June 24, 2004
Why not a subway?

Now that Metro is discussing the plans for the first round of expansions to the light rail line, a new idea has emerged: Have some of it run underground to avoid problems that have plagued the existing line.

Transit planners presented two options for the downtown segment of the seven-mile Southeast light rail line to about 70 people attending a meeting at Drexler's World Famous Bar-B-Que & Grill in East Downtown.

The leading contender would place the tracks in a tunnel under Walker Street from roughly Dowling Street to City Hall. The other possibility is laying the rails on Capitol Street. In either case, the rest of the line is currently envisioned to run at grade similar to the existing Main Street light rail.

"At first blush, when you look at it, a subway seems to be an `are you kidding me?' type of thing," said Robert Eury, director of the Houston Downtown Management District. "But the truth of the matter is, why would we not look at such a thing if it makes the most sense?"

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has not finished cost estimates for the two options. While a subway would likely be significantly more pricey than a surface route, proponents cite numerous reasons for making the investment.

In a dedicated tunnel, trains could travel much faster and would have zero risk of colliding with automobiles -- a major problem on the current line that opened Jan. 1. There would be no disruption of automobile traffic if the line runs underground, and passengers transferring between lines would have an easy connection to the existing light rail platforms at Main Street Square.

Another factor lending support to a subway: Businesses fear the impact of another lengthy street project. Many along Main Street were forced to close as patronage plummeted during three years of construction on the first line. Tunneling would likely involve fewer street impacts.

Steve Pittman, spokesman for the East Downtown Management District, said his neighborhood is excited about the prospect of a subway station east of U.S. 59 before the rail line would pop up to the surface near Dowling and continue southeast on Scott Street past the University of Houston to South Wayside at Loop 610.

"Our position is that the rail line remain underground until they get to approximately Dowling," Pittman said. "A subway would blend with our master plan better than a surface alignment."

Some downtown interests are particularly excited about the prospect of a subway connected to the four-mile pedestrian tunnel system that links numerous office buildings housing tens of thousands of workers. Under such a scenario, a rider getting off a train at the Main Street Square subway station could reach dozens of buildings without ever having to face a downpour or scorching summer day.

"Think about it," Eury said. "You could walk much farther than you would be willing to walk on the street to get over to the station."

The subway also would likely include a stop under the George R. Brown Convention Center, and perhaps also at City Hall. It could later be extended west under Buffalo Bayou and surface onto Washington Avenue, where a long-term plan envisions a rail line west toward the Galleria.

Critics, however, are blasting the subway plan as "lunacy." The Business Committee Against Rail, which handed out fliers at the meeting in opposition to MetroRail expansion, warns that a downtown subway would be prohibitively expensive and could end up flooding like some downtown parking garages and tunnels during Tropical Storm Allison three years ago. Some other attendees were overheard voicing concerns to Metro consultants about the flood danger.

Metro and its supporters counter it is a myth that a subway can't be built in Houston because the city is so flood prone. They point to downtown's extensive system of underground walkways, utility tunnels, and parking garages, noting only a few portions flooded during Allison, and lessons have been learned on how to better engineer subsurface infrastructure. Backers also point out there is an interterminal underground people-mover at Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Boy, I can just see the veins popping and necks bulging on some of those rail opponents, can't you?

I do think the flooding issue can be overcome, but I fear that to do so would add to the already high cost of such an undertaking. I can't see any harm in at least exploring the option, though. Nothing is lost if we decide it's a nonstarter. So let the discussion begin. And if you've ever been tempted to attend one of these Metro public hearings, you'll probably never get to be in a more entertaining one than now.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 24, 2004 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

How many dollars per inch are we willing to pay for it? I bet it's cheaper than the Katy...

I like subways. I wonder when the last time a major city started a subway program was and how it worked?

Posted by: Michael on June 24, 2004 8:49 AM

I had a great experience with subways when I went to a conference in DC. The trains were fast, safe, timely and well used. They were cheaper than taxis and/or parking.

Houston is such a large city (in terms of population and area), it would make a lot of sense to build a subway where commuters could reach downtown in minutes rather than a long commute with bumper to bumper traffic.

Yes, I'm sure it's costly, but I think people might be willing to pay for it if the advantages were obvious enough.

I only wish they would consider building a subway in Austin. There's no good East/West highway and it causes the North/South highways to clog up quickly. With gas prices and traffic the way it is now, if I could get on a subway in Round Rock and ride to downtown Austin in 20 minutes for $2.00, I'd do it (DC's fare was $1.20 to just about anywhere).

Posted by: Mike in Austin on June 24, 2004 9:34 AM

Cost isn't important when a planning body is pursuing world-class status, kids! Get with the program!

Who cares if people in poor neighborhoods have their bus services cut so you affluent blog readers can ride around in an expensive choo choo without being bothered by the riff raff, right?

Posted by: kevin whited on June 24, 2004 9:59 AM


The great irony is that in NYC, it's the other way around. People take express buses to avoid the "great unwashed" in the subways.

As for the last major city to start a subway program, I believe it was Washington D.C. that is the most recent (opened 1976, construction current).

Posted by: William Hughes on June 24, 2004 10:49 AM

Wow Kevin is a little testy today, isn't he? Get a nap in later today, OK?

FYI, when I lived in the hellhole that is Houston for eight years, the best part of it was riding the bus to work. Zipping past the folks stuck on the freeway while someone else drove was great! I got to read the paper, do some work and actually talk to some of my fellow riff-raff.

Houstonians waste more time and money in their cars -- I saved thousands of dollars and went weeks without driving my car anywhere further than the grocery store. I often feel like I'm the only lifelong Texan over the age of forty who's not in love with automobiles.

I agree with Chuck - a subway system may not work in Houston, but do the due diligence to find out if it's feasible. I believe a forward-thinking group of people could construct both a subway system AND a bus system that could work together and keep costs down.

I guess that rules out Houston. :)

Posted by: Smirking Chupacabra on June 24, 2004 10:52 AM

I find it hilarious that when Orlando Sanchez discussed making Westheimer a non-stop road and making every intersection an underpass, he took Turner to task for concerns over flooding in those underpasses. But now that there's talk of a subway line through downtown, the right's faith in engineering has gone elsewhere.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on June 24, 2004 11:30 AM

Am I the only one who thinks an elevated rail line is the obvious choice for Houston?

Mike Switzer

Posted by: Mike Switzer on June 24, 2004 1:23 PM

What is it about elevated rail lines are these METRO people so afraid of?

Posted by: Laurence Simon on June 24, 2004 6:48 PM

I agree. Elevated rail seems to make a heckuva lot more sense for Houston than a subway. The water table's so high you have to run pumps constantly to keep building basements from flooding, and the area's prone to severe thunderstorms that like to knock out power. ("In the event of a power failure between stops, please exit carefully and begin paddling to the nearest yellow exit door. Your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device. No diving or water toys allowed...")

An elevated rail system could also link directly with the sky tunnels.

It doesn't have to look frumpy, either: play off the old "space city" theme and make it a monorail, or at least futuristic looking, and it'll start showing up in postcards.

Posted by: Jeff Cours on June 25, 2004 11:34 AM

Anyone who claims Houston can't build a subway because of the watertable and/or flooding is clearly ignorant of the fact that Bangkok overcame both problems and opened a subway recently. Bangkok has the same heat, humidity, rainfall, flooding, and automobile traffic congestion as Houston... yet they managed to pull it off quite well.

Houstonians should consider doing what the Thais did - talk the World Bank's International Finance Corp. into investing in the venture.


Posted by: Cletus J. "Bubba" Huckabee Jr. on May 10, 2005 6:45 AM

Actually I believe the LA system is the the
last major metro subway system to open in the
US...1994 comes to mind. I had an opportunity
to ride it last fall. I bought a day pass at
LA Union Station and rode out to Hollywood to
hit the record stores. The LA system is a
mixure of subway and heavy rail.

Posted by: Dave Garland on June 15, 2005 1:44 PM