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commuter rail

Time to comment on the proposed high speed rail routes

Check ’em out, and tell ’em what you think.

Observers have long known that only a few options were available for the route of the privately funded high-speed train line between Houston and Dallas. Now a firmer picture of where the trains might run is emerging.

As part of the federally required process to evaluate the line, the Federal Railroad Administration and Texas Department of Transportation released maps of the nine routes they are considering and the two chosen for deeper evaluation.

[…]

All follow rights of way of railroads, TxDOT or utilities, which is pretty standard for rail development. Those are the agencies or companies that own long, thin swaths of real estate that are relatively clear. Backers of the train, who are paying for the analysis, would acquire the property.

The route has long had support of elected officials in both metro areas, as well as state transportation leaders.

Looking at the southern end in the Houston area, the real decision — which could quickly get political — is which of the two preferred routes is the top contender. While the BNSF Railway option grabs a lot of Tomball area and then hooks along Loop 610 before coming south, the utility alignment connects with Cypress and follows the crowded U.S. 290 corridor in.

Both routes have also been prime candidates for commuter rail service, which Houston area officials have said would definitely complement any high-speed line, along with local transit.

See here for the background and here for more about those commuter rail proposals, which would be an enticing add-on for this project at some point. There were a total of nine routes proposed, but the embedded image shows the two that were selected for “detailed evaluation” – see here for the other picture. Public meetings begin tonight in Dallas, and continue through October 29 at locations along the potential routes, with the last one on the 29th at the NRG Center beginning with an open house at 4:30. See here for the full schedule and related information. Dallas Transportation and the Star-Telegram have more.

No one gets to dictate that the Uptown line must be BRT forever

So as we know, the Uptown line is moving ahead as BRT. It will be paid for with a variety of funds, coming from the city, from an Uptown/Memorial TIRZ, from grants, and so forth. A key component of this is an HOV lane on 610 for the buses that will carry the passengers for this line. The Uptown Management District and Metro were recently given $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission to facilitate this part of the construction. That money came with the proviso that this was really and truly going to be a BRT project, not a light rail project. Apparently, the recipients haven’t pinky-sworn hard enough on this to convince the TTC of their sincerity.

State transportation officials approved adding the Loop 610 phase to the state’s transportation plan, making it eligible for $25 million from the Texas Transportation Commission. When commissioners approved the project in June, it was clear they meant it to be a bus project.

“We’ve had very open discussions that there is not contemplation it will be used for rail,” state transportation commissioner Jeff Moseley said during the June 26 meeting in Baytown.

State officials and skeptics of Metro’s regional light rail efforts are looking for signed assurances that the bus lane won’t be converted to rail, which Metro officials say they must carefully review.

The question becomes how far Metro must go in pledging not to build rail. In a June 2 letter to Moseley, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said “Metro has no plans to convert the dedicated bus service on Post Oak to light rail.”

Moseley suggested Metro’s pledge on not building rail “could be stronger,” according to an email the same day. He suggested noting that any construction would not facilitate rail conversion.

Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia reiterated Metro’s lack of any defined rail plans last week, but he said transit officials can’t take light rail entirely off the table because the 2003 referendum specifically lists a Post Oak corridor for future rail development.

“I am being respectful of the will of the voters,” Garcia said.

As a result, his signature is missing from a July 3 agreement prepared by state transportation officials, seeking another assurance. The one-page document says all the parties “agree that the I-610 dedicated bus lane facility is to be designed and built to support a dedicated bus lane. As designed, the facility will not support a rail component.”

Uptown and state officials have signed, but Garcia said he is still mulling the significance of the agreement.

Converting bus rapid transit lanes to rail requires subtle but significant changes, and the initial design of the Post Oak project could make that conversion easier or more difficult. Sharp curves where buses are capable of going might not be as easy for trains.

“I don’t think it is our role or intent to make this something it is not,” Garcia said. “Likewise, I don’t think it is good public policy to prevent a conversion.”

His partners disagree.

“We favor building the (Loop 610) dedicated bus lanes so they cannot carry the weight of light rail,” Uptown Houston board chairman Kendall Miller wrote in a March 7 letter to state transportation officials. “We also do not support building electrical utilities necessary for light rail transit being constructed.”

See here for the background. I for one agree with Gilbert Garcia. The casual disregard for the 2003 referendum by light rail opponents continues to astonish me. The Uptown line was intended to be light rail. That’s what the voters approved. I’m okay with it being built as BRT for now, because we do need to do something today and because at this point it doesn’t make sense to do the more expensive investment of light rail infrastructure until we know for sure that the Universities line will be built and/or until a commuter rail line along US290 gets going. But how does it possibly make sense to cut off, or at least make much less viable, a transit option that may not be on the table for ten years or more by putting a ridiculously long-term condition on a measly $25 million grant today? It would be better to forfeit those funds now than to sign away future enhancements that may someday look like a great idea or that may never happen. What authority does the TTC have to impose such a short-sighted condition? As far as the Uptown board goes, no future Metro is going to go ahead with a light rail conversion for the Uptown BRT line without the cooperation and co-funding of the Uptown Management District. The current board has no more right to shackle its future successors than the TTC does to shackle Metro. Can we please quit with the posturing and get on with the plans already? Sheesh.

The downside to downtown’s boom

More traffic, less parking, and lots of construction. Where have we heard those complaints before?

Construction crews are clearing city blocks once dedicated to surface parking, readying the sites for multistory office buildings, hotels and residential towers. Adjacent sidewalks and traffic lanes are cordoned off, and two major downtown cross-streets are tied up with light rail construction.

Combined, the parking crunch and cutoff sidewalks and streets have downtown drivers and pedestrians on edge, and many say the problem has worsened in recent months. Building occupancy is putting more workers downtown, and few have convenient transit options, so they drive. More cars means more crowded streets and a mad dash to find parking.

[…]

Development is certainly putting a premium on parking, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and executive director of the Downtown Management District.

“We came into this period with some excess supply,” Eury said, explaining there are about 75,000 garage spaces, 28,000 surface lot spots and 3,500 to 5,000 available on-street spots in the central business district, depending on time of day. “Now there is more demand, but over time that might work itself out.”

For now, though, it’s more difficult and more expensive to find a space.

[…]

As more of the central business district shifts from surface lots to towers looming over the sidewalk, Houston’s skyline isn’t the only thing changing. Scarce parking might lead some to options like transit, Eury said.

“Look at what (the Metropolitan Transit Authority) is doing with the buses,” Eury said, referring to a planned overhaul of bus service. “That is meeting that challenge and offering a solution. Maybe not a solution for everybody, but a solution for somebody.”

Officials are looking for new nighttime parking options and discussing how to handle major events and high-traffic entertainment areas, said Angie Bertinot, marketing director for the downtown district. Some lots near Market Square Park often pull double shifts, catering to workers during the day and diners and drinkers at night.

As residential options and nightlife return to downtown, parking for visitors also is changing. The district is working on maps and signs to help visitors navigate downtown and mark parking options clearly, Bertinot said. Officials are planning another parking lot at the George R. Brown Convention Center in connection with development of a new hotel.

It’s the same basic complaint as the Medical Center, with the same underlying causes: there are only so many ways in and out, and only so much room to accommodate cars. New buildings are more valuable than space for parking. Ultimately, the solution will be for more people to enter downtown via something other than a car, or at least something other than a car in which they are the only passenger. That’s a lesson that will almost certainly have to be learned the hard way by a lot of people, but it’s got to be learned. The opening of the Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help, Metro’s bus reimagining will help (though as it happens that won’t help me; I’m one of the ten percent or so whose service will be a little worse with the new routes), and if we ever build commuter rail, that will help as well. In the meantime, remember that an empty downtown generally means bad economic times. What we have here is what’s known as a good problem to have. Texas Leftist has more, including some pictures.

Bringing commuter rail into downtown

From The Highwayman:

290 Commuter Rail options

As has been reported, the Gulf Coast Rail District is studying the best possible routes for commuter rail in the Houston area, and one of the biggest challenges is bringing the trains into downtown. From the looks of the initial analysis of the U.S. 290 corridor, the trip to the central business district might have some unexpected stops along the way.

Relying on potentially available right of way, the analysis conducted by Kimley Horn & Associates found that the two most feasible routes from a hypothetical train station at 43rd Street and Mangum Road would largely rely on land next to existing freight rail lines, heading east, then south, or south, then east. The study involved finding a route where land would be potentially available without obstacles like buildings. Those who did the study also were tasked with avoiding flood-prone areas, environmental impacts and technical challenges. Officials also had to avoid affecting the major freight railroads, said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district.

One scenario would send the line eastward parallel to the BNSF Railway tracks, then south along land near where Harris County plans to extend the Hardy Toll Road inside Loop 610. From there, the trains would briefly use space next to the Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, into the Amtrak station near the downtown U.S. Post Office.

The other option would bring the trains south along Mangum Road and Post Oak Boulevard before heading east along Katy Road and then parallel to the Union Pacific tracks north of Washington Avenue and into downtown.

[…]

Commuter rail — not the light rail system that Metropolitan Transit Authority has built — would bring travelers from much longer distances than light rail would, connecting areas far outside the Sam Houston Tollway. If Houston ever developed a robust regional passenger rail system, Lott said, the potential northwest station could be the hub of up to eight rail lines, coming from as far as 100 miles away.

The addition of passenger trains could also revitalize the downtown Amtrak station, which only serves a handful of passenger trains each week. In other cities where transit and train service has led to increased traffic, train stations are experiencing a renaissance.

See here for the background. This conversation has come up before, most recently as I recall about a decade ago when one of the options was to bring the line through the Heights, along the former rail right of way that is now the White Oak bike trail. Needless to say, that’s not on the table. You can see the presentation with all of the routes that were considered this time at the link above. I don’t know much about the northern path that would go to the Hardy Toll Road right of way, but the Katy Road/MKT option would basically run along one possible path for the Inner Katy light rail line, if it ever gets onto a drawing board. It might make sense to build a station or two along the way for this configuration, given the population and employment locations along Washington Avenue. I just hope that if they do this, they consider doing something about the rail crossings at Durham/Shepherd, Heights, Sawyer, and Houston Avenue. Traffic gets snarled up enough with the infrequent freight train schedule; with commuter rail frequency it would be a nightmare, especially at Durham/Shepherd. I’m sure that will add another hundred million or two to the price tag, but come on. The need and the benefit are obvious.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region’s major airport. Houston’s new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what’s been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston’s population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART’s apparent ease of laying lines to Houston’s perennial controversy.

“Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. “Certainly we can get to The Galleria.”

The race for more lines isn’t much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don’t want rail, or more specifically they don’t want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Conroe is growing up

Good for them.

Conroe native Jay Ross Martin says he never imagined his rural hometown in the piney woods developing bustling retail centers, a thriving housing market and a population that’s more than doubled in the past 20 years.

The change has catapulted Conroe, the county seat of Montgomery County, into a “new world,” says Martin, a former city councilman.

Increasingly, that new world is more like the city than the country.

This year the U.S. Census Bureau made it official by designating an area surrounding Conroe and The Woodlands as a “large urbanized transit area.” The designation, based on its population exceeding 200,000, makes the area eligible for federal transportation dollars.

Thirty-six new large urbanized areas were added to the Census Bureau list this year. Conroe-The Woodlands was the only new designation in the Houston region.

The population within the area, which extends north to Willis and south to Spring in unincorporated Montgomery County along the Interstate 45 corridor, increased to 240,000 in 2010, nearly triple the 1990 level.

“It’s an indication of large growth between The Woodlands and Conroe,” said Bruce Tough, president of The Woodlands Township, the governing body of The Woodlands. With the new Exxon Mobil campus planned just south of The Woodlands, he added, “we’re going to see a lot of energy and manufacturing companies coming to Montgomery County contributing to unprecedented growth. People better put on their seat belt.”

[…]

Traffic congestion is the most serious downside of growth, residents said.

More people now commute to work into The Woodlands than out of it, community leaders said. Travel time on major roads, such as Woodlands Parkway and Research Forest, has increased dramatically.

“I avoid going to the mall like the plague,” said Woodlands resident Tom Sadlowski. “It’s so crowded.”

Obligatory Yogi Berra Quote: “No one goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

I think the issue of traffic congestion for these fast-growing areas is bigger than its boosters would like to admit, and merits more attention than these three little paragraphs at the end of an otherwise hagiographic story. Suburban development, with its one-way-in-and-out-of-subdivisions design and complete dependence on freeway access, is a recipe for congestion. There’s no easy way to deal with it, either – adding lanes only does you so much good if everyone is headed for the same on-ramp. I hope now that the Conroe/Woodlands large urbanized transit area is eligible for federal transportation dollars that they will give some thought to regional transportation solutions – buses, and if they’re really smart, commuter rail. That Houston-Galveston rail line that’s been in the works forever would be even more valuable as a Conroe-Galveston rail line. If they’re not thinking about it now, I guarantee they’ll regret it later.

Houston-Austin rail update

Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation is planning to fund environmental and financial feasibility studies for a passenger rail line connecting Houston to Austin, according to the Texas Tribune and KUT Austin.

The planned line would be a 110mph train connecting Houston, Hempstead, Brenham, Giddings, and Austin, for about $1.2 billion, although TXDOT is considering several variations, according to a presentation at the Houston – Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council as reported by Houston Tomorrow.

TXDOT does not have a funding source identified for the completion of the project, but is conducting the studies to be better prepared for future federal funding opportunities, according to KUT Austin.  Meanwhile, the Lone Star Rail District is conducting studies on how to move freight traffic from its intended passenger rail line connecting San Antonio to Austin and many points in between, while efforts continue to build a true high speed rail line between Houston and Dallas with all private funding.

Listen to audio file of KUT story (mp3)

As I said before, I think any rail line between Houston and Austin that takes longer to drive is highly unlikely to be attractive to people. I still hope there’s more to this than what we’ve seen so far.

Galveston passenger rail back on track

Sorry about the pun, they can be hard to avoid when writing these titles. Anyway, the on-again, off-again Houston to Galveston rail line is apparently on again.

A Houston-to-Galveston passenger rail line postponed indefinitely after the economy hit bottom in 2009 is getting another chance, but it could be a decade or more before the first spike is driven.

The original plan called for a passenger line carrying 1,000 to 2,000 people per day to be in operation as early as this year, but a series of events starting with Hurricane Ike and the stock market crash in 2008 stalled the project.

“The impact of the economic downturn has taken its toll in so many ways,” said Barry Goodman, whose consulting firm, Goodman Corp., is doing the planning. Goodman said the recession affected the rail project more than the storm.

The price tag had risen from an estimated $415 million in 2007 to $650 million, and local governments were unable to provide the 40 to 50 percent contribution typical for such projects, Goodman said.

Enthusiasm remains high for the plan among officials and residents in Galveston County’s 13 cities, so Goodman Corp. is redrawing the plans to accommodate the new financial reality, said John Carrara, senior vice president.

The revamped plan calls for starting more modestly with expanded park-and-ride and express bus services in the Houston-Galveston corridor.

The more measured approach could provide immediate benefits, said Alan Clark, transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The council, which coordinates planning for local governments in the region, will consider making the Goodman Corp. plan part of the regional transportation plan, Clark said.

I’m not sure why the story refers to this as “passenger rail”, which sounds like something that tourists would take, and not “commuter rail”, which is sure what it sounds like. The last updates I have on this is a story from 2011 about the project being off track (with a letter to the editor following a few days later disputing some of the points in the story); a 2010 story about the formation of a Galveston County transportation district; and a 2009 story about (what else?) a political dispute over who would do what for this rail line if it ever got off the ground. Who knows what will happen from here or more importantly when it will happen, but I do want to note that we are approaching the ten-year anniversary of the first Galveston rail-related blog post I ever wrote, which of course also prominently features a quote from Barry Goodman. Some things really do never change.

Open house meetings for US90A/Southwest Rail Corridor project

From Metro:

The New METRO is continuing work on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the US90A/Southwest Rail Corridor Project with meetings to inform the public about alternatives that will be considered as part of this federal process. The US90A Project newsletter has been distributed to communities in advance of the open house meetings described below.

See here, here, and here for some background. There are four public meetings scheduled, two of which occurred on Tuesday. The others are today at the Together We Stand Christian Church, 1432 Texas Parkway, Missouri City, Texas 77489, next door to the Missouri City Civic Center; and Tuesday, June 12, at The Power Center Southeast Ballroom, 12401 S. Post Oak Road, Houston, TX 77045. Both are from 6 to 8 PM.

There are two alternatives being considered. One basically goes along the UPRR right of way adjacent to US90a all the way from Missouri City to the Fannin South station. The other runs along US90A as above, the turns north and runs through the future Buffalo Pointe development, turns east onto West Bellort, and take that into Fannin South. Both alternatives have a variation where it takes a detour along Airport and Hillcroft, possibly with an extra station in there. Both alternatives end in Missouri City because Metro does not operate in Fort Bend County. There have been discussions with Fort Bend to extend the line beyond that, but that’s beyond the scope of these meetings and this DEIS.

If all goes as planned, Metro would get a Record of Decision by the end of next year, at which point it’s a matter of finalizing the design and securing funds. Their timeline shows construction beginning in 2017 or 2018. We’ll see how that goes.

It’s Super-Commuter!

You think you have a long drive to work? Ben Wear writes about a study of people who take it to the extreme.

A flying car would make that commute feel shorter

The researchers define a supercommuter as someone who works in the central county of a metropolitan area but lives beyond the official boundaries of that metropolitan area. They used census data to draw their conclusions.

Among their findings:

  • City “labor sheds,” the areas from which workers flow into the workplace, “are expanding rapidly and super-commuter growth rates are far outpacing workforce growth rates.” Supercommuting is growing in eight of the nation’s 10 largest cities, with the exceptions being Atlanta and Minneapolis.

    To some degree, the study’s authors say, the growth of the Internet and other electronic tools that make it possible for workers to carry their office with them have contributed to the phenomenon. Some of these employees work from home some of the time, traveling to an actual office only once or twice a week.

  • Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston have the greatest percentages of supercommuters, with approximately 13 percent of the workforces in those cities living beyond the exurbs. According to the report released last month, 51,900 people commute from Dallas-Fort Worth to Houston each week, and 44,300 people from Houston work in Dallas.

    Perhaps these people should call each other and discuss some house swaps.

  • Houston has 251,200 supercommuters working there, a figure that grew 98 percent between 2002 and 2009. Dallas had 175,700 of them, with 38.4 percent growth during those seven years. Mind you, that’s a period during which the average cost of gas rose from about a $1.20 a gallon to well above $3 a gallon.

Austin is very much a part of this trend. The report says that about 35,400 people from greater Austin commute to Houston, and 32,400 live here and work in Dallas-Fort Worth. So, not even counting Austinites who commute to San Antonio — the report didn’t have that data — that means about 1 of every 25 people who lives in this area (including infants and children) works in those two cities.

Report co-author Mitchell Moss said he and researchers did not make the opposite calculation, figuring how many people like Hurt commute to Austin from Houston or the Metroplex.

The report said these supercommuters tend to be young and to make less than $40,000. The motivation, typically, is to live where housing is cheap and work where the work is.

The study in question was done by NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Here’s the abstract:

The twenty-first century is emerging as the century of the “super-commuter,” a person who works in the central county of a given metropolitan area, but lives beyond the boundaries of that metropolitan area, commuting long distance by air, rail, car, bus, or a combination of modes. The super-commuter typically travels once or twice weekly for work, and is a rapidly growing part of our workforce. The changing structure of the workplace, advances in telecommunications, and the global pattern of economic life have made the super-commuter a new force in transportation.

Many workers are not required to appear in one office five days a week; they conduct work from home, remote locations, and even while driving or flying. The international growth of broadband internet access, the development of home-based computer systems that rival those of the workplace, and the rise of mobile communications systems have contributed to the emergence of the super-commuter in the United States. Super-commuters are well-positioned to take advantage of higher salaries in one region and lower housing costs in another.

Many workers are not expected to physically appear in a single office at all: the global economy has made it possible for highly-skilled workers to be employed on a strictly virtual basis, acquiring clients anywhere and communicating via email, phone and video conference. Furthermore, the global economy has rendered the clock irrelevant, making it possible for people to work, virtually, in a different time zone than the one in which they live. Simply put, the workplace is no longer fixed in one location, but rather where the worker is situated. As a result, city labor sheds (where workers live) have expanded over the past decade to encompass not just a city’s exurbs, but also distant, non-local metropolitan regions, resulting in greater economic integration between cities situated hundreds of miles apart.

NYU’s Rudin Center has found that super-commuting is a growing trend in major United States regions, with growth in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas.

The full report is here. There was a Chron story from five years ago that said “9.7 percent of Houston-area residents and 7.2 percent of Dallas-Fort Worth-area residents have commutes of more than an hour”, so there’s a comparison for you. The 251,200 supercommuters for the Houston area (which they define as the “Harris County Center of the Houston-Baytown-Huntsville CSA”) must represent both those who go as well as those who come, because the table on page 12 that lists the top 10 metro areas of residence for non-local workers in our area only sums to about 144,000, and I rather doubt the tail is long enough to have another 100K people in it. Dallas-Forth Worth (51,900), Austin (35,400), and San Antonio (31,100) are the three biggest contributors to our non-local work force, while some 44,000 people live here but work in the Metroplex. You’ve got to figure that these folks would form a large portion of the initial ridership for that long-awaited high speed rail network in Texas if it ever gets built. Anyway, the next time you’re stuck on the freeway and you find yourself wondering where all these people came from, now you know. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Tomball toll road

They want a toll road in Tomball, and they’re probably going to get it.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority is asking that it be allowed to look at State Highway 249, also known as Tomball Parkway, to see whether it would be make sense to build a toll road from Spring-Cypress Road about 10 miles north, to near Farm-to-Market 1774. Toll roads officials stress that the study is preliminary and no end point has been determined.

“You’ve got a populated area that’s growing that needs more mobility,” said Peter Key, executive director of the toll road authority. “We’re taking those first steps to try to find something that’s feasible.”

[…]

“The people out in Tomball really want that to occur,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, a former transportation consultant. “Everybody I talk to says it’s almost a no-brainer that it’s a financially good thing to do.”

John Fishero, a vice president at Lone Star College-Tomball and chairman of the 249 Coalition, a nascent group advocating for growth along the road from Beltway 8 to Navasota, agreed.

Morning radio traffic reports, Fishero said, often cite 45-minute drive times on 20-mile stretches of the North and Eastex freeways. The commute on 249, he said, often is pegged at 30 minutes for a stretch of road one fourth as long.

“They’re talking about Spring Cypress to Beltway 8, and that’s only about 6 miles,” Fishero said. “People are sitting there going nowhere. Getting the flow of traffic away from the stop lights and stop signs between Spring-Cypress and Magnolia will definitely help.”

I’m sure it will be better than it is now, but I wouldn’t bet on it being a long term solution. In fact, I’d bet it’s congested from the day it opens, whenever that is. Not really my concern, at least as long as it’s financed with revenues from the tolls on that road, but reading this story made me wonder about other options. There has been talk about commuter rail along the 249 corridor – see, for example this post by Tory Gattis from 2008 – but I haven’t heard much about it lately. Here’s a Chron story from 2009 in which the idea is floated to the local poobahs in Tomball.

John Fishero, the Greater Tomball Area Chamber’s mobility and transportation committee chairman, said the committee was formed to investigate the results of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s “Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study,” which was released in summer 2008.

The study pinpointed five existing railroad corridors that could form the “baseline system” for a commuter rail network in the Houston-Galveston region: U.S. 290 (UPRR’s Eureka line), Texas 249 to Tomball (Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s Houston line), Texas 3 (UPRR’s Galveston line), South Fort Bend/FM 521 (BNSF’s Galveston/Popp corridor line), and the Texas 35 Tollway corridor to Pearland (near UPRR’s Mykawa line).

Fishero said several groups on the U.S. 290 corridor formed a coalition several years ago to lobby for commuter rail service from downtown to College Station. That group has the attention of Harris County and several other agencies that could help fund, implement and manage commuter rail projects, Fishero said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he would like to see commuter rail projects on the U.S. 290 and Texas 3 rail corridors in the next three years.

“Our concern is that we need to get our hat in the ring one way or another,” Fishero said. “If we want to get something done, we need to start working on funding for our own projects.”

Like I said, I haven’t heard much since. We’re still kicking around commuter rail on the corridors Judge Emmett mentioned, so like the toll road I presume this is still something for the future. My understanding from inquiring with Judge Emmett’s office about this is that it is still being actively considered, but there needs to be a way to tie it in with a transit center of some type on the northwest side so you are not just dumping off commuters with no way to get to wherever they’re going. This is the same basic concern that a commuter or passenger rail line along 290 would have, so when that issue gets resolved then there can be further progress made on a 249/Tomball line. And if we ever do get to that point, we could take it to the next step and extend the line out to College Station as a high speed rail link, as neoHouston documented. Just something else to think about as we go along. Houston Tomorrow has more.

Another Lone Star Rail update

From the Statesman:

Commuter rail between San Antonio and Georgetown, at least as a legislatively sanctioned policy goal, will have its 15th birthday this spring. The tiny government agency created later to make it a reality is almost 9 years old.

The LSTAR rail line, despite millions of dollars spent already on various studies, remains mostly an aspiration. But officials with the Lone Star Rail District quietly have made progress over the past 15 months, reaching a preliminary agreement with Union Pacific that paves the way for the freight operator to cede its existing urban railroad to the passenger rail. They also narrowed to three the possible paths for an alternate freight line east of Austin.

The district has begun a $10 million federally required environmental study on the passenger line and just received a promise of $10 million from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a similar study on the potential new Union Pacific freight line. Over the years, the district has received or been promised almost $60 million, mostly in federal and state grants, for various studies.

Where to find the money to build and operate the line, as always, remains the great unknown, with projected initial investment for the passenger and freight lines at $1.5 billion or more and annual operating costs in the tens of millions.

But district staff members, turning to a financing model for Central Texas toll roads over the past decade, now say they will look to the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the 115-mile, 16-station line from Georgetown, through downtown Austin, to San Antonio’s south side.

[…]

[Joe Black, Lone Star rail director and operations manager] and Alison Schulze, a district senior planner, gave some details of how the line might operate, based on studies and other research.

Initial fares likely would be about 18 cents a mile, Black said, or about $20 for a trip the length of the line. But he said that, just as with most transit agencies, there would be discounted fares for month passes.

A trip between downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio likely would take about 90 minutes — not high speed but considerably faster than Amtrak. Ridership in the beginning, the district estimates, would be 12,000 to 20,000 boardings a day, most of those would be much shorter jaunts to and from downtown Austin and San Antonio to the cities’ suburbs.

See here, here, and here for some background. The travel time makes it comparable to the Austin-Houston rail line, with the main difference from my perspective being that the Austin to San Antonio corridor makes more sense from a commuter perspective. Look at the proposed map – having places like New Braunfels and San Marcos in between, not to mention Georgetown and Pflugerville to the north, just about guarantees ridership through the day, as long as there’s some way to get where you’re going at the endpoints. By contrast, I don’t see that much demand to get to and from Hempstead or Brenham or Giddings for the Austin/Houston line. The price is attractive as well; there was no mention of that in the Austin/Houston study, but if it’s the same rate then the total would be about the same, since the line that doesn’t detour through College Station has 109 miles of track. Best guesstimate at this point for how long it will take to get up and running is five to seven years. Check back in 2017 or so and see where things stand then.

Houston-Austin rail study

From Houston Tomorrow:

The Texas Department of Transportation presented results from a study on the potential for new 110 mph passenger rail service between Houston and Austin, potentially connecting College Station, according to Guidry News and documented in the minutes of the December 16 minutes of the Transportation Policy Council.

The study looked at 4 potential alignments, with the following estimated costs and trip times:
– Austin to Houston directly ($972 million – 2hr 45 minutes).
– Austin to Hempstead, with connecting spur service to Bryan / College Station ($1.255 billion – 3hr 51 minutes).
– Austin to Giddings to Bryan / College Station to Hempstead to Houston (a little over $1.149 billion – 3hr 15 minutes).
– Austin to Brenham to Hempstead to Houston, with a spur to Bryan / College Station ($1.213 billion – 3hr 38 minutes).

All routes assumed two round trip options daily with one train each leaving from Houston and Austin in the morning and evening.

All routes assume that they would not actually be a single ride between the centers of the cities, but would connect to commuter rail systems that some are advocating in each region to go from Austin to Elgin and Houston to a suburban location along 290.

Any plans for intercity rail from Houston to Austin depend upon the connections to the urban cores, according to Harris County Public Infrastructure Department Executive Director Art Storey:

“When you’re in the mass transit / public transportation business, the cheapest option is not always the best option. Sometimes when you’re there, it’s best to spend a little more money and do a little more. I would caution that the cheapest option is not necessarily the best option. The second thing is that I think its great that we’re studying this, but that does leave the hard part. You’re not anywhere when you get to Hempstead in terms of the ridership that would use this facility, so there has to be a lot of coordination. If anything, I think it focuses on the importance of what the Rail District is doing, because that is the hard part, getting from 610 to downtown.  And if you don’t get there, you don’t really have the ridership that is going to justify this whole thing.”

Details derived from audio of meeting, recorded by Guidry News (mp3).

TXDOT Houston Austin Rail Presentation (ppt)

I recommend you look at that PowerPoint presentation, as it illustrates the different options discussed. I have to say, I find this all disappointing. The travel time, even for the direct route, is no better than driving, and I have a hard time seeing how this can be a viable, competitive option if you can’t get there any faster than you could have on your own. Part of the reason for this is the stops in between, in Elgin, Giddings, Brenham, and Hempstead, but mostly because the average speed of the train is not very fast; the Hempstead-Houston segment shows an average train speed of 50 MPH, which needless to say would feel like molasses if you were behind the wheel. I don’t know why that segment is projected to be so slow, I don’t know why they only refer to 109 miles of track when it’s about 150 miles between Austin and Houston on 290, and I don’t know where the “Houston” station would be located; neither, apparently, do they, which is in part what Art Storey’s quote is about. I like and support the idea of rail between Austin and Houston as I do between Dallas and Houston, but I feel like we would have to do better than this. Note that there are three alternate routes proposed as well, all of which go through Bryan/College Station. One of them bypasses Brenham, the others take a round trip to B/CS from either Giddings or Hempstead, which adds considerably to the total travel time; as such, none of these alternates are particularly satisfying, either. I hope there will be more to this than what we have seen so far.

I-45 again

I went to the open house for I-45 on Tuesday night to see what was going on, since we didn’t have much information about what the current state of TxDOT’s thinking is about this. Apparently, there isn’t a set plan yet. They’re soliciting input and have a five-year timeline before coming to a Record of Decision in 2016 for the project. What that means is that it’s important to start giving them feedback now. I would recommend you attend tonight’s open house if you didn’t make it on Tuesday, and bookmark the North Houston Highway Improvement Project website, where you can also go to give feedback. That website is still under construction, but there is supposed to be a comment form up there; you can also send email with your input.

One thing that I gleaned from talking to people, including Viula from The Heights Life: Apparently, TxDOT is saying that they do not intend to acquire any further right of way for the section of I-45 between Quitman and Cavalcade. If you go to the History section of the NHHIP website, you will see that this comes from the November 2005 final North-Hardy Planning, Alternatives Analysis Report:

As a result of public comments on the Draft report, the Draft Recommended Alternative from Downtown to Beltway 8 was revised. The Final report states:

“It is the goal of TxDOT to remain within the existing right-of-way of IH 45 as improvements to this congested freeway corridor are designed and developed. The existing right-of-way south of IH 610 is limited and multiple design options will need to be explored to remain within the existing right-of-way. Design options could include: reduced shoulder width requirements; reduced or eliminated frontage roads; cantilevered frontage roads, elevated roadway sections, and other creative engineering techniques. These options along with the feasibility to add capacity to the Hardy Toll Road will be thoroughly explored during preliminary engineering and preparation of the environmental document for this project.”

During the approval process for the Final report for the Highway Component, TxDOT agreed to the following project goals when the preliminary design and environmental document preparation phase begins:

– Stay within the existing IH 45 right of way between Quitman St. and Cavalcade St., except at intersections where turn lanes may be needed.

– Minimize effects on quality of life issues of the residents and neighborhoods in the project area.

– Study Hardy Toll Road as an alternative route for additional lanes.

– Evaluate use of tunnels as an alternative in areas of constrained right-of-way.

That’s good news for our neighborhood, but still leaves a lot of room for disruption elsewhere. To me, it remains the case that widening I-45 north of downtown is just going to result in bigger traffic jams through downtown on the Pierce Elevated. It also remains the case that there is a fair amount of underutilized capacity on the Hardy Toll Road, and that the eventual extension of the Hardy into downtown ought to help ease I-45’s woes a bit. The TxDOT folks I talked to couldn’t really address that as it’s not their project, but I note that construction for it is scheduled to start in 2013, meaning it will likely be done before there’s a ROD on I-45. Something to keep in mind. There are also freight rail tracks alongside the Hardy that I bet would make for a decent commuter rail line; if you’re going to make a comment to TxDOT – and you should – you should emphasize that, since they claim to be open to all possibilities at this point. That also apparently includes tunneling, but I didn’t see Gonzalo Camacho there, so who knows if this is still being pushed by anyone.

Since the NHHIP website is pretty bare right now, I thought I’d scan the handouts I got and post them here for your perusal:

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 1

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 2

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 3

There was also a lady there representing Germantown, the little historic development nestled in between I-45, Quitman, and Houston Avenue that would have been wiped off the map if the proposal that was once floated to redirect I-45 down Houston Avenue had ever been taken seriously. While I think that was never likely to be considered, the folks in Germantown are taking no chances and are seeking historic designation from the city as an extra layer of defense. Here’s her handout:

Germantown historic designation, page 1

Germantown historic designation, page 2

Finally, on a related note, a hot idea these days among urbanist types is that cities should consider dismantling the highways that run through them. Yglesias explains the basic logic:

[T]he purpose of a highway is to make it easy to travel long distances in short periods of time. But the central fact about cities is that almost by definition they’re not far from downtown. When you build a freeway that leads from downtown, through residential areas, out to the suburbs what you’re doing is making it easier to get to stuff downtown without living in the city. If you replaced the freeway with a normal at-grade road, suddenly it would make more sense to live closer to downtown. The idea of urban freeway construction was to preserve the vitality of downtown areas at a time when more people wanted to move out to the suburbs. But trying to preserve downtown at the cost of eliminating your residential neighborhood’s core advantage — it’s easy to get downtown! — was fantastically short-sighted.

That sound you hear is heads exploding all over Texas. While I think this is an idea that deserves a fair amount of serious debate, there’s an inescapable fact about the freeways in our fair city, and that’s that they are a necessity for hurricane evacuation. As such, there really isn’t a case to be made for it here. Personally, I’d be delighted if we could just avoid building more freeways in the middle of nowhere to accommodate people who don’t live there yet and instead focused our resources on making it easier and more convenient for those who do live in the urban core to get around without having to use the freeways, thus freeing up more space on them for those who must. That would be a win-win if we ever did it.

Hempstead commuter rail update

Here’s a look at how commuter rail along 290 might work.

Commuter trains from Hempstead to Houston could start running by 2019 if the Gulf Coast Rail District can secure $300 million and if Union Pacific Railroad lets passenger cars use its track along Hempstead Highway.

It would be the Houston area’s first commuter rail service between cities in at least 50 years and would help ease severe traffic congestion on U.S. 290, a major route for rapidly growing northwest Harris County.

At the outset, the service would operate only between Hempstead and Loop 610 near Northwest Mall. From there, express buses would carry passengers to four employment centers – downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria/Uptown area.

To succeed, however, the project must extend the track from the loop into downtown, according to a report on a year-long study by Klotz Associates and TranSystems. Commissioned by the rail district, the report was presented Tuesday to the board.

The study was commissioned last March. All of the documents related to the Hempstead rail project can be found here. The initial presentation was made last November. The report that was given to the GCRD this week is here. Of interest is that one of its operating assumptions is that the METRO Solutions Phase II plan has been “Fully Implemented” by the projected start date of 2019. It’s not clear to me if this includes the Uptown Line, which would conveniently have an endpoint at or near the Northwest Mall, which is given as one of the possible terminal locations for the Hempstead line. There is a slide with the title “Interim Terminal Bus Needs (Peak)”, which says two buses to the Galleria/Uptown area would be needed, so presumably at least at the outset the Uptown Line is not assumed to be in the mix.

I would think that having the Uptown Line running would have a positive effect on ridership projections – who wants to get stuck in traffic on a bus after getting off a commuter train? – but the study doesn’t explicitly mention that. What it does discuss is continuing the line into downtown, which would have a huge effect:

By 2035, the time reference used in the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s, regional transportation plan, the commuter service would see about 6,000 daily boardings without an extension to downtown.

If the track is extended, ridership is expected to jump to as many as 22,578 daily boardings by 2035.

I will note that the Super Neighborhood 22 comprehensive transportation plan explicitly discusses a commuter rail connection from Northwest Mall into downtown, so there is a basis for planning that extension. I’m sure the SN22 folks will be happy to talk to the GCRD about how this can be made to happen, with maybe a few of their other ideas thrown in for good measure.

How would you spend $350 million of TxDOT’s money?

David Crossley would like to know.

Let’s say you found $350 million to do a great transportation project for the Houston region. Would you use it to build a 400-foot-wide, 15-mile-long segment of brand-new highway across the Katy Prairie wetlands where almost no one lives or works in order to enable a lot of sprawling development (and some new flooding) for future residents? Or would you use it to, say, build commuter rail service along U.S. 290 to serve nearly a million people who live there today?

The reason I ask is that there’s a public meeting next week where you could go and tell the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) what you think would be a good (or bad) use of that money. The information about that is at the end of this article.

Maybe you would tell them to use it to do a whole bunch of projects that we don’t otherwise have money for right now, like rebuild State Highway 6 and FM 1960 from I-10 to I-45? If you did all the proposals that are on the table for that corridor, you’d still have $315 million left. What then? Do 2920? 1488? Do all of them?

Crossley’s piece also appeared as an op-ed in the Chron. The $350 million figure of course comes from the money TxDOT magically found to pay for the Grand Parkway. (Remind me again why we have to vote to build light rail lines, but not new highways?) If you can think of something better to do with this money, here’s how to let TxDOT know:

[C]onsider going to TxDOT’s public meeting to talk about the 2011-2014 Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) on Wed., May 25. The email I got says, “All interested citizens are invited to attend and express their views on the program.”

You can go here for meeting info and here to get deep information about the STIP. You will be amazed.

The meeting is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m at the TxDOT–Houston District Auditorium, 7600 Washington Ave. Be sure to go and talk about how you would like TxDOT to spend that $350 million.

Or at least send some comments to Texas Department of Transportation, Attention: Lori Morel, 118 East Riverside Drive, Austin, Texas, 78704, or by email to [email protected] Comments must be received by 5 p.m. Monday, June 6, 2011. Department officials will be surprised, I bet.

You can also go to spend350million.org and leave a comment there. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

The Austin rail debate

The city of Austin is gearing up for another debate about how and where – and if – to build more rail there. This is the third time since 2000 that they’ve gone through such a debate. This AusChron story gives a good summary of where they are now and what may come next. Those of you who have read Mike Dahmus’ blog will undoubtedly find yourself nodding and/or shaking your head at various points. Check it out.

More on Metro’s rail to Fort Bend plan

Here’s a story from the first of the public meetings Metro is holding on the proposed US90A rail line to Fort Bend.

Planners of a proposed project to extend light rail service from Houston to Missouri City are hopeful about securing $1 million federal funding for the undertaking.

Kimberly Slaughter, senior vice president of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, said U.S. Rep. Al Green has been pushing for the funds to be allocated from either this year’s or next year’s presidential budget.

[…]

The plan drew loud applause from those attending a Metro public meeting Tuesday night in Missouri City that was held to seek public comments as the authority prepares a draft environmental impact statement as part of its effort to seek federal funding for the project.

“Not a day goes by that I’m not asked by someone, ‘Mayor, when are we going to get on the train?'” Owen said.

Although the current proposal wouldn’t stretch the line beyond Missouri City, mayors Leonard Scarcella of Stafford and Joe Gurecky of Rosenberg also have been pushing for light rail to be expanded further west into Fort Bend County.

For sure, the projected ridership of the line would be far greater if it extended into Sugar Land, which is where most of the people are. Metro doesn’t operate in Fort Bend and would need to be brought in to collaborate in some fashion that’s not fully defined, but clearly there’s ample support for this to happen. We’ll see how it goes.

In related news, as noted earlier, Metro has received the $14 million it was owed by CAF from their settlement, and PDiddie wrote up his account of meeting with Metro folks at the Rail Operations Center. Which is right across the street from the Fannin South station, which is where the US90A line would meet up with the rest of the light rail system.

More on the Lone Star Rail District

The following comment was left on my earlier post about the Lone Star Rail District and its efforts to build a rail line between Austin and San Antonio, and I thought it was worth highlighting:

LSTAR is actually much further along than it was in 2009. In fact, the subject of the article was an update by LSTAR staff to City Council, which directed city staff at the conclusion of the presentation to work with LSTAR staff and consultants to identify ways to fund the operation and maintenance of the future system, with the goal of an agreement by the end of the year. Similar discussions will be taking place in Austin soon, and in each of the cities and towns up and down the proposed line.

LSTAR recently signed an MOU with the Union Pacific Railroad to study the relocation of UP’s “through” freight trains to a new alignment. This had been a major stumbling block in the past, as the volume of freight trains on the tracks that LSTAR proposes to use for the passenger service is too large to simultaneously support freight and passenger operation.

Right now, the passenger line is in the midst of its environmental studies (required by federal regulations), and the freight bypass line is just starting up the alternatives analysis (to identify the least impactful route between Seguin and Taylor). Although the District is not completely in control of the schedule (there are federal processes that could be short or long duration), it has targeted approximately 2 to 3 years for the finalization of the environmental process on both the passenger and freight lines. Final design and construction on both would come soon after.

Funding and financing are, of course, issues. But the purpose of concluding agreements with the District’s member cities and municipalities on local operations and maintenance funding are necessary to leverage federal loans and grants, and to attract private investment.

It was signed by Joe Black from Lone Star Rail. My thanks to him for the clarification.

San Antonio still in for Austin rail line

I wish them the very best of luck with this.

San Antonio officials will continue to pursue a passenger rail line that one day could connect the Alamo City to Austin, a transit project that’s already been in the works for more than a decade.

The city’s endorsement Wednesday of the Lone Star Rail District initiative came on the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it will support a $53 billion high-speed rail initiative over the next five years, the most money committed to rail in over a generation, emphasized Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district board, an entity that includes cities, counties and transit authorities along the 120-mile corridor.

“This is a time to make this project sail,” Wells said.

But it likely will be several years of planning and negotiations — including relocating an existing Union Pacific Railroad freight line at a cost of $1.7 billion — before anyone will be able to ride on the proposed rail line, called LSTAR.

And as we know, the state of Texas is not exactly in a strong position when it comes to planning and executing this sort of project. I blogged about LSTAR in November of 2009, and it’s not clear to me they’re any closer to running trains now than they were then when they were aiming for 2012 or 2013 as a start date. Still, I really hope they succeed. It makes all kinds of sense for this corridor to have a rail line, I-35 is horribly congested, and this could serve as a cornerstone to a future high speed rail network for Texas.

Metro seeks input for commuter rail line to Fort Bend

Metro is taking another step forward on the commuter rail line along US 90A to Fort Bend County that was part of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum.

Kimberly Slaughter, Senior Vice President of Service Design & Development for Metro, unveiled the project’s design at a press conference [Monday] morning. The train — known clunkily as the US 90A/Southwest Rail Corridor — will span eight miles from the Fannin South Station at the end of the Red Line to Beltway 8 in Missouri City.

But don’t hold your breath. The rail is seven years and millions of dollars away.

Although Slaughter said costs are “completely conceptual” at this point, it’s expected to cost at least $200 million. She said the train will be funded mostly from government grants and existing Federal Transit Administration money, and there’s no plan to increase fares or taxes.

For now, all that Metro wants from you is your input. Four public forums will be held this month at various locations near the proposed train route. Attend, and you’ll be able to tell Metro exactly what you think of the plan and its environmental impact.

All of the details, including the media briefing and the scoping package can be found on Metro’s website. There are four public meetings scheduled between the 15th and 22nd of February, so if you have an interest in this be sure to attend one of them. There is already some federal funding in place for this, and there are several possible alternative alignments that might make more sense if Fort Bend County wanted to extend the line inside its borders. With construction not slated to begin before 2017, there’s plenty of time to optimize this. The most important thing is to get it started, of course. That we’ve come this far is a good sign.

Department of rail-related corrections

Council Member Sue Lovell writes a letter disputing certain aspects of the recent story about Galveston commuter rail being off track.

Barry Goodman blames lack of a regional transportation policy as a big obstacle. The eight-county transportation planning region represented at TPC has begun review of commuter rail options with the Houston-Galveston Area Council Regional Commuter Rail Connectivity Study that analyzed existing freight rail lines for their commuter service potential.

More importantly, Harris County and Fort Bend County joined with the city of Houston in 2007 to create the Gulf Coast Rail District. Since then, Galveston County and Waller County have joined, and Montgomery County Commissioners Court is expected to approve membership.

Each of these entities understands that the region cannot continue to rely on roadways for movement of goods and commuters. H-GAC estimates that the exceptional regional growth will double freight truck traffic, causing significant increases in congestion for all vehicles. New capacity will be required, and even the Texas Department of Transportation will admit that it cannot all be on roadways.

I disagree with Bill King, who was incorrectly identified as a current member of the TPC, when he asserts that rail projects “don’t add any extra capacity for cost.” Freight rail lines represent existing capacity that could be used for commuters.

It is incumbent upon regional officials to determine if, where and at what cost partnership with the railroads is a viable option. The Gulf Coast Rail District is charged with that responsibility for the region. Only when those costs have been determined can there be real discussions about how to pay for these projects.

Elsewhere, the Chron story that was the basis of this post about a more suburban Metro has been amended to include the following:

Correction: A story on page B1 of Sunday’s Houston Chronicle incorrectly stated the manner of appointment of new board members if the Metropolitan Transit Authority board were to expand from nine to 11 members as a result of the federal census. The Texas Transportation Code calls for one new member to be appointed by Commissioners Court and an 11th member, who would be the chairman, to be appointed by a majority of the 10 other members.

As we know, currently five members, plus the Chair, are appointed by Houston’s Mayor, with two members being appointed by Commissioners Court and two by the other cities. The change described, if and when it happens, isn’t quite the seismic shift that Commissioner Steve Radack made it out to be. The relevant statute is 451.502 of the Transportation Code, in particular subsection (e):

(e) In an authority having six additional members, the additional members are appointed as follows:

(1) two members appointed by a panel composed of:

(A) the mayors of the municipalities in the authority, excluding the mayor of the principal municipality; and

(B) the county judges of the counties having unincorporated area in the authority, excluding the county judge of the principal county;

(2) three members appointed by the commissioners court of the principal county; and

(3) one member, who serves as presiding officer of the board, appointed by a majority of the board.

So now you know.

Galveston commuter rail project off track

Bummer.

A depressed economy and a budget-cutting political climate have indefinitely delayed a proposed Houston-Galveston passenger rail line, a project that could have been under construction by now according to earlier predictions.

Despite strong support from governments in Galveston County, federal dollars are harder to come by than when the idea gained favor in 2007, and local money is too scarce to finance the $650 million project, said Barry Goodman, whose Goodman Corp. consulting firm spearheaded the effort to win federal money for the project.

“The reasons for that are the economic downturn the last two years has impacted local political subdivisions very dramatically,” Goodman said.

The dearth of local and federal money has turned the project from something over the horizon into a more distant goal, he said.

But Goodman says he’s not giving up and will continue to lobby for the money. Neither is Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, whose city has led the fight for the commuter rail line.

“I’m certainly not letting it go,” said Jaworski, who vowed to seek support for the project at the regional, state and federal levels.

More here, here, here, and here. I wish Mayor Jaworski the best of luck with that, but I’m not terribly optimistic about his prospects at this time.

A more suburban Metro?

Another possible feature of the Census data, of which I had not been previously aware, could be characterized as Metro redistricting.

The city of Houston could lose its majority control of the Metro board if the 2010 Census shows that population in the part of Metro’s service area outside the city limits has grown enough to trigger a provision in state law that calls for adding two seats to the Metro board.

Houston’s mayor has effectively controlled Metro since its 1978 creation through the authority to appoint five of its nine board members. Mayor Annise Parker demonstrated this power nine months ago when she replaced all five of the city’s appointees. The new board then installed as chief executive officer a former Houston city controller, George Greanias, who was the point man on transportation issues for Parker’s transition team.

No one is yet projecting that the demographic change will come to pass when the Census Bureau releases population figures for cities, counties and metropolitan areas in a few months. But recent county population trends suggest it’s possible.

The population of the county’s unincorporated areas has grown at nearly four times the rate of the cities over the past decade, according to a recent county study.

State law requires that 75 percent of county residents outside Houston must live within Metro’s service area before the transit board would expand to 11 members with six non-Houston seats. Numbers gathered from Metro and census estimates indicate that the percentage is already above 70.

Some local transportation experts say an expanded board is not likely to cause fundamental policy changes at Metro. But to Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, it could be a game-changer.

“If we got a new board over there that’s interested in things other than electric trains, we might be able to do a heck of a lot more mobility,” Radack said. “I believe Metro money should be spent on transportation.”

Radack suggested that a new board with greater non-city representation might not support plans to spend billions of dollars on five new light rail lines. Harris County spends its share of so-called general mobility payments from Metro on road projects, and the four commissioners decide how to spend that money.

Where to start with this? Metro has, of course, spent a ton of money on park and ride service to the suburbs. Maybe Radack doesn’t consider anything that isn’t a toll road to be “transportation”, I don’t know. Be that as it may, I’m always amused by the way that light rail critics like Radack and Bill King always manage to ignore the results of the 2003 referendum as they plot to get their hands on the funds for it. Just an inconvenience to be brushed aside, I guess.

Unfortunately for Radack and his grand plans, the Metro board has generally acted in unison, as noted in the story. And for the time being at least, the Board also includes people like former West U City Council Member Burt Ballanfant, who is both a strong light rail supporter and an inside-the-Loop guy. So even if the Census requires a change to the membership of the Board, it’s unlikely it will change direction.

Having said this, I wouldn’t mind seeing a change to Metro’s board if it were accompanied by a change to Metro’s service area, to see if places like Fort Bend County might reconsider joining in. Given the logistical issues involved in building a rail line to Fort Bend, it might make more sense to have them on the inside, if they want that. If something like that were to happen, then of course the Board structure would need to change as well. I’m just thinking out loud here, but between that and all of the other commuter rail talk that we’ve seen recently, it’s worth considering whether the structure we have in place is adequate. Yes, I know we have the Gulf Coast Rail District driving the metaphorical train on this, but you’re still going to need someone to build and operate any future commuter rail lines, and you’re going to need a way to properly fund that service. I don’t know what the optimal solution is here, I’m just suggesting we think about it.

NPR on LRT

Nice story on NPR about the expansion of light rail around the country. Pretty much everywhere you look in large urban areas, there’s light rail, construction of light rail, or plans for light rail. Couple of points from the story that are worth mentioning:

In Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego and other cities large and small, light rail is taking off. The trains look more like streetcars than anything else. They’re only one or two cars long, and are electrically powered. The narrow footprint of light rail cars allows them to be put in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.

Generally speaking, light rail is built with its own right of way, while streetcars are built to share existing road lanes with automobiles. That makes light rail faster and more efficient, but also much more expensive than streetcars. When I was listening to this, it made me wonder if they were really speaking about LRT per se, or about LRT plus streetcars plus commuter rail, all lumped together. They cite Dallas as an example in the story but not Houston, which given that Dallas’ system is much more suburban-commuter oriented and less about taking advantage of density makes me think they’re mixing their apples and oranges a bit. I don’t think it changes the nature of the story, I just thought they should have been a little more careful with their terminology.

The current downturn has meant that there have been fewer sales tax revenues, which are paying for the system, and costs have spiraled upward. And in a new era of cutbacks, it’s not clear if more money from the federal government is coming either.

That subject came up in my interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler. Until the basic funding mechanism is reauthorized by Congress, there’s no new money available. Which is tragic on many levels, especially if you believe as I do that the feds should be picking up a much greater share of the costs than they do now. Until we change our default assumptions that make funding highways so much easier, and with so much more money to be had, that’s how it’s going to be.

You need more than more miles to get more riders

The new 28-mile Green Line in Dallas has begun full service, and it is expected to add about 30,000 daily boardings, bringing DART’s total rail ridership to about 90,000 per day. That’s for 72 miles of rail lines, which is nearly ten times as long as Houston’s Main Street line, but less than triple the Main Street line’s 34,000 daily boardings. Why does DART get so little for its mileage? Yonah Freemark explains.

The clearest answer is that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines. As demonstrated by Strasbourg’s tramway network, which serves 300,000 daily users on 34.7 miles of track, in terms of attracting ridership it is more important to have a densely packed system in the inner city than it is to have an extensive series of suburban extensions. This, however, requires the existence of a dense urban core.

Dallas’ downtown is filled with jobs — 138,224, more than most cities’ — so it would seem in theory to be a popular place for transit users. But consider parking policies: The city’s downtown district actively encourages visitors to drive there and then park for just a dollar an hour. There’s no need to drive around looking for a space, because virtually every block is consumed at least partially by parking. When it’s this easy to get around by car, the fact is that transit options are unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile, what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition. Even Love Field, the city’s second airport, is not directly on the route of the Green Line because a connection would have been too expensive to construct.

Because of the adherence to corridors that are intentionally designed to do as little as possible to challenge the movement of automobiles, trains run in industrial zones north of Love Field and along a forested edge zone along much of the southeast segments of the route. These were wasted opportunities: Those routes could have been designed to run in the boulevard medians in the center of neighborhoods, attracting more users, but instead they’re generally at the periphery of built-up zones.

Each and every decision about station location matters: The best-used light rail networks are those in which people have the ability to walk from their homes to the train and the truth is that that’s mostly impossible to do in Dallas’ system.

The Metro 2012 Solutions plan, by virtue of being an inner city system that hits a number of dense areas as well as several universities, does a lot better on this score, though there is plenty of room to improve even more. If we put as much planning effort and resources into maximizing the potential of our rail transit as we do for roads in currently uninhabited outlying areas, we could really have something. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the links.

Sugar Land contemplates its transportation options

Via Houston Tomorrow, here’s an interesting story about how Sugar Land is thinking about the effect of the planned baseball stadium and Imperial Sugar Mill redevelopment on traffic.

Both projects mean this older part of Sugar Land is likely to become much more popular, making it ripe for heavy congestion. This is something local resident Gavin Peterson says the area isn’t exactly ready for.

“Developing in this area that we’re in right now by the sugar factory, it’s not really built for a lot of traffic.”

The city knows this, which is why it’s spending 200,000 dollars on a mobility plan to discover how best to get its current and future residents from point A to point B. Patrick Walsh is Sugar Land’s transportation director. He says with all the new entertainment spots popping up, Sugar Land needs to think hard about its long-term transportation goals.

“So the city is looking at: ‘How do we connect these activity centers? How do we move people from one to the other? How do we get people from our residential areas into the activity centers?”

Resident Sandy Hellums is on Sugar Land’s citizens’ Mobility Advisory Committee. She says the biggest problem right now is lack of options.

“It is very difficult to move around as a pedestrian in a lot of our entertainment districts. There is no alternative in terms of pubic transportation. There’s no rail; there’s no buses; it’s pretty much your car and that’s it.”

Transportation director Walsh says more transit alternatives are exactly what the city’s exploring. He says Sugar Land hopes to double the number of its walking and biking trails over the next five to ten years and is coming up with ideas for intra-city transit options, like trolleys, that would link different parts of the town. Hellums has been tuned into the changing desires of residents at town meetings.

“I’m hearing that over and over at all of these things that people, especially with introduction of the baseball stadium, people would love to be able to bike to one park, jump on the trolley, go to the science museum and then walk over to the baseball stadium. I mean that would really be the ideal where you could spend your whole weekend in Sugar Land and not have to use your car.”

That does sound nice, but I’m thinking that for a transit system to be successful it needs to be more than a weekend option. In the bigger picture, there’s the commuter rail line that could come out that way and would go right to the stadium if it did. Getting it all to work together, and figuring out how to pay for it all, will be the challenges. They have a chance to get this right, and I wish them good luck in doing so. See the Sugar Land Mobility page for more.

Commuter rail along US 90A

Here’s an update on a piece of the 2003 Metro Solutions referendum that has been largely quiescent till now, the proposed commuter rail line from the Fannin South station to Fort Bend County.

Though efforts soon stalled after a 2003 referendum in which voters approved a light rail expansion, the project has seen renewed political support, in particular from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, who has been working closely with Fort Bend mayors to revive the project, and U.S. Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston, and Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, who have thrown their weight behind congressional efforts to secure the needed funding.

The 90A rail project is anticipated to cost $250 million, with the hope that half of that amount will be funded by the federal government. Officials are reluctant to give an estimated completion date due to the uncertainty of federal funding, which is typically a long process. Adding to that challenge is the state of the U.S. economy.

“The question is when will the federal money be available, and how quickly can we do it after that? said George Greanias, Metro’s recently-appointed acting president and CEO. “The moment the federal funds come in, we will move forward into construction as fast as we can.”

Greanias also reaffirmed Metro’s support for the project.

“We’re very committed to this,” he said. “We think it’s an essential part of building a network of rail.”

The planned four-stop, 8-mile rail would extend from the city’s existing Main Street Line to a terminus in Missouri City, with stops at Fannin South, Buffalo Center, Chimney Rock and Missouri City. The ride would be 30 minutes start-to-finish, and connect many of Texas Medical Center’s employees who live in Missouri City to their work.

Metro expects initial ridership for the line to be 12,000; with that population expanding to 23,000 by 2030. The train cars would likely be the same Siemens cars used by Metro’s existing rail lines, with the capacity to run 65 miles per hour, Grenais said.

Additionally, Sugar Land, which has voiced concerns in the past of how a rail would affect traffic flow in their neighborhoods, recently passed a city council resolution supporting Metro’s 90A rail proposal to extend the rail from Main Street to Beltway 8, with the caveat that “support … does not necessarily constitute support for extensions of commuter rail further west to Sugar Land.”

Link via neoHouston, who analyzes the proposed route and suggests an alternative, which goes right into Sugar Land. He’s not the first person to come to the conclusion that extending such a line into the population center of Fort Bend, which has a regional airport and will soon have a baseball stadium, makes all kinds of sense. Christof Spieler, now a Metro board member, came to the same conclusion back in 2008. He was critiquing the original 2004 H-GAC study that drew up a 15-mile line into Rosenberg, but the same idea holds true: Put the line where the people are. Seems so easy when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Well, of course it’s more complicated than that. As neoHouston notes, Metro doesn’t currently operate in Fort Bend, which is why this proposed line ends at Beltway 8. Support out there is steadily increasing, but it’s still early days. And of course there’s the money issue. Rep. Green has moved the ball forward, and with help from his Democratic colleagues but no interference from Tom DeLay, there’s reason to hope. Maybe if Sugar Land sees that this is really coming, they’ll begin to want to be a part of it. We can hope, anyway.

DART reverses course, will keep building

Back in June, Dallas Area Rapid Transit presented a 20-year financial plan that said it could no longer afford to build several new light rail lines that it had intended to do. Now it’s got an updated projection that says it can build them after all.

Just six weeks after telling board members that it couldn’t be done, DART executives on Tuesday presented their bosses with a 20-year financial plan that keeps the Orange Line rail service on track to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

They also presented a $1.25 billion budget for 2011 that cuts 87 jobs next year but will delay, for a year at least, layoffs.

The 20-year plan would allow room for a second major rail project, an extension of the Blue Line to southern Oak Cliff by the end of this decade. That’s a possibility that promised to draw a fight, or at least a debate, from some board members who think the agency should save its money to build a long-promised second downtown Dallas rail line that is now on hold.

[…]

Chief Financial Officer David Leininger told board members that the budget and the proposed 20-year plan represented a much better picture than he had presented June 22, when he told DART board members that all major construction projects not already under way would have to be put on hold.

The DMN editorial board is a bit skeptical.

This newspaper hopes DART, which has an unfortunate history of badly missing financial projections, isn’t whistling past the graveyard again. On paper, the 2011 budget and 20-year financial plan back the completion of the Orange Line to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and planning for the Oak Cliff extension of the Blue Line. This newspaper supports both projects as crucial economic catalysts.

But how DART has made its numbers add up raises an eyebrow. In late June, DART said it probably couldn’t find the dollars for some projects and threatened massive layoffs and service cuts. The layoff numbers were projected to be in the hundreds.

[…]

DART’s plans, however, depend heavily on steady improvement in the overall economy and other wildcards that are difficult to predict, including some that seem to defy recent history. Sales-tax receipts have been flat for several years. Passenger revenue has been down significantly since 2008. Yet, DART anticipates both will improve over the next few years as the economy picks up and new rail lines are completed. DART also is counting on an increase in federal grants and other aid to help finance some projects, a revenue source that is getting harder to tap.

Via Houston Tomorrow, there’s another issue of concern here, which is that DART is moving resources around in a way that may make more political sense than transit sense.

But one can imagine the political pressure in which DART decision-makers find themselves: The agency must fulfill the interests of its most suburban constituents, many of whom are frustrated that they have yet to receive their personalized light rail line. Meanwhile, because the airport connection appeals most strongly to the political leaders of the region because it is the only transit line most of them will ever use, it is essential for DART to pursue its construction if it wants to remain in the funding game.

Yet operations cutbacks do have their negative consequences. The decision to cut headways on light rail operations has justified DART’s decision to permanently postpone the D2 downtown light rail link, which would have relieved the existing center-city trunk route used by all lines. That project, it seems, is not necessary if all lines are running only every fifteen minutes; in addition, the creation of a new streetcar system already partially funded through the federal TIGER program will add capacity for downtown riders. So the agency has determined that it is preferable to divert spending on an extension of the Blue Line south to the University of North Texas instead.

That project, though, will only further enforce the already very suburban orientation of DART’s expansion program rather than improve the circulation of people within the densest parts of Dallas. In addition, it seems to imply that fifteen-minute frequencies are acceptable in the long-term; they certainly are not if Dallas ever intends to encourage significantly increased public use of its light rail system, which has cost more than $2.5 billion to build so far. Why not, some will likely argue, save up and spend on the new downtown alignment as soon as possible, which would allow an eventual ramp-up in services to meet growing demand?

We’ll see how it goes. If nothing else, I figure we can learn some lessons for Metro from their experience.

Austin ponders its urban rail future

As with so many things these days, how to pay for it is a big issue.

The Austin City Council, looking at a daunting $1.3 billion tab to build a proposed urban rail system, voted Thursday to spend $100,000 for a study on how to pay for it.

The council also approved a measure effectively delaying a bond election on rail to at least 2012 from 2011 , a date Mayor Lee Leffingwell had endorsed earlier this year. That resolution, which like the rail study contract was approved unanimously and without discussion at Thursday’s meeting, directs the city staff to prepare for what would likely be a massive bond election to authorize borrowing money for parks, libraries, public safety and other city needs in additional to rail.

[…]

Capital Metro, its finances tight after building the MetroRail commuter line that opened in March , probably would be able to contribute little or nothing to this second and much different rail project. The city in effect took over planning and construction of urban rail in 2007 .

The line would be 16.5 miles long, with almost 34 miles of track because it would have dual lines throughout, according to a Thursday presentation to the council.

[…]

City officials said they estimate the line will have 27,600 boardings each weekday by 2030 — at least a decade after its first segment would open. MetroRail’s ridership so far has been less than half the 2,000 boardings a day that Capital Metro predicted for the first year when voters approved that project in 2004 .

Aside from the $1.3 billion price tag to build it, officials project annual operating costs of up to $25 million . The city estimates the electric-powered trains would run seven days a week, including 16 hours each weekday, with 10 minutes between trains. The trip from each end to downtown, the city says, would take just over 30 minutes.

I’ll leave it to Mike Dahmus to explain why this is worse than it looks for Austin and its rail future. Metro and Houston’s light rail network are not where I want them to be right now, but when you consider where Austin and Dallas are, we could be a lot worse off.

Montgomery County wants in on rail district

Get on board, Montgomery County.

Montgomery County may join a regional rail group to upgrade freight lines and add commuter services throughout the Houston area.

“It’s time that we need to be a part of this,” said Commissioner Ed Chance of Precinct 3.

For the second time, Montgomery County Commissioners Court will vote on joining the Gulf Coast Rail District after first rejecting the plan in 2007.

The agency was created by the state Legislature in 2005 to enhance the economic benefits of rail while improving the regional quality of life.

The agency has identified $3.4 billion in freight rail improvements needed by 2035, when freight traffic is expected to double in the area, and nearly $3 billion to build five commuter rail lines out of Houston.

“It is something that everyone needs to do as they look at future transportation issues,” said Mark Ellis, chairman of the district

Among the projects being considered for Montgomery County is a commuter rail line, which would run from Houston to Tomball along Texas 249.

Montgomery County also would be a future stop for high speed rail lines that link Houston with Dallas and San Antonio, said Maureen Crocker, interim executive director of the Gulf Coast Rail District.

This is a no-brainer in many ways. I don’t know what the role of the GCRD will be in eventually delivering these projects, but they will certainly have one, so getting Montgomery County involved with them makes all kinds of sense. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the tip.

What’s going on with US 290?

500px-US_290.svg

Last week, I wrote about the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that TxDOT has filed for its proposed expansion of US 290. This is a huge proposal, with a price tag of $4.6 billion if all of it gets done, and it’s one that has a number of unanswered questions, as the Citizens Transportation Coalition has documented. I had the opportunity later in the week to hear CTC Chair Robin Holzer give a presentation on the status of this project and the issues that they have raised, and it was quite enlightening. There’s a lot going on with this project that I wasn’t really aware of, having to do with things like the Hempstead managed lanes, grade separations, and commuter rail, and I feel like there hasn’t been that much in the news about it. So I figured I’d try to do my part by interviewing Holzer about the project. Here it is:

Download the MP3 file

The CTC has a useful overview page that summarizes the issues and questions that remain about the 290 project. It also includes the CTC presentation (large PDF) that I heard Holzer give. If you want to get up to speed on all this, check it out.