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More rail proposed

I’m pleased to report that Metro’s rail plans are not only perking along, they’re talking about doing even more, based on feedback they’ve gotten from business and citizen groups at public meetings. Today’s news is the addition of an express line to Intercontinental Airport:

Metro is also reviewing the possibility of adding express rail service to Intercontinental Airport, which would cost more money to build parallel tracks where the express train would pass the local train. An express train would run at a faster speed, stopping only at a couple stations between downtown and the airport terminal. Continental Airlines has said it will only support rail to Intercontinental if it runs as express service. Its customers would be reluctant to use a slower local train because of the great distance between downtown and the airport, the airline has said.

Continental would apparently chip in $165 million towards this effort. As a frequent flyer on Continental, I like that idea a lot.

Earlier today, the news was that Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack was set to propose a commuter rail line that goes along the US 290 corridor. It would use existing tracks, which ought to make construction a lot faster and cheaper.

Radack, in a luncheon speech to the West Houston Association, plans to pitch the concept as a way to improve commuting on the northwest side. The commissioner, a skeptic of rail, said conversations with Union Pacific Railroad have convinced him a county-operated commuter train is feasible and could be built quickly and inexpensively.

Union Pacific owns an old Southern Pacific freight track that runs from near Memorial Park along U.S. 290 and Hempstead Highway to Waller County and on toward College Station. The track is used by only three local freight trains per day and could easily accommodate a commuter rail operation with a few upgrades, Union Pacific says.

[…]

Radack said his constituents can’t wait 20-plus years for Metro to consider the corridor. The county could start running commuter trains in just a few years, he said, before the Texas Transportation Department is scheduled to start widening U.S. 290.

“Compared to light rail, this is something that is much cheaper and certainly something that could be done posthaste,” Radack said Tuesday. “It’s something that we don’t necessarily need to depend on Metro.”

A county rail authority would operate similar to the Harris County Toll Road Authority, which issues revenue bonds to build tollways without tax money, Radack said. He plans to submit the issue today for discussion at next week’s Commissioners Court meeting.

Other court members reached Tuesday said they’re willing to support Radack’s request to study the issue.

“I would be fully supportive of looking at the county’s involvement in a commuter-rail program,” said County Judge Robert Eckels. “The highway 290 corridor is a prime candidate because of the existing capacity along that rail corridor.”

A few notes of interest here. First, 290 is getting to be as crowded as I-10 is. I worked out that was from 1990-1993, and at the time there was not much along the way. Since then, there’s been an explosion in growth – strip centers, restaurants, you name it – with an accompanying surge in traffic. I met some friends for lunch at 290 and Hollister a couple of weeks ago, and at 2 PM when I was heading back into town, the outbound lanes were already full. In addition, expanding 290 is going to be a lot harder than expanding I-10 is. I-10 at least has some extra unused space where there used to be train tracks. There’s no buffer zone next to 290. And finally, with I-10 construction just set to start, it will be years before 290 will see expansion. Heck, it’s just been a couple of years since 290 was made into a real highway all the way out into Waller County.

For me personally, the exciting thing about this proposal is right here in the map. This proposed line would pass within reasonable walking distance of my house – probably about a mile and a quarter – and would connect up with the existing light rail line. The upshot of all that is that if this thing existed today, I could take it into work.

And before anyone leaves a comment saying that I wouldn’t want to do this because it would take longer than driving, let me say this: My commute is already 20-30 minutes each way. If this were to take 40-50 minutes each way, I’d take it. I’d get more exercise, save wear and tear on my car, have time to do some reading, and be able to live a bit more in tune with my principles. That’s an easy win.

Though there’s no updated map in the most recent article, I’m guessing that the other proposed addition, to the Hillcroft Transit Center, would be basically a longer version of the “inner southwest” line that was being pushed:

If Metro comes up with money for an additional line, the inner southwest connector is considered a leading contender because of its short length (about five miles), backing by some of the city’s biggest business interests, and potential to attract high ridership in the urban areas along the Southwest Freeway. It could also link onto the Main Street line — scheduled to start operation Jan. 1 — allowing a train to run directly from the Galleria through Greenway Plaza to downtown or the Texas Medical Center. It would also complete a rail loop in the dense area west of downtown.

This also makes a lot of sense to me, as it passes through an area that’s fairly densely populated and which has a lot of natural destinations along the way. Unlike most of the other proposed expansions, it would primarily alleviate traffic on surface roads rather than on freeways. US 59 has plenty of capacity, but the nearby parallel streets (Richmond, Alabama, Westheimer, Bissonet, and Westpark) are a crowded, traffic-light-blightened mess. Here are maps showing Metro’s original plan and the various proposed extensions.

Finally, for those who would complain about the high cost of rail and how it must be heavily subsidized by all taxpayers regardless of whether or not they’ll use it, I’ll tell you what: When all of the highways in this town are toll roads, then we can talk.

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4 Comments

  1. Charles,

    Finally, for those who would complain about the high cost of rail and how it must be heavily subsidized by all taxpayers regardless of whether or not they’ll use it, I’ll tell you what: When all of the highways in this town are toll roads, then we can talk.

    That’s a faulty argument because highways aren’t heavily subidized. 85% of highway costs are paid for by gasoline taxes, car registration costs, etc, etc.

    So it isn’t just toll roads that mostly pay themselves. Highways generally are paid for exclusively by those who use them through fees imposed on car owener. The same cannot be said for rail, so we can ‘talk’ without all highways being toll roads.

  2. Rob Booth says:

    Owen,

    I think you and Charles are onto something. Let’s abolish the taxes that support highways and make them all toll roads.

    Excellent post as always Charles. Even if we disagree.

  3. Rob,

    I wouldn’t balk at building more toll roads, although I don’t really find it unjust to have highways paid for by taxes on automobiles and gasoline. Light rail is a different matter; people who don’t use the system pay for it.

  4. etc. says:

    About the expected lower costs of using existing rail tracks for commuter lines-

    In Seattle, the regional transit folks thought they could get a good deal on rights to use the existing lines. BNSF owns the right of way, and they have played hardball with the transit folks, resulting in higher costs and much a much delayed start up of the system. Now Seattle is not Houston, and the tracks along 290 sound like they bear little resemblance to the ones in Seattle (which are the only North-South tracks for hundred[s] of miles, depending on your definition, and are heavily used).

    Under used freight tracks may be OK for hauling coal or similarly stuff at low speeds, but may need extensive work to allow high speeds and smooth rides. There is also the issue of what happens to the freight traffic. Does it run only at night? Do the existing businesses have to move to a different location?

    I mention this because I think you should know that if this comes to pass, there will be a whole lot of squealing going on, and it won’t be from the sound of steel wheels on steel rails.