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Riding on a rail

Everyone knows I’m a fan of rail, so Metro’s recent announcement about building extensions to the current light rail line as well as a heavy rail line out to the southwest is a Good Thing, as far as I’m concerned. It’s going to be a tough package to sell, as it’s sure to generate opposition from those who believe the only solution to traffic problems is to pour more concrete, but the nature of how Metro disburses existing funds and how it plans to use those funds for these future projects is a sticking point as well.

Residents of Katy, Missouri City and Humble have the most to lose from Metro’s proposal not to renew the street funds past 2009. Through special agreements, they get 50 percent of the one-cent Metro sales tax revenue generated there.

Loss of street money “would affect us,” said Johnny Nelson, Katy city administrator. “We rely on it a good deal. We used Metro money to pave the streets around the (Katy Mills) mall. We are planning to use it to build a new north-south thoroughfare.”

Metro’s transit plan includes more express buses to Katy on the planned Interstate 10 toll road, but no rail line.

“I don’t see much in it for Katy at first glance,” Nelson said.

Humble’s relationship with Metro has been bumpy, including a push by Humble to leave Metro in 1998. Last year Humble received about $4 million from Metro. About $2.5 million was used for road repair and construction — the city’s entire street budget — while the other $1.5 million was given to the police department for traffic enforcement.

No rail lines are proposed through 2025 on the U.S. 59 corridor that leads to Humble and Kingwood.

“All of the cities recognize rail will be important in the future,” [Humble City Manager James] Baker said. “But roads will still have to be maintained.”

Under the proposed plan, Humble would receive little in return for the taxes paid, Baker said.

So basically, a big part of Metro’s constituency has come to depend on Metro funds for things that I would argue are not really about transportation. They don’t want to lose that revenue. I can’t blame them for that, but I can blame former Mayor Bob Lanier for getting them hooked on it in the first place:

Payments for street projects began after voters approved a 1988 transit referendum that included a rail system plan. The rail component later died, but the provision calling for a 25 percent annual investment in local roads has lived on.

At first, Metro funded street projects directly. But when Bob Lanier took over as Houston mayor in 1992, he instructed the Metro board to funnel huge sums of money to the city. In 1994, for example, Metro gave away two-thirds of its sales-tax revenue — $156 million — to Houston and the other 15 governmental entities.

Lanier created a shell game. He put the city’s share of that money in the city’s public works budget, then moved an equivalent amount to other departments. Lanier, for example, managed a massive hiring of police officers with the diverted street money. Metro’s reserve fund dwindled, postponing plans to start a light rail system.

And so here we are in 2003 with a Metro system that can’t do what it was supposed to do. Thanks, Mayorbob.

The plan itself isn’t what I would have picked. I don’t like the idea of having to exit a train line and hop on a bus to get to Intercontinental Airport – having the rail line go all the way there is preferable – and I think some vision of rail going all the way out the Katy Corridor is needed. Overall, though, I think there’s a lot of merit. It’s way past time that we started considering alternatives to more freeways. Rail is scalable in a way that roads aren’t. Higher ridership on a given rail line doesn’t bog the system down. You can simply add more rail cars, and everything continues on the same schedule. That simply isn’t true for highways, and it’s why adding a viable rail system into the mix is needed.

The main problem that the Metro plan has right now is that none of the mayoral candidates are fully in favor of it. Bill Whiite, who has his own mobility plan, comes the closest. He and Michael Berry would prefer that Metro delay any vote on its proposals until after the 2003 election. I understand where they’re coming from, but beyond any concerns that Metro would miss out on the federal funding cycle if a referendum doesn’t pass by then, I fear that this issue would get drowned out in the Presidential election of 2004. It’s now or never, which if nothing else should force Metro to make its best case.

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One Comment

  1. Charles,

    I think some vision of rail going all the way out the Katy Corridor is needed…

    Even though Metro’s own transit studies show clearly that it’s a bad idea? Again, I must point out that rail isn’t religion. When the figures work against you, it is only reasonable to re-evaluate your position. The I-10 line is simply a bad idea.

    It’s way past time that we started considering alternatives to more freeways.

    Yes, but let’s consider alternatives that are cost effective — alternatives that have actually worked somewhere. No city with light rail has seen transit ridership as a percentage of all commuters go significantly up. Portland hasn’t. Dallas still doesn’t have figures as high as Houston. Unless you have any other examples that contradict these, I cannot understand why you support rail.

    Rail is scalable in a way that roads aren’t. Higher ridership on a given rail line doesn’t bog the system down. You can simply add more rail cars, and everything continues on the same schedule. That simply isn’t true for highways, and it’s why adding a viable rail system into the mix is needed.

    What about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)? BRT has far lower capital costs and usually has lower operating costs (there are a couple of exceptions, but usually light rail is considerably more expensive to operate). Rail has no real advantages over BRT — it’s more expensive and less flexible. If development changes, rail has difficulty adapting, and in a city like Houston, that’s a problem.

    Moreover, adding a bus to a BRT line can be done quickly and cheaply. New rail trains, conversely, cost millions and take time to build. Just because something has tracks doesn’t mean it’s better. I think you’ve yet to understand that.