus trip home on the days when I don’t have the car after work (I carpool with Tiffany, and she sometimes needs to make other trips before going home) are quite a bit better than I thought, and better now than they were before reimagining. Not too shabby there. Oh, and the rest of the article is a really nice story about a rider Mankad met on the way home. Do be sure to read it.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll keep an eye on this in case it falls apart tomorrow. Have you tried the new bus system yet? If so, what do you think?

System Reimagining, Day One

So far, so good.

HoustonMetro

Bruno Davi waited Monday morning for a Metro bus in his usual spot on Heights Boulevard, but his trip wasn’t the same.

It’s a situation thousands of Metropolitan Transit Authority riders faced as the agency’s new bus network, which officially launched Sunday, got its first workday test. Though months of planning and community outreach went into the change, riders were still left with first-time jitters and the task of changing longstanding habits.

“It’s like the first day of school,” said Davi, 40, who coincidentally was toting a large backpack.

Metro predicted some confusion would arise as riders adjust to changes that focus on developing core, frequent routes that make a grid pattern around the region and decentralize service away from the downtown area.

Any change is hard on some riders, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said, and transit officials are hearing a variety of reactions to the new routes.

“We’re getting some folks who don’t like what we’re doing and they are eloquent in expressing their views,” Lambert said. “We’re getting folks who love what we’re doing, and they are also eloquent in expressing their views.”

At times, with riders looking for answers, Metro was unable to handle demand at its call center. Officials increased the staff in the center to 70, from about 45, to handle the additional demand. At peak times, the center was averaging about 330 calls per hour, more than double its normal volume.

Call volume in some cases exceeded the number of incoming phone lines, which means some calls are being dropped. As lines become available, incoming calls can get through, Lambert said.

Each call is taking longer, he said, as Metro staff re-educate the caller on travel options.

[…]

Lambert said it could be up to two weeks before officials get a first glimpse at reliable ridership information and accurate figures on whether buses are arriving as frequently as Metro promised. He said early information indicates most routes are moving as predicted.

“I think each day we are going to get better feedback,” he said.

There were a few anecdotes from affected riders, and a couple more in this accompanying story about energetic young Metro employee Barrett Ochoa and his efforts to assist people on Day One, but if that’s as bad as it gets, this is going to be a piece of cake. I don’t mean to minimize this – there will be problems, and Metro and its staff are expending a huge amount of time and effort into making this work – but given that some people – OK, one persistent Metro crank – were predicting disaster and riders getting fired for missing work due to new route confusion, I think it’s important to maintain some perspective. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We will get through this. Take a deep breath, check the various tools that are available to figure out what bus you need to take, and give Metro a call if you still can’t make sense of it. And if you feel confident and want to test yourself, go take the Houston Tomorrow Department of Transportation New Bus Network Challenge. Whatever you do, happy riding.

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.

Park and Ride parking

I have no problem with this.

Park and ride buses are among the cheapest options for suburban commuters who work downtown, in part because Metro provides free parking.

But just as new highways increasingly require drivers to pay tolls, officials are considering changes to the park and ride system that would shift more costs to consumers.

“This city has changed and we are going through an economic explosion right now,” said Burt Ballanfant, a Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. “We have got to look at those changes and realize the costs are changing.”

A Metro committee Thursday directed staff to report back in 60 days with analysis of parking policies at Metro’s 28 park and ride lots, including whether charging for parking is warranted.

“We want to take a look at this in terms of the economic issues, get board direction and go from there,” Metro president Tom Lambert said.

Only one of the 28 park and ride lots, Fannin South, charges a parking fee. Drivers pay $3 per day to use the lot. Another park and ride location in Cypress charges those who park, but the fee is waived with a valid fare on a park and ride bus.

[…]

The discussion occurred as board members considered a proposal to move the Grand Parkway park and ride location about three miles west by leasing parking spaces from Katy Mills Mall.

On average, the current 423-space lot near the I-10 interchange with the Grand Parkway has 188 fewer spaces than needed, based on an October count, and sometimes 200 or more commuters are forced to park in spots Metro isn’t supposed to be using.

Staff members are working on a proposal to lease around 800 spaces at Katy Mills Mall, west of the current spot. Metro’s board would have to approve a deal to move the lot, then adjust schedules to accommodate the change.

The existing lot would house carpool and vanpool users, while all park and ride commuters would relocate.

Moving the park and ride lot would cost between $400,000 and $500,000 per year, mostly by renting the 800 spaces from the mall property owner, said Miki Milovanovic, Metro’s real estate and property management director. Another $120,000 would be spent preparing the site with signs and bus shelters.

At every site, whether Metro owns it or not, those costs have been borne by the agency.

“The sort of unspoken agreement was we would not charge for parking,” Ballanfant said.

If Metro is not recovering enough of its cost on park and ride parking, then a fee for parking is one possible option for it to consider. By the same token, if Metro needs to fund the acquisition and/or construction of more parking spaces, a fee for parking is again a possible option. There are certainly other possibilities like shared parking, as discussed above, and it should by all means explore those as well. But I don’t see why parking in these lots has to be free if the cost and revenue structure doesn’t support it. Fares have gone up on buses and the light rail before; this to me is no different than that. The Highwayman has more.

Metro reports an increase in boardings with bikes

From the inbox:

The number of people using bikes to extend their bus trips (or vice versa) increased more than 47 percent jumping from 12,111 bike bus boardings in January 2013 to 17,859 in January this year, That’s according to METRO figures which do not account for bikes taken onto light-rail trains.

At the METRO Downtown Transit Center you’ll find a bustling bike-share station, and at bus stops and train stations bikes ready to be loaded onto bike racks.

“We are preparing for and trying to cultivate, these folks as repeat customers. We’re doing that with bike racks on buses and at bike stands at bus stops. We’ve installed racks on our new trains and are working with the city to provide better infrastructure with bike lid storage at Park&Ride lots and B-Cycle facilities at our Downtown Transit Center,” says METRO’s Interim President & CEO Tom Lambert.

“The upward trend is gratifying. It’s good exercise, gets cars off the road, relieves congestion and certainly cuts emissions that impact our air quality. We work with bus drivers to be more aware of cyclist needs and the rights of the road,” Lambert continued.

METRO has encouraged bike ridership through collaboration with area agencies – advancing what was a grant for a three-station bike share start-up program to the 29 stations and 227 bikes it has today. Houston B-Cycle has registered more than 55,650 checkouts since opening – which comes to about 1,200 per week since the program expanded in March 2013. One of the most popular bike rental stations is located at METRO headquarters at 1900 Main St.

METRO is also working on a Transit-Bike Connection study as well as partnering with Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on a Bike and Ride Access Implementation plan. Meanwhile Rice University engineering students turned to METRO to work on their first project — the design of a rack to transport three bicycles at a time via bus. Their METRO-based project won this year’s Texas Department of Transportation’s College Challenge.

That team was one of three finalists asked to develop concepts to help Texas mobility, connectivity and transportation safety issues. Students were motivated by a recent H-GAC study anticipating growth. The three-rack solution is one of several by Houston Action Research Team (HART) undergrads.

Good to hear, and another bit of positive news from Metro at the start of the year. As you know, I’m a big fan of integrating bike and transit networks as a way to extend them. The release also noted that Metro topped 22,000 bike boardings in August, so while the overall trend may be positive – they didn’t give figures for other months – there’s still room for monthly growth. I hope it continues.

Metro names Lambert its next CEO

For the second time in a row, the Metro board will make its interim CEO its permanent CEO.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board on Thursday voted unanimously to open negotiations with Tom Lambert for the permanent president and CEO position.

Lambert, who has led the agency on an interim basis since December 2012, served as Metro’s police chief for more than 28 years and more recently as an executive vice president. He was named interim CEO after George Greanias abruptly resigned.

Lambert, a 35-year Metro employee, initially said he would not be a candidate for the permanent job, and Metro hired a search firm to help it find a new leader. Over time, however, board members grew impressed with the job Lambert was doing and decided he should be considered for the permanent position.

“The chief has done a dynamite job, and his team has done a dynamite job, there is no doubt,” board chairman Gilbert Garcia said, referring to Lambert, during a December meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

As an earlier story notes, the Metro board hadn’t done much of anything to advance the search for an external candidate, so I guess they are indeed happy with Lambert. I think he’s done a decent job as well, though he does have some big challenges ahead, from reimagining bus routes to dealing with railcar shortages, and hopefully to restart the conversation about more rail lines in the future. I wish him the best of luck with these tasks. The Metro blog has more.

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.

North Line opening today

From the inbox:

ALL ABOARD FOR SATURDAY RAIL ROLL-OUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Chron story about the opening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Line on track to open early

Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fare enforcement for Metro

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greanias officially resigns, interim Metro CEO named

George Greanias may have stepped down as CEO of Metro, but he’ll still be around for awhile, as Metro searches for his successor.

George Greanias

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday accepted Greanias’ resignation, named an interim replacement and approved a six-month, $117,500 contract with Greanias – equivalent to half his annual salary – to consult for Metro.

“Don’t think you’re getting away scot-free,” board member Carrin Patman told Greanias after a 90-minute closed session. “We have a job for you.”

Greanias’ consulting duties will focus on leadership transition, increasing bus and light rail ridership and improving the MetroLift service for disabled passengers. These are key areas where Greanias can be an invaluable asset, said Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia.

“Who better than someone who has been here that knows all the parts, all the intricacies,” Garcia said.

To replace Greanias, the board appointed Tom Lambert, Metro’s executive vice president and the agency’s former police chief, as interim CEO. Lambert, a 32-year Metro veteran, told the board he is not interested in the position permanently.

He said Greanias leaves the agency after 30 months in much better shape than he found it. Lambert said his goal for his time at the helm is to keep the staff directed on its long-term goals of improving bus and train service.

“I think the real issue is how can we take the system today and make it even better tomorrow,” Lambert said.

Greanias didn’t give any specific reason for leaving – he did deny that a difference of opinion over the Metro referendum was a factor – he just said he was ready to do something else. Easy enough to understand – he inherited a mess and turned it around, which has to have been exhausting as well as satisfying. The next CEO will be more in run-and-maintain mode, though he or she will have to figure out how to expand bus service and getting the new rail lines going while still working towards building the University line. It’ll be a challenge of a different kind, but a challenge nevertheless. The Board has a big task ahead of it in finding the right person for that job.