Bringing better bus service to one of Houston’s most transit-dependent and oft-ignored areas has Metro officials balancing, yet again, how best to upgrade service without upsetting advocates and drivers.
Approval of a preferred route for a proposed bus rapid transit line through Gulfton is scheduled for later in July by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board. The likely route, shown to the community in late June, runs for about four miles, starting at the Westpark / Lower Uptown Transit Center on Westpark. Buses would run along Westpark, Chimney Rock and Gulfton to wind through the area, then follow Hillcroft south to Bissonnet.
Officials have not released an estimated cost for the project, which would change depending on the route selected from about six different scenarios Metro examined. Any of the proposed routes would cost tens of millions of dollars, as they will require rebuilding streets, adding sidewalks in some spots and constructing platforms for the service.
Bus rapid transit operates similar to light rail, picking up and dropping off passengers at stations, with buses using dedicated lanes in the center of the street.
Fitting those lanes into the existing streets, however, remains a concern for nearby residents, even as they cheer the improved transit. Along Chimney Rock and Hillcroft, the choice is between eliminating a vehicle lane for drivers in each direction or removing or significantly narrowing the grassy, tree-lined median.
“Taking a lane off Chimney Rock would be a disaster — a total disaster,” said Ruth Lennon, 55, who works at a business along the road in the area where the buses will run. “I’d hate to lose the median though. Without the trees, it would be so gray.”
Already facing concerns that Gulfton gets hotter than many parts of Houston because of the lack of shade and abundance of concrete, every tree counts – as does every crosswalk and usable sidewalk.
“You have to have room for the bus, and room for the people,” said Joyce Almaguer-Reisdorf, 46, who lives nearby in Sharpstown. “We can work toward density without taking away the greenspace and the trees.”
Citing the huge demand for transit in the area – peppered with apartments that are often the first homes of incoming immigrants to the country because of their proximity to social services along Hillcroft – Metro said better bus service is a critical part of its long-term plans.
“Gulfton to me is the poster child for the need for public transit,” Metro chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said.
Critical to meeting that demand is making some very simple links to major routes, officials have said. The Gulfton line will intersect with both the planned University Corridor, the east-west spine of Metro’s long-range goals, running as far west as Westchase, and the Silver Line BRT through Uptown, which will eventually lead to a planned rapid bus line down Interstate 10 into downtown Houston.
“That will provide the Gulfton area connectivity to almost the entire Houston region,” Ramabhadran said.
I have no idea what the best answer is here. Whatever Metro chooses, a nontrivial number of residents won’t like it. It’s a shame and it’s another reason why the right time to have built in transit infrastructure was decades ago, but no one is building a time machine so this is what we have to deal with. Besides, the second best time to build transit infrastructure is right now. I hope Metro finds the best way forward and I wish them good luck getting there. This piece of the system really will make a difference for a lot of people who could use better transit, and have rarely if ever been prioritized.