Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

Feel the excitement! No, seriously, we’ve waited a long time for this.

The largest and most-sought segment of Metro’s planned bus rapid transit expansion in Houston is poised next week to officially move from being just lines on a map to the starting line — even if construction remains years away.

Metropolitan Transit Authority board members are scheduled Thursday to approve a preferred alternative for the 25-mile University Line, the mammoth route that acts somewhat as an east-west spine of the region’s future transit plans. Setting the preferred route does not lock the agency into that exact path, but instead acts as the goal as design continues, leading to eventual public response to a proposal.

Though preliminary, officials said the approval is a major step for luring federal funding, as well as building the route as soon as possible.

“This is the crown jewel of MetroNext,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said of the line, referring to the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan.

Central portions of the line, mostly along Richmond and Westpark, represent the most sought-after but controversial connections in the Metro system. When voters approved Metro’s long-range plan and $3.5 billion in bond authority in November 2019, Metro chairwoman Carrin Patman said closing the gap in frequent, fast transit between downtown and Uptown was the “most logical” major project in the plan.

Construction, however, likely would not begin until 2024 at the earliest, after community meetings and Federal Transit Administration approval. Work likely will happen in sections.

Planning and technical work alone could take the next two years, with Metro set to approve a consulting agreement with engineering firm AECOM, paying it $1 million to start the initial designs. The total cost of the University Line is likely to exceed $1 billion.

As noted before, Metro is moving quickly to try to get federal funds so that design and construction can begin on the timeline indicated above. I support that and hope they’re successful, but I have to admit this all leaves me feeling bittersweet. Remember, the original Metro referendum passed in 2001. The Main Street line opened in 2004. We were talking about designs for what would have been the Universities light rail line in 2005. A combination of some cranky Afton Oaks residents, former Congressman John Culberson, the former Metro board’s incompetence, and the 2008 economic crash have all led to this, where we’re trying again to build something that in another universe might be celebrating its ten year anniversary by now. I feel pretty good about the current plan coming to fruition maybe five years or so from now, but the amount of time that was wasted with nothing to show for it is staggering and nauseating. Let’s please never do that again.

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4 Responses to Get ready for your first Universities Line BRT map

  1. policywonqueria says:


    Anyone familiar with mass transportation systems in Europe would generally welcome the expansion of the tram, oops light rail not to mention multi-modal urban transit system, but there are major impediments locally: the vast majority of Houston residents have little to no experience riding on Metro and have other options that are more convenient. How do you persuade people accumstomed to use their own vehicle to go to work, shop, and everything else, and use Metro instead? Even with the current system, there is plenty of spare capacity for lack of take-up.

    An obvious problem in Houston is heat and humidity. It gets hot in Dallas too, but it’s more tolerable there because it’s dry(er). To address that, we would have to either have very short intervals for trains, or build air-conditioned transfer centers and park & ride waiting halls, not just lots and shelters. And as for the West-East (West-Center) connection, it would have to be much faster than current 25 Richmond bus line. At least as fast as DART, and on a dedicated lane, if not elevated. That means fewer stops, which in turn will make it less feasible for folks to walk from where they live to the stop/station. See heat and humity above. And it would likely not be economically feasible to have mini park and rides at each of the limited number of stop. So, while a Richmond rail route may be good to connect the Galleria with Downtown and TMC, if wouldn’t do much good for people that live along the route, whether in single-family homes or in apartment complexes farther out West. If a corridor with a rapid train is feasible at all, it would best serve the park & ride population in the burbs. Or rather, the drive-park-and-ride population. Out West, you would still need a car.

    One approach to get car/truck users to shift would be to make in-city parking very, very expensive, thereby giving folks a good financial reason to use new/expanded park & ride facilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Another one would be to drastically prioritize public transport and snarl individual vehicular traffic in the city center and other congestion areas, thereby incentivizing riders to use park & ride facilities and transfer to the prioritized public mode of transportation to get to where work places, thereby avoiding the gridlock and associated time losses.

    But post-pandemic, the cost-driven diversion of single-occupant vehicular traffic may be to home-office, rather than use to public transport. And that might also be a big factor in urban transportation planning going forward. A huge shift to work-at-home became possible for completely extraneous reasons, and will have some lasting effect because workers and their employers have now had an extensive trial run and opportunity to find out what works best, and settle into new arrangements.


    Houston Metro fares are very cheap by comparison with other places, but that’s obviously not enough of an incentive to convert drivers to riders. So, the lower strata of society predominate among the current ridership, which creates a perception problem, and further decreases the chances for acceptance of public transport as a desirable mobility option by folks currenty driving cars and trucks with functioning A/C.

    In short, the pricing signals and “nudges” would have to go in the other direction. We already see surge pricing at Astros games ($15-$60 for surface lot parking, depending on distance). If the upper end of that ranger were the daily cost of parking, some portion of the workforce would become amenable to use public transport because the cost/benefit calculus would have shifted substantially to the detriment of their monthly budget. It might also privide a push to make home-office for white-collar work permanent, at least for a portion of the work week.

    Differential pricing also seems to be working at the TMC with budget-conscious folks taking short trip on light rail from Fannin South/Park & Ride for $1.25 fare and paying only $3.00 for 24-hour parking instead of several bucks per hour in TMC parking garages. When the distance is short, of course, the non-rapid speed isn’t such a big issue.

    That’s very much an issue for the Richmond/Westpark route, however. Travel the full length of the West segment of the 25 bus line, if you have any doubts (92 stops from Wheeler, which is the connection point to the Red Line near the former SEARS and no-more Midtown Fiesta. Or take 82 Westheimer all the way to West Oaks Mall, and back. Okay for a one-time drive-by sightseeing tour perhaps, not so good for daily commuting.

    BOTTOM LINE: It’s one thing to get infrastructure built (with federal funding). It’s quite another thing to get people to use public transportion, which requires behavioral change.

    And climate just happens to be a big discomfort factor in Houston, even without any climate change.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Overall, pretty fair write up, Wolf.

    Anecdotally, I did the commute from the Fannin lot to the Med Center for about a week when I had a relative in the hospital, not because of parking cost, but because of parking garage clearance. If I had run over a penny in the parking garage, the roof of my truck would have scraped on the roof of the parking garage. Scary. Trying to do the majority of the trip by bus/rail combo still put me driving almost 3 miles to get to the closest bus stop, riding the bus for an extended period of time to get to the Fannin train depot, then getting on the train. Huge waste of time, and not something I’d ever consider doing on a regular basis. Only the poors would subject themselves to 1.5-2+ hours each way in travel time to do this on a regular basis. Work 8+ hours and then spend 2-4 hours or more commuting by bus/rail? No one is going to do that if they don’t absolutely have to.

    Wolf makes some good points, but overall, Houston is not Europe, where public transport works because the cities are more compact, and the rail, trams, etc. are fully integrated. I enjoyed using the public transport in Europe. Oddly enough, it works pretty well in D.C., too. In NYC, it worked when I was there, but these days, I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding there without a CCW, and NY doesn’t reciprocate, so that’s a no go.

    I’ve taken Metro for a few specific trips…..I took the park and ride to go see Trump when he was at the Toyota Center stumping for Cruz, for example. I recall taking it when leaving a downtown event once, then hiking the close to three miles to my house, as much for the challenge as anything, but I think I’m representative of most Houston area folks….I’ll never be a public transport regular, and for women…..I wouldn’t want any single woman I cared about to be riding Metro alone (park and rides excepted, of course).

  3. mollusk says:

    The Fannin South and Smithlands stations are both immediately adjacent to large parking lots capable of accommodating the tallest of bro dozers.

  4. Souperman says:

    Speaking for myself, I would be thrilled to use more mass transit if I legit could. I live up northwest near the old Compaq campus and work in the Energy Corridor (at least pre-March 2020; my commute at the moment is up some stairs). Almost nothing goes to the Energy Corridor and only one local bus line goes anywhere near home, but I guess this gets the network a bit closer.

    If I worked downtown, I’d absolutely take a train or bus to let someone else drive those streets. I have taken the bus for jury duty, and I take the bus from the Northwest Transit Center to the light rail for the occasional Astros game.

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