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Culberson and Metro, the next generation

OK, so now we know what the proposed routes are for the Universities line. I’ll leave it to Christof and Tory to discuss the merits of each possibility, as they pretty much cover all the relevant points.

We also now know, as if there were any doubt, that Rep. John Culberson says he will only support the route he proposed, which mostly stays off of Richmond. As has been his way throughout this process, he says it’s because the ballot language forced the route to be on Westpark. METRO naturally disagrees with this, as do the Chron and I as you all well know.

So what I still want to know is simply this: Is there anything METRO can do to change Culberson’s mind? It’s clear that the ridership and cost projections favor a Richmond route. The Cummins option has the most riders for the lowest cost, and it avoids Afton Oaks, which will satisfy one group of noisy dissenters. The stretch of Richmond from Montrose to Kirby remains contentious, but almost entirely on Richmond itself – the neighboring areas appear to be fine with that route, and indeed the Culberson plan would arouse great opposition from the Neartown folks. I don’t think there’s any further net reductions in controversy to be had here.

So let me ask this way: Given the removal of Afton Oaks from consideration, is Culberson’s opposition to Richmond at this point principled (“The voters approved Westpark so it must be on Westpark!”) or practical (“The business owners on Richmond fear they will suffer during construction”)? If it’s the former, then there’s nothing much to talk about. METRO will continue down its path, and will either accede to a suboptimal route (which I maintain will ultimately mean it won’t get built), or they’ll pick a better plan and hope to beat Culberson in hand to hand combat down the line. Culberson may subsequently face a more strongly financed opponent in 2008 or beyond, one who will be helped monetarily by those who want the rail line to go through Greenway Plaza, but that’s putting the horse before the cart. Bottom line as I see it is simply that if Culberson won’t support any other plan under any circumstance, then from here out it’s war, until either Culberson loses power (by losing an election or getting removed from the House committee) or METRO admits defeat.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not a very appetizing scenario to me. My hope (and on Christmas Eve we’re all allowed some hope, right?) is that Culberson is simply speaking for the people on that stretch of Richmond who still fear what will happen to them, and that there are things METRO could do to assuage those fears and get Culberson to go along with that route. Maybe METRO could agree to a construction schedule similar to that of some road projects, where there’s penalties for missing deadlines. Maybe they can fund a small business loan pool to help affected shop owners with their cash flow. I presume that most of them have some specific list of concerns that could be dealt with (if it all boils down to “we don’t want it here!” then we’re back at option 1). If so, and if METRO agrees to deal with them, then what’s left to hold things up?

That’s how I see it today. Things can change, and as I’ve not done any deep research, it’s possible that there have already been proposals made and rejected by one side or the other to alleviate Richmond business owners’ woes during construction. As I say, in the spirit of Christmas I’m writing this with the hope that something can be done. There’ll be plenty of time to get to the other possibilities later.

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  1. Mike says:

    I sense from his statement that Culberson’s opposition is the “principled” variety.

    What can we as individuals start doing to pressure him to change his mind on this issue? I know there is a rail on Richmond group, but it seems like more needs to be done to get Culberson to get out of the way of Metro. He is supposed to represent the people, and now that Afton Oaks is not an issue, I think the people in the vicinity overwhelmingly favor getting something done.

    On the point of electing someone other than Culberson in ’08, is that really plausible? His district seems very safe. If it were a close seat, I think you’d see Culberson being more rational on this issue, but even in the Democratic landslide of this year, it wasn’t close at all:

  2. jboyd says:

    Culberson is anti-rail. Period.

    His proposal is a poisoned pill. He wants Metro to adopt a plan that will fail to secure federal funding.

    He will sabotage any rail project by any means as long as he is in office.

  3. A credible market analysis shows that a Westpark-only route is not a sound business decision for Metro. A much larger number of boardings will occur on Richmond from Greenway into Wheeler station than Westpark, where urban density and transit ridership is lower. Culberson’s option is impossible to justify in the current environment of extremely limited federal dollars for light rail. It is important for Metro to be able to choose the routes that will provide them with a healthy fare revenue stream and insulate them as much as possible from future bus motor fuel price increases and shortages.

    Culberson’s proposal only makes sense if Metro were to build a high-speed line that went to much farther than Hillcroft into southwest Houston. Since Houston has used its railway right of way for a toll road, this probably could only be accomplished by taking two lanes of the southwest freeway in the process.

    Probably in a few years, and definitely in ten, most people will suddenly realize that Houston needed twenty times the light rail track miles it planned for. This would be at the same time that it became obvious to almost everyone that a transportation system based entirely on motor fuel was never a truly sustainable enterprise. It will be equally clear that low-yield alternative energy sources could not possibly satisfy motor fuel demand in a world of aging giant oil fields. The high energy, internal combustion transportation system of the latter half of the twentieth century will prove to be an anomaly, of little relevance to the hydrocarbon-poor entropy of the twenty-first. Light rail is a hedge against the reckoning awaiting North America in the coming years.

    Houston should be looking at all options for light rail, which was designed to work for both urban thoroughfares and rapid transit. Houston might well study electric railway history in the US. The trolley systems which survived the longest and retained the most trackage were those that combined urban street railways with rapid transit or suburban service: San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia. What is to date the most successful new electric rail system in North America, in Portland, has also combined suburban rapid transit with urban street railways. The scope of Houston’s vision for light rail should be broadened. A 200-mile, regional light rail system combining urban tramlines with suburban electric commuter routes seems a political impossibility today. As the water cut in the planet’s geriatric oil fields increases while their production drops, light rail will be seen for what it always has been, a prerequisite to an energy-efficient transportation system and a sustainable way of life.

  4. Mike – The best thing anyone can do is to write or call Culberson’s office and tell them what you think about the Metro proposals and his response to them. If you’re a constituent, so much the better.

    I’ve written about the possibilities for beating Culberson elsewhere. I’d say it’d be tough but not impossible.