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Metro gets more money

Good news.

Southeast Line

Congress has appropriated $189 million for two of our light-rail lines – the North/Red Line extension and the Southeast/Purple Line.

Each line will receive $94.5 million. The funds are part of the $900 million Full Funding Grant Agreements signed by federal officials in November 2011.

METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia called this appropriation vital. “This is another key development in our progress towards building light rail for Houston. We want to extend thanks to our Congressional delegation and the many people who have supported efforts to improve the METRO transit system,” he said.

We expect to begin receiving this latest appropriation within the next 30 days. We’ll be spending the money to complete the 5.3-mile extension of the North/Red Line, which is an extension of our current Main Street Line. We’ll also be using the funds to build the Southeast/Purple Line, a 6.6 mile-line traveling through historic African-American communities, connecting to Texas Southern University and the University of Houston.

“Congress is giving us a critical tool with this funding, and we are taking every step we can to make sure these dollars are well spent,” said Tom Lambert, METRO interim president & CEO.

The North/Red Line is scheduled to open in December, and the Southeast/Purple Line and the East End/Green Line are expected to open in 2014. The locally-funded East End/Green Line is 3.3. miles, running from downtown to Magnolia Park Transit Center.

Here’s more on the full funding grant agreement they received from the FTA in 2011. Metro received a similar amount of money in 2012. Nice to know Congress isn’t so dysfunctional yet that simple stuff like this gets derailed, no pun intended.

On a tangential note, The Highwayman ponders the question of how much a ride on a Metro bus or train should cost.

Two concepts seem to bog down any debate about buses and trains.

1. Transit doesn’t pay for itself.

2. The fare system is terrible, so we should just make it free and then more people will ride it.

As a story in Monday’s paper pointed out, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning to make all buses and trains free for Labor Day weekend. The agency hopes to lure some riders to try the bus, and it hopes some of them will stay. Many transit agencies do the same thing. So does Netflix. It’s a marketing tool, and the reason I used AOL CDs as drink coasters in college.

It also opens up discussion of the two points noted above, which seem stuck in already-drawn conclusions.

Both premises miss the point of what transit is about and compare it to things it really isn’t. Public transit agencies are not businesses, they are governmental entities. Even in the best of cases, like New York and San Francisco, the systems do not pay for themselves.

Neither do roads, libraries, parks or other amenities that some people think make a community more livable.

Based on 2011 federal data, fares pay for 19 percent of Metro’s operating budget. That’s higher than any other major public transit system in Texas, but far lower than more robust transit systems on the coasts. We score about as well as Phoenix, which like Houston isn’t exactly a transit town yet.

On the other hand, Metro can’t just give it away, though some people argue that fare evasion on light rail is so rampant that the rides might as well be free. Federal officials want to see local officials make some effort to help pay for the system.

I discussed the matter of eliminating fares here; short answer, I think making transit free would cause it to be stigmatized by certain elements as a form of welfare, and that would ultimately be very bad for the concept of mass transit. I don’t have a problem with Metro doing the occasional free-ride promotion, but I think its plans to redesign and extend the bus system will be much more successful at boosting ridership; the addition of the three new rail lines will help, too. I carpool with my wife downtown these days, but I wind up taking the bus home about once a week because she needs the car after work for various errands. It’s convenient and fairly quick, and having that option prevents us from doing stupid and wasteful things like driving (and parking) two cars downtown. I commuted by bus, ferry, and subway for four years of high school in New York, so this idea isn’t strange to me. I think many people are reluctant to be without their car under any circumstances, and that’s an obstacle to be overcome if we want more transit usage in Houston. A lot of younger folks are not getting drivers licenses these days, at least not as early as folks my age did, so perhaps there will be a generational effect to help boost Metro a bit. I wouldn’t expect to see much of that anytime soon, however.

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One Comment

  1. Paul Havlak says:

    I understand the problems with making it free… but if the goal is getting more people out of their cars, and cultivating a more loyal base of transit riders including the middle class, how about better options for frequent users?

    For example, there used to be monthly fare card options for commuters, with unlimited trips. Sure, the transit system might lose slightly more money, but by tempting people into the sunk cost of subscription, they’d push up the value to occasional riders of being consistent ones.

    This seems a good strategy when growing the system.