August 24, 2007
The Eureka corridor

Did anyone catch this article in yesterday's Chron?

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board today will consider the purchase of a former rail bed between downtown and the 610 North Loop, as well as sites for new Park & Ride lots in Katy and Pearland.

Metro plans a commuter rail line from near U.S. 290 and Hempstead Highway to a future terminal for trains and buses north of downtown, although an exact route has not been announced.

My reaction upon seeing it was "I hope Christof blogs about this, because I've got a lot of questions." Thankfully, he came through.

To get a 290 commuter rail line Downtown, there are only a few options. The existing freight rail line -- the Terminal Subdivision, which splits into two parts near Downtown -- is congested, with no spare capacity for commuter rail. HGAC's Commuter Rail Connectivity Study includes an elevated commuter rail line along the edge of I-10, but that would be expensive. The Eureka Corridor, by contrast, seems simple: it connects to the 290 line at Eureka Junction, and commuter trains wouldn't need to cross the busy Terminal Subdivision to reach it. At the other end, it passes right by the Intermodal Center, with lots of room to build a connection. And there are no freight trains in between.

In other words, the Eureka Corridor would be perfect for commuter rail -- if it didn't happen to run right through two residential neighborhoods, the First Ward and the Heights. It's unlikely those places would look kindly on the idea of new, large, diesel-powered trains through their neighborhoods (especially since the First Ward already has two freight rail line). And this would be suburban service, which means it likely wouldn't stop between Northwest Mall and Downtown. These neighborhoods would get the impacts but none of the benefits. In fact, using the corridor for commuter rail would prevent its use for light rail or streetcar service that actually would benefit these neighborhoods.

There is a possibility here for a bigger, more beneficial solution, one that combines urban transit, suburban trains, bikes, and freight rail in a way that not only adds not modes of transportation but reduces the impacts of what is already there. METRO and the city and Union Pacific and the Gulf Coast Freight Rail District could work together and consider the corridor as a whole, and the neighborhoods could end up better off.

As Christof notes, this item wound up being removed from the agenda before the meeting, but according to Robin in the forum discussion, it's almost certain to be back. I think that commuter rail line is going to happen one way or another, so it's vital that it be done in a least-harmful, most-beneficial way for the inner Loop neighborhoods it will pass through. Time to start talking to Metro about what we do and don't want.

UPDATE: Here's today's Chron story with more about this.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority shelved a planned vote Thursday to buy a former freight rail bed for commuter rail, after learning -- to board members' surprise -- that the city plans a bike trail there.

Board member Rafael Ortega said news that Metro is interested in the route had "created some concern in the community." He suggested that Metro should "communicate our regret to the city of Houston and TxDOT for jumping the gun."

Chairman David Wolff said that was not necessary, but agreed that the agenda item had been premature. Metro staff will discuss the proposal with Houston officials before a vote is rescheduled, he said.


The MKT route runs along Hempstead Highway to the former Eureka freight yard, then east along Seventh Street, angling toward downtown after crossing Heights Boulevard.

The city's planned MKT-SP Rails to Trails Bikeway would follow generally the same route out of downtown, but would turn north at Nicholson and continue to 26th Street.

Andy Icken, a deputy director of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department, said the bikeway plans have been "long developing" and that construction could begin and be completed in 2008.

Icken said the city plans to buy the right of way from TxDOT, which would obtain federal funds to build the trail the city would maintain. The land price is being negotiated, he said.

Icken said he does not know if the right of way is wide enough to be shared safely with commuter rail. Metro has not spoken to the city about its plans, he said.

Robin's update in the CTC forum seems to indicate it would be wide enough for both. We'll see.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 24, 2007 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles