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A solution in search of a problem

We were out of town over the weekend, so I managed to miss this Bill King op-ed about the “need” to elevate the Main Street line on Fannin in the Medical Center area. Having now read it, I have three things to say.

Generally it only takes one trip through the Texas Medical Center (TMC) on Fannin for a person to swear off the route permanently. It is a driver’s nightmare with dozens of indecipherable signs and lights giving directions. There have been several train-pedestrian and train-auto accidents in the area. And the traffic … well, let’s not even go there.

Many have questioned the wisdom of a multibillion-dollar investment that crams a new modal system into the same horizontal plane already crowded with vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Most of the great, iconic transit systems, such as the New York subway, Washington’s Metro or Chicago’s “L,” are grade separated from street traffic. Even Dallas’ DART is largely grade separated.

The problem with grade separating our rail system is, of course, the increased cost. Estimates range from twice to five times as expensive. When we built the Main Street line, we did so without any federal funds. As a result, Metro took a number of shortcuts to contain the cost. One of those shortcuts was the contorted maze through the TMC.


The line could begin a gentle incline around Hermann Park and continue above the street level to the south side of Brays Bayou. The rail line could be tied into the elevated walkways between the buildings on either side of Fannin, providing easy, ADA-compliant access. Elevating the rail line both relieves the congestion on Fannin and insulates its circuits from the surrounding infrastructure.

1. Has Bill King forgotten just how congested that stretch of Fannin was before the rail line was built? Because I haven’t. It was a mess, and it took forever to drive through. Among other things, there are bunch of traffic lights on Fannin between Dryden and MacGregor, many of which are not at intersections but at the entrance to parking garages. Those lights are all still there and would continue to impede traffic in the event that the rail line magically disappeared. And it would still be confusing to drive through, especially if you’re headed for one of those garages – I speak from the experience of turning into a garage other than the one I intended to, more than once.

2. King is completely disingenuous about the cost. For one thing, as Metro President David Wolff points out in a letter to the editor, Metro would be competing for federal dollars to do this against its other light rail lines, including those that are in the final stages of getting funding. For another, despite the approving murmurs King’s op-ed got from the anti-rail crowd at blogHouston, doing this would surely garner opposition from those who want to see more rail being built, as it would be a poor use of limited funds, and it wouldn’t make the idea of rail any more popular among the antis; if anything, this would be used as ammunition by them for their argument that rail is “too expensive”. There’s just no value proposition here.

3. Finally, perhaps King hasn’t noticed the large number of people who now park in lots well away from the Medical Center and take the train in. I work a block away from the Smithlands station, and I see people in scrubs coming out of that lot and getting on the train (or getting out of the train and going into the lot) all day long. Every one of those people represents a car that is no longer being driven on Fannin. The rail line does more to relieve traffic congestion there than anything we’ve ever done, and when there are more lines connecting to it, thus making more of the city accessible without getting into a car, that will do even more.