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US90A

The State of Metro

Metro Chair Carrin Patman gave a “State of Metro” speech at the Greater Houston Partnership this week, and among other things she said that another referendum is in the works to finish some tasks from the 2003 vote and to address the issues we see today.

HoustonMetro

One of the projects that remains unfunded is the proposed 90A rail line that would bring commuters in from the west. And Patman says Houston still doesn’t have rail service to Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports.

“I think there’s a lot of popular support for that,” says Patman. “Another one is some kind of connection between downtown and the Galleria.”

In her speech, Patman called for a regional plan that would link Metro’s services with other transit providers. But how much will it cost to do all this?

“Once we have the projects we want to go back with, we’ll then be able to go back with cost estimates on those and then determine from there the amount of bonding authority we need,” adds Patman.

You can see video of the speech here, and I have a copy of Chair Patman’s slideshow here; unfortunately, there is no written copy of her speech. I don’t think there’s anything in this that we didn’t already know – all of the possible rail projects are left over one way or another from 2003, though not all of them were on the referendum. The main piece of news is that the bond referendum that would be needed for any further rail construction might be next year. That would make for an interesting companion to the revenue cap-lifting proposition; at first blush, they ought to go well together, with the type of person who would vote for one probably also likely to vote for the other. It would also intensify the opposition, but I doubt there was any way around that. I’ll be keeping an eye on this. Write On Metro has more.

Coming back to the US90A rail extension

Lots of talk, and a case for action sooner rather than later.

HoustonMetro

A Metro rail extension from southern Houston to Missouri City is gaining momentum, fueled by rare near-unanimous support from local, state and federal officials who represent the area.

The hope is one day whisking commuters from Fort Bend County into the Texas Medical Center and other nearby job hotspots. But as the rail project picks up speed, a few officials worry the transit agency might get ahead of itself, to the detriment of other possible bus and rail improvements as money and resources perhaps shift to the rail line.

“I don’t know that I see it as being the next project,” said Metro board member Lisa Castaneda, who urged officials to slow down on some aspects of studying the rail link and soliciting possibilities for private investment in it.

The issue earlier this week touched off a sometimes-contentious exchange between Metropolitan Transit Authority board members, though most were supportive of moving forward with some of the rail plan. Still, even those eager to advance the line stress Metro has not made any final decisions, and still has no firm way for how to pay for the line despite vocal support from U.S. Reps. Al Green, D-Houston, and John Culberson, R-Houston.

[…]

At a Metro committee meeting last week, board members had what one called a “spirited” discussion about potential private investment in local commuter rail projects. The discussion was prompted by a request for information prepared by Metro staff, which could be circulated to gauge interest in development deals.

Metro board chairwoman Carrin Patman said while staff was authorized to release the request without board approval, she sought their input before sending it out. The action, however, was delayed when board members, primarily Castaneda, chafed at moving ahead.

While not opposed to the rail line – as it requires much more study – Castaneda balked at some of the eagerness other board members showed to press ahead and seek proposals from private developers interested in joining with Metro for a Missouri City rail line.

“I am not optimistic we are going to get a back a product that doesn’t require a lot of commitment from Metro,” she said.

Patman countered during the discussion that transit officials won’t know their options unless they explore them, especially when local elected leaders are eager to press ahead. Mayors, including those outside the Metro service area such as Stafford Mayor Leonard Scarcella, have offered full-throated support for the line for more than a decade.

“The lost capital of not doing something… is going to send I believe the wrong signal, and I believe a very costly one,” Patman said.

Green, who has committed to use his role in Congress to muster support and potentially federal money for the line, said “it is my hope that the real prospects for this continue to move forward judiciously as well as expeditiously.”

See here for some background. The main issue here is how to pay for this line, as for once there’s basically no political opposition. Metro has no more funds available from the 2003 referendum, and the short-term budget outlook is not optimal. Metro could float another bond referendum, but I can’t see them doing so until they have a full rail package put together to vote on all at once. There would likely be some federal money available for this, but that would not cover the whole thing. Metro will have to come up with something, which includes the money needed to do environmental impact statements. There’s also the question of how this would work inside Fort Bend County given that Fort Bend is not part of Metro. (Look for my interview with County Commissioner Richard Morrison next week, as this question will come up with him.) A public-private venture is certainly one option, one that we may also consider when and if a rail line connecting the proposed high speed rail terminal to downtown happens. I’d like to see this line get built – it makes a lot of sense, and we did vote for it back in 2003 – but I want it done in a way that works for Metro as well as for the potential riders. Let’s keep this moving, but don’t rush it. Get it right and go from there.

More on commuter rail to Fort Bend

The Chron picks up the ball.

HoustonMetro

In a blog post for Off the Kuff, a local progressive politics blog, former Fort Bend Democratic Party chairman Steve Brown said now is the time for local officials to form a commuter rail district. Under state law, the district, if formed, could work with Metro to develop the line and apply for grant funding.

“Adding a commuter rail district would ensure better local accountability and avail us to more options to secure private investment, issue revenue bonds or even impose taxes to finance this project,” Brown said.

[…]

Rail districts are not unique to the Houston area. The Gulf Coast Rail District – which spans a large part of the Houston region – has a host of freight and passenger rail projects in mind, though it lacks funding for many of its major projects. Gulf Coast is already empowered to act as a commuter rail district, said its executive director, Maureen Crocker.

In fact, Crocker said, Gulf Coast is preparing for more study of a freight rail bypass in the same rail corridor around U.S. 90A that Metro is exploring for its rail line. The freight bypass could make commuter rail along the tracks more likely, as it could address concerns by freight haulers that passenger trains would delay their operations.

Though a regional rail district has a role, Brown said he envisions Metro working with a more focused commuter rail district to develop the 90A line.

“I feel pretty strongly that empowering an entity comprised of local Fort Bend community and business leaders to take the lead on this project is the only way to ensure that it happens,” he said.

Importantly, a dedicated district could be a conduit to increased state investment, he said.

Always happy to help move the conversation along. I’m also happy to have the Gulf Coast Rail District involved, whether as the lead entity or as a component. Whoever is at the rein, let’s get started on a vision for where this line ought to go, and what action is needed by the Legislature to facilitate it. State a vision, get stakeholders behind it, and let’s get moving.

Steve Brown: Why we need the US90A rail line

(Note: From time to time I solicit guest posts on various topics, from people who have a particular interest or expertise in a particular topic. Today’s post is by Steve Brown, on the newly revived US90A commuter rail line.)

Steve Brown

Steve Brown

In May 2015, Metro began operating two light rail lines serving the East End and Southeast communities. Those routes, along with an extension of the Main St. line, were part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum. Included in that referendum was also a nine mile commuter line connecting Southwest Houston to Missouri City along Main/90A. Despite its bi-partisan support, that route has yet to break ground…or even clear its final environmental stage.

When the METRO Solutions referendum squeaked out a victory with 51.7% of the vote, it was the votes from Fort Bend that pushed it into the winner’s column. The METRO Solutions referendum received 66% of the Fort Bend County vote. That shouldn’t be a surprise. According to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey (2016), Fort Bend residents beat out Harris and Montgomery County in favoring more spending for rail and buses. That study also found that a majority of Fort Bend residents believe that the development of a much improved mass transit system is “very important.”

Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the nation, and is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2035. According to METRO, 24,000 daily work trips are made along the 90A corridor between Fort Bend and the Texas Medical Center. That number is expected to jump to 32,000 by 2035. The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) also estimates that trips along US 90A to all major employment centers, such as downtown Houston, Uptown/Galleria, and Greenway Plaza in Houston will increase approximately 37 percent in that same time period. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear that METRO’s Board recently voted to submit this project to FTA for project development. The project development phase is a preliminary stage, so it doesn’t guarantee full funding.

What’s needed now is a robust strategy for the next legislative session to advocate for state funding for the 90A line, and the creation of a special district to spearhead this effort.

Under the state’s Transportation Code, the legislature can create special “Commuter Rail Districts” (CRD). These Districts have the statutory power to develop, construct, own, and operate commuter rail facilities and connect political subdivisions in the district. The Fort Bend CRD, for instance, could accept grants and loans from the federal and state government. It could also issue revenue bonds and impose taxes. This district would function as the project leader and fiscal agent in partnering with METRO, local municipalities, private investors, Fort Bend Express and other key stakeholders.

A lot has changed along Main/90A since 2003. The 90A line should definitely stop in Missouri City but it shouldn’t end there. Constellation Field in Sugar Land has become a major local attraction, and the Imperial Market development will break ground later this year. Combined, they will be a hub for Sugar Land’s retail, entertainment, residential and office growth. As such, having the 90A commuter line terminate at Imperial Market (or even the Sugar Land airport) makes a lot of sense…assuming they’re willing to coordinate with the CRD.

Additionally, Missouri City’s residential growth and development has steadily drifted towards SH6 in recent years. In addition to the 90A route, we should also examine the feasibility of having a Hillcroft spur with stops around the Fountain of Praise/Fountain Life Center, Chasewood/Briargate and traveling adjacent to the Fort Bend Tollway before terminating on SH6. Not only would that route help to spark needed economic development in key East Fort Bend communities, it would also serve commuters from Fresno, Sienna Plantation and Riverstone. This “Hillcroft Spur” could function as a Bus Rapid Transit alternative to rail, at least initially, and potentially replace the 2 METRO Park and Rides in Fort Bend.

Finally, the state legislature needs invest in urban and suburban transit. We’re not going to be able to adequately address traffic congestion in this state with more toll roads. According to the American Public Transit Association, commuter rail annually yields $5.2 billion in economic and societal benefits. Those benefits are often greater than the initial investment and include cost savings from avoided congestion, mitigation of traffic accidents and tax revenue generated. These projects are also dynamic job creators and economic development incubators.

It’s time that we get the right people at the table to brainstorm innovative mobility solutions in Fort Bend, and finally make the METRO 90A/Southwest Houston commuter line a reality.

Steve Brown is a former Chair of the Fort Bend County Democratic Party and a past Director of Government Affairs for Metro.

Metro revives US90A commuter rail line

The possibility of it, anyway. No promises or commitments at this time.

HoustonMetro

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members on Thursday approved a resolution authorizing transit officials to “place” the project in the “Federal Transit Administration process” and look for ways to pay for it. When officials essentially placed the project on inactive status in September 2012 after spending $1 million on feasibility studies, it was estimated to cost about $400 million to build the rail line.

Board members stressed restarting the project was not tacit approval of it, or a promise for a single dollar toward building it.

“I just want to make sure we are clear,” Metro board member Cindy Siegel said. “This is to allow the possibility of federal funding, but isn’t a commitment.”

Since voters approved the project in 2003, plans for a train line along U.S. 90A from south Gessner Road to Metro’s Fannin South rail station south of Loop 610 have been the exception among Houston’s contentious rail plans. For example, unlike intense opposition to a proposed rail line on Richmond Avenue that has been a point of contention among lawmakers, the 90A project enjoys robust support from Houston officials, elected officials in smaller cities and the area’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who represents the southwest Houston area where the rail line would run, has long called it one of his district’s top transportation priorities.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who has been a constant opponent of the Richmond rail project, last year said the 90A line should be Metro’s first priority once it has sufficient money for rail projects. Culberson’s office on Thursday did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

[…]

In reviving the dormant rail project, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said it was important to gauge support for it and move forward. Technically, as the project remains approved by voters from the 2003 referendum, Metro officials can talk to federal transit officials anytime about its prospects.

“I don’t think it was absolutely necessary,” Patman said of the fresh resolution, “but I wanted to involve the board in the decision. I wanted to make sure everybody was on the same page.”

The vote, she said, was “a clear mandate for us to get back in the process.”

How to pay for the project, Patman said, will be worked out later. “There is no financial commitment to this point,” she said.

Patman says later in the story that a public/private partnership is possible. We’ll see how that goes. Another question is how much preliminary work would have to be re-done. Metro had been working towards getting a Draft Environmental Impact Statement as recently as 2012, but the project was put on hold in September of that year (the “Current Projects page” on Metro’s website that used to document it and that had announced its suspension no longer exists). There’s also the question of whether the line would have to end at the Harris/Fort Bend County line or if it could be extended (at greater cost) into Fort Bend County. Metro would need to seek legislative approval to expand into Fort Bend, which ought to be doable but is never a guarantee. All of this is to say we’re a ways off from anything happening. I’m glad to see this step being taken, but it’s very much the first step of a long journey, if indeed we embark on that journey.

One more thing: As you know, since Metro reached its detente with Rep. Culberson, I’ve asked about the status of his promises to help change federal laws to allow Metro to apply some funds it has already spent on other rail projects as matching funds for the proposed US90A line. I asked Carrin Patman about that at the meeting a group of us bloggers had with her some weeks ago. She said that Culberson did indeed work towards making that happen, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. C’est la vie, I guess. Perhaps he can try again now, or try some other tactic to help Metro move forward on this. I hadn’t written anything about Metro rail projects since then, so I wanted to note here that he did keep his word on that. KUHF has more.

My vision for Metro: Expansion

HoustonMetro

Part 1: Buses
Part 2: Marketing itself

One of the things that new Metro Chair Carrin Patman has been talking about is a regional transportation plan, to get everyone – including cities and counties not currently involved with Metro – to agree on what transit is and how we best go about doing it in a way that serves the greater region’s needs. I am fully on board with this idea, and my purpose today is to discuss a few specific ideas towards that end. My assumption throughout this post is that Metro can and should take a leadership role in this discussion. One can argue for an organization like H-GAC to take the lead, but I see them as more of a facilitator. Metro is the dominant transit provider in the region, and any meaningful regional plan for transit necessarily goes through them. They need to be the driving force to make things happen.

To me, the first principle in a regional transit plan is that it should be possible for anyone in the region – and I am talking about the ten-county greater Houston region that H-GAC covers – to plan and execute a trip on any transit line, from any point of origin and to any destination – from a single app or website. That includes mapping out the trip, estimating total trip time by the published schedules, and paying for the fare. It shouldn’t matter which agency or agencies are involved – any transfers, whether inter- or intra-agency, should be seamless. All you as the transit customer need to do is say that you want to start here and end there, and the rest is made available to you.

The first step towards this is for every transit agency in the greater Houston area to make all of its data available for the other agencies to use. Routes, schedules, fares, alerts, outages, whatever else – put it into a standard format that can be shared and used by applications. The city of Houston has done a lot of work to make its data available, so there’s an example to follow. Metro undoubtedly has the most data to make available, and likely also has the most IT resources at its disposal, so they ought to take the lead on this.

Once the data has been made available to all, the next step is to thoroughly review it, to see what obvious holes exist and what simple things – relocating a station, adjusting a schedule, and so forth – can be done to fix them. See Raj Mankad’s story of taking transit from Houston to Galveston for an example of what I’m talking about.

Now it’s time to build all that data into an app so that people can plan their trips. And as long as that is being done, there may as well be a parallel effort to allow for payment from within the app. Metro is already developing a smartphone payment system, so this shouldn’t be a stretch. The bonus here would be for the app to allow for payment on any system. Along those same lines, Metro Q-cards should be accepted as payment on any other regional system, with a reciprocal agreement in place as well. (*) I know there are reasons why so many different transit systems exist in our region. All I’m saying is that if we really want a regional transportation solution, as Metro appears to want, then we need those differences to be made transparent to riders.

So that’s the goal, and the path to meeting it. I think about this on the days when I take the bus home, because the stop where I pick up the 85 is also a pickup point for various Woodlands buses. I don’t have a need to go to the Woodlands, but if I ever did I shouldn’t have to figure out on my own what I need to do to get there. If Metro and its peer agencies get this done, I wouldn’t have to.

Finally, any discussion of expansion needs to include the fact that Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend County. That becomes an issue if and when the promised US 90A commuter rail extension – you know, the one that our buddy John Culberson made some promises last year to help get moving – gets funding. That line makes a lot more sense if it can be extended into Fort Bend, but that can really only happen if Metro operates in Fort Bend. For that to happen will take legislative action, and possibly a local referendum; I’m a bit unclear on the exact details. The legislative part I am sure of, and we know how dicey that can be, and how long you have to wait for a second crack at it if at first you don’t succeed. Getting started on that sooner rather than later is probably the better way to go.

(*) – When you think about it, why shouldn’t Metro’s Q-cards work on Via and DART and every other transit agency in the state? The EZ Pass we bought from HCTRA pays for tolls anywhere in the state. Why shouldn’t this also be the case for transit agencies? I’m just saying.

The Chron on how Metro and Culberson came to an accord

Read all about it.

HoustonMetro

Houston’s buses don’t run at 2 a.m., but that’s when Metro and U.S. Rep. John Culberson began to see real movement toward a deal to improve area transit service.

“We got really intense one night and literally worked line-by-line,” Metropolitan Transit Authority chairman Gilbert Garcia said last week, explaining how months of on-and-off talks helped Metro leaders and Culberson overcome years of distrust and division.

“There was a point where the congressman said, ‘Gilbert, we’re there,’ ” Garcia recalled.

Culberson, a Republican, credited Garcia with breaking through a long history of distrust by acknowledging errors in previous Metro plans and focusing on areas where transit officials and suburban politicians could find agreement.

Last week, Garcia and Culberson inked a deal that puts aside the bitter fight over rail along Richmond Avenue. The agreement delays that issue until after voters get a chance to weigh in, which could be years from now, and instead identifies other projects Culberson can help the transit agency bring to fruition.

Both said they feel confident about this deal. In the past, Culberson and transit officials have spoken of cooperation, only to resume lobbing rhetorical bombs at one another a few months later.

“It’s in writing,” Culberson said of the new agreement.

The deal, described by Garcia as Metro’s “grand bargain” with one of its staunchest critics, is hailed by both sides as a big win- a clear delineation of what each will do for the other.

The cessation of hostilities gives Houston a chance to secure federal funding for projects caught in the crossfire of Culberson’s refusal to open a door for a Richmond Avenue light rail project and Metro’s attempts to make the Richmond line the region’s next signature rail project.

Much of this is stuff we already know, especially if you listened to my interview with Gilbert Garcia and/or Houston Matters’ interview with Culberson. There is of course the question of whether you believe this is for real or not – the Chron expressed a fair bit of skepticism in a recent editorial – but as I said, this is how it is with every contractual agreement ever. Either you believe the other side will do as they say or you don’t. The one piece of new-to-me information in the Chron story was the involvement, on Metro’s behalf, of Republican lobbyist and former Rick Perry chief of staff Mike Toomey. I don’t know what to say about that except that politics really does make for strange bedfellows, and lobbyists really are like roaches in the sense that they’re everywhere whether you can see them or not. For now, I hope the next thing to say about any of this is to hail the news of funding being secured for each of those projects that the agreement touched on.

Metro and Culberson announce the terms of their agreement

Gotta say, this all sounds pretty good.

HoustonMetro

First, Congressman Culberson supports METRO’s proposed legislation pending in the State Legislature that expands the size of the METRO Board, increases the eligible length of Board member service and allows the existing board to elect a chairman in October with an odd initial term. These changes will help ensure better regional cooperation in designing and building successful transportation projects while smoothing the transition from the current board size to the larger board size that current law will require in the near future.

Second, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can use all of the federal dollars not yet drawn down from the $900 million in previously approved federal transit grants for corridor specific transit projects, particularly the new North and Southeast rail lines as well as the 90A commuter rail line. These proposed changes will be consistent with the goals of the FTA in order to allow METRO to match these funds with credits from the original Main Street Line or other Transportation Development Credits so that local funds will be freed up for new projects to improve mobility in the Houston area.

Third, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to change federal law so that METRO can count $587 Million in local funds spent on the East End Rail Line as the local matching credit for a commuter rail line along 90A, and secondarily for any non-rail capital project, or any other project included in the 2003 Referendum. Rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or Post Oak Boulevard would only be eligible to utilize these credits once approved in a subsequent referendum.

Fourth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to help secure up to $100 million in federal funds for three consecutive years for bus purchases, park and ride expansion and HOV lane improvements. These funds will also facilitate METRO’s expanded use of the 2012 referendum increment to pay down debt. All of these efforts will enhance and improve the bus system that is already one of the best in the nation.

Fifth, METRO wants to eliminate confusion for property and business owners on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive and on Post Oak Boulevard. Therefore, the METRO Board will adopt a resolution pledging not to use any federal or state funds to build rail on Richmond Avenue west of Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond unless METRO service area voters approve it as part of a future METRO service area referendum. Likewise, no local funds can be spent on such a rail project without a referendum except expenditures of local funds necessary for the proper studies and engineering to present to the voters in the required referendum. Any such referendum will be part of a multi-modal transportation plan including reasonable cost estimates and a description of the project’s pathway and end points, realizing that pathways could undergo minor adjustments as a result of unforeseen environmental problems.

Sixth, Congressman Culberson will begin work right away to memorialize this agreement in both federal and state law. Thus, METRO does not oppose Congressman Culberson’s language amending Section 164 of the FY16 THUD appropriations bill to memorialize this agreement. And, Metro does not oppose his efforts to memorialize this agreement in state law.

Seventh, if METRO service area voters approve the referendum, Congressman Culberson pledges to support the will of the voters and he will work to secure the maximum level of federal funding available for the transit projects described in the referendum.

All of that is from a “letter to our fellow Houston area citizens” signed by Rep. Culberson and Metro board Chair Gilbert Garcia, which you can see here, following an announcement on Friday that the two had reached an accord. It’s about everything I could have wanted – getting the US90A extension moving, providing a path forward for the Universities line, and more. I don’t know how Metro accomplished this, but wow. Major kudos all around. I’m sure there will be more to come, and I am eager to hear it. The later version of the Chron story adds a few details, and Texas Leftist has more.

Montgomery and Fort Bend

The Houston Area Survey covered a bigger area than usual this year.

One is mostly white and mostly Republican. It hasn’t backed a Democratic presidential candidate since native Texan Lyndon Johnson a half-century ago.

The other is as racially and ethnically diverse as any place in the country, swelling with black, Asian and Hispanic residents and much harder to bring under one umbrella.

But Montgomery and Fort Bend counties are much more similar than they are different. A new poll by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research shows that the two contrasting suburbs share common ground with their attitudes on traffic, development and immigration, among other key local issues.

The shared perspective matters as Houston goes through another growth boom, extending deeper into these counties. They will play an important role in the region’s future as it becomes bigger, busier and more diverse.

Separated by 50 miles of Houston sprawl, the two counties see bumper-to-bumper traffic as the region’s biggest problem, ahead of crime and the local economy, the poll found. And despite the car-oriented cultures of both places, four in 10 people surveyed say they would prefer to live within walking distance of work, restaurants and shops.

On new immigration, Montgomery County residents generally have stronger reservations, while Fort Bend County is more enthusiastic about its increasing diversity. But the differences are slight, said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice sociologist who has conducted the Houston Area Survey for more than 30 years.

“In this time of such political polarization, you would expect to see greater divergence on the issues,” Klineberg said. “But there is a surprising degree of consensus on what we need to do to succeed as a larger community, and that’s reassuring.”

[…]

The poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed – in each county – say improving public transit, such as light rail, buses and trains, is the best way to confront traffic woes. Fewer than one-third of people in the counties say they prefer building bigger freeways and roads.

In Fort Bend County, Missouri City Mayor Allen Owen said the poll’s results are not surprising considering the explosive growth in both counties.

“We’re dealing with the same issues,” including an aging infrastructure and the need for more water, Owen said. “I don’t care which side of Houston you live on, you have these problems.”

Missouri City, for one, is expected to nearly double its current population of 70,000 people by 2025. The growth is being driven by people working in and around the Texas Medical Center, 15 miles away.

Owen, echoing the poll’s results, said the area needs light rail to get people where they need to go.

“We have to get people out of their cars,” he said.

The recently released Kinder survey was based on interviews with 1,611 people, with about half in Harris County. The other half of the interviews were conducted in Fort Bend County and, for the first time, Montgomery County. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Klineberg expanded the poll to understand how these communities view the “dramatic” changes unfolding across greater Houston.

The rail numbers are interesting, though I don’t know how exactly to interpret them. I’ve browsed through the HAS page but have not found where (or if) they broke that data out by county. I’m guessing that support for rail in Montgomery is noticeably less than in Fort Bend and Harris. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, since there’s nothing on the drawing board for Montgomery (not counting the high speed rail proposal, which may not touch Montgomery anyway). Fort Bend has the possibility of the US90A rail extension, which may be in a better place politically now. They’d still have to enable Metro to operate inside the county for it to worthwhile, though. Anyway, as always the Houston Area Survey is a wealth of useful information. It’s good they’re including responses from outside Harris County now. The “Houston Area” isn’t complete without Fort Bend and Montgomery.

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.

Commuter rail status

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

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medical Center mobility

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

TMCMobility2035

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open house meetings for US90A/Southwest Rail Corridor project

From Metro:

The New METRO is continuing work on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the US90A/Southwest Rail Corridor Project with meetings to inform the public about alternatives that will be considered as part of this federal process. The US90A Project newsletter has been distributed to communities in advance of the open house meetings described below.

See here, here, and here for some background. There are four public meetings scheduled, two of which occurred on Tuesday. The others are today at the Together We Stand Christian Church, 1432 Texas Parkway, Missouri City, Texas 77489, next door to the Missouri City Civic Center; and Tuesday, June 12, at The Power Center Southeast Ballroom, 12401 S. Post Oak Road, Houston, TX 77045. Both are from 6 to 8 PM.

There are two alternatives being considered. One basically goes along the UPRR right of way adjacent to US90a all the way from Missouri City to the Fannin South station. The other runs along US90A as above, the turns north and runs through the future Buffalo Pointe development, turns east onto West Bellort, and take that into Fannin South. Both alternatives have a variation where it takes a detour along Airport and Hillcroft, possibly with an extra station in there. Both alternatives end in Missouri City because Metro does not operate in Fort Bend County. There have been discussions with Fort Bend to extend the line beyond that, but that’s beyond the scope of these meetings and this DEIS.

If all goes as planned, Metro would get a Record of Decision by the end of next year, at which point it’s a matter of finalizing the design and securing funds. Their timeline shows construction beginning in 2017 or 2018. We’ll see how that goes.

More on Metro’s rail to Fort Bend plan

Here’s a story from the first of the public meetings Metro is holding on the proposed US90A rail line to Fort Bend.

Planners of a proposed project to extend light rail service from Houston to Missouri City are hopeful about securing $1 million federal funding for the undertaking.

Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, said U.S. Rep. Al Green has been pushing for the funds to be allocated from either this year’s or next year’s presidential budget.

[…]

The plan drew loud applause from those attending a Metro public meeting Tuesday night in Missouri City that was held to seek public comments as the authority prepares a draft environmental impact statement as part of its effort to seek federal funding for the project.

“Not a day goes by that I’m not asked by someone, ‘Mayor, when are we going to get on the train?'” Owen said.

Although the current proposal wouldn’t stretch the line beyond Missouri City, mayors Leonard Scarcella of Stafford and Joe Gurecky of Rosenberg also have been pushing for light rail to be expanded further west into Fort Bend County.

For sure, the projected ridership of the line would be far greater if it extended into Sugar Land, which is where most of the people are. Metro doesn’t operate in Fort Bend and would need to be brought in to collaborate in some fashion that’s not fully defined, but clearly there’s ample support for this to happen. We’ll see how it goes.

In related news, as noted earlier, Metro has received the $14 million it was owed by CAF from their settlement, and PDiddie wrote up his account of meeting with Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. Which is right across the street from the Fannin South station, which is where the US90A line would meet up with the rest of the light rail system.

Metro seeks input for commuter rail line to Fort Bend

Metro is taking another step forward on the commuter rail line along US 90A to Fort Bend County that was part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

Kimberly Slaughter, Senior Vice President of Service Design & Development for Metro, unveiled the project’s design at a press conference [Monday] morning. The train — known clunkily as the US 90A/Southwest Rail Corridor — will span eight miles from the Fannin South Station at the end of the Red Line to Beltway 8 in Missouri City.

But don’t hold your breath. The rail is seven years and millions of dollars away.

Although Slaughter said costs are “completely conceptual” at this point, it’s expected to cost at least $200 million. She said the train will be funded mostly from government grants and existing Federal Transit Administration money, and there’s no plan to increase fares or taxes.

For now, all that Metro wants from you is your input. Four public forums will be held this month at various locations near the proposed train route. Attend, and you’ll be able to tell Metro exactly what you think of the plan and its environmental impact.

All of the details, including the media briefing and the scoping package can be found on Metro’s website. There are four public meetings scheduled between the 15th and 22nd of February, so if you have an interest in this be sure to attend one of them. There is already some federal funding in place for this, and there are several possible alternative alignments that might make more sense if Fort Bend County wanted to extend the line inside its borders. With construction not slated to begin before 2017, there’s plenty of time to optimize this. The most important thing is to get it started, of course. That we’ve come this far is a good sign.

Commuter rail along US 90A

Here’s an update on a piece of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum that has been largely quiescent till now, the proposed commuter rail line from the Fannin South station to Fort Bend County.

Though efforts soon stalled after a 2003 referendum in which voters approved a light rail expansion, the project has seen renewed political support, in particular from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who has been working closely with Fort Bend mayors to revive the project, and U.S. Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who have thrown their weight behind congressional efforts to secure the needed funding.

The 90A rail project is anticipated to cost $250 million, with the hope that half of that amount will be funded by the federal government. Officials are reluctant to give an estimated completion date due to the uncertainty of federal funding, which is typically a long process. Adding to that challenge is the state of the U.S. economy.

“The question is when will the federal money be available, and how quickly can we do it after that? said George Greanias, Metro’s recently-appointed acting president and CEO. “The moment the federal funds come in, we will move forward into construction as fast as we can.”

Greanias also reaffirmed Metro’s support for the project.

“We’re very committed to this,” he said. “We think it’s an essential part of building a network of rail.”

The planned four-stop, 8-mile rail would extend from the city’s existing Main Street Line to a terminus in Missouri City, with stops at Fannin South, Buffalo Center, Chimney Rock and Missouri City. The ride would be 30 minutes start-to-finish, and connect many of Texas Medical Center’s employees who live in Missouri City to their work.

Metro expects initial ridership for the line to be 12,000; with that population expanding to 23,000 by 2030. The train cars would likely be the same Siemens cars used by Metro’s existing rail lines, with the capacity to run 65 miles per hour, Grenais said.

Additionally, Sugar Land, which has voiced concerns in the past of how a rail would affect traffic flow in their neighborhoods, recently passed a city council resolution supporting Metro’s 90A rail proposal to extend the rail from Main Street to Beltway 8, with the caveat that “support … does not necessarily constitute support for extensions of commuter rail further west to Sugar Land.”

Link via neoHouston, who analyzes the proposed route and suggests an alternative, which goes right into Sugar Land. He’s not the first person to come to the conclusion that extending such a line into the population center of Fort Bend, which has a regional airport and will soon have a baseball stadium, makes all kinds of sense. Christof Spieler, now a Metro board member, came to the same conclusion back in 2008. He was critiquing the original 2004 H-GAC study that drew up a 15-mile line into Rosenberg, but the same idea holds true: Put the line where the people are. Seems so easy when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it’s more complicated than that. As neoHouston notes, Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend, which is why this proposed line ends at Beltway 8. Support out there is steadily increasing, but it’s still early days. And of course there’s the money issue. Rep. Green has moved the ball forward, and with help from his Democratic colleagues but no interference from Tom DeLay, there’s reason to hope. Maybe if Sugar Land sees that this is really coming, they’ll begin to want to be a part of it. We can hope, anyway.