Yesterday Metro held the only public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed University Line alignments. The DEIS is a pretty thick volume - two volumes, actually - and I want to thank Christof for summarizing it so well here and here. I don't think we would have had the volume of comments that we heard yesterday if the DEIS hadn't been made so accessible.
The hearing lasted something like three hours, with maybe 70 speakers total. I kept score between the pro-rail and anti-rail folks for a while, and my estimate would be that the rail on Richmond supporters outnumbered the opponents 2 to 1. There were a few people who liked the so-called Culberson option that runs from Richmond to Montrose to 59 to Kirby to Westpark, but most of the people who want rail support the Richmond-Cummins alignment.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the anti-rail comments were a little ridiculous. There was a lot of bait-and-switch talk concerning the ballot language and the Westpark and BRT controversies. I think Burt Ballanfant handled those comments pretty deftly, but I'll get to that later. A couple people talked about how dangerous the rail would be for children who play outside along Richmond, which confused me, because I don't think that Richmond in its current state is an especially safe playground. And there was a bit of "You say people are going to ride the rail, but I don't think they will. I wouldn't ride the rail" talk too. A lot of commenters raised genuine concerns about problems they saw in the DEIS - some with trees, congestion, property takings, etc. and I'm sure they'll be reflected in the FEIS.
The most important comment, I think, came from Griff Griffin and was echoed by Metro board membr Burt Ballanfant. Griffin talked about organizing the first anti-Richmond rail rally fifteen years ago, but now it's clear that the public support is behind rail on Richmond. He's learned to deal with that, and he's concerned about implementing this responsibly. Ballanfant said much the same thing, and he discouraged the opposing factions from wasting time fighting with each other and slowing down this process (i.e. lawsuits that he believes will probably be ruled in Metro's favor anyways). I think they're both totally right: from the DEIS, there's a pretty clear winning alignment. Now we have other things to think about - station locations, minimizing the negative impact on neighborhoods and businesses as we build, and preserving trees and yards and property as much as possible. It was refreshing to hear this from these two and from several other speakers as well. I'm sure we'll hear lots more about implementation as the process continues. I'm excited about it, because I know there are people on both sides of the alignment debate that are very passionate about preserving neighborhoods and being socially responsible, so I'm confident that we'll end up with a very attractive University Line.
I managed to get my two cents in at the hearing too. There was only one other student that I recall speaking, and she didn't specify where she goes to school. Her parents own El Pueblito on Richmond and she spoke pretty briefly against rail. So I was glad to skip class to go to the hearing and make sure that the students' perspective will be considered. I copied my comments after the jump, if anyone's interested. Metro blogger Mary Sit and Lydia from the HGAC asked me for copies of my statement, so you might see this floating around elsewhere too.
I live in Montrose a few blocks north of Richmond, and am a student at the University of Houston. Over 90% of UH's 30,000+ students live off-campus, and parking is notoriously difficult. We have the greatest space deficit of any university in the state, but we have a great master plan in the works to use the space we do have strategically. For the university's continued growth and success, I'd much rather see that space fill up with academic and residential facilities, not more parking garages. Not only do we need light rail to serve the university as a whole, one of the most vital entities in the city, we also need it to serve students as individuals. I know people who have hour-long commutes from places as foreign as Clear Lake. Time spent riding transit can be used for homework, reading, or anything else - anything besides the frustration of sitting in rush hour traffic. Not to mention the problem buying gas creates for students who are usually living on a tight budget. That being said, having reviewed the information in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, I am here to state that I support the Wheeler/Elgin alignment on the east and the Richmond/Cummins alignment on the west. The Wheeler/Elgin alignment serves the UH campus the best: it puts everything in the academic core of campus within ½ mile of a rail station. Not only that, according to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, it has the highest ridership for the lowest cost per mile and is the only option that includes a connection to the Eastwood Transit Center. The Wheeler/Elgin alignment has minimal negative impact on the surrounding areas, with the least noise and vibration impacts and arguably the most responsible property-taking. On the west end, the Richmond-Cummins alignment will best connect students to the places they want to go: homes in places like Montrose or Gulfton, jobs in Greenway Plaza and Upper Kirby, shopping in the Galleria, or leisure destinations like the Menil Collection. Not only that, but if we pair the Wheeler/Elgin and Richmond/Cummins alignments together, we end up with the highest ridership for the lowest cost and minimal traffic and noise impacts.
By the time these lines are completed, I will have graduated, but those of us who support rail have more in mind than how this will affect us. We need to be conscious of what building rail means for us now and for future Houstonians. Like it says on the "Water Screen" in Main Street Square, "As we build our city let us think that we are building forever." Parking garages and widening streets can fix some of our problems for now, but light rail is a long-term solution that will continue to serve our wonderful city for years to come.