Oh what a rocky ride it’s been.
Political opposition. A Buy America violation. Construction delays. Contaminated soil that sank an underpass. Overweight and badly-manufactured railcars. More construction delays.
When trains finally start rolling along the new Green Line into neighborhoods east of downtown on Wednesday, the last leg in Metro’s controversial multi-billion dollar project to establish light rail in Houston will be open for business.
But the occasion, coming just days before the Super Bowl, also marks the end, for now, of any light rail expansion in the city.
What the future now holds for Houston’s rail dreams, however, is hard to predict – and that may me the only opinion pro-rail advocates and longtime train critics share.
Officials, namely leaders at Metropolitan Transit Authority, acknowledge the completion of the agency’s $2.2 billion rail expansion is both exciting and a relief because of the detours, setbacks and struggles to complete the last line and the effect it had on East End businesses and residents.
The final piece of the line, a $30 million overpass at Harrisburg, was competed late last year, ending detours and roughly seven years of construction on the $587 million project, the bulk of which opened in May 2015. The last mile remained closed until the overpass could be completed and Metro could conduct testing required before ferrying passengers along the route.
Service for all riders starts Wednesday, and is free until Jan. 22 along the Green Line.
There’s a long litany in the story on the problems that occurred during the project. There were a lot, and some of them were bad, but let’s keep two things in mind: One, every major infrastructure project has problems, and two, many of the issues with this project originated with the David Wolff/Frank Wilson Metro administration, which were then left for subsequent boards and CEOs to clean up. It’s all water under the overpass now, and the final completion of this line will do a lot of good, so let’s focus on that.
The end of the line for the Green Line and the most recent rail expansion, however, will not bring an end to talk of rail in Houston. Though there is no funding identified, officials are already dusting off plans for commuter rail to Missouri City along U.S. 90A and looking at what possibilities appear practical to complete other train lines voters approved more than 13 years ago.
First, however, Patman said Metro and others need to develop a regional transportation plan to gauge needed projects and where there is political support for transit investments.
“We have to know where we are going for me to tell you how we’ll get there,” Patman said.
Once the plan is in place, officials could go back to the voters to seek funding, or explore alternatives such as public-private partnerships. Metro has already approved seeking proposals to determine what private partnerships are available.
Any step in the direction of rail, however, has always been politically charged in Houston. The 2003 referendum remains controversial, particularly in relation to a line planned along Richmond. That project remains bitterly opposed by some landowners and businesses, as well as Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston.
We’ve discussed the possibility of a Metro referendum this November. There will always be opposition to a referendum that includes financing for rail, but that opposition will be a lot greater if the Universities Line is a part of it than if it is not. Of course, a rail system that doesn’t include a connection between downtown and the Uptown Line doesn’t make any sense, so one way or the other this needs to be reckoned with. But first we need a plan and a plan to pay for it, then we can decide whether to vote on it this year or not. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that. Write On Metro and KUHF have more.