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More commuter rail considered

Another day, another commuter rail study.

Harris County is casting its eye on five additional corridors to study for potential commuter rail lines.

Commissioners Court is expected next Tuesday to tell the county’s Public Infrastructure Department to begin negotiations with a consultant to conduct a preliminary study of existing freight lines along Texas 3, Mykawa Road, FM 521, Hardy Road and U.S. 59 North.

The consultant, DMJM+Harris, already has performed a preliminary assessment of potential commuter rail corridors along U.S. 290, Texas 249 and U.S. 90A.

That study, completed last December, concluded that by using existing freight lines, the county could get more than 80 miles of commuter rail in northwest Harris County at a cost of about $295 million, or about $3.5 million per mile.

Since then, Eckels and Commissioners Court have said they wanted to look at other potential corridors. Eckels and Commissioner Steve Radack have championed the idea of commuter rail, arguing that it would be cheaper to implement than the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s $5.8 billion rail plan.

Eckels, who could not be reached for comment Friday, has said he believes the county could have as much as 100 miles of commuter rail within five years.

I know that being not-Metro is one of the things that’s motivating Robert Eckels here, but if the end result is commuter rail, then I don’t care what his reasons are. It’s the right thing to do and that’s what really matters. Now if someone could only convince him that rail along the I-10 corridor would have more riders and would do more to relieve traffic congestion than any three of those five new lines under consideration combined likely would, then we’d really be getting somewhere.

David Crossley, head of the Gulf Coast Institute, said he favors all the planning and study the region can get on transportation issues. But he questioned whether the new corridors identified by the county would interfere with Metro’s rail plans.

Crossley also questioned how commuter lines would be integrated into other mass transit options and whether the proposed corridors would be suitable for stations serving new or existing neighborhoods.

“All we’re really doing is encouraging people to move much further out,” Crossley said. “It’s just a matter of fact that commuter rail needs to be looked at carefully because commuter rail is one of the precursors to sprawl.”

David, I love you and all, but let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good here. Cheap housing and the perception of better schools is what encourages people to live farther out. The option of commuter rail into downtown may someday make the top ten list of reasons to live in exurbia, but I’m not holding my breath. Sprawl is going to happen whether commuter rail is there or not. Why not put in a hedge against the insatiable highway-construction monster?

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  1. Steve Bates says:

    “Sprawl is going to happen whether commuter rail is there or not. Why not put in a hedge against the insatiable highway-construction monster?” – CK

    For one rare time, I must disagree with you, Charles. Sprawl is not inevitable, and sprawl is to some extent an “if you build it, they will come” phenomenon, whether the “it” is roads or rails. And anything that encourages the expansion of the city outward will have negative consequences: flooding problems, air quality problems, long commutes in areas not served by the rail corridors, and general environmental damage.

    Building commuter rail in existing corridors may be cheap, but it may or may not serve actual needs. I am not an expert in this area, but it seems to me that if we already have outlying communities, and we build commuter rail in places that do not serve those communities, we are, indeed, encouraging additional sprawl. And what will that do to placate the “insatiable highway-construction monster,” which is a political reality that must be dealt with no matter where one builds rail?

    From a political perspective, I simply cannot trust Eckels: given his history, I can’t help thinking his plan’s true purpose may be, in part, deliberately to disrupt the Metro plan. As I understand it, it was his and DeLay’s effort that caused a rail corridor to be omitted from the revised I-10 plan. I’m generally supportive of commuter rail to the ‘burbs if it does not prevent Houston from developing a successful transit plan close-in. But the planning is essential, and it must be based on actual studies of need, not on pure politics.

    If we don’t curtail sprawl, Houston will become a horrible place to live, whether you live within the city or in outlying communities. A transit system can be done properly here, but given our current government, I have my doubts it will be.

  2. Patrick says:

    Steve, I can understand your wariness about the motivations of Robert Eckels in this matter, but the end of the line in downtown has to have a well-developed system for a commuter rail system like the one being pitched by Eckels and Radack to work. Investing money and political juice to get a commuter rail line to downtown only to have suburbanites not use it because they can’t get around downtown is not something Eckels and Radack are likely to do. Let them wholly commit to commuter rail and get some skin in the game. By necessity, they will be forced into a relationship where they will need Metro to be at least marginally successful in the city center.

    As for sprawl, that genie is out of the bottle for Houston. But there may be a couple of ways to get it back in – carrot and stick. Stick – If we refused to expand the capacity of major corridors through the city forcing gridlock and an excruciatingly painful commute, you might convince people to move closer to the city center. Of course, you might also convince them to leave town which wouldn’t be productive. The Katy Corridor Coalition has filed suit to stop the TxDOT from proceeding with their plans to widen the Katy freeway, but even they acknowledge that it needs to be widened (Disclosure – I have contributed to the KCC for this suit.). They’ve proposed an alternative method to increase capacity that addresses environmental concerns.

    Carrot – To get people to live closer to the center of the city, you have to have a draw that can compete with the niceties of the ‘burbs. Businesses, services, shops, nightlife, etc. For those things to be viable, downtown there has to be traffic at some other time than the Super Bowl. To do that you need pedestrian traffic. If you can get people downtown more quickly and more efficiently you have a chance. That’s why commuter rail which makes downtown destination more accessible offers at least a possibility. To an extent you’re right – “If you build, it they will come.” But that works for the center of a community, as well as the suburbs on the distant end.

  3. Steve, I hope you’re right about sprawl not being inevitable, but I fear it’s too late for that. There’s too much invested in the far-flung areas, and I just don’t believe they’ll ever lose their appeal. Maybe it’ll slow down, but I don’t believe it’ll stop. Given that, I’d rather lessen the impact of sprawl, and I think more commuter rail corridors is a good first step.

  4. Steve Bates says:

    Patrick and Charles,

    As usual, both of you make a great deal of sense. I agree with much of what both of you say. While I am not optimistic about stopping sprawl, I still assert that if we do not succeed, the city, the whole eight-county area (or however one decides to slice it), will become unlivable. And I believe sprawl can be stopped, and has not been stopped to this point largely because of a lack of political will. I do not foresee rolling back existing development, but we certainly can and should influence where new development happens.

    “Let them wholly commit to commuter rail and get some skin in the game.” – Patrick

    It’s a thought. My concern is that we are enduring a whole generation of public officials… from Harris County all the way to the top… who would sooner give a juicy contract to a big campaign contributor than act in the public interest. (Yes, I realize I’m painting with a broad brush.) If Eckels et al manage to go forward with building commuter rail, and if that rail actually works toward curbing sprawl, and if Houston benefits from their choices of routes for the commuter rail, I’ll be the first to stand up and say I was wrong.

    “but I fear it’s too late for that. There’s too much invested in the far-flung areas, and I just don’t believe they’ll ever lose their appeal.” – CK

    Never forget the fact that choosing transit routes is, in essence, choosing the layout of a city. The layout of Houston’s freeway system drives (pun intended) the location of many businesses and residential neighborhoods. Rail can do the same. And unlike a bus system (which of course will always be essential in a city as geographically large as Houston), rail lines, like roads, are a commitment to particular places. If commuter rail lines are built to existing surrounding communities, they may actually help to concentrate the city and effectively reduce sprawl, even if those communities last forever and no one moves away from them. (I’m certainly not trying to displace people from where they want to live, unless they want to develop wilderness areas.) If commuter rail is built to places where people do not currently reside, just because the corridors already exist and construction is cheaper, then sprawl will be exacerbated. Everything has to do with planning, and the planning appears to me to be largely politically driven at the moment. Time will tell. I’d be very, very glad to be mistaken about this.